I very nearly dropped the KoboRent.com domain this month. I don’t know how long it was in grace period. I had intended for it to drop but somehow I caught feelings and had to retrieve it yesterday, along with the nostalgia that riddled the entire time we were saddled with trying to make it work.
Running Koborent i realized, you get a whole lot of fat MAYBES when you build a self-fulfilling product rather than a market available one. Building for your creative satisfaction as against a level by level market appetite. Experience sales people don’t suffer this illusion; selling a product is really all that matters.
However, am still strictly a product person, i believe “well engineered products will save US”. I’ll bet twice on strong tech that wants to understand a market than a seasoned marketer that is attempting to use tech to round up a market.
– KoboRent at first thought was a simple whiteboard for property listings. Our initial bet was simple, the same agents that would chalk their property inventory on the sides of buildings or pavements. Or roll out to-let boards in front of their stores listing available lands and rent could also spare 2 text messages (8 naira total) to send same listings to a notice board online for more visibility.
A Quick Demo -
– so an agent sends his property via text message to our mobile number (it could be locally hosted or virtual), we grab that content after an event call, parse it and make [property] sense out of it, then we arrange it and show it on an online board in property format.
Our first iteration was so silly, we had agents using # seperators and access codes in their property string. It took upto 5 minutes to format a text.
(i even forgot we required access codes 65938856 in that first model), i think we simply realized in the later iterations why assign access codes when their phone numbers could serve as unique identifiers, this was 5 years ago. Our very first Integration.
I first demo-ed at an agent association meeting in Agege, our adamant focus then was that our product was for the low level property agents who outnumbered the registered outfits 100 to 1. This wasn’t bad thinking, but if you’re building for people that don’t have money to dash you, better make sure you’re building right, because they won’t pay for your mistakes.
The then VP of the association Mr Jide who later became President of the Association had several more interaction in the years that followed that I genuinely believed he saw a lot that could help his agents (Association) do better business, more volume and not be left out. He wanted it to work for his people.
For me, the goal was simple, even the poorest agent would look for 200 Naira to drop for monthly access, if getting his property online gets him/her leads by the day. These agents live on leads day in, day out. If they don’t have what you’re looking for they get shop for someone who has, adding to the “mouth wey go chop commission”. It can be as much as half a dozen guys on a 60K rental.
But these folks would argue over 50 naira association stamps they had to buy some quarterly, and the one thousand they paid yearly as levy. It was depressing banking on these guys as paying KoboRent agents. I started looking at a revenue structure that faced the users very early on.
That outing was dull, and my first reaction was to remove the limitations and make adding properties as easy as sending a text message, no format, no pretext, no access codes. So we fumbled with training the script (basic regex, more advanced parsing function) to read text messages more humanly, to create a better parser without any need for # separators or formats, I think in the course of things we must have gone through well over 10,000 property messages to train the script.
And It got really better. No kidding. Like really really good. We could very easily craft the same parser for any target market…say farmers updating their inventory from a remote village to a public board online and it would work.
WE GONE MAD!
You see, this point was where we went crazy. Okay, I went crazy. I took it up to maddening notches, all the Iterations that followed from this junction wasn’t for the market - I’d like to tell myself that it was - but I was building for myself at this point. I guess, the fascination of building something really original overwhelmed.
we added property search via text (defly needful)
we added endpoints for agents to register themselves via text message (cool but …)
property edit/update via text e.g Update price 700k, would replace whatever was sent as price initially (Not really needed - It was too early to think that agents would spend another 4 Naira just to update already entered details)
we expanded on the web view to take street names from the text messages and make a Google maps off it. (Very unnecessary)
we added multi number support, so registered agents can use other mobile numbers to add in properties ( who send us?)
duplicate property catch (too early)
CRUD functionality for property via email ie you could add, edit, suspend your properties via email by sending emails with certain loose format to email@example.com ( f’ing Needless)
we started targeting hostels located near University campus, modified the parser to identify hostel listings, so we could list them differently (too much already)
then someone convinced me it was easier to raise money than to run the business especially with a startup with such progressive functionality. (Oga Misdirection).
The list goes on.
Dependencies kept piling, also cost, though we were bootstrapped. Before we knew it we found we were now competing as a purely web based platform, this was never my original intent. However, even on the web we tried to do everything a little more. We jumped on WhatsApp unofficial API back then and built a bot to assist agents in entering properties on WhatsApp.
The same protocol was used for our reps to add images, living and street condition data on inspected properties via WhatsApp. Our bot got booted out of WA I think the first week. We moved to telegram.
– let me explain what we needed reps for, so after a property is entered by an agent, we had someone close by go and confirm the property. This person will get a list of properties to confirm based on his/her jurisdiction (area) every day. So this 3rd party will check off on a number of living conditions and street conditions that the bot will ask about. All these happened without intervention.
And the results were available online and can also be retrieved via SMS (deep search).
– I was excited about this feature because on a feature phone without image view possible, a user can still get a few personal experience about the property, for instance;
– if the landlord lives in the building
– if NEPA is pre-paid…etc
This would help user make better choices. But the problem was paying the reps. If you wanted someone to be available for property confirmation, you had to pay out of pocket. Nobody will wait till an inspected property is rented/sold before they cashout. Apparently people weren’t that jobless.
When we couldn’t scale this system with off-site reps, we taught to shift the load of entering data to the agents themselves that added it. While most of the agents were still grappling with using the SMS features we had to burden them with our Telegram protocol. Bad Idea!
We also built them a programmed excel sheet that works to auto-save the property listings they added on the excel and map them as properties on KoboRent directly. They could also add images via excel. Not so bad idea!
DON’T ASK FOR PERMISSION, Just Burn OUT.
We didn’t really ask anybody before building all of these, but that wasn’t the major problem, infact agents were surprisingly excited for some of it, they started requesting for the excelsheet, especially secretaries of Realtors with several properties under management who won’t be bothered to add properties one by one via SMS or go online and start tinkering with forms. But what we failed to factor was the cost of troubleshooting their education. Each new functionality would require too much customer education that we stopped supporting their many enquiries. To state again we were bootstrapped.
We just felt some will figure it out, others won’t. If they don’t, no wahala.
While all this was going on, we were chasing a VAS placement. We had a full mobile based product that was fit to sell as a VAS offering for any Telco.
While we were chasing the VAS people, we tailored some products to appeal specifically to them.
Since we had more agents than we knew what we could do with, Infact we had more agents than properties at some point, we created a simple SMS product called BROADCAST, where a property seeker could send a property blast via SMS and we will parse the text determine the area of request, and send the request to our top 3 agents in that area. If no agents is found in that area it will look for the nearest area with agents. Some small magic with lat, long coordinate for major cities in Nigeria.
So right from your phone you can type and send;
- Broadcast 3 bedroom flat Serviced in Yaba, budget 600k.
– our system will parse Yaba out as area and send your request pre-formatted as below to the top 3 agents in Yaba. If there’s are more than top 3 agents in that area (yes, the system auto scored agents based on some prefills and activities) it will rotate the requests as they come in.
The agent will get the request like this;
- Hello #agentname I am looking for 3 bedroom flat Serviced in Yaba, budget 600k, pls call me - #sendernumber
We personalized the text so the agents wouldn’t know it was a system generated message. Once it’s looks like it’s coming from a ready customer they usually called sooner. All of the VAS guys loved it, they really thought it could run.
We chased the VAS thing for months, met with the guys at Salt & Einstein. I didn’t know anyone, still don’t. Just wasn’t bothered which door I had to beat done to start selling something.
After 2 months of nothingness, we were told that technical partners couldn’t do the integration. However, we continued with some other guys, what we really found out was that they were worried about our credibility in the market, fraudulent listings etc …which was purely valid. If someone got defrauded off a KoboRent listings, do they hold the telcos responsible or the VAS or us?
It was a real blow. But I had asked if we got a reputable property brand to validate our listing would they be willing to ball? The answer was Yes. Infact I asked explicitly if we got Castles magazine to validate all our listings. Without breaking form, my next plan was to get whomsoever was in charge of Castles to meet with us. But the reality was that we had waned a lot of energy and resource thus far and I had to find something quickly within the business that works regardless of VAS.
NEVER KNEW JACK…
I don’t know jack about real estate, I just believed i could effect it’s distribution. I wasn’t gonna start chasing realty deals to save us. But I was.
So we thought of the fastest selling realty product; Lands. Having blurred the lines where we didn’t want to operate as an online product but as a mobile based product with strong native offerings, we entered into marketing Estates lands for sale.
For that too we tried to do something unique;
That I didn’t get killed by snakes or whatever else that lived in those thick remoteness then, I shall live long…
UPDATE: Found some more images…
Also trying to transfer a lead and secure your cut in the chain of a sale was also another lesson on Realty 101.
At this point, I was naturally exhausted. Our easiest ticket was the VAS play, but that was slipping away.
I half-assed tried to enter KoboRent for some startup pitch. Maybe getting into any would register as Progress and boost spirits. That didn’t work out either. Am not built for pitches.
However I had one last hurrah in me before I let broken bones crackle. Since validation was the key to the telcos giving us a shot. I spent my last wind getting a seat down with Mr. Dipo of Castles magazine, no references i just kept bargering. We got that sitdown after much, I remember him saying the day he finally gave us audience that he doesn’t know if allowing the meet will also open doors for him whereever he sort audience, great guy all around.
Great thing was he didn’t mind us using their agents - and it had to be exclusive, he just didn’t want the process to disrupt their almost religious routine and adherence to cost and process, I had a plan for that but it was going to take another fresh round of full iterations. We never finished that discussion on whether KoboRent can become a Castle’s brand or just leverage its brand and he definitely didn’t mind us reworking their online presence, as we offered for free, i was going to upgrade it with KoboRent tech. But alas I was spent. I could keep going but I just froze. Flat out of fuel.
It’s been well over a year now. If not almost 2. I think I’ll give Mr Dipo a call, but not about KoboRent, i haven’t quite recovered, just to greet him and family.