In the fall of 2011, a few of the people at Playground were coming to the end of their leases and had begun to search for new places to live. Collectively we scoured Craigslist, Kijiji, Viewit and a few other sites looking at apartment after apartment. Demand seemed ridiculous. Ads came down within hours of going up. Relying on keyword searches and saved tabs wasn’t working for us. In a moment of frustration it was decided we could do this better.

Mapitat was born. Well, kind of. An engineer spent an evening writing a crawler to grab listings from Craigslist and created a framework for pulling meaning from the plain text. After seeing the early results we knew we were onto something. Different sites, different landlords and different listing formats plagued the search process for the apartment hunter, but we knew we could simplify things. With a focus on simplicity, we built a better way to find a place to live.

Project Goals

  • Be Useful

    We were creating a tool for ourselves and we really didn’t want it to suck. It was a tool we needed so whatever it became had to be useful. It should also be useful to the people of Toronto, helping them find a place to live.

  • Be Fast

    We wanted the experience to be refreshing. The tools for search should deliver results seconds after landing on the site. By refreshing listings often, users would have a reason to come back.

  • Be Intuitive

    We wanted to make the tool as easy to use as possible, the interactions should need no tutorial and the site itself should need less than a line of copy. Mapitat was not our primary business so the product had to stand on its own.

  • Be Fun

    Since this was an internal project, it should be fun. We wanted to challenge ourselves with a rapid development process and be delighted with every incremental result. The tight timeframe created the perfect constraint to remove complex oversight and create a free-flowing team dynamic.

The Team

Mark

Software Developer

Maja

Interface Developer

Adam

Interface Designer

Dave

Product Manager

Strategy

The strategy was simple: we had a few spare man hours, a real world need, and a lot of passion. We had seen the effort put forth by people in the space and saw an opportunity to design a more elegant solution. The idea was to build fast, review progress daily and fail as quickly as possible. With it being a completely internal project, all of the copy, design and engineering required very few approvals. If we liked something we went with it. We quickly went from tech demo and mood boards to consumer product. We had 3 weeks and we made the most of them.

Natural Language Processing

It's Just Semantics, really

What’s in an ad? Well in the case of apartment listings there was any number of things. Some ads were written in natural language, some had photographs, some were even structured nicely. Given the open nature of the platforms where the listings lived, building a search engine was going to require semantic analysis. Our natural language processing was designed to pull out relevant information from any type of listing. By understanding language modifiers such as “not” and “shouldn’t”, it allowed us to create a large database in a unified format.

The Product

Do Good Things

When we built Mapitat, it was built out of necessity. It was not a startup, there was no business model generation canvas, there was no long term plan. We wanted to create a great tool and if it found an audience, we would continue to iterate. If it was truly a good product it would be possible to create value from it. We were so touched when we received positive feedback after we launched Mapitat. We had no idea the local community and press shared our frustration. We were able to create value for our company by simply making the web a better place.

Best Laid Plans

So now Mapitat had traffic, people from Toronto and San Francisco were using it to find apartments and people were asking us what’s next. We put on our startup hats and decided that perhaps it was time to iterate. Mapitat version 2 was going to be as simple as the original Mapitat but it was going to do a few new things. First, we were going to polish the interface. A design iteration was done to refine the interface and copy was added to clarify the value proposition. Second, we were going to try to turn it into a viable business. A new listing engine was built that helped landlords create beautiful listings to be featured directly on Mapitat. We didn’t stop there, we wanted to see if we could add value back to the rest of the ecosystem. Our listing tool made our advertisements portable, generating HTML formatted ads that could be placed anywhere on the web. The ads were designed to work best on Craigslist and Kijiji, increasing the number of good listings on those sites. Third, we made a commercial.

Sometimes, it might be better to ask for permission rather than forgiveness

Playground had made a huge investment in hours building version 2 of Mapitat. It preserved what people loved about Mapitat while adding some much needed value to the other side of the ecosystem. One week before launch of v2 our world got turned upside down. Core to the strategy of building an audience for a search and listing product would be having listings. We relied on sites like Craigslist, Kijiji and Viewit to allow us to link to their sites. As we were about to launch, we received a few emails asking us to stop using their listings. Then sites started blocking referral traffic from us and eventually they blocked our crawlers altogether. We were crushed. After talking to a lawyer and seeing the way the legal decisions in the industry were shaking out, we couldn’t make it work. Even when we tried to reason with our data sources, they cut off the conversation, no one was interested. v2 was not meant to be.

A good thing?

We worked hard, we built it for fun, and tried to turn it into something great that made everyone happy. We would have liked our little startup story to end in rainbows, but we weren’t going to have that outcome, and frankly, we weren’t looking for it. Mapitat was a fun side project; our core business is making great things with our clients. Despite ultimately being abandoned, it did have a lot of positive effects. We create some buzz, found a few new clients, and got to wage our own little David and Goliath battle in the apartment listing space. As a team we look back at Mapitat as a great success.