It's not easy competing with a company that has raised over $200 million in venture capital, especially as a bootstrapped marketplace. When two-sided marketplaces or platforms enter a particular vertical or industry such as home services or transportation, there often is room for only one dominant player. The dominant platform captures the majority of the network effects and relegates other companies to B and C companies. Think Uber and Lyft.

Enter Homepolish and Houzz, the bootstrapped platform and the heavily financed competitor, respectively. Both Homepolish and Houzz are platforms that connect home design professionals with consumers looking for consultations and services. Despite the differences in capital raised, Homepolish has the upper hand in at least one capacity. Its Instagram has close to half a million followers or 5x the number of followers that Houzz has.

As the Founder and CEO of Applico, the Platform Innovation Company, I often speak to platform business operators. This week I spoke with Homepolish cofounder and CEO Noa Santos about his platform, his Instagram strategy and his advice for startup entrepreneurs looking to use social media to drive business results. Full disclosure: Noa did interior design for my company's office before founding his current company in 2012.

Noa believes Homepolish's advantage is that it establishes a special relationship with its consumers. "The Homepolish process is a relationship and we hope, a marriage," he says. "It begins with clicking the "Book a Designer" button on our website where you share a bit about yourself, your project, and your vision. When you meet your designer either in-person or via video for the first consultation, it's like the first date. You get to know each other and see if you jive. Then if you love each other, you work together and your designer is there for you through the whole process until you have the space you've always dreamed of."

The Homepolish website describes its origin story as "Design meets Tech." 

Noa recalls, "I was born and raised in Hawaii and left to study Business and Architecture at Stanford. When I graduated in 2010, I moved to New York to work in the interior design industry designing high-end homes. Shortly after I started my own design firm, I met my cofounder, Will Nathan, when he hired me to design his new Chelsea home. Will's background is in finance and technology - very different than my own - so it didn't take us long to realize we'd make great partners. A few months after we began work on his home, we hatched the idea for Homepolish and here we are!"

When asked why he preferred a bootstrapped approach, he cites the lasting potential of brands and company culture as motivation, "Only two things will matter when Homepolish is around 100 years from now - our culture and our brand. You can't buy either. So as long as we're growing at a healthy clip, our employees and designers are happy, and our clients are loving the Homepolish experience, we think the decisions we make when we are forced to "dream smart" and stay lean are the better ones."

Noa recommends that entrepreneurs and marketers take time to understand which social channels are best aligned to their companies and its offerings. "First, decide what you want to say. Then, decide how to say it best (through photos? video? text?). Only after that do you pick your social channels. If you have a visual product like ours, then Instagram and Pinterest should be priorities. Trying to force a platform to do something it's not designed to do means you'll just be fighting an uphill battle."

For Homepolish, Instagram was a perfect fit because it was a great amplifier of the company's culture. "We're always thinking in terms of culture," Noa says. "We have an internal culture, another amongst our 300 designers, and finally we have the culture we build with our clients and followers. Instagram is a megaphone for culture, a way for us to reach a massive audience and share with them what we stand for - specifically - 'being the solution,' 'dreaming smart' and 'keeping it fun.'

Noa also highlighted the importance of experimentation coupled with persistence, "What works is coming up with a strong and clear content strategy and, with that in hand, executing consistently for at least a few months - even if you don't think anyone is listening. If what you're saying is worth saying and resonates with your target audience, you'll start to see traction. And engagement matters more than numbers."

His three tips for using Instagram to deliver business results are:

  1. Instagram is about discovery so find other Instagrammers you like and collaborate with them.
  2. A post is just the first course, not the entree. Your blog, shop or website should be the main meal. Use Instagram to give people a peek and make sure those who want more know where to find it.
  3. Have a conversation with the people who care enough to speak with you. Answer their questions and engage as much as you can.

Noa also provided platform-specific marketing and branding advice, "You have to think about both sides of the marketplace. In our case, how do we say something meaningful to our clients and to our designers. It may be more challenging to craft but if you get it right it sparks and conversation that snowballs into something truly wonderful."

With this powerful community behind the company, Noa sees a big year ahead for Homepolish. "We're excited to tackle the world of product. From making it easier to place orders to becoming the best product discovery engine, there is so much about the industry that is ripe for change. Homepolish is going to lead the way."

Published on: Oct 8, 2015