OJO Labs’ Karen Starns on real estate tech disruption

Today’s HousingWire Daily episode continues the Women of Influence podcast miniseries. This episode features 2020 HW Woman of Influence and OJO Labs Chief Marketing Officer Karen Starns. Starns was also named a 2021 HousingWire Marketing Leader for her work transforming the fast-growing brand into a real estate powerhouse.

Starns has more than 20 years of experience building two of the biggest names in consumer tech, Amazon and Microsoft, giving her a unique perspective on the tech developments in the real estate industry. During this episode, Starns talks about the state of tech in the housing industry compared to other tech industries, addressing the idea that housing has been historically behind when it comes to tech. 

She also talks about some of the innovation within real estate that consumers might not expect.

Here is a small preview of the interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

Brena Nath: What are some innovative ways that real estate is pushing the envelope or on the cutting edge of tech that people might not realize is happening in the real estate space? 

Karen Starns: We all live every day around the obvious things, like access to listings, data, mortgage insights and the sheer amount of information that consumers can kind of search for and glean on their own. I would say the pandemic really accelerated some of those kinds of digital tools that help consumers move further on their journey. You can look at the flip side of that to say like, okay, has it complicated the journey in some respects? Now, there are so many offerings out there, and I’d submit that the industry really has yet to offer a solution that provides consumers with the guidance to navigate all of those aspects of a complicated real estate landscape.

HousingWire’s Women of Influence podcast miniseries spotlights the significant contributions of women who are driving the U.S. housing economy forward, interviewing our honorees over the years on the impact they’re making today.  Hosted by Brena Nath and produced by Alcynna Lloyd.

Below is the transcription of the interview. These transcriptions, powered by Speechpad, have been lightly edited and may contain small errors from reproduction:

Brena Nath: Hi, I’m Brena Nath, HW+ managing editor here at HousingWire. I’m excited to continue our “Women of Influence” podcast miniseries featured on “HousingWire Daily.” Right now, I’m thankful to have Karen Starns. She’s the CMO, so chief marketing officer, at OJO Labs with me. First off, thank you so much, Karen, for joining me.

Karen Starns: Brena, thanks so much for having me.

Brena Nath: I know. At the time of filming this, we’re leaning into a holiday weekend, so I just want to give an extra thank you for joining me. I think the world, the mortgage industry, even outside of us, are busy to, kind of, just celebrate and eat some barbecue.

Karen Starns: Absolutely. It sounds like we’ve all got great weekends planned ahead.

Brena Nath: What I’m extra excited about… So the heart behind this podcast miniseries is to really spotlight our Women of Influence over the years, kind of, looking back at our winners in 2020, maybe even the ones in 2019, and see what has changed since then, what are they passionate about, what is the impact they’re having in the industry. But what’s notable about you that I’m excited to highlight is you are also part of our inaugural group of marketing leaders which we just announced at the beginning of this month in July 2021. So not only are you a 2020 HousingWire Woman of Influence, but you’re also a 2021 HousingWire Marketing Leader, so congrats on both of those fronts.

Karen Starns: Thank you so much. I really appreciate HousingWire’s recognition of my leadership.

Brena Nath: Most of these profiles, for those listening, I’ve been reading through the description of their 2021 Women of Influence profile just to give you a brief highlight of what they’ve been doing. But since Karen was just announced for this Marketing Leader award, I thought I’d, kind of, read a little bit of that one just to see some of the latest things that she’s done.

As chief marketing officer of OJO Labs, Karen Starns has transformed the fast-growing brand into a real estate powerhouse that offers deeply personalized experiences for home buying and selling. Through OJO Labs’ impressive growth over the last year, Starns has made an impact on multiple fronts, including bringing the company vision to life, rapidly expanding its customer base to millions of new consumers, and increasing brand presence within the broader real estate industry.

So that’s a small nutshell of what you’ve been up to. I’ll go ahead and, kind of, get more into that in our question. So the first one that I wanted to ask… For those who don’t know your background, this first question touches on your background. To start, you have 20 plus years of experience building two of the biggest names in consumer tech. You have experience in Amazon and Microsoft. Over the years, many have commented on the state of technology in the mortgage industry and the housing industry versus technology in other industries, highlighting, kind of, how far the housing industry is behind some of these other tech companies. From your perspective, especially including your background at Microsoft and Amazon, where does the industry stand now and what would you want those listening to know?

Karen Starns: Yeah, I do think there’s a lot we can learn from other industries. I would say, you know, essentially tech, e-commerce, services like Uber and DoorDash, they’ve changed consumer experience and their expectations really across all industries. If we, kind of, look within ourselves as consumers, our last best experience really sets the bar for all other experiences. And while I personally think we’re a long way from one-click home buying being anything maybe than a novelty, I think there are lessons that we can take away from these other industries like customer obsession, understanding the consumer’s jobs to be done. What are they actually trying to do? People aren’t typically looking for tech. They’re looking for an outcome, right? You want a new home or you want a mortgage. Tech may support that.

Also, looking at all the different ways that people want to interact with brands. Where do you want a live person? Where might you want a chatbot or AI-supported tool? Those are things that we can learn from our own consumer experiences and that we can draw from a broader set of industries.

Brena Nath: That’s a great insight, especially I know OJO Labs… You’re based in Austin, correct?

Karen Starns: We are. That’s right.

Brena Nath: Yeah, I know that is a tech hub right there, which leads right into, kind of, my next question for you. You are in a tech hub down there in Austin focused on the real estate space. What are innovative ways that you’d want people to know about that real estate is helping to push that envelope or on the cutting edge of technology that maybe people don’t realize is happening in the real estate tech space?

Karen Starns: Yeah, and I would say… I mean, we all live every day the obvious things around access to listings, and data, and mortgage insights, and the sheer amount of information that consumers can search for and glean on their own. I would say the pandemic really accelerated some of those, kind of, digital tools that help consumers, kind of, move further on their journey. You can look at the flip side of that to say, like, “Okay, has it complicated the journey in some respects?” Now there are so many offerings out there and I’d submit that the industry really has yet to offer a solution that provides consumers with the guidance to navigate all of those aspects of a complicated real estate landscape.

That’s part of what OJO is trying to do is help people navigate while looking at like, what are those barriers that lock many people out of homeownership? So guidance is a big one. Where am I starting and where am I trying to get to? What is my path? Not just a path or the path because there’s no single way to achieve their goals. And meeting people where they are and providing the guidance that helps them navigate their unique journey is something that I think tech, which supports, kind of, human experts, is something that we can expect to see more and more of.

Brena Nath: Guidance is a great word for it. We focus a lot, obviously at HousingWire, on B2B but we’ve really been expanding into that consumer industry, and what they’re looking for, and guidance, education, that makes it so much, kind of, feed right into the tech world of how they can come alongside each other, help that consumer, and help that journey.

OJO Labs is no stranger to our HousingWire award program. We’ve had a handful of winners at OJO Labs, and this is, kind of, switching gears, looking more into, you know, the development, how we’re growing the next generation of leaders. How have you seen OJO develop and grow leaders? And what advice would you share when it comes to growing a company? Since looking at your guys’ past award winners at HousingWire, you’re growing this amazing leadership base of people that are changing the landscape. So what advice would you share when it comes to growing those leaders and growing a company?

Karen Starns: I would say OJO Labs is one of the best places I’ve ever worked. The leadership across the entire company is really excellent, and I think part of what anchors us is a sense of purpose. And you hear that a lot of, like, people wanting to, you know, have a great job that understand that they’re contributing at a higher level, kind of, to society, to some of the bigger issues and challenges. And OJO’s sense of purpose really permeates everything from our culture to our ways of working.

Our focus really is to level the playing field for homebuyers and sellers. There’s what you could call a happy path for a subset of people, right? I’ve got a good credit rating. I’ve got the down payment. I have a neighborhood I’m interested in, and there are good options there, and it’s affordable. Those are the easier ones, right? It’s a complicated journey, but the outcome is pretty likely.

And so for us, we’re looking at how can we help people who have more of those barriers and may not have great credit or may not have grown up in a family of homeowners, right? Not even really understand, like, what that path looks like. And we’ve always been focused on helping guide homeowners and help them make better decisions.

The racial reckoning last summer really inspired us to take a closer look to really double-down on that and just say, “What role can we play in helping people tackle the barriers that get in their way?” And that conversation and the actions that we’ve taken within the company, I think, really has fueled us in a brand new way and helped us, kind of, rise to that next level of performance.

Brena Nath: Looking at the words, HousingWire’s editorial team is actively involved in a lot of those work programs and, kind of, reviewing each one. And you do see that throughout those profiles is that, kind of, banding together around a common cause or, you know, mission. Moving on, another key part of developing leaders is mentorship. And how can you not only do you grow as a leader but also sending that elevator back down? How do we grow the next generation of leaders? So what are your thoughts on the importance of mentorship?

Karen Starns: It’s such a juicy topic, and I’m really glad that you brought it up. I look at mentorship and say it’s table stakes now. It’s not optional. And I know a bunch of people, men and women, that right now aren’t in active mentoring relationships. So I think one of the things that’s for us to think about, kind of, our own personal paths and say, like, “Okay, mentorship is something that we need to factor in. It’s not, you know, icing on the cake. It’s really core.”

And we all need mentoring—a sounding board, a skills coach, trusted advice, somebody that you can go to for guidance. You mentioned earlier, kind of, the length of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to be a mentee and a mentor for many years, and I’ve gotten so much out of it really on both sides of the equation. When you’re mentoring someone, crystallizing your own thoughts and perspective is such a huge benefit of helping coach someone through their own career path and decisions.

And really you can inspire people to achieve their own greatness. And so the rewards of being a mentor is pretty huge and I’m an active mentor today. I mentor two social entrepreneurs—one who has an enterprise in Nigeria, the other in Mexico. And a little bit closer to home, I’ve got a tight relationship with the University of Texas. I’m a lecturer there and an incoming board chair for the Master of Science in Marketing Program. So I mentor a lot of students, kind of, in the process of them discovering their own path, what do they do with this brand new degree that they’re closing out on, and, in most cases, how do they begin their journey as marketers.

Brena Nath: I was listening to a clubhouse thing a while ago and I thought it was interesting. It was, like, on women, kind of, finding a mentor. And they have this practical comment in there about how people almost have to have like… Don’t forget to have an open door to accepting mentees. Do you have any general tips there? I, kind of, have an additional question to that. Like, anything that you found conversations of, like, directly asking someone to be a mentor to also just having fluid, flexible mentorship with people to asking like how do you actually…? We talk about mentorship, but how do you get a mentor?

Karen Starns: Yeah, I love the topic of mentorship versus how do you get a mentor. And let me unpack that a little bit because I think identifying someone of like “I want this enduring relationship” can feel very daunting. Sending a LinkedIn request or an email or asking for an intro to someone to have a conversation, that’s a pretty low bar. And this will be dangerous to say on a podcast, but I try to take every single meeting of someone that reaches out to me because if I have something to offer them on their journey, you know, I want to be able to do that.

And so I think for potential mentees, think about it as take a step. If there’s something there where there’s kind of the possibility of working together over time or, kind of, the skill set and the needs really align, you’re going to find that out in one or two conversations, but you don’t have to, kind of, go into this of like, “I need to find a mentor, you know, that’s going to be with me for months or years.” It’s like get into mentoring conversations of, you know, “I see that you’ve got the skill set, Karen. You know, you’ve done a lot of branding work,” right? People come to me on that. You know, “I’d love to have a conversation with you about x.” And if you can be specific in your request to someone of how their background fits what you’re interested in, whether that’s career path or skill set, you know, in my experience, people are really receptive to that, and you’re going to get more yeses than nos.

Brena Nath: I like that end piece. I never thought about like… When you are sending that request, I think to your point it can seem daunting if you take that out of the equation and really just boil it down and then do that practical tip at the end that you mentioned of, “Here’s what you have. I’m looking to go into this.” And this is why I want to talk to you specifically, so it narrows it down to where you’re just, you know, reaching out to every female executive out there versus, “No, you specifically have this history and I’ve done my research. I’ve looked into your profile. You know, I’m willing and I’m very curious to learn more,” type thing. Who are the women that you look up to in or out of this space? How did you craft, you know, “That’s who I want to be”?

Karen Starns: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. I would say, you know, fully transparent, as for women inside the industry, that scenario I need to invest in. You know, coming out of tech and just two years in our industry, I really haven’t established deep relationships with women leaders in real estate outside of OJO, where I’m really thrilled to work alongside some great women in RELT.

But a few key women come to mind, for me, in my journey. Mich Matthews is really the first woman executive that I reported to. She was CMO of Microsoft. This was about 10 years ago. So, you know, when I look back at, kind of, my career trajectory, there are really meaningful moments. And working with Mich was one of those. I learned a lot from her. She had, kind of, this really amazing, I’ll call it, alchemy of praise and critical feedback to get the most out of people.

And the time that she said to me, “Karen, you’re not leading,” you know, A, was a punch in the gut, but really it was the first occasion I think in my whole career that I’d gotten that kind of heart-stopping feedback versus, like, “You’re doing great. Keep doing it.” She was shining a light on my shadows, and that was really a significant moment for me and has been instructive in the long term. And pats on the back are great, and a lot of people thrive from, kind of, having praise and feedback, but having an honest relationship where someone is willing to tell you where you’re falling down can be so incredibly powerful.

And then I also briefly just want to mention, you know, a dear friend and college roommate, Amie Jones. She’s CEO of an architectural design firm here in Austin, and it’s been incredible to be on a 30-year professional journey with somebody, a friend you trust completely, an executive, a mom. I mean, there are a lot of things where we’ve just been able to, kind of, bounce ideas off each other.

And that’s something that I would also say is you’re developing relationships with peers or mentors. When you find an opportunity to really be holistic in that approach, there can be so much unlocked and value out of that. I’m a mom. I’m an executive. I’ve got things that I like to do in life outside of work. And engaging with people that can help you look at your whole self and be a sounding board around that I find really powerful.

Brena Nath: To your first point in that list of two, both great, it is true. It is really hard I think for some people to give critical feedback and it’s kind of like this merging of not only, “Here’s what you’re doing good,” but also, “Here’s your rough areas.” You’re not perfect and none of us are perfect, but it can be hard to find that person. And I like that kind of tidbit for as we, I mean, females, males, are going in their career and looking for, not just maybe pausing, like, you know, where are my growth areas? Where are my shadows? To your point, every strength comes with a basement, and every strength has its weakness to it. You might be super adaptable, but does that mean you’re not as grounded in some things you need to be? And how does that reflect into your leadership? Which I think is a great piece to resonate on, especially to grow and develop. To wrap, I want to always ask that same question. You know, the mortgage industry, housing can be historically male-dominated. What do you think it would take to get more women into this industry? And why is it important?

Karen Starns: You know, I think you can look at different segments of people. If you look at realtors, for example. Sixty-four percent of realtors in the U.S. are women. Sixty-four percent of people in marketing are women. And I think where we fall down in many cases is that path to leadership, that tracking forward. And while in some cases we’ve made great strides, I saw a stat recently that said 47% of CMOs are women, which is great, there’s still ground that we need to make up. So I would say there’s an opportunity across industries to look at, “What are we doing to lift up women not just to bring them in but to bring them forward?”

And I’d love to pause for a minute on the topic of sponsorship. So we spoke a minute ago about mentorship, which I think is so valuable around self-development. Sponsorship, in particular, is really saying, “How are you championing somebody externally?” Advocacy, visibility, promotion, those connections. And this is a key place where men in positions of leadership as well as women can be difference-makers on somebody’s professional path.

And where the mentorship really focuses in on that coaching, having a sponsor and knowing the difference, right, “Is this person sponsoring me? Am I going to move along with them? Are they saying, ‘Oh, Karen might be great over here’?” you need that, too. And so being able to both be a sponsor when you’re in a position of power as well as identifying people that will sponsor you on your career is what’s going to, kind of, change the mix and the shape of organizations.

Brena Nath: Great. So it’s almost to your point of, like, sponsorship, making sure someone’s saying like, “Hey, there’s a seat at this table. Let’s put so and so at it,” and almost giving that kudos or recognition in a room where maybe people don’t know. And our other podcast girlfriend, someone made a great point about how women maybe aren’t as good at bragging about themselves and all their accomplishments. And this really ties right into that about making sure that we don’t just say, “Oh, you know, yeah, maybe I did do that giant project, and pull some of those hours, and get creative thinking.” But having someone sponsor you, and help making sure that that accomplishment is seen, and then opening that door for you into the next opportunity, it’s a great point because it is different than mentorship. It is a sponsorship.

Karen Starns: It is and I think that, to your point, we as individuals can set ourselves up better for that by not undercutting our greatness, not caveating something that we’ve done or a thought we may offer at a table of, “This may be wrong,” or, you know, no need to preface input and confidently being able to say, “I have a different point of view.” Those are ways that you can help show up in a stronger way. Position yourself with a sponsor and head down that path.

And if I might add, because this is something that I think is so important for us as women to really be mindful of, I think there’s a really unhealthy reality in many businesses where a woman who’s a rising star sees other women as competition. And so instead of lifting them up, that act of support isn’t there. And I would just say we as women need to change our behavior. We’ve got to reject the idea that other women are professional competition. We need to bring people along with us on the path to leadership.

Brena Nath: I like how you said don’t undercut your greatness, and that goes right into that of spending a lot of time like there’s enough room at the table for all us in different tables, and women supporting women, helping them, championing them, there’s enough room, and everyone’s unique. So I like that extra, kind of, touch there.

To close us out, I just want to say, Karen, I really appreciate you not only diving into the tech side, the OJO side, how you guys are developing leaders, how OJO is kind of helping push the envelope, real estate is kind of making its stake in the tech space, but also diving into mentorship, sponsorship, helping give this advice to the people listening. Regardless of who they are, all of this is practical to really anybody. So thank you for sharing your wisdom and hopefully… I’m excited about our listeners to take this and actually apply this to their career, apply this to their growth, and hopefully send people out there to go out and say, “Okay, what can I do to implement some of these things in my life?”

Karen Starns: That’s great. Yeah, a few calls to action in there. So appreciate the conversation.

Brena Nath: We love a good call to action. Well, thank you so much, Karen. Appreciate your time and congrats again on being not only a marketing leader but also a woman of influence.

Karen Starns: Thank you so much.

HousingWire Daily

Hosted by the journalists behind the headlines, HousingWire Daily examines the most compelling mortgage, real estate, and fintech articles reported from the HousingWire newsroom.

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