Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Moving, especially with a family, is difficult. First, it is a tremendous chore: packing, transporting, and unpacking your belongings is just plain hard work. Second, it is emotionally draining. It’s leaving a place one knows and loves, and arriving at a new place that one perhaps has never been, where there are likely no friends to make one feel at home. Suddenly your bearings are lost. A new place is a whole new language, it seems.
For members of the military, moving across-country is a routine occurrence. Known as a Permanent Change of Station (PCS), servicemen and women travel around the country and around the world according to their orders. Each time, they, and their families, pick up their lives and try to reestablish them in a new city. Of course, the military provides transportation services and financial support to ease the practical burden of the move, but the emotional toll remains.
That toll — the stress of the move, the unease of having no foreknowledge of a city — comprises a fundamental question for Tony Straw and Todd Ernst, founders of PCSgrades.com, a new, online service that can be described as an Angie’s List made for and exclusive to military families, tailored by the specific needs of a change of station. Families with military credentials can sign up for the service free of charge, select their new station, and peruse user-written reviews of vendors in that area. Because the site is exclusive, all of these reviews are from military members who have undergone the PCS process. Trust is at the center of PCSgrades’ business plan.
“This is the age of information, but a lot of that information you can’t trust, especially when moving to a new place. That’s where PCSgrades comes in,” Straw said.
Straw serves as an Air Force Reserve Officer out of Laughlin Air Force Base. At the start of his military career, Straw graduated from the Air Force Academy and flew bombers for several years. Meanwhile, he developed a business interest in real estate and earned an MBA with a focus on that subject. At Randolph, he met Ernst, a fellow reservist with an eye on the property market. Both men had undergone the PCS process numerous times.
“We know first hand what it’s like,” Straw said.
Based on their shared experience, the partners began to flesh out the idea in 2012, and committed to bringing it to life in 2015. The first step? Research.
“Before the site even launched, we ran a lot of focus groups to find out just what a site like PCSgrades would need to cover,” Straw said. “We knew we didn’t have all the answers. Collective knowledge helped us create the best product.”
When their goals solidified, Straw and Ernst approached Geekdom in San Antonio, a downtown-based collaborative of independent businesses, for experts with the tech know-how to build the site to reach them.
“Working with Geekdom has been incredible,” Straw said. “We’ve made wonderful contacts, and we were so glad to have San Antonians in on the project. We’re truly a San Antonio team at the heart of a national product.” The site held its soft launch in June.
Currently, PCSgrades focuses on housing. The site reports 80 active realtors nationwide, a considerable handful of which have military ties themselves. On the user side of things, Straw reports around 600 sign-ups. Many of them have posted reviews about realtors, neighborhoods, and home builders with whom they’ve dealt in their area.
PCSgrades users can view these reviews to help plan their own move. In designing the site, Straw and Ernst tried to go beyond the limited, criteria-based review systems offered by similar sites. PCSgrades boasts an in-depth comment system so that users can describe their realty experience to the smallest detail.
Vendor review aggregate sites are a dime a dozen. PCSgrades seeks to distinguish itself through its focus and reliability.
“Our goal is prove that PCSgrades is a community of trust,” Straw said. "We want to establish a platform across which military families can reliably connect for service and advice.”
Trustworthiness is something that needs to be proven, and community cultivated, but so far, all signs are positive.
“We’ve have an incredible response,” Straw said. “Not just from people who want to use the site, but who want to go an extra step and help our military families.”
And PCSgrades seems to be putting its money where its founder’s mouth is with tangible benefits for its users. If a user completes and reports a sale through PCSgrades.com, they receive a significant rebate. The money comes straight from PCSgrades: the site charges each vendor a referral fee as part of operation, and 72% of that fee goes into the rebate.
“Our ambition is for PCSgrades to become the primary advice platform for military families undergoing a change of station,” Straw said.
Already, the site has its sights set on expansion. Straw and Ernst have are in talks with greatschools.org, a national database of school information run by an independent nonprofit, accessible to American families. The founders' plan is for the direct integration of greatschools.org’s listings into PCSgrades’ user interface so that military families can have everything at their fingertips. In addition, the site plans work with Families on the Homefront (FOTHF), a group that seeks to address the unique educational needs of military children. This partnership is new, but Straw and Ernst hope to use the group’s research and experience to better focus PCSgrades’ school review system.
In addition, the site plans to integrate reviews in the near future for more general service providers like veterinarians, handymen, and doctors.
Other than that, though, Straw and Ernst believe they have found their niche.
“We want to remain narrowly focused. PCSgrades would rather do a few things well, then everything half as well,” Straw said.
Currently, the service is open to servicemen and women and their families, as well as veterans out of active duty.
“Vets don’t move as frequently, but our believe is that they should be included for their service,” Straw said.
The site is user-focused and proves its main focus, as it builds a community for an entire armed force and its supportive families, is dependability.
*Featured/top image: Members of the U.S. Military march during the Fiesta Flambeau Parade in downtown San Antonio. File photo by Scott Ball.