Can Porch use data to solve a problem created by humans?

By Sarah Lacy , written on September 17, 2013

From The News Desk

A company named Porch launched today, and it's another attempt at bringing some sanity to the fragmented, confusing, and frustrating home improvement market.

The hook is a Zillow-like voyeuristic approach, by promising to show you how much your neighbor paid for his home improvement. It relies heavily on data coming from various sources-- most notably the professionals touching different parts of any remodel. It's trying to create yet another kind of graph -- a "home graph" of work that's been done around a neighborhood. It's one of several ways that social networking and market effect businesses are increasingly trying to get closer to home.

The concept is a little creepy for sure. Even though the data doesn't include names or addresses and the professionals are using it anyway for marketing purposes. People aren't always rational when they feel like their privacy is getting breached. Remember the News Feed scandal? All that info was already available on Facebook profile pages, but pulling it together in a feed felt invasive and "stalkerish." And that wasn't even posting pictures of your kids playrooms. I'd have an issue with it, if it were my house.

That said, like Facebook, if Porch, which is based in Seattle, provides something of value, people will mind the creepy part less. Experts are always surprised at what people will share in exchange for value. And, to be fair, what Porch is announcing today is just the tip of the iceberg of what you could do with this kind of "home graph." Data on how different improvements can affect resale value could, for instance, be very cool with worth giving up some info.

Porch is right that the home improvement market is a mess. Aside from Angie's List it's been little touched by the Internet. It's confusing to navigate. It's hard to find good contractors, know if you are getting ripped off or not and projects always run over and are more expensive than planned.

The company is wisely trying to solve just a small part of the pain by focusing on its Zillow-like way of peeking inside the neighbor's house to tell you who they used and how much they paid. Their research says that that's the most painful start -- knowing where to get started.

Maybe I'm alone in this, but I have a hard time believing that's true.

I have a 100-plus year old house in San Francisco and we've done a ton of work on it. Asking around for contractors and getting multiple bids is sort of annoying, but not undoable -- particularly in an age of Nextdoor where you can blast out to neighbors "Does anyone have a good roofer?"

What's hard is managing them. Making sure they show up, they hire solid subcontractors, they do good work, they meet their deadlines. A few years ago, we had one guy just disappear for months. We looked for him for months before giving up and hiring someone else to finish the job. We even owe him money, and we can't find him. In all of my experience finding someone seemed annoying but wound up being the easy part of the whole process.

And it's the part others are already focusing on, although not in the same data centric way. I'm not saying there's not a market here. I just don't buy that they're really taking the headache out of home improvements because they stop where the real headache begins. And I'm not sure how a housing graph can really solve what truly sucks about home improvement. Ultimately, it's a human-to-human problem, and data just can't solve it.

Perhaps Nextdoor could play the role of a possible spoiler for companies like Porch. They are not direct competitors, but as the emerging neighborhood social "platform" Nextdoor can spoil almost anything that tries to replace talking to people who live next door to you. In fact, one of its original goals was to do a better micro-local Craigslist. Sounds similar to Angie's List, which Porch is partially trying to displace.

The two approaches are ultimately orthogonal: While Porch solves the creepy privacy issue by showing anonymous data near you; Nextdoor painstakingly authenticates who really lives in a neighborhood and then blocks everyone else out. One hides connections; the other heightens it. Porch gets data from the professionals; Nextdoor gets it from neighbors. And unlike Porch, Nextdoor is a platform that has many other ways to grow and make money.