NEW YORK—A secure job on Wall St. wasn’t enough for Robert Reffkin—he was too much of an entrepreneur. In September last year Reffkin took a leap of faith and left Goldman Sachs to build his own startup company.
The 34-year-old former chief of staff to Goldman’s president and COO said it was a scary move to leave Goldman.
“I have a wife. I have a mother that I need to support. I have a baby coming in six weeks,” said Reffkin at his office on June 17.
“I really enjoyed the people there. It wasn’t an easy decision, but you can only make a shot if you go for it,” he said. “When you look back on life it’s important to see that you took as many shots as possible.”
Reffkin started taking shots early in his entrepreneurial career. At age 14 he used his Bar Mitzvah money to buy DJ equipment and run his own company, Rude Boy Productions, until he was 18. Nonprofit, the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurs, helped him start the disc jockey business.
He would DJ three to four times a week and made enough money to hire two of his friends.
“I was one of the most utilized disc jockeys in the San Francisco area for two years in a row, which was fun,” Reffkin said. And it helped him pay for college.
The recent leap from Goldman into a startup was spurred by one of the biggest headaches New Yorkers face: finding an apartment. From broker bait-and-switch to false advertising and high broker fees, the industry is difficult to navigate.
Reffkin knew he could optimize the whole rental industry, so he teamed up with Ori Allon, a developer and entrepreneur who sold his first company to Google, and his second to Twitter.
The two launched Urban Compass on May 7, a startup that combines a robust online search tool with neighborhood experts to streamline the search and application process. The fees are half the standard broker fees if a secondary broker is not used, and 12.5 percent if one is.
Reffkin and Allon have some real estate heavyweights behind them and they plan to expand company services to receive rental payments.
“I had done a lot in the business world, working at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs and the White House,” Reffkin said. “We wanted to do something to solve this big problem by using the best of his [Allon’s] engineering talents and my business strategic partnership talents.”
Urban Compass has a different way of doing things.
The neighborhood experts are paid based on customer satisfaction instead of commission. Renters are told what the total costs of the apartment and services are up front, and no fees are charged until a suitable apartment is found.
“It’s something that helps make it easier to live in the city,” he said.
Starting Young and Giving Back
Reffkin grew up with his mother, an Israeli immigrant, in Berkeley, Calif. His African-American father passed away when he was young.
“I attribute much of what I have been able to do to my mother,” Reffkin said. “She is incredibly resourceful, and has the aspirational immigrant belief that anything is possible.”
In his earlier years, his mother involved him with several nonprofits. One, A Better Chance, won him scholarships for a private school education.
“I graduated college in two and half years because my mom made me think whatever I wanted to do is possible,” he said. Reffkin has a bachelor of arts in economics-philosophy and history from Columbia University. Several years later, he earned a master of business administration in finance and management, also from Columbia.
Reffkin said he feels compelled to give back to nonprofits, as well as create new ones, similar to the ones that helped him.
Prior to Urban Compass, Reffkin founded New York Needs You, a nonprofit that provides scholarships for students who aim to be the first in their families to attend college.
The organization matches student with mentors, who spends one-on-one time helping students develop skills to graduate from college and pursue their dreams.
The program also gives each student two summer internships and a professional development grant.
Five years ago, Reffkin began running marathons to raise money for the nonprofits that mentored him as he was growing up.
His goal is to run 50 marathons, one in each state, to raise a total of $1 million for youth education and enrichment programs such as Prep for Prep, which prepares minority students for elite high schools. On average, he ran one marathon a month.
“The most beautiful marathons are in the Death Valley, beautiful desert where you can hear your heartbeat because it is so silent,” he said. “There’s no birds, no wind, there’s nothing.”
With 49 under his belt, the final marathon he needs to run is New York, which was cancelled last year after Hurricane Sandy.
Underneath Reffkin’s serious bearing is a big time movie buff.
“The greatest movie of all time is ‘Rocky’; the greatest love movie is ‘The Notebook’; the most commonly liked movie is ‘Shawshank Redemption,’ nobody hates that movie; the greatest fighter movie is ‘Braveheart,’” he said.
And his favorite sports speech is Al Pacino’s “Inches” speech in “Any Given Sunday” (1999).
“It’s where he says in this game of football, and life, you win or die by that inch. You work with your team to climb and fight for that inch,” Reffkin said. “That’s what’s so beautiful about it. The field of life is surrounded by inches. When you see it that way, there’s a lot of things you can do.”
At Urban Compass, people work hard but the atmosphere is buoyant, he said.
“I learned [on Wall Street] that if you hire really smart people, and give them responsibility and opportunities to grow their leadership, then they go out to do great things as a result,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do here at Urban Compass.”
The SoHo office is decked out with a pool table, a chess board, and a few bean bag chairs.
“I want people to feel happy to go to work,” Reffkin said.
It’s a close-knit group. They have happy hours. They go out together after work; a group of 30 watched “Man of Steel” recently.
“Of all things that I’ve been involved in, I am most proud of this team.” Reffkin said. “We believe that anything is possible, that we can change an entire industry. That’s what this company was founded upon.”