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On April 30th, Spencer Rascoff, CEO of Zillow, joined
us as part of the Albers Executive Speaker Series. Zillow is
a web-based provider of information about the residential real
estate market. Anyone buying, renting, selling, and borrowing
in this market probably knows about Zillow.
Rascoff helped found Zillow in 2005 and became CEO in
2010. Zillow is expanding rapidly at the moment, hiring new
employees not just in Seattle, but in California, as well.
Spencer noted several times that Zillow sees its role as empowering
the consumer by unlocking information. Zillow does not see
itself as making the real estate broker obsolete, as there will
always be a need for assistance with a complex and critical
transaction such as buying or selling a house. Zillow sees
the role of the agent as having changed from "information gate
keeper" to " transaction consultant."
Rascoff opened by discussing his early career in investment
banking and private equity, which proved to be valuable training
for his later exploits, but also was too transactional and not
satisfying for him in the long run. Ultimately, though, that
experience set the stage for co-founding Hotwire and then
In moving from Hotwire to Zillow, Rascoff said he grew weary of
the travel industry and looked for another sector that could be
impacted by the Internet. Real estate seemed like another
market where industry databases were locked away from the
consumer. Zillow set out to unlock that information and
While starting out in the home sale vertical, Zillow has now
moved to home lending, rentals, and, most recently, home
improvements. Rascoff said this was enough to keep them fully
occupied at the moment, and they planned to focus on the domestic
market. In entering the global market they would start from
scratch and bring little to the table. In the mean time,
strong competitors have already adopted the Zillow model and have a
head start. A rapidly growing segment of their business is on
mobile phones, and they have found it easier to monetize mobile
than the web.
In case you have not noticed, Zillow has done six acquisitions
of late. Rascoff said they have all been in "adjacent spaces"
and they have worked hard to keep the existing management teams in
place. They have sold the acquisition by telling the target
firm it can do what it does better with Zillow, where it will have
access to more resources. They have also used stock options
to align the interests of management teams with shareholders.
When asked about his leadership style, Rascoff said he was there
to serve his direct reports and help them be successful. He
sees himself as a "player coach," and noted the higher up in the
organization you are, the less you are responsible for actually
When asked what advice he would give recent college graduates,
he suggested students look at people who are 10 to 15 years into
their career and ask if you want to live like they do! Also,
keep in mind that in a high growth company you are likely to have
more opportunities for career development. If a company is
not growing, there are fewer opportunities and you tend to get
pigeon-holed in a particular role.
If he had to do it over again, what is one thing he would have
done differently at Zillow? Communicate more with
brokers. Zillow was an outsider and the industry was
suspicious of the company, giving the most negative interpretation
of the moves it saw Zillow making. Only later did Zillow
figure out how its actions were being interpreted by agents.
Today, the lines of communication are much better and brokers are
forthcoming with suggestions for improvements.
Spencer Rascoff gave a fascinating presentation on Zillow and
his career leading up to its founding. He also provided
excellent career advice to the many students in the audience.
The final speaker for this year in the Albers Executive Speaker
Series is SU alum Leo Hindery, Managing Partner of Intermedia
Partners. Hindery has a long career in the cable TV industry
and is visiting from New York City on May 28th.
See you there!
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