By: Danny SC Tseng, Syllable
“The challenge right at the start was the naysayers. People constantly telling you that you can’t do it,” recalls Matthew Slutsky, the Founder and President of BuzzBuzzHome. The widely used online database for new construction homes was founded in Toronto with the goal of creating a fully transparent online space for anyone to do research while enabling collaboration between purchasers and industry experts. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing when Slutsky was getting his idea off the ground.
Slutsky earned an Honours BA at the University of Toronto in Urban Studies and furthered his education with a Masters of Science in Environmental Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh. After graduation, Slutsky got into land development working with homebuilders in Toronto: first at Atria Development Corporation as a Project Coordinator for a year and a half and then as Vice President of Development at Diamante Development Corporation for nearly three years. It was there that Slutsky noticed more and more people were searching online for information on new homes, but buyers were not going into the sales centres because they wanted this type of information before venturing out. MLS was the online repository for resale properties, but there was a lack of relevant and centralized information on new construction homes, even on the builders’ websites. This was the information gap that Slutsky decided to fill. In 2009, he left Diamante to start BuzzBuzzHome with Cliff Peskin, an old friend and business partner.
The initial goal wasn’t focused on generating exponential revenue growth. Instead, Slutsky and Peskin aimed to create a new, empowering purchasing experience for new home shoppers. The early days came with challenges for the start-up. Along with the naysayers telling the two co-founders they couldn’t succeed, BuzzBuzzHome also never went after the venture capital support that many start-ups pursue. Instead, BuzzBuzzHome remained fully self-funded, with family and friends acting as its sole outside investors. There were also early supporters who believed in Slutsky’s vision. Julie Di Lorenzo from Diamante, Sam Crignano from Cityzen, and Adam Ochshorn from Curated Properties were the three early clients who supported Slutsky’s start-up and signed on as BuzzBuzzHome’s first clients.
Another major hurdle was technology. Neither Slutsky nor Peskin were computer engineers and, since the company was self-funded, they were unable to pay a high salary for a CTO (Chief Technology Officer). Peskin learned the basics of coding and oversaw the technical side of the company for the first few years.
“Like with any start-up, persistence is key, and we just had to continue to press on and keep pushing through obstacles,” Slutsky reminisces. BuzzBuzzHome now has an incredible engineering team, but it took a lot of trial, error, and grit to overcome the early technological hurdles.
Today BuzzBuzzHome has over 700,000 unique visitors per month across Canada and 10 key US markets. Slutsky attributes the quality of data as paramount to the company’s success. A huge amount of effort continues to be expended on providing high quality information and an intuitive user experience. Pricing, floorplans and the rest of the data displayed on the site is obtained manually by an in-house analyst team that makes regular calls to sales centres. Also, since the site is wiki-based, builders are able to login to update information on their own projects, allowing the site to get real-time data directly from the source.
Many builders across North America take advantage of BuzzBuzzHome’s feature program in order to gain better visibility for their developments on the site. Re-targeted advertising is also used to help increase lead conversions. Once visitors view a featured project, the website “remembers” the user and targets them with display ads showing the project they viewed when they leave the site. The company also recently launched a cloud-based inventory management software for homebuilders called Daypack. However, whether a builder is a client of BuzzBuzzHome’s or not, the aim is to create the best new home purchasing experience with as much up-to-date information as possible. “The lasting impact we want to have is creating the best new-home purchasing experience,” Slutsky said. “We want purchasers to walk into sales centres informed. We want to educate them on BuzzBuzzHome first, so they can ask builders the tough questions since they have the basics answered already.”
The vast repository of information on the site also allowed Slutsky to observe in real-time the Toronto housing shortage unfolding by combing through the data. Slutsky recalled in that in the fall of 2014, there were 90 condo projects being launched; in 2017 it slowed down to 15 launches. “This is totally a supply issue because there’s still a huge demand for condos,” said Slutsky. “Transit City sold out in three weekends with 3,000 agents lined down the street; Nobu (a condo in the Entertainment District) with even crazier prices was sold out in two weekends and people ate them up due to strong demand!” What used to take builders an entire year to sell is now completed over weekends. Slutsky believes that this lack of supply is an issue particularly in light of the recent OMB reforms. An increase in urban density over the last five years can be attributed to the OMB and the new changes could have a negative impact on the housing shortage, leading to less home construction and fewer jobs for blue-collar construction trades.
For those interested in investing in condos, Slutsky advises getting larger units in the 1,000 square-foot-plus range that are suitable for raising families. With his breadth of experience in real estate — moving from planning to land development to home listings and tech — Slutsky has observed a difference between builders who understand how units work and new builders who don’t. Diamante, for instance, spent over six months perfecting floorplans for The Florian, a condo in upper Yorkville. It’s important for builders to understand how units will be used by the end user to create the most livable spaces. This comes down to building experience and understanding different aspects of the project. Great builders, for example, would seek advice from retail consultants to create better spaces to attract quality retailers. A specific example is the Loblaws on Queen West where the grocery store was placed on the second floor to create better street frontage for smaller retail tenants. Densification in interesting locations is also something Slutsky would like to see more builders do, pointing to the example of builders buying a few existing houses in residential areas to create new townhomes.
After filling the information gap with a centralized database of new construction homes, Slutsky now wants to give consumers the ability to purchase new properties online with his company’s BuyNow feature. “People want to buy stuff from their couch. They go online for groceries, shoes, and so on. Real estate is the next evolution,” Slutsky said. “It’s a natural progression to purchase online because, unlike resale properties where purchasers can walk into the built space to see it and feel it, there’s nothing to see or feel in new construction condos but literally the empty sky above the sales centre.” Getting there was a huge challenge in terms of setting up the system to for builders to use, complying with regulations and fine-tuning the technology. But BuzzBuzzHome has now launched the online condo purchasing platform after two and a half years of development. “If real estate is ‘Location, Location, Location’ then pre-construction is ‘Access, Access, Access,’” said Slutsky. “This will give everyone that access to level the playing field so purchasers don’t have to find that VIP realtor.” On the flip side, the online platform also gives the builder full control over which units they wish to release to the public so there can still be a level of exclusivity for some of the more coveted units.
When Slutsky isn’t filling gaps in the real estate tech space, he runs a blog for new fathers called Adadable and the Urbanize This podcast with Ara Mamourian, Partner at Property.ca. With Urbanize This, the idea is to give listeners perspective on topics that can help create a better city. Through their connections, Slutsky and Mamourian are able to bring in experts from a broad range of disciplines to share their ideas and have a fun time doing it. On one episode, a fashion and tech designer discussed how wearable technology will change real estate. On the OMB reform topic, they had two episodes where they invited a city councillor and then an OMB lawyer to cover both sides of the argument. Everything from flooding, issues of shadowing, and street art is discussed on Urbanize This, which is free for anyone to download.
A consummate connector, Slutsky enjoys the access to interesting events and like-minded individuals that ULI offers. He recalled a great conversation at one of the first Communications Committee meetings he attended prior to becoming a member, which was held at 52 Pickup and led by Sue MacKay, then the advertising agency’s VP of Client Services. “I had a great conversation and left the meeting with my mind blown by the group of smart people that I wanted to be engaged with,” exclaimed Slutsky. “The organization fits a specific need for me to go to events to engage with like-minded individuals about important issues. I leave every event thinking I’m a bit smarter because I had conversations with people who love urban development and smart cities.” One of the most memorable events for him was the Fireside Chat with John Tory held shortly after he became mayor of Toronto. Soon after, Slutsky became co-chair of the Communications Committee along with Sue Mackay and later, Riva Finkelstein.
When he took the helm as co-chair for a two-year tenure, he noticed that he was holding massive meetings of between 20 and 30 people where everyone had their own unique pursuits. To allow the volunteers to engage with their own interests within the group and optimize the meetings, three sub-committees were created: Social, Public Relations, and Editorial. Slutsky, Mackay, and Finkelstein were able to cement the committee’s reputation as a leader in the industry by launching campaigns like #CityResolve, creating additional valuable content online, and generating press coverage to help elevate ULI’s brand.
Despite BuzzBuzzHome’s success, Slutsky still feels like he’s slugging away. “Everyone thinks running a start-up is about parties, but it’s hard running a growing company because you can never sit back and allow a competitor to creep up,” said Slutsky. “You always have to be innovating, creating, and pushing the company to the next level.” Although Slutsky loves hearing from people who made purchasing decisions because of the info BuzzBuzzHome provided, the most rewarding thing for him is coming into his office and seeing his staff happy and advancing their careers. “How would you sum up your company culture in one sentence?” I asked. “To continue learning while having fun,” laughed Slutsky.