By Nirupama Mallavarupu (Founder, HowdyHood)
I have lived in seven different cities in the US, yet I never really got to know my neighbors in any of these places. Two years ago, we came back from an overseas trip, jet-lagged, to a house in a New Jersey suburb nearly destroyed by a flood due to a burst frozen pipe. Our neighbors, meanwhile, were unaware of our situation until the construction crews arrived.

This experience motivated me to change this situation. I built HowdyHood, a website to connect neighbors using my background as a developer/programmer. I had number of doubts about launching such a website, feeling that my experience was very isolated and not representative of others in the community. But almost everyone I talked to shared with me their stories about not knowing their neighbors and were enthusiastic about the idea of having a social network targeted directly towards neighbor-to-neighbor interaction.

Building HowdyHood

The ideas I had for the neighborhood network were numerous and I had to focus and shape a few into concrete usable entities. I designed the website to be user friendly and simple with a basic set of features. A neighborhood site should be useful for many purposes, from simply being a social site to helping in “carpooling”, “sharing resources” or “getting reviews on a neighborhood service as well as business”.

After several months of effort (as I had a day job) to convert my vision into a working product, the beta version was released recently. My immediate goal is to get feedback from real users and change/add/remove the website features as dictated by the users.

Why HowdyHood?

Most Moms who do not have live-ins or regular sitters find it difficult to find a Saturday night babysitter they can trust. A neighborhood teenager girl who lives two streets down, but relatively unknown in the neighborhood, can readily connect with Moms on HowdyHood. The Moms would be happy to find someone local they can trust while the teenager gets to supplement her income. Similarly, finding a pet or house sitter in your neighborhood for while you are away on
vacation could be a breeze once you post to the “Help Wanted” forum. Posting anything for sale in the neighborhood could be easily done with “Hood Sales”. You know and trust people living in your neighborhood. They should be the first resource you tap into for any of your errands and sales.

Neighborhoods in large cities can come in different forms. Thus, high rise buildings in NYC can be little neighborhoods by themselves. Several hundred families live in each high rise and would tremendously benefit from connecting with others living in their building. Instead of doodling on elevators or walls in common spaces in the building, they could post to “Hood Talk” to communicate to their neighbors in the building. Renting out an apartment or subletting an apartment could be easier when you have this audience who can spread the word for you.

There are high rises in NYC which do have fancy websites but with very limited use to the resident. In these websites, the posting is strictly controlled by the management, not allowing an adverse post about the building or management nor rentals/sublets/sales ad. This would be detrimental to the commission they would earn if they were to sell/rent a home. The applications and possibilities for an engaged audience on such a neighborhood networking site are endless.

More importantly, HowdyHood will build better, closer, stronger and secure neighborhoods, especially in cities and working class suburbs where lives are too fast-paced to mingle with neighbors.

Join HowdyHood – We Want Your Feedback!

The challenge right now is to get users en masse on the site and get them to start using HowdyHood. Without people, it is an empty virtual neighborhood. Only people and content can make it a vibrant community. Readers, please sign up and send me feedback here.

I am very thankful to a team of developers for their expert implementation of the design and mockups. There were several technical challenges we faced along the way. The design was the most challenging -– I wanted an uncluttered and simple website with an easy signup and activation process. We went through several iterations and tweaks before arriving at the current Beta version. We are redesigning the website every day to make it more fun and user friendly.

HowdyHood provides neighborhoods at a zipcode level anywhere in the United States. In the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania) and northern California, HowdyHood provides street level neighborhoods, which will be expanded to the remaining states soon. Summit, New Jersey, has been one of the first cities where we are recruiting people to sign up and use HowdyHood to interact with their neighborhood.

HowdyHood as Early-Stage Startup Seeking Funding

I am looking for seed funding to advance the startup to the next stage. I would also like to team up with a software and web marketing guru who can sell this idea to consumers and get the signups going on the site. I am presently working on an internet and local marketing strategy.

The vision going forward is to develop vibrant virtual neighborhoods for cities, towns, streets and high rises all over the US, bringing people closer together as communities. Once upon a time, people would mow their neighbor’s lawn when they were away, send food over to their sick neighbor and mingled with each other much more. HowdyHood is trying to bring back some of that camaraderie and more convenient services through the network.

About the guest blogger: Nirupama Mallavarupu is Founder at HowdyHood. Before HowdyHood, she was Director of Engineering at a software startup. Prior to that, she worked as a programmer at Transarc, Oracle, Sun Microsystems and several web based startups. Nirupama holds a Masters degree in Computing Science from Georgia Institute of Technology. Follow her on Twitter at @nmallava and her startup at @HowdyHood.