Amy Bohutinsky on Big Swings, Big Risks and Driving Innovation


Join QuantumDigital’s CMO Eric Cosway as he interviews Amy Bohutinsky, COO of The Zillow Group. Amy focuses on the marketing and growth of The Zillow Group’s portfolio of brands, as well as the people part of the business.

Eric: Amy, welcome to the podcast.

Amy: Thank you for having me.

Eric: You’ve made this transition from CMO to COO at Zillow. Can you tell us more about that and what you do in your current role as COO?

Amy: I’ve been with Zillow Group now for 12½ years. When I joined, it was the summer of 2005. We were dreaming up our first product, but we hadn’t even launched the website zillow.com yet. When I joined, I was running marketing and PR. Today, I’m COO, which is a broader role. A couple of years ago, I transitioned from CMO to COO. I still focus on the marketing and growth, but it’s on our portfolio of brands. So, today we are Zillow Group—which is Zillow, Trulia, HotPads, StreetEasy in New York, realestate.com—so, I think about growth across our portfolio of brands. But, I also spend a lot of time on the people part of the business, which I believe is really the most important foundation that any brand or any company can have. Today, Zillow Group is 3,200 people across 9 locations. So, I spend a lot of time thinking about how do we hire and retain the absolute best people we can. Because that is the key to building products in business.

Eric: I looked at your role, and it includes recruiting, learning development, people growth, marketing communications, customer care—a broad portfolio of activities. If you look back at your experience in journalism, and what you learned in your marketing experience, does that come into play here for you—in terms of listening skills, and what you’ve learned along the way?

Amy: It does. The journalism part… so, I’ve had a pretty crooked path. I started out in journalism and broadcast journalism, which I did for several years right out of school. It was something I always thought I wanted to do, one of those dreams I had since I was a young kid. I did it, and I hated it. I was doing local news at one point. I was working for an ABC station in South Florida, reporting on hurricanes and fires, and I just hated it. It was my first big career failure at the age of 25. It was at that time there was a big Internet boom happening out on the west coast. I knew nothing about technology, but I thought that sounds really exciting. I want to be a part of that. Then I moved to San Francisco and I transitioned into PR, which grew into marketing, which grew into my tech career, and took me up to Seattle and Zillow. So, it was a crooked path. It wasn’t one of those exact career ladders that everyone talks about, but it has taught me so much along the way. Those couple of years I was a journalist, I learned some of the best skills that I still employ today. I learned great communication which, any person in any business, it’s always a key facet. I learned to move and work quickly. I still today sort of have this ethos of always feeling like I’m on deadline, like I’m going to be on air at 5 o’clock so I have to finish this. It’s a great thing to have in business and in tech, and when you’re building something, and when you’re thinking about transforming industries, because it’s all about moving fast. I feel like that’s something I wake up and I have every single day. The other thing that journalism taught me that I talk about a lot is curiosity. Kind of a basic tenet that we don’t have all the answers, and ask a lot of questions and be curious, and don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions, and to approach every day trying to learn something new. That’s something that I always think about, and I just find—when I approach it that way vs. a specific outcome, the approach of what can I learn today, what can I be curious about—it’s amazing the new things that open up.

Eric: So, when I was reading your background, I would also add “storyteller.”

Amy: Storytelling is something that’s a little bit of a buzzword now, particularly in marketing circles, the concept of storytelling. But storytelling is the oldest form of marketing there is. Storytelling is how we passed on tradition from generation to generation and, if you look at any business or any brand you admire, at the core of what they do is telling a great story. The best brands know how to tell the story of who they are and what problems they want to solve. The best leaders know how to tell their employees a story of the goal that they’re painting, and how we’re going to get there, and why that’s exciting. If you look at any facet of business, or life, or person you admire, storytelling tends to be at the core of what they do. And that’s something else that I feel like journalism and marketing provided me, that I use all the time, and that I talk to my teams about all the time as well.

Eric: Also reading about your background, there’s something I was really interested in. When you were in Zillow as a startup, and you basically went a number of years with no marketing budget, you became a master at earned media. You’ve talked about data public relations, and data social media. Can you talk a little bit more about that? That was really fascinating.

Amy: We started Zillow in 2005. We were a venture-funded startup. This was years before we had a revenue model, or were making any money. We had raised a certain amount of money, and we were also a team of people who had lived through one Internet boom and bust. We were kind of second-round Internet entrepreneurs. What we had seen in the first big Internet bust in 2002-2003 was company after company, that raised money and spent it all on a big advertising campaign, before they had a strong revenue model, and then company after company go under. So, we said we’ve got to take a different approach. We can’t spend any money. How are we going to build a brand, and a household name, and a big consumer audience without spending any money? We realized the core of that is the product. If we’re going to spend money anywhere, let’s hire the absolute best people we can to build a great product. Let’s think about it as something that can be viral. How do you build a product that people love, and want to talk about, and tell other people about? This is where our whole idea for the Zestimate—what’s the value of your home, kind of our first product with Zillow that launched in 2006—that’s where it came from. But then also, how can you use earned media, like PR, to spread the word of that product. When we launched Zillow in early 2006, it was largely PR-driven. Social media was just starting up, but there really was no nationwide Facebook, there was no Twitter, there was no Instagram. It was a lot of blogs and commenting on blogs. So it was really PR and early social media-driven, but saying how can we use the product to get people talking, and then how can we use this earned media as an accelerant to that. The product we built lent itself well, so we started with information on every single home in America. With that information, we were able to package it in a way that showed real trends of what was happening in our real estate and housing economy—where we could look at home data by the neighborhood, and city, and state, and national level—and really start to chart trends.

Eric: Is that the consumer housing trend report?

Amy: Yeah, we have a monthly report that goes out in over 400 cities across the country, and we started with just a handful of cities back then. One other thing that happened at the time, when we launched Zillow in early 2006, the housing market was at its peak. The idea of “what’s your home worth” was really exciting. People were saying “Oh my gosh, look how much money I made on paper from this home I own!” A year later, everything changed. We plunged into the largest housing recession of our lifetime. At that time, there really was no entity in the industry that was truthfully talking about what was happening to the housing market in a way that could benefit consumers. This was a time when there were TV spots still on air with the National Association of REALTORS® saying there’s never been a better time to buy a home. Many people lost the shirt off their back by buying a home at that time because they lost so much money off the value of that home, and became underwater on their mortgages. We started putting out these reports, and I have to say in 2007 it was pretty depressing news. It was, “Home values going down precipitously. We predict they’re going to continue going down. If you buy a home, you must put a substantial amount down to keep equity in that home.” That’s not an easy message to tell, but we decided that, as a consumer-driven brand, it was the right message to tell. Consumers needed to hear that message, and so we started telling that story.

Eric: I think that was a real inflection point for you folks. You kept on a course of transparency and telling the truth, and that was hard because you had a lot of resistance to that. That was taking a new path, and you’re still on that today. It’s really about data and transparency. Would that be correct?

Amy: It is. And I think you’re right. That was a pivotal time, because obviously it was a very difficult time for anyone in or near the real estate industry. We were still a startup—an unprofitable startup at the time, and it was a really risky move. But, we said if we’re building something for consumers, the biggest factor in building a brand is trust. To build trust with consumers, we have to tell them the truth. Even if the truth doesn’t sound good, as long as it’s the truth. It was really the time and the years that I feel we built that brand trust. So, when we came out on the other side of the housing downturn, we had millions of consumers who trusted us, who subscribed to our monthly emails on home values, who were using Zillow, and telling their friends to use Zillow. When they bought or sold that next house on the other side of the housing downturn, they used Zillow to shop for the home. So, it really was a pivotal time for us.

Eric: The other thing that I read about was… you mentioned Rich Barton, one of the co-founders, talked about taking big swings and big risks. When I look at you, and I look at the Consumer Housing Trends Report, the Zestimate, the Zillow Instant Offers, it sounds like you’re right on course with that. Can you go a little deeper into big swings and take big risks?

Amy: Rich has a saying, and he said it from the very earliest days of Zillow, about taking big swings. And the story behind it—it’s actually a baseball analogy—that you can go up to bat and you have a choice. There’s always a safe choice, where you can bunt the ball and pretty much guarantee you’re going to get on first base. Or you can step up to bat, and you can swing for the fences. If you watch baseball, you see this over and over again. There’s a good chance you’re going to fail. There’s a good chance you’re just going to swing hard, then miss the ball and strike out. But there is a small chance you’re going to hit it just in the sweet spot, swing for the fences and hit a home run. The idea behind this is why not swing for the fences, right? You’re just up to bat that one time—why not take that big swing vs. the safe choice. Now, this is something that, philosophically, we talk about a lot at Zillow Group and I think we employ it a lot. But, in order to do this successfully within a business, it’s important that you also partner that with the idea of not demonizing failure. If someone goes up and swings for the fences, it’s got to be okay if they fail as long as they dust themselves up and go up to bat again. If you’re a company that fears failure, that punishes failure, where failure is punitive, then you’re not going to get people going up and swinging. They’re going to take the safe choice every time. Over time, with thousands of safe choices, you become really mediocre. So, swinging for the fences, taking chances, being okay with failure—these are all themes from within Zillow that I think drive a lot of what we do.

Eric: I see Zillow has a 6-week sabbatical program. Is that something you plan to take advantage of going forward?

Amy: It is. We’ve been doing this for years. When we think about our employees, we don’t want this just to be a job. We want this to be the pivotal point of their career. The best work people have ever done in their career. We want to really create great lives for people via the work they do, the wealth they create from the work they do, and the contributions they give. That said, we want people to have full and vibrant lives outside of work. We would much rather people come into the office, work hard, go home at night, be with their families, take vacations, take sabbaticals… because they’re refreshed and want to come back, and end up sticking around a lot longer. So, we have a sabbatical program that’s 6 weeks at 6 years, every 6 years. I took my first sabbatical at 6 years, and my husband and I went to Sicily. I’m about to take my second one this coming year. In fact, just this morning I booked some plane tickets. It’s important for us that our employees take this, but it’s also important for us that our leadership lead by example, and take these sabbaticals, and take our vacation days, and show what it means to balance hard work with a life outside of work. I’m going surfing in Costa Rica, and I’m going to Italy.

Eric: What about paddleboarding? I understand you’re an avid paddleboarder around the Lake Washington area.

Amy: I do like to paddleboard, yes. On Lake Washington in Seattle. I only like to do it in summer. We moved to Lake Washington about 5 years ago, and it’s something I took up with my husband and kids when we moved there. One thing I love about paddleboarding is it’s one of the few things today that you have to leave your phone behind—because if it falls in the water, you’re screwed.

Eric: Or, if you’re really good, it’ll never get wet, right?

Amy: I like to tell myself I can’t bring it with me. There’s very few things in this world that you can do, or should do, without your phone. I think it’s exceptionally important to have an hour or so every day where you’re not reaching for that, and you’re not reachable, and you can just think and be quiet. That’s something I love about any watersport.

Eric: In closing, as you look forward—Amy’s crystal ball—how do you expect the real estate technology market to continue to evolve in the next 5 years or so?

Amy: The real estate industry, and the technology that fuels it, is evolving because of the changing needs of the consumer. We have a Zillow Group housing report that comes out every year that looks really deeply at who is the real estate consumer. The big theme of that report this year is that the largest group of consumers in real estate to day are millennials. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but like 37-38% of sellers today are millennials, that means under the age of 37, and 40% of buyers are under the age of 37. Specifically what this means is this is the generation that has lived their entire adult lives online—much of it on mobile—and everything this generation does is on the expectation of instant, quick answers in the palm of their hand, on-demand services. You don’t even have to be a millennial to work this way. But, think about the number of things you do during the day—I need to go somewhere, so I call an Uber or a Lyft on demand. I’m hungry—I get food via GrubHub, or UberEats, or whatever delivery service. I need to buy something—I go to Amazon and I can get it delivered today. We are used to, in every facet of our lives, getting what we want when we want it, exactly the way we want it. Now we have whole generations of buyers and sellers coming to real estate with these expectations. And the expectations are that they can find all the information they want online, on their mobile, instantly. That means 3D tours, video tours, lots and lots of high-res photos—if a listing doesn’t have these, they move on to the next one. That means being able to contact an agent when, and where, and how they want to find someone to show them that home. That means a simpler selling process, a more seamless selling process. There’s a lot of expectations coming to the table that are driving the consumer innovation. For anyone in this industry, a really unique awareness of what’s driving change is going to be important to be a part of the change moving forward.

Eric: Very exciting times. Amy, thank you very much for your time today. I really appreciate you spending some time with us. Good luck in 2018, and all the best on your sabbatical.

Amy: Thank you! Thanks so much for having me. It was great.