The Mentor Capital Network interviewed Kari Klaus, CEO and Founder of Viva Green Homes, a participant in our 2016 Sustainable Business Plan Collaboration. Viva Green Homes is the largest and most comprehensive online real estate marketplace for sustainable homes: ‘The Zillow of eco-friendly homes.’ Viva Green Homes is doing so much more than giving green homes a real estate website; it is actually changing the world of real estate with hopes of changing the world. In the interview conducted on April 22, 2016 Kari opens up about where the idea behind Viva Green Homes came from and what she hopes to see for the company in the next five to ten years.
Tell me more about Viva Green Homes and what makes its model unique.
The simplest description for us would be that we are an e-commerce site that hosts sustainable homes or eco-friendly homes that are for sale. The elevator pitch for that would be the ‘Zillow of eco-friendly homes’ listings be it solar, off-grid, Energy Star, and the whole range of elements that an eco-friendly home could have. We are constantly updating our database based on new eco technology so people can add their listings and be able to market them accurately. We want our platform to be comprehensive so people can find these homes easily for themselves or for their clients.
How did you become interested in this idea?
It was sort of an ‘Aha’ moment. My background is in sustainability on an international level. I studied at American University and the focus was on how other countries were being impacted by the way America imports so much of its materials from other countries. The interesting thing is that even though my degree was in international sustainability; I realized that we need to focus on our domestic sustainability in order to prevent deforestation in Indonesia for example. I got into real estate about ten years ago and I really enjoyed meeting people and helping them find their dream homes. People sometimes would ask about specific types of homes that had a lot of sustainability elements to them and I wouldn’t necessarily know where to find them.
When I renovated my home in Virginia, I incorporated a lot of sustainable materials, and the materials I used were significantly healthier than most and better sourced. When I asked myself how I could market this home and all the elements it incorporates, there was no platforms that allowed me to do it. Viva Green Homes started from a gap I noticed during both my professional and personal experiences.
How would you characterize your growth over the past few years?
When I first got the idea for Viva Green Homes seven years ago it really was very simple: to have a place on the internet to market green homes. Now the idea incorporates a lot more and it has become a company now that we realized we can scale in different directions. I launched the website in October 2014 and it got attention from some major industry leaders in sustainable homes, including the Environmental Protection Agency, LEED and a few others. This was very exciting and as I communicated with them, the feedback I got made it clear that potential for growth was huge.
I am still not an expert on all the issues of green homes, and getting feedback that explains what the gaps are is really what allowed me to grow in this relatively short time. Version two of the website was launched in May 2016 and we have incorporated all the feedback we got from users and agents to make it the best user experience possible.
What were the hardest parts of launching Viva Green Homes?
I would say the biggest challenge for me was the technical part. I don’t have the skills of a developer so I struggled with the technical elements of the website, but had great resources around me. As I get more and more familiar with the technology, I am enjoying finding that right mix between the creative and business side of the website with its technical side.
What do you identify as the impact of Viva Green Homes?
Viva Green Homes has a very large potential for social and environmental impact. For one thing, green homes are complicated entities. They have so many different certifications, systems, and materials that even listing agents have a hard time keeping up. This means the market isn’t entirely understood, so the question becomes how do we normalize these products and the market as a whole and make the information more accessible. I believe Viva Green Homes offers a good solution to this because we bring all this information on a platform that has all kinds of features and is open to use for agents and individuals alike. Viva Green Homes will hopefully help consumers make better choices about their homes and lower energy bills and reduce water waste and all these great things for the environment.
We also hope to have an economic impact that grows eco-markets. We are data driven and we want to be a source of data that makes other industries make better decisions that helps their economic fronts. So for example, a company that produces solar panels can use our data on homes sold that include its panels for production decisions or even marketing purposes.
What would you do with your company if you had more time?
One of the goals right now for me is recruiting a tech co-founder who is really experienced and knowledgeable in tech to facilitate our growth, which in turn will allow me to focus on marketing, new sustainable technologies, and the real estate market, all of which are my passion. In addition, I would love to dedicate more time exploring the field and seeing first hand some of the cool and innovative home designs out there. There are some amazing things happening in the eco homes world and I want to be a part of it as much as possible.
What are your future plans for Viva Green Homes?
Viva Green Homes is growing fast and we have potential for being a much larger player in the eco homes arena. And with that I can see that larger companies will find us very appealing as an acquisition to complement their products. In the meantime, we want to scale and pivot as needed to where the market is headed. We are listening to our site’s users, experts in the fields and learning generally where people want to place their resources. The second version of the website is a very good step towards that, as it includes a number of features that really support our growth and scalability to really pivot to any direction the sustainable homes market goes.
How has MCN helped you with Viva Green Homes?
It has been immensely helpful and I have been very impressed. The way the program is designed is very useful. The business plan submission, for example, I did very reluctantly but found was a very important exercise. The feedback was really excellent overall and the judges did a very good job giving very specific feedback on how to improve certain areas of the company, which is wonderful to get as an entrepreneur.
I definitely enjoyed the talks at Bethesda green. As an entrepreneur I am juggling many different hats and trying to take everything in all at once so having this supply of information is highly appreciated. I pocketed all the information I got and will refer to it as I grow.
[Viva Green Homes is now called Realty Sage]