Propsmart.com is the outsider in the Real Estate 2.0 space. No VC funding, no flashy advertising or high-brow PR efforts – but yet they continue to win awards and recognition of their technology. I really like their gameplan, which is to focus squarely on building a great product. (I also like a company with a healthy sense of humor, which permeates this site). Propsmart has a number of great features, but I really love their use of Google Earth feeds, which you can take from any search and build a whole tour inside Google’s virtual world.
Here is my interview with Ron Hornbaker, President and CTO of Propsmart, Inc.
1. What’s your elevator pitch? How would you describe your company in 50 words or less?
Propsmart.com is a nationwide real estate search engine and community website. We feature over 1 million properties (MLS and FSBO, for sale and for rent) on a simple Google Map interface, and offer our users property ratings, comments, forums, and blogs to connect with others.
2. What inspired you to create your site? What need did you identify that your technology could meet?
Back in the Spring of 2005, I started hacking around with Google Maps and quickly realized it would make a killer interface for real estate search. I’m an industry outsider, and as a consumer of real estate search sites, I’ve always had a less-than-favorable opinion about their ease of use, so I wanted to create something simpler yet more effective and more visually appealing. When Google released their GMap API in July of 2005, we started hiring and developing the project out, then launched mid-December, 2005.
3. What has been the biggest challenge getting your site off the ground?
The web crawler took the most work – my app developer Joe Sparks kicked some real butt putting that together. There’s nearly infinite variety to the listing data out there on public sites, and making sense of it all while avoiding dupes and geocoding addresses accurately is a significant challenge. The website part came easily for us, because 5 years ago I created the popular and highly-trafficked BookCrossing.com site. We understand from first-hand experience how to build, grow and maintain community websites.
4. Real estate is generally seen as a conservative industry, what has the general reaction been to your site?
By far, most industry professionals that contact us “get it,” and tell us they love the site and want their listings displayed. A small number, mostly MLS association board members or officials, are threatened by our model, and have sent us cease-and-desists on our crawling efforts on impressive law firm letterhead. We promptly comply with all do-not-crawl requests, and add the letters to our trophy scrapbook. Thankfully, the resistance is waning, largely in part I’m sure to the number of players in our space and the futility of fighting all of us. Real estate professionals are rich and powerful, but they’re not dumb, and they see which way the information tide is turning.
5. Who is your typical user?
Our typical user is the 25-40 yr old early-technology adopter who is shopping for or trying to sell his or her home.
6. What’s your business model?
We’re fortunate in that we’ve deliberately stayed small and lean (only three techs including myself), and can self-finance Propsmart with our other assets, like BookCrossing.com. We like to bootstrap projects and let them grow organically, so there’s no real need for us to monetize Propsmart yet. For now, we’re focused only on growing the userbase and consumer acceptance, and adding listing partners and crawling schedules to make our listings more comprehensive. At some point in the future, we’ll take a look at adding revenue streams, after learning a bit more about the needs of the industry and our primary users.
7. Who have you identified as your biggest competitors? Why?
My favorite competitor is Trulia, because they surprised us last November by launching a few weeks ahead of us when we thought we had a chance to be the first to market. I love their minimalistic design and maximalistic data presentation, and am a bit envious of their new VC-supplied war chest (but not the pressure it comes with). I’m glad they’re still in limited markets, so with our nationwide footprint we have something we can brag about, for now. :) I recently heard something about a site called Zillow, but I haven’t checked them out yet… probably small-timers with a name like that. Regardless, I believe there’s room for several players in the real estate search game. It’s a big pie out there, and each of us will appeal to different subsets of consumers.
8. What have you found to be the most effective ways to market (i.e., build the brand awareness/mindshare of) your site?We don’t spend money on marketing. I prefer more of an organic growth pattern at this stage, so we just talk about Propsmart online where it’s appropriate, savor the occasional press mention, and focus on search engine optimization so that consumers find us naturally after starting on Google, Yahoo, and MSN.
9. Web 2.0 is often defined as a web-based service that lets people collaborate and share information online. How does your site either a) incorporate these ideas or b) plan on incorporating these ideas in the future?
As much as I’m tired of the term, I guess since we won a Web 2.0 award that we probably do have a number of Web 2.0-ish features. Let’s see: property ratings with rollovers and single clicks (ala Netflix), RSS and Google Earth feeds, free blogs for our members, Google Map mashup (of course), rounded edges (oooh!), and a 22-pt search box on our home page (heh). Seriously, though, that stuff is easy for almost anyone to do. The hard stuff is what you don’t see: clustered and load-balanced servers, intelligent caching of data so paging through 83,000 listings in Washington DC with various sort criteria is nice and snappy, a web crawler with some smarts that continues to get smarter, etc.
10. Why do you care about real estate?
I care about building web applications that people find useful and cool. Real estate is simply the context around this latest experiment of ours, and it’s a vibrant context because so many people care so deeply about it. I like to spend time and effort at points where there’s 1) interest, and 2) a gap between what is and what could be. Propsmart fits right in there, and now we’re just riding it out.
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