Newdigs: Rochester apartment finder taking on Craigslist

Mar 12, 2012

Craigslist dominates the world of online rental listings.

Newdigs.com is trying to change that.

“It’s kinda like that Craigslist apartment section, but on a Google Map,” says Newdigs CEO and co-founder Ben Munson.

The Rochester-based startup will soon be taking on the national Goliath in cities across the country.

After nearly two years of beta testing in the Rochester market, Newdigs says its user-friendly, highly searchable platform is ready to leave the nest.

Working out the kinks

About 1,000 Rochester area landlords have listed with Newdigs in the last year-and-a-half, according to Munson.

Unlike the list-based Craigslist (which searches keywords), Newdigs is oriented around mapping and customizable search options. Newdigs first asks prospective renters where they want to be. After that, they can customize their apartment hunting with any combination of the 140 or so built-in criteria.

Say you’re looking for a particular school district.

“This allows you to see all those apartment pins - but just literally with the school district footprint bounded on a map,” Munson says. “Although it may be in Penfield, it’s in the Fairport school district - and you can see that with this.”

Munson says the benefits of a map-based system are fairly obvious.

Online systems for prospective homebuyers are densely populated with listings, Munson says. But the rental market has largely been ceded to Craigslist.

In a city like Rochester - where nearly 6 out of 10 households are renter households - the market is sizable.

“People always assume that this problem’s been solved and you can just log online and find apartments easily,” Munson says. “They don’t really acknowledge the market problem.”

Big market, big problem

Newdigs wants to be a platform for improving the rental experience of both renters and landlords.

The company is about to launch a smartphone app they call the “Renter Remote.” The app will let tenants pay rent with their phone, as well as file maintenance requests and other messages. Newdigs could eventually serve up location-specific advertising as well, Munson says.

But even with a sophisticated user experience, building a website around rental units is not an easy nut to crack.

Munson says “chicken and egg problems” plague online listing sites: You have to convince both landlords and renters to use it. And with the price point of the competition at zero, web developers have to find a way to make money while providing the bulk of the service for free.

Newdigs raised about $100,000 from a “friends and family” investment round. Besides personal savings, Munson and co-founder Daniel Mooney say they’ve received no other outside funding.

They do report that one investor may soon buy an RV for Newdigs, with Munson and Mooney spreading the brand from city to city. The co-founders say Newdigs is going national starting this summer.

“But we really want to keep that base of operations here and put a win on a map for Rochester in the dotcom startup scene,” says Munson. “Because there’s a lot of knowledge economy startups in this area, but there just isn’t much early-stage capital.”

Putting Rochester on the map

That’s the other nut Newdigs is trying to crack: catalyzing a vibrant web startup scene in Rochester.

“There’s like this primordial stew of a startup scene here that hasn’t really fully tipped yet,” Munson says. “We’re hoping to put a win on the board and have the money start looking at Rochester for deal flow.”

Munson says potential is abundant in Rochester; venture capital is the missing spark.

“Yeah, I’d like to start a successful dotcom software company, that’d be great,” Munson says. “But I don’t just want that, which is why I haven’t just picked up and moved to California and taken $4 million of angel funding.

“We really want to build it here and build something in Rochester to last.”

Munson and Mooney are talking about starting a new “community incubator” around web startups. Newdigs itself is a recent graduate of RIT’s Venture Creations incubator.

The idea is to help more web startups get the resources they need to succeed. If the critical mass is there, Munson reasons, the venture capital will follow.

“There’s a lot of small businesses that really take off,” Munson says. “Just at the moment they’re taking off in other towns because we’re exporting the folks that are starting those.”