What is Welcome Home (V2)?
Welcome Home is a website that connects high-quality roommates with similar living habits. Housing is absurdly expensive in coastal cities, but having roommates can save you >20% on rent on higher-quality rentals and can build a social support system critical for mental health and opportunities.
But it’s hard to find good roommates because Craigslist does not vet quality roommates and you can waste a lot of time finding people with the same set of location and living habit preferences on Facebook or Roommates.com. As a result, Welcome Home helps you use your first- and second-degree connections — verified by linkedin, facebook, and past references — to find compatible roommates easily.
While I built out the initial prototype myself, I’m currently working with freelancers. Given that I’ll be working at a law firm, I’ll have less time to dedicate to the project, but I still believe that there is potential in helping people build healthy communities in their home, which is currently a frustrating process to build.
Note: this is a second iteration of Welcome Home; the first iteration dealt with modular furniture. I decided to pursue this in order to get at the same problem of reducing rent but attempted the simplify the problem and solution.
I built Welcome Home because of my experiences as a resident adviser for Harvard undergrads. Lots of my residents complained about finding housing with roommates, and how time-consuming and awkward that process could be, especially when it led to roommate conflicts later. Being a Millennial renter for the last 6 years, I had plenty of friends who struggled with the same things and echoed the complaints of my residents. Finally, as a resident advisor at one of Harvard’s largest dorms, I got to see the community living experience firsthand. Having roommates is the name of the game on campus. I navigated roommate disputes, helped create community norms, and organized events.
To set the stage, I started by talking to a few friends about how they found their roommates and how difficult it was for them. Most commented that if they were just moving to a new city or if they didn’t have a strong network, it was time consuming to search and find a roommate. I discovered that people preferred to use their personal networks first (by messaging people on facebook and others), posting on their facebook wall or in facebook housing groups, and using craigslist, if all else failed. Craigslist was the last choice because people on there get a bad rap.
I wanted to confirm these thoughts with a broader sample size. I analyzed quora posts, reddit posts, and other articles online searching “roommate finding tips.” I synthesized the most common concerns in a spreadsheet.
I discovered that people were scared of craigslist for several reasons:
1) People approach craigslist cautiously because they’re trying to find ways to verify tenants. In my analysis of comments about craigslist, I discovered that these were the main strategies people used to protect themselves from bad tenants or roommates. The numbers represent how many people used that strategy.
Common ways people verified their tenants or roommates.
Here are some representative quotes
Using Buzzsumo, I looked at the most shared articles about Craigslist were not positive.
2) People waste a lot of time on craigslist trying to avoid scams or low-quality messages.
Common complaints about roommates and tenants online
Here’s what some people had to say about using Craigslist
3) People wanted compatibility
Common solution to the desire to find roommate compatibility.
Next to Craigslist, facebook is a huge substitute, especially if people prefer to go through their existing network to find a roommate first. But I saw major complaints there as well.
Here’s what some people had to say:
While these two services focus on posting listings, they categorize themselves as roommate apps. So I decided to check them out. While there are at least 20+ roommate apps, I focused on Roomi and Roomster because they were the market leaders.
Some people also seemed to be scared of these services. Here are some snippets of people’s thoughts on these services. The reviews below have to be taken with a grain of salt for several reasons: (1) I can’t locate the original reviews anymore and (2) it’s a small sample size of people who self-select to give negative reviews of these platforms. Clearly, there were people who had bad experiences on these platforms.
A search for “roomster reviews” led to many of the following tidbits:
After downloading and examining Roomi, I also noticed many Roomi posters had unverified postings like the following and detailed very little about life habits. In my efforts to fact-check the reviews above, I noticed Roomi was clearly not addressing my target renter’s issues with verification and social proof.
Other substitutes and roommate apps
I examined other substitutes, like airbnb and video interviews. I left those out in this write-up due to space constraints. In addition to those substitutes, I examined dozens of roommate apps by downloading them and rating them myself because there wasn’t enough data online about these apps.
Based on this research, I realized that that a product had to build on the painful weaknesses of Craigslist, Facebook, and top roommate apps like Roomi/Roomster.
The concerns focused on two features: (1) Verification — building trust that users were who they said they were and were high quality and (2) Good UX — the site had to be designed so that users weren’t wasting time re-hashing the same details, like location, rent ranges, and life habits.
Furthermore, I was keenly aware that I often did not have the background story of those complaining on these forums or on product review sites. But the data I obtained did not contradict my belief that this product would be especially useful for movers to new cities or those with more limited social networks in those cities. Some examples included: newly graduated students, summer interns, and students going to colleges that did not provide housing (for instance, this is often the case for graduate students). As mentioned previously, because of how close I was to campus life, this was also a demographic to which I had easier access.
Interviewing people and researching the process of how people found roommates generated a lot of ideas for a set of features that could help these users.
I spent the next couple of weeks talking to more people (1) to confirm that this was actually a painful problem and (2) asking these people — often students — to prioritize the feature list I brainstormed based on the key pain points I uncovered.
I conducted a ton of interviews (over 100) and asked if they’d sign up for a service with the features they prioritized.
Then I synthesized my findings into a spreadsheet, discovering that certain features were clearly favored over others. For instance, most people scored seeing mutual friends as one of their top features (ie: a score of 2.58 on average, with 1 being the most desired), while having a mechanism to store video recordings of oneself scored 4.28, one of the lowest desired features. This data helped me understand what features were the most important, especially when I decided to build a product.
For further validation that the problem was indeed a real one, and that the solution I was offering resonated, I ran a Google Adwords campaign. I targeted my ads on a young, urban demographic in cities like Boston and NYC.
I noticed that my click through rate (CTR) and conversion rate was pretty high, especially when I saw that comparable roommate sites got less than a 1% conversion rate, using Spyfu.
Here was Spyfu’s estimation that the keyword “Looking for roommate” had 1–5% click through rates, while my comparable ad using that keyword went to 11%. Granted, the samples sizes were smaller, but the overall rates seemed much higher than the averages I saw on spyfu.
Finally, I brainstormed the riskiest assumptions that could make the proposed product worthless. I stress-tested these assumptions with various advisers and friends in the startup space.
Here were some that I uncovered:
To make this idea a reality, I started developing design mockups — inspired by Airbnb — and shared these design mockups with my friend who used these as a basis to code the website. Having these design mockups — as well as the research I did above summarized into a pitch deck — greatly helped in synchronizing the first build of the product.
Using Marvel App, I observed a large number of interactions of my target demographic (renters and students). Based on these observations, I was able to determine sources of user confusion..
For instance, I noticed that users skipped over the initial information at the top regarding rent, location, and other facts — asking where to find it. I ultimately used icons for that top information so it would be more obvious for folks.
I decided to code the website’s front- and back-end after my technical friend could no longer work on the project due to his imminent wedding. I created the following in Django, which captured and displayed information into a MySQL database. I learned to build in Django through a mixture of Team Treehouse lectures and help from friends and codementors. It was a hard couple of months, but the payoff was satisfying to see the website working.
One of the big sticking points for the working website was the sign-up flow. I used an existing library that let you authenticate using facebook and linkedin, but those pages skipped over the survey that users could fill out to show their living preferences and other rental requirements. Realizing the importance of the flow, I made sure that the sign-up relied on authentication and then immediately directed to that information because users were unlikely to fill that information again later.
Friends and Strangers have been responding positively
This is the part that I’m currently on. I’m now testing the website further. I’m trying to catch additional bugs and then get users to sign up.
(1) Bugs and security. Having taken a few months off to prep for the bar exam and a break afterwards, I noticed that much of my Django learnings deteriorated. Because my day-to-day work as a lawyer will not involve coding, I hesitated as to whether to relearn Django. As a result, I’ll work with referred freelancers and am currently looking for a technical cofounder. I’ll focus my energies on product work, design, and front-end.
(2) Signing up users.
(1) Simplifying and targeting an accessible market increased feedback cycles.
I learned from my furniture startup that these two things are critical.
Due to my product’s simplicity and ease of access, I was able to get a lot of feedback and learn quickly.
(2) Spend even more time in the beginning brainstorming how to simplify and build a manual prototype.
In hindsight, I would have not even involved technology until later and pushed out a simple manual prototype early. For instance
Initially we had the idea of sending out weekly emails, which deterred me from doing things manually because I thought sending out so many emails would be a logistical nightmare. If I had, instead, simply simplified the idea further (see above) and cut the idea of a weekly email, I probably would’ve done the manual job.
(3) Learn basic design and front-end development skills, which increases productivity and credibility.
(4) Build more relationships with back end developers.
It was fun to work with my friend, who has been a software engineer for 5+ years. But given that he had a full-time job, it was hard to get things going more quickly. I brainstormed several options, and eventually decided to learn how to code back-end myself.
It was an opportunity to learn Django. But I burned a lot of time I could have otherwise used to keep iterating and grow the user base. Working with the backend server took a lot of time and a lot of debugging hell. Plus, after spending time away from coding in Django, I lost a lot of knowledge; it’s not like riding a bike for me, and it’s better left to those who do that work full-time. Here are some options I would’ve taken more seriously:
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