How to Make Billions of Dollars Reducing Loneliness

by John_Maxwell 20d30th Aug 201932 comments

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Loneliness Is a Big Problem

On Facebook, my friend Tyler writes:

Lately, I've been having an alarming amount of conversations arise about the burdens of loneliness, alienation, rootlessness, and a lack of belonging that many of my peers feel, especially in the Bay Area. I feel it too. Everyone has a gazillion friends and events to attend. But there's a palpable lack of social fabric. I worry that this atomization is becoming a world-wide phenomenon – that we might be some of the first generations without the sort of community that it's in human nature to rely on.

And that the result is a worsening epidemic of mental illness...

Without the framework of a uniting religion, ethnicity, or purpose, it's hard to get people to truly commit to a given community. Especially when it's so easy to swipe left and opt for things that offer the fleeting feeling of community without being the real thing: the parties, the once-a-month lecture series, the Facebook threads, the workshops, the New Age ceremonies. We often use these as "community porn" – they're easier than the real thing and they satisfy enough of the craving. But they don't make you whole.

I've had some thoughts about experiments to try. But then I think about how hard it is (especially in this geographic area) to get people to show up to something on at least a weekly basis. Even if it's for something really great. I see many great attempts at community slowly peter out.

Young people are lonely. Old people are lonely. Loneliness is bad for your health. It's bad for society's health.

Having a smartphone that keeps you entertained all day, and enough money to live by yourself, might sound like first world problems. But they are likely contributors to loneliness. And as developing countries get richer, they'll start having first world problems too. So I think addressing loneliness could be very high-leverage for the world.

People are starting businesses to address loneliness: you can pay someone to call you periodically or take you for a walk. But I'd argue these services are a band-aid in the same sense that parties, workshops, and ceremonies are. They don't solve the underlying problem: You're still alone by default instead of together by default.

Roommates Could Be a Great Solution

Sociologists think there are three conditions necessary for making friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other. These conditions tend to be present during college for many people, but not afterwards.

Why do people find it easier to make friends in college? Maybe it's because college students don't usually live alone.

Going to events doesn't work because (a) you don't typically get repeated interactions with the same person and (b) events take place at a scheduled time. Which may or may not be a time you're feeling lonely.

If you have a lot of roommates, all you have to do is step outside your room and find someone to chat with. No transportation CO2 emissions needed. But more important, you know your roommates are always gonna be around.

But I Already Have Roommates

Even if you already have roommates, I think there's a good chance your roommate situation is under-optimized. Given that you spend so much time with them, there's a lot of value in living with people you really connect with. (Finding great coworkers makes sense for similar reasons.)

The layout of your house and the number of roommates you have can also make a big difference. I used to have friends living in a 4-bedroom place where all the bedrooms opened directly into a single large common area. If anyone else was outside their room, you'd immediately know it and have an opportunity for interaction. Later I lived in an 8-bedroom place which felt far lonelier, even with every room occupied. The house was laid out so it was easy to go about your day without ever running into a fellow roommate. I also lived in a house with over 50 bedrooms for a while, which was wild & a lot of fun.

But I Don't Want Roommates

One reason you might not want roommates is because you're worried you might have conflicting preferences for what living together should be like. For example, my philosophy towards dirty dishes is to let them pile up on the counter and periodically stuff them all in the dishwasher, to be as time-efficient as possible. Surprisingly, some people dislike this approach.

RoomieMatch.com is a website which tries to solve the roommate compatibility problem. You create a profile by answering questions about dishes, food in the fridge, housecleaning, social events, noise, overnight guests, shared household items, walking around in your underwear, TV, etc. In addition, there are questions to help predict how you well you will connect as people.

You Could Make a Lot of Money

RoomieMatch has two search options: free and cheap. Cheap costs $20/year.

The problem with RoomieMatch is they're leaving a massive amount of money on the table.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was jobless & struggling financially. He was living in a 4-bedroom house at the time, and he was the primary contact with the landlord. My friend took responsibility for vetting folks from Craigslist in order to fill the remaining rooms in the house. He found that folks from Craigslist were willing to pay enough rent for the remaining 3 rooms that he was able to live rent-free until he found a job.

I acknowledge this is murky ethical territory, and I'm not condoning my friend's actions. (I don't believe anyone ever found out or got upset, for whatever that's worth.) The point I'm trying to make is that property management is way more lucrative than roommate matching. RoomieMatch makes $20 per user per year at best. My friend was making $100+ per user per month.

What I'm suggesting is that you take the full-stack startup playbook which has been successful in Silicon Valley recently, and apply it to online roommate matching + property management.

The extreme full-stack approach is to own your own properties. Apparently the US has a surplus of big houses right now.

There are already players in this space such as Roam which are proving that people will pay for community. (As if people paying extra to live in hip cities like SF & NYC didn't prove that already. BTW, I found that the awesome community at the Athena Hotel more than made up for the fact that it's in a non-hip city.) Anyway, I think existing players are mostly pursuing the extreme full-stack option. I actually think this is the wrong play. You want to be a marketplace, like Airbnb (valued at over $30 billion). The more people who are using your tool, the finer-grained roommate matching services you can provide. It's hard to achieve massive scale if you have to own every property. You want to be playing matchmaker for individuals with common interests who all happen to be looking for rooms around the same time, plus landlords with empty houses. Maybe you'll want to undercut RoomieMatch, and provide free matching services for people who live in their properties, in order to achieve the necessary scale. (RoomieMatch's existing scale is impressive by the way--I quickly got 100+ active, vetted matches in a midsize US city when I tried the tool. If you have the money you might want to just buy it.)

So instead of buying properties, maybe you just want to contact people selling large homes & see if you can convince them to let you manage their property.

Note that this is a good company to start if a recession happens, since people who currently live alone will be thinking about how to save on rent.

This Could Be Really Great

Most roommate search tools, like Craigslist, don't make it easy to figure out if a future roommate is someone you'd actually want to live with. Imagine reaching a scale where you could match people based on factors like:

  • They love to play board games, or pool, or Super Smash Bros.

  • They want a compost pile and a garden in their backyard.

  • One has a pet, and the other likes animals but isn't yet ready to make a lifetime commitment.

  • They want a squat rack in the basement to save time & money going to the gym.

  • They want to continue partying like college students after graduation.

  • They want to be part of an intentional community devoted to mutual improvement and life optimization, or spirituality, or whatever.

  • They want to share childcare responsibilities.

  • They're all fans of the same sports team.

  • They enjoy reading and discussing the same genre of novels, or watching the same movies.

  • They're musicians looking for people to jam with.

  • They want to live near hiking trails and go on group hikes together.

  • They want to do independent study of the same topic.

  • They're trying to eat a healthier diet.

  • They just moved to a new city and want friends they can explore the city with.

  • They have the same unusual work schedule.

  • One needs a caretaker, and the other wants to make extra money.

  • They like the idea of having a couch or two listed on CouchSurfing.

  • One knows a language the other wants to learn.

  • They work close together in the same expensive metropolitan area and want save on housing. So they live in the outskirts of the city and commute together every day using the diamond lane. One drives and the other pays for gas.

I also see opportunities to reduce friction in the current roommate matching process:

  • Automatically find times when everyone is available for a meet & greet video call.

  • Let people take virtual tours of the houses on offer to minimize driving.

  • No need to worry about breaking a lease if someone moves to a different house in your company's network. Let people try out a few communities & see what works for them. Use machine learning to improve your matching as you gather more data.

  • Provide external mediation in the event of roommate disputes, and have a reputation system to encourage good behavior.

You aren't providing housing as a service (like Airbnb), or companionship as a service (like the people-walking startup). You're providing community as a service. You could even organize mixers across your houses.

Conclusion

Technology has been blamed for the loneliness epidemic, but I think we can use technology to cure the loneliness epidemic as well.

I'm too busy being obsessed with machine learning to start any company which isn't mostly about that. But I think this is a product the world needs, and I want you to build it. I encourage you to sign the Founders Pledge and donate the money to effective charities in case you actually end up making billions of dollars as a result of reading this.

I apologize if you found the tone of this post overly sales-y. My goal was to light a spark in the right person. (Feel free to steal phrases from this post when pitching investors!)

Some folks in the rationalist community might be a little underwhelmed by this idea, since people in the rationalist community have been living together in group houses for a long time. The thing is, finding roommates by connecting based on mutual interests via the internet is still kind of weird in the eyes of the general public. As Paul Graham put it: "Live in the future, then build what's missing." The existence of so many lonely people proves that this option is still missing for most people.

Anyway, if you're interested in building/investing in this, please comment below, or send me a private message via my user page with the country you're in and I'll put you in contact with others who message me. (Edit: I might be slow to reply, sorry)

Cross-posted from the Effective Altruism Forum. See also discussion on Hacker News.

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