Jessica Buffington, founder of HelloHome
Jessica Buffington’s startup, HelloHome, operates from a cozy office in the heart of downtown Memphis at the ServiceMaster Innovation Center. The front door to HelloHome is just blocks from Beale St, the world-famous Rendezvous BBQ, and the National Civil Rights Museum. Walking toward the office, you can feel the energy of history and of Memphis’ spirit. Buffington’s energy about growing her company in Memphis mirrors the hum of a city on the rise.
She got her start in real estate in 2007, “right as the industry was crashing,” she says with a dry laugh. She spent 12 years in real estate, watching many people forced into short-selling their homes, foreclosing on their homes, or sometimes being forced to let their homes go altogether. “All their stuff would be left out on the street, and there was nothing they or I could do about it,” Buffington says. “A thought came to me…. What if instead of paying an agent a 6% commission, we just had full services for a flat fee?”
When Buffington presented the idea to her partners at the real estate firm, it was met with concern over agent pushback and ultimately rejected. Shortly after, Buffington was reading an article about a Midtown Memphis entrepreneur and saw the words “Start Co.” for the first time. When she clicked the link to the Start Co. website, the landing page had information about an upcoming accelerator in which $25,000 would be invested in companies chosen to participate. “I remember it said ‘48 hours remaining to apply,’ and I thought, ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ and submitted my idea,” Buffington says.
Buffington considers herself an unlikely entrepreneur. “I had no idea what an accelerator was, no idea about angels, VCs, nothing. Start Co. said, ‘You could compare our program to Y Combinator,’ and I’m like, ‘What’s Y Combinator?’ When I looked up Y Combinator, I realized how serious the accelerator was,” she said.
Shortly after Buffington pitched HelloHome at Demo Day, an annual showcase of startups that have recently graduated from one of several accelerators, she received cease and desist letters from real estate firms across the region. “They were basically saying I was devaluing agents’ worth because I was charging a flat fee versus a commission,” Buffington says. “At that time, I didn’t have much in the bank. I had quit my career, lost all my clients, the company I worked for didn’t split any of the commission fees I had earned with me when I left to start my business. I couldn’t afford an attorney. I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong, so I represented myself.” Ultimately, all the lawsuits against HelloHome were dropped.
Now three years later, Buffington has hired a CTO, several real estate agents work for HelloHome, and they have recently launched an online dashboard showing sellers and buyers alike where they are in the home sale process. Through the dashboard, clients can communicate with their agent, receive quotes from home service professionals, access their important documents, and even get pre-qualified for a loan. Buffington has secured several corporate partnerships to ensure the HelloHome dashboard process is as seamless as possible.
Buffington prefers to grow her startup in Memphis. “On the West Coast, you’re trying to raise so much money because the costs of living and hiring are so high,” she says. “And then you’re making huge, costly mistakes. In Memphis, we were able to get validation and traction with a lot less money. When it comes time for us to raise a decent amount of capital, we have validation, we know what works and what doesn’t, and we can run more efficiently. That is a huge advantage of being in Memphis.”
HelloHome continues to utilize Memphis’ assets to support business growth. “Epicenter has been a consistent relationship. They were there when I started, and every time I’ve reached out through the different phases of my company, they’ve been welcoming,” Buffington says. “The consistency during different phases has been something I really appreciate. No one else has been able to provide that.”
HelloHome has done business in 17 states, and continues to grow their platform. In 2019, they will continue to add talent, secure partnerships with corporations, and ultimately make their online dashboard more efficient and client-friendly.
Through it all, Buffington has kept her focus on gathering data and strengthening her business. “I don’t want to be blinded by the fancy lights, bean bag chairs, raising money all the time,” she says. “I want to prove as much as I can with as little capital as possible. I want to build valuable relationships.”
Buffington and HelloHome are living proof that entrepreneurship culture can take many forms. Outside the boundaries of the Valley, the world of billion-dollar companies based in San Francisco, there are startups in Memphis quietly building companies that can truly bring innovation to industry, companies that can truly change a region, built by people whose determination hints at our future and honors our past.
“People in other cities have asked us ‘if we funded you, would you move?’ When you need capital and the carrot is dangling in front of you, it’s tempting,” Buffington says. “But I would encourage anyone who is from Memphis to stay here, build a business here, and believe in this city. You’ll find people willing to help. The more we come together, the closer Memphis gets to where it could be.”