Immigrating to a new country is one of the most challenging experiences any person can face. In a single instant, your social networks, your ability to communicate, and your knowledge of how a society functions disappears, and nearly everything has to be learned from scratch.
That extraordinary dislocation is one reason why ethnic enclaves exist in large cities like New York City or San Francisco — being around others like yourself provides a bridge from one’s old country to their new home. Those physical bonds have manifested themselves online through products like Facebook Groups, but a new product launching today is designed to be tailored directly to the immigrant experience and the challenges they face adapting to their new country.
Homeis is the creation of two Israeli entrepreneurs, Ran Harnevo, the former president of video for TechCrunch parent Oath, and Hanan Laschover, the former CEO of Aol Israel (the predecessor to Oath). Much like the immigrants they serve, the company straddles New York City, where Harnevo is based, and Israel, where Laschover is located.
Homeis is a “culture network” for local, foreign-born communities. The vision for the product is to connect immigrants together around critical tasks, including finding local services, learning about their new society, and connecting with peers in a similar situation as themselves.
Describing the product, Harnevo makes a strong distinction between social networks like Facebook, and the culture network that Homeis is focused on creating. “Social is a part of it, but I think today social is a form of entertainment, and a form for consuming news, and it lost the touch it started with, which is community. We confuse friends with connections, and it is not an intimate product,” he explained to me.
Take finding a lawyer that might handle visa paperwork. On a product like Facebook, you can ask your friends for names of lawyers they know, but that information just disappears in the feed, never to be found again. Homeis’ approach is to use the product design to ensure that recommendations and suggestions are organized and indexed.
Obviously, there is incredible competition in the local services space from Yelp to Angie’s List, but Harnevo believes that Homeis has a niche that is unique and underserved by existing tools. “The foreign-born community is the biggest ring of trust. When an Israeli tells me to try this lawyer, I trust that since we have the same context,” he explained. “Our main belief is that the experience of immigration is local.”
Harnevo and Laschover previously co-founded 5min, a syndication platform for lifestyle, knowledge and instructional videos founded in 2007 and acquired by Aol in 2010 for $65 million. With 5min and later Aol, “we built something pretty big. We’ve produced shows … and we’ve had 5 Emmy nominations and it was a hell of a ride,” Harnevo said. The two stayed at Aol until 2015, when they left to begin exploring new projects. They spent a bit of time in the music space, but “we realized we wanted to do something that benefitted ourselves.”
They realized that immigrants were still struggling to adapt to their local communities. “When we first came here [in the early 2000s] we held a dinner for Israeli entrepreneurs and there were five. Today, we are 300 CEOs, and I have seen the movement here with my own eyes.” And yet, Harnevo explained, “you don’t really have a new, usable product that is a huge part of your identity. This is not a niche group on Facebook, it is a huge part of my identity.”
Product concept in mind, Harnevo traveled up to Boston to visit Spark Capital, which had previously backed 5min. The firm got behind the company immediately, and funded the round earlier this year. For the past eight months, the company has been working quietly to build the product and launch.
One challenge the product faces is how to handle localization. “Social observation is that we need to do localization from day one, when most startups do it in year 10. It’s personal experience that language is one of the most personal parts of people’s identities. One of our main product challenges is that this should be a multi-lingual, localized product from day one.”
I asked Harnevo about how he thinks about business models given his background in video at a large media company like Oath. He doesn’t want advertising to be the model, and has instead focused on local, physical services where a model can be designed so that the “content can just be better.”
In addition to launching the product, the company announced today a $4m seed fundraise. Joining lead investor Spark in the seed round was Canaan Partners, The Chernin Group, and Samsung Next, along with angels including Oath CEO Tim Armstrong and Adam Singolda, CEO of Taboola.