NEW YORK – Chris Kostoulas, an engineer, was one of the first 300 employees at Uber. In 2019, he decided to part ways with Uber and embark on a new venture, along with one of his long-time friends, to help make the real estate industry, and, more specifically, real estate agents, in major cities (like New York) as efficient as possible. Peek uses advanced virtual technology to help agents/property managers create virtual tours of apartments by simply connecting a camera to a phone. Kostoulas spoke to The National Herald about the company and about his Greek heritage.
TNH: How did you decide to start peek?
Chris Kostoulas: It’s a funny story that requires a bit of context. Before starting peek, I was an early employee at Uber, joining in 2013 to help grow the New York City business. After a few months, I moved into an expansion role and launched several markets in the tri-state area including New Jersey and Connecticut.
In 2015, Uber was rapidly expanding, and the company had set its eyes on Greece. As one of the few Greek speakers at the company, I was asked to go over to help launch the business in Athens. I moved out of my apartment, put all my stuff in storage, and flew out to Athens on a few days’ notice. It was an incredible experience, even with the less than warm reception from the local taxi community.
When I returned to the U.S. two months later, I found an available room in a six-bedroom Union Square loft on Craigslist. Little did I know at the time, I would be subletting that apartment from my future cofounder, Austin Lo. Austin and I became friends and ended up searching for our next apartment together, enduring many of the pains New Yorkers are familiar with when it comes to finding an apartment. We would search listings sites, and seemingly all of the apartments had poor or even deceiving photos. It was impossible to know what you were about to walk into without actually going there, but our work schedules were completely offset (he was a quantitative hedge fund trader, working 6 AM-5 PM, I was working at Uber from 9 AM-8 PM). We were forced to send each other iPhone videos to show the other person the apartment. I think we had about a week left when we ultimately found a place. It had no photos online. Austin had to take an afternoon off of work to see it – and the first time I set foot inside was on move-in day. The apartment was great, but I wouldn’t wish the search process we went through on anyone else.
Fast forward a few more years to 2019, I had moved to San Francisco, but was coming back to NYC and reconnected with Austin. He was consulting for a real estate brokerage at the time, but saw an immense opportunity in virtual tours. Two key statistics stood out to him — first, over 70% of an average real estate agent's time was spent in transit. That is – just going from place to place, apartment to apartment. In no other profession does commuting for 70% of your time exist! The second stat was over 50% of showings are less than five minutes long. Imagine commuting all this way to have the prospective tenant pop into the apartment, take a quick look, then say, “no thanks”!
In his consulting work, Austin explored all of the existing tools to create virtual tours — and none of them were easy to use! Most required an expensive camera, difficult desktop based editing software that took hours per apartment to create. They simply didn’t make sense for rental apartments in New York City.
So the idea was to build something so easy that any agent could use it — something that just worked. Austin started developing a prototype and reached out to me with the idea. I loved the idea so much I left my job at Uber to start peek with him and focus on the sales and operations side of the business.
TNH: What has been the response so far from real estate agents and property managers?
CK: The response from both agents and property managers has been exceptional.
We’ve seen agents completely change the way they do business with peek. They can now do their showings from home, using peek virtual tours and Zoom video calls to simulate an actual apartment showing. They can show a client 10-15 different apartments in the time it would usually take to see just one physically.
Brokerages we work with like Platinum Properties have moved brokerage virtual. By creating a virtual tour for every unit, they differentiate themselves and win new clients and exclusives with property owners. They’ve created over 600 virtual tours with peek!
On the property management side, we’re finding success with managers of all sizes. One of the ways we differentiate ourselves from other solutions is that we fully integrate with management’s existing tools — meaning that any time they update a price or mark an apartment as rented in their listings management system, it will flow through to peek.
We’ve also built out an operations team that can create up to 150 virtual tours a day on behalf of the manager, with a guaranteed turnaround time of 48 hours. Many larger managers are taking advantage of this service to move their entire portfolio virtual.
The feedback from our management partners has been encouraging. In fact, one of our larger management partners was recently highlighted by the Real Estate Board of New York for exceptional performance through the pandemic– recognition they received because they had moved their leasing process virtual with peek.
TNH: How is the current situation with COVID-19 affecting peek?
CK: There is no doubt that COVID-19 has increased adoption of our virtual tour solution. When we started peek over a year ago, we thought the shift from 2D to 3D would be gradual, maybe taking a few years. What COVID has done is taken that timeframe and condensed it into only a few months.
We’ve seen demand for our solution skyrocket, as managers, agents and renters prioritized safety and social distancing. Currently, every manager and agent is thinking about virtual tours, and it’s often the first question a prospective renter asks when inquiring about a listing.
The important thing here is that even once things return to normal, consumers now know that a virtual tour is an option – people don't need to repeat the experience that Austin and I had searching for an apartment, texting iPhone videos back and forth.
TNH: Where do you see the future of the company, are there plans to expand to other areas outside NYC?
CK: Over the next few years, we’re planning to bring peek to every city in the U.S. and beyond.
We’ve just started to expand our footprint out of NYC organically. We rolled out our first two properties with a NYC partner with properties in Washington, DC, and expect more to follow. The nice thing about our solution is that it is scalable, so anyone that wants to use it in any city can get set up easily and quickly. We plan to scale up the team to do so soon.
TNH: Where in Greece is the family from?
CK: My father was born in Ioannina and came to the U.S. when he was 13. My mother was born in Astoria, and her family is from Chios and Athens.
TNH: How does your Greek heritage influence your life and work?
CK: My Greek heritage has a profound influence on everything I do. Starting with the work ethic instilled in me by my parents. My father came to the U.S. from the North of Greece and is a true American dream story. My mother worked hard to become an executive at a large retail brand — and she pushed the importance of education.
Most important of all though, my extended family has maintained many of the Greek traditions such as getting together often, and celebrating every event from Christenings to Easter. This is a support system I am lucky to have, especially with the turbulence that can come with starting a company. No doubt they have helped me get to where I am today.
From a work perspective, the Greek real estate community has been exceptional in terms of helping us get off the ground — from introductions, to using our product. We work with many property owners and brokers in the community, and I welcome anyone interested in learning more to reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information about peek is available online: https://www.peek.us.
A virtual tour is also available: https://listings.peek.us/viewer?token=5ede4d6b4843913bbd0513c5.