From 2820 Radio in Philadelphia, it’s The Build, conversations with entrepreneurs and innovators about their dreams, their triumphs, and their challenges.
Fix. Think of all the things you’ve got to repair around your home right now. All the little paint chips, the projects you’ve been putting off, and now think about all the things you need fixed on your block. How about in your neighborhood or across your whole city? How would you even keep track of all that? For five years, data scientist Stacey Moseley worked on software to help city engineers do just that. She designed tools that tracked everything from potholes to problem properties, and now she’s pouring her knowledge into a business that helps real-estate developers track identify where they can fight blight while making a profit through targeted investment.
It’s the story of FixList, coming up next on The Build.
The Build is made possible with support from 2820 Press, providing business consulting and content strategy services to customer-obsessed companies nationwide. More information at 2820press.com.
Joe Taylor Jr.:
I’m Joe Taylor Jr. Welcome to The Build. Stacey Mosley from Fixlist.
So tell me a little bit about the path that you’ve been on from working in a startup at Ticketleap all the way through to working for the City of Philadelphia and then bouncing out to your own. Let’s go back to the inciting incident. What made you decide to jump out of what some folks would think would be a cushy government job. That’s usually the line that people say, right? Why would you ever leave a government gig? But you bounced out of a pretty technical role with the city to launch FixList. Tell us about that.
That was a decision that was a long time in the making but was a hard one to make. When I left, I had almost been with the city for five years. To what you were saying, people who end up working for government, there’s a bit of a myth, but sometimes it’s true, that people end up becoming lifers, and I didn’t want to be a lifer. I knew that when I left college back in 2009 that I wanted to kind of try my merit in the private sector. Working for Ticketleap, it was a really great, quick, and dirty education in the startup community here in Philly. Working for the city, I got to do a lot of entrepreneurial type work, working in very small teams, but by the time I was five years in and the administration was about to change, I was just like, “All right, it’s time to take the leap again.”
So tell us a little bit about the problems that you’re trying to solve with FixList.
So FixList is a real estate data analysis tool that offers a Zillow-like interface where you can go and put in all sorts of filter criteria about the physical dimensions, the condition, the ownership, and different states that a property might be in, and it gives that kind of insight for every single address in a major city.
To start it, I have certainly launched in Philly, knowing this community and the data really well but have ambitions of expanding further. I essentially was working in my first job with the city on the vacant property strategy here, and this was during the Nutter administration of 2010 to 2013 and was tasked with trying to find the owners of all these blighted buildings throughout Philadelphia. We had this great research team of all of these graduate students, and I was the technical person in the midst of all of these policy people and lawyers who were trying to tackle this issue. I found myself really enthralled with how much we were able to do with so little, making the kind of impact and incentivizing these owners to actually fix up property instead of just trying to get away from the court fines. That was something that was really satisfying. I would see we had these hot-pink posters that we would put on the doors of all the properties that we were citing for missing doors and windows, and it was really neat to see them around town knowing that that was kind of a product of all of this data work that I was doing.
FixList is an extension of that. That is now kind of my attempt to really broaden my impact with that information, trying to put it in the hands of nonprofits and people in the private sector who have the resources to do a lot, and in some cases so much more than the government can do. So being able to have the for-profit side renovate these properties or build from the ground up, and the nonprofit side also help lend financial resources to community members and help organize and distribute their resources that way. It’s a tool for all of these different realms.
I think that’s the interesting thing, because you mention Zillow as a comparison, but the difference here is that this is a service that’s geared toward stakeholders who want to actually improve neighborhoods. So compared to someone looking on Zillow or Trulia because they want to purchase a new home, some of your audiences include property developers, people that might want to find distressed properties so they can flip them or, I think I also heard you mention, nonprofits that may want to either aggregate some property or do something different. Tell me what the most unusual use case is that you found so far for somebody using this data.
I think one of the most unusual, but then I noticed was happening a little bit more and more, were these companies that are teams of lawyers who do the really tough untangling of estates and really put in the effort to clear some really challenging titles to then sell these properties to people who are going to do the construction. So they are not necessarily the people doing the construction themselves. That is just one of various pieces of this industry that I didn’t really know existed, and I’ve been finding all of these niche markets or niche segments of the market as I’ve been getting myself out trying to solve.
One of the things I’ve seen covered quite a bit over the past year or two, and I think a lot of this stemmed from 2008 and the mortgage crisis where, one of the interesting things I’ve found about Philadelphia is that we don’t necessarily encounter the same wide boom and bust swings that other cities do. In some ways, that’s great because we can be a little bit more stable. In other ways, some of the challenges that I heard you describe emerge, because we’d have lots of properties that have, because there’s been no big boom and bust, they’ve just fallen through the cracks.
I remember seeing a study of Old City, which included some pretty valuable properties, that either someone out on the mainline had inherited, didn’t know they inherited, or folks that knew that they had these in a portfolio of sorts but had not been incentivized in any way to actually develop or improve them. So you would see, on first Friday for instance, you go on an art crawl up Third Street and there’s an amazing block and then there’s a block that looks like it might literally fall over on you while you’re walking by, and there’s no rhyme or reason. It has nothing to do with some of the broader economic issues that other neighborhoods face, it just has to do with, oh, there’s some entity that owns a checkerboard of these properties and just no one knows who it is.
That’s one of those things we’re trying to eliminate with the product and the other channels through which people might be able to purchase these properties or get them back on the market and into productive use, to help make it easier to find things at sheriff’s sale that you might really be interested in that may be in better condition than you’re used to or things owned by the city and trying to help connect people with the process through which that happens, to purchase city-owned property. Really making it much more accessible for folks to engage.
Tell me about, you said it was a long time coming, the decision to take this idea private. What did that look like? Were you kind of running your nine-to-five and starting to build this out on the side? What was that thought process like for you?
I first got the inspiration when I was working at the Department of Licenses and Inspections. That was where I was working on the vacant strategy. I had helped the department not only work on that project but then also helped them publish open data, and for folks that may not be familiar, open data is this emerging trend really picking up in 2012 where government entities started publishing their administrative records online. L and I was one of few major departments in Philadelphia to really publish most of their administrative records, and it’s refreshed on a daily basis, so you can keep up to date with all the different changes. We had just really only two businesses that we started getting questions from in terms of utilizing that data for the purpose of their business, and it became really apparent that this was market data and I was really fascinated with that potential. One of the companies was this window-repair company that specialized in historic properties, and so they were mashing up the historic property register with the L and I window violations to try and find customers, and it really inspired me.
When I started shifting over to the tech department to work on open data full-time, I even hosted an event during Philly Tech Week to showcase some of the data that we were publishing that businesses could potentially use, so it would have that more private-sector focus. On the side of open data, it’s to a city’s benefit to really have the private sector harness that information and reach out to those people who are missing their windows. It’s so costly on the side of the government to try and tackle all of these various issues when people neglect their property or neglect different situations, and so there’s definitely room for the private sector to come in and not only make money off of it but also help resolve a lot of those issues.
That really got to me, and as I started publishing more information, I had this idea, but I also really missed being a part of the urban revitalization that was happening and the place-making that was happening in Philly, so I started putting together mock-ups and talking to some of the people that I had known from my network in the developer community, and then also started bouncing off of some of the more seasoned entrepreneurs in the community a business model, because I wasn’t going to just leave my job and make no money and not know when that was going to be a possibility for me to make money again. So I made rounds in that regard and had people kicking the tires, poking holes in what I was trying to do or was thinking of doing, and finally in September, the decision that I was going to leave in October of 2015.
During that tire-kicking phase, how many different iterations of the concept of the product do you think you went through before you found the one that you thought, “I can get to market with this?”
It was pretty minimal, only because I had such an understanding of the data. My initial thought was to focus primarily on just the dilapidated properties, and what I started finding out from different user-feedback sessions was that, well, what about all of these other owner-occupied properties? So I think it was really when I was talking to the nonprofit community where I was just like, “Why not have it be city-wide?” There’s plenty of situations where these folks are able to reach out to help make repairs on an owner-occupied property, so why can’t that be a benefit to them, as well? So that kind of brought into the scope, and initially I thought maybe I would just be a data provider that would plug into third-party applications to build on top of what I was offering, but what I was find was that the market is still very nascent in that regard, and so I felt like I needed to put a map together, and I really wanted to build that application for myself because, why would I hand it off to somebody else to do entirely when it was within my reach as well? So I decided to make the full-blown application after that.
So the idea here is that you’re essentially providing context for an end-user to make sense of this fire hose of data that’s coming out of a city agency. It seems like there’s two directions in which you could scale, because business one would be to go a little bit deeper into Philadelphia and continue to gain traction in a market where you’ve already got access to a robust data set, and then you also have the ability to start to plug into multiple markets. What’s attract or what steers you away from either one of those two directions?
The product launched in this past May, and so digging into Philadelphia deeper certainly is something I’m very much dedicated to doing because I’m still trying to gain traction with sales. Not only that, it is a very interesting community. I’ve discovered more about the appraisal community and the legal community, and the agents and the developers and the lenders, like this whole network and ecosystem. Just getting myself immersed in it has been a huge education.
What’s the reaction that you get? Because some of these are very entrenched people. I mean, these are folks that have probably been doing this for generations, and do they think that, oh, here comes this hot-shot with some new gizmo, or do they see that you’re coming in and disrupting a little bit of what they do?
It’s a mix of both, for sure. I had a meeting yesterday that was a little bit more of the former, where it was just like, who are you to tell me what I should be trying to invest in? I was just like, “This is meant for you to put in your criteria and then surface things that might be options; I’m not trying to tell you anything specifically.” But I definitely get that sometimes. It’s also been really interesting. I think there are some older folks in the industry, I’ve met someone from the appraisal community and also on the research side and commercial real estate consulting side, who have just been kind of over the moon and really excited about the fact that I’m doing this thing, and they always tell me, “I know when we were programming on punch cards,” and now this is a thing.
I think I get much more of the really excited response from the older generation and the younger generation than I do from folks who are kind of like in the middle, where they’re really focused on a very specific part of the city and they do know so many pieces of that community and intimate stories about people who live there, and I’m not trying to overcome that, I’m trying to make it possible for them to get more information and completely understand.
Well, I think it brings up an interesting ethical question, where you’re producing a tool, folks can use that tool lots of different ways. How do you, or do you, try to steer a customer of yours into using the tool for an outcome that you would like to see? Or are there ways that you can dis-incentivize folks from using the tool for evil?
The approach I’ve taken for the most part has been really keeping this balance of communication with people on the for-profit and nonprofit side. So in terms of feature development, the nonprofit side can utilize filters like what properties are coming up for zoning hearings so that they might be able to go and attend, which properties are owner-occupied, which ones are historic, so definitely trying to make it possible for them to be equipped as well as people on the for-profit side. That is a way I have found I’m able to keep a bit of a balance, because really at the end of the day, like you’re saying, it’s not in my control what necessarily people choose to do with it afterwards.
But it seems like the tool is optimized for folks that want to validate decisions. It’s not necessarily, “I’m deciding to become a property developer today, let me hop on FixList.” It’s really like you’re probably already a property developer or an appraiser or a window repair company, and this eliminates a chunk of work that would normally be done, by whom?
Interns or people just being on the ground. What I’m trying to make possible, and one of the things that I really highlight for these people, is it’s making that much faster. You can really hone in very quickly and be able to compare things very quickly, and then when you do want to get out on the ground, you have a set of places that are new options that you might not have seen otherwise. Especially for a lot of folks who are looking city-wide and are not necessarily wedded to one neighborhood or another, which I was surprised to find that there’s a lot more that do look more broadly.
I think one of the interesting things, seeing the heavy influx, especially in center-city or some of the neighborhoods nearby like Fishtown, where we see so many people moving into center-city. Growing up here, center-city used to roll up its sidewalks at five o’clock, and now it’s amazing, especially on a Wednesday in the summer, that you just see sidewalks full of people, which is great. We have a vibrant world-class city. All these people have to have somewhere to live, and so a lot of what I’m observing among real estate and development is figuring out where all these folks are going to go in a 21st-century city where people demand walkability, access to amenities, mass transit. So I can see this tool really allowing folks to get a good sense of, does it make sense for us to invest in this property or that property? Or are there properties that we can target for specific services because they clearly need it, as opposed to just running a truck around town and surveying, well that window looks broken, let’s find out who to call and pitch ourselves to.
Shifting gears a little bit, let’s look at your journey. Tell me about, what was the biggest skill that you had to grow to get yourself ready for this role as a founder?
I definitely think it’s been the sales side, and I think I found my experience working for the city, that I did have to be a bit of a salesperson as well in those situations, especially in the latter years when I was working on the open data team. It was voluntary for these departments to publish data, and I would go around with my boss and we would do these pitches in front of the commissioners of all these different departments, and then I would just being trying to sell their directors on this idea of like, this is going to help you in the long term. Not only is it going to help you get this information out to the public, but it will help you integrate your systems in the future with other agencies, integrate and make it possible to have other tools match up with your existing ones. So that was a bit of a sales-y side of that role.
It’s really been interesting not only to discover that my pitch was just kind of rolling off of my tongue when I was just standing in front of people, but also getting to experience a wider variety of reactions, like we were talking about earlier. That has been a thickening of the skin, and I’m not very aggressive when it comes to approaching these sales meetings. It’s all a learning process for me, so I think that’s been where I had to try my merit a little bit more.
One of the things I observe is that the platform itself is very approachable. You’ve got a model where I as a customer can just hop onto the website and sign up with a credit card. So software is a service, really not right now. Sometimes folks don’t necessarily want to invest in a company that’s showing revenue too early. Where do you think you’re going to grow the companies war chest, basically? Will it come from bootstrapping and building customers credit card by credit card? Will it come from VC? Where do you think you’re going to get what you need to continue to grow?
I think it’s going to be with these third-party partnerships, that are going to be user who are beyond super-users. They are consuming this information either in an application that transforms it in a totally different way or really are doing a lot of development and are integrating it with their own case-management systems. I’m starting to explore those kinds of conversations right now, and they’re going to be long-term explorations and hopefully have some footing by the end of the fall, but those are going to be much sturdier contracts. I also have a feeling they’re going to be what helps me expand more quickly, because people who are interested in that kind of integration are usually looking to be in multiple markets, and that can really help kind of give me the financial input to really start scoping those out.
So the idea of what looks like a more traditional enterprise sales model, is that something that you continue to just hammer out yourself, or do you get reinforcements to come in and start taking a bunch of those meetings?
As soon as I can pay them, I would love to have other people.
That leads to a great next question. So tell me about your staffing structure right now. Is it just you, you and a crew?
It’s just me right now, so I’ve been trying to do all of the sales and marketing and technology development. I’ve certainly had some wonderful people in my life who have taught me really great lessons from their experience in some of these different realms, and I think that was something that really helped me take that leap from my old job, as well, was knowing I had these wonderful people in my life who I could ask these questions of and feel confident knowing something new. So that has been great for the last year-ish. I’m so excited to have more people a part of the team, but it’s been my choice to continue bootstrapping. I explored investment over the summer, and that was a whole education as well, talking to other young entrepreneurs in Philly, and definitely talking to VCs and seed and angel investors, and I came to the conclusion that it was too early for me to be able to commit to what longer-term vision would be and that I wanted that freedom to keep playing around with it and see where I really wanted it to end up. So that’s something I’m putting off until I really feel more confident in that longer term.
What were some of the asks that you got from venture capital folks? Were they really reaching far into your pie?
It was much more about the market. I think people are not super familiar with open data yet. There’s still a lot of questions around what is to prohibit somebody else from doing what I’m doing, and in all honesty, the data is out there to be played with. What I’m baking on is my experience and agility to work with these records and really build something that enhances that information and finds more trends and things of that nature in time. So that was some difficulty that I was having in those conversations. I was also learning that there’s this lack of commitment in some cases, and risk aversion is probably more appropriate, in the Philly VC community, unless there’s somebody who feels really, really strongly about what you’re doing. That was something I was hearing from other entrepreneurs. Try to connect with people in San Francisco, try to connect with VCs in New York, because they’ll, like if you get a lead investor out of one of those cities, they’re probably going to give you better terms than some of the Philadelphia investors will, and that will set that bar for Philly investors. Once it started kind of branching out into that kind of leg work, I started shying away and being like, okay, if this is how this works, I need to be selling more than I need to be trying to seek investors right now, so I totally shifted.
That totally makes sense. I can understand where going out to the valley could be attractive if you were trying to build something that you could scale quickly and maybe flip in a few years, but I hear the passion that you have for the city and that you’re trying to build something that can elevate this city and potentially scale to others. Which brings up the question of open data as something that Philadelphia, under the Nutter administration, took a very early open lead on, and I recall at the time in some ways hearing that it was a little bit of a reaction to the drumbeat of Freedom of Information Act requests that would come in. For folks that are not familiar with that, the idea that you can find out mostly anything. I started as a journalist years ago covering town meetings in Delaware in Montgomery County, so I am accustomed to going to the town council meetings, screaming at the council person to release a specific record. FOIA comes along and it makes it much easier, but what you get back is usually a fourth-generation photocopy of something that’s got kind of scrawl on it.
Open data is this idea of, let’s just take whatever record sets we have, put them into a format that can be digested by something, and just put it out there. The thing that’s fascinated me about this movement is the idea that there is not necessarily a user-friendly interface to a bunch of this stuff. It’s just XML data that you have to figure out what to do with. So FixList, I think, is a great example of a commercialized application that makes sense of this data. So how do you actually start to advocate for other cities, other towns, to get on board with this in such a way that it makes sense for them to make the investment?
Not every community has the kind of investment that Philly made in an internal technology team that’s thinking about this kind of stuff as a solution. I mean, most towns that I’ve encountered are still trying to figure out how to put up their list of fireworks times on their website, right? We’re dealing with like, oh, let’s publish a list of homes with broken windows. So do you find that it’s your role in terms of scaling your company to advocate for other cities to hop on so you can kind of take their data too, or do you continue to just drill down into Philadelphia because you’ve got some legs here?
Well there are definitely some cities that already have the kind of data that Philly has open to the public. So cities like New York and San Francisco and Chicago and L.A. and Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, there’s a lot of major U.S. cities that do have a substantial amount of these records open. I think that’s been, a huge piece of that has been some of the activism of the civic technology community. There’s this whole subculture that is really fascinating to me. I would say one of the champions of this subculture is Mark Head, who was my previous boss when I first joined the open data team here in Philly. The Code For America organization, which is an organization based out in Oakland, California that has that kind of Teach For America style program where they offer a stipend for technologists to go and be immersed in a city throughout the country for about a year working with a team of three or four other fellows on a technology project. Those projects range from having kind of more pedestrian-friendly sidewalks or knowledge bases and procurement contracts, websites, trying to really modernize and make it apparent to these agencies that there’s a lot of value in investing in these newer technologies and that it will make their lives a lot easier.
Not only is that helping these government entities actually get on board, but it’s also helping more young professionals get intrigued with the idea of working in government, and I think that combination of people with skills who can help do that in these government institutions can really empower them to do it more quickly. But you also have the factor of the technology supporting open data, so as you were saying, these files usually come in an XML or a CSV or an API, and all these acronyms that are very technological, and that is getting cheaper and cheaper as more government entities are purchasing those products like Secrata.
You don’t have to buy this stuff. You don’t have to make it bespoke any more. You can buy some off-the-shelf technology now.
It does take the leg work of actually wiring up new databases to publishing it out through those applications, but it’s becoming more and more user friendly.
Somewhere in that chain there’s a clerk and has been in that job for 30 years who’s really upset that they have to use this system now instead of the old one that was perfectly fine, and things like that that are usually the blockers in a technology adoption case. But I want to think about this from the other side of it, too, because got to version one of your product fairly quickly. Tell me a little bit about how you structure your development cycle, because you’re dependent upon cities that are maintaining, again, a fairly robust set of structure data, but what happens if the structure changes? What happens if there’s an announcement tomorrow and we’re abandoning this format and doing this. What do you have to do to get your product ready to roll with those kinds of punches?
That is certainly a major factor in the refresh cycle of the data. It is nice that there’s information coming from various different departments and agencies. In the event that one data set changes its format, it might be a matter of a week that we would be able to kind of restructure what we need to integrate that back in. A lot of the times, it’s just a matter of similar fields and matchmaking and making sure that the data can be pulled down regularly. When it comes to other cities, that’s going to be a very intricate process. Whenever I’m developing a new city, as I’m trying to do right now, doing the data development is tedious because you’re trying to understand their property maintenance code and how they store their information this way, and what all of these short codes and acronyms mean. So that is gradual but that helps me better connect with what is happening in that city, as well.
Tell me a little bit about how you like to split your time. Is it 50-50 developing versus sales and CEO stuff? What’s your ideal amount of time that you would like to spend working on the business versus in the business.
Do you mean on the product?
Okay, so I would love to spend my time 50-50 working on the product and then working on strategy and business development. Right now, though, it is way more on the business development and sales side.
It’s usually to 100%. Employee number one is usually doing the work of three or four people for that first year or two. So the next person you hire is going to do what?
They are going to be on the technology side, and so that’ll be in support of new feature development. So I already have, from the first few months of it being out there, all of this feedback that’s been great just between sales meetings and existing customers, the features that I really want to get out the door as soon as possible, because I know they’re going to provide value to these people. So that’s going to be something that’ll happen much more quickly once I hire a technologist, and I’ll get to that and focus much more heavily on data development versus application development as well as sales, and that’s exciting. I love being in the data side of things but also talking to people. I think the sales side has definitely lent itself to helping me actually envision what the product looks like six months from now, so I enjoy both of those.
Well let’s take a look into the future. Tell me a little bit about your dream for the company. What does it look like in ten years? How big do you think you want to be, what’s the culture of your organization? Who are your people, what do they look like?
Ten years is a long time. I’m having a hard time just picturing six months. I would say I have a vision of being in ten years probably 20-plus cities. That would probably be a goal for five to six years. But having these teams of people, both on the sales side and the data side as well as the application, who are dedicated on individual cities and get to interact with those communities and learn from those communities how the tool is impacting, what’s going on on the ground. I think, ten years time, there will also be much more on the analytics end and working much more on robust predictive analytics, and that again is not for-profit side of things, I really want that to also be balanced with helping the non-profit side. So I really hope to be kind of an industry leader in those kinds of analytics for the real estate market and helping people really pinpoint where their resources are going to make the most impact and to having that be nationwide.
Tell me, launching in Philadelphia as opposed to any other city where there’s open data, what keeps you here? What makes Philadelphia the place that you want to continue to grow and scale this business?
It is very welcoming in terms of starting to talk to people who I’m not familiar with, and so whenever there is a facet of this business that I’m unfamiliar with to start, I usually am able to get connected with somebody who can share a little bit more, if they’re just outside my realm or my network, and really start learning very quickly from that. I think that’s a really beautiful thing in Philly, and I’m very excited to see if that’s also the case in these other cities. I’ve been living in Philly for the last seven years. I’m definitely excited to learn more about other places, but Philly’s my home.
Great. Stacey Moseley, founder of FixList. Thanks for spending time with us on The Build.
The Build is a production of 2820 Radio in Philadelphia. Our producer is Katie Cohen Zahniser and our consulting producer is Lori Taylor. Our talent coordinator is Katrina Smith. Our research team includes Allison Hartman, John Masini, and Gizem Yali. Our post-production team is lead by Evan Wilder of FlowlyAudio in Detroit. My name is Joe Taylor Jr. Thanks for listening to The Build.