Rany Burstein is the CEO and Co-Founder of Diggz, a roommate finder and rental search platform based out of New York City. Born and raised in Israel and educated at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he studied business and graduated Summa cum laude. After over a decade working at a big bank on Wall Street, he turned to entrepreneurship. Specifically, in tech, his first passion, Rany, was building websites when the Internet was just getting started while he was still going to high school. Most notably, he developed and owned the website for Israel’s biggest soccer club, Maccabi Tel Aviv, which he sold back to the team during his military service. Rany has resided in New York City for the last 16 years.
StarCentral Magazine recently caught up with Rany to discuss his journey as an entrepreneur and here’s what went down:
Could you please tell our readers a brief background about yourself and how you started your business?
I was born and raised in Israel, moved to the U.S. for college at UNC Chapel Hill, and after I graduated, I moved to New York to work in finance. I have been working and living in New York City for close to 16 years. I was working for a Wall Street Bank for over a decade, but I was always looking for a way to get back into the tech. When I came up with the idea for Diggz, that’s when I also found my way back to entrepreneurship. I founded Diggz in 2015 along with my co-founder Ben Blodgett. We first launched it in New York, and today we are in over 25 major cities in the U.S. and Canada. Our creation, Diggz, helps thousands of people each month find their roommate, fill up their room for rent and even find apartment rentals.
When did your entrepreneurial flair first reveal itself?
My first steps into entrepreneurship were actually many years ago. In high school, I started building websites; I was doing everything from writing the HTML, producing the graphic design, editing pictures and videos, and writing the content. Most notably, I developed and owned the website for one of Israel’s biggest soccer clubs, which I sold back to the team during my military service. When the dot com bubble burst, I changed course from tech to finance and went on to study business and start a career in finance.
How did your life look like before being an entrepreneur?
Before being an entrepreneur, I had a nice successful career, worked with a lot of smart people, managed a great team, and honed many skills needed to succeed both in the corporate world as well as the entrepreneurial one. I went to work, and when I wasn’t at work, I could disconnect from it for the most part, especially on the weekends and holidays. That’s not quite the same now. However, people tend to think that having a salary job is cushy or offers peace of mind, but it can be stressful. Especially during downturns. During the financial crisis, working for a bank wasn’t a walk in the park. But you learn from the tough times too – whether you run the business or work for one. Also, as I went up the ranks, I started to have more ownership and accountability, which resembled running a business within a business. Obviously, there was a bit more bureaucracy involved, which you don’t have running a new business of your own.
As an entrepreneur, what is it that motivates and drives you?
I’m inherently a problem solver, and as an entrepreneur, you find yourself solving problems all day. And it’s not just putting out fires. It’s strategic problems as well. Most businesses are formed to solve a bigger problem on a high level. That personally excites me. Further, there is a sense of competition that acts as a driving force as well. Every business has competitors, and if they don’t, they will have them as soon as they taste a sliver of success. Trying to outsmart or out-hustle the competition keeps you going. Finally, I think the vision of my personal success and the impact this venture can create are motivating factors as you go through the motions of starting and growing a business.
In one word, describe your life as an entrepreneur and explain why.
Fluid. From a role perspective, you have to wear many hats, especially in the beginning whether you are doing marketing, product, sales, or even HR. You get to touch and impact all the aspects of your business. From a schedule perspective, you may find yourself working long hours, working on weekends and holidays, or answering emails at 2 a.m. But, you are also able to take advantage of days or times when you can recharge. For example, taking half a day to play golf on a Tuesday, which you can’t really do when you are on that Monday to Friday grind. You make it work. And when I’m working, it doesn’t always feel like work. And lastly, from a business perspective, what your business was when you started, might not be the same business today. So your experience is fluid all around, and your mindset should be fluid and flexible as well.
What were your top three motivations for starting your business?
First, I had a few bad roommates, but most notably one really bad roommate search experience; Thinking I found the perfect roommate on craigslist, a would-be female roommate shut her door in my face after realizing I, “Rany,” was a dude and not a girl.
Second, I saw a problem. There was no effective way to find reliable roommates that fit your criteria. Something as trivial as gender, and a face photo were not included on Craigslist. It was hard meeting roommates online, the whole process was a crapshoot, and you didn’t really learn much about your future roommates until it was maybe too late.
And third, I saw an opportunity. Nothing in the market was addressing this problem back then. My experience got me thinking of a better way to connect with like-minded roommates. I liked the dating apps style, which requires two people to match first with a mutual intent, then chitchat further before meeting in person.
Combined with my desire to go back into tech and entrepreneurship, I didn’t hesitate on this idea and started making moves to bring it to life.
What would you say are the key elements for starting and running a successful business?
There is no single recipe for achieving business success. Still, I think it’s important to build a good team around you, be comfortable delegating, maintain your vision, and remain flexible to change. Drive, grit, and a good work ethic will go a long way.
What are the three biggest challenges you have faced growing the business and how did you overcome them?
The first challenge, I would say involved myself; I didn’t come from a tech background and I had to jump into a new world of app development, digital marketing, SEO, PPC, retargeting, social media, CRO, Database optimization, JS, negotiating partnerships, email deliverability and more. I needed to learn a lot and fast. One way I overcame this was by learning. I’ve set aside time to learn anything I wasn’t strong enough in or familiar with. I read general leadership books, startup stories, technical literature about SEO, marketing, you name it. It took time, but I think it was a great investment. I’m still not an expert on each, but now I can’t be duped, and I can have an informed discussion with my team or service providers.
The second challenge our company needed to overcome in the early days was a technical one. How to accommodate our product for scale. We started with a very functional MVP that worked great and quite fast. But, as we grew and acquired more users, our app started to slow down and ruin the user experience. At one point, our roommate search page took longer than 10 seconds to load. We didn’t build it for scale or have that in mind initially. To solve it, we sought guidance from several technical growth experts. I might add helped us voluntarily, and we are still very grateful today. They advised us about what technologies are available and that should be used. They also urged us to rethink how to construct our algorithm and database to work more efficiently. We were able to implement multiple proposed solutions, which got our app working way faster. Not only for back then, but we had set it up correctly for continued growth and scale.
And the last challenge, which is a constant one, is how to keep growing. What markets to expand to, what channels to use to acquire new customers, what to optimize or rebuild. There’s a lot that is going on. What we did, was focus on the few channels that worked for us. In this case, it was SEO and Google Ads, and keep optimizing them. We definitely experimented with other growth channels, and we continuously do so. But unless you have major funding or an army behind you, pick your battles and focus on where you have strengths and knowledge.
What form of marketing has worked well for your business throughout the years?
Ultimately, I think SEO has proven to be the most effective for us. Whether it’s investing in technical SEO, content, or link building, our organic traffic accounts for most of our user acquisition. We also use Google Ads, especially for new markets, which has also been an effective strategy for user acquisition.
As you grew the business, what have been some of the most important leadership lessons you have learned?
I would point out two things. One, live and learn from your mistakes. As an entrepreneur, you will make so many mistakes along the way. Big or small. It’s just the nature of the business. The key thing is to learn from those mistakes and avoid repeating them. Of course, in the same token, be tolerant of the mistakes of those that work for you. Leverage them as teaching moments.
Second, trust your team. It’s very hard to become a control freak over your own business, but you have to be able to delegate and live with the results your team brings you. At the end of the day, they are an extension of you. So the more you invest in their training and coaching, the better they will perform for you.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
One of my old managers told me and showed me by example to not be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. It will help you learn fast and earn the respect of your colleagues, employees, and superiors. Especially when you start a business, take on customer support roles, maybe do manual operations work, make sales calls, etc. It will help you learn your product or service better, directly get customer service, and ultimately give you a high-level view of what you’ve created and ideas for fixing or improving it.
What advice would you give to a newbie Entrepreneur setting up their first business?
Learn as much as you can in your new space and keep learning. Try to understand the aspects of your business that you are not great at. For example, If you don’t deal with SEO or don’t know much about it, at least learn the basics. Don’t just blindly delegate it to someone else. I think plugging your shortcomings or gaps with talent is great, but you also need to be able to manage and converse with your experts. So the more you know, the better. Also, success doesn’t happen overnight. Be ready for tough times, failures, and making mistakes. The key thing is to learn from them and improve.