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Woman-Led Kin Focuses On Community From Its Office To Its Real Estate Product

With about a year under its belt, a team that has grown from one to four, and a second project launching soon, Kin is starting to get its footing. The company, which partners with developers to provide programming to alleviate the isolating nature of urban living for young families, is all about community, and CEO Britt Zaffir said that permeates through how her team conducts business every day.

The Kin team on an ice-skating trip: Natalie Levine, Francesca Cooke, CEO Britt Zaffir, Virginia Toman (who has since left the company) and Daniel Thorne

“I think it’s really important because what we’re doing is building a community of families, and to the extent that our operations can closely resemble a community of people, I think that we’ll be more likely to have a successful business,” Zaffir told Bisnow.

National co-living operator Common and global development giant Tishman Speyer partnered to launch Kin late last year and selected Zaffir, who was then Common’s real estate director, to lead it. The 32-year-old had been with Common since 2016, when it had fewer than 20 employees, but in a sense, she was starting even smaller this time.

“[Kin] really started as a one-woman show,” Zaffir said. “But I was using real estate resources, community operations resources, design and construction resources from Common and Tishman Speyer.”

Kin’s first project was to offer its app and programming to residents of Tishman Speyer’s Jackson Park apartment complex in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City, where only 100 of the 1,841 units are suited for families with children. Six months after launch, the occupants of 75 of those units use the Kin app.

“[Jackson Park] has been really successful for us,” Zaffir said. “We’ve been lucky to have it as a great proof of concept, and to have the chance to understand what families living in cities want and need, how they interact with each other and the Kin brand. And that helps us figure out what our full-fledged model will look like.”

None of Kin’s workers have children of their own, though the company’s idea came from Common CEO Brad Hargreaves’ experiences as a parent living in New York City. (All eight board members have kids, and use their parental experiences to inform their counsel, Zaffir said.)

Once Kin really gets moving, the Jackson Park arrangement will be an outlier, Zaffir said. From here on out, Kin will look to enter into partnerships with developers as a sort of specialized property manager, with the first such project coming to the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Washington, D.C., in January.

A rendering of a Kin-designed common space in Tishman Speyer's Jackson Park multifamily development

The full details have yet to be announced, but Kin has joined with a prolific local developer on a new-construction building that was already well underway when the deal was struck.

Though Kin will look to be involved in future projects as early as the design and planning phase, this development was incidentally all but perfect for its purposes — 93% of the building’s units fit Kin’s specifications, and the building’s ground-floor tenant is a day care center, Zaffir said.

By this time next year, Kin hopes to have 1,500 beds in its pipeline with various partners, not including those at Jackson Park. Though Tishman Speyer remains an involved partner on the organizational side, Zaffir said she expects Tishman to be a development partner for 5% of its targeted pipeline, or about 75 beds.

Zaffir has been operating with complete autonomy over decisions like personnel, though the eight-person board of directors has taken a more active role in providing guidance than most corporate boards, she said. After a few months, she began slowly building her staff, which numbers three official employees for now.

She hired Natalie Levine away from Common, where she had recruited Levine to begin with, then brought in Francesca Cooke from Rosewood Investments LP in October. Both are focusing on Kin’s real estate side, and Daniel Thorne officially started as a software engineer on Dec. 3. Virginia Toman had been working on the community operations and engagement side part time before returning to Tishman; Kin expects to officially hire her replacement next week.

Nobody at Kin aside from Zaffir carries an official title that would connote any sort of hierarchy, a design meant to eliminate anything that would prevent employees from working with each other.

“We sit together all day, every day and we have a collaborative relationship,” Zaffir said. “We’re all under 35, so we’re very tech-savvy and communicative on Slack even when we’re not in the office.”

Though Zaffir acknowledges that more formal structures will be needed once the company grows past a certain size, she hopes to make it to at least 15 employees before that becomes necessary. Until then, the almost commune-type structure draws people who prioritize and identify with the value of community, Zaffir said, which is what suits them to Kin’s mission statement.

Kin CEO Britt Zaffir

Zaffir credited the idea for eschewing titles to The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz’s book examining startup culture, as well as a Medium post by Silicon Valley executive Gokul Rajaram. Though they aren't mothers, Zaffir said her team is focusing on “being what you sell,” something she took from her time at Harvard Business School. 

She said the value of community to young parents is in the network of people who can share knowledge, experience, time and resources — something that seemingly came so naturally to earlier and/or more suburban generations of parents.

Providing the means to do that, through apartment and building design as well as the Kin app and programming, fills an important gap for urban parents that may not be immediately obvious to those who point to growing trends of balance in child-rearing duties, she said.

“It’s definitely not all about moms, and we don’t want to diminish the increased roles that millennial fathers are trying to take in child-rearing, but it still mostly falls on moms,” Zaffir said. “That goes from the membership to women in real estate taking an interest in this as well.”

Thorn’s duties are different enough that Kin’s business lines could be considered run by a virtually all-female team. Zaffir said she likes to think of herself as considering men and women on equal footing when hiring staff, though the gender breakdown at Kin isn’t necessarily surprising to her at this early stage.

A partial rendering of Tishman Speyer's Jackson Park multifamily development in Long Island City, Queens

“I would say that women in general are more intuitive, so if you have a woman-led company or work with other women, there are more frank conversations that can be had,” said Jessica Miller, who co-founded and runs development firm M2G Ventures with her twin sister Susan Gruppi.

M2G, based in Fort Worth, Texas, has an all-female staff, and though it does have a more standard organizational chart, Miller thinks the environment is naturally more collaborative, with the ability for office conversations to be more frank and less affected by power dynamics.

“If you have women in your leadership team, it will give you a different environment, with more perception of the gray areas rather than the black and white,” Miller said. “And by black and white, I mean just in terms of pure salary numbers and performance-based.

“With a female-led business, women are less quieted,” she said. “In so many companies, women don’t want to bring up the issues that they may have because they see it as not worth the drama.”

So far, Zaffir said, that idea has worked in practice at Kin, at least in part because of the empathy the young team feels with mothers of the same age carrying the financial and psychic weight of a child.

“I think there’s something inherently appealing about Kin specifically for young women who plan on staying in the workforce and having full-fledged careers, rather than dropping out early and becoming full-time moms,” Zaffir said. “So those young mothers are looking at how to make this all work, and we want Kin to be an inspiring model for that.”

CORRECTION, DEC. 6, 12 P.M. ET: A previous version of this article misspelled Kin software engineer Daniel Thorne's name and misstated Tishman Speyer's anticipated involvement in Kin's development pipeline. This article has been updated.