Interview with Stefan von den Driesch – CEO Ourbania.com, a Web 2.0...

Interview with Stefan von den Driesch – CEO Ourbania.com, a Web 2.0 Real Estate Community

Stefan von den Driesch, the CEO of Ourbania.com; a unique Web 2.0 community for architecture, real estate and construction enthusiasts is our guest this week. Mainz/Germany based Ourbania.com has been creating a buzz in the blogosphere. We asked Stefan to share a few thoughts with us, and he was kind enough to oblige.

What exactly is Ourbania.com? Can you please expand more on its concept?

Ourbania.com is built upon two cornerstones: First, it’s a vivid online directory of outstanding commercial real estate property worldwide. It’s based on the contributions of its users and taps relevant online resources (e.g. Flickr photos, Google maps).

Second, ourbania.com is a global online community of people interested in commercial real estate and the so-called built environment. That makes it a forum for real estate enthusiasts where they can find and meet like-minded people to discuss all building related topics, from architecture to urbanism (and, of course, business opportunities, too). Beside the fact that we wanted to have a catchy domain address, the name “ourbania” hints on the two aspects I mentioned: It conveys the sense of belonging together, in an online metropolis.

How did you come up with the concepts?

My first company mediaman is one of the top 40 interactive agencies in Germany. As we have been involved in hundreds of online projects since 1996 for our global clients, we started some years ago in developing ideas for own platforms. With ourbania, we had this rough idea of creating a Web 2.0 platform around buildings only back in February 2007. We then talked to our client Eurohypo, which is one of the worlds leading specialists for commercial real estate finance.

Together we refined the idea and elaborated the concepts, using their expertise regarding market requirements and our expertise in creating the best user experience.

What is the team size behind Ourbania.com?

Currently, there are around 15 people involved in this project. Our team consists of concept developers, real estate experts, application developers, community managers, flash developer. Of course, they’re not all working full-time in ourbania. However, our community managers notice a steadily growing demand for support. And we have a long list of new features to come (see below), so our concept and IT people are prepared to go ahead.

Are you a real estate enthusiast?

Yes, for sure. I love great architecture, especially Bauhaus-style, with clear, cubic forms and bright colors, straight lines. And I think the environment in which people live or work shapes their thinking. (Btw, that’s what we mean with ourbania’s claim: “We’re built by buildings.”) I’m no real estate investor – apart from the little wooden house I live in with my family, located in Mainz/Germany. I studied Political Sciences and Journalism, worked as copywriter in different advertising agencies and founded mediaman together with two partners back in 1996.

What other Web 2.0 projects have you been involved in?

Ourbania.com is our first real and own Web 2.0 project. Actually, it was one of our intentions launching it to learn and see how it feels like growing up a community. With ourbania, we combined business with pleasure. :)

What do you think about SkyScraperCity.com (the largest real estate & construction online community)? Is it old style and about to be replaced by Ourbania.com?

I think these kind of discussion forums, no matter what topic they’re about, are the core of the Internet. They provide places for like-minded people to meet and share their thoughts, claiming a minimum of resources. Many experienced netizens grew up with these forums, and I suppose many of them won’t change their habits. But the Internet is a mass medium now, an audiovisual medium, with broadband connections, mobile access, and much more, so new users get used to different interfaces, providing a richer user experience than classical forums.

Do you think Ourbania.com would be a natural progression of SkyScraperCity.com users? Do you think new Web 2.0 start-ups (yourself included) would spell the end of the traditional ‘old’ style property forums? Or do you think it will be a healthy symbiotic relationship?

I combine these questions in one answer: I suppose for some time there will be coexistence of SkyScraperCity.com and Ourbania.com, maybe for years. Because, as I said, people don’t like to change their habits, so heavy users of SkyScraperCity.com will stick to their forum. Apart from this fact, ourbania is just starting, so it will take time to catch up content-wise. In the long run, I expect platforms like Ourbania.com to be on the winner’s side, because people prefer intuitive navigation, interactive features, a visual experience.

As you recently started, what new features should we expect in the pipeline?

We have a clear roadmap what features we want to include when. But that’s just our point of view. I want to point out that all plans are subject to the response of our citizens! We listen very carefully and are able to switch projects quickly. At the moment, we’re already working on an extension of the Google Map module, to show multiple urban items within one map, and to work out visiting tours. Another priority is to enhance the personal profile page, to get to know our users better and to give them more room for self promotion. For example, citizens will be able to link to all urban items they are related to. There will be a messaging feature in ourbania, to allow private messages between citizens. Or a feature we call “I want to meet there”, to enable appointments in real life, at urban items.

How are you going to monetize Ourbania.com?

We won’t go the way of many commercial websites that leads to cluttered interfaces and a bad user experience. If at all, we will be very cautious with display ads. Relevant offers like item related books from Amazon.com could be an additional benefit for our users. We’re also discussing new content pages with portraits of companies, and there might be paid extended versions of these portraits. There might even come the time when we have premium accounts for professional users, but the core features of ourbania.com will always remain free of charge for our citizens.

Do you think Ourbania.com would trigger other copycat start-ups?

It would be an honor for us! No website is immune against copycats. To us, the challenge is to grow faster than our followers. And that ourbania always offers the better user experience.

What is your advice to real estate professionals like developers and agents for the promotion of their developments on Ourbania.com?

I strongly recommend every real estate professional to sign-up on ourbania, supplying a meaningful profile page and a personal photo. Business is always about establishing relationships, so you should act as an open and friendly citizen of ourbania. Then, start building your urban items. Take care to fill in the correct and complete data, together with attractive photos. Carefully select the tags to describe your developments, as these are powerful research instruments. Feel free to link to your company website if there is further relevant information. (You can do this too from within your comments on other urban items.) As ourbania.com is extremely well optimised for Google, even among hundred of thousands of hits your urban item might appear among the first results.

Are you planning to develop widgets?

Yes, definitely. There will be widgets for viewing and uploading urban items, but only in a later release.

Would bloggers be able to use Ourbania widgets to showcase developments on blogs or websites?

If there is a demand from bloggers for such an option, we certainly will provide it with our widgets. It would be a great opportunity for us to promote ourbania.

How do you intend to stop creative commons violations on images uploaded via Flickr?

We’ve had an intensive discussion with Flickr on this question, and of course we included an instruction of how to link images properly within our blog. (And a legal note within our terms of use.) We even thought about restricting this feature to images licensed under creative commons. But surely there are some citizens who link to their own copyrighted images on Flickr. Restricting the feature would obstruct their use of ourbania. So we pursue a two-fold strategy: We will improve the “Build urban item” form – with better instructions on what citizens have to pay attention, maybe linking directly to the Advanced Search within Flickr. Second, our community management spot checks images regularly and contacts citizens which seem to use Flickr images incorrectly. However, as soon as we receive a complaint from a Flickr user, we will immediately remove his/her images from ourbania. Up to now, there have been no such complaints.

What are your future plans and what next should we expect from you guys?

Currently, we’re talking to some publishing houses in large real estate markets to establish cooperations. To gain momentum, we want to support the word of mouth with some promotions in special interest magazines. Also, the next weeks will see some functional improvements in ourbania, and a few addons, for example: voting on new features. We keep an eye on Google’s initiative “Open Social”, as in future we might be able to use interfaces to other communities, for example LinkedIn. At the beginning of 2008, we plan to invite some of our most active citizens for a personal workshop to discuss their wishes and requirements. We really want to make ourbania the best place on the net for real estate enthusiasts.

Thanks again to Stefan for sharing his thoughts.