Living in cities can be isolating, overpriced and disconnected from the local culture. H.ME was a startup venture with the mission to develop more affordable and social urban living.
We secured a strategic partnership with Hyatt Hotels, raised $1.3M, built an executive advisory board and multiple disciplinary team with experience in real estate development, architecture, technology, hospitality, and housing.
Together we spent 3 years researching, designing, rapid prototyping, modeling, and testing both digital and physical products. This is our journey…
Our goal was to build a product with a great user experience that could generate better returns than typical real estate investments. We believed we could achieve this by leveraging an intelligent prefabricated building system to easily transform underutilized real estate into high quality, social accommodations.
To validate our business idea we asked ourselves a few simple questions focused on three key areas.
Answering these questions would help us understand if we had a real opportunity worth pursuing.
We explored all three areas in parallel but focused most of our energy on understanding desirability first because if there was no demand for our idea everything else would be irrelevant.
We started by designing a system that could quickly create shared living accommodations by installing factory made living pods within pre-existing buildings. The living pods were designed to provide comfortable private accommodations as well as help define the surrounding shared spaces.
The initial living pod design measured 10’ wide by 15 long’, 150 square feet, and utilized multi-use furniture to make the most of the compact space. They were designed to be pre-manufactured, flat packed and shipped to any site for quick and easy installation. The modularity of the kit-of-parts system allowed for quick and easy changes. For example, if a wall section was damaged it could be replaced in minutes with a simple hand tool.
Features included a king size murphy bed and couch combination, window bench and desk combination, closet, bookshelf and projection wall. Bathrooms were not attached and instead centrally located within the shared space.
To help us quickly gather feedback from our target users we began rapid prototyping living pods. Our first prototype, Pv1, was built with plywood and off the shelf components in a storage unit in the South Side of Chicago. By reconfiguring wall sections and ceiling planes we could quickly understand our living pods spatial relationships.
Pv1 was built to our initial design specs, 10’ wide by 15’ long by 9’ tall, and included a functional king size murphy bed and desk combination, multiple closets, ample luggage storage, a window bench, and a privacy/projection shade.
Our team hosted lunch and learns at our storage unit with target users to gather initial feedback. We presented the overall experience and allowed participants to interact with the pod. Some key learnings were:
We gathered great initial feedback but ultimately realized we needed to develop a much better process for gaining feedback.
Our next step was to refine the living pod and figure out a quick and cost effective way for target users to experience a community first hand.
Our refined design was created in response to our initial user feedback. We also explored new features and the feasibility of manufacturing production quality living pods. Each component of the new design was developed with partners who could produce high volumes as needed.
The new design featured included a king size murphy bed and conference table combination, his and hers closets, integrated bed side tables with USB charging ports, ample storage space for large luggage, a window bench, extra wide full height mirror and a vanity/desk with moveable stool.
Another key feature was the automated combination privacy/projection screen that served as a entertainment and collaboration surface. A tablet powered automation system controlled the lights, projector, shade and multimedia equipment.
Our second prototype, Pv2, was built using the pre-manufactured DIRTT wall system. DIRTT is a leading technology-driven manufacturer of intelligent, customizable and sustainable interior wall systems. We chose DIRTT because of their quality product, sustainable practices, and ability to produce at high volumes. The DIRTT system allowed us to install Pv2 in 3 days with just 2 installers.
We learned with Pv1 that target users wanted to experience the community first hand so we created a prototype. We leased an underutilized coworking space on a short term basis and transformed it into a a typical community. We installed Pv2, furniture and four fake rooms – made of cardboard and faux wood – so that users could immerse themselves in the entire experience.
Over 6 weeks we conducted three different user feedback studies. Guided tours of our prototype community, targeted online surveys and focus groups. We needed to understand if participants preferred the community as a social hotel or short term housing. In total, we gathered feedback from 180 participants.
Below are some key findings:
We gathered great insights from our research but we needed to understand how users would purchase our product in the real world. Nothing validates an idea like a dollar. So we asked ourselves a simple question:
How can we sell stays without building or operating a physical space?
The answer: Airbnb. An Airbnb booking request is a purchase that must be accepted by the host. This meant we could use Airbnb’s platform to understand how users would purchase our product by simply seeing how many requests our listing received.
We created fake Airbnb listings (in multiple cities) with photos from our prototype community and boosted their ranks with fake reviews from friends. To drive even more traffic to our listings we targeted users with Facebook ads. As booking requests came in we would simply deny them and export all relevant information to a data insights platform.
We ran the campaign for 30 days and were blown away by the results. Most notably, our Facebook ads had a 12% conversion rate and we had to turn down over $141,000 in revenue. We also discovered how to validate real estate concepts by creatively hacking Airbnb.
We felt comfortable that we had enough data to support the desirability of shared living so we began to explore its feasibility and viability. We started sourcing real world spaces where we could deploy our living pods to see how our system would perform. We also began working with building code experts to ensure our pods would pass life safety codes at the local and national level.
After extensive design studies we discovered critical spatial inefficiencies with our open living pod layout. The above drawings illustrates the inefficiencies by comparing the shared space (dark purple areas) of an open layout to a consolidated layout within the same building envelope. All the extra space meant that our product would be pushed out of our target users’ price range.
At the same time we were also learning how difficult it was to innovate with new building materials. Local municipalities are slow to adopt new technologies and not all of them adopt the same ones. We could spend the time and resources to push adoption but we ultimately realized that was not the best approach.
We stepped back to examine what we had learned and reevaluate our approach. Ultimately, we had a product that users would pay for but we needed a better way to build it. We removed the constraints of the living pod system and with open minds and a clean sheet of paper began exploring new solutions.
We started studying more traditional layouts and construction methods. After exploring many new design layouts we settled on the one above. The drawing illustrates a typical floor for a multistory urban development. Each floor includes two separate 16 room communities connected by a utility core.
We also created a new operations plan and extensive financial models to examine the viability of our new designs . We discovered that, even with ample shared space, our new designs allowed us to create a competitively priced product that could generate great investment returns.
We finally had a product worth pursuing that was desirable, feasible and viable. Our next step was to refine the user experience, develop a brand and pitch our investors for a second round of funding.
The brand we developed was, Collide, a membership based community that offers flexible living, working and travel accommodations for people looking to expand their social and professional networks.
A typical Collide development totaled 192 rooms and included six community floors, two communities per floor, a coworking floor, an amenity floor and a ground floor that included a cafe and retail space. Each community was made up of private guest rooms with ensuite bathrooms, a shared gourmet kitchen, coworking space, enclosed gathering room and entertainment area.
The membership provided access to the physical and digital community via the Collide app. The app was designed to allow members to book a room based on realtime social metrics of a community. Want to stay in a community of designers or digital nomads? Once on site, the members could self check-in and access the community host, events, and member profiles.
The spacious yet efficient private guest rooms allow for Collide to provide more communal space per floor than average hotels. Given the additional communal space, Collide’s atmosphere was conducive to socializing, networking and collaboration.
C Suites was the second, and final, product we developed. While trying to develop our first Collide property we discovered a better opportunity to leverage our designs for companies. Corporate travel is inefficient, stressful and not designed for groups. C Suites combined lodging, work and wellness spaces to create high-functioning, inherently collaborative and cost effective accommodations for mobile workforces. In addition to adaptable spaces, C Suites provided services and technologies that reduce isolation and simplify the unnecessary rituals of modern business travel.
We designed C Suites to take advantage of best practices in design and group dynamics to be an inspiring, connected and healthy travel destination. Employees and teams stay in their company’s private suite with a central, flexible shared space designed for meeting, eating, creating and relaxing — surrounded by individual guest rooms.
The individual rooms were designed to give guests an escape, a private spot where they can refresh and relax after a productive day. Each boasts a plush king bed, HDTV, ample luggage storage, sun-soaked window seat and stunning, well-appointed bathroom.
Our business model allowed us to offer a better service and private white label accommodations for what companies were already spending. Google, Apple, Deloitte and the GSA all agreed that C Suites was an ideal solution for their travel accommodations and corporate housing needs. You can learn more about the concept here.
I made this retrospective to serve as a time capsule of my journey so that I could step back and decompress before returning to it. The hope is that some time and space will help make better sense of it all.
To be continued…