Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us the backstory about what brought you to the real estate industry?
I’ve always had a personal interest in real estate because it is tangible and it impacts everybody. As a kid, one of my favorite pastimes with my mom was to visit open houses. We would go nearly every weekend and guess how much houses were listed for.
Prior to completing my MBA, I was in the finance industry as a private equity investor, so I’ve always been interested in finding high growth industries that are promising. Before HomeLight, I had spent my career analyzing companies from the top down instead of actually building a company.
For my MBA summer internship, I wanted to work for a startup, specifically in real estate, to see what it was like to work in a scrappy, high growth environment. I went on the website, Crunchbase, where I identified about 10 companies I wanted to contact and cold emailed their CEOs.
I ended up speaking with Drew Uher, CEO and founder of HomeLight, and decided to take a leap of faith and fly from London to San Francisco for the summer. At that point, HomeLight had about 12 people. There were no marketing, operations or product teams. It was just me, Drew, Sumant (our COO), some engineers and some sales people. Needless to say, I had a great summer and decided to come back full-time.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting story or amazing story that occurred to you in your career? Can you share a lesson or something that you took away from it?
One important experience that comes to mind happened when I was a private equity investor before business school. A key part of my job, something that I think continues to serve me today, was to cold call the CEOs of companies that we wanted to invest in. I’d get on the phone and tell them who my firm was and then gather information about them to determine if they would be an interesting fit for our investment strategy. Ultimately, I had to facilitate relationships between target companies and my private equity firm.
At the time, I was 24 years-old with no investing experience. It was daunting to cold call a CEO who might have founded a company worth hundreds of millions of dollars. On my first day, one of my managers told me to make my first cold call. I was like, “What? I don’t even know my phone number. I don’t know anything!” But, he told me that I just had to do it. That was the job and I had to dive in head first.
One memorable call I had was with the CEO of a large auto dealership group in New England that was probably worth $1 billion. This guy had a big personality, and his face was on billboards all over Boston. I called him, he picked up the phone, and we just talked. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t an expert in his industry. I was able to speak articulately about what my company did and why he could benefit from a relationship with us. I was confident enough that he was willing to talk to me.
This experience was the reason I got my job at HomeLight — I wasn’t afraid to just reach out to our CEO and ask if there was an opportunity for me. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much experience you have. You don’t have to be an expert in order to be a leader and get things done. You need to be confident and able to think on your feet. Don’t let imposter syndrome prevent you from accomplishing what you want to do. If you’re smart and driven, you can do a lot more than you think you can.
Are you currently working on any new projects and how do you think this project will help people?
At HomeLight, I lead the Strategic Operations team which is a combination of sales operations, business operations, and product. We’re responsible for improving the sales funnel and maximizing conversion, so we can help the most people possible. To do this, we analyze where clients fall out of the funnel and figure out improvements for our sales customer relationship platforms that will increase that throughput. That includes making the sales team more efficient and optimizing how they interact with our clients to improve their experiences with us.
Currently, the most exciting projects we’re working on involve building operations and products for our sales team related to our new agent services businesses. We’ve recently expanded into a couple of new services for consumers. One is our title and escrow business and the other is mortgage. So, my team is responsible for determining what is the appropriate sales process and technology to enable the sales team to recommend new services.
We create better technology to help our sales teams communicate to both our clients and our real estate agents. Using our sales CRMs, our sales teams can determine what products are appropriate for transaction and help agents navigate available options.
We’ve shifted from just agent-matching through objective information to providing services that facilitate a client’s entire real estate transaction. This is our first step towards creating a simple, certain, and satisfying transaction for the consumer and it’s really exciting.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story that speaks to how it stands out?
One of the core values of HomeLight is “Be humble, act scrappy.” This sets HomeLight apart from other companies, especially tech companies, and has really enabled us to succeed.
Our VP of Engineering Mike Abner once said, “We solve problems and sometimes it’s with code.” In order to solve these problems, we need to be open-minded about who or what will solve them. No one should be above a task or prescriptive about how the task gets done. When we think about a problem, we think outside of the box and work outside of our purview if we need to. All of us, including our C-level executives, check our egos at the door and do what needs to be done to move the ball forward.
I remember a few years ago, we were understaffed, and we were behind on fielding our inbound sales leads. We all banded together, sales and non-sales people, including me and our COO, and got on the phone with clients to process the leads. This collaborative scrappiness is the type of attitude that is essential to the success of our company and continues to serve us today.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a person or a group of people or anything that you’re grateful towards who helped you get to where you are?
The first person that comes to mind is Michael Berk, who was the managing director of my group at TA Associates, the private equity firm where I previously worked. I’m very grateful that I got to work with him, because he taught me the value of candid feedback. He had very high expectations that made it difficult to work on his deals, and he would sometimes give me feedback that was blunt and hard to hear. But, looking back, I really value that kind of feedback. Candid feedback is a rare gift that many people never get to hear. If they do get it, it’s often too late. I became my best self because of this candid feedback.
I remember Michael asked me to present research on an investment thesis for the agribusiness space. At the time, I didn’t know anything about it and I didn’t have time to properly prepare for the meeting. I spent maybe an hour or two putting something together and while I wasn’t particularly proud of it, I still had to get myself through the meeting. I remember he stopped me in the middle of my presentation and said, “You’re kind of shooting from the hip here.” He called me out for not being prepared, and at that moment I said, “Yeah, you’re right.”
Before the meeting, I was worried about not being prepared. Sure, having that open dialogue stung a little bit. He called me out on my lack of preparation, but at the same time, it was out in the open and we were on the same team. The Band-aid was pulled off. Then, we were able to go fix it.
It’s important that feedback comes from a place of, “I think you can do this and and here’s how you can do better.” That’s how I try to manage my team. When you think about it in that lens, it’s so motivating. There’s a difference between yelling at someone unproductively and giving them feedback to push them because you believe in them.
What are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t faced by their male counterparts?
Early in my career, I was very skeptical of the commentary that I’ve heard about women being disadvantaged in the workplace. As a junior person at the time, the gender ratio was roughly 50/50. I thought we were all treated the same and what advanced you was hard work and merit. We were all single and none of us had families, so the playing field seemed level to me. As I progressed in my career, I realized that as you get more senior in your position, a couple of things happen.
First, your success becomes more tied to relationships rather than work product. You’re no longer a junior, individual contributor. When you move up, you add value through influencing and managing people. And, this is where the difference becomes more apparent between men and women leaders in the workplace.
For women, it’s inherently more difficult to manage up and establish relationships with senior colleagues when most of the people at the top are men. It’s somehow more natural for men to be buddies with each other and that dynamic puts female leaders at a disadvantage when they can’t become socially close with the people who are deciding whether to promote them. People want to promote colleagues who they like to hang out with, and not all men are comfortable socializing with women in the work environment.
When you’re talking about managing down, there is also a difference in the perception of leadership behaviors coming from a woman versus a man. Oftentimes, women are perceived as bossy, whereas the same behavior coming from a man would be perceived as direct or confident. Society has historically viewed men as stronger leaders and it’s difficult to overcome this hurdle as a woman, who might want to maintain her femininity while still being assertive.
Then there is a completely separate dynamic of circumstances outside the office. As people get older, it becomes more common for women to stay at home with their families than it is for men to take on that responsibility. Based on historical social norms, many men feel like they have the option (or obligation) to continue working when they have children, whereas women may feel an obligation to stay home. Because of this, many women opt out of leadership roles. I think this is another big reason the gender gap widens for more senior positions.
One strategy I’ve found to be effective in addressing the gender imbalance at work is to acknowledge the old boys’ club, and even make fun of it. Calling attention to the elephant in the room has been a successful tactic for me. Lastly, be good at your job. No one can argue with that.
What are three things that can be done by individuals, companies and or society to support greater gender balance?
Something that we can do collectively to support gender balance is to acknowledge that a gender imbalance exists and then have productive conversations about it. At a company level, executives should talk to each other about why it happens and be aware of their own biases. Often people don’t know why they might feel more comfortable talking to their male colleagues versus their female colleagues. Getting it out in the open is essential.
For individuals, I believe in leadership training for both men and women. We need to equally encourage both genders to be confident and comfortable expressing their opinions. I think it is important that women and men attend training or discussion groups together; men need to be part of this conversation. Keeping these discussions to only women is counterproductive. It goes back to the importance of acknowledging that the imbalance exists and discussing together why gender skews our perception of leadership.
As a society, we should work on the issue of women self-selecting out of the workforce when they want to start a family. I believe in generous parental leave policies and flexible work hours, including working from home, as long as it is structured to maintain company culture and productivity. This option is becoming viable for many companies, especially when we have video conferencing, email, Slack, and other virtual communication options. This will open the door for a lot of women to be able to participate and feel included.
Can you share three things that most excites and concerns you about the real estate industry?
- Real estate technology: I’m very excited about how HomeLight and other proptech companies are working to fix such a painful and highly emotional process. Buying or selling a home is monumental and often extremely stressful, since there’s so much on the line and it can be the biggest financial transaction of someone’s life. I think real estate tech can fix that process and have a positive impact on any buyer or seller’s experience.
- Power of data: There is a ton of transaction and property data in the industry that is opaque and hard to access. If we democratize that data, we can use it to the benefit of the consumer and make the real estate industry more efficient. Information costs in real estate are high, which is why there are so many transaction fees. Once we remove the barriers to data, the whole industry will become more time and cost efficient.
- Size of the industry: Residential real estate in the U.S. is roughly a $30 trillion market right now, possibly making it one of the biggest industries on the planet. The sheer volume means there’s so much opportunity to disrupt it and make it better.
If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
- Data accessibility: We need to find a way to put all the available data into a digestible format and standardize it. That’s one area that HomeLight has made great strides in, particularly residential real estate transaction data as it relates to agent performance.
- Transaction contingencies: Removing transaction contingencies is an extremely valuable reform that we can implement in residential real estate. One of the biggest pain points for buyers who are also selling their previous home is that they need to somehow coordinate the two transactions so that they’re able to get the equity out of their current home to apply towards their new home. That’s what HomeLight is trying to solve with our latest program, Cash Close, which features two new products, HomeLight Trade-In and Cash Offer.
- Market knowledge: We need to harness all of the tribal knowledge that exists in residential real estate. Every hyperlocal market, even neighborhoods, have their own idiosyncrasies regarding the transaction. Let’s say a buyer is looking at school districts. Zillow might tell you that the school is rated A+, but a local agent can tell you that college admissions for a different B+ rated school are much higher. Idiosyncrasies exist in the transaction itself from state to state or county to county. Legal processes in the closing process have location-specific differences that only professionals know of. This should be a big focus for real estate tech in the residential space, because it hasn’t been standardized yet.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
First, make sure you have two-way feedback on your team. There’s so much miscommunication that happens between team members, especially when we communicate electronically over email or instant messaging platforms, like Slack. You need open dialogue, which will help your team to be more efficient and satisfied. There’s less talking past each other and more getting to the bottom of issues together. The team will be happier when they feel comfortable giving feedback to their manager and when they get constructive feedback from their manager. Feedback creates a collaborative environment.
Second, set discrete and achievable goals for your team. When people feel like they’re in control of their destiny, they’re going to be happier and more productive. And as a manager, if you’re able to set those goals appropriately, you can easily understand if your team is failing or succeeding without having to micromanage.
You’re a real estate insider. So if you could advise someone about five things that are non intuitive things that people should know when they want to succeed in the real estate industry. What would you say to them?
- In the residential real estate transaction, partnering with the agent is vital. The real estate agent quarterbacks the transaction and has the knowledge, relationships, and the emotional support that clients need to close the deal. Agents won’t be going anywhere.
- Despite the opportunity for tech disruption, relationships are extremely important in this industry. It goes back to the importance of the agent and how their relationships with the other providers in or around the industry essentially close the transaction. All of these providers give each other referrals. If you want to compete in the industry, you need to understand the relationships and gain trust from the existing players who all work together. For example, real estate agents often work with the same lender for years or even decades. At HomeLight, it is because of our strong relationships with agents that we believe we can step in and provide innovative new services to facilitate the transaction.
- The value of tribal knowledge in local markets cannot be underestimated. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution for a real estate transaction. Hyperlocal information is critical.
- Objective information is very hard to come by. Even though the information exists, it’s unstandardized and difficult to access. When the data lives in multiple places, you also have to question its reliability and meaning. One example is the cost of a mortgage. Understanding the fees associated with a mortgage can be incomprehensible for the consumer. Companies in the real estate space need to be able to get the right information and also communicate it effectively to the consumer.
- The industry is ripe for disruption, but building new products is really complicated. Again, because of the hyper-local nature of all the different steps, it is deceptively difficult to build products for this industry.
Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement I would most like to inspire is education around journalism and how to identify reliable information sources. Since the advent of the internet and social media, it has become difficult to discern fact from opinion. HomeLight addresses this issue by presenting objective real estate data to consumers, but the issue goes far beyond this specific example. The internet can empower people with access to information. But, false information disseminated on the internet can confuse consumers and diminish or destroy the power that comes with access to information.
How can your readers follow you online?
You can follow me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/meaganherzog