Transwestern Startup Stories: Sandy Liao – HomeLight

Transwestern, HomeLight, San Francisco

By Jack Seymour and Jason Burch

This series profiles innovative companies and how they are adapting to the challenges of Bay Area Shelter-In-Place orders in the wake of COVID-19.

Founded in 2012, HomeLight is a venture-backed technology startup revolutionizing residential real estate for buyers, sellers, and agents. With a mission to empower people to make smarter decisions during one of life’s most important moments, HomeLight’s technology analyzes millions of home transactions to compare agents and identify financing solutions. The company is headquartered at 100 1st St. in San Francisco, and now has three additional offices throughout the U.S.

Transwestern, HomeLight, San Francisco
Sandy Liao, Head of Talent & HR for HomeLight

Head of Talent and Human Resources, Sandy Liao, spoke with us on how the proptech company chose its expansion cities, what effect this year’s remote work need will have on future location decisions and how it’s empowering real estate agents to help clients confidently and safely transact during, and coming out of, COVID-19.

Seymour. With offices today in San Francisco, Scottsdale, Seattle and NYC, what were some of the factors that went into deciding upon where to open your first satellite office?

Liao. HomeLight was founded in San Francisco and today our executive team is still based here. We are in the literal heart of the city at First and Mission Streets. When we initiated our first satellite office expansion, there were a few factors that led us to choosing Scottsdale as our next location. Our goal was to open an office to house a decent-sized, operations-based team in a city with a lower cost of living than San Francisco.

We posted our job listings in Arizona, Denver, Texas, and a couple of other locations. We were able to find the most relevant candidates in Arizona because the mortgage and real estate industries were quite strong there comparatively. Some really great talent from that initial candidate search period would go on to be key hires for the office.

We have a strong in-office culture where we value the team being in one place. Having that face-to-face interaction is very important, so we wanted a satellite environment that was close enough for our San Francisco team to visit with a short flight. We also wanted the initial satellite location to be in the same time zone as our San Francisco office (except for a few months per year).

Our Scottsdale office has since become our largest in terms of headcount. Our NYC and Seattle offices came about through acquisitions of companies and existing teams in those markets.

Burch. With the Shelter-In-Place (SIP) mandates heavily restricting a home buyer’s ability to tour properties in-person, what has HomeLight proactively done to address the changing home buying process?

Liao. Buying or selling a home is a very emotional process. No matter how much everyone wants to limit person-to-person interactions at this time, there is still a desire from consumers to want to walk the home and get a feel for it. That part of the consumer’s expected process and experience has been somewhat challenging to overcome.

Last month, we launched a certification called Move Safe. We provide guidance to HomeLight real estate agents on how to safely navigate the showing process and keep clients safe. We help them with virtual showing best practices, virtual staging technologies, cleaning and health protocol training, and more. We’ve had some really good feedback from agents as well as sellers and buyers, who have felt safe and confident in moving forward buying or selling a home because of the certification and their agent’s proactive adaptation in the wake of COVID-19.

Burch. Would you say that the majority of your employees share the sentiment and want to get back to the office?

Liao. We’ve been conducting frequent surveys and there is really quite a mix of feedback. Some people have found the transition to be fairly seamless. We have people who live alone and are really ready to get back to the office because they miss human interaction. We have parents with young kids who are struggling with balancing parenting and working from home. In a recent survey that asked about the adjustment to working from home, most employees at HomeLight responded that they miss their coworkers and the face-to-face interaction that comes from being in the office.

Seymour. As a result of Covid-19 downturn, there are a lot of startups headquartered in The Bay Area with satellite offices in more cost-effective markets that are weighing up the cost benefits of consolidating their offices and/or moving towards a remote workforce. Is HomeLight making similar considerations?

Liao. Every company values different things. It really depends on what the company is focused on at that particular time and what its core goals are. At HomeLight, we value working as a team. One of our core values is being part of a family. As much as we have been working very well remotely over the past two months, there’s still something missing that comes from not being in person. There may be an opportunity to grow some of our remote workforce in the future, but I don’t foresee us reducing our physical office space dramatically.

Seymour. After moving to a complete WFH workforce two months ago, how has productivity been impacted, if at all, and are there specific job functions that have fared better than others?

Liao. Generally, productivity is hard to measure across the board, and frankly, it’s not been a top priority for us to measure. Our leadership has laid a foundation of trust during the last few months – we recognize that these aren’t normal times. There are certain groups that are certainly struggling more than others, whether because of their family situation or the type of work they do and how it typically gets done. We’re communicating with our managers that there needs to be an increased level of flexibility during this time.

We also have very open and transparent goals that we share across the board. One thing we recently did to foster openness and cross-functional collaboration was to share our OKR (Objectives and Key Results) tracking of our weekly and quarterly goals across all teams.

We were not an entirely remote team before COVID-19, so we have been somewhat pleasantly surprised with the success we’ve seen in regard to productivity. We were a little nervous at first rolling this out, but I think it speaks to our culture and our employees’ talent that we’ve had the success we have, considering the circumstances.

Burch. What measures have you begun looking into for when it comes time to start allowing employees back in the office?

Liao. We have a facilities team that has started hosting a lot of different conversations with other office managers and human resources teams. We have actively begun acquiring PPE and cleaning products in anticipation for re-entry. We’ll also be issuing return-to-office training for our teams on safety regulations and best practices, as well as surveying them about potential exposure before they return. We’ll also be increasing our janitorial deep cleaning frequency to daily and weekly occurrences.

From a policy standpoint, we aren’t going to be mandating that people return to the office. We want employees to come back when they feel comfortable – and it makes sense in their personal lives – for them to do so. The last thing we want to do is rush re-entry. Our team’s safety is our absolute top priority.

Jack Seymour is a leasing associate at Transwestern’s San Francisco office, Jack’s primary role is to serve as a real estate advisor on major projects working alongside the established office leasing team of Jeff Moeller, Peter Conte and Zac Monsees. He is also responsible for developing relationships with and serving the needs of local and/or national prospective clients as well as providing diverse marketing support for leasing services.

Jason Burch is currently serving as Managing Director with Transwestern’s San Francisco office. With 10+ years of experience in brokerage throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, Jason maintains relationships with decision makers at some of the world’s top corporations, working locally, nationally and internationally to align comprehensive commercial real estate services with their business goals. Over the course of his career, Jason has been involved in leasing and disposition transactions totaling more than 2.5 million square feet and valued at more than $1 billion. Notable clients with recent transactions include Wish, Inc., SFMTA, NerdWallet and Historic Pier 70.

ABOUT TRANSWESTERN REAL ESTATE SERVICES

Transwestern Real Estate Services (TRE) adds value for investors, owners and occupiers of all commercial property types through a comprehensive perspective and by providing solutions grounded in sound market intelligence. Part of the Transwestern companies, the firm applies a consultative approach to Agency Leasing, Asset Services, Occupier Solutions, Capital Markets, and Research & Investment Analytics.

The privately held Transwestern companies have been delivering a higher level of personalized service and innovative real estate solutions since 1978. An integrated approach formed from fresh ideas drives value for clients across commercial real estate services, development, investment management and opportunistic programs for high-net-worth investors. The firm operates through 34 U.S. offices and global alliances with BNP Paribas Real Estate and Devencore.

About HomeLight

HomeLight is a venture-backed technology startup revolutionizing the $1 trillion real estate industry with a simple mission – to empower people to make smarter decisions during one of life’s most important moments: buying or selling their home. HomeLight’s technology analyzes millions of home transactions to determine which agent or cash buyer is right for home buyers and sellers. HomeLight also offers innovative financing and closing solutions, creating an end-to-end real estate experience that’s simple, certain, and satisfying.

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