Rich Barton, CEO of the Zillow Group, speaks to Guy Raz on NPR’s How I Built This. (“Guy’s team sent some special equipment to make me sound better than IRL,” says Barton.) Photo courtesy of the Zillow Group.
Like many entrepreneurs, Rich Barton is a fan of NPRs “How I built this.” He says it has long been his secret dream to be interviewed by host Guy Raz on the show.
But if he finally got the opportunity, the co-founder of Expedia and Zillow, began by criticizing the program’s name – specifically its pronoun.
“There are no ‘I’s who built anything,” Barton said in an email, telling what he had told Raz. “Something.” We build things. And, in my experience, “we” is a lot more fun than “me”. And the group of people I was lucky with, from college to Microsoft, Expedia – and then all of Expedia- Diaspora, many of whom started great companies – working together was just a miracle. “
He added, “I would start listing companies, but I know I would forget some and feel bad about myself. There were so many. However, the close, supportive tech community in Seattle is a big part of this success, and I am grateful and happy to have ended up here. “
Lesson number one: Always praise the team and the people around you.
His criticism of the name didn’t make it into the final edit of the show, which was recorded a few months ago and released last weekend. The subject came up differently, however, as Barton attributed his success to his luck of working with “an insanely bright and hardworking bunch of people” over the years.
The interview traced his career path from travel to real estate, from his beginnings at Microsoft, where he and his colleagues hatched travel giant Expedia, to his current position as CEO of the Zillow Group. Barton co-founded the online real estate company in 2005 and was replaced as CEO by Spencer Rascoff in 2011. before returning to the role in 2019.
A common theme that runs through Barton’s career is the idea of disrupting established industries with transparency and providing people with information. Examples include Zillow’s closely-followed home price estimation tool, Zestimate, and the Glassdoor company reviews that Barton co-founded with ex-Expedia colleague Robert Hohman.
Barton said the key is not to disturb, but to provoke.
“Provocation is a fantastic marketing strategy,” Barton explained on the show. “I’ve had a lot of companies now where I’ve used this as a tool.”
Guy Raz, left, and Rich Barton, right, during an earlier conversation for a virtual event hosted by Zillow for its real estate partners. (Image courtesy of Zillo Group.)
Barton’s return as CEO of Zillow Group made the conversation feel more timely than many other episodes. For example, he stated that the technical tools that the real estate industry has adopted out of necessity due to COVID security protocols – virtual home tours, digital closings, etc. – will remain a fixture even after the pandemic.
However, as a longtime listener and fan of the show, I was surprised myself that Raz didn’t use that punctuality to push Barton on more pressing issues, such as the competitive threats Zillow is facing from rivals like Seattle Redfin and traditional real estate firms.
I emailed Barton a suggestion that Raz might have made it easy for him.
“Tons of content landed on the cutting room floor and I honestly can’t remember if there was any competitor stuff in there,” Barton replied. “You think he made it easy for me, don’t you? You should have seen me the evening after the interview. Like Rocky after meeting Apollo Creed. “
He explained, “It was a long interview – over three hours – that needs to be part of his process in order for it to sound as real and raw as possible. He is an incredibly talented and intelligent interviewer. I could hear the wheels turning as he solved the puzzle – the story. I learned a lot from him while I was interviewed. And I actually learned something about myself. “
While Barton’s first time on How I Built This, he’d spoken to Raz before. Barton interviewed Raz for a Zillow virtual partner event for real estate professionals at the start of the pandemic.
Although his criticism of the show’s name didn’t get its final cut, Barton shared some of his best practices for naming companies: invent a word you can fill with your own meaning and inexpensively register it as a domain; try to incorporate highlight scrabble letters; and keep it to two syllables if possible.
The latter came in retrospect after Expedia was named – just one of the lessons learned from Barton’s entrepreneurial journey.
Listen to the episode “How I Built This” starring Rich Barton Here or higher.