The Rat and Mouse Interview – Team Qoob

Qoob‘s been on our radar for a few years, ever since it popped up as a kind of contact service between buyers and sellers. Now, it’s a trust-rating system, a payment exchange and it’s international… with a mission to make the lettings industry function peer-to-peer. In, certainly, one of the more unusual interviews featured on the Rat and Mouse, Thomas Fink and the team touch on the Medici Effect, Brownian Motion, the extinction of the dinosaurs and ambigrams. Overly-optimistic about human nature, or truly future-thinking? Read on to decide…

Why do we need a new approach to property?

How we live in homes is changing. Throughout history, people spent their lives in the same homes. These buildings served as a place for shelter, services and storage. Immobility signalled not so much a lack of adventure as simple pragmatism: moving house was disruptive, complicated and time­consuming. All this is changing. The world we live in has been transformed in ways that have revolutionised the very meaning of ‘home’. With more and more of our possessions portable (laptops, phones), rentable (Zipcar, Boris bikes) or stored on the cloud (music, books, photos), the need for a fixed abode is diminishing. It’s getting easier to move, and more people are doing so. That’s a trend that is set to continue. For European citizens especially, where free borders make travel routine, more people are moving between and within countries to work, study or pursue new opportunities. And because more people—especially the 50% of adults who are single—are taking shorter tenancies and moving more often, there has been a surge in the rental market. ‘Home’ is now less about long­term possession and storage, and more about short­term access to comfortable shelter and essential services.

I’ve found references to Qoob on the Rat and Mouse property blog in 2015, when it was a messenger service between buyers and sellers. How’s it changed in the meantime?

Qoob was dreamt up back in 2015, after UK legislation preventing peer-­to-­peer property transactions was repealed. At the time, Qoob focused on sales and rentals in equal measure. But we realised that the real revolution was rumbling within the rentals market: a transition away from a static sense of a home to a nimbler notion that offers the flexibility to follow studies, careers and partners wherever they may lead us. It was the potential to make short­-term European relocation more streamlined that won us a prestigious EU SME Phase 2 grant in early 2017. And now with Brexit on the horizon, the need for an app that also enables streamlined renting for non-­UK residents is more important than ever. With this strong financial backing, during the last six months Qoob has streamlined its development and invested in integrated payments, proactive matchmaking and a unified marketplace where tenants can search for homes and owners can search for tenants.

So how would you describe Qoob in a paragraph? What’s its USP?

Qoob aims to turn moving home into a commodity by making it possible for anyone to move around the world at any time, secure that they can find home or tenant quickly and for a fair price. In doing so, Qoob is challenging many of the roadblocks to renting: third-­party agents, disjoint listings across agencies, archaic deposit and referencing schemes and separate rental transactions. Qoob is harnessing the power of trust, accountability and equal bargaining power between tenants and owners by freeing up market forces to create an agile rental ecosystem.

Who’s behind the project? And who’s working on the app? Is their background tech or property

Qoob was founded by physicists at the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences. Frustrated by the slow pace of change in property technology, they embarked on a bid to transform it. Many disruptive innovations are instigated by outsiders, a phenomenon is known as the Medici Effect. It describes concepts brought from one field into a totally different one with great success. For example, the extinction of the dinosaurs was finally explained not by paleontologists but by an astrochemist. Qoob aims to be highly disruptive, which is why it makes a point of hiring experts from outside of the property market. The current team is drawn from a diverse range of disciplines: data science, law, physics, agile development and the film industry.

What does physics have to offer a new property app?

The founding team of physicists believes that behind many technological disruptions is a transition from physical search to digital search. Until not long ago, finding new friends, romantic partners or even employers relied on physically bumping into them. Like Brownian motion, this erratic path through life meant that the space of possibilities was far from exhaustive. Now, all of this is changing. Social platforms, dating apps and on­–demand task matching apps provide a tremendous boost to our optionality. In fact, the founding team believes that the notion of linear search itself—where it takes twice as long to assess twice as many things—is on its last legs. Instead, they are developing methods for proactive matchmaking, whereby tenants and owners are notified of likely matches using proprietary advances in graph theory and machine learning.

Do landlords want to be in direct contact with prospective tenants? Isn’t there an advantage to having an experienced agent negotiating viewings and doing background checks?

With direct contact comes control, agility and lower costs. We saw this 15 years ago with the disappearance of travel agents, and we’re seeing it now with the decline of banks. Few people are missing them either.

In travel, banking and property, the barrier to change is a misplaced belief that so-­called experts have special skills not readily found in the public. But renting property is, above all, common sense. Who knows better how to market a home than the person who’s lived in it? Negotiating a viewing is about as complex as meeting for coffee. And with the ease of exchanging pictures and videos, the scope for false expectations has dwindled.

Background checks and deposits are both part of an old-­fashioned philosophy of stranger danger. As the sharing economy is demonstrating, regular people are overwhelmingly inclined to be courteous, decent and fair. This is a core belief at Qoob: by treating others with a presumption of trustworthiness, they rise to the occasion.

Privacy: how much information can tenants and landlords learn about each other by using the app?

Qoob lets tenants and homeowners decide just how much personal information to share. Right now, tenants are often expected to provide extremely detailed personal information to third­-party agents. They can be turned down for spurious reasons, like being first-­time renters, self­-employed or new to the country. By shifting control from agents to individuals, Qoob helps put an end to this one-­size­-fits-­all approach to renting, instead recognizing the differing needs of individuals and letting the market do its work. This is part of a bigger trend toward custom privacy: in 2018 the General Data Protection Regulation comes into effect across Europe, which gives citizens and residents control over their personal data.

How widely will landlords have their properties advertised if they choose to list them on Qoob

Properties listed on the Qoob app are promoted in three ways. First, the properties can be searched for by tenants on the Qoob app as well as on the Qoob website, a lighter version of the app. Second, Qoob currently gives properties additional exposure by advertising them on Gumtree, Facebook and Zoopla. Third, Qoob has developed proactive matchmaking technology to forecast likely matches. Tenants and owners are both notified of likely good fits. But finding homes is not a one­way street, and Qoob lets owners search tenants as well as vice versa.

If Qoob is widely successful, the financial side of the app (taking and distributing rents) could involve significant sums of money. How will that work?

Qoob’s philosophy is that everything should be peer­-to-­peer, including payments. Peer-­to-­peer payment technology is rapidly developing. Payments go through our carefully selected secure system directly to the owner, so that both parties can track them accurately and the transaction happens quickly. The app features smart alerts to remind tenants when rent is due.

Could you describe your “trust-rating” system? You say you’re developing a system that will rate a tenant and/or landlord based on past behaviour, to work in addition to traditional credit checks.

Qoob believes that people want to rent homes they can afford, treat them with respect, pay their rent on time, and get along with the homeowner. Counterintuitively, third­party agents between tenant and owner tend to erode trust rather than build it. We’ve seen this model work for Uber, TaskRabbit and Airbnb, where every day millions of people open their homes, workplaces and cars to strangers with overwhelmingly positive effect. Why? First, strangers and acquaintances are essentially trustworthy. Second, the continuing shift to a reputational basis of accountability drives people to take a farsighted view of their actions, rather than acting on short-­term opportunism.

How does Qoob make a profit?

At this stage Qoob is absolutely free and doesn’t make a profit.

Finally, the name? How did you settle on “qoob”?

The name “qoob” is an example of an ambigram: a word which looks the same when it is rotated by 180 degrees. Early on we came across a redesign of a Bob Marley album cover, below: turn it around and it reads the same. The same is true for “qoob”. Also, “qoob” is a homophone with “cube”, a symbol the three­-dimensional home, which is why the cube is part of our logo.

Many thanks for your time. Do keep us up-to-date with developments.