For renters, the first of the month can have ominous implications — especially when rent is due but their next paycheck is a week or more away. Property owners often have an equally anxiety-inducing experience chasing down rent payments. It’s easy to feel like the “bad guy” when a tenant struggles to pay on time.
For Leslie Hyman ’04, CEO and co-founder of Circa, rigidity around rent payments is a relic of a bygone era. The platform, which she co-founded in 2019, aims to make rent transactions more realistic, flexible, and fitting for the modern world.
“It turns out that if you make it easier to pay, and if you actually create dialogue and let people tell their stories, it improves not only the likelihood of on-time monthly payments — we’ve improved that metric by more than 17 percent — but also overall relationships between renters and property managers,” she says.
We chatted with Hyman about the rise of property technology (proptech) companies like Circa, the process of co-founding her business, and how her time at Columbia Business School influenced her journey.
CBS: What was the driving force behind the founding of Circa?
Leslie Hyman: My co-founder, Heman Duraiswamy, and I met at the insurance company Swiss Re. We saw this massive need for solutions for paying large bills — the payment system just didn’t match the income side of the equation. Income fluctuation has increased dramatically over the past 50 years, but bill payment has remained on the first of the month for antiquated, non-technical reasons. We recognized this in a painful way because about 20 percent of our policyholders could not pay in full on the first of the month.
We were looking for ways to solve that problem, and we decided to shift focus to the most important monthly bill: payment for housing or rent. We recognized that if we could create flexibility around the bill payment process and timing, we could fill this massive need in the market.
We launched around the beginning of the pandemic, when there were some very interesting things happening on a macroeconomic level around the payment of rent. The nationwide moratorium for evictions went into place, which created a surge of backlog and unpaid rent; it also created a shift in the way that property owners looked at collecting rent. So we built a product based on that need.
CBS: How does Circa meet that need?
Hyman: Circa is a payment system and an app. It includes all of the nudging and communications typical of modern e-commerce but which have never really been part of the property world. It also includes an avenue for communication via phone — a contact center people can call if they have questions.
We want Circa to be good for renters, which in turn improves the bottom line for properties. Residents are happy they’ve got someone to call, and property owners are relieved they no longer have to be the “bad guy.” Circa is strict and clear, but we’ve created flexibility within that clarity. So there’s no real bad guy anymore. And that is a huge community difference.
CBS: Can you give an example of how Circa is being used in the real world?
Hyman: Circa sends a notification to all residents each month letting them know when an upcoming payment is due. Right then, it gives them a button to change their payment schedule. So, without having to feel any shame, they can change the date of the payment and break it into two installments.
One resident told us how this feature changed her life. She’s a teacher, and she was pregnant. Just before rent was due, she found out she had additional medical bills. Being able to break up her payment at that moment gave her the little bit of ease and flexibility she needed.
As for property owners or managers, Circa means they no longer have to chase down rent. The rent market, including apartments, condos, and other types of housing, is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. And every single month, property managers are left chasing 20 percent of it. This is a very labor-intensive effort.
With Circa, fees collected for flexible payments are shared with property owners, thus replacing or eclipsing their late-fee revenue. And the app incentivizes on-time payments by making it free and sending positive reports to the credit bureaus. By shifting from a punishment mentality to a choice mentality, Circa strengthens the community.
CBS: You recently spoke at RETCON, a conference focused on real estate technology. What was the main theme of your talk?
Hyman: The particular subject I was asked to speak about was flexible payments as an amenity, which is an interesting concept. Amenities are generally considered high-end perks, like using an app to open your door, package delivery systems, or dog walkers that come to your apartment. Flexible payments, on the other hand, are generally considered something for people who are struggling.
In fact, I would argue they’re for everyone. If you look at “buy now, pay later,” it’s not just for the struggling consumer; it’s become for everybody. People want to be able to budget, and they want convenience and flexibility with payments.
CBS: How did your time at Columbia prepare you for your journey with Circa?
Hyman: It was a mind-shifting experience for me. I absolutely loved every minute of it, both the academics and meeting all of the people. Specifically, the training — like how to present, how to speak, what investors need to hear — is directly applicable to what I do today, certainly in regard to fundraising, but even just for talking to property owners.
CBS: What advice would you have for others looking to build a business in proptech or real estate technology?
Hyman: [Laughs] Have a really strong stomach. Columbia students are smart; they’ve got strong minds. But in this industry, you have to be ready to get punched in the gut over and over and brush it off and just keep going.