Andy Huh‘s first foray into entrepreneurship was pretty shady.
“I created a program to spam AOL members,” he said, deadpan.
But, he protested, “I didn’t know whether that was good or bad back in the day. I was enamored by the fact that I could make money in my sleep.”
Fair enough: he was only 12, and what tween would pass up the chance to make thousands of dollars over the summer without breaking a sweat?
Fortunately, Huh, 33, has turned his attention to more constructive challenges since then — in a literal sense. He’s the cofounder and CEO of Fentrend, which is developing an online marketplace for architects and contractors to compare the prices of eco-friendly doors and windows. Fentrend was recently named one of the two winners of the Urban Future Competition held by NYU’s “smart cities” program Urban Future Lab.
For winning the competition, Fentrend received $25,000 in cash and admission into the Urban Future Lab’s ACRE incubator. Huh and his cofounders have already begun settling into ACRE, though for now, they’ll rotate between the incubator and the company’s space at the Coworkrs Gowanus coworking space, where Technical.ly met with Huh earlier this week.
The path to Huh’s first startup
Before launching Fentrend, Huh worked for Synapse Development Group, a boutique real estate development company in Manhattan. But throughout his career, he’s been less interested in particular industries but more so in finding interesting challenges to hack. Huh grew up in Astoria and taught himself Visual Basic from programming manuals. His first big project was the aforementioned AOL spam program, which earned him enough money to treat his parents to dinner. They were unaware of his side gig, he said, even after he got a statement from the IRS.
“When I got that tax form at the end of the year, I freaked out,” he said.
In fact, it spooked Huh enough that he turned away from programming for a while, turning his focus to gaming. At one point, he aspired to be a professional gamer. But, he said, “I wasn’t good enough to get shipped out to Korea — fortunately.”
Instead, he ended up on a winding path toward his eventual career. While attending school — first at Hunter College, then at Baruch College, from which he earned a degree in entrepreneurship in 2007 — he worked at a cruise company, then at the local restaurant chain Pax Wholesome Foods. He joined Pax as a temp in accounts receivable, then floated around different departments, from payroll to operations. At each stop, he suggested improvements to company systems, including changing its payroll system and gradually worked his way up to becoming the director of Pax’s ecommerce division.
Huh left Pax in 2010 to work as an independent management consultant. One of his clients worked for Synapse, which he ended up joining in 2014. Throughout it all, Huh said, much of his management experience, like his first foray into programming, has been self-taught.
Initially, that autodidactic inclination led him to downplay the importance of school. He went to college part-time, originally majoring in media studies — on a lark, he said: “I don’t even know what that is” — before realizing he had an interest in entrepreneurship. But ultimately, he said, he made the most of his time there.
“I literally met three people in college,” he said. “The first person, I married. The second became my client at the real estate company I eventually worked for. The third became my friend, and her brother-in-law is now my cofounder at Fentrend.”
How’s that for networking?
Modernizing an ‘archaic’ process
The idea for Fentrend came to Huh while he was working at Synapse. At the time, he was helping to develop Perch Harlem, a 34-unit building in Hamilton Heights built to an energy-efficient standard called Passive House.
According to Huh, Perch Harlem, which was completed earlier this year, is the first multi-family development in New York City built to that standard. He found it challenging to find certain materials that both met Passive House standards and were affordable: namely, doors and windows, which are critical to insulation and temperature regulation. Just comparing product specifications was time-consuming enough; on top of that, pricing quotes would take weeks to come in.
“I found the entire process archaic,” he said.
That experience inspired Huh to create a platform on which architects, real estate developers and general contractors could easily look up product specifications and compare prices. He met his cofounder, architect Michael Ingui, through a college friend; Ingui introduced Huh to the company’s other cofounders, Sam Mcafee and Kurt Roeloffs.
On the face of it, the concept of Fentrend sounds pretty simple: yet another online marketplace. But the challenge, Huh said, is that doors and windows suppliers are notoriously opaque about their prices. From his experience at Synapse, Huh learned that energy-efficient doors and windows aren’t necessarily more expensive than their conventional counterparts. But because of the lack of transparency, he said, many architects, developers, and contractors don’t realize that. Relatively few of them, as a result, are willing to take on projects such as Perch Harlem. Synapse’s willingness to do so is what drew him to that company initially, he said.
“Developers generally don’t do anything new,” he said. “I found that exciting to be at a company that was willing to take a risk.”
With Fentrend, Huh said he hopes to make similar real estate projects easier to accomplish for other firms.
‘From travel agent to Kayak.com’
For now, Fentrend uses an old-school approach to connect its buyers and sellers: working the phones. Still, Huh said, it’s managed to sign up more than 200 architects, contractors and developers and some 70 window and door suppliers, including the top five suppliers in the industry, since launching in April 2015. Fentrend has been used for projects in 20 states and one in Canada, though the bulk of its work is in New York City.
In addition to the opacity of the doors and windows market, Huh said, the company faces the challenge of matching those supplies with different categories of real estate projects. A single-family home, for instance, requires different materials than a larger-scale project on the order of Perch Harlem, he said. So one of Huh’s goals has been to familiarize the company with those different needs.
Doing so may address one of the company’s other challenges: getting suppliers to reveal their prices more readily. Many business-to-business companies, after all, keep that information under wraps by design, and Huh said he’s heard from architects and developers that suppliers in his industry do the same. (Similarly, Huh declined to disclose the commission Fentrend takes from doors and window suppliers.) But because of the variety of energy-efficient real estate projects, he countered, he believes price transparency ultimately will help smaller suppliers find more niches. Plus, Fentrend can direct suppliers to projects for which they’re an ideal match, so they waste less time submitting bids on projects they’re not likely to win.
“There are so many variants that there’s a market for every window out there,” he said.
The company is beginning work on its online marketplace, which it is currently fundraising to develop. It’s raised some 70 percent of its $750,000 target, Huh said. He compared his goal for Fentrend to the transformation of the travel industry.
“Our goal is to go from being a travel agent to being Kayak,” he said.