Despite being in his early 30s, Martin Mucha is already a successful Czech businessman in New York. Many locals may know Igluu, the real estate website he co-founded which claims to be the largest source of verified home listings in the Big Apple. Apart from looking into ways of expanding and innovating the company, Mr. Mucha also plays an active role among America’s Czech community. I recently had the chance to catch up with him and began by asking when he first decided to be an entrepreneur.
“I was eight-years-old, it was Christmas Eve and I was watching a movie called Trading Places. I thought to myself - this is what I want to do. I was always interested in business. I love history, biographies and mathematics. The latter is perfectly logical and makes sense to me. So yeah, that is what I wanted to do.
“I went to Austria where I studied business with a focus on finance. During my studies I also had the opportunity to go to China, where I studied in Beijing and Shanghai, spending two years in total in Asia, a great experience.
"I got into the US kind of by accident through an internship at a private equity group. They called me to come back after it finished and then I sort of never left. I felt I should keep on learning though, so I took some additional courses at Harvard. I still learn every day. That hasn’t really stopped.”
It sounds like you already had entrepreneurship in your blood, but did you meet some people during your studies who had similar ideas and that led you to Igluu, or had you noticed this gap in the market for a long time beforehand?
“I think I’ve always been entrepreneurial, but with Igluu it was more of a kind of a result of working in New York. Aside from working in private equity primarily focused on the real estate market, there was also the fact that I am interested in technology. I like automated processes and it seemed to me this would be a great idea. It took me quite some time. First it was necessary to find the right people and enough capital. Then we put it together.”
I imagine one needs some programming skills or at least to know people who can in order to start a business like that. Can you code?
“I don’t have programming skills, but I do understand how technology works and I think I had a fairly good idea of how the process works, because you have to understand the business rules. We found some great people. Actually, we worked with people in the Czech Republic. There is a lot of great talent over here.
So you actually hired Czech programmers in the beginning?
“Yes. We started with a Czech team, a group called U+, which used to be called User Technologies back in the old days.
“Generally, I am quite active within the Czech community in New York. I was introduced to them through the Consulate General of the Czech Republic there and it has been great working with them since then.”
Speaking of your activity regarding the Czech community in the United States, you are also supporting young Czech students in America, am I right?
“I am generally interested in not-for-profit activities. That is very important to me personally. Last year I was approached by the Czech community in the US who asked me to become the treasurer for an American fund for Czechoslovak leadership studies, which was established back in the 1940s by the first Czechoslovak ambassador to the United Nations.
“They support highly talented kids in the Czech Republic bringing them to the US where they take part in four to six week programs at top schools such as Cornell University and Princeton. They learn new things there and then go back. I think the long term strategy is that this particularly talented section of the youth has an interest to stay here in the Czech Republic.
“That’s important because what frequently happens is that talented people leave this country and never come back. However, when you have no reason to leave, you can stay at home.”
If we go back to Igluu, one interesting thing about it is that you put a lot of work into personalising broker profiles. Why the effort?
“I think a lot of companies today are trying to eliminate brokers altogether. That is something we do not believe in. We believe in empowering both the end consumer, which could be the buyer, renter or seller, while also empowering the broker, who is representing their needs.
“There is a big difference in the Czech Republic and the United States in this respect. In Czechia there is only one broker and he represents the seller. In the US on the other hand we have a co-brokering system where both the buyer and seller have a broker. We believe that empowering the broker to do a better job is a good thing.”
“We are using both technologies. In terms of an end-to-end platform, we will be presenting a new platform at the end of September early-October. The old one we currently have will be replaced by a completely new system.
“We are using AI to automate processes. For example, when it comes to customer relationship management software we are looking into automation and understanding what is happening. When you get to a new end-to-end platform you get a lot of new interesting data which you can really play with.
“Blockchain is another really interesting area for us. We believe that more or less the whole process can be automated to the level that you can sign your lease and make a payment on a monthly basis or a sign and sales agreement of that asset. Blockchain would be a good feature to have in terms of transparency and security. That is the direction we are heading in.”
Is you company planning on expanding outside of New York anytime soon?
“I think a very interesting fact to mention here is that New York City represents 15 to 18 percent of all real estate transactions in the United States, so we do not have to run far anytime soon.
“Nevertheless, we do plan on expanding to other regions in the US fairly soon. Right now we are expanding to Long Island and Westchester, both parts of the state of New York. We are also exploring some options in Canada and Europe.
“That specific expansion would most likely be different though, in the form of a partnership. The reason behind this is the hyperlocal nature of real estate markets. You need local knowledge to be successful. So we would either expand there as an Igluu brand or as a technology company we might be interested in licensing viable solutions for those markets.”
So let’s imagine the Igluu brand expands to Prague. What sort of stuff could it bring to the Czech capital’s real estate market?
“Well, we still have to study the Czech market, because it does work differently than in the US. We certainly are at an early stage and just looking around. I got here after being away for four years, but my impressions are that we could bring a lot into here. If we had a good partner in the Czech Republic I think we could bring high quality tools for real estate agents, whether it is on an individual, team basis, or that of the whole platform for the end user.
“The new features that we are bringing in would be very interesting, because we have a much more advanced search system than what is on our site now, very deep analytical tools which would have to be further developed for the Czech Republic. We have a collaborative environment, for example in the form of a native chat where you can book appointments, sign documents with DocuSign or their solutions, payments. These are all things that we could bring here. Things which are not here today.”
What about when it comes to the ease of starting a business? A lot of people say it is harder here. Would you say that is true? And is that a large hindrance to the economy?
“There is a huge difference between the United States and Europe. For living standards of the ordinary middle classes, Europe is better placed. There is better healthcare, nutrition, education and the environment.
“In terms of business, I think the United States comes out on top. It is hard to judge how difficult it is in Europe compared to America. However, in the United States it is very easy to start a company. You fail, you start again. There is a very entrepreneurial culture whereas here, if you fail, people judge you because you made a mistake and it did not work out. That makes it much tougher. It also seems like a younger environment market wise. There still are lots of laws and regulations which could be modified in the years to come.”
Let’s say you could bring in three things from the American style of business, entrepreneurship into Europe. What would it be?
“I really don’t think it is about bringing stuff from abroad. The mentality here was really damaged by communism for a very long period of time. It simply takes generations to recover and change that mentality.
But at the same time you are saying that in Europe there just is a generally different approach. One more comfortable for the middle class…
“Oh, way more comfortable.” (laughs)
“Tough to say. I think the big advantage of the United States in terms of business is that it is one big market, everyone speaks the same language and it is very easy to do business across the whole country.
“If you start a business in the Czech Republic, you do it in Czech and have to scale it to this country. Then if you want to expand you have to change the mentality, because here there is no single mentality. There are Czech, Italian, German mentalities. Different business groups with different mentalities.”
So, although EU integration may be happening there are still all these cultural differences.
“Let’s think about it. If you are in the United States, they will tell you they are an American first. Then they might say they are a New Yorker, or some other local identity. Here you don’t say: ‘I am European.’ You say you are Czech, or French, or Spanish.”
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