SAN MATEO (04/10/2000) - Rentals.com Inc. is trying to reinvent what is widely considered to be one of the most painful processes that every person experiences frequently in his or her lifetime: renting out or renting a property. No matter which side of the process you're on, the entire activity is a labor-intensive process driven by tons of paperwork. As CTO of Rentals.com, Vadim Akselrod is trying to change the complicated process by turning it into an automated Web service. In an interview with InfoWorld Editor in Chief Michael Vizard, Akselrod discusses Rentals.com's business model and what it takes to stay ahead of the dot-com game.
InfoWorld: What is Rentals.com trying to achieve?
Akselrod: We're trying to build a company that revolutionizes the way that residential real-estate rentals works. It's a very painful process right now for both owners and tenants to deal with, and we can really use the power of the Internet to leverage it into being a seamless kind of transaction. It's a self-service kind of a model where users can [do anything], from taking applications online to getting rent payments. Tenants are also able to do searches of rental properties automatically, which makes it a whole lot easier to find a place to live.
InfoWorld: What kinds of technology are you using in the infrastructure at Rentals.com?
Akselrod: We have an Oracle 8i database server internally, and it is only accessible to the rest of the world through stored procedures. We made a decision pretty early on [not] to throw any SQL over the line to the outside world. We have a JDBC [Java Database Connectivity] layer that lies on top of that and ties in to a Web Logic application server. Then, on top of the Web Logic server, we have a presentation architecture.
InfoWorld: If your company is wildly successful, will the architecture grow or do you have an obsolescence model?
Akselrod: There's always going to be an obsolescence model no matter how much you try to plan at the beginning, because technology is going to move. We needed a time to market infrastructure, which was the primary concern. And if we picked name-brand technologies, like [Microsoft] SQL Server or Oracle, you know that none of them is going to break down when you get to a reasonable load. When you get to enormous loads, maybe so. But if you go with things that are name brands, I found that that was OK, and we can also recruit top talent to work on those products.
InfoWorld: How hard is it to get talent for Rentals.com?
Akselrod: Very hard. We have a very persuasive story in that we're backed by some of the best venture capitalists out there, but still it's very challenging to get people. When you get people to actually come in and you show them the story, we've had a pretty good success rate. But there are so many headhunters calling on every single recruit that to get your airtime is tough.
InfoWorld: What technologies would you like to see improve and in what ways?
Akselrod: I think the improvements I'd like to see are getting the Web browsers to adopt standards and [getting] all the clients out there to have the latest versions of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. If we didn't have to worry about all the browser incompatibilities, that would save a lot of coding time.
The other improvement would be just pure integration. There's XML and there's HTML, and I'd like to be able to merge them and serve the data.
InfoWorld: Is that a product that somebody has to build? Or is it that vendors have to become aware of each other?
Akselrod: I think those vendors have to start working together. There are standards in just about everything. There's a saying that goes, 'The best thing about standards is there's so many of them.' If we just chose a few and people actually got behind them, then it could work. I think there's a tendency right now to keep inventing new standards.
InfoWorld: Are there any new technologies you're looking to adopt? For example, is wireless going to have an impact on your business?
Akselrod: I think we're definitely going to be staying up with the technologies and figuring out what people want; for example, getting their Palm VIIs automatically updated when there's a new apartment opening up in San Francisco and letting the clients know that they need to see the apartment before it's gone in an hour. But I think we're relying a lot more on getting these kinds of technologies from partners and asking ourselves who can provide us with these kinds of technologies.
InfoWorld: There's this new trend emerging, called e-provisioning, where you might build a core site and then out of these features you just link to somebody else's ASP (application service provider) and drag an application into your site. Is that a viable model for Rentals.com?
Akselrod: That's definitely what we're doing for a lot of the features in our site. We don't want to reinvent too many wheels. So if a vendor's got a good solution, we'd much rather use theirs if it integrates quickly. That's a big caveat at the end in that it has to integrate quickly. The first one's usually pretty easy, the second one's a little harder, and by the time you have a dozen things integrated, to get the 13th one in there to play with the others is nearly impossible. So you have to choose carefully which ASPs you go with because they don't really interoperate that well together. But you certainly don't want to try to build it yourself.
InfoWorld: Do you run your systems locally or do you put them on somebody else's site, such as Exodus, for example?
Akselrod: We're co-located at Concentric. Running systems locally is not our core competency and I'd much rather pay a little bit more for somebody to get all that stuff set up and to keep it running. On the lower end, the applications-level stuff and making sure everything's working, that's what we're doing.
InfoWorld: Do you feel that you need to compromise your technology vision to meet the business model?
Akselrod: I think that's something that you're just faced with on a minute-by-minute basis; OK, here's the right solution and here's the fast solution. And it's pretty clear what the winner is going to be in that almost every time. Sometimes they're the same, which is really wonderful. But most of the time you realize that you have to get something up there, and we'd rather have something that's up there and that people can use that doesn't work great, but at least it's up today rather than tomorrow.
InfoWorld: What companies do you see as today's technology leaders?
Akselrod: I think there are quite a few different camps, even from my point of view, so it's hard to identify a market leader. For any given technology, you can identify the top tier and the middle tier and the emerging companies. But I can't say that one solution is going to pan out better than the other. You have to make a religious choice pretty early on. Are we going to be in the Microsoft camp or are we going to be in the Java camp? Which technologies are we going to use under that? And we just had to decide that we're in the Oracle camp and using XML.
InfoWorld: Is it still pretty much anybody's ball game?
Akselrod: Yes, it's anybody's ball game because there are so many technologies that can potentially get you where you want to go. And when push comes to shove, all of them can work. I've seen sites that have been built on top of a PHP [an open-source HTML-embedded scripting language that supports XML] application that work great. I've seen Perl sites, ASP sites, JSP [JavaServer Pages] sites, XML sites, and that's just in the dot-com community. But all of these can work, and it's just getting them all to work together. They all have their drawbacks and advantages, but you just have to choose your religion carefully and then pick the best tools for it.
Vadim Akselrod - Rentals.com
Biggest successes: Securing funding for the company, obtaining patents, and building a solid teamKey challenges: Finding and picking new technology; recruiting; making the complex property management process easy to use for owners, managers, and rentersPersonal note: In his spare time, Akselrod enjoys playing Ultimate Frisbee, collecting British cars, and traveling.