Lovely is a relatively new entry in the very competitive rental space. It caught my eye initially because of its clean, beautiful design – then I got to know its founder Blake over a mutual love of motorcycles. He agreed to talk to me recently about his startup.
Joel: Tell me a little bit about Lovely… what are you guys all about?
Blake Pierson: Lovely is a search engine for apartments. We aggregate rental listings from across the web and visually display them on a map, in real-time. We’re based in San Francisco, which is also the primary market we’re focused on, but have recently expanded to 10 other markets across the U.S.
JB: So, how do you guys make money?
BP: My co-founder and I were very business-model and revenue driven when we first started. Our initial product was an enterprise-focused application for home builders to help market their properties online. As we made the move west to San Francisco, we both felt the pain firsthand of trying to find an apartment to rent. So we decided to set out to solve that problem [instead] and haven’t focused on the monetization part yet.
It’s not that we’re naive entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, we’re just focused on building our product right now. If we can build a product people love to use in large numbers, the monetization will come.
JB: Your listings are scraped from Craigslist, no?
BP: We’re pulling data from several sources, but Craigslist is the primary source in most markets.
JB: There’s literally dozens of new rental sites hitting the market, how do you guys see your site differently?
BP: The difference for us is the experience we’re trying to build and the problem we’re trying to solve. We want to nail search for renters in supply-constrained markets. That’s it. That’s what we’re 110% focused on right now. For every feature we build, we consciously choose not to build 10 other features because we’re looking to solve this particular problem for this particular segment of renters.
JB: Explain the Renter Resume to me. Where did that idea come from?
BP: From our users actually – both renters and landlords. Renters told us it was very frustrating and upsetting to send 30 emails to landlords and not hear back from any of them. The Renter Resume was created as a way to allow renters to stand out to landlords. If a landlord receives 30 inbound requests for a unit, who will they most likely respond to first? The person who sends the generic email like everybody else or the person who takes the effort to send a photo, some personal information, work information and prior residence history? Landlords confirmed the latter would go a lot further in getting them to respond.
JB: Are you still seeing traffic grow? Where is that coming from?
BP: Well we just crossed 100,000 uniques, which was a big milestone for us. These aren’t huge numbers, but we appreciate that each uptick represents an actual person we’re helping and that’s really exciting. We’re a small team focused on a very specific problem, and we’re really happy with our progress to date. Almost all of our traffic is direct via word-of-mouth, which is obviously important for a company like ours that funnels our resources toward building products and not yet towards paid marketing and customer acquisition.
JB: Your site’s UI and design is remarkable. Tell me about your design philosophy.
BP: Thank you. Our mission is to build a great product that people love to use. I’m not sure we’ve ever thought about it in philosophical terms. We knew from earlier mistakes that in order to create a product people love to use, they first need to use it. And then they need to use it again and again.
Does this product solve a real need? That’s where we start. Answering that question requires talking to lots of users and listening very openly to their stories. From there, it’s about finding patterns that emerge across these users and determining the types of users whose problems we want to try to solve.
I’d say the last piece to this puzzle is to understand the brand you’re trying to create and then consciously reinforce that brand throughout the experience you build over time.
JB: Smart. How is Lovely going to be different in two years time? What trends are you keeping an eye on?
BP: That’s a tough question to answer. If I was forced to answer specifically, I guess I would say that you’re starting to see pieces of it today with the Renter Resume. That is, not just helping people find an apartment, but using what we’ve learned to create tools that help renters get the apartments they want.
As for trends we’re watching, we’re focused on the overall supply/demand characteristics in markets across the U.S. We believe that is the single biggest driver dictating needs within specific markets. When a market has 10 renters for every one unit available, what we build for that market will look considerably different from what we would build for a market that has 10 units for every one renter.
On a micro level, we’re very interested in understanding the subtleties within a specific metro. For instance, over 50% of our usage in San Francisco proper comes from 7 neighborhoods. Understanding why that is, what’s driving that and how that changes over time is important and something we will keep an eye on as we move forward.
JB: What’s one thing you would do differently if you could go back and do things over?
BP: The biggest advice I could give to any entrepreneur is to make sure you’re building a product that solves a real need and invest the time upfront to determine the nature and characteristics of that need. Then, once you think you’ve found it, focus on it.
JB: Any other advice for other real estate technology entrepreneurs?
BP: Being an entrepreneur is hard work. It can be mentally, physically and financially draining. The key is to not stop. Keep learning and moving forward. You’re going to make mistakes, so make sure you make better mistakes tomorrow. There will always be unknown unknowns, but do your best to understand the known unknowns in your business and how you can set up a system where you can figure them out over time.
Someone once told me that the key characteristic of most successful entrepreneurs is that they are stubbornly optimistic. I would consider myself far from successful, but I can definitely relate to the stubbornly optimistic part. Part of that is just my personality, and part of that is a sense of confidence that if I work as hard as I can, as smart as I can, eventually things will work out.
Don’t listen to the naysayers and don’t listen to the people who artificially pump you up. Listen to your customers, put them first and go from there.