The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped home shoppers from starting the next chapter of their lives. In fact, real estate has remained resilient, adapting to keep people safe, with homes selling incredibly fast, regardless of price. Zillow CEO and co-founder Rich Barton talked to Guy Raz, host of the business podcast “How I Built This” about what he’s seeing and about leadership in unprecedented times.
RAZ: I think that folks in the real estate industry can often see trends happening months — sometimes years — ahead of the rest of us. Do you think that we are now on the precipice of kind of a reordering?
BARTON: Yes. The overwhelming trend is that shopping, across the board for every kind of home you can possibly imagine, is up. And that is even with the need for increased safety measures.
At Zillow, we’ve dubbed this concept the Great Reshuffling. People are rethinking where they live and how they live. Do they have a home office? Do they want a yard? How close to work do we want to live? Can I make work wrap around my life which is at the center, or am I going to have my life contort itself around work? I believe that’s the old way and we’re moving to a new way.
RAZ: Let’s look in your crystal ball. What kind of innovations do you think could come out of this moment in real estate?
BARTON: “Radical necessity,” to use your concept, Guy, is the mother of invention. We as an industry have quickly brought to market products that we’ve been dreaming about or working on for years. First, all the virtual touring technology you see, and then in the real estate transaction itself. Almost all that documentation can now be reviewed and signed electronically.
I think of this concept as “faster to the future.” I believe that this awful occurrence, this crisis of a pandemic, has also created a massive opportunity for all of us to get faster to the future, be it in the real estate industry, or in many different Industries as well.
RAZ: For so many years, pundits have been saying the job of a real estate agent will be obsolete, like a travel agent became obsolete with things like Expedia, which you also founded. But in fact, the opposite has happened. What explains that?
BARTON: The highest and best use of a great real estate professional is to be a consultant, and a psychologist to a certain extent. So a lot of the low-value activities that heretofore professionals may have spent time on, like “what is the address of that place?” and “do you have more pictures?” has been transferred to consumers themselves — they want to shop, and their capacity is much greater than the professionals’ desire to share all that logistical information.
So what we’re seeing is a migration of value to the great professionals. The professionals that are partners with Zillow are the ones that lean into the future, thinking about the future of the industry, and these are the people that are going to be the leaders of the future.
RAZ: How do you keep your team motivated and staying positive?
BARTON: I think entrepreneurs, by design or by personality, are people who must be optimistic about the future. I think in times of crisis like now, it’s that optimism that pulls not only people through but pulls teams of people through. It’s very difficult to be a successful leader and be pessimistic. So I think that’s a very important trait.
RAZ: I agree 100%. I would add to that optimism takes work and practice.
BARTON: It’s very difficult to be effective and optimistic in your job when you’re scared for yourself, for your family, for your community. So for me, being part of a successful business enterprise that Zillow is, is about making sure that I am taking care of what I need to take care of in my personal life, and with my family, and with my health. That makes me a much more effective team leader.
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