John Kobs’ first taste of entrepreneurship started as a side hobby.
After graduating from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in 2003 with a degree in finance, Kobs spent about a half dozen years establishing his career. At the same time, he noted, “I started buying homes. I had moved out to New York and I was working in investment banking and also technology investing, but I started buying houses in Ohio.”
It was during this time that Kobs realized that finance wasn’t what he wanted to do.
He recounted those early days, stating, “Going into finance probably was just not the right career path for me. I figured that out from watching the folks that I was working with. I realized I didn’t want to be a managing director or investment banker. I didn’t want to spend my life like that.”
It was his side hobby of buying houses, however, where he found his passion.
“I felt like I was on the wrong career path. I truly realized that when I was buying those houses. I had started this new path for myself and I really liked it,” Kobs said. “It's never too late to start doing what you really want. I was 28 when I was finally starting to do what I loved,” he explained.
Kobs’ time buying houses gave him the necessary experience and skill sets needed to eventually become a full-time entrepreneur.
“It was like training wheels for being an entrepreneur,” he said. “You had to figure out how to get tenants for your home, you had to figure out how to market your property, and you had to rehabilitate or refurbish the property.”
With this experience under his belt, Kobs soon realized that entering the housing market was something that he wanted to do full time and Apartment List was born.
While Kobs had found an interest in the housing market, it was really the concept of building websites for real estate that intrigued him, which led him to building a brokerage.
The year was 2008 when Kobs decided to take that next step. Despite the fact that the housing market was crashing, Kobs was determined to achieve his goals.
“During the Great Recession, there were about five million foreclosures. So, I did what the entrepreneurs call a ‘pivot,’ and went into rental housing. I have always been enamored with the concept of helping people find a home ever since I struggled to find a home in New York. I always felt like people deserved a better option,” Kobs remarked.
Born in Kobs’ apartment in New York City and now located in the San Francisco Bay area, Apartment List found its niche in the housing market and it continues to thrive.
Apartment List is a free service that assists people in finding their next home. The company uses a method of trust and transparency by surveying individuals in order to produce personalized results. As a result, it becomes easy to discover places with the perfect combination of price, location and amenities.
From there, Apartment List works with the individual to analyze which listings are best to visit and lease, as well as providing up-to-date pricing information or identifying rental specials.
For Kobs, Apartment List is so much more than helping people find a place to stay, it’s about finding a place to call home.
“I believe everyone deserves a home they love and we're trying to deliver that to as many people as possible. Last year, we helped over 175,000 families in America find their home. It was a massive effort across hundreds of people at our company to deliver that. We take our jobs very seriously,” Kobs explained.
However, the success of Apartment List didn’t come without any speed bumps along the journey.
In 2009, shortly after starting the business, Apartment List had one client and was run by Kobs, a friend and one employee. At this point, Kobs was not paying himself and only had the means to pay one engineer a salary.
“I remember waking up one morning reading that our client had filed for bankruptcy,” he said.
After wiring the last $5,000 from his personal account to the business account to pay his one employee, that employee quit and Kobs found his business with no revenue, no employees, and no money in his personal or business accounts.
“That's the company I still work at today,” Kobs reflected. “For what it's worth, those are some of the moments I think about. It truly shows how far we’ve come and how we’ve been able to find success despite setbacks.”
As CEO and chairman of the board, Kobs responsibilities at Apartment List are constantly changing as the company continues to evolve over time.
“My main job is to focus on and develop an overarching vision of where we want to take the company and then also goal setting to align with that vision,” he explained. “I need to make sure that I’m looking around the corners so that I can prepare for what's next or prepare to transform the category in rental housing.”
As the company’s success continues to grow, Kobs couldn’t be happier that he took the risk and pursued his dream.
“I love my job,” he stated. “It's a fun job and it's truly an honor to be at the helm of this crew that we have on the Apartment List team. It’s everything to me.”
Life as an Entrepreneur:
Kobs noted that being an entrepreneur doesn’t come without its struggles. However, it’s those struggles that push an entrepreneur to achieve success.
“Everybody has adversity that they're facing in some facet of their life or their business. And so, it's just important that we embrace that as part of the path. For people that want to start a business, the mental challenge of overcoming and facing adversity is probably the biggest obstacle. You never know when and where it's going to strike,” Kobs stated.
Yet, Kobs explained, it is that adversity that results in innovation.
“We need to get attached to allowing ourselves to fail. We need to experience and normalize failure because the more we do that, the bigger risks we're willing to take. I'm a big proponent of ‘if you aren't failing, you aren't taking big enough risks.’”
He continued, “We wouldn't have most of these businesses that we use on a daily basis without failure. A lot of companies wouldn’t exist if they didn’t have the mentality of embracing failure. I think this is an important message for the students at CWRU because no one has it all figured out.”
Kobs also emphasized that none of his success has come without hard work. For him, passion and effort are what makes or breaks one’s success. “Nothing is handed to you. Everything is earned.”
Attending CWRU was destined for Kobs at an early age.
He explained, “My father went to CWRU and graduated from the Weatherhead School of Management in 1974. My sister graduated from the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing in 2000. So, when I did my college tour, my family really wanted me to go to CWRU. I had always grown up wearing CWRU t-shirts and sweatshirts, visiting campus and talking to my dad's old professors on campus. It was definitely a family affair.”
Kobs’ time at CWRU was married with a multitude of experiences. While he was able to find learning opportunities in the classroom, Kobs also played football and ran track, as well as participated in student government and was a member of a fraternity.
“The way I was really prepared for being an entrepreneur was in challenging times while at school,” stated Kobs. “Whether it was from football when the team is in a huddle, facing pressure to get a touchdown on this play to win the game. Or those moments that put your leadership skills to the test. Those moments of staying up all night, studying and putting in the work.”
According to Kobs, “All of those moments developed character traits in me that I used later in life. These are the skills that have enabled me to be successful with my team at Apartment List,” he explained.
CWRU will always hold a special place in Kobs’ life. He remarked, “I'm proud to say I went to Case Western Reserve and I'm proud to share that with others.”
Kobs did not fall short in providing CWRU students with invaluable advice.
He encouraged students to take risks and to continue doing so throughout their lives. He stated, “It will never get easier to take risks. You can always hit the snooze button, but don't do it. Give yourself room to fill and iterate, and to give yourself the space and runway to give it a fair shot. You'll surprise yourself.”
With that, he noted, don’t get stuck on certain expectations. His advice to students is to always allow yourself to evolve and change.
“It is important to change our expectations constantly and try to see the new normal. When there are changes in our life, take advantage of those moments. Hit the reset button and take a new perspective.”
All that being said, Kobs emphasized the importance of not putting too much pressure on yourself, especially during college.
“If I could talk to my college self,” he explained, “I would probably say, ‘enjoy the moment.’ I tried to build a perfect resume and I put immense pressure on myself to be perfect that it took away from my experience.”
“Really cherish that time in school because it's a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Kobs emphasized. “And always, be receptive to what’s going on around you. Learning and growing can happen at any moment.”