By Erin Atack
Carmen Branje hasn’t even graduated, yet he has already secured two jobs, one of them a website he created.
Torontorents.com is a site designed for landlords to post their vacancies and for renters to search through available dwellings in the city.
The 23-year-old computer science student, set to graduate this spring, launched the site two years ago. Branje also works for the university, writing code.
With the stability of a job here, he’s able to explore his entrepreneurial skills on the side to see what can come of it. His supervisor, ITM Professor Deb Fels, undoubtedly sees a business future for this blooming entrepreneur.
“He seems to have that spin to him,” she says. Torontorents.com just may be the beginning for Branje.
Branje launched the site two years ago, feeling he was ready to apply what he’d learned. “I think the biggest reason why I started this type of website as opposed to something else was because I don’t have to create the content. I’m not a writer… This way the content is provided for me,” he says. There is always work involved in launching a site. He says two sides to any website are the graphic side and the database side, or design and function.
Branje felt comfortable doing the coding, but recognized his weakness would be design. So he recruited Graphic Communications Management student Ahmed Raz Sagarwala to help him make the site visually appealing. Sagarwala worked unpaid, eager to get the experience. Branje then needed to get the site online, meaning he’d need a server to host the code he’d worked out.
His colleague and friend Dan Lee runs 321sd.com, a site designed for other computer-savvy people to get help hosting, designing, or maintaining their sites. Dan offered him a deal getting hosted, but also helped him smooth out the edges in the beginning. “When I started, I was making the same mistakes he’s making now. But, he’s learning,” Lee says. Branje’s site was off and running.
The main problem for Branje, and for any business, is attracting a market. Branje tried e-mailing the Ryerson computer science students, essentially spamming them. He learned a tough lesson: His site was shut down for it. When Branje got his site back up, his traffic had increased and a few landlords had even posted their vacancies with him.
He says the spamming may have been responsible for the spike in popularity. But, this time spamming wasn’t an option.
Branje needed to look elsewhere for advertising, and for the money to pay for it.
Costs and Revenues
Branje reached into his pocket to expose his site. He bought a Google ad for TorontoRents.com; now when someone types in “Toronto apartments,” his site comes up along the right side of the page.
He pays eight cents every time someone clicks on his ad. “And, that adds up, especially when there’s no solid revenue,” he says. To bring money back in, Branje also posted Google ads.
When one of his visitors clicks on one of those ads, he gets paid. He says he is breaking even on ads. So, Branje is looking to explore different ways to generate revenue.
“Basically, renter access has to be free. You can’t charge the renter because he’ll never come to your site. Charging the landlord may be possible,” he says.
Branje intends to continue to let landlords post their listings for free; he needs their listings. He says he may explore adding fees for bonus services, such as having banners advertising their vacancies.
But, charging for anything means setting up a payment system. It all costs money.
Branje frequently visits competing sites to get ideas.
While some sites can be very popular, he recognizes where they’re faltering and tries to learn from their mistakes. “I find they’re all just property management companies advertising their buildings, not specific vacancies, and I hate that… I wanna see individual units and prices… And I like to see pictures,” he says. Branje’s site offers specific vacancies, some with pictures, but he’s recently incorporated Google Maps so the renter can see exactly which areas have availabilities.
His main problem is generating listings; while Viewit.ca, another Toronto tenant site, has hundreds of diverse listings, Branje’s site has only a half dozen in each category. “(ViewIt.ca) is definitely a bench mark. They have the right idea and if I could just get some of their traffic, that would be excellent,” he says. Another apartment vacancy site, Craigslist.org, gets around 3.5 billion hits per month.
By comparison, Torontorents.com sees about 1,000 unique visitors per month, or about 20,000 hits. Craigslist.org began as a forum for Craig Newmark, now 53, to post interesting events for his 10 to 12 visitors. Slowly he took suggestions for what else to add to the site – including real estate — and now, more than 10 years later, the site is a business that supports Newmark and his 18 employees.
Like Branje, Newmark doesn’t charge renters — or landlords for that matter. Instead, he gets their revenue by charging companies to post job opportunities. He says people will only pay if it’s in their best interest, so he only charges when the user would be paying for the same service elsewhere. Within this framework, he keeps traffic coming and reels in enough cash to sustain the business.
Branje says he won’t be making Torontorents.com his full-time career any time soon. “I don’t see it supporting me any time soon, but I do see it adding to my income.
‘Hobby’ is a little bit too weak of a word, but ‘business’ is a bit too strong. Part-time is what I’d consider it. Because once I get it going and if it does start bringing in revenue, I can just sit back and start collecting cheques.
So, it’s something that I take seriously,” he says. Lee, fellow entrepreneur, feels optimistic for Branje and his site. “After he found out that it was being used he started putting more effort into it… It’s on its way there, it has potential,” Lee says.
Fels says it takes a mix of technical skill, business savvy and common sense to make such a venture work, something she says Branje (a self-professed computer nerd) has.
“He’s got lots of creativity combined with the technical skills to get it done… Whether or not this website makes him a billionaire, I think it’s given him some great experience,” Fels says.