Editor’s note: This is the second installment of Startup Scene, a column highlighting real estate startup companies and entrepreneurs. Comment below to share your thoughts about this new feature and to suggest companies you think should be featured here.
After nearly a decade of selling real estate, Seth Siegler decided to switch gears. Motivated by the desire to help other agents and small brokerages improve their own websites to look "as good or better than the big guys," he started developing tools to improve the quality of the search experience on agents’ sites.
His mission: Arm those agents with sites that meet the expectations of homebuyers used to the look and feel of a large franchise site or a national portal like Trulia or Zillow.
What began as a side project to level the playing field soon turned into an obsession for Siegler, and Robot Workshop was born in mid-2010. The company’s first product was IDX Robot, a turnkey multiple listing service search solution that could be added to any website.
In July, Robot Workshop introduced its latest creation, an embeddable widget called Neighborhood Suggester that real estate agents can add to their website or Facebook page for a monthly fee.
Neighborhood Suggester’s drag-and-drop interface lets homebuyers select a handful of criteria that are most important to them, like "family friendly" or "quality schools." It then uses data from the Onboard Informatics Lifestyle Search Engine API (application programming interface) to generate a list of suitable neighborhoods for buyers to consider.
For an individual agent, Neighborhood Suggester offers the opportunity to generate leads for agents by giving potential buyers another reason to visit and bookmark an agent’s Facebook page or website.
I spoke to Siegler, who refers to himself as CEO and head robot, about being an entrepreneur, and about what’s in store for the Charleston, South Carolina startup.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve received about how to be a successful entrepreneur that you’d like to share with other aspiring entrepreneurs?
A: My dad always tells my brothers and I that you can’t get anywhere exciting in life without taking a few risks. "You have to put your neck out there, sometimes," he says. It really is true.
Q: What do you enjoy most about being an entrepreneur?
A: I love every single aspect of being an entrepreneur. It’s in my blood, actually. My great-grandfather started a moving and storage company in New York in 1895. My dad and uncle were the third generation in the business.
So, I grew up going into the city with my dad and seeing what it took to be in business for yourself — the ups and downs. I loved every second of it. I have a bunch of the old photos on my desk, of the 100-plus years of that company. The moving (business) wasn’t for me, but I like to think that the spirit lives on!
Q: What’s one mistake you’ve made in launching Robot Workshop?
A: The initial version of IDX Robot sucked! I was so anxious to get a product out there that I rushed too many details. The user interface wasn’t right at all, and I couldn’t let it get out there to the public.
We pulled it back into the shop and started all over again, but did it right. It cost us about three months of market time, but it was worth it to feel confident in our offering.
Q: How is Robot Workshop attracting new users?
A: At the moment we’re attracting users by offing really cool products for really low introductory pricing! The word has been getting around thanks to good news coverage and word of mouth. We are looking into other means of distribution and partnerships, too.
Q: What is Robot Workshop’s secret sauce for winning customers?
A: We feel like we have an advantage when it comes to understanding agent needs since I was an agent for so long. We have the tech expertise to make things the right way, but it all starts from an agent perspective — not a developer’s.
Q: Do you think it helps or hurts Robot Workshop to be based in South Carolina instead of in a tech center like Silicon Valley or New York City?
A: Charleston, S.C., is surprisingly dedicated to knowledge-based business. There are three pretty big software companies, good co-working spaces and a great city-backed startup initiative.
Quality of life is high and living costs are way lower than New York City or the (Silicon) Valley. That being said, when it comes to capital or team members, we really have to look outside the state. At the moment, it’s working out well, but we’ll have to see how it goes as we grow.
Q: Do you have plans to introduce any new products?
A: We are actually working on two new products right now, as well as some cool updates for Neighborhood Suggester. The two new products are really ambitious and there is absolutely nothing out there like there like them. ETA: early 2012 … maybe in time for (the Real Estate) Connect NYC (conference in January).
Q: How is the company funded?
A: I started Robot Workshop as a true bootstrap operation, on real estate commissions, supportive parents, Visa and American Express! James Haft of PAL Genesis has come on board as a partner and seed investor.
He’s a mentor for TechStars, the famed startup accelerator, so he brings a great insight In addition to his investment. We will be looking to raise a true round of capital in 2012 after our next product is unveiled.
Q: If Robot Workshop were acquired by another company today, what do you think you’d do tomorrow?
A: We still have a few important things to show the world, but if Robot Workshop were to be acquired today, I would immediately get started on a new project. I get new ideas all the time. I literally have a list of projects I want to try.
Want to recommend a RE tech startup for an upcoming Startup Scene? Send your ideas to Natalie Fonseca at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Natalie Fonseca is the co-founder and executive producer of Tech Policy Summit and the Privacy Identity Innovation (pii) conference, and the content producer for the Inman News Data Summit and Real Estate Connect conferences. You can follow her at @TechPolicy.