Editor’s note: Alexander Ferguson is CEO and founder of Raleigh and Charlotte-based YourLocalStudio.com, which is partnering with WRAL TechWire to present a series of in-depth interviews with thought leaders in the field of Artificial Intelligence as part of the firm’s new series UpTech.

CARY – In this episode of UpTech Report, I interview Frank Barletta, the CEO of UpTop, a technology company that’s revolutionizing the relationship between landlords, renters, and property managers. We speak on his growth, the future potential of applying machine learning, and his focus on team building.

The interview:

  • Well, thank you so much, Frank, for joining us, and I am intrigued to hear your story. Starting off, what year did you start your business?

A pleasure to meet you Alex. Thanks very much for your time and your interest in wanting to chat with me. I started the business directly January 5th, 2015 at 8:30am.


  • Wow, that’s very specific. Can you tell me: how do you know that specifically?

I’ll never forget it ever—one of the most important dates in my life, honestly.

  • Really? Can you expand?

Well, think about it. We’re in business today. It was the first time that I’ve taken a leap to do something that put me so far out of my comfort zone—something that I had no idea what I was doing. And the beginning of the journey—that’s how I would describe it.

  • This is your first business that you’ve run?

This is the first business of this type that I have. I’ve had consulting businesses in the past, but they weren’t to the scale or to this opportunity.

  •  Yes, and you’ve raised money since then, so it’s —

Very fortunate, yes.

  • So, this is definitely not a small venture—just a consulting business. I love that you know the exact time that you started it.

I might still have the receipt for breakfast that morning, so yeah.

  • So, what industries do you primarily serve?

We serve the residential rental industry.

  • And within that industry, you’re going after renters and owners, helping both of them. Have I got that right?


  • So, what is the pain point that you’re really solving for them?

So, renting is a nightmare for everyone. It’s really tough for renters. It is super expensive, tedious, and cumbersome for owners and operators. And while it’s 2019, it’s a time of technology. The solutions out there just eat around the edges. They don’t actually solve the core problems within the rental space.

So, what we want to do is solve that. We want to streamline the entire rental industry with one platform that provides something that’s powerful. We want to deliver it at no cost to owners and operators so that they can seriously disrupt and make a big impact and change—not just improve bottom lines and make the experience much better.

  • I think technology…that’s like one of the great things about technology. It should make our lives better. And what’s intriguing is when you can disrupt a market, especially when you’re giving it away for free. That’s probably…am I wrong? Is that one of the ways you’re disrupting as well? Or is it just the effect that you can automate this process as well?

So instead of saying disrupt, I like to think of it as improving an industry. Obviously, if everything was perfect, there’d be nothing. Everyone would just go home and eat food or watch TV or just go out and do stuff—things that are important to your life.

The fact that the industry is built on legacy software, and the fact that the industry is built on old methods really gives me this idea that if you can be audacious enough to deliver the most impactful value to a business and figure out a model that allows you to do it at no cost, you’re going to make a change that’s so substantial that who knows what it would do to the industry?

We know that there are hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars that are spent per business to make an impact to operate. Even to the small owner and operator, they’re still spending hard-earned money to rent their units, to operate them, and all the headaches that come with it. So, the fact that we can deliver something that helps everyone of small to large scale is really exciting. That definitely is something worth waking up for.

  • Are you more focused on helping renters or owners/operators?

The software is designed to provide value everywhere. Typically, our clientele is the owner and operator. We can provide them a phenomenal tenant experience for their current tenants and help them acquire new tenants by giving them the tools that they need to do business, like screening, lease signing, rent collection, all that stuff. So, they pass the tool, the apps on to their tenants. Their tenants use it and have a good experience.

  • So you said this was free. Obviously, no business is truly free. How does the business model work, and what’s the pricing going to look like for the premium? It’s a premium model—am I right?

The product is free. The ways that we generate money are very simple. If you think of aiming processing, credits cards, debit cards, ACH, there’s fees. Banks charge everyone money.

There’s no free payment processing that exists. Instead of saying, “Hey, why don’t you pay us money for the product and pay us for the software,” we say, “Hey, you can provide this for free to your tenants—let your tenants have a good experience. If they want to pay the rent online, they can. And they will not just pay the bank fee, but they’ll pay the convenience fee that we upcharge a bit so that we can make money.”

But we make it so that it’s very affordable for everyone so that they don’t have to write paper checks or go to the lock box and drop off cash. It’s a convenient space service and tenant screening service. If you want to apply for an apartment, you might have to send your background check, your credit score, all that stuff. So there’s no such thing as free credit reports.

At a consumer level, you have to provide a full, substantial credit score and credit check. You have to provide that data, and it costs money to the bureau. So, we upcharge that by a couple of bucks, and we make money. So, it’s a lean business that allows us to say, “Hey, more automation, more good tech versus human involvement, which allows us to keep our business lean and generate revenues.” Makes sense.

  • It does. So, keeping it super lean means you don’t have to do a lot of one-on-one support for any of them. It’s just, “Here’s the tools, use it, and it’s free.” They’re not bugging you much. But the way you’re making money is off the small transactions. You said it’s still kind of early on, but are you getting a good kind of transition of people saying, “Okay, I’ll sign up and use your stuff. Oh, and I’ll use your background checks and the bank transfers to the credit card usage for my renters?”

Yeah, it’s all about giving the product away and saying, “Hey, use this to the full extent that you want, and if you have a great experience, use this for other things.” We don’t want to be pushy because it doesn’t settle well with people.

You don’t want to be pushed into something. So, it’s more of a “Hey, we’re going to give you all of these features to use. We’d love you to use them all, but we understand that you may have come here for a specific purpose. So, benefit from that, ask us for support, ask us what you need, and we’ll help you operate your business better. And obviously support us by using our payment processing and screening.”

  • Got it. The content—the intellectual property—that you’ve created is really the website and these automations and the connections to the payment processing portals and the credit checks. Have I got that right? Are there any other pieces that you have kind of put together as your intellectual property that is unique to you?

We believe that this is the first business that streamlines the entire product in a very specific way. So, it’s work-flow driven. Not to knock any of the businesses out there, because they’re all very large. They’re doing very well, and they’ve been there for a long time, so they’re clearly doing something right.

But from an experienced perspective, we understand software development, and we understand modern workflows. So, by actually working with owners and operators and understanding what their day-to-day looks like, you can essentially derive a user experience that’s based on that instead of something that’s clunky and difficult to understand.

So, anyone of any age can figure it out, and it’s designed to make the process so smooth that you spend less time on the product and more time doing the things that are more important. There are some things that we’ve developed that are proprietary obviously as well as things that we believe don’t exist in the industry, so it’s nice to know that we have a forward-thinking approach. And obviously there’s so much more to do, so look for more to come.

UpTop imagge

A screenshot of UpTop’s platform.

  • Whether you have it right now or are looking forward to it, are you going to have matching algorithms—so, the best renter to the best owner? Is that kind of on the horizon of what you have?

Machine learning is a very important tool for the industry for the future. It will take a very substantial amount of time and energy to learn patterns on who matches where. However, we do have a very good understanding of how to succeed in that space. So, what I would say is for those who are interested, support us, help us get there. Because that is something we believe we’ll be able to achieve.

  • And you’re collecting the data one way or another, so that’s the nice thing. At any point, you can use that as training data and can move to that next stage. It makes sense. So, the partnerships are probably a big piece. I don’t know if you call it a partnership or if it’s just an association with your payment processing tool and your credit check. Do you have any other partnerships that you’ve built? Because running a business by yourself is hard, but it can be helpful if you start to build collaborations or API connections or other partnerships. So, what kind of other partnerships have you created?

We see a lot of opportunities to work with businesses in the security deposit space and rental insurance space. Those are important for both owners and operators and tenants. So, both groups benefit from it. So that’s where we see a lot of benefit from. We prefer to work with businesses and make those types of API connections where it’s important instead of just guessing and saying, “Oh, we’re going to do this and that.”

We’ll talk to everyone. There’s no reason not to. I’m not shy of that, but is it beneficial? Is it beneficial to everyone? Is there someone who you’re working with that really needs that to operate the business and make an impact to them? That’s where it’s more important to us, and that’s where we’ll focus our energy.

  • Gotcha, if someone—another entrepreneur—is looking to grow a business, do you have any thoughts you’d share on what it looks like to create connections or partnerships or API’s? Are there any hurdles that they could avoid or learnings that you could share for doing that?

Specifically for partnering with other businesses, make sure that your visions are aligned. Make sure that there is a clear understanding. I think the fundamental toolset to any professional is communication. If you have good communication—that’s listening and being able to articulate your goals directly—you’ll be able to achieve a lot much more quickly.

So how does an innovator in AI innovate himself and his company? Check out part two of our interview.