VC-funded 99.co to put renters first in property search
By Gabey Goh May 7, 2014
- S$700,000 raised from 500 Startups, East Ventures, Golden Gate Ventures and Fenox Venture Capital
- Immediate plans centred on growing team and establishing market presence in Singapore
A SINGAPORE-based startup is hoping its website will bring a fresh new approach to the property search market – by putting the renters first.
Founded by technology startup veterans Darius Cheung, Ruiwen Chua, Conor McLaughlin and Anuj Bheda, 99.co made its market debut yesterday (May 6) with a beta version of the website now open to property owners, agents and rental property seekers in Singapore.
The same team also runs another website called Homie.co, targeted at people looking for rooms and roommates, and featuring properties listed directly by the landlord or the master tenant who is also living there.
In contrast, 99.co is intended for people renting entire apartments, typically with requirements that are more complex and listings posted mainly by professional agents.
The venture has received S$700,000 (US$561,200) in seed funding from 500 Startups, East Ventures, Golden Gate Ventures and Fenox Venture Capital via the issuance of convertible notes. The terms of the convertible notes were not disclosed.
In an email interview with Digital News Asia (DNA) Cheung, who is also the chief executive officer, says that the seed funding money will be channelled towards team growth and marketing.
Cheung is best known as the founder of tenCube, a mobile security company that was acquired by security solutions vendor McAfee in 2010, and he says that the idea to develop 99.co stemmed from personal frustrations.
“The idea came about, like most good ideas - when one of the founders was looking for a place to rent and the rental search experience was just horrible,” he adds.
Cheung says that he has been renting in Singapore over the last 20 years, and has encountered a multitude of bad experiences -- from sifting through outdated listings with bad photos, duplicate or fake listings, and even calling or texting agents who may be unresponsive.
“Sometimes I would block out an afternoon to see multiple units at the same condo - only to find out that they are the same unit shown by different agents.
“And often I got bait-and-switched by agents who would tell me in the last minute that the apartment has been rented out, and knowingly wasting my time by bringing me to many places I’m clearly am not interested in.
“Meanwhile, good and honest agents have a hard time making a living because they refuse to play such tricks,” he says.
A ‘radical’ approach to renting
According the Cheung, 99.co currently offers 2,000 “high quality” listings of apartments and while in beta phase, will be free to use for property owners and agents.
He adds that the website’s name stems from the number ‘9’ (九) which symbolises ‘longevity’ in Chinese, and with a mission to help customers find the best home, 99.co “wishes everyone to live long and prosper.” Users can also access the site using 九九.co as the URL.
“Besides, it’s a really cool domain name,” he quips.
Cheung believes that what will make the property website a success is its stated mission of putting the renters, or customers, first.
“This sounds obvious but if you really look at all the traditional property sites, you will find that they are really designed for agents instead of customers, and it’s a surprisingly radical concept,” he claims.
To achieve that, 99.co is anchoring its user experience on key features such as a simple, elegant map-based search and presentation of properties, listings vetted for quality and accuracy in addition to details such as time calculations for public transport and one-click scheduling of viewings on behalf of renters.
Cheung says that aside from using “cutting edge software technology” and leveraging great data and services available such as Google Maps, the most interesting component of the website’s offering will be how the team plans to ensure that listings are accurate, high quality and non-duplicated.
“We have developed an algorithm and software that can detect with relatively high accuracy whether the unit is real or accurate when someone submits a listing,” he claims.
For example, if someone submits an apartment listing that has five bedrooms but is only 500 sq ft in size, the system would flag it automatically because it is too far off the normal correlation between number of rooms and size of the apartment.
Cheung provided an “outrageous example of a HDB flat that is 108,000 sq ft" but also notes that in reality, most of the exaggeration that agents do are a lot more subtle – they often make it just a little larger than it actually is, just to make a renter call them instead of a competitor listing the same unit. And consumers often have no idea this happens.
“This is not a foolproof way of course -- we can’t tell for sure that such an apartment does not exist, so we insert a human-driven vetting process. Our in-house Rent Geek would go and check on this to see whether this is actually true or not -- sometimes by contacting the lister to get more information, and potentially even visiting the apartment in person,” he says.
In addition, pictures are particularly hard to detect and filter via software, and the manual vetting process will also include checking picture to ensure that they are high quality and accurately represent the apartment.
Navigating the rental market and beyond
“Currently we believe the model would be that we would take a small flat fee from the agent or landlord for a successful transaction - that way we are always incentivised to make the search experience better.
“Because the only way we would be successful is to continue to make sure we deliver the best search results to the customers, instead of the traditional model of selling ad-space, which would lead us to think about how to sell more ads,” he says.
Cheung says that plans for the website in the next 12 months are centred on a roadmap of “technology-driven innovative features” to make the rental experience even more convenient.
He adds that these features would involve capturing and presenting contextual data online to create transparency, simulating a high fidelity viewing experience of an apartment online, and optimising the matching of resources (available apartments/ agents) to the demands of renters in scheduling and in real time.
There are no plans to expand 99.co to other markets yet, but Cheung says the team is “quite certain” that the technology and model they are developing in Singapore has strong applicability to other urban cities in Asia.
In the meantime, the biggest challenge facing the 99.co team is the hunt for talent.
“Finding a team that is ambitious and crazy enough to take on this challenge, is a very tough problem to solve,” says Cheung.