SoloPro Team in Durham 2015

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SoloPro may be Tommy Sowers' first startup, but he's got years of experience leading teams, training people, communicating a mission and raising millions of dollars for a cause.

The man attempting to unbundle the home buying process—who announced the latest investors in a $1.6 million venture capital round today—did all those things as a former Green Beret and U.S. Army Special Forces Officer, a London School of Economics Ph.D. who taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and his alma mater Duke University, a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Missouri and Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He has his own Wikipedia page (though SoloPro isn't on it yet).

Tommy Sowers SoloPro in Durham
Tommy Sowers is co-founder and CEO of SoloPro, a Durham startup based in American Underground. He started the company with his cousin, Shayne Sowers, of St. Louis, MO.
Now, he'll bring them to a startup inspired by his Realtor cousin and co-founder Shayne Sowers and funded by a bunch of investors from around the nation. The newest investors are largely local, including the affiliated Duke Angel Network and Duke Innovation Fund (one of both entities' initial investments) and (ExitEvent parent) Capitol Broadcasting Co.'s New Media Group. Sowers calls it a "classic oversubscribed round."

The new investors are strategic additions to the funding group, Sowers says. Capitol Broadcasting has expertise in media and real estate and Duke brings both credibility and many connections through its angel network. They join previously announced investors Lowe's Companies, the investment arm of the home improvement store chain, Oxpoint Investments of Arlington, Va., Buchanan Ventures of Houston, Blue {Seed} Capital of New York City, Arnold Capital of San Francisco and several angel investors. TechCrunch covered the Lowe's deal in August, which helped activity on the site accelerate.

According to the CBC New Media Group's vice president and general manager, Jimmy Goodmon, SoloPro fits with the company's mission to create "innovative digital products that meet the needs of the general public and the business community." Real estate technology has been popular with investors for several years now—CB Insights just published a breakdown of the segments of the industry where startups are innovating most and wracking up a projected $1.5 billion in venture capital this year.

SoloPro is focused on agent matching, sales and marketing and to some extent tech-enabled brokerages, though it's not a brokerage itself. It promises buyers who use its platform a 3 percent rebate after they purchase a home using SoloPro. In return, they can purchase services from real estate professionals a la cart. 

For example, if a buyer finds the home, he or she can hire a Realtor to negotiate the sale or handle the closing. On the site, there's a toggle that lets you choose a little help all the way up to "all you can eat", with different flat rates chosen by the Realtors. It also shows how much money you'll save (on average) with each selection.

A pilot happened this summer in the Triangle, which helped SoloPro get vetted by the North Carolina Real Estate Commission and sign more than 300 Realtors on the platform. Though most are in this region, many are located in 32 of the 40 states where rebates are allowed, priming SoloPro for expansion. Sowers says he'll enter new markets next year.

SoloPro screenshot October 2015

Realtors haven't been threatened by the site so far. In fact, they're signing up faster than the buyers because SoloPro saves them time and energy. Once vetted and listed on SoloPro, they're contacted for specific services and paid for performing them. Traditionally, any payment comes after closing. And home buyers can be fickle or slow during the process.

"I think what we're attacking is the inefficiency on the buyer side, with people that don't need the full bundled, "all you can eat" service, and on the agent side, folks can be paid for what they do, not in the hopes of a future transaction," Sowers says.

Agents can sign up for free today, but SoloPro will eventually charge a fee to be listed on site. Realtors can stay on as long as their reviews from buyers are positive. Sowers also will forge partnerships with other companies who want to engage homebuyers at points in the process.

He's already found initial mortgage and insurance partners.

International growth is coming too. According to Sowers, the model works in most other nations. He's not focused on the seller side of the market at this time.

The earlier funding has helped SoloPro scale its marketing and sales efforts, to bring more homebuyers and agents to the platform. To take on that effort in the Triangle, Sowers hired Realtor Tiffany Alexy as community manager, bringing the employee count to seven. The latest additions to the round will help the team hire another six people in the next six months.

But part of the secret to the fast scale-up of the startup are the 18 students who complete ad hoc projects for SoloPro. Sowers says they make up for any weaknesses he has in building the business and are a way to take advantage of all kinds of talent.

But guiding all of his work are the leadership principles he learned throughout his career in military, business, academia and politics.

"The Green Berets are the entrepreneurs of the military—small teams working on big tough problems where success depends on everybody doing their best," he says. "It's the same at the highest levels of government. I was starting new things. 

At Duke, he created new courses, and when running for office, he had to build a campaign from zero supporters to tens of thousands. 

"It's about taking something from 0 to 1, having a clear vision, hiring great people and working your butt off," he says. And finally "partner with fantastic investors," like those who made early bets and who joined the team today.

Pictured above: SoloPro was founded in 2015 by Shayne Sowers, far left, and Tommy Sowers, third from left. They're pictured here with many members of the SoloPro team. Credit: SoloPro