Penn State alumnus Sean Black revolutionizes housing market with Knock.com
Penn State ‘96 alum Sean Black entered the real estate world as a high school student – first working for his brother who was a contractor and then becoming fully immersed when he moved to New York after earning his master’s degree. Soon after moving to New York City in 2001, he happened to cross paths with New York City real estate mogul and future Shark Tank star Barbara Corcoran, who offered to take him under her wing as Vice President at The Corcoran Group.
“I thought it was really appealing to have her show me the ropes, and so she became a mentor,” Black said. “In the early 2000s, I noticed how every other consumer transaction had gone online. The old classifieds section of the newspaper for jobs, car purchases, and travel bookings all had gone online. There were three big job sites, three big travel sites, and three big car sites – but there were no strong real estate sites, and so my theory was that the real estate industry was next.”
With this theory in mind and Corcoran’s support and endorsement, Black became one of the founding team members of the online real estate marketplace site Trulia in 2005. Founded at a time when the housing market was at its best, Trulia really took off during the mortgage crisis of 2008. Suddenly, consumers needed insights into the rapidly changing housing market and the industry needed a new way to show consumers houses for sale that was cheaper and more real-time than a newspaper ad.
Black and his business partners originally thought they’d have more of an impact on the sell side of the transaction with Trulia, which ended up largely supporting customers on the buying side. Fast forward a few years to 2015, when Trulia was acquired by Zillow for $2.5 billion. This is when Black and his co-founder Jamie Glenn, who was also on the founding team at Trulia, decided to create his current company, Knock.com.
Knock is a real estate tech platform that aims to improve the homebuying process. Its flagship Home SwapTM product allows homeowners to get the certainty of buying the new home they want first and the convenience of selling the old one afterward.
“With Knock, we started the transaction revolution,” Black said. “Knock is about helping with the friction-full side of selling your house, bringing it all into one simple experience. Knock is just a continuation of what we were doing at Trulia, but it’s much harder to build – I think it’s the final frontier of the internet, getting the real estate finance and healthcare industries online, which are areas that are much more regulated.”
Black studied international business management at Penn State. He enjoyed his experience at Penn State because he was able to find flexibility. He traveled internationally during college to start one of his earlier businesses, Europro, which sold nutrition supplements across Europe. This led to him finishing a lot of his coursework remotely, back before everyone was doing it – physically mailing his assignments in.
“I found the flexibility I needed at Penn State, and I found that I had to be self-disciplined to succeed,” Black said.
Black has seen a lot of success, but as an entrepreneur, success frequently comes hand-in-hand with some failures. From starting an online consumer automotive insurance marketplace that entirely fell flat early on in his entrepreneurial career to more recently attempting to go public with Knock on the New York Stock Exchange only to see the SPAC IPO market completely implode in the middle of their roadshow, Black maintained his resilience, learned from the experience and pushed forward. Knock ultimately raised $220 million in private debt and equity rather than through the public markets. Since its founding in 2015, Knock has raised $900 million in debt and equity from top-tier investors, including Foundry Group, Greycroft, First American Financial and The National Association of Realtors®.
“Failure is just a fact, if you’re not failing every day as an entrepreneur, you’re not pushing boundaries,” Black said. “There is that Mark Zuckerberg fail fast mentality that is really true, and it doesn’t mean go fail your whole company, it means go make lots of small failures trying to break things. The vast majority of startups don’t make it, so the few that do, you’re constantly having to deal with the potential consequences of every decision you make being fatal.”
Read more about Knock’s past year of business
Black plans to return to Penn State in the fall to support and mentor student and community entrepreneurs involved with Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank programming. For now, he said the best advice he has for students interested in entrepreneurship is to go work at another startup.
“Do it over the summer, you’ll learn so much,” Black said. “Then you can take those lessons learned into your own startup. You have time to put your toes into other companies and learn – that’s a real legitimizer.”
About Invent Penn State
Invent Penn State is a Commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation and student career success. Invent Penn State blends entrepreneurship-focused academic programs, business startup training and incubation, funding for commercialization, and university / community / industry collaborations to facilitate the challenging process of turning research discoveries into valuable products and services that can benefit Pennsylvanians and humankind.