Cobu - Ben Pleat
9 min read

Cobu - Ben Pleat

Interview with Ben Pleat of Cobu
Cobu - Ben Pleat

Today we have Ben Pleat, a Co-Founder of Cobu, for an interview. Cobu provides an app that increases residential engagement by providing real time data components on experiences, interests and consumer behavior.

Brian Wei: Tell me about yourself and how you got into the tech ecosystem.

Yeah, so my background is mostly in residential real estate and early stage technology. So I grew up in kind of a real estate environment and from just east of New York and Nassau, Queens border area in Long Island, and always had a passion for city skylines when I’m taking the train in from Long Island into New York City. I was getting goosebumps when I saw that beautiful skyline. I previously worked at acquisitions, mostly buying apartment buildings and some office buildings. Then, I worked at WeWork in an internship, and before that I helped start a program, the TAV Academy. From that, I really kind of fell in love with the process of starting something with a great team, and making an idea on a piece of paper into a reality that positively impacted other people. So I started Cobu from two and a half years ago and really have been growing it ever since.

Can you tell me more about Cobu and what prompted you to start the company?

There is a personal and professional side to the story. On the professional side, I saw how much struggle the real estate industry had with providing a good residential customer experience to people who lived in these buildings. And that resulted in really large turnover rates, losing half your building every year with 50% churn was pretty commonplace across the country. So always was thinking about a way to solve that issue.

And then on the personal side, my mom moved from this small suburb I grew up in east of New York to the city. She always had this dream to live in Manhattan, right in the city, and she finally moved there and I would visit her from Boston every few months. And I basically see her cooped up in her apartment unit in Greenwich village with a single neighbor and she's super unhappy. She's super lonely, and it takes a toll on her mental health and, through that, it takes a toll on her physical health. She's also extremely extroverted, which didn't make sense to me. She could really talk to anybody and that is hard for her to do in a short elevator ride or some brief interaction in the hallway.

I saw that in almost 47% of the country was chronically lonely, according to Cigna, a health insurance company, and I realize it is a much bigger issue for millennials and for Gen Z. As such, I realized there's an opportunity to potentially provide a better experience to those people who live in cities by providing them a sense of belonging and community. In doing so, I learned very quickly that it was something that was very attractive to the building owners who basically saw providing a sense of community as a great way for them to make their product more sticky and increase their retention rates. And that's really what we've been growing ever since.

That’s when I had the lightbulb moment. The best way to solve this problem would be to combine all of this experiential data and distill them into personalized, actionable recommendations. To help optimize on the cost side, instead of paying $70 upfront for a full size product where you don’t even know if it works for you or not, we send you a deluxe sample of a product you want to try so you can have a month-long trial for a fraction of the price tag.

I understand that Cobu provide unique experiences through partnerships with local businesses. How are those partnerships formed?

It is basically a customer engagement platform for the residential building. We build community in the buildings and we do so through establishing micro communities, where the communities could be volunteer groups or parent groups or even a board game group. So for some of the groups, it naturally lends itself to exploring the neighborhood, including the volunteer groups interacting with nonprofits and foodie groups that want to try out different restaurants to taste different foods, cuisines and drinks. It really stems more from the natural side. So these groups are led by residents. We have a team in-house that does partner with great vendors in the area. But what we found is that when that’s okay, is those vendors reaching out to us or those partners reaching out to us. It makes more sense on both sides. So we are definitely pretty strategic with the type of partners that we have. I think we try to make everything as organic and authentic as possible.

How does engaging a residential community build retention for residential complexes?

It’s pretty simple when you provide a really good experience. So people who use your product or service are likely to use your services or your product and they recommend it to other people. You can provide a good experience so many ways: you can provide a really good experience to your customers, you can give them good customer service, you can give them better value and even better price.

Really, we're more focused on the experience side. So one of the ways you can build great stickiness is to create stickiness among your users, right? So there's a passion for being in the building more so than just you know, where you live. It's a place to which you belong. So you have one friend in the building, there's kind of a larger sense of inertia, right? This is a home and a place that people feel familiar to and it feels more of a friendly environment. So it's interesting. I mean, it's very similar to what you do with Gallup studies on the office side and, in particular, the workplace where if you have one friend in a company, the likelihood that you will work there goes up by a pretty significant amount to approximately 30 or 40%. It's a very similar argument for where you live, and in many cases, where we think it's potentially more powerful.

Why choose Boston as a place to start a company?

Yeah, it's a great question. It was definitely a place where access to talent was was pretty much unmatched. We often had some of the foremost institutions for learning and growth in the country. So that was a huge thing for us. It was definitely a really strong, vibrant startup ecosystem. And that was important for us to have, you know, other companies to learn from and other companies to collaborate with. And that was a very important element for us as a startup hub is to summarize that and the third piece was there are really large real estate ownership companies that have national portfolios that are based in Boston. And it really was a good launching point for us to build relationships with those firms that were based in the metro Boston area that had portfolios across the country. And it also was a very similar city to other cities out there in the US. We really wanted to make sure what we did in Boston was going to be transferable to Nashville or Washington D.C. or Minneapolis or whatever the city was. Other two choices that we had really were San Francisco and in New York City. I think, for us, Boston was was the strongest.

Are you planning to move to other markets?

Yeah, we'll be expanding to Washington in Q1.

What are the best parts of working at an early stage company?

Yeah, I think they're really rewarding. I think especially if you have a mission, it really does energize you. And I think working with people who share that mission with you who push you to reach new heights, personally, professionally, and as a company. It is definitely a very exciting, exhilarating ride. I think seeing the fruits of your labors is something important. Knowing what you did that day is going to tangible and it's something that you don't really have the luxury of doing all too often. Yeah, definitely something that for better for worse, definitely see in a startup environment. So I think you know, the accountability and the excitement of what you do that day or that week is really tangibly going to change the business and you get to see that with your own eyes. Obviously the third piece is just the pace of learning is definitely quick. We always have to learn and improve and it builds a great muscle memory of always executing, always learning, always tweaking and always improving.

How do you build a mission?

It is something that you personally identify with. Loneliness is a massive global issue. You know, it's ironic that we're more connected than ever before with social media and yet many cases where we're more disconnected than ever before as human beings. I think a lot of people resonate with that. I think it's a problem people either are personally afflicted or they have moments of loneliness where it is uncomfortable and everyone has that. Or they know a loved one who's gone through that experience or a friend or a parent or a sibling--whoever it is. I think having a personal identification with the mission is probably the most important piece. You can definitely partake in a mission that you don't identify with but there's something special about solving a problem that you have felt or have seen. And predicting the solution is really exhilarating.

What are the biggest challenges to running a startup?

It's a classic example of making sure your priorities are really clear. Everything is a priority. You have limited resources in time, in funding and in just bandwidth. You don't have a team of 50 people to solve a problem with you. Rather, you have a very small team potentially. And I think it's an advantage in that it makes you more nimble and more agile. You can really be very sensitive, and have you can be close to the ground and understand what people want, but at other times, you have to say no to a lot of things. So I think saying no to things is very hard to do. You have to prioritize your time. You have to prioritize your team's time. You have to prioritize all the resources that you have, whether it be, team resources, engineering resources, financial resources, and bandwidth resources. Prioritization is always tough in any environment.

Are there any tips that you do for prioritization?

It's a classic example of making sure your priI try to ask myself often: what is one thing I can do today that will make everything else irrelevant? It’s really focusing on the most important thing in front of you. And it's a helpful filter, and I’m definitely not perfect at it. I'm still learning better ways to do it. But focusing on the work at the center is so critical, especially when you're seeing distractions from everywhere and you're being pulled in a million directions. It makes sure you know where your top priorities are. Having a top one or two priorities is key.

What do you look for in a co-founder? And as a follow-up, what do you look for in a team as you start growing the company?

Integrity. You really have to trust your co-founder. It's like a marriage, right? You have to be there for them and they have to be there for you and you have to be able to trust each other. So trust is the most important thing in the world. You'd want someone who can complement you. They are good at doing things you are not good at doing. You like to stuff that they don't like doing. Those are two elements. But I think by far the most impactful are trust and integrity.A third thing is perseverance. Startups are not easy. If it were easy, you’d see a lot more people doing and staying with it. And it's intentionally hard to build something big. And you have to be able to kind of persevere through the really low lows and the really high highs and everything in between. So definitely not for the faint of heart.

What is one advice that you would give to an undergraduate looking to start a company?

I would say to get out of the building and go talk to people. Ideas are a dime in a dozen. its execution. And I think you're only going to learn what's needed and what your product will entail by talking to people, whether it would be potential customers or other folks who can help you build your product quicker, faster, or cheaper. No great company has ever been built on a whiteboard. You have to get out of the room and talk to people in the real world. It's messy. It's exciting. It's hard. It's confusing. But you know, you definitely get to a better place quicker if you go talk to people and communicate.

Last question, I would imagine that supporting early stage company really demands a good amount of energy and intention. So what do you do to distress and unplug from the work?

I would practice a regular schedule of exercise. I would meditate as well. So I think exercise-- cardio, strength training, or high intensity interval training--definitely helps me kind of unpack your company and what not. But I think doing it while working out is a very different thing.

Enjoying these posts? Subscribe for more