“Archipreneur Insights” is an interview series with experts and entrepreneurs in the field of architecture, building and development, highlighting the creative and unusual operations of their businesses and projects. Considering we’re very deep within the age of technology, we also look at how these community leaders have used alternative methods to achieve their career and business goals. Let’s learn, share and (literally) build together.
This week’s interview is with Ben Miller, the co-founder and CEO of fundrise.com, a real estate crowdfunding platform that gives you access to investment opportunities from real estate companies in the USA.
Ben and his brother Dan created fundrise.com with the vision to completely democratize real estate investment by removing the middlemen and the outdated regulations that restricted who and how people can invest in real estate.
I had the chance to talk to Ben over Skype and get to know how they came up with the crowdfunding idea, the launch of fundrise and his approach to real estate development. There is a ton of great advice and valuable content for the archipreneur nation straight out of Ben’s head in the following transcribed interview…
What made you decide to create fundrise.com and democratize real estate investments? Was there a particular moment that sealed the decision for you?
My background is real estate development. I was a real estate developer and, in 2010, I was developing a project in an emerging neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and there was a lot of growth, a lot of young people living there, millennials.
And all the traditional sources of capital didn’t understand it, didn’t know the neighborhood, and weren’t excited about it. And I thought, well, there’s got to be another way to raise money for real estate, local urban real estate that’s high growth and contextual.
Just one day, one guy said to me, “What about raising the money from the community?” And as I thought about it, and Groupon was very successful at the time, and there were people doing . . . I don’t think crowdfunding was really a big thing then. No one had ever raised money for a real estate deal on the Internet before. We were the first. So it was a new idea. So that was the genesis of the idea, was to try to create an alternative source of capital for local urban projects.
And I remember the day, I remember the moment when I was walking down the street. It was September 2010, so it was a long time ago. That’s almost five years ago, right? And I remember feeling, like, “Wow, what if?”
You mentioned the first project you and your team crowdfunded. It was a unique urban boutique project at 1351 H Street NE in Washington D.C. called Maketto – a hybrid concept, half-retail, half-restaurant. Could you tell us a bit about that creative project and your approach to it?
Yes, if you think about combining high-end fashion or retail with restaurants, how many people have done that well in the . . . I know that in the United States I can’t think of many. Maybe there are less than five. My background’s [in] retail development, so I built lots of retail projects, I built malls, urban infill, and outlet centers . . . and my father built retail, so I’ve been, most of my life, thinking about retail development.
And what’s really clear is the Internet has destroyed the retail industry as we know it. And I felt like . . . well, I know the only retail that makes sense today, in a physical context, is experiential.
And so how do you create experiential retail? It makes sense to combine it with other uses.
And so we were lucky. We had this Chef named Erik Bruner-Yang, he’s a James Beard Award nominee, and he’s a very creative operator. And so we backed him. We gave him not just the real estate money, but we gave him also a lot of money for the restaurant.
And so . . . what was good about the first crowdfunding deal in the country, or maybe in the world, but certainly in the United States, was everything about it was unique. Everything about it was cutting edge.
It’s retail, it’s also a restaurant, it’s also a bakery, it’s also a coffee house that’s a roaster . . . The landlord that owns the building also owns part of the restaurants, so it’s very mixed use from a legal point of view, too. We have both participation in the restaurant and in the building, which is not that common in real estate.
And then we crowdfunded it. So, if you think about it, we were writing everything from the software to the securities law – because this was basically a new securities law that we were pioneering – to the actual design of the catwalk. Totally, absolutely, vertically integrated.
So it let us produce something unique, to real estate and to tech!
Is the project a success for the neighborhood?
Absolutely. The H Street NE neighborhood is rapidly growing. Five years ago, it was much more cutting edge. Now, Whole Foods is going to open there next year, so the neighborhood’s on fire.
But Maketto is, I think it’s the number one destination for day traffic, which was something that people wanted. Because it has a café and a bakery and a restaurant, and fashion, and it’s a very large space, the architecture of it is very unusual, because it has . . . it’s kind of multi-level, and kind of nodal.
It has an indoor space, it has an outdoor space . . . there’s lots of nooks and crannies. There can be 100 people in the building and it can feel like there’s only 10 because it’s very broken up into different kinds of spaces.
So it lends itself to people, people wanting to be there all the time.
That’s really interesting! Are you planning to create more of those unique placemaking ideas like Maketto?
That was the good part of it. The bad part of the challenge we found was, it was so special that we couldn’t reproduce it.
It took us two or three years. From start to finish, it probably took us more than three years to do it, and it was extremely difficult to do. It’s handcrafted, everything about it is hand made.
And if you want to do something [on the] Internet, [the] Internet’s about repeating the same thing over and over again, it’s about scale.
And so we had to move away from that model. We were obsessed with the quality and the experience of the whole . . . from the picture on the website, all the way down to the lighting in the restaurant. And I’m not sure that people even appreciated it. We did so much to make it as close to perfect as we can, and in a lot of ways I think people don’t appreciate it as much as, essentially, we did.
So we’re probably not going to do that many of those . . . in the same time we did that one project, right, that one special project, we did 70 other projects around the country that we funded. And I think something like $70 million of other projects.
You also founded popularise.com – a platform to join together and build your city. Could you tell us how that works? What, exactly, is the difference to fundrise.com?
We created Popularise because we thought that [the] real estate industry needed ways to crowdsource input and ideas, and participation and opinions. And so you can have a real estate project and ask for people’s input, you ask for . . . “Here’s something we’re doing, we’d love to hear your feedback.” And maybe people have ideas for the restaurants that could be there, maybe people have ideas for the design, or for the amenities. That’s what Popularise is.
Fundrise is the capital behind it.
Does fundrise.com provide the opportunity to finance or crowdfund a development, if one had a property or an idea?
Well, one of the things we learned is that there are a lot of ideas, but there’s not as many good investments as good ideas. And a good idea doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good investment. The standard for a good investment is a lot higher.
Because, one . . . if you think about it, the crowd is the smallest investor and so you have to be the most careful with a small investor, ’cause they can’t afford to lose money.
The regulations are not designed to do things easily. The regulations are not designed to make investments easy. The regulations are made to make investments challenging.
They want it to be difficult, because they wanted to make sure that you’re real. So . . . one thing we’ve also seen is there’s people who have a lot of good ideas, but they’re often not good at making them happen.
The operational competence is different than the ability to come up with good ideas.
So you have to be a developer or a development firm to provide, and come to the business with real property and sites to provide a development project for your website, right?
Yes, we get 200 real estate developments submitted every week.
And we fund one to two. And what we’re looking for is a good investment that’s gonna have good outcomes for everybody involved. That’s a high standard. A lot of people feel like just because it’s on the Internet, it should be, and they should be able to get money without having to do work.
You see that a lot. People . . . get angry, where they’re like, “I just want the money, why are you making me do a lot of work?”
And you’re like, “Because that’s what makes a good investment.”
This selective process is carried out by fundrise to sort out the best investments for regular people who want to invest in real estate?
Yeah, we have come to have to . . . these are our investors. They come to us because they [are] interested in the idea, and we have to look out for them. We have to do right by them, and that means we have to be very selective.
What do you think is the most interesting project you crowdfunded on fundrise.com so far?
That’s a good question. Let me just look at the site for a second . . . let’s see here. One investment that we did that was very special was the World Trade Center.
That’s not . . . to think about the real estate industry, that that is crowdfunded is just remarkable.
I think that was a really good one, I’m trying to think of the other ones. We’ve done some . . . let’s see, what’s another one we did I think’s really fun? We do get to do some fun projects. There’s a project we did in New York that was on our site called New Lab.
It’s industrial co-working space. That was a really fun project, and I think that’s gonna be an example of the potential of doing a good investment, and also having a good impact, a creative impact.
But if you look at that deal . . . it’s very, very complicated. It’s one of the most complicated deals I’ve ever seen.
And so . . . I don’t know if you can see it on our website, but if you sign up you can see it. Just go look at the website, and go look at the deal. The capital stack—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. There’s eight capital sources. Normally a real estate deal has two capital sources, a lender and an owner, right? An equity owner.
This has eight. There’s a lot of complexity in that deal, a lot. It took us a lot of effort to get our arms around it. But it’s a good one.
Are you planning on coming to Europe?
We have been looking at it. I used to live in Europe, I lived there for a couple years . . . did business in Europe, and I have a sense for the . . . it’s a very different business culture. It’s, in a lot of ways, much more conservative.
And our business is a combination of three different industries, right? You have to understand real estate, you have to understand technology, and you have to understand securities finance.
And so that means when we go to another country, we have to basically understand their real estate industry, we have to understand their technology, [we have to understand] a consumer . . . how does an investor consumer in Germany think about this? Do they think about it in a different way than an American investor? Probably, right?
And there might also be database . . . I’ve heard in some countries you have to look at where your information is stored, and what information you store of people, and the privacy policies are different. So there’s technology differences. And then the regulations are very different. And then the language is very different. So it’s something that we’d want to do, but it’s not something easy.
Do you have any advice for “Archipreneurs” who are interested in developing their own project?
Yeah, I’ve worked with a lot of architects, and the architect has a lot of knowledge in architecture, but often they have not a lot of experience outside architecture. They have, what I’d say, domain bias.
They think the architecture is the most important thing in a building, and my experience as a developer and a financier is, it is not the most important thing in a building. It’s important, but you have to understand the finance, you have to understand the construction, you have to understand the permitting and titlements.
So if you want to be an entrepreneur outside of architecture, as a developer, probably the first thing they should start doing is understanding finance. Cause the money in a deal, the economics, the business rationale that actually decides what the architecture will be.
And too often architects don’t understand the economic rationale behind a project, and get frustrated that they can’t design what they want. So a good way to do that is go look at the finance information on our projects on the Internet.
Most projects that architects are involved with, they probably don’t know what the economic projections are. They don’t know what the performance is, they don’t know what the cost, and the rent, and the yield, the return on cost is. That information is usually not public, but we make it public.
So if you want to get educated, just come on our site and just take the information and learn about it.
Architects usually do not learn business in school. In that sense there is a gap in the education of architects. What do you think about schools’ education and the difference to real world learning?
Well, the problem is that school, universities are horrible place[s] to learn how the world actually works.
And I don’t know if you’ve heard the saying . . . in America, in English, there’s a saying, that, “If you can’t do, consult. If you can’t consult, teach”.
There are exceptions to the rule, but that’s something that often the academics have a theory about how things work, and their theory comes from studying it, not by doing it.
How do you see the future of architecture? In which areas (outside of traditional practice) can you see major opportunities for up and coming architects?
Probably the biggest potential is 3D printing.
It’s going to take a long time to get to reality, maybe 20 to 30 years. But the buildings, the way we build buildings today are medieval, and that’s going to be . . . what the Internet did to the retail business, 3D printing will do to architecture.
Yeah, it’s nowhere near coming to fruition, but all of a sudden the person who matters in designing a building is a software programmer.
It’s a different, it’s very different. And if you’re 55 years old, and that technology happens to you, you become very, very out-of-date.
Ben is Co-Founder and CEO of Fundrise. Ben’s responsibilities involve strategic partnerships, deal underwriting, real estate development, PR as well as setting the long-term strategy and goals for the company.
Ben has 15 years of experience in real estate and finance, and he has acquired, developed, and financed more than $500 million of property in his time as Managing Partner of WestMill Capital Partners and President of Western Development Corporation.
Ben also started US Nordic Ventures, a cross-Atlantic private equity and operating company. Ben has worked as an analyst for Lubert-Adler, a private equity real estate fund. Ben was part of the founding staff of Democracy Alliance, a progressive investment collaborative.
Ben is also co-founder of Popularise, a real estate crowdsourcing website.