As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Drew Uher, Founder and CEO at HomeLight. He is a former Business Development at PubMatic and Co-Founder of Gameyola. Mr. Uher received a bachelor’s degree in Management Information Systems at Texas A&M University.
Thank you for joining us Drew! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I don’t think of myself as a typical Silicon Valley entrepreneur. I was raised in a small town in Nebraska with less than 20,000 people. I graduated from Texas A&M University, but really had the itch to move to a big city. So, after graduating, I took a job with Morgan Stanley in New York.
I really wanted to build a business that could benefit people at a broad scale, so I enrolled in the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and began my entrepreneurial journey on the west coast. After business school, I encountered a widespread problem that required a solution. My wife, Paige, and I were trying to settle in San Francisco and almost lost the home of our dreams through no fault of our own. The process of buying and selling real estate was completely broken, and I realized it needed to be fixed. That was eight years ago, which is when I started HomeLight.
Today, my passion is the real estate tech platform that we are building at HomeLight. The company was created with the mission to give control back to homebuyers and sellers, empowering them to make smart decisions during one of the biggest moments of their lives. We are creating an end-to-end solution that will help people and their agents transact real estate in a simpler, more certain, and satisfying way.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
As mentioned, the idea for HomeLight came about when my wife and I set out to buy our first home. I was shocked and upset to find out just how broken and confusing the home buying process was. The single biggest issue we faced was that our real estate agent, who we trusted and believed to be the most important person in our process, completely failed us. When I tried to research agents online, I found hundreds of misleading and inaccurate reviews. My wife and I got lucky when we stumbled upon a local Bay Area agent, Ron Abta, who was brilliant and took care of every detail. My immediate thought was that every person in the U.S. should have access to someone like Ron.
After that experience, I spent a year researching the real estate industry. Through the process, I realized that there was no online resource that objectively assessed the performance of real estate agents. From that point, it took me two years to collect the data necessary to provide this service to people nationwide. Today, we’ve helped connect over 500,000 people with some of the top agents in the country.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Back in the early days of HomeLight, when our communication with real estate agents wasn’t as streamlined as it is today, we were gearing up to launch a new product feature. To make this announcement, I wrote a letter that would be distributed to thousands of agents, thanking them for their support.
Not five minutes after we distributed the email, my cell phone started to ring off the hook.
I realized I had accidentally included my personal cell phone number within the email. Suddenly, hundreds of agents were calling me on my personal phone to talk about their interactions — both positive and negative — with HomeLight.
The calls derailed my entire day but by the end of it, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I had learned. The agents provided valuable feedback about the business, some of which even resulted in new features we built later on.
Today, I make sure to speak directly with agents on a consistent basis. No matter how big HomeLight gets or how much my role evolves, I always make time to listen to their critical feedback. You can’t beat the kind of insights you get from firsthand conversations with them.
How does HomeLight differ from Re-max, and other RE companies that also have good agents with proven track records? It seems that quality agents, while only a percentage of the total, are findable and available to anyone buying or selling.
In my experience, it was easy to find a real estate agent but hard to find a good one. Brokerages are filled with agents that practice part time or are agents just starting their careers. Even today, over 90% of people don’t even use the internet to find their agent. They still use traditional methods like newspapers and friend referrals. Our position is simple: buying or selling a home is the most important financial decision in most people’s lives. Why wouldn’t you use all available data and every available resource to make sure you have the best strategic advisor to lead you through that process?
Once an agent is in the HomeLight network what oversight do you undertake to assure that he is maintaining his level of performance? Does your data adjust swiftly to negative agent reviews? Are your review sources all-encompassing so that your data is 100% up to date and accurate?
Our first principle is this — agents have never and will never be able to pay to be ranked in our network. This is different than almost every other real estate technology company out there. We want what is best for the consumer, not what will generate the most advertising dollars.
Second, all of our algorithms run in real-time and use dozens of variables, both based on historical performance as well as behavioral characteristics like reviews and response time. If an agent’s performance begins to drop, they’re less likely to get matched with our customers. Simple as that.
Do you share referrals among several agents, or is a referral provided to only one agent? And, if so, how do you substantiate that the specific agent is the best agent for the home seller or buyer?
We typically encourage customers to meet with the top two or three agents we recommend during the interview process. The reason for this is that real estate isn’t just a quantitative process — it’s personal. You need an agent who is good at what they do, but also one that you feel comfortable calling or texting at any time.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
The purpose of HomeLight was and still is to put power back in the home buyer or sellers’ hands. I think that this idea really resonates with people who use the platform because it hits on the idea that historically, people have felt powerless when buying or selling their home.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
From the beginning, our core value has been: “Be a part of our family.” I’ve always believed that a family has the right dynamic for a strong company culture. Your team is pulling for you, and everyone has each other’s backs through thick-and-thin. That’s what we strive to achieve.
At HomeLight, we do a few things that demonstrate family value. We foster a community of trust and transparent communication. At least once a week, we distribute a company-wide anonymous survey to check in with employees. We are serious about the feedback and take steps to solve any issues. We regularly host events both in and out of the office, including things like Girl Geek talks in our San Francisco location and our annual company-wide retreats.
A culture of mutual trust, respect, and communication inside the organization bleeds through to our products and services for our customers. Because our team feels like family, they see our customers like family too. That makes our products better and our customers happier.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I started HomeLight after my wife and I almost lost the home of our dreams. I considered myself a financially savvy person but found the entire process challenging, time-consuming and emotional. After surviving this roller coaster and successfully closing on our home, I realized that (unfortunately) our experience was not unique. Having been through that experience, I know what homebuyers are up against and am driven to deliver a more simple, certain, and satisfying experience.
When I am having a rough day, hearing the positive experiences and successful outcomes from our customers lifts me up. Everything we do at HomeLight is guided by empathy for the customer experience. When we develop new products, they have to meet the litmus test, “will this be simple, certain and satisfying for our customer?” If not, we are doing something wrong.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Throughout the years, I have learned that not only is the home buying experience a roller coaster, but so is starting a company. When running your own business, the highs and lows are intense. The ups feel like you are conquering the world, while the downs feel as if the world is ending. In reality, though, these highs and lows are not as acute as they seem in the moment — and it’s important to keep in mind that there is always a way to push through the lows.
Early in HomeLight’s history, there were about four times when an obstacle almost sunk the business. For example, there was a time when we were working hard to hit our fundraising milestone and I had promised that we would go to Las Vegas as a team if we succeeded. Ultimately, we hit our goals and the Vegas trip was happening. However, despite the success we had with our core metrics, everything else was not going as well as I had hoped. We had less than three months of cash in the bank and when the day came to take the team to Vegas, I received an official “no” from our most promising investor prospect. I had virtually no pipeline left and there I was with my team in Vegas, supposed to be enjoying a celebratory moment. My heart sunk, and I wondered if this would be a “last hurrah.”
I looked around at my team that night and thought about our vision to make the buying and selling process better. I knew we would pull through. When we returned to San Francisco, we ended up securing a new investor and closing their investment in just under 60 days.
Based on your experience and success, what is the most important thing a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business?
The single most important thing a new founder or CEO should know to create a successful business is that it’s all about team chemistry.
When I first started HomeLight, we were comprised of five or six employees. I made the mistake of believing we were creating a good company culture, just by virtue of working closely together every day.
But then a few people decided to leave.
In their exit interviews, I learned that a good culture — one where people rooted for each other like a family — doesn’t manifest itself by default. You need a strategy for it, you need to put time and effort into fostering it, and it needs to come from the bottom and from the top of the organization. I’ve since made it a priority to cultivate a positive company culture and that’s done wonders for the business.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
At HomeLight, people come first. As I mentioned earlier, “Be A Part of our Family” is our first core value. We are looking for employees who will become part of the fabric and culture of our organization — people who will bring their uniqueness and awesomeness to work. When we encourage that, HomeLight becomes an amazing place to work.
With this being the backbone of our business, I am happy to say that as we have grown the company to over 250 team members, we’ve expanded from one to four offices and we’ve been able to maintain that family-like environment in all of them. Today, culture is king at HomeLight and you can see that effort reflected in our high 4.8 Glassdoor rating.
Additionally, in 2019, HomeLight was recognized by three separate awards for building an outstanding workplace culture that employees value: Comparably’s Best Places to Work, Inc. Magazine’s Best Places to Work, and an honorable mention from Tech in Motion’s Timmy Awards in the Best Tech Work Culture category. For Comparably’s Best Places to Work, HomeLight was honored in seven different categories, including companies with the happiest employees, best work-life balance, best professional development, best management teams, best sales teams, best company outlook, and best CEOs for women.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I started this journey with my wife, Paige, when we had such a challenging time purchasing our home. Since that fateful experience, she has supported me every step of the way. I left my job at Morgan Stanley in August of 2009, went to business school and after working on a couple other entrepreneurial projects, finally started HomeLight. I didn’t get HomeLight funded and off the ground until January 2012, which was the first day I started paying myself a real salary. Paige was quite understanding during this time and, given what she put up with, I refer to her as the original investor in HomeLight.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think HomeLight is a movement in and of itself. Buying or selling a home is one of life’s most important moments. It’s unfamiliar and emotional for many people, and there’s a ton of money on the line. I think it’s crazy that, given the stakes, it’s still such a complicated process. From day one, I have set out to make real estate simple, certain, and satisfying. And, every day, we are achieving success on that front. HomeLight empowers people to achieve a better outcome during this important time in their lives.
Furthermore, just as technology and data are helping to revolutionize the real estate industry, I believe there is a significant opportunity to pursue data solutions in healthcare. Unfortunately, many people don’t have access to proper healthcare due to its egregious cost and bureaucratic nature. I see an opportunity to become more involved in this issue as an advocate for those who struggle with healthcare, and a chance for lawmakers to invest in technology to solve the nation’s healthcare crisis.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m too busy for social media! But I love talking to both our customers, agents, and partners, and do so frequently. They should reach out through
My personal accounts