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Interview with Matthew Trudeau, Hourville

Last week, Austin-based Hourville (www.hourville.com) was showing off its web site at the SXSX. We caught up with co-founder Matthew Trudeau to hear more about the startup and what it's up to.

Tell us what Hourville is all about?

Matthew Trudeau: It's a social marketplace online, for anything by the hour. That includes services, rentals, and classes. Essentially, it's a product which provides a platform for sellers of local services that charge by the hour, where they can create an online platform, upload pictures, videos, and documents so that they can create commercials about themselves and give their credentials. For example, if you're a masseuse, it's important to establish your credibility. They can create an online service listing for any service that they offer, and associated with that they can create an online schedule with their availability, and customers can look at that schedule, pick a time slot, and book and pay directly on the site. The site is linked to PayPal, so when you click on a time slot, a window pops up, you can pick the appropriate duration and pay. For example, if you are booking a massage, it probably in 30 minute increments, so a customer can pick 30 minutes, or an hour, and it will show the price and also calculate the cost for travel. Some sellers, for example, will charge outside of ten miles, and they can add in a per-mile fee.

As a buyer, I can do a search for whatever service I'm looking for, and whatever citty I'm in. There is zip code mapping, integrated with Google Maps, and shows how far the seller is from your current location. We've also got dynamic pricing options. We've got an auction option--which is good if the sellers is in extremely high demand or wants to maximize their bookings at peak/offpeak. The prime market for this is anyone who knows in advance how much they charge per hour. It's not appropriate for lawyers, plumbers or electricians who give estimates but are unsure how long it may take. They can use it, but it's not ideal. It's ideal for someone who knows in advance what they charge and how long it will take, like a tutor, dance instructor, or house cleaner.

Is there any particular part of the country or market you're approaching first with this?

Matthew Trudeau: We're not restricted to any region, and we're open to the whole U.S. We're based in Austin, so the primary focus has been on Austin in terms of a city, but we're not restricting it. We have users from Hawaii to Massachusetts to Florida, all over the country.

What's the story behind how you started the company?

Matthew Trudeau: The four founders met in 2002 at UT. We were all part of the same MBA cohort, and after we finished business school we kicked around various business ideas. Each of us would throw ideas into the ring, and as a group, we'd poke holes in it. This one seemed really interesting to us. We did some rigorous vetting, and decided it was a really interesting idea. The idea stemmed from our own personal experience. For example, one of us was interested in taking guitar lessons, but it was difficult to find one that was credible. At another point, one of us needed help with housecleaning, but it was challenging to find someone they would trust to leave with keys to their house. One thing we've added is ratings and reviews--which goes both ways. Sellers and buyesr can rate each other on any given appointment, because it's important that the buyer shows up and pays, and that the seller shows up. We looked at what's dominant in the marketplace, which is Craiglist, and it does a good job in helping sellers get in front of buyers. But, aside from that, it doesn't really help you complete a transaction--it's just a digital version of the traditional classifieds. What we're looking to do, is to provide both buyers and sellers with a place to complete the whole transaction. Buyers and sellers can find and review each other, schedule an appointment, and remove the phone tag and email back and forth. We can do all of the scheduling, and also payments, to the extent that sellers accept online payments. We potentially can be a single place to do the whole transaction.

What's the business model behind this?

Matthew Trudeau: It's currently free. We launched in December, and the site has only been live to the public for three months. As is standard right now, we're trying to build the community. We've seen a pretty promising uptick in the three months we've been live. We haven't done much advertising, just a little on Craiglist. We're not charging right now, but ultimately what we'd like to do, is charge a small percentage of each seller's transaction completed through the site. It's very much like eBay today.

One of the big issues with local businesses like yours has been critical mass. How are you handling that problem?

Matthew Trudeau: It's the single biggest problem with any online marketplace. It's the chicken-and-the-egg problem. You have to have buyers to have services, and vice versa. It's tough to get the word out, and get critical mass. We're attacking this in a couple of different ways. One, is we've made the site useful as a standalone product for sellers. Even if they never get a single new customer on Hourville, if they have a current book of business, Hourville is still a good tool to help them manage that. If you're a personal trainer, and you have ten or twenty clients you see any given week, you can send them to Hourville and they can check our your schedule and book a timeslot. You get an easy to remember URL, which is hourville.com/username, for example, hourville.com/matttrudeau, and you can send your current book of business to Hourville, rather than trying to coordinate that with email or phone. We've tried to make it an effective standalone product.

What we've also done is to create the ability to create a check booking button, HTML code which you can embed in other online listings. We've recognized that Craiglist is the defacto site for finding buyers, and it's really hard to displace Craigslist any time soon, so we've created a button to embed into your Craiglist posting. We've also tried to help sellers promote us. The more effective the marketing, the more Hourville becomes valuable to the, and hopefully that will create a positive feedback loop.

Finally, what are you big goals now?

Matthew Trudeau: We recently participated in the Rice Alliance Web 2.0 venture forum, where we were rated one of the top 10 most promising companies there. This week, we were also participating in the Microsoft BizSpark Accelerator at South by Southwest. We're really looking to build off our momentum at SXSW, raise the profile of the company, and grow our user base. We're going to spend the next six months driving toward that critical mass.