A majority of property portals around the world are based on a traditional classifieds model where agents pay an advertising or subscription fee. To avoid being drowned in the plethora of competing listings, traditional portals also offer to feature listings for an additional fee. Even though this model seems to have worked in the past and has also resulted in numerous billion dollar companies, the core business of selling ads and subscriptions do not cater to the renters, especially when the search results are biased by who pays for it.
Instead of finding reliable apartments, a renter’s search result would be flooded by duplicate, fake or sponsored listings, essentially just becoming a display ads board for agents who are willing to pay more.
“Add to this the lack of incentive to improve the product and user experience; it’s quite an arcane, unreliable and inefficient process to search for apartment rentals on traditional property websites. We believe the state of technology today affords us a huge potential for disruption,” says Anuj Bheda, Co-founder, 99.co.
99.co is a real estate search company with a difference.
“We think of ourselves as a technology company and not a portal or website. We have a keen focus on data and design. We strive to provide renters with an honest, transparent and delightful rental experience,” adds Anuj.
The current focus for the startup is Singapore. “We believe that we are re-inventing the model of how rental search would be done by being a lot more thoughtful about what the renters feel, what needs they consider, and how we can apply technology that was not available 10 years ago to solve those challenges. We believe what we would create here is a model that would be as applicable in Bangkok as it is in Bangalore.”
How does 99.co differentiate itself?
“First of all, we are philosophically different, our customer is the renter, and the problem we are trying to solve is helping them find the perfect place to live. This sounds obvious, but you will be surprised to find that there are very few real estate companies who have that as a goal,” explains Anuj.
Some of the differences that 99.co brings in are:
– Features such as map search, rich content like photos and videos, easy commute time calculations, neighborhood information, and rental data, etc.
– Offering rental advice to users, and help them search via concierge search service to schedule tours of suitable apartments — a human touch to compensate for the many things technology cannot yet fully automate.
– Employing a different business model where the ad space is not offered to the highest bidder, but instead find ways to offer the most relevant listings.
Starting up and the 99.co team
The venture was started by four Co-founders — Darius Cheung, Ruiwen Chua, Conor Mclaughlin and Anuj. Darius is a startup veteran having sold his first company TenCube to McAfee. Ruiwen has been a hacker at heart having founded Singapore’s HackerSpace. Both Darius and Ruiwen graduated from the National University of Singapore. Conor joined the team from Silicon Valley, having graduated from UC Berkeley and worked at Pixar and Lucas Films. The team is now 15 in staff strength and growing rapidly.
Anuj landed at Nanyang Technological University and completed his major in Computer Engineering along with a minor in Entrepreneurship. Then he interned at PayPal, the MIT Game Lab and in his final year joined the Startup Roots program which let him intern at a local startup. Anuj’s internship got converted into a full time role but after a few months into work the startup decided to close down.
Bernard, the Co-founder at Chalkboard, had introduced Anuj to Darius and they explored the idea of building a hobby project but at that time Anuj decided to come back to India and work with Teach For India as a tech consultant. A year later the team began exploring new ideas which eventually resulted in 99.co, and this time around he decided to take the plunge and made the move back to Singapore.
Truly for the renters
“Just the other day during one of our search visits we came across an interesting subtlety. The apartment was one of eight units on the floor and was next to the trash chute. We ran an experiment to check how audible the trash chute in the apartment would be when used, because if people from eight different units would be actively using the chute day in and out, that would lead to quite a noisy environment. Such subtleties are tough to capture in a traditional listing, but is important information for the renter. For now, we are actively accompanying our users during their apartment visits and understanding their requirements, emotions and interactions with the agents/landlords and then figuring out a way to infuse the information learnt from those viewings and discussions to create a more relevant search experience,” says Anuj.
In addition to improving their web experience and extending 99.co’s presence to mobile platforms, the team plans to introduce many technology-driven innovative features to make the rental experience even more convenient.
“It’s been an interesting ride. There are good days, and then there are bad days, but in the end everything probably happens for a reason. The choices I have made, starting off as an intern after graduation, working for a non-profit, plunging into the startup world without any guarantees, might seem like unconventional choices in the traditional sense of things — and the for the longest time I second guessed my choices. But over time I have come to realize that people tend to find happiness in different places and when you find happiness in the work that you do – that’s the sweet spot,” Anuj signs off with these inspirational lines.