LOOKING BACK, the founders of Trulia can only laugh at their comically bad timing. In 2005, a real-estate-listings site driven by elegant design seemed like a brilliant idea. Housing prices were soaring, and venture capitalists from Accel Partners and Sequoia Capital lined up with $33 million. Little more than a year later, the housing market crashed.
Yet Trulia has survived — and thrived. As of May, the site attracted 14 million visitors a month, nearly doubling in the last year. It reached profitability in mid-2010. The key to the future, says CEO Pete Flint, was not simply adding to its 4.8 million listings. To keep growing its audience, the site needed to provide richer, more meaningful information about the issues that really concern people searching for a new home. Which is why Trulia bought infographics startup Movity last December.
"In the last 15 years, the web has gotten progressively more visual, from text to pictures to video," says Flint. "Now we're at the early stages of the interactivity revolution. Data is abundant beyond belief, but context is scarce."
The challenge, says Movity cofounder Eric Wu, who now leads Trulia's data-visualization team, is "how can you use data not just as spectacle but to actually help people make a decision?"
The maps that Trulia has recently introduced help answer home buyers' critical questions: Are prices here still falling? Is this street on the "bad side" of town, or is it safe? Which schools could my kids attend, and how good are they? One map shows just how likely a house listed in a particular zip code is to see a price reduction after the first offer; other graphics detail crime locations, down to the block level, and the areas from which schools draw students, complete with the schools' performance ratings.
Wu points out that a beautiful, efficient user interface or a map that puts hard-to-read data a click away can be effective ways to distinguish a business like Trulia from its competitors. Silicon Valley has certainly taken notice of the phenomenon — data visualization lies at the core of many buzzed-about startups. One of Reddit's cofounders, Steve Huffman, recently created Hipmunk, a travel-bookings site that includes charts that show how different flights rate on an "agony index" based on price, duration, and number of stops, as well as heat maps showing what sorts of attractions are close to a hotel. (See "Travel Search Gets Hip [Again]," March.) Qwiki, another startup, garnered nearly $10 million to create an intensely visual UI that would offer Wikipedia-like content.
Trulia expects to expand its own interactive offerings. It's considering a new product to help renters compare prices, not just in terms of neighborhoods but particular apartments and houses, as well as a decision tree to guide buyers through the offer process. (If this is a sale for less than the balance of the mortgage, what should I offer? What if it's a foreclosure?) Also on the to-do list: lifestyle maps of bars, parks, and restaurants to help people figure out if a given neighborhood actually fits their personality.
Such a rich mix could be difficult for competitors to match. "These offerings are easy to talk about, but the talent pool of cartographers and data-visualization experts is still small, and these products are hard to build," says Flint. "To do it, sometimes you have to buy a company."
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.