Fireside Chatter

Kindling and sparks from Cozy.

Meet Cozy’s fermenter in chief

Written on August 22, 2016 by Lucy Burningham

In the kitchen at Cozy HQ, a large glass jar holds a slimy, two-inch thick disc floating in murky brown liquid.

The disc is alive; it’s a SCOBY, an acronym for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.” Essentially, it’s a colony of organisms that ferments things, including the sweet tea in which it bathes. Eventually the SCOBY will turn the tea into kombucha, a tart beverage packed with probiotics and a hint of carbonation.

Rob Galanakis, Cozy’s VP of engineering, is the person behind the project. He keeps the company fridge stocked with kombucha by fermenting one batch at a time in the large jar before transferring the drink to smaller bottles.

“It seemed like a nice thing to do,” he says. “I like to make and share food.”

His role as kombucha maker—and SCOBY caretaker—earned him the title “fermenter in chief.”

For two-and-a-half years, Rob lived in Iceland, where he worked for a video game developer. While he was there, he developed a taste for new foods, from fermented shark to dried fish with butter. He also ate a lot of skyr, an Icelandic sour yogurt, but he couldn’t find anything comparable when he moved back to the U.S.

In search of a replacement for the probiotic health benefits of the yogurt, he started buying and drinking kombucha. Then he realized he could make the drink himself.

He made a few batches at home (his son loves the stuff), and when he saw some Cozyans drinking store-bought kombucha, he had an idea. Rob bought a five-gallon glass jar, got a SCOBY from one of his wife’s friends, and brewed his first batch of kombucha at the office using loose tea, cheesecloth, and some near-boiling water from an instant hot water dispenser.

Since making that first batch of kombucha, Rob has experimented with different ingredients. He replaced black tea with yerba mate then coffee (black tea is best, he reports). He’s also made other fermented foods and shared them at work: pickled eggs in beet juice, mead, sauerkraut, and non-alcoholic berry sodas.

Since the SCOBY grows vigorously, and can take on what Rob says is “much more than the mass of a small dog,” he’s peeled off layers for coworkers who want to make their own kombucha at home. One time Rob turned a layer of the SCOBY into bite-sized dehydrated nuggets using his food dehydrator. The result? Scoby Snacks.

Even though the SCOBY isn’t on payroll, Design Director Dave Handlong thought it needed a name. Now it’s known as Scoby Macguire, which beat out runners-up Scoby Bryant and Scoby Keith.

When a batch of kombucha is fermenting, Rob tastes it daily to see if it’s reached the perfect equilibrium of tart and sweet. Sometimes, when that day arrives, he’s too busy with work to move the kombucha into bottles. After all, the evolution of the kombucha isn’t something he can predict, part of the beauty of fermentation.

“You can guide the process,” he says, “but ultimately, you’re not in total control.”

Rob doesn’t follow an exact recipe, which leads to surprises and variations in flavors. It’s all part of the fun, he says.

Here’s Rob’s approximate recipe for kombucha:

  1. Use about 10-15 tablespoons of plain loose black tea per gallon of finished kombucha. Put the tea into a piece of cheesecloth and tie it with a string to form a “teabag.” Make sure the water has room to circulate inside the bag.
  2. Steep the tea at a relatively low temperature (150-170℉) for a couple hours. Be sure to brew a highly concentrated tea, so you can cool it off by diluting it with cold water (step four).
  3. After the tea is brewed, remove the teabag and add granulated sugar to taste. Use less sugar for a shorter ferment and lighter flavor, or more sugar for stronger sweet and sour flavors. Rob usually aims for an overly sweet Southern-style sweet tea.
  4. Add cold water bring all the liquid to room temperature. Add some existing kombucha (about 10% by volume) and your SCOBY. Add room temperature water to achieve your target volume. If your SCOBY sinks, don’t worry, it’s probably just the water temperature or new environment.
  5. Taste each day to see how it’s coming along. You should taste the result of fermentation after a couple days. If you don’t, give it longer. If your SCOBY is on the surface and has no mold on top, it’s probably fine. If it’s been totally on the bottom of a week and your tea has no bubbles if you stir it, you may have a problem. When in doubt, remember to trust your tastebuds and believe in your SCOBY.
  6. You can improvise in countless ways, which is part of the fun!

If you’re interested in learning more about wild fermentation, Rob recommends reading “The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz.

Introducing the newest members of Team Cozy

Written on August 17, 2016 by Katie Harlow

We’re excited to welcome two new people our ranks!

Jordann Bradley is a seasoned support professional who’s joining our Customer Support team from Squarespace. He’s originally from Los Angeles, California, but Portland stole his heart and he’s here to stay. In addition to his experience working on a variety of support teams, he has a degree in history from California State University, Northridge. If you have the chance to chat with Jordann, be sure to quiz him on his in-depth knowledge of The Simpsons.

Nicole Swedberg also joins Cozy’s Customer Support team. Nicole has a true entrepreneurial spirit. Before she came to Cozy, she ran her own creative consultancy in Scottsdale, Arizona. She moved to Portland sight unseen, because she wanted to explore the Pacific Northwest and be a part of Cozy’s mission to change the way renting works. She’s also on the hunt for the best veggie burger in Oregon, so if you have a suggestion, drop a line to Cozy Support!

To be a Cozyan

Written on August 16, 2016 by Dave Handlong

We’ve all rented a place at some point in our lives. Renting can be an overly-complicated process that usually involves handing over sensitive personal information to strangers, wrangling money from roommates, and remembering to mail a check every month. It’s not easy for landlords either. Finding responsible renters, tracking and depositing rent every month, and communicating with tenants can be a huge burden—especially for small landlords who may have other day jobs.

The rental industry is ripe for change, and Cozy is working hard to make it better. Over the past four years, we’ve helped renters apply to places and pay rent more easily and securely. And we’ve helped landlords run their businesses more efficiently, for free!

Reinventing an industry hasn’t been easy. To build a great product, you first have to build a great team. Ours is made up of designers, engineers, support and growth specialists, and many other specialized people. While we all have different job titles and backgrounds, we share some common traits that have kept us working well together for so long.

 

Here are some of the qualities that make a great Cozy employee:

Empathy: Everything we do is rooted our customer’s best interest, and every single employee has a stake in making the customer’s experience better, from designing interactions with the least amount of steps, and writing clear and friendly copy, to making things load quickly. We’re all able to view our individual work in the larger context of our customer’s experience.

Curiosity: People who are curious go above and beyond what they’re asked to do, simply because they can’t help it. We value curiosity because it uncovers problems, creates opportunities, and ultimately shapes answers. When you trust a curious person and give them extraordinary responsibility, it almost always leads to something good.

Collaboration: A person can do a lot on their own, but we do our best work together. We encourage collaboration within teams and across disciplines, because we believe every single employee has a distinct and valuable viewpoint. This attitude ensures we get a diversity of opinions, a necessity for making a great company and product.

Courage: We value people who have opinions and can clearly and confidently express them. We value people who seek challenges to their beliefs to make their understanding stronger. Most importantly, we value people who have the courage to admit when they’re wrong.

Diligence: We launch MVPs, but we don’t cut corners. There’s a difference. We do the hard work to make the product better.

Humility: This last one is a biggie. We have a strong distaste for people with inflated egos. Work hard, be nice, and don’t step on the toes of people you work with. We’re all on the same team, working toward the same goal. We collectively lift each other up and learn from our mistakes.

 

While we’re at it, let’s talk about some of our qualities that make Cozy a great company. We are:

Democratic: Every employee has a voice at Cozy, and we encourage people to be vocal. We are the sum of our parts. We understand that a team with a unified purpose and values performs well.

Transparent: We’re honest with our customers and with our employees. Things aren’t always perfect, but we believe that being open and truthful is the best way to gain people’s respect and trust.

Trusting: We give our employees a lot of responsibility, and we trust them to do something with it. It’s not uncommon for new Cozyans to feel completely out of water when they first start. Forging your own path can feel terrifying and exciting, but it almost always leads to growth.

Diverse: We actively recruit people who can add diversity to our team. Diversity can manifest in many ways, from ethnicity, gender, and sexuality to cultural backgrounds and skill-sets. A diverse team better represents our customer base, and gives us broader perspective as a company.

 

How we work

We’re agile, but not rigidly so.

We have small, multi-disciplinary teams with leaders that rotate, depending on the work. We have stand-ups and retrospectives, and keep our work in progress to a minimum. We handle our work in bite-sized chunks, ship minimum viable products, and refine them after we’ve learned their weaknesses. It’s fast, sometimes loose, and always exciting.

We have just enough structure.

We have a process, but we’re not afraid to stray from it when we needed. For now, we’re small enough that we can experiment with new methods and refine them as we go. Minimal structure can be terrifying to some people, but it means we all have a creative stake in how Cozy gets built, which keeps work from getting stagnant.

We’re always evolving.

We’re continuously getting better, both as a company and as a product. We have a clear vision and roadmap, but we also listen closely to the needs of our customers and of our employees, and use that feedback to evolve in a way that makes sense.

 

Other stuff you should know

We’re a startup, but a humble one.

We don’t have personal chefs, ping pong tables, or offices filled with Herman Miller furniture. We do have some pretty great perks, but in general, we prefer to use our money on hiring quality talent and paying them what they’re worth, coupled with a generous amount of equity in the company we’re all building.

We’re in Portland, Oregon.

Cozy was founded in the Bay Area over four years ago, but we’re a Portland company now. There’s a reason our CEO moved the company here shortly after it was founded. Portland is a vibrant, supportive place, swimming with talent and can-do spirit. Quality of life is valued here, and the people are … well, nice.

If you share our values, love the idea of what we’re building, and have some skills or experience that you think would benefit us, we’d love to meet you. We just might have a standing desk with your name on it. (We’ll supply a chair, too.) View our current openings.

We’ve partnered with the Rental Housing Association of Sacramento Valley

Written on August 04, 2016 by Lucas Hall

We’re excited to announce our newest industry partner, the Rental Housing Association of Sacramento Valley (RHA).

This collaboration is part of a program we launched earlier this year to encourage landlords and property managers to join and participate in their local housing associations. We’re excited to partner with RHA so we can bring modern property management software to their members. We look forward to the years ahead.

Without further ado, Jim Lofgren, Executive Director of RHA, will tell you more about why RHA joined forces with Cozy.

What does the RHA of Sacramento Valley do, and who do you serve?

Jim: The Rental Housing Association is a non-profit membership organization created by rental owners to help and protect rental owners. Renting homes or apartments, either as a private investor or a professional property manager, is complicated nowadays. That’s where RHA comes in.

We support our members with a wide range of services, such as rental forms, tenant screening, property management advice, education, networking events, and advocacy with the local government. We’ve been around since 1951, and our membership includes more than 1,000 individual rental owners and property management companies, managing more than 85,000 rental units throughout the 8-county Sacramento Valley region.

How did you become the executive director of RHA?

Jim: I’ve spent my career managing non-profit associations in higher education, home building, general contracting, and now, rental housing. I was attracted to the rental housing industry because, in a way, I help provide a basic human need for thousands of families, and I like that.

What are the greatest challenges of the job? The greatest rewards?

Jim: The greatest challenge is trying to deliver high-quality services at a reasonable cost for our members. I’m a perfectionist, and it’s hard to settle for anything less. But the greatest reward is when our members tell us we’re the best at what we do.

What’s changed during the 19 years you’ve been overseeing the association?

Jim: Technology has changed how everyone manages rental housing, as well as how associations are managed. I remember when tenant screening reports were ordered by phone, rental applications and leases were faxed, vacancies were advertised in newspapers, and property inspections were recorded on paper. Now most of our members perform these tasks on the internet or an app on their smart phones.

Some landlords and property managers have embraced technology and others have decided to keep managing their properties the way they always have. It’s their choice, but the world is changing, and fortunately or unfortunately, using the latest technology is necessary if managers what to be more efficient and competitive.

What technologies do your members still need and how does the RHA help them discover/adopt those technologies?

Jim: While new technologies keep popping up all the time, our members have trouble keeping up with all the new products and services, as well as learning how to use them. RHA helps by introducing our members to new technology, then offering training to help them get started.

How did you first learn about Cozy?

Jim: One day I happened to find Landlordology.com, and I was very impressed with the info on the site, especially the links to websites providing services to help rental owners manage their properties with greater efficiency. Cozy was at the top of the list.

What first gave you the idea to partner with Cozy?

Jim: I’m always looking for ways to help our members manage their properties, and Cozy packages several important core services. Also, it’s easy to use. So when Cozy offered to partner with RHA, it was easy to say “yes.”

How will RHA members benefit most from this partnership?

Jim: I think a synergy will develop between Cozy and RHA. Lucas Hall, Head of Industry Relations at Cozy and founder of Landlordology, is creative and knowledgeable when it comes to property management. Lucas, and the rest of Team Cozy, will advertise the benefits of our association, as well as provide educational support to our members. Cozy has a huge platform that reaches millions of landlords and property managers each year. Partnering with Cozy is like adding multiple talented, tech-savvy employees to our staff, without the overhead. We’re excited to have Cozy help our members learn how to use new technologies.

What else will the association gain from working with Cozy?

Jim: Cozy will help publicize RHA. Sometimes we’re so busy helping our existing members that we can’t pursue new rental owners and managers. Cozy will help us spread the news about RHA to our target audience, and that should boost our membership.

What makes you most excited about this partnership?

Jim: RHA strives to offer the best services for our members. Our partnership with Cozy enables us to do that. I am excited to introduce our members to everything Cozy has to offer.

If you’re interested in learning more about our partnership program, send us an email at hello@cozy.co.

Are landlords the key to transforming struggling neighborhoods?

Written on July 25, 2016 by Lucy Burningham

Al Williamson and his daughter, Nayla, at a National Night Out celebration in Oak Park in 2013.

Growing up in Sacramento, Al Williamson explored the city on his bike. He’d ride as far as his legs would take him, but he never went through certain neighborhoods. Some were just too dangerous, like Oak Park, southeast of midtown.

For decades, Oak Park has been known as the city’s poor, black neighborhood. (It also happens to be where Sacramento mayor and former NBA player Kevin Johnson grew up.) The low-income area has suffered from high rates of crime, including drug trafficking and prostitution. But the past 5-10 years have brought change. Just ask the developers, new residents, coffee shop owners, and real estate agents who are helping create Oak Park’s new reputation.

Since 2000, Al has worked alongside these folks—not as an activist or government official—but as a landlord. He owns two properties in Oak Park: an 8-unit building and a single-family home next door (which he’s under contract to sell). Al lives with his wife and 2 daughters in Rancho Cordova, 12 miles away.

Even though he works full-time as a civil engineer, Al’s experiences managing these properties inspired him to become a part-time civil evangelist. He self-published a book for landlords called “Building Wealth with Inner City Rentals,” and many of the posts he writes for his blog and Landlordology tackle topics related to landlording in blighted urban areas.

“Someone needed to do it,” he says about his mission to educate landlords about urban renewal. “It’s not that people haven’t done this kind of work [in neighborhoods] before, but when I went to look, there was a huge void of information.”

A troubled place

Al bought his first investment property after talking to an older gentleman at a church picnic, who suggested buying a duplex. Al was newly married, and he wanted to start creating a nest egg. Buying an investment property seemed like a good idea.

So Al secured a FHA loan for first-time homebuyers and scraped together a down payment; he took out a loan on his Honda and borrowed money from family. Then he bought a 3-plex in midtown Sacramento. The year was 1996.

When he and his wife moved into the 3-plex that year, a locally-owned coffee shop was about to go in down the street. Al remembers an “electric” feeling in the neighborhood. Things were about to change.

By the time he sold the 3-plex in 2005, the property had quadrupled in value. Even though the sale price didn’t seem completely logical, Al realized the potential. “Let’s do that again,” he thought. “Let’s get in on the ground floor.”

In 2000, Oak Park was a volatile and troubled place, but Al had his own electric feeling. He started thinking about some common-sense ways he could help make the neighborhood more livable. The time he put into changing Oak Park would be a long-term investment in his properties.

The effects of change

Families making fruit- and veggie-based recipes at a food literacy cooking class at Broadway Sol Community Garden.

Oak Park feels different today, says Randy Stannard. He bought a house in Oak Park in 2010 and now he’s the executive director of Oak Park Sol, a local nonprofit that helps communities transform underutilized spaces into everything from community gardens to pocket parks.

Today, the neighborhood association organizes events and posts safety notices, and a monthly street-fair brings residents together for live music, food, and beer. Oak Park has a brewery, a coffee shop, an organic cafe, and an upscale taqueria.

As crime has gone down, and property values up, many low-income renters are being displaced because they can’t afford rising rental rates. Or the places where they live are being sold. Randy says the influx of professionals committed to being part of a community helps Oak Park Sol thrive, but he worries about homogeneity.

“You want the improvement, less drugs and all the good stuff,” he says. “But you also want the people who live here, and want to stay, to have that opportunity. We want income and and ethnic diversity.”

Randy and his youth work crew from Building Empowerment Skills Today(BEST). They worked together on multiple neighborhood improvement projects in Oak Park.

In an editorial for The Sacramento Bee, journalist Erika D. Smith wrote about how some residents of Oak Park are angry about gentrification, which comes with big real estate deals that have been years in the making.

Al acknowledges that people are being displaced. “There are people in pain, and the pain is true, but there’s something they can do about it,” he says. He suggests residents can continue to live in Oak Park if they find jobs and partner with each other to buy the homes where they live.

At his annual summit in Oak Park, Al talks about how to use creative real estate financing techniques to buy properties, after becoming financially disciplined.

He also directs people to NeighborWorks Sacramento, an organization that can assist people with their finances so they can learn how to purchase the rental where they live. And he spreads news of job opportunities so current residents can participate in Oak Park’s economic redevelopment.

In the meantime, Al continues to follow the principles he set out in his book, in the hopes his 8-plex will continue to increase in value. “I don’t like the word nonprofit,” he says. “I like fixing things for profit. It’s more sustainable.”

Based on his experiences, Al gives these tips to landlords in struggling neighborhoods:

Nail the timing

Act according to what’s happening in the neighborhood, from buying a property to organizing a block party. If residents are scared to go outside because of drive-by shootings, you don’t want to encourage a cafe to have outdoor seating, he says.

Make safety a top priority

Doing simple things, like making sure streetlights aren’t burned out, make a big difference. “A lot of renters might see streetlight that’s out and think ‘that’s someone else’s issue.’ But I see it, and say to myself, ‘I’m a leader and this is my neighborhood, the place where my business is located.’”

Safety can’t happen without good communication. Get organized. Make phone and email lists of people who live in the neighborhood. Encourage residents to use the video feature on their phones to record suspicious activity.

Improve how things look. Pick up litter. Keep lawns mowed. Remove graffiti as quickly as possible. “Criminals will know something’s going on,” Al says. “They’ll think, ‘It’s easier to do business down the street.’”

Engage with the community

Hire kids from down the street to do odd jobs. “It’s a tiny, easy little thing, but there’s so much attached to it. People will notice. They’ll thank you.” Make an effort to talk to people in the neighborhood. Find things to collaborate on, like organizing block parties. Building good relationships is a long-term investment.

Give donations

“Find whatever’s closest to your rental that’s doing good and contribute to it,” Al says. For example, put money on a gas card for the local boys and girls club, so they can keep driving their van. Make donations to the neighborhood association, so they can offer refreshments at their meetings, which will attract first-time attendees.

“Fund the good things,” he says. “Buy Thanksgiving dinner for a struggling family in the neighborhood.”

Be a leader

“The tiniest bit of leadership is the best investment you can make,” Al says.

While most people assume a landlord who lives outside the neighborhood has less power and sway than one who lives there, Al discovered the opposite. It’s easier to be a leader if you live outside the neighborhood, he says.

Politicians and the police unfairly assume you’re more educated and connected than inner city residents, he explains, and the people who live in the neighborhood assume you’ll be less afraid of drug dealers. “You can do what residents are too afraid to do,” he says.

Invest your time

“Don’t put a lot of time into it, just keep at it,” Al says. “Be consistent. Do what you can, and have a long-term perspective. Otherwise you’re leaving the neighborhood to chance.”