Inman is interviewing real estate technology developers and engineers. Here’s Martin Ruyant-Gadre, CEO of PlaceFactor.
What do you do?
I’m developing a website that matches people to their next home and location based on what matters most to them.
I’m sure this site sounds like the 100th Zillow clone, but I think the approach I’ve chosen is radically different.
I’m supported in this project by my partner, Mak Gadre, who is a highly experienced Microsoft veteran, and by freelancers I work with remotely.
My role can change radically from one week to the next. Sometimes I deal with huge databases of statistics. Sometimes I obsess over the site’s typography and wording. Sometimes I go chat with people to better understand their experience of the problem I’m trying to solve. I have to work at the intersection of many domains.
What are you working on right now? What are the challenges?
Getting the site to launch! We’re almost there. The last mile always feels the longest.
The last aspect I’m working on at the moment is a “proximity to schools” factor. The challenge is actually not technical but ethical. Do I really want to have school ratings based on test scores on my site? I find that using this kind of data in a way validates the notion that schools that score well at standardized tests are “better.” I struggle with that.
I also struggle with the idea that the “best” schools are found in areas where real estate is at its most expensive. Everyone knows this, but looking at the data for yourself hits home more than reading about it.
I didn’t anticipate this kind of challenge when I started, but I found that I had to make more ethical decisions than I thought. I think that all websites that help people find a place to live at a more granular level than just “hey, here are some listings” can play a role in either increasing urban segregation — or, on the contrary, promoting diversity.
How’d you end up in real estate tech?
Before doing this, I was in the animation field but grew tired of it. At that time, my wife was in charge of the project.
I’ve had to relocate many times, and every time it has been a stressful, tedious experience to find a place that felt right. So even before taking over her role, I was thinking, “Hey, the problem she is trying to solve is something I can really relate to!”
As for the “tech” part, in a way it’s just going back to my first love. I started making websites back in ’97 when I was 14. I had this “mp3” website that was getting a few thousand visits a day. It might sound cheesy, but I remember vividly the exhilaration I felt when I first “flipped the switch” and made the site accessible to anyone in the world. This capacity to reach out to others on a massive scale is still the same thing that motivates me today.
What aspects of real estate are you trying to make better?
Looking for a new home requires assessing many aspects. How’s the safety of this area? How are the schools around it? How big is the home? Every person who looks for a home has their own criteria.
The problem is that humans are not very good at making decisions based on multiple parameters. The Internet has given us access to a tremendous amount of information, but it has not made us better at making decisions based on this information. The more information we have, the less effectively we can make decisions and the more overwhelmed we feel.
This is not a new problem, but somehow I find that most real estate sites ignore it and instead just cram more tools or information into their services.
I didn’t anticipate this kind of challenge when I started, but I found that I had to make more ethical decisions than I thought.
All areas of decision-making are impacted by this, from choosing where to go on a vacation to picking cereals at the supermarket … But this problem is even more salient in real estate, because people try to assess more parameters at once than in other domains. And with good reason: Picking a place to live impacts many other aspects of one’s life. Books such as “Who’s Your City” by Richard Florida make a strong case for this.
Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is shift what is a cognitive problem, which can’t be solved until we our brains evolve, to an information processing problem, which can be solved.
What’s your favorite part of what you do?
Dealing with many different topics. Dealing with essential human values: Looking for a new home is a very intimate choice. The closest comparison I can think of is looking for a mate ;).
Also, because I’m always trying to look at the problem from the point of view of people, I find that I develop more empathy for others, and that’s something that I value about my job. I guess that’s true for all design processes that focus on solving a problem for others, as opposed to being self-serving.
What products have you had a part in developing in the past?
Just before starting with this project, I designed a “medical records” system for doctors in India. Doctors over there have very much their own ways of keeping track of who they treat, for what ailment and so on. And for most doctors, very little of this important part of their practice is digital.
The idea was to come up with a site and app that wasn’t trying to impose a new system but instead was more about having a very organic product that could by shaped by doctors themselves.
Favorite Twitter account?
Favorite video game? (Or book, if you don’t have a favorite game).
I stopped playing games for years but recently got back into “Counter-Strike.” The general level of play is insane. Some people have been playing since the first version came out 15 years ago.
Favorite band or singer?
Aphex Twin, by far.
What do you hate about technology?
That it’s mostly made things easier, faster, cheaper but not often truly “better” in terms of quality of experience. We’ve actually downgraded many aspects of our sensorial experience of the world.
We’ve evolved over millions of years to be able to see in three dimensions, feel, smell, touch and engage with our reality, and yet most of us are now sitting in cubicles where our interaction with the physical world has been reduced to seeing a flat image in front of us and to using a fraction of the muscles we have.
Ultimately, though, technology is a choice. So I can’t hate what I can choose. I just try to stay mindful of its advantages and drawbacks and to not let it be my “default.”
Do you think technology can change the industry?
More than it has already? I think at this stage what will contribute to this change is the evolution of the rapport consumers have with technology, more than technology itself.
In or out of real estate, is there one problem, large or small, that you would like to solve?
I already have my hands full with the current problem I’m trying to solve. Hard to think of something else at the moment!
What motivates you?
Feeling that I can contribute to making the process of looking for a new home less stressful for people.
Describe what you do in one sentence: I am developing a website that aims at helping people find their next home.
Time at current company: One year
Degree, school: I have a BA in Graphic Design and a MA in Digital Direction from Supinfocom, France, and a MA in animation from the Royal College of Art in the U.K.
Location: El Cerrito, California — close to Berkeley
Social media: LinkedIn
Are you a real estate programmer or developer who’d like to participate in our profile series? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.