Do you remember the first time you moved into your own space? I don’t mean a dorm room, but a real home, a place you searched for and picked out. It sucks. It sucks so bad. There’s the hours spent on Craigslist, Zillow, PadMapper (or any number of half broken websites), dodging scams and praying for people to answer your emails. Then there are the in person interviews, the frustrating meetings with apartment managers, real estate agents and group houses. And that’s all before you even get in your house / apartment / rented room. Once you’ve signed the paperwork and agreed to kiss a certain amount of money goodbye, you have to deal with the moving process. Fitting furniture into a new space, or in my case (and many other peoples), finding out that you basically own a bed, a desk and nothing else. I think we can all confidently say it’s the worst.
While some people (me) end up begging their parents / friends / strangers to give them rides to Ikea and Costco, other people come up with solutions. After moving to the District, Jake Metzger found himself in a similar situation and thought up the idea for HousePouch, a website that not only helps you nail down your personal style, but also helps you figure out what you need in your new space. We called up Metzger to talk about what it was like to quit his job and dive into the startup world.
Can you tell me the origin story behind HousePouch?
The idea from HousePouch came when I graduated college and I moved out to D.C. to get a job. I came down, found my own apartment and I moved in two days before I started my first job. I walked into my place and realized I didn’t have anything I needed for the actual apartment. I was like, “Oh this is not good.” I didn’t have a car so I couldn’t drive to Ikea. I didn’t know what to do. When I went online, the best resource I could find was a checklist from Bed, Bath & Beyond. I thought there’s got to be a better way to do this. There’s got to be some site that’s helped people in this situation, who have never really gone through this in their lives before. I had that idea, that was about four years ago, but unfortunately I just didn’t have the technical skills to build something up. After three years of working as a software consultant, New Year’s hit and I realized I wasn’t really happy with my life. I wanted to make a change. I gave myself six months to get some sort of site off the ground. So six months later, in June, I quit my job and started doing HousePouch full time.
How did you come up with the name?
That’s a good question. That is one of the harder things to come up with because almost everything is taken, and if it’s not, the domain will cost ten grand. Basically… We started with the concept of the kangaroo. I started with a logo, which is kind of weird, and then went from there. The thought centered around this pouch that would almost be the cart. Rather than having a cart, you’d have a pouch. Then HousePouch… it doesn’t quite rhyme, but it has a nice ring to it. We stuck with that.
So you quit your job and started pursuing your passion project. How did you go from an idea to a website? How did you make it a real thing?
Obviously there were a lot of barriers that popped up along the way. My first big hurdle was how do I list other stores products on my site? How do I get around copyright infringement issues? That was the big hurdle before we got off the ground. That’s where we discovered something called affiliate marketing. A lot of stores, Amazon, Target, Macy’s… Basically all of our partners so far, have programs where you can almost advertise their products on your site. You’re allowed to use their images and their descriptions, titles, everything. Then, when you refer them sales, you get a cut of the sales. Basically you get a commission from the retailers. 1. It allows me to use the images on the site, 2. It gave me a business model, which was huge, and then 3. It allowed me to charge customers the exact same amount they would get charged on the other sites. That way we wouldn’t have to charge a premium.
What’s your favorite feature on HousePouch? What do you think draws people in?
About a month ago we launched this new feature called The Room Designer, and this what we’re really excited about. We’ve seen a lot of signups to the site to use this feature. It basically allows you to take products and put them in a virtual room so you can make sure they look good together before you make that final purchase. You never want to order something and realize it looks terrible and you have to return it. It’s a whole process. We’re trying to take that out of the equation. Also, it really puts it into perspective what you need for your place. I know that was almost the biggest reason why I started the site, I just didn’t realize how much goes into it. Right now it’s a 2d feature, but we’ve been doing a lot of testing. What we see it progressing towards is doing some 3d modeling and some 3d features, and then eventually doing some augmented reality and virtual reality.
I was reading a little bit about how you decide which products are going to be on the site. Obviously you put a premium on quality, but do your personal opinions ever play a role on what gets featured on the website?
I know for a fact we were really excited for our partnership with Casper Mattress. Obviously they’re huge and we’ve had really good experiences with them, but honestly we contract out to some interior designers. As much as I like to say that I know what I’m doing, I’m more of a tech guy. So we like to place the product selection into more professional hands. What we tell them to do is pick not only just high quality and top rated stuff, but also things that would fit the price range of someone who is in their 20s. We’re not making crazy amounts of money, so we want the best bang for your buck.
Did the interior designers come up with the different types of styles you can select when you’re searching for furniture on HousePouch?
We actually took that information from some data that we found about the top styles for millennials. The list that we came up with was traditional, modern, luxury, farmhouse and eclectic. Eclectic kind of covers everything. We don’t want to overwhelm people with too many options, but that list will definitely continue to update as time goes on.
Is there a certain style that’s more popular than the others? Or have you noticed any growth in a particular style?
We definitely see the most from modern.
What has been the best part about starting HousePouch? What has been your biggest triumph? Was it nailing your algorithm or finally getting to a place where you can quit your job?
That was definitely a great feeling… To walk into the office and say, “I’m gonna start my own company.” People thought I was crazy. From the tech perspective, unfortunately, I’m just never happy. I’m a perfectionist, I always want it to get better. Even after I finish the next feature, it’s never perfect. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’m just never happy with it.
One of the things that felt the best was over the summer we had four interns. That really put in perspective how far we’ve come, that we’ve been able to provide experience, and even a paid job, to people who will be putting HousePouch on their resume… Possibly using us a reference… That’s something I’m really proud of. I built something that other people believe in enough to join me in making it better. That’s what I’m most proud of.
Jake, you obviously started the business, but when did you bring Nick, your first employee, onto the team?
Almost exactly a year ago in late October, early November of 2016. We met, funny enough, on AngelList… It’s kind of like an entrepreneurial jobs website. We had a little… almost a dating period. We met at Peet’s Coffee on 14th Street and talked for over an hour about the concept. He bought in and we added a month’s trial period to see if he fit, if he liked what we were doing, and after that month he committed to HousePouch.
What is a regular day in the office like for you guys?
Obviously with a two man team we have to wear a lot of different hats, but if I really had to categorize it, Nick’s more marketing and human resources. He finds contractors and employees, and does finance. I’m more on the product side, doing the development, user experience and design. We both handle the operations as well, helping process orders and things like that… It’s kind of what I like about this life. Days are never the same. Sometimes you’re in fundraising meetings or you’re creating a marketing campaign or designing a page. It’s nice to be able to mix it up and do a little of everything.
What’s your favorite hat you wear? What’s your favorite thing to do?
I think my my favorite thing is sitting down with potential customers and watching them use the website. Doing user testing on the website. Sometimes you get negative reactions, which are almost preferred. You learn so much. It’s really impossible to learn how to mold the site without really understanding your users. Watching them use it, watching them smile at a new feature and be like, “Oh my god this is so cool! I’ve never seen this on a site,” is always a really good feeling. And seeing a bug come up that I’ve never seen before is always good to see because I’m learning more about my product as I watch other people use it.
How often do you test the website? Do you ask friends to try out new features?
We try to make it a continual process. I go back and forth on whether it’s good to use your friends or not. Unfortunately, your friends don’t want to disappoint you. They want to support you, which is amazing, you can’t do this without support in your life, but they try to please you a little too much.
Are there any startups that inspire you?
I wouldn’t singe a specific one out. It’s kind of just taking bits and pieces from other companies you see. What it always boils down to is the culture of a company. It’s great to have a great idea and a good vision and good leadership, but without good people on the team it’s impossible to achieve what you want to achieve. So seeing what the bigger companies are doing culturally to retract and attain some of the top talent is really inspiring. That’s where we really want to be. Not only a great company from our customer perspective, but being able to offer a good work life balance, a fun time at the office. Those kind of things. Cultivating friendships between employees is really where we aspire to be. Some of the bigger companies have done a great job at doing that.
The city seems to be doing all it can to keep and attract startups. We have coworking space on top of coworking spaces and incubators… Do you think D.C. has been a good place to start this business? Or are their other resources you wish were available?
D.C. has been amazing. We were in 1776’s first ever startup cohort program, which introduced us to a lot of topics we’d never even thought of and different aspects of the business. What’s nice about it is it’s a smaller ecosystem. Everybody wants you to do well and will do whatever they can to provide you with mentorship or advice along the way. Obviously I can’t really compare it to other cities, but I’ve heard the competition levels can be overwhelming in some of the bigger scenes. D.C. has been amazing. We’ve met a lot of great startup founders who we toss ideas back and forth with. It can be a lonely experience, and being able to go through it with similar people has been really enjoyable.
If you could go back to the start of HousePouch, when it was just a little dream in the back of your head, what advice would you give your past self?
The advice I would give my past self is don’t assume anything. Designing something for yourself may work, but what you have to do is have a clear understanding of who your customer is. Every step along the way, validate your assumptions with your target customer. I did this at the beginning. I wasted four months of developing time keeping this new feature a secret. I was going to release it to the world and it was going to be the coolest thing ever… And then you release it and it’s a total dud. No one knows how to use it. It doesn’t help anyone. Talking to your customers, as scary as it is, is definitely the advice I would give myself.