Peter Flint co-founded online real estate service Trulia at the peak of the housing bubble, and before long the company struggled with a downturn that stalled the residential real estate market the San Francisco-based company hoped to serve.
But if the market timing was poor, it was spot on in terms of Trulia's technology. House and apartment hunting was just beginning to shift to the Internet, with its search, mapping, data and interactive capabilities.
That shift has been good to Trulia. Last month Flint was on hand as the company's shares began trading on the New York Stock Exchange in a strong debut.
Before coming to the U.S. from England, Flint was an early employee of the European travel site Lastminute.com. He spoke with this paper about building two successful online companies that serve relatively traditional industries.
Q What is Trulia?
A We're a digital media company helping consumers find information about real estate. We give consumers the inside scoop about properties and the places where people live. We connect those consumers to local real estate professionals to help them fulfill their transactions. We do this across Web and mobile devices.
Q Where did you get the idea for it?
A I moved to the U.S. in 2003 from the U.K., and I arrived in Silicon Valley and was trying to find somewhere to live. I went to the Internet to try to look for property information, neighborhoods, community information, which agent I should connect with. It was, like, this is Silicon Valley? This is 2004? Where is that website? I vowed to start a company to help me solve that problem, which was finding the right place to live.
Q So you found a problem you could solve?
A I was fortunate in that I had the problem and I was at business school at Stanford. The environment at Stanford is so entrepreneurial that you feel like you're the odd one out if you're not starting a company.
Q When you started Trulia, what was the biggest challenge to making it work?
A We started at the height of the housing bubble, in 2005-2006. While many companies have had challenging periods growing their business through the financial crisis, we saw it earlier than most. Really, since the beginning we've been swimming upstream. That's engendered an incredible culture of efficiency and focus within the company. Many great businesses are built during downturns. We really felt that building our business during that downturn has enabled us to build a very sustainable business for the future.
Q Real estate seems a pretty hidebound profession, or is that changing?
A I remember back in 2005 I would go and meet with local brokers, and they would say, "You're telling me my marketing is completely wrong? Why should I change?"
In 2008 those conversations were much easier because they were open to new ideas. It was challenging but it changed the mindset of the industry and it forced the industry to adopt technology in a way that other industries had done in the past but that real estate was slow to adopt. The housing crisis forced people to rethink the way they run their business.
Q One of Zillow's founders also started at an online travel service, as you did with Lastminute.com in Europe. Is there a common theme between travel and real estate?
A There are some similarities, in the sense that Lastminute.com is a technology company that interacts with a very traditional industry, hotels and airlines. Our success (at Trulia) is about building consumer experiences and working with quite traditional companies in the real estate industry. The big differences are that we don't get involved in the transaction. We really like it that way. That enables us to focus on the technology piece and work with agents and brokers all across the U.S. to help them build their business.
Q How does Trulia differentiate itself from other real estate sites?
A We're really focused on search, really focused on helping consumers connect with the right home. We're less focused on casual users, and are predominantly focused on that important decision about finding somewhere to live.
Q You keep adding technology and features. What are some of the latest?
A In the last couple of quarters, we launched really impressive crime maps and commute maps. Our mobile applications have been extremely popular. More than a third of our usage on weekends is by mobile devices. We recently launched a mortgage service on our website, and we'll be continuing to add new services to help consumers interact with other consumers, other neighbors, other professionals.
Q So your users communicate with each other?
A Yes, through Trulia Voices. Real estate is very social, but it's not like Yelp where consumers are publicly sharing information. The communication is different in many ways. What we've done over the years is build the largest collection of user-generated content in the real estate category, with consumers conversing with other consumers about what it's like to live in the area, what are the schools like, what's happening if a Target opens up in the neighborhood, how's that going to affect things. So we're really focused on providing unique content for consumers.
Q Is there a limit to what technology can do for real estate?
A Real estate is an industry about data, about money and about emotion. The data has changed how marketing is done, but the human factor is not going to disappear. The relationships that real estate professionals have built cannot be superseded by technology.
Contact Pete Carey at 408-920-5419 Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/petecarey.
Education: Stanford Graduate School Of Business, MBA; University of Oxford, undergraduate and master's degrees in physics
Home: Noe Valley, San Francisco
Family: Wife and 6-month old daughter
Five things you didn't know about peter flint
1. First entrepreneurial activity was running a night club at Oxford.
2. First place lived in the U.S. was Charlottesville, Va., when he was 8, while his father was teaching at the University of Virginia.
3. Plays the trumpet and piano.
4. First job was a paperboy.
5. Won Oreo-eating contest at Trulia.