Tech startups Knock and Trulia may be opposite sides of the same coin but that doesn’t stop serial entrepreneur Sean Black from making money. He is the founder and current CEO of Knock – a real estate platform focused on the home-seller experience – and has been upsetting the status quo since getting his start.
As for Knock, the difference Black offers is the data-science used to help owners price their home accurately, technology to connect them to motivated buyers and a network of local licensed professionals who can guide them through the process. Knock has offices in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Charlotte and other urban centres.
Black’s earlier effort, Trulia, is also an online real estate website that offers a quality buyer experience. Using information provided by local sources, the company offers several unique map overlays that offer insights on school locations, commute distances, crime reports, and convenient business options. The company was acquired by Zillow for $3.4 billion in 2014.
In an interview with Crain’s, Black spoke about his new project. “Knock is really more focused on the sellers and on trying to democratize the sell side, which is almost entirely offline,” he explained. “We were determined to fix the process for sellers.”
But before Trulia and Knock, Black had a previous life. As an international business management student at Penn State University, he spent his summers and holidays working at the Vatican. As director of international development, Black managed investment portfolios for the Franciscans and assisted them with developing new business and investment opportunities.
“I started my first internet company, Everymile.com, in the online automotive space while finishing my MBA in Boston in 2000,” he said about his first tech startup. “Long story short, Everymile became a statistic of the Web 1.0 deadpool just two years later. Humbled, I moved to New York City six months after the September 11th attacks to start over.”
Black remembers the big online migration of cars, careers and travel with tech companies like AutoTrader.com, Monster and Expedia taking the lead. He noticed that real estate only had realtor.com and that was geared specifically towards industry professionals. Funding for a new tech venture was nowhere to be seen so soon after the dot.com crash so Black had to get creative.
“Coincidentally, I met Barbara Corcoran at a networking event while she was still running the Corcoran Group in New York,” Black said. “It was clear from my conversation with her that she believed wholeheartedly that the internet was going to change real estate.”
“So, I convinced her to hire me as a VP at Corcoran and I stuck to her like glue to learn everything I could about real estate while I helped Corcoran transform itself online.” It turned out to be a win/win as Corcoran got an important head start on her web presence and Black got the background he needed to make a pitch for an online real estate search engine he called BigDiggs.
After landing a meeting with investors who were financially backing a competing company that provided similar online services, the decision was made to combine efforts and the result was Trulia. Fast forward a few or so years and Black made a multi-billion dollar deal to sell Trulia to Zillow in 2014.
Not one to sit still for too long, Black answered the tech startup siren’s call once again and joined forces with Jamie Glenn, a co-founder of Trulio, to start Knock. Despite his evident genius for solving problems people didn’t even realize they had, he is the first one to admit he can become a little tunnel vision about things.
“When we first started Knock, we felt we had already fixed the buy side of the transaction with Trulia, and were pretty adamant about not working with buyers at all,” Black stated. What he hadn’t fully considered at the time was that while they were perfecting the seller’s experience, there wasn’t a realistic way to separate out that process from the buyer’s side of the business.
While that intense focus may sometimes leave him with a few blindspots from time to time, it has ultimately served him well. “At its core, Knock is truly a mission-driven company. Since the beginning, we’ve been on a mission to improve a process that is outdated, opaque, stressful and unnecessarily expensive.”
In addition to his more notable startup successes, Black also founded a sales analytics platform called SalesCrunch in 2010 – which, incidentally, generated a fairly irritable response from TechCrunch. Later called Crunched, it was picked up two years later by ClearSlide for an undisclosed amount and lives on as part of their product offerings.