When Christopher and Andrew Bledsoe, founders of Ollie, sat down for lunch in 2006, the two brothers would never have guessed the idea that they hatched while discussing Andrew’s living situation would turn into a project which has helped change the way we look at housing today.
“When my brother moved to New York, he couldn’t afford to live anywhere, so my mom and I became his guarantors, and he moved into a one-bedroom apartment,” Chris tells Paste. After moving in, Andrew decided to put some walls up to create a space that allowed for more than one person to live there.
Andrew then posted an ad on Craigslist, and while the two were having lunch, his phone began buzzing with messages from people desperate to move in. “Either people really wanted to live with my brother because he is such a great roommate, or a lot of people needed a different way to live,” said Chris.
Turns out that ad, which generated 90 calls in two days, got the brothers thinking about the concept of co-living, rent affordability and a new way of looking at how we use our living space.
From 2006 to 2008, they spent countless hours getting educated on what they must do to make this vision a reality. “We were working out the business plan, engaging real estate consultants, architects and engineers, zoning and land use attorneys, reading thousands of pages of building code, reading real estate development textbooks, etc.,” says Chris.
“At that point, Andrew worked at Bear Stearns, and I was at Lehman Brothers, and in 2009, amidst the fallout of the credit crisis, Andrew went to work at Oppenheimer, and I went to Citadel Investment Group in Chicago,” he adds.
The two submitted their code compliant high-density floor plan to the New York City Department of Buildings, and in late 2010, they received approval. By March 2011, Chris moved back to New York to make the leap with Andrew, and the brothers haven’t looked back since.
Coming from finance backgrounds, both brothers knew there was an opportunity to bring a new type of housing solution to the marketplace. They created a vision which included a shared goal of proliferating micro-housing units throughout New York City and beyond.
“We sat through at least 400 meetings with developers from 2011-2014, and it wasn’t until shortly after our 400th meeting, that we got our first yes,” says Chris. “We were literally like a week away from throwing in the towel because we had burned through our savings, but something kept telling us not to give up.”
While many people in the real estate market are focused solely on the concept of solving a housing crisis—which includes prices that many struggle to afford—the Bledsoe brothers saw their vision and mission as much more than that.
By reconfiguring the floor plans, furnishing the space, matching up compatible roommates and also making sure they get along once they lived together, Chris and Andrew quickly realized that what they were creating was much more than just a living space—it was also a community for people to connect to and be a part of.
Photo by Ollie
So in mid-2015, the first building, a retrofit, came to market on New York City’s Upper West Side (the team put it under a different name to learn and iterate for the launch of the Ollie brand). As units came to market, the building quickly achieved 100% occupancy.
The nearly immediate sellout of the first building was proof that the concept could deliver lower monthly rents to the renter and a higher price per square foot to the developer (in this case, Simon Baron).
After the quick success of the initial project, the group launched the second building in 2016. Ollie at Carmel Place (the first to carry the Ollie name), opened in partnership with developer Monadnock Development and architect nArchitects, and the team leased-out the entire project in just a couple months.
Co-living is an emerging trend in housing that enriches the living experience through community engagement, allowing residents to cultivate meaningful relationships and experiences at home.
Everything about the apartment is centered around maximizing efficiency with style, and even though the units have less space than an average studio, they are designed more efficiently.
“We have been very intentional about the design piece of this project,” says Chris. “The company is fortunate to have Jacqueline Schmidt,—one of the country’s foremost leading experts on small space design—as Ollie’s Director of Design.”
When you account for the fact that 90% of our time at home is spent using 40% of the space, it’s no wonder that this concept has caught on. “The economic model works because we right-size the whole footprint of the apartment,” says Chris. “In fact, a lot of the residents make the move to our building in one cab ride,” he adds.
When asked about what influenced their decision to get into this market, the two brothers are quick to credit their grandfather, who served at Pearl Harbor in WWII and upon retiring from the Navy, bought a motorhome.
“With his Navy pension, he spent the rest of his life traveling around the country, visiting family and friends and in effect, he made a decision to downsize his life—to value relationships and experiences over the accumulation of stuff,” says Chris.
Which makes it easy to understand how Ollie’s mission of co-living is about the celebration of a community rooted in shared values. Decisions are motivated by what they like to call the 3 C’s: Convenience, Comfort, and Community. At Ollie, residents enjoy complimentary hotel-style amenities like high-speed WiFi, access to premium television programming, monthly housekeeping and a dedicated social club membership.
Photo by Ollie
It comes as no surprise that the target demographic for Ollie’s spaces are young professionals in their 20’s and 30’s. After all, millennials are known to prize experiences over things, meaning that they are willing to sacrifice space for location.
“When we first started, we thought we were designing a product mostly for millennials,” says Chris. “What we didn’t expect was how broad a renter base we would end up with,” he adds.
While two-thirds of their renters are millennials, the big surprise to the team at Ollie came when they learned that one out of every four inquiries they receive via email are from baby boomers looking to escape the suburbs and the various responsibilities of maintaining a large home.
In the last nine months, Ollie has secured seven additional projects in markets like Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Boston, Jersey City, as well as outer borough locations in Long Island City and Brooklyn. In total, these projects represent just under 2,000 beds.
Ollie is also evaluating and negotiating 58 projects totaling 16,000+ beds across 13 U.S. markets. “Most of these were inbound opportunities brought to us by developers, institutional real estate investors or lenders,” says Chris.
“What we are doing is meaningful, and we have a mission and conviction to see that this product exists,” explains Chris. “The size of the problem we are solving feels like we are doing something purposeful and that is what matters.”