StripMallGuy on real estate success, going public

TRD’s Deconstruct podcast on how a little-known investor developed a larger-than-life persona

Inside StripMallGuy's $100M Business
Don Tepman (Photo by Paul Dilakian)

Don Tepman has a clear investment philosophy. 

“In the real estate world, investing should mean having an advantage. What do you know better than everybody else?” 

For Tepman, the answer is in his alter ego’s name: StripMallGuy. 

After years of anonymity, the enigmatic figure known as StripMallGuy, unveiled his identity. The man behind the revered real estate Twitter/X persona is principal and founder of University Avenue Partners, where he’s invested more than $100 million into — you guessed it — strip malls.

Tepman sat down with The Real Deal’s Deconstruct podcast to share his insights on his favorite subsector of real estate and his decision to step out from behind the curtain.

After almost three years as StripMallGuy, where he amassed more than 200,000 followers, Tepman revealed his identity exclusively to TRD in January — after he had been reaping the benefits of his public persona for years. 

After investing in strip malls in the Bay Area since 2002, branching out of that region proved a challenge. It was during a conversation with a broker in Philadelphia when Tepman realized his alter ego could be a boost to his business. 

The broker had been reluctant to help him out. But, after Tepman revealed that he was StripMallGuy, the broker started sending him potential deals. 

“This app [X] is an incredible tool for deal flow,” Tepman said.

Tepman built his business by focusing entirely on strip malls, eschewing other retail formats like grocery-anchored retail or big box malls. 

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He got into the market in part because institutions and other large funds largely ignored such small assets. “Less sharks in the water,” as Tepman put it. 

Retail has become a popular hot spot in the market in recent years, especially as other commercial properties like office and even multifamily have become troubled. But don’t call it a comeback for strip malls. 

“In my career, which started in ‘02, strip malls have only been doing better and better. Vacancy is really at an all-time low now,” he said. “When you look at the service oriented, small format strips, they’ve been thriving for years.”

That’s largely thanks to favorable supply side dynamics.

“A lot of the country is finding out now that paying $400 a foot to build a strip mall doesn’t make sense anymore,” he said. “So, on the supply side, there’s a big advantage.”

Tepman admitted some retail properties have faced challenges recently, but have largely driven tenants to rent smaller spaces — often in favor of strip malls. 

Still, one of his most important pieces of advice for investors is to be picky when it comes to tenants. 

“A lot of owners that buy these strip centers, they all just wing it and they just rent to everybody,” Tepman said. 

One of his most popular tweets included a lighthearted ranking of the best strip mall tenants, where dentists ranked first, and karate ranked No. 1,000 (karate tenants don’t invest much in their space, and their customers tend to take up a lot of parking spaces.)

He pointed to cannabis dispensaries and liquor stores as tenants that could potentially drive away more family-oriented businesses.

Other tidbits of wisdom Tepman shared include: Get a restaurant tenant that is busy at lunch and one that is busy at dinner, so customers visit throughout the day. A good parking lot can make the difference between success and failure. Hair salons and nail salons are a great pair, but never let one tenant do both. 

Tepman recently relocated to New York, where strip malls are few and far between. But he has no plans to slow down his investing in the rest of the country.  

“If StripMallGuy isn’t buying strip malls or [is] overpaying for deals, it all kind of goes away.”
Check out “Deconstruct” on Apple and Spotify.