Tips From The Top: One On One With Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin

I spoke to Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, about his best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Glenn: I almost went to medical school, once in my twenties and once in my thirties. I’ve hired a Russian spy and the operator of a massive pot farm. I ride my bicycle to the office, to fundraising meetings, to dinners and lunches, in rain, sun and snow. I’ve never once checked Redfin’s stock price, though I care very much about creating long-term shareholder value. When I think how lucky I’ve been, and how hard I tried to screw up my life but didn’t, it almost makes me queasy. I think bottled water is mostly evil.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Glenn: In my twenties, I co-founded an enterprise software company, Plumtree, that went public, but the year I spent between Plumtree and Redfin was the most harrowing of my life. I had money, but no team, no mission. When I could’ve felt weary or daunted at Redfin, I’ve remembered that time in my life when all I wanted was to get back in the game. I know now what I was put on this earth to do, which is to try to futz with the order of things.

At Redfin’s lowest moments, my wife reminded me that the company’s mission, to redefine real estate in favor of the people buying or selling their home, was supposed to be why we were doing this. It’s a good thing, not just a money-making thing. I’d always thought I believed in our mission wholeheartedly, but then she asked why it all seemed for naught when sales were off for a month. That helped me get back to work. It’s hard to do anything for a long time, through all the ups and downs, if your only premise is making money or beating others.

Adam: How does Redfin set itself apart from other online real estate platforms like Zillow and Trulia?

Glenn: We’re more like the Amazon of real estate, and Zillow and Trulia are more like Google. We compete with traditional real estate agents, charging about half the fee to sell a home, and using technology to try to do it better and faster. Zillow and Trulia run ads for traditional real estate agents.

Adam: There has been a lot of activity involving big data and technology innovation on the residential side of the business, with Redfin among the leaders. What do you see happening on the commercial side?

Glenn: Almost nothing. A small number of brokers control most of the commercial real estate listings in each city, which makes it hard for new entrants to build a website.

Adam: What are your thoughts on the Costa Hawkins rent control measure? Have you seen it significantly impact market trends?

Glenn: Most economists believe that the solution to rising rents is more construction, not rent control, but that’s based on the presumption that cities will issue the permits for more construction. The libertarians who oppose rent control are often avidly in favor of inventory control, in the form of zoning. Cities like San Francisco that have sometimes faced fierce neighborhood opposition to upzoning should limit rent increases.

Adam: What do you see as the next up and coming market on the West Coast and why?

Glenn: The story of American migration in the 21st century is an all-out search for affordability. We’re already past peak Denver and peak Seattle, which have now become too expensive. Our data shows plenty of people starting to leave those places even as others come in. Phoenix and Las Vegas are growing, but those have gone through booms and busts before. I’m excited about Salt Lake City and Boise.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Glenn: The next level of leadership is down not up. Many leadership abilities are hard to come by, but anyone can be humble. I’ve always wanted to follow the people willing to sweep the floors. I have many failings as a leader, but that’s my strength.

This isn’t my main point, but one element of humility is hard work. I can’t ask anyone to work harder than I do. Among the get-rich-quick shysters, the efficiency gurus, and even the advocates for family-friendly office environments — which I also support — it has become fashionable to question the value of hard work. But at least up to a point, hard work still matters to those who aspire to be a great leader: it’s what I need to do to be prepared, to be thoughtful, to do my best, to compete against CEOs who are smarter or have more money. You can work hard and still be a good parent, a good spouse and a good role model. You just have to give up Netflix.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Glenn: Notice when things get better, at your organization, in others, in yourself. We all have a self-defeating tendency to think no one can ever change.

Have a bias for action. Ezra Pound once wrote that the fault lies all in the not-done, all in the diffidence that faltered.

Remember that a person’s most important quality is the quality of her energy. Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife called him the “Great Exhilarator.” I’ve always hoped to get someone to describe me in that way. Instead of trying to change who I am — sometimes moody, cranky, listless — I try to recognize those limits and configure my environment accordingly, to give myself the right amount of exercise, love and sleep to be at my best.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Glenn: Try to understand the other side. Don’t listen to, much less propagate, all the hateful, self-righteous stuff on the left and the right that’s tearing us apart.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Glenn: Brian McAndrews, the CEO who sold aQuantive to Microsoft for $6 billion, once told me, “You’re not Steve Jobs.” Steve was a genius, but the rest of us have to inspire people by being considerate and humble. Before that, I’d too often tried to be the smartest person in the room. An entire generation of entrepreneurs has tried to imitate the wrong person.

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