First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Rany Burstein: Fortunately, my family has been safe and healthy during the pandemic. However, I was sick with COVID in March. I was suffering from somewhat mild symptoms for the most part, but with a few bad days in between for over two months. I also live in Manhattan, where things got really serious and scary for a while. It was definitely a challenging period, but I always try to make lemonade when life gives me lemons. I used the extra time being confined to my apartment to focus on work, invest in personal growth, and pick up a few new hobbies.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Diggz.
Rany Burstein: I was born and raised in Israel and moved to the U.S. to pursue my college degree. I attended UNC-Chapel Hill, studied business, and graduated Suma Cum Laude, which landed me a Wall Street job in New York upon graduation. After over a decade working for a big bank, I wanted to grow my experience and take a shot at something different. Tech has always excited me. In fact, I started building websites when the internet was just getting started while I was still in high school. Most notably, I developed and owned the website for one of Israel’s biggest soccer clubs, which I sold back to the team during my military service. In fact, if it wasn’t for the dot com bubble burst in the late 90’s I believe that I would’ve probably stayed in tech instead of looking to pursue a career in finance.
The idea for Diggz, an online roommate finder platform, was cultivated over several bad roommate search and living experiences in New York. Finding a roommate always seemed like a crapshoot and a very stressful experience for me. Since I wasn’t originally from N.Y. and my social circle was small, I had to defer to the best tool to find roommates available at that time, Craigslist. I remember getting so many spam emails, having to sift through fake or duplicate posts, and engage in so many back and forth emails just to later realize the room or roommate wasn’t for me.
But there was one roommate search experience that really solidified my desire to start Diggz. I was looking for a new roommate that was also offering a room, and I was under a time crunch. I found an amazing offer in the financial district in downtown Manhattan by a prospective female roommate. We exchanged many emails introducing ourselves, what we each expect from a roommate, etc. It seemed like we were going to be a great fit. When I came to see the place in person, she opened a small crack in the door and told me that I have the wrong address, and slammed the door shut. She was expecting a girl, which she assumed I was because of the spelling of my name. Rather, I was this ‘random guy’ standing outside her door. Needless to say, she didn’t even show me the place or apologize for wasting my time. I was frustrated with how much time I wasted because of minor details that were being captured in a craigslist roommate listing, such as gender or a profile picture.
I was adamant that there should be a better way for me to connect with like-minded roommates that match with me first in a tinderesque style, allowing me to chitchat further before meeting in person. I partnered with my co-founder, Ben Blodgett, who shared the same vision, and together we launched Diggz in 2015 in New York City. Today, we have thousands of users join each month and are present in twenty of the largest metro areas across the U.S. and Canada.
How does Diggz innovate?
Rany Burstein: Innovation is a constant and critical part for Diggz to stay relevant and differentiate ourselves from competitors. We continuously work on new features and always keep in mind to add ‘user value’ first in everything we do. We use analytics to monitor and understand how people are using Diggz, and based on that intelligence, identify ways for improvement.
We also try to come up with innovative features that maybe our users haven’t asked for or thought they needed but can turn out to be very useful. For example, we included the ability to add references from former roommates via Facebook to people’s listings. We also allow users to filter their search to people who attended the same school, are from the same hometown and/or country in case they are foreign. This has been a great feature, especially for our international users coming to the U.S. from abroad and looking to connect with someone from their home country. This feature helped add a level of trust and connection between people that are interacting on Diggz.
As another example, we expanded our services and added a secondary search platform that allows our users to find apartment rentals in the event that they paired up with another roommate to apartment hunt together. We added onto that platform features that you won’t find in other more established rental search sites but are relevant to Diggz’s roommate demographic. For instance, we added a new type of rentals, Co-living rooms, in addition to all the apartment rentals. A filter to find apartments that are deposit free is now a new option in N.Y. for people to reduce their move in cost, which is so high to begin with.
We also do a lot on the backend to ensure the platform is safe and free of bad actors, which is a real problem in the online rental and roommate space.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Rany Burstein: The pandemic has actually increased the use and signups for Diggz. So many have seen their long time roommates move out; they had to look for new or cheaper housing options or take the opportunity to try their luck in a new city. We saw a big organic increase in signups in all markets, especially those that were offering vacant rooms for rent. Also, given the uncertain times, many stayed longer on our platform as their plans kept changing and moving dates pushed out further.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Rany Burstein: Fortunately, the pandemic didn’t adversely impact us. But, like many other businesses and startups, we decided to scale back on our marketing efforts to conserve cash in times of uncertainty. We also reprioritized our development efforts and only focused on improvements to our core features. I think the lesson here is to always stay ready with some contingency plan and react fast when needed.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Diggz in the future?
Rany Burstein: Personally, I don’t stress much; at least that’s what my smartwatch says. I’ve learned to put things in perspective and think about how fortunate I am and be thankful for what I have. My outlook is that things never go to plan and that in business and life, you will have ups and downs. When you reach tough times, you shouldn’t stress out because you should’ve already expected it at some point. In these times, I just make sure to put forward my best efforts and hope for the best. In my experience, that has always worked better than panicking or falling into self-doubt.
I also think it’s key to take care of your mind and body and get enough exercise and sleep. You have to be able to step away and recharge, even if it’s just for a bit. To that end, I like to work out, and during the pandemic, I really got into workouts and experiences in V.R. I also like to go on a bike ride by the river, read a book, or watch a good show on T.V. to wrap up the day.
As for Diggz, we hope to build on the momentum the pandemic has afforded us and keep improving our product, expand into every major city in the U.S. this year (currently in 20 Major metro areas in the U.S. and Canada), and deepen our market share within our existing markets.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Rany Burstein: When we started Diggz, there was much less competition; the dominant player, by far, was certainly Craigslist despite its notorious reputation. After we launched, a lot of startups for roommates starting popping up, which some have since shut down, and some are still around. So aside from Craigslist, there are Facebook groups and a few other roommate finder apps. We have been able to stay in the game for a while, in my opinion, because we focus on making a better platform, keeping our users top-of-mind, rather than focusing on making a quick buck. We don’t require a payment to use Diggz and only recently added a few premium features that are geared towards more of our power users. We also don’t go for shady tactics to grow our users or squeeze money out of them. We strive to make a transparent, real, and budget inclusive platform.
Further, while we spend on innovation, new features, marketing, etc., we do not go overboard to make headlines. We recognize the overall size of the market and spend accordingly to be able to stay in the game in the long run. We will continue to invest in our platform, grow our user base, and expand to offer our services in more cities and hopefully countries soon.
Your final thoughts?
Rany Burstein: I feel fortunate that Diggz has not been impacted negatively by the coronavirus pandemic, but it has reinforced me not to take anything for granted and stay ready for those difficult times. I feel humbled that we can provide a service that people have turned to during this uncertain time to secure housing as well as to relieve financial rent burdens.