Whether you’re checking to see if it’s a Bones Day, or need to kill a few minutes flipping through your For You Page, TikTok is one of the world’s most popular social media networks. Its simple swipe-up application shares a likeness with Torii, a US-based brokerage and technology company that wants to modernize the real estate industry.
Similar to Tinder or TikTok, Torii’s mobile app lets prospective buyers swipe through a series of filtered and curated listings through its AI-powered home search feature. Users can receive recommended listings based on the homes they save and favourite, and experience a centralized home buying process from start to finish through the Torii app with access to a roster of realty professionals throughout all stages of the transaction.
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Torii launched in Boston, Massachusetts in 2017, and now covers Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area in California, as well as New Hampshire. The company has goals of expanding nationwide within the next few years.
Livabl chatted with Zach Gorman, co-founder and COO of Torii, to find out more about the company’s home search feature and how Torii got started.
Parts of this interview have been edited or removed for clarity and brevity.
Torii launched in 2017 in Boston after James Rogers, the CEO and co-founder of Torii, had a frustrating real estate experience. Tell us a little more about why and how the company was started.
James is the technical founder. He went to school for economics and entrepreneurial development and has started a couple of companies. I’ve always worked front- and back-end at a bunch of different software companies as well. He had bought and sold a couple of homes over the years, and pretty much at every stop there was frustration. The reality of home buying is that the process is incredibly fragmented. The technology is incredibly outdated and archaic, and the experience can obviously be quite atrocious at points, which is unfortunate for such an emotionally and financially significant event in one’s life. So enough was enough at a certain point.
On our website, he sort of talks about the exact story where he was basically left hanging by a real estate agent who didn’t really help him. He and his wife were bound by an exclusive buyer agent’s agreement, which just sort of binds you to an agent to pay them a commission regardless of whether they helped you source the home or anything like that. They found a home on their own, [the] agent didn’t help, didn’t do a showing, just put together an offer document and left them hanging when they moved in. When they moved in, [and] this was a New Hampshire property that they purchased, the electricity wasn’t on, the water, the well wasn’t on, so they’re staying the first couple of nights in their home when you’re looking to celebrate and they’re sleeping on the cold floor.
For him, that was a sort of “enough is enough” kind of moment and he quit his job as a software engineer and sold the house that he and his wife were living in to feed the initial amount for the company, the earliest pre-seed so to speak. [He] started working on it and I was coming from a very different background.
I went to school for middle eastern relations and Arabic, moved to DC and did some consulting there, pivoted into music because I grew up as a trained classical and competitive musician. I did that for about eight years and developed a lot of adjacent skills in branding, design, marketing and everything that a starving artist needs to sort out for themselves. When I started getting to the end of music, I was pivoting into design because I’d [had] developed sort of a side hustle shop with all of those adjacent skills for musicians, other brands, sort of across any kind of industry. I really started working with UI and UX, [then] James and I started collaborating on a few projects in the very early days before we went into the pre-market in summer 2017.
As we continued to keep working together, that partnership and collaboration really started to come to fruition. We’ve actually gone to school [together], to university, and have been mountaineering partners for many, many years at that point. As trite as it is, we had effectively already climbed many mountains together and sort of cut our teeth as a founder-duo in life-threatening situations in some very high-altitude environments. I think that’s part of what our real success as our founder-duo comes from is the fact that we’ve been challenged at some of the greatest heights that actually exist.
It really was just these repetitive, painful processes that brought James to sort of say, “Enough is enough. The technology exists. There can be something better, and the whole real estate industry is asleep at the wheel as a new generation of home buyers, Millennials, become the biggest segment of the market, which is at this point, true.”
Their needs have been completely underserved, and the real estate industry again has just sort of been asleep at the wheel while an entire new group of homebuyers has come to expect something better, but doesn’t really have a choice or anything that they can go to sort of fill that void.
What does the word “torii” mean?
That sort of alludes to the gates that you see around the world. The literal definition of torii is the threshold between the profane and the sacred, and we find that really speaks to, for us, it feels like the threshold into a home, which is a really powerful, senitmentive [analogy.]
You’re entering into the domain that is your self-actualization that is representative of who you are and how you live your life, and sort of leaving the outside world behind and settling into that space in the ecosystem.
So what is Torii all about? What is your elevator pitch for the company?
Basically the way that I see it is Torii is building the world’s best home buying experience. We’ve reimagined the entire home buying process combining break-through technology. We work a lot with AI machine learning computer vision, but combining that technology with exceptional talent, we recognize that purchasing a home is always going to be a human experience and we never want to lose sight of that.
Photo: James Bombales
We just think that there’s a huge opportunity in tech that hasn’t been leveraged yet, but we always think that is going to be a tandem process. Combining break-through tech with exceptional talent, all of our clients receive everything that they need to buy a home.
Besides being a real estate brokerage, Torii also has an app. What features can you find there?
For us, we’re trying to build a home for all things home, a platform and a process that’s cohesive. Part of the motivation is just meeting the Millennials buyers where they are. We understand that Millennials are on their phone 24/7 and on top of being able to create an easy resource and platform for them to use in a mobile capacity, there are also so many mechanics of the phone and searching on a phone that can help make the process easier from a search standpoint.
On the search side, we’ve made sort of a transaction process. We’ve bundled all of that into the app itself. Once you find the home you want, you can submit an offer directly through the app, manage all of your documents, [and] communicate with your entire team. When you’ve got a current live offer, you can communicate with everyone on your team from the Torii side, for your lending side, inspection [side]. Everyone is there. You can communicate with them all directly through the app, and then all of the notifications, timelines and key events are tracked there.
That keeps everything in one place instead of spreading you between DocuSign, Dotloop, your email, text messages. Everything is in one place and it makes it far easier to control the process and manage the process with everyone.
What about the Torii home search feature is unique?
Map-based search was innovative at the time because it was 2005, but nothing has really changed since. You’re really just looking at listings on a map with no organization. A company like Zillow is optimizing for how much time you spend on their site and they can connect you with an agent. For us, we’re thinking of “How can we use the new technology that exists to get people to find the right home faster?”
By that I mean we’ve been sort of conscripted into this ubiquitous idea that map-based search is the only way to search for a home, but if the last two years have taught us anything, people’s geographic mobility has changed so much, I think everyone has realized “Oh, my ZIP code isn’t everything,” and I think Millennial buyers really understand that. What they want in a home is a place that is representative of them, of their lifestyle and the way that they want to lead their life and the things that they do in their life. We have been using technology to try and enrich the experience of searching for a home to sort of solve that issue and provide that platform for folks.
We do have a map search because we know everyone is used to that, but we focus and invest on this sort of TikTok paradigm of scrolling through homes one by one.
I think it’s a much more immersive experience. You’re not just looking at this Jackson Pollock painting of dots on a map and trying to sort through them all. You see those homes one by one, but we can say “[You] love to host, so we’re going to show you the kitchen photo of the home first,” because there’s always those make-or-break rooms in the home that are important to you in the way that you lead your life in the home. Let’s save you the time scrolling through 15 photos of every single listing. There are hundreds of thousands of listings out there. Let’s show you kitchens first so you can make that snap decision and let’s go a step further. We use computer vision to only show you homes with great kitchens.
Our algorithm is looking at home features, home quality, appliances, everything to sort of create a summed inference of the quality or condition of that particular room. We can do that for every room in the house. You’re just getting so much more refined and customized when you work like that. Coming down the road, we’ll be able to let you search by particular appliances or search by things like natural light, things that are really getting to the specifics that I think Millennials have a lot of emotion about. It makes the process more immersive, more personalized.
That behaviour allows us to learn more. At the end of the day, there’s only so many homes on the market and if you’re searching based on location, you run out eventually. Our home recommendation AI can look at what you’re doing that may be subliminal to you and then start suggesting other homes with similar properties based on cohorts of people who’ve done similar behaviours.
It’s sort of a two-pronged approach. There’s all of this customization that a user can take on their own behalf using filters and all of this stuff that we’ve produced with machine learning, but there’s also this AI in the background that’s learning as you are actually using the search and then recommending homes for you that you may not find yourself.
If we were to open the Torii app, how would the home search work?
You open up the app. We get to know a little bit about you. That immediately just drops you on the search so you’re looking at relevant homes right off the bat. If you want to use the Torii search filters, it’s all available for you to use [by] tapping the little filters button, you navigate over and that’s where you can dig into the stuff like “What is the order of rooms that you would like to see?” [and you can say] “Show me the kitchen first. Show me the living room first, the home exterior first,” and then you’re all set and able to dial in the quality and condition of those rooms, because some people are looking for very different things.
We get folks who say [things] like “Well what if everyone wants the best of everything?” but again, we’re trying to think a little bit more on an individual, personalized basis. That’s just not true for everybody. Those are sweeping assumptions and there are plenty of people out there who are looking for fixer-uppers. So it’s really valuable for them to be able to say “Hey, I love redoing kitchens.” Maybe the home is perfect, but the kitchen just isn’t what someone is looking for and they’re like “This is too good of an opportunity to refuse. Let me try and find something like this where the kitchen needs some work so I can just dig in and elevate it to what I’m looking for.” We just allow you to have that quality and condition setting available to you.
On-top of the machine-learning powered stuff, we’ve got the AI home search recommendations where as you swipe or scroll through listings, we learn about what you’re looking at, and then we can compare it to other people and say “Great, let’s serve you up more suggestions based on what you like.” There’s a lot of similar homes that you may not be noticing in terms of what you favourite, what you actually decide to trash and delete.
Torii will be rolling out some original and user-generated content features soon. What will that entail?
We’re always trying to challenge assumptions and the reality is that you can create as much customization and as much personalization as possible for a user and give them any level of control that you want. [But] at the end of the day, there’s only so many homes on the market. What we found is that if you give someone too much precise control, they may not be able to find what they want because it’s too precise, it just doesn’t exist.
Given that [point] both from an inventory perspective, but also on a higher level, we understand that real estate is not just homes and listings. There’s an entire ecosystem around real estate, but there’s no platform that really centralizes all of those interests which contributes to the additional fragmentation of the industry.
Photo: James Bombales
Something that we’re really interested in is let’s say you go into our app and you’re scrolling through homes and a tip from somebody on our team comes up, like a small video that’s a homebuyer tip you never thought of. [It’s] something that gages interest and we can provide channels and categories for all of that, whether it’s paid-produced content, whether that’s content that is produced by the community, but we understand that there is an entire ecosystem around real estate, property investing, DIY, interior design. It’s limitless and we sort of want to bring all of those interests together because they’re all feeding the same engine. It’s important for us, and especially going after Millennial buyers, to meet people where they are and provide value beyond just the transactional stage.
Obviously we would love anybody who comes in and says “I’m ready to buy today. Let’s do it.” That’s amazing, but if it takes us providing value by educating people, providing valuable content, entertaining content to somebody in advance — outside of explicitly real estate listings — we still think that’s incredibly compelling to help build up a more proactive community of interested folks in those categories.
We’re really trying to explore and test that environment and see what is possible, so over the next couple of weeks we will be putting together some content and seeing what resonates with people, and most importantly, just listening to our users and seeing what they want more of. Especially when you’ve got Millennials that are so, I think, concerned about the real estate market and ecosystem, and not knowing if buying a home and owning a home is part of their future, I think there’s so much that we can unlock by educating people.