Urban Compass, the startup in stealth mode that raised an $8 million seed round from high-profile investors late in 2012, is slowly revealing more details about what it will be doing, and how it will be doing it, when it launches for business later this year — most likely in April.
Today it’s kicking off a recruitment drive for “neighborhood specialists” — data collectors who will also serve as a collective public face of the company and provide other services to businesses in their respective areas. Neighborhood specialists will be hired initially in New York and will be complemented by ambassadors at universities outside the city. They will begin with five each from 20 selected schools in the Northeast of the U.S. who will be working to get students looking to move to New York after graduation to use Urban Compass as part of that move.
The news comes on the heels of Urban Compass appointing Gordon Golub, a long-time real estate professional in New York City, as a senior executive at the company (no specific job title beyond that). His experience in the property market is a sign that housing will definitely be a part of the product agenda for Urban Compass — but repeat entrepreneur, co-founder and exec chairman Ori Allon, previously the director of engineering of Twitter in NYC, promises there will be more.
“This is about a platform, an operational system,” he told me over the weekend. “Real estate is a part of it, but we didn’t just raise all that money to solve a simplistic problem. We want to do something a bit different and impact industries that a lot of people are unhappy with.”
This is where the neighborhood specialists come in. “Well-educated, maybe with experience in hospitality or anything with customer services” are some of Allon’s criteria — although he is careful to stress that these are not sales or marketing roles. Other attributes include “high emotional intelligence and a natural ability to empathize with others,” as well as being entrepreneurial and an “active participant in New York culture that loves exploring and learning about the city.”
Neighborhood specialists will be combing their areas for all kinds of information about places to go and things to do, as well as exploring the insides and outsides of lots of properties — public and private, commercial and non-commercial.
And, as we noted when we first wrote about Urban Compass, to help with their jobs, the specialists will have access to an app made specifically for them — software that will help capture and organise the data in exactly the way that Urban Compass intends to use it.
The idea of humans equipped with devices and some kind of automation behind the data collection is a little reminiscent of the roaming mobile cameras that have combed the world’s streets and elsewhere to record images for Street View and data for Google Maps. Google — where Allon once worked after the company ‘acquired’ his pre-startup search algorithm PhD thesis — built its business first and foremost on algorithms to organise other people’s data, but it has also turned to gathering its own proprietary information.
Allon agrees that this is not unlike what Urban Compass is doing, but for a different, still-unchartered territory (literally and figuratively): “At the end of the day, we want to make people more knowledgeable about a place, but that data is just not there right now,” he said. “We’re talking about a unique data set, and the only way to get it is to have people on the ground.”
So what more is there in the cards that can be revealed now? More hiring, both before and after the April launch, and in more areas: Jason Davis, the founder of small business ad firm Adtuitive (sold to Etsy), signed on as an advisor potentially points to Urban Compass monetizing its service, at least in part, through advertising. Since some of the other big players in local services, such as Foursquare (reportedly making only $2 million in sales 2012), have found revenue hard to come by, getting this part right early on may turn out to be as crucial as amassing the data itself.
In total, Urban Compass now has just over 20 people working on it right now, with other hires including more engineers as well as strategy and business development people. The aim is for Urban Compass to bump up to 40 by April and have 200 employees a year from now.