This startup wants to solve Singapore rental woes through flexible leases and flatmate matchmaking

Yon Heong Tung
This startup wants to solve Singapore rental woes through flexible leases and flatmate matchmaking

Hmlet is building a community of expats who can collectively help each other find the most attractive flats at affordable rates

The process of renting is rarely a walk in the park — especially if it’s about settling into a new city or country.

I’ve lived abroad for a couple of years and have a few expat friends here in Singapore. Our gripes about renting are similar: unpleasant, dirty housemates (even if they seemed cordial at first), and inflexible leasing contracts.

And in some cases, landlords can arbitrarily raise prices and tenants would have no recourse for it. On top of that shit cake is a thick layer of draconian house rules, such as no cooking, or no TV after 10 pm. The list goes on.

Imagine all of that taking place while you are far from home, trying to acclimatise to a foreign land. The undue stress may even cause you to lose that dream job you flew halfway across the world for.

One Singapore-based startup wants to help room seekers tackle these thorny issues. Called Hmlet, which is based off the term Hamlet (not the Shakespearean classic) meaning “a small settlement or village”, the startup is growing co-living spaces in prime real estates and leasing them out at affordable rates.

First, the landlords sublet whole apartments to Hmlet, Hmlet then leases them out to various tenants. To ensure tenants gel well together, Hmlet curates potential tenants via a thorough vetting process — which takes place online as well as in-person.

Hmlet was founded by two expats, Yoan Kamalski and Zenos Schmickrath, and one Singaporean, En-Ming Ong, a little more than three years ago. (Ong has since left the company to build his own eyewear company.)

Kamalski was previously a senior project engineer at the Singapore Sports Hub, while Schmickrath was CTO as employee management platform Rewardz.

Like many startup stories, the co-founders formed Hmlet to solve their own pain points. Kamalski and Schmickrath had both quit their jobs in Singapore but wanted to remain in the country to pursue more business opportunities (one concept they had was a porn site that could help nurture healthy sexual desires, but that idea deflated quickly when they realised porn is banned in Singapore).

“We wanted to live in a prime type of real estate and enjoy a big space at a cheap price,” says Kamalski, in an interview with e27. The issue here is that renting a whole apartment at a prime location is costly — especially if there are only two occupants. So the duo started looking for other potential tenants.

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With the landlord’s permission, Kamalski worked on sprucing the apartment up with some redesigns while Schmickrath hit the online classifieds to advertise the apartment.

“The goal was like, ‘Hey guys, we signed a long-term lease with the landlord, we need to sign a minimum lease of six months in Singapore (the minimum lease is now three months). But if you guys need to leave the country for whatever reasons, you guys can leave in three days.’,” says Kamalski.

Soon, there were many people interviewing to get into their apartment, he adds. And from that point on, the duo started organising wine gatherings and movie screenings with their housemates.

Whether it was intentional or because they were just naturally outgoing and liked networking, Kamalski and Schmickrath were creating a communal experience within their house — not unlike the student hostels on college campuses (except no off-the-wall antics). And it was a profitable one at that.

“I did the numbers and we were making money on that house. So, I’m like why don’t we scale up that awesome experience?” says Kamalski. So the duo roped in En-Ming Ong and pooled their savings to see if they could build a business out of, well, building “awesome” rental experiences in Singapore.

Building the business model 

“So we were grabbing apartments and redesigning it. We had to work with the landlords to redo the restructuring and [put up] the paintings that we wanted. We were buying second-hand goods and stuff that designers that wanted to get rid of,” says Kamalski.

The apartments quickly attracted a lot of interest. The co-founders then started hosting parties and events. A year after, however, Ong left the business as he felt it was not scalable.

“Schmickrath and I were like, ‘OK, maybe it’s not really scalable; We only had like 10 houses,” says Kamalski. But then, a family from Japan had heard about Hmlet, and invited the duo to go over to see if they could help repurpose their old house.

“We flew over there, met this family and they had like this old massive house: Landed property with 16 rooms, a big grand piano and a garden. So we crunched the numbers and the family said they will put up the cash.”

The duo also started studying the business models of US-based co-working giant WeWork and NYC-rental apartments startup WeLive (not dissimilar to what Hmlet is trying to accomplish).

“Then, we finally came up with the idea on how to scale up. We would use tech to empower the people (tenants),” he says. ” We would use tech to provide customer service as well as use customers as part of our workforce.”

For now, the Hmlet team — currently eight people — uses Google forms to build questionnaires, which are used to curate and screen potential tenants. Essentially, this is a rudimentary matching system.

Hmlet also has a website and the team is currently building an app version.

“We make sure that the people applying want to stay in the country. So they are either have jobs here, or have EPs (employment passes), or they are already legally allowed to stay in the country,” says Kamalski.

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Applicants have to submit all essential documents, such as their EP, for validation. “We don’t want to be a pain in the ass but it needs to be a trust relationship,” he says.

Existing tenants with Hmlet who refer someone new to rent a room in their place get a S$150 (US$110) referral fee.

With remote working and the digital nomadic life becoming more commonplace among millennial workers, Kamalski thinks this presents ample opportunities for Hmlet.

“A lot of people realise that the home is much more powerful than an actual co-working space. Millennials represent a large portion of the workforce, and they jump from startups to startups — so they move across different cities frequently; they need flexible memberships (or flexible leases), and currently, there is no such option in the real estate [rental] market,” says Kamalski.

Flexible leases are not new at all. In fact, ideally, all rental contracts should have diplomatic clauses in them. These clauses typically specify that tenants can break leases in case of an emergency, such as a family tragedy back home, for example.

“The URA (Urban Redevelopment Board) actually allows landlords to do that [insert clauses], but I think a lot of landlords don’t let people [tenants] know about these. Actually, in Hong Kong and Tokyo, we are allowed to sign leases for just a month,” he says.

Think of Hmlet as a middleman or manager between the landlord and tenant. The landlord owns the flat and gives free rein to Hmlet to manage it, as long as it does not flout any laws.

Kamalski says the company is operating well within legal boundaries and, at the same time, creating something bigger than just flexible spaces.

“We want to make co-living big in Asia. We are making it affordable to live in big spaces with other people. And at the same time, we are also building a co-working space community. More people are mixing work and life and right now, we are even looking at our first marriage that will take place within the community,” he says.

Minimising tenant conflicts

Kamalski says that, despite the flexible clauses, most tenants stay an average of 10 to 12 months. “If you help people, they stay with you,” he says. He adds that there has never been a tenant who has tried to “game” the system.

“Hmlet has rejected applicants before, so that’s basically how we never had a case,” says Kamalski.

But no curation system is foolproof, and even the best of friends get into fights, especially when they have been living together for a while — dishes go unwashed, garbage doesn’t get taken out, etc.

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Hmlet addresses this by sending cleaning staff to the apartments once a week. It also offers laundry, ironing services and even on-demand chefs. Kamalski says the tenants spend around S$100 (US$74) per month on these services. In the future, it may also leverage on grocery delivery services.

Beyond added services that address potential contention points, Hmlet also structures its tenant agreements so they understand the consequences of not being good community members.

And if and when a conflict does actually arise, Hmlet has a conflict resolution flowchart. It also gets both parties in the conflict to talk to each other. When that doesn’t work out, Hmlet will give the tenant the option to move to another apartment, or it will simply give them 30 days to move out.

Current stage and future plans

Hmlet’s rooms start at around S$800 (US$590) per month — reasonable prices considering its properties are situated in central Singapore locations, including Boat Quay, Shenton Way, UE Square and Raffles Place. It has also leased a 7,000 sqft property at Joo Chiat Road, with 30 people living in it.

“Our solution is 30 per cent cheaper than if the person takes an accommodation in the same area, have to sign a two-year contract and furnish the place alone. Plus the financial risk they have to take if they have to break their lease,” says Kamalski.

Currently, Hmlet has over 175 tenants and is expected to grow to 200 by the year-end. It is focusing on private estates at the moment.

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Kamalski says landlords were initially skeptical about Hmlet’s proposals. But after more than two years, Hmlet has built up a tidy and steady track record and has now been receiving requests from landlords.

“We help landlords and developers rent out their prime real estate at a good yield thanks to economies of scale. In addition, we renovate the place and clean the place weekly,” says Kamalski.

Hmlet is looking up to ramp up social activities within the community. It hired an intern to organise events and other initiatives to bring the community together. Hmlet has organised social events at places such as the Tanjong Beach Club (TBC) and Bitters and Love.

To scale up its business, Hmlet is in talks with investors to raise around US$1.5 million.

The grand vision

Kamalski believes co-living will become more commonplace as society advances — especially as more millennial workers enter the workforce; the idea of situating yourself in one location, in one job, for the rest of your life, will become antiquated.

“Eventually we will go to Mars and we are not going to be living in apartments and houses by ourselves; we are going to be living in co-living spaces. We need to be able to live together. And that’s the interesting part — we need to do the work here and now with co-living spaces. Then we can make our lives easier,” says Kamalski.

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Image Credit: Hmlet

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