Chris Heller shocked the housing world in 2017 when he stepped down as CEO of Keller Williams to become the CEO of mellohome, loanDepot’s attempt to serve as a true one-stop-shop for “buying, financing, and improving homes.”
But now, just over two years later, Heller is leaving mellohome and loanDepot behind for OJO Labs, a real estate technology startup whose flagship product is an AI-based conversational assistant that is currently being used in the real estate industry.
OJO Labs, a Texas-based company, announced Friday that it has hired Heller to serve as the company’s chief real estate officer. But that’s not the only big hire OJO is making.
The company also recently hired Karen Starns as its chief marketing officer. Starns brings a serious pedigree in consumer-facing AI and digital products to OJO. Prior to joining OJO, Starns led the brand and customer experience at Amazon for Echo, Alexa, FireTV, Kindle, and the portfolio of Amazon smart home devices.
And now, Starns is bringing that experience to OJO, which was honored earlier this year as a member of the HousingWire Magazine HW Tech100 as one of the housing industry’s top technology companies.
But the name more likely familiar to those in the housing industry is Heller, whose hiring to lead mellohome surprised many in the business.
mellohome’s goal was to serve as the focal point of the home buying process, from finding the home and connecting a home buyer with a real estate agent, securing financing for a home (through loanDepot, of course), and even connecting buyers and homeowners with licensed contractors.
mellohome is an expansion of mello, loanDepot’s proprietary digital lending platform that the company introduced two years ago.
Heller’s hiring marked a big development for the nascent loanDepot offshoot.
Heller served as president of Keller Williams’ worldwide division and then as CEO of Keller Williams from 2010 to 2017, as the firm grew to become the largest residential brokerage by agent count, homes sold, and sales volume with more than 930 offices and 177,000 agents.
But after less than two years at mellohome, Heller is moving on to OJO with well wishes from loanDepot.
"We wish Chris and the team at OJO Labs all the best," loanDepot said through a spokeperson. "His leadership, together with his industry knowledge, have helped make mellohome the company it is today and we appreciate his contributions."
It should be noted that both Heller and loanDepot have connections to OJO.
Two years ago, loanDepot reached an agreement with OJO Labs to act as the mortgage provider of OJO.
The company’s claimed that OJO’s artificial intelligence technology combined with loanDepot’s digital lending platform mello would allow homebuyers to access real estate and mortgage information, help them get pre-qualified and guide them through an entirely digital, mobile-first experience.
And according to Heller’s LinkedIn profile, he has served on OJO’s board since April 2018.
And now, he’s coming to OJO full-time.
According to the company, its AI-powered platform, which is called OJO, “can understand a user’s intent and preferences to answer almost any real estate related question.”
The program interacts with consumers on behalf of real estate agents and brokerages, and is available around the clock to help consumers with questions, home search needs, mortgage information and other resources related to buying or selling a home.
According to OJO Labs, engaging the consumer in a two-way dialogue over an extended period of time provides the AI assistant with “key insights that it can then share with a real estate agent when the consumer is ready and chooses to connect.”
Now, the company has both Heller and Starns in the fold to help it grow.
“Karen and Chris are uniquely equipped to bring OJO to consumers in a natural and delightful way while enabling realtors, loan officers, and other service professionals to act as superheroes for their customers,” OJO Labs CEO John Berkowitz said. “Hiring these two leaders is the perfect demonstration that due to the technology and strategy of OJO there doesn’t have to be a choice between obsessively serving consumers and helping the real estate industry thrive.”
As for what Heller and Starns will actually be doing at OJO, the company is clearer on Starns’ job responsibilities. In a release, OJO said that Starns will “develop scaled channels to continue to rapidly grow OJO’s user base while building a brand that consumers trust.”
Starns said that she is excited about the opportunity at OJO.
“We have an exciting marketing challenge of educating and introducing consumers to a technology that solves real problems by meeting them where they are and redefining how they search for, buy, and sell a home,” said Starns.
“What ignited my enthusiasm about OJO was the organization’s empathy for customers and their authentic and differentiated approach to the real estate industry,” Starns said. “Boiling it down, I am a brand marketer at heart, and the best and highest impact roles I’ve held have been centered on building a brand that people love and can’t live without. That’s what we intend to do with OJO.”
On Heller, the company doesn’t state exactly what his job entails, although the company’s website provides more details on Heller’s new gig. “As Chief Real Estate Officer of OJO Labs, Chris is shaping partner strategies, creating a cohesive structure between real estate professionals and OJO, and accelerating adoption in the industry,” Heller’s executive bio on OJO’s website states.
What that seems to suggest is that Heller will work to boost OJO’s adoption throughout the real estate industry, using his connections at Keller Williams and beyond to accelerate OJO’s growth.
Real estate giant Realogy already uses OJO’s technology across its brands, which include the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, Century 21, Coldwell Banker, Coldwell Banker Commercial, ERA, and Sotheby’s International Realty. Realogy is also an investor in OJO, having participated in the company’s 2018 capital raise.
“What really makes OJO stand out are its leadership, team, and capability to execute on its vision. OJO was the first company to come into the real estate industry and drive the innovation of an AI assistant for the benefit of consumers and agents alike,” Heller said.
“Since meeting the OJO team several years ago, I have seen them combine vision, operational excellence, creativity, and extremely talented leadership to bring an important and valuable product to market,” Heller added. “The foundation is assembled for us to continue building one of the more significant companies in the real estate industry.”