justin and jad (L-R): Justin Picone, Jad Joulji

Justin Picone and Jad Joulji didn’t set out to become entrepreneurs. The two met in Toronto as students in Ryerson University’s Architectural Science program, both wary of the grim job market that would await them upon graduation. While enrolled in a create your own elective course, they came up with a business idea that would ease their own job jitters in addition to those of their peers.

HouseIt is a crowdsourcing platform where emerging designers pitch to homeowners looking to build anew or revamp their space. The competitions are essentially risk-free for both parties — providing designers with work to build their portfolios and clients with several layout options to choose from.

BuzzBuzzHome sat down with co-founders Justin and Jad to learn more about HouseIt and how they plan to tap into the Toronto condo market.

HouseIt logo BuzzBuzzHome: What inspired your business model?

Jad Joulji: A big part of being in architecture school is entering design competitions — to hone your skills and create a portfolio for prospective employers. But many of these [competitions] were just hypothetical or conceptual. It’s amazing experience but in the real world you need technical skills.

Justin Picone: That was the biggest thing — we wanted to build a creative platform where while you were still in school you could gain those skills and a portfolio piece. It’s important to have experience working with clients — even while you’re in school, which we didn’t really have any opportunity to do.

BBH: Can you explain briefly how a HouseIt competition works?

JJ: The client will come to the website and choose the project type they’re interested in. They choose from different overall design styles — modern, industrial, minimalist, etc. Then they’ll have the option to upload specific inspiration images for each room. They can also include notes about the rooms to give the designer more insight. Finally, they select how much money they want to spend on the furniture budget and the design award, set a deadline and launch the competition. After about two or three weeks, they will receive a handful of designs, and select the one they like the best.

rendering with wall art BBH: We heard you’ve been hard at work developing a new model — how will it differ from the current one?

JJ: In the new model we’ve decided to launch a concept design competition first. The initial round will be based on ideas rather than completed designs. The designer will provide floor plans and renderings but nothing specific in terms of the actual furnishings. The client selects the idea they like the best and they work one-on-one with the designer to put everything together. In the second stage, the client will receive a complete package with all of the costs broken down. It creates very low risk for everyone involved — the designer submits ideas, not finished designs and the client doesn’t have to pay the full price right away. They only pay a percentage to enter. They pay the second installment to have the finished design.

BBH: What types of clients have you been targeting?

JP: Behind the scenes right now we’re trying to connect with condo developers. They have access to a whole network of condo and home buyers. We’d like to form a partnership with them to integrate HouseIt into their system.

JJ: We want [HouseIt] to be a local, feasible service. Nowadays, once you buy a condo you’re kind of on your own in terms of design. The condo development design centers show you things like countertops, flooring and cabinetry — but never furniture. It can be challenging to design a space with a small floorplan, especially for those who are downsizing.

JP: A lot of people don’t necessarily find design that important for their space. But when you’re moving into a brand new condo, it just makes sense to care about the design from the beginning.

living room rendering BBH: When did the site officially launch?

JP: We’ve been in beta for a couple months now, but we fully launched in early August. At that point we started working on it full time. Prior to that it had been a part time project — we basically just took it out of school.

BBH: What was your reasoning behind HouseIt’s invitation only model?

JJ: It’s invitation only but as of now everything is free for the designers. We’re really trying to do everything we can to help them out. As much as we’d like to help everyone, some people may not be serious enough about what they’re doing, which isn’t fair to those who are. Also, the clients who are coming to the website are expecting a decent, reliable service.

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 1.43.32 PM BBH: What is your revenue model like?

JP: We take a 25 per cent cut of the competition. We have a standard, fixed fee which varies from as low as $299 to upwards of $1,999. The rest of the money goes to the winning designer.

JJ: We actually split the award money into first and second place awards. First place receives 80 per cent of the award money and second place earns 20 per cent. The first award is obviously selected by the client but the second is decided by the designer community — they get to vote online. It’s our way of engaging the designer community.

BBH: Where will HouseIt be in five years? 

JJ: Our vision for the website is to eventually provide a complete design and moving service for the client. We want to be able to provide the furniture — with perhaps some sort of a discount from the manufacturer, and then set it up ourselves. We want to provide the client with a complete service and the designer with a complete project for their portfolio. That way, they’ll be able to showcase their design ideas, explain how it came about and finally, be able to take photographs of the finished product. That’s very valuable for any designer to have, especially at the very early stages of their career.

JP: We believe they’ll get the most value out of [HouseIt]. That’s sort of the community we come from — young designers, who struggle to get jobs. We want to be able to promote architecture, and keep them in the field through our platform.

Images courtesy of Justin Picone and Jad Joulji.

Looking for more information? Watch the video below or visit www.houseit.com.

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