Not long ago Miriam Warren, Yelp’s VP of new markets, stayed at the Witt Hotel in the Cihangir neighborhood of Istanbul.
Her purpose was to take meetings with locals to begin to get a sense of how Yelp ought to expand into that city. Yet by choosing to stay in Cihangir–an under-the-radar neighborhood whose small cafes give views of feral cats snoozing in the sun–Warren displayed to those she met with that she was already in the know. “When I told people I was in Cihangir, they’d say, ‘Huh, cool. How’d you know about that?’”
It’s Warren’s job to know. She was one of Yelp’s first users in 2005; by the time she’d written over 1,000 reviews, Yelp finally hired her on in 2007 to become a community manager. As Yelp grew, so did Warren’s role; she now acts as a sort of international coolhunter, forming beachheads in the world’s up-and-coming neighborhoods where Yelp can nestle in and grow. She might be taking coffee meetings in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg one week, Stockholm’s Södermalm the next. Under Warren’s tenure, Yelp has expanded to 22 countries, mostly through the Anglophone world and Europe, as well as Singapore. Just this month Yelp branched out to the Czech Republic.
“I used to tell my mom I wanted to live out of a suitcase,” she says. She got her wish.
How does Warren know what’s cool in a city even before she’s even landed in it? Her own brand of research, which extends well beyond reading a “36 Hours in…” piece in the Times. She might call a friend of a friend who she knows has lived both in a city Warren already knows and the one she’s about to scope out. Say if she wants to conquer Prague, she’ll call someone who has lived both there and London (which Warren knows well), and ask, “What’s the Bethnal Green or the Shoreditch of Prague?”
Once there, Warren sets up countless meetings like the ones she held in Cihangir. She’ll talk to graphic designers, chefs, writers, expats. She’s looking to hear about places that feel “Yelpy,” she says, and to “get a sense of what it would look like for Yelp to be in this place.” She’ll talk to 30 or 40 people–and often her favorite type of person to talk to, she says, is architects. There’s something about the way they view cities that is particularly useful to her.
“I can spot an architect on the street in any city of the world by either their glasses or a particular type of shirt they’re wearing,” she says. “They have a quiet way about them.” Previously, Warren was a headhunter, including for an architecture firm. “They’re an interesting marriage between engineer and artist. They have a real appreciation for art, fashion, the world in its aesthetic form. They’re also people who work all the time and don’t get paid a ton, so they’re looking for great value. I don’t go to any city without talking to at least one.”
The next step is to hire a community manager local to a place. It then becomes that person’s job to build critical mass in a city, to make Yelp into a local institution. That may involve setting up shop in a trendsetting café, handing out free ice cream, or dressing up like a slice of bacon. International expansion sometimes inevitably necessitates acquiring a clone or similar service, as Yelp did last fall with Germany’s Qype (another object lesson in the virtues of expanding internationally quickly).
Hearing Warren speak about the qualities that make a neighborhood or small business “Yelpy,” the list sounds familiar. Diverse, up-and-coming neighborhoods with a mix of old business and new, and with property values still low enough for a young family to buy, neighborhoods sometimes labeled with the shorthand of “hipster”…
One begins to wonder: Is the presence of Yelp simply a litmus test of gentrification?
Warren laughs. “I always thought that a Whole Foods was the litmus test for gentrification,” she says. “I would say Yelpiness has that piece with it. What’s even more important about it is that Yelpers are people specifically looking for small family-owned entrepreneurial businesses to support. While gentrification is a bit of a dirty word for some people, for Yelpers, it’s about this sense of urban adventurism.”
[Photos Courtesy of Yelp]