Urban Compass Comes Out Of Stealth With A Hyperlocal Social Network, And A Disruptive Rental Portal That Will Serve As A Magnet

Posted: May 7, 2013 in eCommerce, Social, Startup, Technology
Tags: ,

20130507-212804.jpg. Urban Compass, a New York-based startup that last
year raised an $8 million seed round while still in
stealth mode, is coming out of the shadows and
debuting its first services in public beta: a hyperlocal
social network, called the Urban Compass Network,
and a housing rentals platform that brings online the whole process of finding, securing and subsequently
paying for a place to live. The two services, which
debut first in New York, were formally unveiled today
at a press conference led by the Mayor of New York
City, Michael Bloomberg. Ori Allon, the co-founder and executive chairman —
and also a search PhD who sold his last two (search-
focused) startups respectively first to Google and
then Twitter, where he became head of engineering
based in New York until he left to start Urban
Compass — is trying something new with his latest venture: a “data-driven company” as he describes it,
but also one that, fundamentally, will be relying on a
lot of human input for the wheels to turn. In January, alongside an engineering recruitment
effort, the company began to hire a cadre of
“neighborhood specialists” to act as experts on
specific locales in the city, with the request that they
also have some kind of experience in customer
services. The neighborhood specialists, it turns out, are serving a two-fold purpose. They are data
collectors, reporting on the best that a neighborhood
has to offer, which will be fed into Neighborhood
Guides; these will in turn become the building blocks
of Urban Compass Network. And, putting on another,
more businesslike hat, those neighborhood specialists are agents, bringing prospective residents
to look at potential homes. (And Urban Compass has
equipped them with training and licenses for that
purpose.) The aim is for 200 people to work for Urban
Compass by the end of this year. The rentals part of the service is already being used
in private beta: a large corporate based in the city
signed on and started to refer to Urban Compass all
of its employees relocating to New York. Those users
in turn were able to refer others to the site. With UC
taking a percentage of every lease completed through the site, the rentals business has already started to
bring in some impressive revenues — Allon says
numbers will be made public soon, but he notes that
those sales are strong enough that he and the other
three co-founders — CEO Robert Reffkin, an ex-
banker and non-profit fundraiser extraordinaire; head of product Mike Weiss; and lead engineer Ugo Di
Girolamo — will not need to be raising more funding
any time in the near future. (Backers in the seed round included Founders Fund,
Goldman Sachs, Thrive Capital, the CEO of American
Express Kenneth Chenault, and ZocDoc’s CEO Cyrus
Massoumi, among others.) The rentals part of the site is a fairly disruptive
operation in itself: not only does it cut out brokers
who have acted as the costly middle man for each
rental in the city; but by going directly to those
leasing out properties, it’s offering one more way for
them to bypass sites like Craiglist.org, creating a simple, one-stop shop for the lifetime of a rental deal.
It’s also a direct link to one of Urban Compass’s first
big hires, Gordon Golub, a long-standing real estate
executive in the city. Still, combining a hyperlocal social network and an e-
commerce focused rentals site may sound like an
incongruous pairing: a social network seems to work
best when it feels as organic and uncommercial as
possible, while a housing rentals site seems like the
most overtly of commercial enterprises. But at Urban Compass, not only do the two have the same people
working for them, but the they are built on the same
platform. “I like big challenges,” Allon says of decision to
introduce the two services together. He maintains that
both get equal weight in the companies’ current
system, and they will do in the future as Urban
Compass adds more features. Allon describes the social network as “an essential
part of both our system and future growth plans,”
while the rentals service, which will soon also include
homes to buy, addresses a fundamental need, one
that goes hand-in-hand with selecting a neighborhood
to live in: “We want to help people find a place to live, both as a neighborhood and a home.” The idea, he
says, is for rentals to complement other
neighborhood-focused services going forward. “It’s
true that we’re starting with rentals, but this is the just
the first step. We’ve designed the system with large
scale in mind.” In the beta phase of the service, only those who sign
up for rentals services will have access to the Urban
Compass Network. The plan is for that to open up as
Urban Compass’s own services grow to cover other
areas.

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