Abu Dhabi student with a million dollar side job

The 21-year-old has launched Cityspade, an online property search engine for New York which he hopes to extend to the Middle East.

The Cityspade.com entrepreneurs: from left, Alex Zijun Wang, Hao Zhang and Weichen Zhu. Courtesy Weichen Zhu
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While most students spend their free time either rushing to meet assignment deadlines or partying with friends, one New York University Abu Dhabi student has other things on his mind – the multimillion dollar US property rental business he has co-founded.

Weichen Zhu, 21, who is originally from China, is about to commence the final year of his economics major at NYUAD. He spent his first two college years in the UAE capital, but during his third, he joined an exchange programme to spend a year in New York.

That’s where he met two fellow NYU students – Hao Zhang, 20, studying marketing, and Alex Wang, 22, a maths major. The pair were in the process of setting up a unique online property search engine and aggregation system called Cityspade. They met Mr Zhu on social media and asked him to join them as chief financial officer.

Cityspade.com was officially launched by the trio in February. It now has more than 2,000 unique visitors per day, and more than 20,000 listings in three cities – New York, Philadelphia and Boston. They hope to encompass most major American cities by the end of the year.

“I consider our business model closer to that of Yelp or TripAdvisor, which gives you genuine feedback to book your hotel or flight. We pride ourselves on knowing our customers’ needs better than they do, due to our algorithm and analysis,” says Mr Zhu.

So how does the team manage to combine entrepreneurship with the demands of full-time study? Mr Zhu, who is also spending his summer working for Barclays in Singapore before moving back to Abu Dhabi in September, admits that they dedicate weekends and about 10 hours a day to the business — on top of the demands of college.

“We’re all heavy caffeine addicts,” he says. “Today, I’ve been working for 20-hours straight. We hired three developers and a designer in China to cut down on our costs, but the 12-hour time difference between New York and China meant sometimes we had to stay up all night to communicate our plans for the website. Then the next morning we’d go to class. It can be a bit tough to run the business. But we do our best to recharge once in a while.”

The idea for the company was born two years ago, when Mr Zhang was flat-hunting in Manhattan. He was raised in Queens, but the new borough was largely a mystery to him.

“We Queens people call Manhattan ‘the city’, so we’d only go there for special trips”, he explains. “I wasn’t familiar with Manhattan neighbourhoods. I went to different brokers many times, was shown lots of different apartments and finally chose one. But I didn’t know anything about the area until I moved in. That’s crazy, right? To spend weeks searching for an apartment that ends up being quite randomly chosen. When I moved in, I realised some terrible things about the building and the building’s management.”

The experience planted the idea in his mind of setting up a rentals service that provides the kind of information potential tenants require to make informed choices.

Mr Wang also had a bad flat hunting experience when he came to New York and decided to join Mr Zhang’s venture.

Their site uses a unique algorithm system formulated by Mr Wang, who Mr Zhu refers to as their “math genius and mastermind”. The system matches the user with the most relevant deals to suit their needs, taking into account factors such as cost efficiency and access to transport and giving a 1 to 10 score. As well as containing a property search engine, there’s a review section featuring previous and current residents’ accounts of particular neighbourhoods, streets, buildings and apartments.

In the initial seed funding, Cityspade was granted $200,000 for 12.5 per cent of the company from venture capitalists in China, who valued the start-up at $1.6 million. They are now looking for about $1.2 million at a valuation of $6 million.

Mr Zhu admits the company is growing at a speed they’d never anticipated.

“We hustled our way up from looking for a small office space to pitching to dozens of investors,” he says. “Trying to make deals with all the major real estate brokers in New York was hard, because we’re still young college students. But we’re very grateful about our progress because we started with nothing – no money, no office space, no previous experience and no knowledge about real estate.”

Mr Zhu also attributes some of the company’s success to lessons he’s learnt at NYU Abu Dhabi.

“I’ve benefited tremendously from my education at NYU Abu Dhabi. Without the support I got from many faculty members there, the business couldn’t have gone this far,” he says.

Cityspade’s next step is to expand to the West Coast, specifically Los Angeles and the Bay area around San Francisco, then to turn to the Middle East.

“Next year’s aim is to search for venture capitalists and investors in the Mena region to partner up with, along with investors from China and US,” says Mr Zhu. “Meanwhile, I also hope to work with young entrepreneurs from the Mena region so we can learn from each other.”


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