The options for finding apartments across America via the Web are plentiful--rent.com, move.com, apartments.com, apartmentguide, craigslist, etc. It’s one of the ideal applications for the Web, and with an estimated 12 million apartment rentals inked in the U.S. per year, it’s a sizable business opportunity.
So, what makes newcomer MyNewPlace believe that is has a chance to success against more well established and some better funded competitors?
According to Micki Seibel, director of product & user experience at MyNewPlace, the answer is having the best user experience. “User expectations have evolved, and the competitors haven’t kept up,” she told me. Like Sphere, a new challenger in blog search, MyNewPlace subscribes to a ‘less is more’ design philosophy. The first page is a naked search box.
Accessing specific properties requires registration, which isn’t the most friendly way to greet users. “People don’t want to fill out a lot of fields when registering for sites, but we have to have them authenticated into site, so they can get the rebate,” Seibel said. “We are looking at streamlining it.”
MyNewPlace doesn’t display ads; instead the service charges landlords $375 per transaction (pay for performance), giving renters a $100 rebate from the fee when a lease agreement has been signed. Rent.com (owned by eBay) offers a similar renter rebate.
MyNewPlace provides property managers with input tools, reports and integration with real estate software. Seibel said that while the current focus is on direct clients with large apartment communities, the company plans to move down market to smaller and individual owners. For renters, MyNewPlace includes multiple sort criteria, along with easy navigation and AJAX pixie dust and mashing up with Google maps. The beta site has some bugs, such as failing to display floor plans in Firefox. MyNewPlace will exit its beta phase next month, Seibel said.
A better user interface experience helps attracts users, especially the more savvy and influential users, but it’s not a high barrier for competitors to leap over. Seibel claimed that MyNewPlace has established the most comprehensive national apartment database, with 6 million units listed (ApartmentGuide claims a similar number but falls flat on the user interface). MyNewPlace covers about 15 states with the rebate program so far. At this point, MyNewPlace has established business relationships with owners of about 25 percent the apartments in its database, Seibel said.
Seibel called that the way MyNewPlace populates the database the company's ‘secret sauce,’ and didn’t offer details about property sources or data acquisition.The company has about 60 employees, with 30 in India, many of whom are engaged in manual data entry. There must be more to the secret sauce than labor arbitrage. The company has raised $8 million in funding, which should pay for a lot of sales development and database entry.
MyNewPlace’s non-secret sauce is its management team. Both CEO John Helm was Vice President of Technology Kenneth Cluff were part of AllApartments/SpringStreet, which was sold to Homestore (now move.com) in 1999. The director of operations, Bobby Niers, worked at various incarnations of Rent.net, Move.com and Homestore.
I asked Seibel what improvements are at the top of the list. “We don’t want to go into the future about our plans," she said. "We don’t want to tip our cards to competitors. This month we are focusing on direct feedback from customers, such making the map larger and highlighting pins on the map when a search result is rolled over."
One of the missing features is any support for RSS notification. It would be useful for its customer base on both sides of a transaction if the company showed its RSS cards, rather than worrying that competitors might somehow 'discover' RSS or other obviously useful features.