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Scott Barker, the co-founder and CEO of MiiCasa, blames fate for assigning him the booth next to Jenna Zaza at a BILD (Building Industry and Land Development Association) event last June. Zaza, who founded The Interactive Abode in 2012, was showcasing her company’s software product that allowed potential buyers to tour, customize and decorate their new homes. Barker’s MiiCasa functioned like an online shopping tool for features and finishes and Zaza’s product was exactly what he was looking for to expand what his company offered.

Fast forward just six months later, and The Interactive Abode has been acquired by MiiCasa, with co-founders Scott Barker, Jenna Zaza and Kara Smith working side by side. They have combined their expertise to develop two innovative products, the virtual sales centre and the virtual decor centre, aimed at transforming the way we purchase and personalize new construction homes and condos. BuzzBuzzHome News caught up with Barker and Zaza to find out more about their newly formed company and their aspirations for the future.

BuzzBuzzHome: What types of services do you offer now since the acquisition?

Jenna Zaza: We have two main categories now — the virtual sales centre and our virtual decor centre. We look at the virtual sales centre as a brochure that you’re able to take home with you. We have a touch screen application that we’re able to track analytics from. It can include 3D renderings, virtual tours, iPad registration and even 4D retainable buildings, which is like a movable, 360-degree image of the building and site. Later this year, we’re going to start pushing the Oculus Rift technology. Right now we’re waiting for the market to catch up a little bit, and perfecting our demo.

Scott Barker: With the sales centre, we’re trying to hit two demographics [of buyers]. There are the old school people who want to come in and touch, see and feel — but then we have this younger demographic who research like crazy at home before they even step foot in the sales centre. Our program gives developers access to how far potential buyers have gone into the system — how much time they’ve spent using it or what products they’re interested in. When it comes time to work on that last 30 per cent of sales, the developer has a warm lead list ready to go. It’s a great way to capture both sides.

With the virtual decor centre, we’ve discovered that people are more comfortable choosing finishes and features from the comfort of their home. With a traditional decor centre, there is a time limit on the appointment and pressure from the sales person. By making their selections on their own time, purchasers are actually up-selling themselves. We’ve seen at 35 per cent increase on upgrade sales. Additionally, we’ve taken admin time within [traditional] decor centres from 410 hours to 204, which is a 50 per cent decrease. At the end of the day, do you want to make more money or do you want to spend more money on a decor centre?

JZ: People are making their choices online. Now, when they go into the sales centre they’re almost ready to purchase because they’ve done their research.

MiiCasaScreen1-compressed BBH: You’ve also recently launched the Virtual Decor Centre. Can you explain briefly how it works?

JZ: I like to compare it to shopping online. Personally, that’s something I love to do — my clothes, shoes, everything. When you think back to about 10 years ago, people would sell clothes online and you’d only see a picture of the top or the dress. Now they show models wearing these outfits, and sales have increased dramatically. That’s how Sophia Amoruso [the founder of Nasty Gal] got her big break — she was one of the first people to dress up models to show what the clothes look like on. I think that same concept applies to your house, when you see a blackline floorplan, it looks naked. But when you start dressing it up with backsplashes and cabinets and counters, you can really see it come to life, and that’s more enticing to the buyer. It also helps to sell more upgrades because people can visualize their fully-designed house.

SB: The purchaser is set up with an email address and password, and then they’re free to use the program from home. It’s actually their unit — they can see the kitchen, the washrooms and are able to change everything in and out until they are happy with it. Everything else is done off of packages and thumbnails, which you don’t necessarily need to see in a virtual decorator. Once you’re done, you save it and it creates an agreement sheet that you can print and sign.

BBH: What are the benefits of using the virtual decorator?

SB: It shows [the developer] what the buyer has spent. They receive an entire list of everything they’ve purchased with a subtotal, taxes and final total.

JZ: We’ve been going into decor centres and meeting with the managers and they’ve been saying, “Yes, I can really see this being valuable.” The managers are so busy, and the decor appointments can be stressful and often last for hours. They’re usually the most excited about our product!

The buyer gets to see exactly what they want. People know the technology is out there, they’ve seen it on HGTV, and they’ve been asking builders for it. We know there’s a need because people have such a difficult time visualizing what the outcome will look like. They don’t know if they want the dark hardwood with the white cabinets. People are making $10,000 mistakes with their choices, and some are pretty disappointed.

MiiCasaScreen2-compressed BBH: Who is your target audience, in terms of buyers?

JZ: Millennials and investors are definitely our biggest target audience, but it’s really for everyone.

SB: Our target is the developer who’s going after a bigger portion of the market. It’s attractive to investors because now they can buy outside of the country, and don’t have to worry about going into a decor centre to do any selections. We initially launched into the condo market, but we’re now being pulled into low-rise developments.

JZ: Low-rise developments have many more options, and people have a harder time visualizing it. Condo packages are easier to pick, especially when you only have three package options. But low-rise developments sometimes have 300 options! They’re spending a lot more money on upgrades, and they’ll be the ones to spend hours using our program at home.

BBH: Do you think presentation centres will one day become obsolete?

JZ: I don’t think decor centres will become obsolete, but I think they’re going to be a lot smaller and less extravagant. Especially with the BuzzBuzzHome ‘Buy Now button,’ I think within the next 10 years there will just be a room where people go to sign a contract, especially for pre-construction condos or homes.

SB: The draw of wanting to see and feel the materials will still be there. Looking at a picture, you can’t always tell what certain upgrades or materials are made of. But the hope is, people would say, “Okay, I’ve done my selections and now there are three things I’m not sure about.” I can book my appointment and tell the designer what materials I want to see when I come in, which speeds up the process.

MiiCasaScreen4-compressed BBH: What lessons have you learned?

SB: I would say plan for that explosion — because we did it the other way around. We planned for this slow, onboarding integration. All of a sudden, in November and December, we hadn’t even integrated the product yet, but we did over 20 presentations. I got a little nervous thinking, “We haven’t even perfected the onboarding system yet.” Plan for the explosion and if it doesn’t come, then you still have a lot of time to make [your product] better. Be prepared, because for us, it was a pretty hectic time.

BBH: Any other big plans for MiiCasa in 2016?

SB: We’re doing a big push this quarter to get into the US market — we’re looking to go to Austin, Houston, Miami. We’re being pulled into some other markets abroad as well, we’ve got a lot of interest in France.

JZ: Might have to make a trip! [laughs]

SB: Right now we’re doing our next financing round, knowing full well that we’re about six months from leaving the startup world [and heading into] the growth stage. We’ll be putting some more salespeople into place and focusing on the structuring of the business.

BBH: What’s the pool of talent like in Kitchener-Waterloo?

SB: You’d think Kitchener-Waterloo would be a great place for scouting talent but there’s so much competition! Everyone wants to work for Google or Shopify. We’re taking a downtown Toronto space on Yonge Street. I think we’ll be able to attract more talent out of Toronto than Kitchener-Waterloo. That space will probably be set up by mid-March.

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