By Paul Thompson
Assistant Managing Editor, Austin Business Journal
Peter Rex has grand visions of reshaping the Austin technology landscape in his image.
In 2020, Rex moved his family and his company — the eponymous Rex LLC, a real estate company looking to make its name in tech and housing — to Austin from the West Coast. Just over one year later, Rex reflected on the decision to move to the Texas capital, why he wants to topple Big Tech and how he thinks his company can become a force for positive change in his new hometown.
He's one of the many ambitious dreamers attracted by Austin's rising stature in the tech world, intent to further transform a city that has already undergone massive change in the past decade. The newcomers bring fresh ideas — and dollars — to the business ecosystem, but they also add to fears that the city is transforming into something that no longer resembles the Austin of old.
Rex, the business, has generated more than $1 billion for investors and has purchased and managed more than 20,000 housing units, according to the company's website. A big part of the company's business model has revolved around buying and renovating apartment complexes, as well as improving the management infrastructure of those properties.
But in 2018, Peter Rex began the process of selling about half of the company's portfolio, raising about $1 billion that helped fuel the technology endeavors he hopes will define the next stage of his career. Rex has incubated a handful of technology startups, though it still manages thousands of housing units worth around $1 billion, according to a company representative. The goal: To diversify and build a network of technology businesses.
Rex announced in a June 2020 Wall Street Journal op-ed the relocation of his company to Austin from Seattle. It had also been located for a time in San Francisco.
Rex himself is something of an enigma in the tech world — an outsider who wants to take over the landscape without joining the sector's ruling class. Call him a disruptor of the disruptors. He sees companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook as hierarchies to topple, rather than members of an exclusive club he'd like to join.
"I don't want to be with Facebook and these guys," Rex said. "I want to be an outsider to Big Tech. You can't disrupt from the inside anyways."
Rex has already attracted the attention of powerful local supporters.
Gary Farmer is president of Heritage Title Company of Austin and longtime chairman of Opportunity Austin, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce's economic development arm. He has helped Rex and his company make inroads in the Austin business scene, and describes the company as "absolutely delightful" to work with.
“They’re really in pursuit of excellence," Farmer said. “I find [Peter Rex] to be a very calm, resolute, capable professional. I think [he] can likely accomplish what he sets out to do.”
Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, interacted with Rex at a recent TAB function. Hamer described Rex "as one of the most fascinating businesspeople I've ever met," lauding Rex for his long-term vision of Austin as the "center of the world when it comes to the free market system."
"I’m sure he’s going to continue to be very successful," Hamer said. "We want people who want to shoot for the stars to come out here. We want that entrepreneurial energy in the state of Texas. Companies here have a better shot than any other place in the country.”
Rex suggested the business will be very active in pursuing real estate acquisitions in the Austin metro.
“I don’t have specifics on that, or like how much we’d acquire," he said. "But I’d say we’re going to be doing billions for sure of acquisitions in the area of real estate."
Roughly a year after his relocation, Rex emphasized it “was the right move” to uproot his company and settle in Austin. He was so confident in the decision that he encouraged his employees to buy a house in Austin right away — right before housing prices spiked dramatically in late 2020 and into the early months of 2021.
“If I got it wrong, I would have basically ruined my relationship with all of the spouses of my business partners and employees because they’ve had to relocate their families," he said, not entirely joking.
He noted that “Texas charmed the heck out of me” as he was considering a potential move. With Austin in particular, Rex was drawn to the city’s musical bona fides and emerging comedy scene.
“I don’t try to claim I’m Mr. Texas, or something like that. I’m not. I’m new here,” Rex said. “I want to support what Texas is and support what Austin is, and I like the idea of keeping it weird, too. I like being weird. I mean, I have a suit jacket on with a Buc-ee's shirt.”
Eating up Austin real estate
It’s clear that Rex doesn’t lack courage in his convictions. He wants to have a hand in making Austin the focal point of the tech world by 2041.
“I want to create new tech leadership,” Rex said. “And I don’t just mean like new tech leadership in Texas, I mean new tech leadership in the world, right here out of Central Texas.”
The company is buying real estate around Austin, putting together a portfolio that includes The Inn at Pearl Street at 1809 Pearl St. in the Judge’s Hill neighborhood. Rex is currently renovating the space to use as its local office, with construction set to conclude in early 2022. The company also recently purchased a property 1002 West Ave., a nearly 7,000-square-home in western downtown valued by Travis Central Appraisal District in excess of $3 million. The property is presently being used as office space, and Rex is still weighing its long-term plans for the site.
Rex already has about 175 employees in Austin, though Peter Rex estimates the company will have “10x that over the next, say, 12 to 24 months.” Rex employs more than 300 people worldwide, with a real estate office in Florida and a technology team in India.
Rex envisions his company making investments in the real estate technology space, and doing so swiftly. The company is courting tech talent to facilitate that vision; recent hires have included veterans of Microsoft, Tesla, Uber and Calendly.
“We are already pushing out four new companies in that area,” Rex said. “But on the heels of that, we’re going to come out with another six-plus companies, as well.”
One example is a property tech company called GetDone Inc., which is “disrupting the way that maintenance services is done” by applying technology such as machine learning and artificial intelligence to the sector. Machine vision is being used to extract information from sites and get predictive help to match services to jobs in the area of maintenance services.
“Everyone who’s been in a rental or has lived in a home has had that pain of trying to get a maintenance job done — even a perfunctory, easy one,” Rex said. “Our goal with GetDone is to start with maintenance services, but end by recreating all services by disrupting the whole services industry.”
Think of GetDone as “the Amazon for all services,” Rex said. Rex imagines the tech eventually being able to match babysitters to families based on a selection of needs. That could help Rex’s family, for instance, find babysitters who are fluent in either Spanish or Mandarin — languages Rex wants his young children to learn.
“My wife’s from Puerto Rico, so we speak Spanish in the house,” Rex said. “So they’re all fluent in Spanish, before even English actually. English is their second language.”
Rex, as of early November, had at least 28 job openings posted in the Austin area, including a handful for GetDone. Available roles included a business development lead, a customer success manager, a digital marketing lead, a senior product manager, a senior UX designer and a software architect.
Rex also anticipates launching companies in the financial services technology and insurance technology spaces. He noted that to date, he has never bought another company, adding that he is “a compulsive builder.”
“I don’t know if we’ll buy up other companies,” Rex said, although he is open to the idea of "tack-on acquisitions."
An assault on Big Tech
The big goal for Rex in Austin is to shake up the centralized power structure in tech and supplant Silicon Valley as the beating heart of North America’s tech sector.
What Rex has in common with Big Tech companies is a keen interest in Austin — and prospective employees. Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon all have significant and growing hubs in the Texas capital, with Amazon swiftly climbing the ranks of the largest local private sector employers.
To Rex, the culture of the Texas capital, combined with the value proposition of real estate, was a recipe too enticing to ignore. Property in Austin will maintain its value in the coming years and serve as a “a great hedge against inflation,” Rex predicted.
Rex is particularly vehement in his criticism of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who he chastised for the platform's privacy violations, among other faults. The animosity dates back years: Rex went so far as to set up a protest against Facebook during South by Southwest 2019. More recently, Rex posted a video on his frequently updated LinkedIn page describing Zuckerberg as “creepy” and suggesting that his company would never hire the Facebook founder.
The outspoken Rex also courts controversy in his own right — during a recent interview, Rex derided a new version of liberalism he described as a "Nazi liberal." To Rex, that means someone who is loud, intolerant and obnoxious. He knows it's controversial language, and he doesn't seem to care; he's a man unconcerned with ruffling feathers.
"I'm a conservative on faith and morals. I'm a libertarian when it comes to a lot of other things, like government and stuff like that," Rex said. "But I can see things in different ways, and I certainly don't have a monopoly on truth. So I like hearing different perspectives."