Just getting warmed up...

2017 was a banner year for Urbandoor.  We grew our marketplace to over 700 markets with more to come. This global network, combined with the continued evolution of our product, means we continue to deliver a seamless booking experience for travelers and transferees.  The partnerships we continue to launch with some of the largest multifamily operators means we’re making apartments more accessible than they have ever been before to the travel and relocation markets.

As I meet with more and more of our customers, it is clear that regardless of the length of stay or what city you’re in, today’s traveler wants a place to live.  Hotel rooms are great for a few nights, and vacation rentals are perfect for vacation. When it comes to the future of business travel and relocation, our hospitality providers deliver a turnkey apartment experience that we are making easier and easier through our technology.

On the customer side, our partnerships with travel management and relocation companies continue to expand as they see the potential of our technology and approach.  This isn’t the status quo with a new take on it. We see the opportunity for the entire corporate housing and multifamily industries to combine globally with a marketplace that understands the potential and the value they deliver every day to guests.  Our travel and relocation partners see the benefits of leveraging Urbandoor to deliver incredible value to their clients.  

Looking forward to 2018, I can’t help that feeling that we are just getting started.  We were honored to be mentioned as one of the “Ones to watch in 2018” by the Serviced Apartment News.  It says my name but I could not do anything without my team, so I am proud to say this is one of the best team efforts I have ever been a part of.  What you can expect from us in 2018 is more and more instantly available inventory and an easy to use platform to access and book serviced apartments around the world.

Apartments are not hotels, but they should be as easy to discover, book and experience.  Our corporate housing providers and multifamily partners are leveraging our tools and platform to make this a reality.  I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished in 2017 but I’m beyond excited about what we’ll do in 2018 and beyond.

From the entire team at Urbandoor: Thank you to those who worked with us this year, and here’s to a great 2018.

$800 a night?!

We're hearing from some Urbandoor customers that hotels in certain cities right now cost $800 a night or more. I'm not talking about The Ritz, I'm talking about a well furnished, well-appointed room in an area near businesses and airports.

Come to think of it, what I'm describing sounds a lot like a Serviced Apartment booked through Urbandoor, but without the price tag.

What we're doing, is making it as easy to book an apartment as it is to book a hotel. You come to expect things from hotel booking: Simple interface, responsive interaction, customer support, etc. What you don't expect is to get a nightly rate that's two to three times your approved budget. We're working with Corporate Housing Providers and multifamily owners to bring a better level of experience to booking an apartment. Why book an overpriced hotel or vacation rental when what you really want is a clean, well-furnished place to live on your next business trip or extended project?

Hotels are great for short stays - but they don't feel like home, and at certain times, they are cost prohibitive, even for the most flexible budgets. Just this week we had someone book from an airplane en route to the San Francisco Bay Area. Why? Their hotel cost was astronomical and they tried Urbandoor as a last minute effort to save some money. The guest was able to find and book an apartment, much like you would a hotel, before landing.  That’s right, booking secured, money saved, and tension relieved all before getting off the plane!  We’re on a mission to make booking apartments easier.  If you haven’t booked an apartment on Urbandoor.  Try us today!

A place to live

Coming off a few days in Las Vegas and the first National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) Conference for me and the Urbandoor team, I hit this week running with excitement for what’s ahead for Urbandoor, and our opportunity with multifamily. NMHC describes OPTECH as “the premier destination for what’s next in multifamily” and this is what I felt all week: The energy around what’s next.

The best way to frame the week came from the keynote by Peter Diamandes. A true entrepreneur and visionary Peter gave a fantastic keynote on Thursday about the Implications of Accelerated Change. Peter looked at technology and how our economies and planet are changing at an increasingly accelerated rate. From the Model T to AI to self-driving Ubers; he mapped out the exponential rate at which our world is evolving in every way. He said the way businesses need to think about themselves is changing and that if you’re not truly thinking more openly about what your business and your industry do, then you won’t evolve. For multifamily, he posed the question to the audience to think about whether you’re in the business of signing long-term leases or whether you’re in the business of helping people find a place to live.

A place to live.

That’s what Urbandoor is all about. Sure we’re doing this now through our marketplace and making it as easy to book an apartment as it is to book a hotel or Airbnb - but our mission and our vision has always been about the evolving world of accommodations and the need for businesses to help their employees find “a place to live”. Hotels are great for up to a week but beyond that, you want more. You want a place to live. And a place to live for work travel is different than a place to live for vacation.

And that’s what motivates me and the entire Urbandoor team, to get up every day. We’re software people but at the core, we’re all focused on the hospitality we’re helping to deliver. The future for multifamily is changing and will change faster than we all can imagine. Short term vs long term, online bookings, amenities, local experiences, drone-enabled package delivery, automated drop offs and more. All of this will change in the coming years and our hope with Urbandoor is to help be a part of that change, making it easier to find a place to live on your next extended work trip or relocation.

Joining the Worldwide ERC Board

Earlier this month, Worldwide ERC appointed three new board members and I was honored to be one of them. I join Kerwin Guillermo, Director, Global Employee Mobility, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Singapore; and Andrew Walker, GMS, Global Mobility Leader, EY, New York, NY in a three-year term. Full details can be seen here.

More important than the title or appointment, is the work we’ll get to do to help an industry grow and evolve. Businesses across every industry are watching as change comes faster and faster. Having worked in a variety of startups that I grew from an idea into businesses and ultimately acquisitions by Yahoo! and Cisco, I’ve seen all sides of innovation and evolution. It’s not easy, but change is inevitable and companies and organizations that embrace continued learning, and change, will win in the end.

Coming off of the first Board meeting this week, I was excited to hear first hand how Worldwide ERC is looking to grow the industry. Additionally, the collaboration and learning among my fellow board members were inspiring to see. The team at Urbandoor has been investing our time and effort to learn and deliver innovation and meaningful technology to the multifamily and serviced apartment world. Working with Worldwide ERC is another way we can help, and learn how to connect these innovations in the apartment world to improve Mobility worldwide.  


If you’re in Chicago this week at the Global Workforce Symposium, please come visit me and the team at booth #445 and tell us what we can do to help.

Price and Choice

Employees want choice. Employers want cost-effective business-first accommodations. So how do you deliver both? With Urbandoor.

When it comes to business accommodations, we continue to hear talk about the need for ‘alternative accommodations’ that meet the business traveler & transferee needs while also meeting the needs of their companies. Historically businesses have looked at two different choices; Hotels and Corporate Apartments, with a third choice entering in more recently - vacation rentals like Airbnb.

Each choice has its own list of benefits whether it be location, amenities, or a specific feature (room service, for example) that the traveler or transferee prefers. For the corporate customers and agencies who use Urbandoor, they find that the accommodations meet and often exceed the expectations for business travel and relocation (no yurts or vacation rentals here) so the decision often comes down to price.

As Urbandoor has grown over the past year, we’re excited to start to look at our pricing in key markets as it compares to Hotels and Airbnb. To do this, we started with the historical average ADR (Average Daily Rate) at Urbandoor. This data includes bookings starting in January 2016 through today and is inclusive of all taxes, fees, and add-ons (i.e., pets and parking). We then compared it to the 2016 BTN (Business Traveler News) Hotel pricing (using the average for each city plus all Sales Tax, Occupancy Tax & Surcharges) and the 2016 Airbnb average for each city (taken from 2016 STR Airbnb & Hotel performance).

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The results were not surprising: ADRs at Urbandoor are consistently (and in many cases, significantly) lower than Hotels - with an average savings of $105 per night across the seven sample cities. As expected, Airbnb is the least costly of all three with an average of $43 saved per night vs Urbandoor. There are a few key takeaways for the travel and relocation professional here:

  • You have a choice: Airbnb has proven that people want more choice when they travel. Hotels are great for short stays but for extended business travel, project work and relocations, more space is needed.

  • You can book that choice for less:  With Urbandoor, you can book a professionally managed, fully furnished and serviced apartment for much less than a hotel, and in many cases, at competitive rates to a vacation rental. Additionally, many of the properties on Urbandoor have amenities like fitness centers, media rooms and dog parks. The space your employees or clients need with the duty of care your business demands.

  • San Francisco is crazy: As we are based in San Francisco, we’re acutely aware of the cost of rentals in and around the city. Hotels and Airbnb are the highest when compared  to our other sample cities. Not a surprise to us, unfortunately. But what was nice to see was how much less our Urbandoor ADR is. Come do your work in San Francisco and enjoy the benefits of a fully furnished apartment!

In a following post, we’ll look at stay length across these cities to see how that compares to other choices that exist for the business professional.

Sources:

  • STR Airbnb & Hotel performance; An analysis of proprietary data in 13 global markets, link

  • BTN 2017 Corporate Travel Index, link

Consistency is King

Amidst the heat wave and father’s day activities this weekend, I took some time to read the article about Airbnb in the New York Times: 'Airbnb tries to behave more like a hotel'. It’s a timely read about the evolution of a platform, the impact that evolution is having on hosts, and the growing demands of travelers as alternative accommodations become the norm. As the team at Urbandoor continues to develop software to make serviced apartments easier to access, book and manage, I couldn’t be more excited about where we are in serving the business traveler's needs.

Vacation rentals and the tools to offer them to travelers have existed well before Airbnb. VRBO, Craigslist, and before that newspapers, all had ways that someone could offer their home as a lodging choice for leisure travelers. Airbnb changed the industry (and in many ways the nature of travel accommodations, cities, real estate and more…) by creating a platform that made it easy to find and experience a vacation rental. From their humble beginnings as a place to rent a bedroom or some couch space, Airbnb now claims over a million ‘heads in beds’ on any given night. They have become the de-facto term for the home-sharing industry.

Our goal at Urbandoor is much the same: We think it should be easier to find and experience serviced apartments. Why? Because vacation homes are great for vacations, but for business travel of a week or more, the customer wants consistency, dependability and a professional experience. Serviced apartments provide that, and have done so for a long time.  We didn’t invent the serviced apartment and there are plenty of sites and companies that you can find across the internet to help you book one. So why are we doing this?

Urbandoor exists because no one has ever brought the serviced apartment inventory together across the industry. Most of the technology rests with what I’ll call ‘Provider Platforms’. These are booking sites that a provider has built for their own inventory. Some of them allow 3rd party inventory but those 3rd parties are competing for business with the primary inventory of the platform. The result: Fragmentation.

Urbandoor is a pure platform with none of our own inventory. Like Airbnb, we look to bring together inventory from across the industry and make it easy and enjoyable to book and experience. Unlike Airbnb, you’ll never find a vacation rental or second home on Urbandoor. All of our inventory is managed by professional property/apartment managers and we only target business customers. We are laser focused on making the serviced apartment, a clear and easy choice for an alternative to hotels. We’re already getting great feedback from our guests in some of our more than 500 markets and hearing that even the Airbnb customer wants ‘consistency’ is music to my ears.  

Who cares about duty of care?

When it comes to business travel these days, there are two topics on everyone’s mind: Alternative accommodations and duty of care. Taking care of your employees is paramount as they travel for work and a company’s policies on accommodations are important as they manage travel and deliver employee satisfaction. The hotel industry has long focused on safety measures with on-property staff dedicated to monitoring conditions as well as procedures for emergencies. But what about the growing area of alternative accommodations?

As alternatives to hotels become more and more a part of the travel ecosystem, how do travel and mobility managers get the duty of care compliance they need. Companies are grappling with matching duty of care with their employees desires for alternative accommodations. When it comes to duty of care, two factors dominate the conversation.

Lodging Type

I spent the first part of my career opening hotels for some of Starwood’s marquee brands such as W and St. Regis. With global chain-scale hotel companies, safety and security are integral to the experience. Most of the time, the mechanics lie behind the scenes with teams and systems monitoring security feeds and patrolling the grounds. We take much of this for granted as part of the hotel experience. The tricks of the trade have evolved over time to ensure the guest’s overall safety and as travelers, we (and our employers) rest assured when we check in.

Business travelers searching for stays beyond a typical transient hotel stay are falling back on what they know from their leisure experiences: Vacation rental websites. This growing demand from the employees brings with it a new source of concern for companies.

Vacation rental sites cannot deliver a consistent, reliable business travel experience.  Individual property owners are not professional property managers, and their private or vacation homes are not commercial buildings. In many cases, the host is subletting their home or apartment without the consent of their property owner, manager or HOA. The consistency of lodging and a lack of standards are a real concern.

At Urbandoor, we are solving this with a network of professional serviced apartment providers who are solely focused on business-ready accommodations. Our standards cover everything from the property itself, to the furnishings and apartment amenities and our Hospitality and Platform Success teams work day and night to ensure that every apartment on our platform meets the same set of requirements. We recently added insurance for damages and a guest’s belongings during every stay. You can learn more about this addition to our service here.

Traveler Tracking

With travelers booking 60% of their extended lodging outside the managed travel program, how can a Travel Manager know where those travelers are at any given time? Further, when issues arise, as they, unfortunately, are sure to, how does a Travel Manager reconcile off-policy travel with the safety and security of their employees?

When your project or extended travel needs require more than a hotel, Urbandoor is your answer. Urbandoor works exclusively with professional Corporate Housing Providers and institutional owners/managers of apartment buildings, offering serviced apartments designed for business travel. When you book with Urbandoor, all of your traveler information is easily accessible on your dashboard. Across countries and providers, you have one place to track your extended stay travelers. Further, our platform is built entirely upon APIs so traveler data is exportable to any system a corporate customer or TMC desires.

We care about duty of care

I’m excited at the development of our platform and our relationship with providers who understand the importance of duty of care. As we bring Serviced Apartments into the forefront of alternative accommodations, I’m looking forward to bringing the best of hotel hospitality, service and comfort to our guests around the word.

Serviced Apartments are the new alternative.

I had the chance to attend GBTA Canada this week and got to talk with fellow suppliers, travel managers, TMCs and a variety of industry veterans.  With over 800 of the top companies and suppliers in the Canadian market, GBTA Canada was a stellar event where two key themes in travel kept coming up; Duty of care and alternative accommodations. While Urbandoor has great solutions to the Duty of care concerns for booking outside of hotels, the notion of what an alternative accommodation is, can be a somewhat more complicated concept.

Below is an interview I did with GBTA Executive Director & COO, Mike McCormick where we touch on the notion of alternative accommodations and hint at the future. I truly believe that just as Uber and Lyft started as alternatives and are becoming the norm in transportation, so too will Urbandoor and Serviced Apartments become simply another core choice for business travel and relocation.

Uber and Lyft - which are essentially ‘alternative transportation’ companies - succeeded by making more supply available to fill the pent-up demand for paid rides. By making it easier for existing inventory (such as Limo drivers) and new inventory (such as your friendly neighborhood Uber driver) to connect with individuals needing rides, Uber and Lyft were able to increase the overall size of the market, and deliver exceptional experiences to customers around the world.

At Urbandoor we’re addressing the accommodations challenge with a similar approach. We’re solving traveler needs with access to a global network of professionally managed, Serviced Apartments. Like Uber/Lyft, we’re opening up inventory that didn’t previously exist (such as vacant apartments from top tier owners/operator) as well as working with existing Serviced Apartment providers to make their inventory more accessible. The results? The consistency of the accommodation and service with Duty of care compliance in a comfortable apartment - a great ‘alternative’ when business travel requires a stay beyond a few days.

The future is now: Reflecting on ERC Americas and a week in Atlanta

As we are now back in California I’m reflecting on a great week in Atlanta and our third ERC conference.

Our team was excited to speak with so many RMCs, Corporate Housing Providers, Mobility managers and fellow technology vendors. The one conversation that kept coming up was:  “Where is our industry headed in the future?”. The exciting part to me is that the future is now -  and this is what drives us at Urbandoor. Our focus on making it easy for corporate housing providers to offer and operate serviced apartments for relocation isn’t just digitizing a bid process. We’re making finding and experiencing a serviced apartment as easy as booking a hotel on Booking.com or Expedia.  Essentially, we are doing for apartments what Opentable did for booking a table at a restaurant: Make it so accessible that you make serviced apartments your first choice.  Many corporate housing providers today are spending meaningful time integrating with platforms to offload their vacancy on leisure travel sites that require updating price and availability daily.  We’re excited that providers on Urbandoor are instead investing their time in Urbandoor to deliver this real-time booking experience for relocation companies and their clients versus a few leisure travel stays.  No need to wait, the future is here today.  

We hosted a panel on Wednesday with a great dialogue between Robyn Joliat from ABODA and Andrew Livingstone from Greystar. What really came out during this conversation, was how the demand for alternative accommodations is growing and progressive multifamily owners and operators, like Greystar, are working to make it easier to open access to their inventory. Today the process is complicated and cumbersome and even the best providers like ABODA, put large amounts of resources into acquiring inventory every year. One of the providers in the audience even stated that “they felt like a vendor versus a customer” in many cases even though they were the one writing the check.  This is a challenge when Corporate Housing Providers sign tens of thousands of leases every year and they aren’t getting the relationship they need. If, through the introduction of new tools and technology, this process can be simplified, then providers can streamline the supply chain and put more time into delivering great experiences, not chasing leases around. We’re excited about the opportunities to contribute to the growth of relocation and we have a lot planned for the summer to make it easier to offer and operate serviced apartments.


I can’t end without thanking the ERC team and while I’m sure I’ll leave people out, a big thanks to Micki, Cici, Shab and everyone else who helped us with our booth, panel preparation and everything else they did to make our week smooth and productive.  We’re excited. The future is now.

Real Innovation: Improving the customer experience in mobility

How many times has the word “innovation” been mentioned in global mobility?

It seems from talking to long-time industry experts that every so often, a new company will announce the latest and greatest innovation with great fanfare. But take a closer look and most of the time it’s a nice improvement, sure. But does the innovation change the game? No.

This familiar scenario is currently playing out in the corporate housing space.  Platforms have been built touting a new way of doing things. But is it true innovation, or are we simply observing a digitization of an analog process? Of course applying technology to a manual process is certainly an improvement - but does it truly improve the process for everyone involved?

At Urbandoor we are changing the traditional process of corporate housing to improve the experience for everyone involved. Looking back on our first ERC conference a year ago, we’re excited at the progress and what we’re bringing to Atlanta this year.

TRANSPARENCY

Part of our path to improvement is to allow RMC teams to enjoy greater visibility to the corporate housing process. With Urbandoor, the relocation service teams receive automated updates throughout the process including; check-in notifications, issue occurrences, and resolutions, and visibility to in the notice to vacate phase.

We’ve automated many processes that today are manual but we didn’t stop there. The organization of those processes and the notifications of their outcomes is all in your Urbandoor dashboard.

INSTANT BOOKING

With true instant booking launching this summer, RMCs no longer have to wait for options to present to the transferring employee. Now you can present options instantly, or even instantly book and secure an apartment for a last minute transferee. This helps you offer a differentiated experience versus traditional sourcing and combat the fact more and more transferees are asking to find temporary housing themselves.  It is not a secret that Airbnb wants into this market. Urbandoor’s goal is to not only help an RMC be the hero for their client but also enable corporate housing companies to easily offer and operate their apartments and be competitive in this quickly evolving market.

Our recent partnerships in the travel management space reflect this philosophy and how we are changing the traditional process in corporate housing. Find out more at urbandoor.co or come see us this week in Atlanta at the ERC Americas Conference.

Thoughts and reflections on #GWS16

After an incredible week in Washington D.C., I’ve taken some time to download and reflect on Urbandoor’s first Worldwide ERC Global Workforce Symposium. Looking back on all the great people I met, I wanted to share some gratitude, memories and thoughts as I reconnect with the Urbandoor team. We’ve spent this week digging in to make tons of upgrades and improvements based on the feedback we received from all of the conversations in Washington.

First some gratitude. I’ve been fortunate to be part of several different industries throughout my career. First with Jumpcut, and then Yahoo!, I was on the consumer technology side first focused on media and then communications and communities. At Versly, and then Cisco, it was in enterprise software focused on collaboration. Now with Urbandoor, it’s industry platform for Serviced Apartments working with Relocation and Mobility/Travel on one side and incredible providers on the other. In each industry, conferences like the Global Workforce Symposium are critical for building relationships and continued learning. Putting on a conference is a TON of work. So from all of us at Urbandoor, thank you to the entire Worldwide ERC team for the work you put in to make our week in D.C. seamless, fun and fruitful.

For the memories, I’d have to start by looking back to the Americas Mobility Conference in Houston, TX. As this was our first Worldwide ERC event, we were both excited to demonstrate early versions of our software, as well as demos of what we planned to build. Our founding team has backgrounds at companies like Cisco, Yahoo!, Google and Strava so while we had (and have) no doubt about our ability to build world-class software, we hadn’t spun up our full team yet and as such, we were showing our early product, prototypes and designs. At that point, we had real customers and transactions but our software was in a V1 state, so we were eager for feedback. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but the features and upgrade requests were heard loud and clear.  We returned from Houston energized, but knowing the real work was ahead of us.

Fast forward to last week and I was so proud to just open up our platform and let people play around. Less than 5 months later we introduced a dynamic platform where relocation specialists could search over 1,000 properties around the country (and now even in London!) and compare prices and availability across properties and providers. The Urbandoor team had worked tirelessly all summer and it showed. Again the response from the Global Workforce Symposium attendees was positive but this time, we had the product to back it up. And we’re just getting started...

As soon as we returned, we sat down with our Product and Sales team to review all of our notes, conversations and takeaways. While conferences like the Global Workforce Symposium are critical for growing our business and making connections, they also serve as an opportunity to gain insights from talking to current and potential Customers and Providers about how they use our platform. Our Sales team was constantly listening, taking notes and then re-convening each evening (on Wednesday it was over a beer watching the Giants play) to synthesize the feedback. Then, upon our return, we walked the Product, Design and Development team through our feedback . From there, our Design team started working to incorporate some of the needs and requests so that our platform can continue to learn and improve. We’ll be pushing out some updates as early as next week based on the feedback we received.

We’ve got thousands of more properties we’re bringing on, and while we’re excited at the response, we feel like we’re just getting started (likely because we *are* just getting started). As I discussed with David, Kerwin and Dina at Disruptors in Mobility; we are in the midst of a Market Transition and we’re excited to be a part of it, and at the opportunities ahead.  

What is going on in there?

From the dawn of science, the question always comes back: “What is going on in there?” How fast is the anesthetic going into the patient? What propulsion systems are being fired by the rocket? What pages are shoppers looking at? And now that software is eating the world, what is going on inside that application?

In any business, it is critical to know how business is going - how many people are coming to your site? How long do they stay? What attracts their attention? What leaves them indifferent? How often do they transact, and for how much? In a startup, it can mean the difference between taking off and dying off.

Urbandoor is an online marketplace that matches companies looking for serviced apartments with providers of such apartments and lets them transact quickly and easily. We have three main categories of Customers. First, there are Relocation Management Companies (RMC's), Travel Management Companies (TMC's) or small businesses booking on behalf of guests. Second, the guest themselves who sometimes book, and always require a smooth end-to-end experience from confirmation to check out. Finally, there are the Providers who work on our platform and are our partners and customers all at once. Our mission is to keep all three happy at all times.

Business Events for Customer Success

One of the most critical moments for us is when a customer or a provider has just been onboarded and as a result, they are new to the platform. We have a Customer Success team whose sole job is to make sure that Customers and Providers have smooth, successful transactions. One of the tools we built to assist this is an alert system that lets us know when recently onboarded Customers and Providers are using the platform, and what they are doing.

As I hope this post is both interesting and informative (going so far as to show others how to implement similar tools), I want to spell out some important privacy considerations before going any further. First, any data that is collected about the customer that is personally identifiable should be kept in a secure database that is only accessible by authorized individuals in your company, and your company only. The specific folks who get access to the business events should be your customer success team (or support team), who need this information to better support your customers and your partners.

Second, your customers and partners should be fully aware of how you work to support them and how you safeguard their privacy in clear FAQs and Terms of Service. You can see a copy of Urbandoor's Privacy Policy here.

Back to Business Events...

Because we use Business Events for support purposes, we need to know that they are happening as they are happening - in real time. In this sense ,they are radically different from traditional Business Intelligence, where a system might run every hour or every day and generate all manners of statistics and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators - the metrics a business or unit tracks). For support, you need to know now.

The obvious solution for communicating business-critical information immediately is to use a business messaging tool, such as Slack, Skype for Business or Cisco Spark. We use Slack for collaboration, so we decided to surface Business Events there.

Whenever a recently-onboarded customer logs in, performs a search or sends a request to a provider on our platform, a Business Event gets surfaced in the system. Additionally, as our marketplace continues to grow, notifications for new properties being added also show up in our Customer Success team’s Slack channel.

When a Provider responds with an offer, another Business Event gets created. If anything goes wrong along the way - perhaps the Customer's search returned fewer properties than it should have, or the provider does not answer in a timely fashion - our Customer Success team can quickly reach out, educate, and help move things along.

In no time at all, our Customers and Providers are able to successfully use the platform without help from our Customer Success team, and we get out of the way. But like anyone who's tried a new service or app, sometimes you just want a little help getting started.

Business Intelligence

We have thousands of properties on our marketplace, and some of the biggest names in corporate America on our customer list. While it makes sense to track specific activity for support purposes, it is also important to monitor trends and data in the aggregate. This is what usually known as Business Intelligence (BI). We use BI to answer questions like “What are the most popular cities from January to March?” or  “Do the average response times vary between large and small providers?”

We are using Business Events to build up an image of our users’ activities, preferences, likes and dislikes. Business Intelligence is different from Business Events in that they are stripped of PII (Personally Identifiable Information).

Business Intelligence is a vast topic by itself and will be the subject of future blog posts.

How It All Works

This is the technical section. Delve in at your own risk!

Event Manager to Segment

We use Ruby on Rails for our core business logic, and at the core of our system is an Event Manager. The Manager creates an event whenever an important business event happens: a user logs in, performs a search, books a stay, arrives at a property, etc. These events are queued up and asynchronously sent to Segment (https://segment.com/), a nice, modern service that takes incoming events and propagates them for us. It propagates them to one of two types of destination, or both:

  • There are many Integrations, which include Slack (the one we used), but also MixPanel, Google Analytics, Send with Us, Mail Chimp, Marketo, Periscope, Salesforce, Zendesk and many more.

  • A data warehouse: either your own PostgreSQL database or your AWS Redshift cluster.

Integrating with Segment is child’s play. We used the analytics-ruby gem (https://github.com/segmentio/analytics-ruby), which gives you full, asynchronous access to Segment’s API. There are three calls that matter:

  • Identify your users uniquely (identify)

  • Add information about your users (traits)

  • Track events (track)

Each event supports multi-level JSON. For example an event might look like this:

event: {

    user_id: 123456

    event_type: user_loggedIn

    properties: {

        agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.3; Trident/7.0; rv:11.0)

traits: {

                email: foo@bar.com

                full_name: Foo B. Baz

                company_id: 654321

                }

        }

    }

This means you can track virtually anything that is relevant to your business. In our case, we keep track of the User Agent, so that we know what browsers are most popular with our customers. This allows us to allocate testing resources more intelligently.

Readers with a keen eye will have noticed that we replicated user traits in business event payloads. Since we track traits elsewhere and can get back to it with a simple query, this seems redundant. Unfortunately, some integration, such as the Slack integration, does not support traits yet, so we must add them here redundantly. But disk space is cheap, and de-normalization is the order of the day!

We always use a systematic structure of camelCaseObject_camelCaseAction, delimited by an underscore: user_loggedIn, offer_received, booking_completed, etc. All property fields are lowercase and underscore-separated. These practices have several benefits:

  • They work well with databases; these properties will ultimately turn into column names and values and you want to avoid characters that are special in SQL.

  • The systematic structure of the event types allows us to easily reason about all events where a user did something because we can query for all events where the type is ‘booking_*’ and reason about all booking events.

Conclusion and Next Steps

We’ve found the use of business events to be a valuable addition to our business, giving us the right visibility into our business activity.

In our upcoming blog posts we may tackle:

  • Extending our Segment Integration to use MixPanel.

  • Using Amazon Redshift as a Business Intelligence data warehouse

  • Business events to drive business logic: how an “Event Bus” approach allows for the decoupling of business logic components across packages and processes

Thanks for reading!

Building a platform that learns.

In yesterday’s post, Erik talked about how Urbandoor is ‘a platform that learns’. I thought I would expand on that today as our team is in Washington D.C. at the Worldwide ERC Global Summit. As our team spends their time introducing the Urbandoor platform to mobility professionals from around the world, they are listening at every opportunity to what the customer’s needs are. A good salesperson isn’t simply ‘selling’, but rather they are starting a conversation and then ‘listening’ with the intention of learning as much as they possibly can about the needs, pain points, and hopes from a potential customer. Armed with that information, they come back to the Product team with a list of needs to improve our product.

There are many ways that a company can learn about what the needs of their customers are and improve over time. For Urbandoor, all of these come back to having Empathy for the customer. While it is easy to ‘talk’ about Empathy, having the ability to truly share and feel someone’s pain or struggle is more difficult than it sounds, especially when it comes to booking a Serviced Apartment.

At my last company, Strava, our software tracked your bike rides, runs, and hikes, and then allowed you to share them with other friends. As Strava grew from just a few users to its current state of 10’s of millions of global athletes, maintaining empathy for a growing user base was increasingly more difficult. In the beginning, it was easy as the company primarily hired runners and cyclists. We used the product all day, every day; sharing our commutes, our workouts, and our weekend adventures. Mondays would be full of ‘we need to think about this’ or ‘what if we added that feature?’. As Strava grew, maintaining Empathy for our customers around the world became harder. The 100+ people working at Strava were not necessarily indicative of our global audience. So we had to come up with new ways to truly understand our users and their needs.

At Urbandoor we face a similar challenge. While our team has a background in software, hospitality, corporate housing and design, we aren’t booking Serviced Apartments on a daily basis. We aren’t dealing daily with the stress and issues that come up when you need to manage complex relocation needs and source Serviced Apartments efficiently. Despite this, we still need to ensure that our team and our platform, continue to learn and have true Empathy for our customers in order to deliver the best possible experience along the way. Below I’ll talk about three very different ways in which we address this at Urbandoor and continue to hold ourselves to a high standard of Empathy.

Customer Feedback

Our sales and platform success teams are constantly listening.  After each phone call, meeting or interaction, they are gathering feedback and trying to determine signal through the noise. The wrong thing to do is to build everything that every customer asks for. Our process is to synthesize this information and make calculated decisions on what to work on next. One way we track this internally is through a #Slack channel called #personas. Anytime someone has a phone call, meeting, interview or interaction that yields an insight, they post it in this channel for the entire company. We use hashtags “#” to be able to search for groups of customers like #mobilitymanager or #provider.

This process gives us a real-time, searchable index of feedback that our product team can look to when they are making decisions. Whether it be for prioritization, feature selection or when trying to solve a complex user interaction, this #Slack channel is a key resource for the entire company.

As an example below is some input I received at a BAMM conference and a dialogue with our lead UX designer making sure he understood the insight.

Data. Data. Data.

Data is at the heart of everything we do. When you sign in to Urbandoor, your interactions with our software tell a story. Data makes it easy to aggregate interactions and see how our customers are using our platform. While everything is anonymized, we can still look at interactions across our users and learn from every click and search. We merge these analysis using tools like Google Analytics, MixPanel and Intercom and we merge these into our applications with Segment, which simplifies integrations. This suite of tools gives us the ability to track interactions across our apps, and throughout our users’ transactional cycles.

QA Parties

To ensure that the entire team is intimately familiar with our platform, and also to improve the quality of our product, we have regular quality assurance or  ‘QA Parties’.  This is something I’ve done at previous companies and it’s a great tool for bug finding and company culture. Here’s how it works at Urbandoor:

We’ll take the entire company and set up a testing process. Because we are a marketplace, our transactions actually include three parties: The Customer making the booking, The Provider, delivering the serviced apartment, and the Guest, who’s actually staying in the apartment. We divide the company into three groups and test the complete cycle. One team (Customers) makes booking requests, another team (Providers) responds to those requests, and the third team (Guests) confirms the bookings. Again here we use #Slack to post bugs and issues we find. You can see below that the activity level in that channel is quite high during our QA Party.

The outcome of this is threefold:

  1. We make sure that the entire company is deeply knowledgeable about all aspects of the product and can actually feel the issues and frustrations that our Customers, Providers, and Guests might feel.

  2. More eyes = more likelihood we’ll find hidden issues. We offer an internal ‘bug bounty’ reward for the team member who finds the most significant bug.

  3. We build on our culture of teamwork and Empathy while having a little fun. You can imagine that with the entire company rallying around this, some laughter ensues...

This cycle is an exciting part of developing a product - releasing, getting data, QA and market feedback, and then taking that feedback to make updates to our product. Then the cycle repeats. It never ends and it’s this process of continual delivery, discovery, and improvement that drives us at Urbandoor.

The Disruption of Serviced Apartments

Disruption is a word that you tend to throw around when it isn’t clear where you should be heading. The companies below represent aggressive and early leaders in driving disruption through technology that led to full-blown market transitions.  

Many of these companies had nothing to lose, or more importantly, to protect, when they launched. As they’ve grown, you can see that continued disruption comes from their culture leveraging technology and data to accelerate their business. In many cases, they end up disrupting their own products or services before their competitors.  

The interesting question is how did the leaders in each of these industries leverage their strengths to compete? Did they bring lawsuits over intellectual property or did they innovate? Did they discover a way to accelerate the transition through their existing customer base or did they try to capture every last dollar they could from customers before it was too late? Did they reimagine their business and how it should look to compete or did they react once they were forced to? It’s already clear that GM, Ford, VW and others are focusing on electric vehicles as well as autonomous driving. Today, this clearly seems like a smart move but is it too late? To answer that, we need only to look at some sales numbers for the vertical segment that Tesla competes in. 

 Source: Company reports via  @ValaAfshar

Source: Company reports via @ValaAfshar

What is the market transition we see occurring in Serviced Apartments? It is the idea that technology can connect people and information so much easier than before. Information is real-time and anything you need to accomplish is available right there on your mobile device. Airbnb is a major catalyst for this transition in the accommodations space, and the list goes on and on, as there are countless consumer platforms making a profound effect on how individuals find accommodations globally. Serviced Apartments have an important characteristic, though, that is lost in these consumer platforms:  Service.

Since starting Urbandoor, our focus has been entirely on building a platform that could help grow the global serviced apartment industry through this differentiation. This started with us learning and working with the full supply chain from corporate housing companies to multi-family operators. It also required us to build a team that understood the needs of Relocation firms and Travel Management companies, as well as corporate travel and mobility managers.

After speaking and working with some of the best providers in Serviced Apartments, I am excited to see that many recognize the market transition and are actively looking at how to leverage their strength in service to capitalize on it.

Many people look at technology as the center. The reality though is that without people doing incredible work every day, technology is only an enabler. This is why it’s incredibly important to make sure your business does two things.

  1. Understands the role of technology vs. service

  2. Leverages technology that understands service

Urbandoor is a platform that learns. We help pass information quickly among relocation firms and their clients, mobility managers and transferees, Serviced Apartment providers and their guests. At every moment we are looking to see how we can do this better through data, feedback and ultimately growth in volume. Service is the differentiator and we are excited to make sure that through our technology, service can take center stage.