HiHome sweet HiHome
MS/MBA, Undergraduate Technology Innovation Fellows team up for home purchase start-up
The story of HiHome is really the story of all the resources available to students at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering (SEAS). Co-founders James Parker and Tony Shu met at a SEAS event in 2019. Parker was in his first year of the MS/MBA: Engineering Sciences program, offered jointly by SEAS and Harvard Business School (HBS), while Shu was in the Undergraduate Technology Innovation Fellows program, run by SEAS, HBS and the Harvard Faculty of Arts & Sciences.
The two got to chatting, laying the seeds for HiHome, a start-up that uses scoring and recommendation algorithms to simplify the home buying process. The company kicked off the venture through the MS/MBA’s Technology Venture Immersion (TVI) course, helped raise pre-seed capital through the Allston Venture Fund of the Harvard Innovation Labs, and recently hired a student from a SEAS data science class as their first full time engineer.
“SEAS and Harvard more broadly has been absolutely critical to HiHome,” Shu said. “Without SEAS and Harvard, HiHome probably wouldn’t exist right now.”
Parker and Shu met by chance, but it didn’t take long for them to connect. Shu, A.B. ‘21, was a licensed real estate agent in Massachusetts, while Parker had recently gone through the process of buying a new home.
“Tony really understood me,” said Parker, who graduates from the MS/MBA program this week. “He was able to articulate the pains that I had felt as a new home buyer and recent home seller. The way in which he correctly summed up some of the problems he saw as an agent in the real estate space for home buyers really resonated with me. That became the foundation for our relationship.”
Shu wasn’t just a real estate agent – he’d grown up with one. His mother had raised him and his brother on her own, and her success in that industry enabled him to eventually go to Harvard.
“I saw how meaningful it was for my mother to buy and own her own home,” Shu said. “It wasn’t just that she had a place to live. It was more that she belonged here in the U.S., she belonged here in the community, and she was able to provide for herself and her children. Owning a home is so much more than just a physical structure.”
Between Shu’s experience as an agent and Parker’s experience as a recent buyer and software engineer, the two realized buying a home could be a much easier process. The Tech Venture Immersion program made that need even more clear.
“TVI really forces you to do a lot of primary research with interviewing users,” Parker said. “What was crystal clear throughout was that there was a huge problem with new home buyers understanding the process, being able to navigate it, feeling comfortable and feeling in control. When you can consistently see high levels of anxiety, stress, confusion and uncertainty, and those emotions have not faded over time, we felt we were clearly on to something related to innovating the home buying process that merited further investigation.”
HiHome quickly became the core of Parker and Shu’s education. Parker worked on it during both Launch Lab courses, two core classes in the MS/MBA, and over the summer using the HBS Rock Summer Fellow program.
“Being at Harvard was an incredible privilege and advantage,” Shu said. “Being a student entrepreneur is probably the best setup you can imagine. You’re surrounded by so many incredible people and new ideas, and you have a built-in community. It’s the best incubator for any entrepreneur, and at every step of the way we were able to harmonize our education at Harvard with what we were building.”
One thing that stood out in their user interviews was the complicated spreadsheets compiled by potential buyers.
On these spreadsheets, buyers listed every home they were considering, along with relevant data such as price, square footage, number of rooms and other features. Some even went so far as to create scoring systems to evaluate which options met more of their needs.
“We learned that buyers spend 124 hours on average online searching for homes,” Shu said. “There are a lot of data sets that you have to pull in, so for a buyer to do this manually is quite challenging.”
HiHome initially began as a collaborative workflow between users and agents to track out how far along they were in the home buying process. But seeing these spreadsheets and scoring systems inspired Parker and Shu to transform HiHome into its current form, where it uses that data to make personalized recommendations, then connect buyers with licensed agents.
“Right now, we’re using the same approach used in dating apps and personalized entertainment to deliver on this personalized home-matching experience,” Parker said. “In the beginning we manually collected their home preference data, compiled supplemental data from numerous sources, and then coded an algorithm to score it.”
Parker and Shu then delivered these results to pilot users. It didn’t take long for this new business model to produce results.
“One of our earliest beta users ended up buying their top home match,” Parker said. “That was certainly a high point in our journey where we thought a method like this would work.”
Shu is currently completing a one-year master’s degree in global affairs at Tsinghua University in Beijing through the international Schwarzman Scholars program. Housing has always fascinated Shu, who studied the issue of homelessness and created a special concentration in housing and urban innovation at Harvard. He also co-founded BreakTime, a Boston nonprofit that provides career development for young adults experiencing homelessness.
“I wanted to use housing and cities as a lens through which to study a number of different subjects, whether that’s sociology, technology, architecture or government,” Shu said. “I feel very grateful that I was able to do that and pull in classes from different departments.”
Parker, meanwhile, joined the MS/MBA after studying electrical engineering and computer science at Brigham Young University in Utah. At SEAS, he focused his studies on visualization, data science, and machine learning. Now that their studies are complete, they can focus full-time on launching HiHome later this year.
“The value of a home goes beyond shelter,” Parker said. “Housing affects every layer of someone’s hierarchy of needs, from your basic need for shelter all the way to self-actualization and creativity. It’s an emotional component of our lives. Given that many home buyers say that finding a home is the most difficult part of the journey, helping to address that issue and working towards this long-term vision of reducing the barriers to home ownership through a much more guided and accessible platform, is a way in which I have found incredible purpose.”
Matt Goisman | email@example.com