Minivillage expands platform from B2C to B2B through serving housing providers

The company’s mission is to “turn neighbours into friends, friends into communities, and communities into resilient neighbourhoods.”

Photo credit: Sharon Hsiao

Minivillage, a Vancouver-based platform transforming buildings into connected communities, has shifted its focus from serving UBC neighbourhoods to housing providers — non-profit, co-op, affordable, and market. The company recently started running three-month pilot programs, expanded its team to 16 members, and has acquired hundreds of users. Minivillage offers a holistic approach to serving residents, building managers and housing operators — ultimately leading to many benefits for all.

According to Minvillage’s research, residents who feel connected to their neighbours are happier and healthier and demonstrate genuine care for their building. Building managers feel more empowered, save time on administrative tasks, and are less burdened with damage and complaints. As for housing providers, they can expect less turnover, vacancy and maintenance, better reviews, and cost savings — allowing them to maximize long-term asset value.

Searching for community 

The idea behind Minvillage started with the founder, Mark Boardman, wanting to solve his own problem of loneliness. As a teenager, he had few friends as he was a self-described introvert. What encouraged him to step outside his comfort zone was an experience from his upbringing in the U.K.

“I grew up in a home where there was a spare room that was always rented out to international students from Korea, Germany, South America,” said Boardman. “I always wondered why they were so connected with their family and friends. That made me explore opportunities overseas.”

Boardman’s curiosity led to pursuing internships and careers in various countries — Taiwan, Australia, Greece, France, and Singapore. Drawn to try many things, Boardman worked as a lawyer before becoming a financial analyst, sales manager, and eventually, head of operational compliance. 

Throughout these experiences, Boardman always felt drawn to entrepreneurship — as early as his law school days in the U.K. When his university gave him a choice to train for the 26-mile London Marathon or write something helpful for students, he put together a pamphlet that offered guidance in getting job offers since he'd been fortunate in receiving many. It was so popular that Boardman turned it into a 60-page booklet. Thousands of copies were sold to universities and law firms across the country — helping Boardman cover his university costs. The booklet also received a publishing deal offer by Sweet & Maxwell, a major legal publisher, however, Boardman turned it down.

Seizing an opportunity 

Fast forward to 2017, Boardman would pack up his bags again. He and his wife decided to move from Singapore to Vancouver after she was offered a scholarship to pursue graduate studies at UBC. Shortly after settling, Boardman started to reminisce about the warmth he felt from meeting people from other cultures. Boardman quickly realized this new chapter was an opportunity to draw on his experiences to do something about it.

“This all comes down to my growing up and feeling there are other places that are warm and connected and they include you,” he said. “It's like you just walk through the back door and meet someone [and] I wanted that for myself.” That became the inspiration for Minivillage. 

“The [initial] design of Minivillage was very much based on how I felt,” Boardman said. “An emotional feeling about living in cities — a sense of disconnection and transactional kind of relationship that makes you feel very lonely.”

Boardman ended up joining Groundswell Education, a local social entrepreneurship program. During his second week, he was tasked with pursuing a potential idea and decided to try a social experiment: knocking on his neighbours’ doors and seeing how they’d react. At the time, he and his wife lived in Acadia Park, a UBC graduate housing residence.

The social experiment

"I knocked on plenty of my neighbours' doors to see if anyone would open the door, and they all did," Boardman said. "I got to know them and chatted with each of them for hours and learned their stories and struggles. One lady I met said, 'My husband hasn't managed to make any connections for the last two years, and he's going to see a psychologist to see if there's something wrong with him.' "

That moment struck Boardman that loneliness shouldn't be swept under. "Some people say, 'Hey, you just have poor social skills or you're awkward.’ But that's not the case at all. People generally don't have connections [...] for a variety of reasons."

To help his community, Boardman created a spreadsheet of what his neighbours needed and any gifts, services, and skills they could offer each other. 

From a spreadsheet to a prototype 

When Boardman completed the Groundswell program in 2018, he used his savings and applied for grants to turn his spreadsheet into an app. The goal was to connect fellow neighbours with similar interests and backgrounds and allow them to exchange gifts, services, and skills with those who lived within walking distance.

It took Boardman around three months to work with a developer and build the app based on his wireframes. When Boardman showed it to designers, they told him it was the worst design they had ever seen. Fortunately, he discovered Sharon Hsiao, a UI/UX designer at a local startup talk, who agreed to help him fix it. 

When Minivillage was preparing to launch, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Boardman and his team remained hopeful. They decided to use the extra time on user research to improve the app — incorporating 18 months' worth of findings.

Pivoting to housing

Between 2018 and 2023, Minivillage was focused on catering to UBC neighbourhoods. Then, last March, a non-profit housing provider with 150 buildings wanting to enhance its community reached out. Soon after, more providers started expressing interest in the platform. While some discovered Minivillage on their own, word spread as Boardman and his team attended networking events and sent outreach emails. 

According to reports, 90 percent of investors are incorporating health and wellness into their strategy, and 92 percent expect demand for healthy buildings to grow.

Considering the demand from housing providers, Minivillage decided to update its platform to be more housing-focused — adding new features and algorithms. 

How Minivillage works

Minivillage's operation starts with taking a consultancy approach with its three-month pilots. The team meets with the customer to understand their building needs and walks them through how the platform can help. Afterward, Minivillage creates a success plan based on resident, building manager and operator surveys. Then, they'll hire a resident as a community coordinator and host a launch party in the building.

Within the platform, residents can set up a profile, take a well-being quiz, and receive recommendations on neighbours with similar interests and backgrounds. They can also view the building's notice board, organize and sign up for an event or activity, and ask for help or about activities and suggestions. To further encourage residents to connect, Minivillage is currently developing a point system for perks — such as discounts on food from local businesses.

As for admins, they can post new notices and moderate and approve events, activities, and new users. They can also retrieve analytics on resident engagement, well-being scores and feedback — even generate an ESG report. This allows admins to measure the effectiveness of community programs and gauge which initiatives will better connect residents — for example, a game night versus a new gym. 

At the end of the pilot, customers can decide whether or not they want to continue and, if so, sign a one-year contract.

Current pilots and expected impact

Minivillage's pilot programs are underway with local non-profit housing providers, including the Salsbury Community Society's Co:Here building on Victoria Drive and More Than A Roof Housing Society's buildings on 37th and Main Street and Seymour and Drake Street. The company is also in the final stages of discussions with several other non-profit housing operators and in talks with residential market housing providers.

COO of More Than a Roof Jim Loney, who also has a background in counselling and psychology, said he believes Minivillage will enhance his and his team's ongoing efforts to build their community. More Than A Roof helps residents access resources and services, sets up events and seminars, offers meals throughout the week, and runs an addiction recovery program in some buildings. 

"We've always been interested in the benefits to both individuals and society as a larger group," said Loney. "One of the big things that we talk about is doing things with people and not for them," highlighting that Minivillage's approach removes top-down pressures to connect and empowers residents to do so in ways that they like — which Minivillage's data confirms. 

Loney added that one of the many other things he appreciates about Minivillage is that it's designed to encourage residents to move from connecting online to meeting in person and attending events — unlike social platforms like Facebook and Twitter that use methods similar to the gambling industry to keep users on their sites. Loney said that in his experience, he's witnessed deeper relationships among residents have helped them find jobs and lessened the likelihood of having to seek emergency support or use drugs in a way that increases the chances of danger.

What’s next

Aside from the pilot programs, Minivillage is collaborating with various partners and community scientists, including TransLink, Metro Vancouver's transportation agency; Happy Cities, an urban planning, design, and architecture firm; and Hey Neighbour Collective, an initiative that aims to increase social connectedness in multi-unit buildings.

As for what kind of impact Minivillage hopes to create for Vancouver's wider community, Boardman said he wants to raise awareness about how important it is to connect and have quality connections — which studies show are the most significant factors influencing one's quality and length of life.

“Simply knowing your neighbours, who are nearby, changes your whole experience of where you live and your feelings of well-being,” said Boardman. “I think people should pay attention to it.”

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