Meet the startup that wants to help sublet your apartment -- and is totally legal in New York

FlipFlipFrom left: Flip CTO Roger Graham, COO Elias Wehbe, and CEO Susannah Vila.

After living in 15 sublets around the world
in the span of decade, Susannah Vila decided to sign a year-long lease with her boyfriend. She was attending Columbia Business School and was ready to stay in one place for a while and settle down.

Unfortunately, the lease lasted longer than the relationship did.

Vila was in a tough spot: she couldn’t afford to live in the apartment alone and she also wanted to live closer to school. So she began looking into her options.

While Vila could sublet her space, she had to find a qualified replacement to take over the lease — something which proved to be more work than she was anticipating.

“I worked my network and it was basically like having a second job on top of being in school,” Vila told Business Insider. “I came out of it and I said, ‘There must be a better way.'”

Vila quickly embarked on what started as a class product at Columbia. While she knew there was a way to host travellers for short-term rentals and plenty of realtors offering long-term leases, there was no safe, easy way to find subletters. Vila began interviewing lawyers, real estate agents, and landlords to figure out tenants’ rights in New York State, and soon after, Flip was born.

Flip is a platform that allows tenants to list available space and find subletters. In a similar vein as Airbnb, hosts create a listing, add photos and information like how long the place is available. Flip then takes over, sending out a notice to the landlord, which protects tenants in case the process gets contentious later on. If a user matches with a subletter, Flip will perform a credit check and make a recommendation as to whether that subletter is the right fit.

Essentially, Flip is an advocate, assistant, and housing expert all rolled into one.

Using a new playbook

In the midst of legal challenges to sites like Airbnb, Flip has ensured it’s on the right side of the law in New York State, since users can’t rent out their place for less than 30 days. Vila said she spent time learning the ins and outs of rental laws in New York and other states and meeting with legislators and affordable housing advocates before launching the service.

“The whole ‘shoot first, figure it out later’ [strategy] might not work anymore,” Vila said. “The two case studies of Uber and Airbnb, they both did that. But I’m not sure that a new startup in any space can work from that playbook anymore.”

Sen. Brad Hoylman — a New York State senator for Manhattan’s 27th district, which includes most of Midtown Manhattan and the West and East Villages — met with Flip when the company launched. He said that while tenants still need to be their best advocates, Flip could be a helpful tool.

“I live in a district where affordable housing is scarce and where a lot people want to live and work,” Hoylman told Business Insider. “But many tenants don’t know what their rights are under their leases or under their law.
I think the people from Flip are sending the message that this is all within the confines of New York State housing law and saying, ‘this is how we’re going to make it work.'”

Flip raised a $1.2 million seed round in June, backed by Techstars and Joanne Wilson, and has fully launched in New York City. The company makes money by taking a percentage of the rent from the subletter and also offers a premium service, which provides more support and ensures users can find someone to fill their space in 30 days or less.

Now, Flip testing the waters in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Vila said she’s already learned that there’s a demand for the service in both cities.

“Our mission really is to level that playing field between the tenant and the landlord,” Vila said.

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