John Berkowitz of OJO Labs

An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with John Berkowitz, the co-founder and CEO of OJO Labs, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of OJO Labs – what problem were you trying to solve and why?

In 2015, before OJO Labs was a leader in Austin real estate tech with 300+ employees and over $130M in funding, my co-founder and I were iterating different product solutions and business models all centered around helping people make better decisions. We had strong conviction that the combination of technological advancements, changing consumer behavior, and the mass amounts of data being made available could create a better way to inform and empower consumers to make better decisions. Our first product launch, named Map Mojo, offered a conversational assistant to help consumers make better decisions locally with their time and money, delivering personalized recommendations for local restaurants, bars, and other activities via text messaging.

Not long after we launched, Map Mojo’s consumer engagement metrics showed us that we could support all purchase decisions, large or small, consumers were making. With Map Mojo, consumers could receive deeply personalized recommendations, without any of the pressure or expectations that come from person-to-person interactions, and that balance really resonated with people.

With early product market fit established and the knowledge we would need to hone in on one vertical for a long period of time before branching out to new use cases, we went through an exercise to determine the best application for our technology. We spent weeks exploring the most complex and important decisions consumers make, assessing everything from buying appliances to applying for loans to healthcare. The combination of the industry’s size, complexity, and issues that consumers face, as well as the importance of the decision, led us to choose the housing journey as our beachhead vertical.

Today, our AI advisor guides consumers through the complex real estate landscape from discovery to close. Using a blend of machine and human intelligence, we deliver deeply personalized property recommendations, insights, and inspiration, moving beyond search towards serendipitous discovery. Now, through the recent acquisition of Movoto, we’ve created the first ever end-to-end solution for buying and selling homes at scale, supporting consumers nationwide and in Canada.

What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?

To build an end-to-end platform that delivered on the early product vision, there were many difficult challenges we had to overcome. There were several chicken and egg problems that required a unique approach, including building a differentiated technology, establishing a 24/7 AI training center with 200 full-time employees in St. Lucia, getting licensed as a real estate company in all 50 states, creating partnerships with the largest companies in the industry, and making real progress in AI, all before our commercial launch.

Another challenge was getting investors and partners to be patient while we gathered the raw materials for our technology and solved complex technical problems. While other real estate technology companies were focused on bringing home searches online, we wanted to build a solution that would streamline the entire home process from discovery until close. To achieve this, our team spent years gathering the vast amounts of real estate data needed to develop a sophisticated AI solution and building industry partnerships that would allow us to scale quickly. Our methodical approach to AI development led to the creation of the real estate industry’s largest image recognition data set, which powers our personal AI advisor for homebuying. By addressing these challenges early, we’ve been able to scale rapidly in recent years, propelled by our sophisticated AI technology and robust industry partnerships with real estate giants like Realogy and the Royal Bank of Canada.

Recently, just as many other startups, the largest challenge we’ve faced has been navigating all the changes that we’ve had to make as a business throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. At the onset of the pandemic, we immediately began working to ensure the safety and well-being of our team and their loved ones. Just recently, we canceled the company’s voluntary reopening, and in June, when the company needed it most, we shut down US operations for a week to give team members the opportunity to recharge and reset. Faced with the new remote work reality, our leadership team worked quickly to develop fun, engaging workplace events and activities to keep our team connected, including our own morning talk show, car parades for employees’ birthdays, and delivering company news at team-organized virtual workouts.

Beyond the workplace, the pandemic also presented serious challenges to our business objectives. At the onset of the pandemic, our team was in the process of securing our latest funding round. Pandemic-related travel restrictions, as well as acclimating to our new remote work reality, presented numerous challenges. Adding to this already difficult feat, we were also aggressively pursuing the acquisition of Movoto, the fastest growing home search site in the US. With the acquisition contingent upon the funding, our team worked relentlessly to finalize both deals simultaneously – a challenge that seemed nearly impossible. After months of work and countless Zoom meetings, we were able to secure over $63 million in funding and finalize the acquisition of Movoto, which has positioned us to scale rapidly and serve additional homebuyers and sellers across North America.

What does the future hold for OJO Labs?

Coming off the heels of our latest funding round and the acquisition of Movoto, we’re scaling rapidly and continuing to iterate on consumer experience. We’ve spent the last five years focused on building the most powerful solution for taking consumers from searching for a home to actually moving in. With the acquisition of Movoto, the fifth largest and fastest growing real estate search site, we’re now positioned to scale our differentiated consumer experience to millions of homebuyers and sellers across North America.

In alignment with our mission of helping consumers find and buy a home they love that fits their needs and preferences, our team has begun a significant undertaking to help level the playing field for all homebuyers and sellers.

What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Austin?

The Austin technology scene is one of the strongest in the country and has unique assets that equip it to lead the world in innovation and creation. With a well-rounded, booming talent pool from local universities, as well as a rush of venture capital, repeat founders, executives, and investors migrating from the coasts, and a general rising-tide mentality amongst business and community leaders, Austin has everything needed to be the Silicon Valley of the next 20 years. We also have the benefit of hindsight and learning from the mistakes of the Valley, while riding off the amazing things done there over the last 20 years. As an entrepreneur, mentor, and investor, I’ve witnessed the energy and depth of talent in the Austin startup community, and feel lucky to be a part of a system that is going to truly change the world.

What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

The first piece of advice that I share with aspiring entrepreneurs is to never do it alone. Having a co-founder that you can go to and work with is an invaluable resource as both a budding and experienced entrepreneur. Even with a great executive team, you need someone who is as financially and personally invested as you are because they’re in it for good.

Second, find partners that believe in your business. If the last several months have taught the startup community anything, it’s that you can’t take anything for granted. When a crisis hits, you want partners that will have your back and continue to believe in your business. We’ve been fortunate to work with people that have believed in us since the early days and have stayed by our side through major wins and challenges. To build these strong partnerships, be authentic and true to your company from day one and show your partners that you’ll be a loyal ally that reciprocates their support.

 

For more exclusive interviews, see our full Profile of a Founder series

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