Don’t let Benoit Palabre’s laid-back demeanour fool you. Despite his young age, he’s a savvy entrepreneur who did not wait to finish university to jump into the entrepreneurial world.
“My entrepreneurial journey started in my third year of university. I was out with a friend around Place de la Victoire and we missed the last tramway. We thought that it would be really cool to have an app that would be able to let you know the departure of the last tram when you’re out late,” Benoit Palabre says. “We launched the app LastTram, created the company Mink and received immediate support from the local community. I was in charge of the marketing, which taught me how to present a product in a convincing way. I then moved on to Knock, but Mink is still running and they are doing pretty well.”
A conversation with a colleague sparked the idea of Knock in Benoit’s mind.
“About two years ago, I recruited someone who had experience in buying and selling estates and she was telling me that selling a place was a nightmare,” Palabre explains. “She told me that you had to make serious adjustments to your work schedule and that eight times out of 10, people who came for visits had no idea what they wanted to buy. In general, people have no clue about the process of how to buy an apartment.”
To solve this issue and make the house hunting process less complicated, Benoit Palabre partnered with Alexandre Bonhomme to create the startup. Palabre and Bonhomme’s complementary backgrounds were the seed of their partnership.
“Starting a company is like starting a family,” Palabre says. “Similar to a marriage, be sure of the person you choose to partner with because you will have to spend a lot of time with them and the people you recruit will complete the family.”
Knock is a virtual assistant that helps you find the right house or apartment that suit your needs. In order to do that, customers have to fill out a questionnaire that helps to narrow their choices down to three places that match their budget, lifestyle and interests.
“In a three-minute chat with Knock, our customers are able to draw three places that they really like,” he says. “In Bordeaux, with the recent keen interest for the city, people pay for overpriced flats they don’t like. Most specialized real-estate websites usually put up offers, which make people compromise. By reversing the process of an apartment search, we want you to ‘live where you love, love where you live’, which is our motto.”
Using a deep learning setting, it helps the assistant constantly improve its functionalities and therefore, provide a better service.
“One of our top priorities at Knock is to assist people from the moment they start looking for a place until the time they put the key in the door,” Palabre says. “The process of finding a place, which is perceived as something confusing and stressful, becomes fun.”
According to him, the general lack of knowledge of the market is what leads people to make poor decisions while purchasing a real-estate good.
“To understand the real estate market, you need to know that it has several angles and that what you see online is not the whole picture,” Palabre explains. “For instance, SeLoger.com, which is the reference in the industry, displays only 60 percent of the total offer. When you think about it, it is quite surprising. Because we use a virtual assistant, it allows us to be more neutral and we are working hard to get the 40 remaining percent of goods.”
On Knock’s Facebook page, they also publish articles to educate people about the things they need to know before purchasing a flat or a house and other valuable information about real estate in general.
“People need to be aware when they purchase a good; if you adopt the right strategy, you won’t need to sign up for a 25-year plan,” he comments.
With growing interest in the city of Bordeaux over the past couple of years, it’s difficult to find a place to live and the prices have greatly risen.
“In Bordeaux, I believe that there is a real estate bubble and it will explode at some point because prices keep increasing and it definitely won’t be sustainable,” Benoit Palabre says. “A lot of Parisians moved here thinking that their living expenses will be lower, but quite a few are moving back to Paris because they eluded one criterion: the lack of jobs in the city. In many cases, couples move here because one of the two has a job opportunity, but the problem is that their partner ends up struggling to find a job because the job market here is saturated.”
If today, Knock is one of the most talked about startups in Bordeaux and is supported by some of the most influent people in this ecosystem, convincing investors was not easy at the beginning.
“For six months, we built a business plan and then, we went on to pitch our idea to an important investor in Bordeaux who hated it,” Palabre says. “We were a bit stunned but it didn’t discourage us and instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, we went back and worked on it. Three months later, we pitched in front of the same investor and he totally approved our product, which made us very happy. Looking back, this initial setback turned into something very positive.”
While some agencies might see the startup as a direct competitor, Benoit Palabre argues that using Knock could really be beneficial to them.
“When we present Knock to agencies, we get different reactions,” he says. “Some are a bit suspicious and think that we are going to replace them, which is not the case. Our goal is to optimize the relationship between the people looking for a place and real estate professionals. On the other hand, some agencies are supportive and understand we are complementary. We work with promoters too.”
Last January, Knock was selected to be part of the French delegation going to Las Vegas to be part of the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which gathers some of the most prominent and influential people from technology and innovation sectors each year. Alexandre and Benoit were able to present their virtual assistant and make connections with potential international investors.
When asked to reflect on Knock’s fast growth, Benoit Palabre says that the team’s drive to do better played a huge role.
“Right now, we have six people working full-time and whether they are interns or integrated staff, their investment is super intense,” he says. “No one counts their hours and it’s a great feeling. My guess is that people adhere to our vision because we often receive spontaneous applications. There were also a lot of coincidences and a bit of luck in our journey – although I believe that chance is something you provoke.”
For this former football player, being an athlete and an entrepreneur are very similar.
“I played football at a high level when I was younger and I really think that a startup is like a football team,” he says. “You have a midfielder who orients the game of the whole team and it’s the same for the CEO of a startup. Without a plan, people will get confused and the company will go nowhere. And when you look closely, a lot of successful entrepreneurs have an athletic background.”
In addition to his work at Knock, Benoit regularly mentors students who want to become entrepreneurs.
“I had the chance to be in charge of a group of seven to eight students from the IUT of Bordeaux and my role was to help them build a presentation they could pitch in different circumstances,” he says. “Working on this project taught me something: when you are an entrepreneur, being able to portray your vision with clarity to your target audience is key. For us, our aim is to enable everyone to have access to housing and to ease that process. Whether we like him or not, Steve Jobs understood that first.”
He wouldn’t trade his situation for a ‘safe job’, but Benoit Palabre admits that having thick skin is crucial when you want to become an entrepreneur.
“When you start your entrepreneurship journey, you will get punched in the face and rejected a lot,” he says. “I actually enjoy that, personally. I like the fact that when you build a product, it is never fully complete and you always try to improve it. And at Knock, we want people who are constantly challenging the company’s status quo, it is vital for us.”
The upcoming months are going to be busy for the startup as they have several challenges ahead.
“We have a lot of upcoming projects for Knock. First, the website will be updated (the next one is scheduled for May),” Palabre says. “Our goal is not to be a ‘nice-to-have’ tool but a ‘must-have’ tool. We know that students are struggling more and more to find a place to live, so our next challenge is to do everything we can to really help them. VivaTech (an international forum for innovative startups) is around the corner, we don’t know if we will be part of it, but we want to. Within two to three years, we want to be the heavyweight of this sector.”
In summer, the team will focus on raising funds and getting mentoring from more seasoned entrepreneurs and people who can help them build an ecosystem that combines all the capacities and resources they need in order to reach the next level.
Benoit Palabre is aware of the startup world’s uncertainty, yet he is not too worried about the future.
“You never know when your startup will stop, but I don’t think it’s relevant to stress about the financial aspect of things,” he says. “I think that obsessing over money leads to poor management and forces you to make decisions that are not human-based. Right now, we are sure to be around until November of this year. We will see what happens then.”