“Relationships are key.” with Jason Hartman & Vanessa Famulener

Relationships. Relationships are key in real estate. At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily about the piece of land, it’s about the person who owns it or will own it. People make real estate happen. All the stuff that we do at a corporate level is great, but again it’s about relationships. That’s why […]

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Relationships. Relationships are key in real estate. At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily about the piece of land, it’s about the person who owns it or will own it. People make real estate happen. All the stuff that we do at a corporate level is great, but again it’s about relationships. That’s why we want to empower real estate agents to continue building those strong relationships with clients. The financial tools and technology we’re developing will help facilitate that and get people into the homes they want.

Vanessa Famulener is at the forefront of real estate finance disruption as the General Manager of HomeLight Cash Close, where she works tirelessly to create a simple and certain home buying process. Under Vanessa’s leadership, the HomeLight Cash Close team coordinates the entire real estate transaction to guarantee the best customer experience possible, for both agents and their clients. Vanessa was also instrumental in leading the integration of HomeLight and Eave, a digital mortgage startup acquired by HomeLight, to create HomeLight Home Loans, which backs every HomeLight Cash Close deal.

Prior to joining HomeLight, Vanessa led Business Development at Houzz, the world’s largest home renovation and design platform, where she helped scale the business to 14 countries and build a network of over 2 million home professionals. Vanessa holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Enterprise Management from Wake Forest University and a Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School.

Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?

I’ve always loved homes and what they mean to people. When I was at Houzz, a platform for home remodeling and home design, I started to learn more about the real estate industry and what it actually meant to transact real estate, not just what people do once they own a home. One of the biggest pain points that I came across was how difficult it is for people to find the right real estate agent. When clients are about to go through the most expensive transaction of their lives, an unfit partnership with the wrong real estate agent can leave hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line.

So, when an opportunity at HomeLight came to me, I knew I had to take it. HomeLight tackles the issue of finding the right agent head-on and now provides some of the best financial solutions in the market to help people get into their dream homes. I’m excited for the tremendous possibilities of disruption in real estate and believe that we can change the industry for the better.

What’s the most interesting or amazing story from your career so far?

I had the opportunity to meet Diane Von Furstenberg in her New York office. Her office was this huge room with books everywhere, clothes, and collections from all around the world. It was full of things that had meaning to her. She has this larger than life personality and clearly is very passionate. This experience of meeting her, seeing how her space represented who she is, and her diverse interests, made me think about how she has reinvented herself in her business so many times. Her personality and space reflected her passion and enthusiasm about her business, which has encouraged so many women to pursue careers in business.

When I met her, she was pretty late in her career at that point, but what really stuck with me is how her environment represented everything about her and the mentality that if you’re going to do something, do it 100% with full vigor.

She started her company on her own at a young age, and turned it into something huge because she believes in herself and believed in what she was doing. I admire her resilience and remember her talking about how she was said “no” to a million times. Another business woman I follow, Sara Blakely, founder and CEO of Spanx, also speaks about a similar experience. When you’ve been shot down so many times, you have to pull yourself back up and keep going. You can’t take rejection at face value and allow those speed bumps you encounter to set you back. Diane taught me to push the boundaries of what it means to be a woman in business.

Are you working on any exciting new projects right now? How do you think it can help people? How else do you think that can help people?

We just launched HomeLight Cash Close, a new home financing program that I spearheaded and now lead. The vision of HomeLight Cash Close is to change the way that people transact real estate by empowering individuals to purchase and sell real estate on their own timeline and on their own terms.

Our first iteration of HomeLight was at the start of the transaction, matching buyers and sellers to the right real estate agent. Now, we’re expanding to facilitate more of the real estate transaction with the goal of empowering home buyers and sellers to make more informed and better decisions. With HomeLight Cash Close, people can essentially buy like cash buyers and only include the contingencies that they want in the transaction. As part of HomeLight Cash Close, our product HomeLight Trade-In allows clients to buy their next home before they sell their current home.

We are confident that people will benefit from this product. People are always told that owning a home is the American dream. They save for a downpayment and to pay down the mortgage, but in that process, much of the equity and hard work is tied up in their home. Homeowners become handcuffed to it and all of their financial security is within that property. When homeowners want to move and find that perfect new home, if they don’t have the cash for a downpayment, they have to quickly list their current home. If it doesn’t sell, they risk losing the new home that they wanted. HomeLight Trade-in is giving people the financial freedom to move if and when they need to and not have to move twice or not have to get an apartment in between the two homes. This is very powerful.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think with everything we do at HomeLight, we all get together and say, “Okay, what’s our goal? How are we going to get there? How’s everyone going to pick up different pieces of the work along the way?” No ego gets in the way, nobody’s too good for any specific task or role, and I think that makes us unique. It’s our sense of teamwork for everything we do together. We’re all in, no questions asked.

At HomeLight, we’re very deliberate about everyone that joins the team, which has led to a fantastic culture across the company. That makes us a very lean startup, where we all have to step into different roles to complete tasks that require immense teamwork. We work hard and work smart.

For example, when we just launched HomeLight Cash Close, we realized that we didn’t have enough people or teams to get it all done. But, across the company, we all came together from the business side, to engineering, to product design and within three weeks of the design scope, we built an entire website for this new program.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there someone in particular or just a group of people or that you’re very grateful towards who helped you get to where you are?

The first real badass female boss I’ve worked with was Katrina Lake, the CEO and Founder of Stitch Fix. I started working for her as a summer intern during my MBA program. I talked to her once and accepted the job, sight unseen, so I had no idea what to expect. I moved from the East Coast to California, and as soon as I walked in the door, I knew I made the right decision. Katrina’s passion, enthusiasm, and excitement for what she was doing was very palpable with her belief that there’s no way this could fail. That, I think, is what it takes. You just have to be fully confident in whatever it is you’re doing, and her passion and confidence have always stuck with me.

Two weeks into the job, she came up to me and said, “You’re now the head of marketing.” I’d never done marketing before, but she gave me the opportunity. So, with no budget, I figured out how to get customers for this business. It was her belief in people that empowered me to get it done.

At young companies, you need to be creative with problem solving. You need to be scrappy, which is something that we value at HomeLight. The only pressure we have is to work hard and try hard. Katrina is very influential on how I lead my team and how I drive that creative, problem solving spirit. I try to emulate her individual leadership style by asking my team to take risks and to go out of their comfort zone. I tell them that it’s okay if you trip up, as long as you give it your all.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?

We should be honest about the fact that society’s expectations for women to be the main caretaker in the family has something to do with this imbalance. No matter how smart or how successful they are, women almost always become the primary caretaker for their child, at least for the first few months of its life. There’s a lot of time and effort that’s involved in having a child and historically, no matter how equal we want it to be, it just doesn’t seem to be.

Women also often choose, rightfully so, to put their families first and that becomes the focus of their life. The little bits of time dedicated to having a child add up and that can put women years back in their careers. While this isn’t exclusive to real estate, I believe that the expectation for women to become the primary caretaker has created an imbalance in leadership in our society, where men rise more quickly than women to the top of the career ladder.

What are three things that you think can be done by individuals, companies, society to support gender balance going forward?

Companies. Companies need to take a step back and create a balance at the very beginning of the hiring cycle. How can we change the wording in a job description to ensure that 80% of the resumes coming in are not from men, and how do we improve the interview process? It’s definitely tougher for real estate companies to create that balance. When hiring, they need to cast a wider net if they want to recruit more women candidates for executive level positions.

Society. There’s a lot more that we can do as a society. Going back to the family dilemma: at a certain number of months of a child being in the world, men can be just as great as caretakers as women can. How do we normalize that? I have a good female friend who was able to take the first six months off through her company’s maternity leave after having her baby. Immediately following her maternity leave, her husband was able to take his paternity leave. They were able to extend the time they were able to spend with their child and delay the cost of childcare. Paternity leave has made great strides, but there’s still a lot of work to do in our society to make the parental roles of women and men more equal.

Individuals. From my experience, I think women tend to not be as proactive in asking for opportunities. So, if you’re the manager and you realize that the person who’s asking for the promotion and asking for the big project, is always a man, that should be a red flag. You, the manager and as a person of authority, should be more conscious about seeking out who is the right person versus accepting the person who’s always knocking on your door first. Create an equal playing field for opportunities.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I often go back to my experiences of being the only woman in the room, which happens pretty often. Every time it does, I look around, take notice, and just acknowledge that I’m in a room with 10 or so other men. I’ve found that when you’re the only woman in the room, your voice may be contradictory to the other 90%. Women need to be comfortable with knowing that what they say might be in disagreement with the others because they have a different perspective. We need to be fine with potentially causing a rift and continue to do so, because we’re bringing a unique perspective to the majority position. Oftentimes it’s hard, especially if this is a new leadership position. We might think, “I don’t want to rock the boat. I just want to go along with everything.” But, at some point we have to speak up. Our opinion matters and will add so much value to the conversation. Goldman Sachs recently came out and said that it won’t take any companies public unless they have at least one female board member. This is not solely based on their gender diversity initiative, but because they’ve seen better financial outcomes from companies that have diverse boards.

Tying this back to real estate finance, companies need to make sure that they can provide the best experience to home buyers and sellers from a wide range of backgrounds. The only way to achieve this is to bring those varied experiences into the decision-making room from the start. If a boardroom is composed of just men, especially a group of all white men who all have similar life experiences, it’s difficult for the company to come up with viable solutions. As soon as a bit of diversity is added into that room, new people are identifying opportunities and blind spots that the majority couldn’t see.

If you are the only woman in the room, you’re going to have to speak up against what the groupthink is. You add value to the company and to the solutions you’re creating for your clients.

Can you share three things that most excite you about the real estate industry?

The first is how real estate touches everybody and everything. Real estate will always be in our lives and it’s often the most important thing that a person owns or where they spend the most time — and I love that.

The other piece is the creative aspects of real estate. There are inherently no constraints on what you can do in the industry besides the old limitations and regulations that we put on it. It’s not science, where we’ve yet to figure it out. We know what we can do. We can go build something or develop a piece of land. There’s an unlimited possibility of how we as a nation, people, or community can develop a piece of space or not develop spaces to retain natural beauty.

Another exciting aspect is that there’s so much room for improvement in real estate. Other industries, like e-commerce, have gone through this technological shift or change. But, when you look at real estate, that change is only getting started. If you ever buy or sell a home, there’s hundreds, if not thousands of physical pieces of paper that you have to sign in review. The way it’s all done is still very antiquated. When we first were looking at bringing on Eave, a mortgage company that is now HomeLight Home Loans, we went to a digital mortgage conference and my jaw dropped when I saw what “digital” actually is.

It meant a bunch of disparate pieces of technology that didn’t talk to each other. You think about how advanced the world has become technologically wise, yet the core financial product that everyone needs to close on a home still hasn’t greatly improved or evolved in the past 10, 15 years. That’s why we made sure HomeLight Home Loans came on board. They’ve built fantastic technology around digital mortgage and have shown us how much room there still is for disruption and change in the industry.

If you had the ability to implement three ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

One issue that concerns me about the industry is the inequity of value creation. Historically, real estate has proven to bring strong returns, and in a hot market, the more home you own, the faster your equity value will increase. But, the people that tend to own real estate are much wealthier.

About 70% of first-time home buyers, particularly minority and single parents, have a difficult time saving for a down payment and qualifying for loans. These struggles continue to widen that divide between people who own multiple homes and people who can barely get buy one. Let’s say, you’re in a booming market and you’ve gained 10% of value in equity in the past year on your million dollar home. Great, that’s a thousand dollar check for you. But, if you’re barely scraping by and struggling to get a mortgage on our house, your rate will be much higher and the value of that home will be lower. That means you’re gaining equity at a lower and slower rate. This inequity continues to push that divide further and further, especially when homes are one of the biggest sources of wealth for people.

The other piece is the amount of regulations on the industry both at a local level, whether that be city or county or state, and at the federal level. While most were created with good intentions, when you layer all the regulations on top of each other, it becomes extremely difficult to get anything done. Regulations have over-complicated the industry to the point where it hurts individuals in the process of buying homes and adds way too many costs to everyone involved in the transaction.

That’s why down payment assistance programs exist to help people to purchase homes that they would otherwise not be able to. Some help specific groups, such as teachers, to buy homes at manageable rates by partnering with certain banks that offer those better rates. Overall, we need to allow people to purchase homes on better terms and reform how they can start to build up equity.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

My advice would be to ensure that your team does something that they enjoy and something that challenges them. If I walk out of the office and I feel like we did all of those: doing something that made us uncomfortable because we really had to push ourselves out of our comfort zones, but have fun at the same time, then that’s a good day.

You’re a real estate insider. If you had to advise someone about five, it doesn’t have to be with five, but just whatever non-intuitive things someone should know to succeed in the industry, real estate industry, what would you say to them?

Relationships. Relationships are key in real estate. At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily about the piece of land, it’s about the person who owns it or will own it. People make real estate happen. All the stuff that we do at a corporate level is great, but again it’s about relationships. That’s why we want to empower real estate agents to continue building those strong relationships with clients. The financial tools and technology we’re developing will help facilitate that and get people into the homes they want.

Common sense. Real estate comes back to common sense. If you want to succeed in real estate, you need to figure out the basic problem that people are trying to solve. Clayton Christensen, who was a professor at Harvard Business School, developed the “Jobs To Be Done” Framework, which looks at customer motivations and answers the questions, “What are you actually solving for? What’s the job to be done?” When I think about real estate, I ask, what’s the job to be done for this person? Somebody needs to buy a home for a place to live, to raise a family. Someone needs to build an office building because people need a place for their employees to collaborate. We can’t look at real estate solely from a transaction standpoint.

Real estate jargon. Another non-intuitive thing to consider is that there is so much jargon in the real estate industry. My advice would be, don’t be scared by the jargon in real estate. It’s all made up! There’s a never-ending amount of jargon that you’ll never quite keep up with, so don’t let that discourage you from diving in and working in real estate.

In the end, it’s like the saying, K.I.S.S., keep it simple, stupid. That’s what we’re trying to do. From the business side to the actual products that we’re building and designing, it’s all about relationships, people, and empathy.

You’re a person of enormous influence and if you could inspire a movement that would bring about the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

Be kind to people. None of us are too busy or too important to just be nice to other people. That should always be the leading attitude that you have, and that alone has ripple effects. When someone receives that unexpected act of kindness, it improves their day and they pass it along. You never know what the impact of your kindness is going to be.

Whenever I see somebody running by with their head down, I always wonder where they are running to. What are they so busy with? Take time to talk to people and be inquisitive about their story. That’s the biggest thing we can do for the greatest amount of people. I get to improve somebody else’s day and know that they will carry that on to the next person.

How can your readers follow you online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/vanessafamulener

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