Jameel Farruk has an infectious smile. He can tell you where to get the best grub in town. He's quick to get up to help a woman having difficulty navigating a baby carriage.
He seems like exactly the guy you want marketing your web business. Especially an apartment-hunting business, where a helpful attitude can go a long way.
Farruk is the chief marketer for Inhabi, the web company he and partner David Friedman launched last fall. While Farruk, who has experience in ad, media and PR work, may be the face of Inhabi, he claims that Friedman, whose background is in real estate and artificial intelligence, is the brains.
The Inhabi idea is a simple one: matching renters with potential properties and landlords by collecting data from both parties. The information is then run through an algorithm, pairing users with units based on needs, interests and lifestyles, much like an online dating site. Inhabi is one of five companies making a presentation at Switch Philly 3, a Philly Tech Week event where startups demo their ideas and products to compete for prizes to help grow their businesses.
"The inception of the idea, like some great ideas, came off the failure of another," says Farruk, who met Friedman while working with him at a mobile-payment startup that never quite got off the ground. Friedman introduced Farruk to some of the niche-market solutions happening in the real-estate world, and they both saw an opportunity in rentals.
At the start, they recognized how difficult it can be for apartment-seekers to connect with landlords and real-estate agents. "There was a general lack of effective communication tools, and so the first iteration of Inhabi was one geared toward helping people with scheduling appointments. In its infancy, it was a pretty traditional Internet listing service." Thus, Inhabi began as kind of a "drag-and-drop" scheduler.
The focus in those early developmental stages was on building a product that was approachable and user-friendly. "We spent a lot of time on the user interface and experience, mimicking some of our idols in the field, but really going for a fresh, alternative approach to the big giants out there that really haven't made too many dramatic improvements to the look and feel of their sites."
In testing their product, Farruk and Friedman found that many landlords wanted to know more about potential renters before committing ?to an appointment. This got them wondering: "How much information can we provide a landlord, and how much information is the tenant willing to give?" says Farruk. "We took a very eHarmony approach to renting, and Inhabi was born."
Now, when users log in to the site, they are asked to build a personality profile by answering questions not only about price range and type of housing, but also about specific wants and needs, like proximity to certain restaurants or businesses, pet-friendliness, parking, hardwood flooring, and so forth. That information then gets processed through Friedman's algorithm to produce a list of five or six properties that have a high probability of being what the renter is looking for.
Inhabi also benefits landlords by providing a database for property owners to look to instead of having to wait for clients to come to them. "And that," says Farruk, "is where our profit centers come in; that's where we make money, by profiling information about our renters while protecting anonymity. When they find someone they want to contact, landlords ping us. We then facilitate the communication."
Since going live last September, Inhabi has grown steadily, gaining hundreds of new users daily. The service is currently offered only in Philadelphia, and while ideas about a mobile version are brewing, Farruk says that they are still trying to nail down the best online experience. Doing so involves a lot of communication with users, something both Farruk and Friedman have stressed from the start. "We have a very different philosophy that we subscribe to. It's not, 'Build the product to grow business;' it's, 'Grow business and then let it dictate what the product does.' So, every change on the site is a result of user feedback." Consequently, Farruk spends a lot of time making one-on-one contact with Inhabi's clients. "I think if you have a consumer-facing platform, every product decision has to be made by exactly what the consumer tells you. We're consistently trying to perfect it."
Switch Philly 3, Wed., April 25, 6 p.m., $10, with judges Mayor Michael Nutter, Josh Kopelman and Ellen Weber, Levitt Auditorium, Gershman Hall, University of the Arts, 401 S. Broad St., phillytechweek.com.