The first time you open the Houzz app on your Apple or Android tablet, you’ll take in the midcentury modern living rooms with their Eames sofas and Noguchi coffee tables, the gleaming neo-Craftsman bungalows surrounded by herb gardens, and the outdoor kitchens complete with wood-fired pizza ovens, and you’ll think you’ve landed inside the digital version of one of those fancy design magazines like Dwell or Architectural Digest.
Not at all. For one thing, if you look a little closer at the photos, you’ll see that a lot of them are annotated with little green price tags that swing back and forth when you jiggle your tablet. Click on a tag, and you’ll learn how to buy a particular rug or candelabra or appliance. Then you realize that you can browse additional photos of the same houses, or other projects by the same architect or designer. Then you notice that you can save every photo to a personal “Ideabook” for later reference.
Those are your clues that Houzz is something very different: a catalog, a community, a scrapbook, a directory of architecture and design professionals. And, yes, a collection of photos of gorgeous and expensive homes that, for most of us, will forever fall into the realm brand managers call “aspirational.” But while the Houzz app may look like a magazine—offering articles by industry insiders and more than 2.5 million images of professionally designed spaces—it’s really a marketplace. Or, to use the obligatory Silicon Valley term, a “platform.”
“We don’t view ourselves as a media company,” says Houzz co-founder and president Alon Cohen. “We are a platform connecting homeowners with professionals and designers.” Houzz’s core function, Cohen explains, is to help people who are embarking on a remodeling project choose a look, decide on a budget, and locate architects or builders who can execute it.
There are plenty of other sites today where homeowners can find design inspiration and browse the latest fixtures, furnishings, and design folios. Remodelista, Inhabitat, Build.com, and even Pinterest come to mind. But what’s interesting to me about Houzz is that it’s the first digital home-design resource born in the smartphone/tablet era. That means it’s all about the power of image-based storytelling.
“These tablet devices were made for what we’re doing,” says Cohen, who started Houzz in 2009 with his wife Adi Tatarko, the startup’s CEO. Many homeowners have an idea of how they’d like their new kitchen or bathroom to look, but they have trouble explaining it to a professional who can make it happen. Houzz’s photos make the communication and collaboration much simpler—homeowners can just point to a featured project and say, “Build me that.”
“You can take it with you and show ideas to the contractors you are dealing with,” Cohen says. “It’s about getting the different stakeholders together—homeowners, professionals, and brands—and helping them to solve their problems.”
But you don’t have to be engaged in a home remodeling project to enjoy Houzz—voyeurs (and lifelong renters, like me) are welcome too. Open up the photos section of the app, and you can swipe your way through arresting photos of kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, decks, pools, wine cellars, and every other imaginable kind of space. Most photos belong to larger sets showing multiple views of the same project—say, a renovated townhouse in Boston’s Back Bay or a Montana ski lodge. Some of the pictures are supplied by the architects and designers featured at Houzz. Others come from readers, or are commissioned by the company. They’re all tailored for the high-resolution Retina screens on the latest tablets.
To be sure, the Palo Alto, CA-based startup also has a nice website, and you don’t need a tablet to access its images or product listings. But I encountered Houzz first on my iPad, and I think that’s still the best way to explore it. It’s consistently ranked among the 10 most popular free apps in the Lifestyle section of Apple’s iTunes App Store, with 12 million downloads so far, and the website attracts more than 16 million unique users each month. For good reason; Houzz is about imagination and entertainment as much as it’s about real-world remodeling.
The startup’s story began, not too surprisingly, with a renovation project. In 2006 Tatarko and Cohen, who was then working as a director of engineering at eBay, bought a 1950s ranch house in Palo Alto. “It hadn’t been touched,” Cohen recounts. “The kitchen was in pretty decent shape for a 1950s kitchen, but we wanted to modernize it.”
In 2008 the couple started looking for professionals who could guide them through the project. But they had a hard time finding architects and contractors who had experience working on midcentury homes. “We finally ended up finding someone based on a friend’s referral,” Cohen says. “And to find out what we liked, the contractor sent us to Borders to tear out magazine pages. At that point, we’d gotten used to doing everything else online, and it was just shocking to us that this was not. We figured, there has got to be a better way to do this.”
Even as the kitchen project continued, Cohen started spending evenings and weekends coding the site that would become Houzz. He and Tatarko marketed it first to the parents of classmates at their kids’ school. “Pretty quickly, things took on a life of their own, and we started getting e-mails” from designers and architects, Cohen says. “A kitchen designer in San Francisco said, ‘You guys need a category for kitchen designers,’ and a guy in Chicago said, ‘Hey, can we open a metro for Chicago so it’s not only San Francisco?’”
Tatarko and Cohen realized they’d hit on a huge opportunity. Home improvement is a $600 billion business in the United States, if you count both design services and physical goods. But there was no eBay-like meeting place where buyers and sellers in the home renovation market could find each other.
In the summer of 2010, the couple decided to quit their day jobs, raise some money, and pursue Houzz full-time. Lead investor Oren Zeev, an independent venture capitalist, assembled a group of entrepreneurs who put $2 million in Series A money into the startup. The company has since gone on to raise an additional $46 million, with marquee firms like Sequoia Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and New Enterprise Associates coming on board in the second and third rounds. (Cohen says famed Sequoia partner Michael Moritz decided to invest two hours after the firm’s first meeting with the company. I’ve talked with other investors in Silicon Valley who are bitter they haven’t been able to get a piece of Houzz.)
Today, most of Houzz’s 150 employees work from a sunny, ultra-modern startup space on Palo Alto’s University Avenue, the startup’s fourth office in three years. There’s also a sales outpost in Irvine, CA. Houzz makes money by selling ads to national brands like Kohler, Nest, and Subzero. Architects, contractors, landscapers, and other professionals can get their photo sets featured on Houzz for free, but there’s also a subscription program called Houzz Pro+ that lets them “pay for increased exposure and additional tools such as analytics—how their photos are performing and things of that nature,” Cohen says.
The exposure must be working—more than 300,000 remodeling and design professionals have signed up to be featured on Houzz, in 60 categories, from roofers to home-theater installers. Cohen says the photos are like a gateway drug to the harder stuff: the discussion groups where users can ask professionals, or one another, for advice; the catalog; and finally the directory of design professionals. “A lot of people will say, ‘When I started I thought it was just great to look at the photos, then I realized I could search for products, then I realized the power of the community, and then I found my designer or contractor.’ You see that evolution.”
It’s a little unfair of me to imply that only 1-percenters can act on the ideas they get from Houzz. Many of the items bearing jiggly green price tags are available for under $500, and Cohen notes that there are some easy ways to transform spaces on a small budget, like painting them. “You might see a lot of photos that look really good, but a lot of that stuff is from Ikea,” he says. “You don’t have to live in a $10 million home to learn from what you see.”
Still, part of Houzz’s ongoing appeal is that it stokes materialistic yearnings we know can never be quite fulfilled. There aren’t any people in Houzz’s photos. I think that’s because we’re supposed to imagine ourselves inhabiting these spaces. Seeing the actual homeowners would intrude on the fantasy.
The best description of Houzz I’ve seen comes from Fortune writer Colleen Leahey. “If Angie’s List and Pinterest had an Architectural Digest-obsessed child, Houzz would be it,” she wrote this May. As I browse the app, I feel like that child, too.
Here’s a video from Houzz showing how home-design professionals use the service.
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