Adel Zakout , co-founder and CEO of OpenBuildings.com, has somewhat of an unusual story. First of all, he came to entrepreneurship after dating a girl with very expensive tastes, which left him broke. Inspired to make money while studying for his architecture degree, he went on to found creative agency Despark.com, which later paved the way for OpenBuildings.com, a website and mobile app for architecture enthusiasts, students, and professionals. And that’s where the other strange part of his story comes from. The company announced Wednesday morning that it has raised $2 million in a Series A round from BlueRun Ventures and Index Ventures. And this is where the other strange part of his story comes from: the money was raised “accidentally,” according to Zakout.
To clarify, the company didn’t stumble upon $2 million lying in the street. Rather, the UK/Bulgaria-based team happened to be in the Bay Area after OpenBuildings won the Intel Challenge, which came with a $20,000 reward and an all-expenses paid trip to San Francisco. While there, a connection offered to get them a meeting with BlueRun Ventures, and the company decided to go for it. Some 30 minutes into the meeting, BlueRun was on board, and the company walked out with a big new VC supporter.
Founded in early 2010 by architects who were frustrated with the lack of architecture resources online, the website and mobile app serve as both educational tools for architecture students and professionals, as well as informative guides for travelers and tourists. The newly redesigned website features over 40,000 buildings from around the world, with several collections for users to peruse, including women architects, green buildings, Eastern European, parametric design, and more. Users can also filter their building searches by year, type, design, architect, status, and more. The key is the site’s semantic technology and natural language system, which highlights key words and tags them in searches.
“If you want to look for all Frank Lloyd Wright buildings that use concrete up to the 1960s, you’re not going to get that on Google,” Zakout told me.
But the site is an interesting hybrid—it isn’t entirely educational, but it isn’t strictly entertainment either. It’s a unique fusion of the two. In some respects, it reminded me of a more utilitarian Fotopedia, with captivating photos and rich tidbits of information to explain what you’re looking at.
So who is using the site and downloading the app? Zakout and the OpenBuildings team have found a fairly consistent pattern: students and professionals tend to gravitate to the website, which offers a more structured, comprehensive guide for architectural designs, styles, etc., while the mobile app, which has seen 250,000 downloads to date, has wider appeal among a general audience. But is there a big consumer market for online/mobile architecture resources? The company is confident that it will have mass consumer appeal because it’s ultimately targeting two main industries—the two largest industries in the world, actually: tourism and construction. Tourism is the largest industry in the world, accounting for 10% of the global GDP, while construction comes in at number two. Of course, the construction industry isn’t exactly known for its tech-savvy Web expertise.
“Construction is very slow to adapt,” said Zakout. “I’m an architect and my father was an architect, so I grew up in the industry, but it’s really behind. The construction industry is so far from adapting and understanding the way that we can become sustainable, but I think that’s going to change. This is an industry that’s ready for disruption.”
The company plans to use the new funds to expand its team and hire more people on the ground in the Bay Area, such as business development managers and marketers. Of course, getting support from an American VC firm in the Bay Area was the first step. With BlueRun Ventures in the Bay Area and Index Ventures in the UK, the company has most of its geographic reach covered. The company’s 15-person development team is based in Sofia, Bulgaria, where Zakout says they’re able to do everything for 25% of what it would cost in the Bay Area. “And it’s a nice place to live,” he added.