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4 min read

How Cottage designs homes with automation

By Elena Alston · April 18, 2022
Yongjoon Kim in the Cottage office.

California is a notoriously expensive place to live. In fact, the Golden State has some of the costliest housing markets in the U.S. 

Cottage, a startup based in San Francisco, aims to lift the burden a little. The company is rethinking the process of design, permitting, and construction in residential projects, starting with accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—also known as granny flats, in-law units, or coach houses. For many homeowners, ADUs are a great way to make a bit of extra cash through renting or to provide their family members with a place to live, all by using underutilized garages or backyard space. 

Cottage has a new approach to the entire development process, from handling initial design to acquiring planning permissions, all the way through to construction. In order to scale this many-stage process, Cottage and its 30 employees coordinate with many different stakeholders in their marketplace, from designers to general contractors. 

"We try to be a really nimble and lean organization," says the company's Design Systems Lead, Yongjoon Kim, who's in charge of building tools that help designers and the rest of the Cottage team operate more efficiently. 

To keep the team lean and to enable nimble experimentation, Yongjoon knew Cottage needed to leverage no-code automation. 

Building a lean growth machine 

While every company wants to grow fast, Yongjoon knew that theirs wasn't a traditional business model. "We handle the traditional, low-tech industry portions—such as site feasibility, design, and construction coordination—by leveraging industry-specific software. But we also have sales and marketing teams that operate with completely different tools and processes, including in-house software and a few different SaaS tools." 

Cottage needed a way to collect all that data, but connecting these disparate tools posed a problem. 

"As a small startup, we need to be very mindful of how to allocate our tech development resources, " says Yongjoon. "We wanted to test new products and internal process changes before we invested in tasking our engineers with building new products, so we sought tools that allowed us to put together prototypes quickly and easily."

That tool was Zapier. 

Zapier helps us build complex workflows in the early stages of a startup when you're forced to be scrappy.

Yongjoon Kim, Design Systems Lead at Cottage

Yongjoon explains: "We don't want to keep adding headcount to our organization just to handle labor-heavy administrative work or other repetitive tasks. We want our in-house team to focus on strategic work and to execute on our roadmaps towards the future of residential design and construction." 

Using Zapier, Cottage is working with hundreds of homeowners on their ADU projects while actively optimizing their workflows at the same time. They've also built out a flexible project management process that's intrinsic to their growth. 

"It helped build our growth machine," explains Yongjoon. "Zapier helps us build complex workflows in the early stages of a startup when you're forced to be scrappy."

Scaling the company through project management 

When Yongjoon joined Cottage in 2020, the company was already using Zapier to send data from their CRM (HubSpot) into their primary data management tool (Airtable). 

For example, whenever there's a property change in HubSpot, Zapier automatically updates the record in Airtable for the whole team to see. Other team members are also notified in Slack when this happens. "It's a way to centralize that data and create a clear aggregate view for us to understand our whole pipeline," says Yongjoon. 

But Autodesk Docs, a document management tool for architects, is also a linchpin in their design processes. It's where they create individual project folders for each ADU and where they save templates, project documents, and the 3D models their designers create. 

"The problem was that Autodesk is a pretty exclusive ecosystem," says Yongjoon. "I had to find a way, a workaround, to connect that software with other tools we use." 

Using Zapier's webhooks feature, Yongjoon can make sure Autodesk speaks with the other tools they use to send data back and forth. He can also create project folders for every ADU and invite designers to projects automatically, based on whenever a deal moves to a different stage in the CRM.

"Previously, we had to create individual projects for each property. But since we have so many projects, so many properties, it just takes up a lot of time when we try to do that manually," explains Yongjoon. 

Using Zapier this way unlocks a wealth of data that was previously mired in Autodesk. "It gives us so much flexibility," says Yongjoon. 

Automating customer input throughout the design process 

Yongjoon has also leveraged automation to gather and share customer input throughout the design process. 

Through one of Cottage's custom-built tools, customers can select the architecture materials and finishes they want (like tiles and countertop materials). Once the customer chooses the materials, Zapier's webhooks send that data into Cottage's Airtable and Google Drive, which is then sent to the contractors. 

"Because we build a lot of our own products and software, we need a way to have those apps talking to other systems in our infrastructure. Zapier's webhooks feature works really well in those situations," says Yongjoon. 

"[Zapier] listens to the submission data through our in-house app. Then, when a new submission occurs, Zapier detects it, grabs it, and then pushes it to our storage apps so we can use that data in the following processes." 

Since implementing more automation into the company, Cottage's sales team has also started to use Zapier to streamline sales. For example, whenever the sales team schedules calls, they automatically send calendar invites to stakeholders. This is all integrated into the sales pipeline with easy visibility for other team members. 

Building a long-term strategy 

Since 2020, Cottage has grown from five employees to 30. To keep scaling and growing, it helps to have a data-centric mindset. "In order for us to collect data, to understand what's happening in the company, and to utilize that data, we have to automate a lot of workflows," says Yongjoon. 

"The way we approach automation is to automate whatever work is completely rules-based and not creative," he muses. "If a piece of work is 100% governed by a certain rule set and is a repetitive action, then I think it should be automated."

If a piece of work is 100% governed by a certain rule set and is a repetitive action, then I think it should be automated.

Yongjoon Kim, Design Systems Lead at Cottage

Yongjoon says this helps his team focus on the right things that help the company grow. 

"Once the automation gets built and implemented, we can jump right into another initiative and think about how we can further streamline our processes. Once we find out what works well with Zapier, we can easily develop it into our systems," says Yongjoon. "That's the biggest benefit of Zapier."

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