October 12, 2019
This Small Business Week, we’re featuring talented and driven entrepreneurs in our ecosystem. What drives them? What does it take to succeed as an entrepreneur today? In this interview, we’re introducing you to Yanky Li, President and Co-Founder of OpenHouse.AI. Yanky is an entrepreneur at heart, driven by creating positive impact and advocating inclusive social change. A ‘Netflix for real estate,’ OpenHouse.AI makes real estate easier to buy by matching people with homes that fits them.
Check out other interviews and features in the series here.
What is OpenHouse.AI in 2–5 words?
Netflix for real estate.
In a few sentences what do you offer and to whom?
Our product, OpenHouse Engage is a non-disruptive, AI based ‘behavior analysis and experience (platform) plug-in’ for home builder websites that gives homebuyers a personalized approach from the moment they log-on. As home buyers navigate your website, machine learning customizes the content they see, providing home buyers the information and options they most desire and gathers insights for you along the way. This leads to more opportunities, faster sales cycles, and a deeper dive for your team into homebuyer insights that leads to an optimized process overall.
“The real estate industry has worked the same way for a very long time. Allowing people to have access to data and technology to find the right home hasn’t really been explored, especially here in Canada where data is so protected.”
What are your goals?
Our ultimate goal and vision is to make real estate easier to buy and then match people to the home that fits them.
We can achieve this in a variety of ways. We’re starting by making homes easier to buy. By leveraging technology to allow home buyers to buy more easily, the website becomes a natural lead-nurturing tool and can assist in the home-buying journey.
Have you seen the Avengers movie? In one of the last scenes, Ironman guides a nuclear missile into space to prevent New York from exploding. When his AI assistant Jarvis realizes Ironman may not survive this, he suggests he calls his girlfriend to let her know. After watching that I kept thinking: I want a Jarvis.
Our platform is a Jarvis – it answers your questions, and evolves with your needs.
What is the impact of what you’re doing?
The real estate industry has worked the same way for a very long time. Allowing people to have access to data and technology to find the right home hasn’t really been explored, especially here in Canada where data is so protected.
We leverage data to help individuals make better decisions at the time they need it. That’s our impact.
Why are you excited about the work you’re doing?
I am excited because we have an opportunity to make an impact on people, just everyday people. And we get to build technology never seen before in order to create that impact.
“We want to help influence, foster, and spread a new generation of home-buying experience that gives the power back to the homebuyer: the power of information.”
What is the foundation of OpenHouse AI?
In 2016, my co-founder and I wanted to positively impact homebuyers’ lives by creating the best tools to find, evaluate, and purchase a property. With technology moving forward so quickly, and the home buying/selling industry so far behind, we asked ourselves: With our skills in technology and data science, where can we have the most significant impact to help people?
Buying a home is the largest purchase most people make in their lifetime, and it’s a complicated decision governed by many factors such as size, price, location, model, amenities, etc. Far too often, homebuyers make decisions that are far less than ideal for them, and succumb to information overload, stress, and regret. We wanted to change the whole process by making it engaging, easy, and even enjoyable.
We are changing the way homes are bought and sold. Our innovation, tech know-how, and passion for helping people are just part of the equation. Challenging the status quo is no easy task. We want to help influence, foster, and spread a new generation of home-buying experience that gives the power back to the homebuyer: the power of information.
What was the drive to have your own company?
I realized that in order to make an impact on people’s lives and on the status quo, you need to be the boss. When you’re following somebody, you’re following someone else’s vision. You may be able to make an impact on those in the organization, but not as much of an impact on people outside of the organization.
You make more of an impact on people when you call the shots. You have to work a lot harder in that journey, but it’s high-risk-high-reward. My co-founder and I want to make an impact on people more than anything. We even told ourselves when we started that even if we made the same salary as when we were comfortable in a corporation, that would be fine. If we were able to make an impact, we would definitely take that trade off.
How do you measure that impact?
We know we’ve made an impact when our technology has helped people. For the time being, we measure impact in home builders’ ability to leverage our tech to achieve certain KPIs. In the end, it’s about doing business. If they’re able to sell more homes, that’s great.
On the other side, if our technology allows home buyers to make better decisions on which home to buy, we know we’ve made and impact.
How do you measure success?
If we’ve created a sustainable business while helping home buyers and did it while not giving up on our values. Sustainable success is being able to consistently increase value you provide for your customers, provide for your team so they would never imagine being anywhere else, continuing to make and impact, and having the ability to influence the direction of an industry.
“The only way you can bring something truly innovative is if you think outside of the status quo.”
Is there an early life lesson that helped shape who you are today?
“Never settle for the status quo” – I don’t know if that came from any particular place, but I’ve always been that kid that asks why. As a child, I would always think of why things work in certain ways. I’m always curious of that. As you grow older you learn those “why’s”… but more “why’s” will always come about.
The only way you can bring something truly innovative is if you think outside of the status quo. There are always better ways to do things, and that’s how we as humans evolve. To make an impact you have to bring something that helps people that is better than it was before.
Who would you consider to be a significant influence on you professionally; why? How?
Mary Vigrow, from CMA Canada, gave me some good advice and got my career started. I was trying to gain employment after graduating from university and Mary was always there with wise words. Mary encouraged carrying myself with confidence and being positive. She taught me any rejection is not personal and there is no reason to be down from that. She got me in touch with my first full time employer. This lead to other opportunities for which I am very grateful.
How has ventureLAB has helped your business?
ventureLAB has helped a lot. I really like the speakers that ventureLAB brings in, and I’ve met some good people along the way. Networking amongst the group and listening to these speakers experiences has been very helpful.
There are great people here who are very helpful and always willing to offer advice. Venture Growth advisors like Chris Cory and Heather Crosbie have been a great help to us. Chris has been very important to our growth and our journey, and we really appreciate his support.
What would you be doing if you weren’t building OpenHouse.AI?
Helping startups in one capacity or another. Being in the startup space now, I’ve realized that we’re not the only company trying to create change and bring something innovative to help people. Even if I couldn’t do it myself, I’d like to play a supporting role and help other companies.
I’ve been getting good advice and good tips, and I like to pay that forward to other young companies.
How do you connect with those companies?
I connect with them through networking, and sometimes people reach out to me on LinkedIn. I also do some speaking events for CPA Canada and CPA Ontario where we talk about technology. There aren’t a lot of CPAs out there that are starting their own technology startup, so I’m in a unique space. I’m very open and easy to talk to, so people often come up and ask me questions.
Do you have anything else you’d like to share?
The journey has been very satisfying so far. When you start out you don’t know whether it will work out or not; it’s just you.
A year and a half ago I was knocking on doors and talking to random people about selling and buying homes. I would find them on Kijiji and just show up at their door. Sometimes it would work out and sometimes it wouldn’t. It all starts with a small effort and it snowballs; it’s amazing. I couldn’t do it without good people around me, which is why Toronto and the start-up community is such a great space.
“Far too often, homebuyers make decisions that are far less than ideal for them, and succumb to information overload, stress, and regret. We wanted to change the whole process by making it engaging, easy, and even enjoyable.”
What does it take to succeed as an entrepreneur today?
Grit. It’s not technology, an algorithm or a patent. In the end it is tenacity, ability to get dirty, sacrifice, and being able to learn and listen.
Learn more about OpenHouse.AI.
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About Small Business Week: A BDC initiative in its 75th year, Small Business Week is a national celebration of Canadian entrepreneurs and their contribution to Canada’s economy. Every year, close to 10,000 entrepreneurs gather to learn, network and celebrate the people building businesses across the country. Find an event near you.