OfferUp CEO Nick Huzar on Evolving as a Leader
Spencer Rascoff is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire and dot.LA, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. He is currently executive chairman of dot.LA and a board member at Zillow and TripAdvisor. In fall 2019, Spencer was a Visiting Executive Professor at Harvard Business School where he co-taught the "Managing Tech Ventures" course. In 2015, Spencer co-wrote and published his first book, the New York Times' Best Seller "Zillow Talk: Rewriting the Rules of Real Estate." Spencer is the host of "Office Hours," a monthly podcast on dot.LA featuring candid conversations between prominent executives on leadership, diversity and inclusion, and startups.
Nick Huzar is co-founder and CEO of OfferUp, the largest mobile marketplace in the U.S. The company has reinvented the model for local, peer-to-peer commerce, and its engagement metrics are incredible. In 2017, the company reported that it had over 60 million downloads and 43 million users who use the platform as frequently as popular social media apps. Today, OfferUp is one of the highest valued private companies in the Pacific Northwest, officially gaining unicorn status. In this episode, Nick offers advice for leaders about scaling a company, the importance of building trust and how his leadership style has evolved with OfferUp's growth.
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Spencer Rascoff: I'm in Bellevue, Washington today, near Seattle, with co-founder and CEO, Nick Huzar, of OfferUp. Hey, Nick. Thanks for having me.
Nick Huzar: Hey, really nice to be here.
Spencer: So for those unfamiliar with OfferUp, tell us a little bit about the company and the product, from a consumer standpoint, and when you started it, what the mission was.
Nick: Sure. Well, I started OfferUp from a personal pain point. I had a baby on the way, and I literally had a room full of stuff, and I was just thinking to myself, “Kill me. There's gotta be a better way to sell all this," and there really wasn't, so –
Spencer: Pre-baby decluttering, nesting phase.
Spencer: I'm very familiar with that.
Nick: Yeah. For all the parents out there, they can relate to what I was going through. So what I saw at the time was a huge opportunity. I believed that the smartphone would be something that everyone would have, and at the time – this was seven years ago – not everyone – most people, in fact, didn't have one.
Spencer: Now remind us. There were iPhones, but no App Stores?
Nick: Yeah, and Android was barely a thing, right?
Nick: So I think there was a few assumptions me and my cofounder made. One, everyone would have one of these, which today you look back and say, “Well, duh." Two, we thought the cameras would get better, and three, ultimately we just felt that everyone would pay from these devices. So I think all those trends had started to manifest in some way. So for me, when I was kinda building and designing the initial app, I was really building it for myself.
Spencer: And that's the way the best products are built.
Nick: Yeah, and I still, to this day, you know, a lot of stuff in my house is from OfferUp. My kids, most of the stuff now – I have two kids now. Most of the stuff that they get is all from OfferUp. I don't buy them new stuff because they don't like it very long. So I think the opportunity I saw was big. I think a lot of the existing players that were out there were respectable, but they were built in a desktop era, and I think mobile gave us an opportunity to really reimagine the entire local buying and selling experience.
And so when we think about OfferUp in the long term, our vision is to really help to transform local buying and selling, and we think the opportunity is way bigger than where we are today. Our mission is to be the largest, simplest, and most trusted marketplace for local, and so I think we still have a very long way to go. It's amazing to see how fast we've actually grown. We're one of the top shopping apps in the country, definitely the largest mobile marketplace out there, so OfferUp's really starting to become a household name in a lot of markets around the country, and again, I think there was a lot of people that were like me. They just didn't have the time to deal with the existing solutions, and they found OfferUp to be something easy to use.
Spencer: So I want to come back to growth and scaling and how the company is, which is now a couple hundred employees, has changed since its founding seven years ago. Just to round out the picture of the competitive landscape, I guess in those early days, you were really competing with Craigslist online, on desktop, and then whatever other hacky, offline solutions people found, if it was at college campuses, putting a poster on a board in a shared space or something. And then there's some newer digital competitors as well on mobile, but I mean, do you think of traditional e-commerce, like Amazon for new goods, as a direct competitor as well?
Nick: So, to be clear, we've had competitors the whole way. Every year one will come and go, and it's just been probably, you know. This is kinda how it's evolved over time. I like to really obsess, so – and my belief is it's – we're really expanding the market, so I never went into this business to even convert a single Craigslist user. I believed that the market was way, way bigger. I believed there was more people like me that weren't using it, and we see that today.
We see a lot of people that said, “I never used X, Y, Z platform," and I use OfferUp all the time, because it's simple, and it works, and so 85 percent of commerce is still local, even in the world of eBay and Amazon, all these amazing e-commerce sites, and that's what we're after. We wanna expand into that market. Now, clearly, Amazon's an amazing company, and they'll continue to kind of chip away at that, but I really think of that as the opportunity. Our biggest focus is reducing friction, and our belief is the more we do that, the more people participate in commerce in this way.
Spencer: How competitor focused is your company versus product focus? This is something a lot of startups kind of struggle with, trying to find the right balance.
Nick: Yeah, so I don't think we really obsess or talk about competition hardly at all. We acknowledge them and definitely wanna understand kind of what are they doing out there in the world, but our obsession is really internal in our customers and really building this simplest and trusted experience, so we really obsess over that. And our belief is the more we do that, the more people continue to use OfferUp, and we believe that that's what the winning approach is. You can try all these other marketplaces, but if you're gonna have – whatever one's gonna yield the most success, where you're either buying or selling, is the one you're gonna use the most, so we really obsess over the product quite a bit.
Spencer: Yeah, so I think competitor aware, consumer focused, consumer obsessed is probably the right balance.
Spencer: I mean I've done two startups, Hotwire and Zillow. Hotwire was competitor focused. When we started it, we were really focused on competing with Priceline in the discount travel space. Zillow was consumer focused. We certainly have competitors, have had competitors, have acquired some competitors, but we've never been overly consumer focused at all, and I will tell you that from an employee standpoint, it is a much more inspirational, aspirational place to work if you're consumer obsessed and not competitor obsessed. It was kind of soul-sucking at Hotwire to – every accomplishment, every metric was always being measured against Priceline, this other competitor, and it was –
Spencer: Yeah, I guess it was good motivation, I guess, but it wasn't nearly as fun.
Nick: Yeah, really, and in our case, you – the great thing about OfferUp is you have to go meet and talk to people. It's not a product where – you know, our whole office is furnished from OfferUp. The chairs we're sitting in, in the room we're in, and that's great, because as an employee, you get to go meet them, and talk to people, and learn how to make it better, and actually get to interact with people, and I think in most companies you don't have that opportunity.
Spencer: So the product, from a consumer standpoint, is take a photo of this thing in my garage, press a button, post it, find a buyer, and then I meet them in an OfferUp kind of safe community space, which addresses some of the trust and safety issues that other local marketplaces have encountered, and do you charge the buyer or the seller? What's your revenue model?
Nick: Yeah, so today we have an advertising product. We just introduced shipping. There's many other, I think, exciting things we'll be introducing in the future, but it's kind of a combination of an ad model and then there's a small take rate for transactions that do happen on the platform.
Spencer: Let's fast forward to today. You started about sevenish years ago. Today, 2018, how much capital have you raised? How many employees? What other business metrics can you share with listeners so they get a sense of the scale of the company?
Nick: Sure. So we have over 230 employees today. We've probably raised over $230 million in capital, and we've had over 70 million installs in the US, and like I said, if you go into the App Store, under shopping, you'll see that it's usually one, two, or three. We either trade with Wish or Amazon and OfferUp, and so I felt pretty proud considering how well funded and large both those companies are. That we're in good company considering how small we are relative, you know, as a team, and so, you know, people use OfferUp a lot, and we're becoming kind of a – people engage in OfferUp more like social media. People spend on average, 20 minutes a day, almost every other day of the month.
Nick: And so people are really engaged, and they're trying to find and discover things that are nearby, and I think – or they're selling something, but it's really interesting to see how people engage in OfferUp versus other e-commerce platforms. We were designed to be visual and discovery-based and I think a lot of other marketplaces are just not built for, you know. They weren't built around all the power in the smartphone, and so we just took a different lens and a different approach to all that.
Spencer: Is there even a desktop product?
Nick: What's interesting is our web team, until probably 18 months ago, was one guy, and he's awesome, but we kind of – that's been growing quite a bit. Actually, our web metrics are now growing and usage is continuing to grow there. So we've been investing a lot more there in the recent number of years, but we're definitely a mobile-first company. That's where a lot of our innovation and focus is, but still, spending more time on the desktop than before.
Spencer: Now you're a Seattle-based company. You're in Bellevue, which is sort of suburban Seattle, and yet you are a unicorn. That's kind of a weird term. I don't know if you embrace it or not and you accept that descriptor.
Spencer: But it seems to me that the way you've built OfferUp is a little different than some Bay Area tech companies. I mean you're very focused on the consumer and consumer PR, for example, but you haven't been as front and center in the tech trade press as a lot of other tech companies at similar stages. Is that fair to say?
Spencer: And why is that?
Nick: I think historically, our focus is really again, just customer, and really honing in on the business and really trying to get deep local market and kind of penetration and so a lot of this I think was fairly strategic and very, you know, forward thinking, where even after Andreessen Horowitz invested, we said, “Don't put us on your website." Like, “Mark, please don't tweet about us," and that gave us a number of years to grow around the country before we had more serious competition.
And it enabled us to build these beach heads in some of the most important, I think, markets in the country. And so if you live here, you know kind of what markets and the dynamics are, and you're local, and I think being local has a huge advantage. You really know kind of what's going on, and so I think a lot of this was, you know, we always believed there would be big companies trying to come after this space, and there are now, but again, years ago we kind of planned for this, and I think that was very, very important and strategic, so –
Spencer: Interesting. How very Seattle. I like it.
Nick: Yeah. One of the last markets we ever launched, by the way, was the Bay Area, on purpose, like, years, and so by the time anyone woke up in the Bay Area, we were already pretty deep in many markets, like I think where you live in LA, it's a massive market for us.
Nick: But that was one of the earliest markets we launched, and so San Francisco actually came a lot later.
Spencer: That's interesting. I mean most tech companies obsess over the number of Recode and TechCrunch mentions that they get, and you've taken a pretty – a very different approach. Okay, so here we are today, late 2018. You're building out your strategic plan for 2019, 2020, and beyond. Put us in your shoes. What are the things that you as the CEO and the founder face? What do you worry about? What's top of mind for you?
Nick: Yeah. So I think a few things. So, one is just scale and structure. And so when you're small, you don't need a lot of structure, because you're all sitting together. Everyone's aligned and understands, but as you fast forward over the next number of years and you've seen this movie more than I have, but you need that.
You need to get ahead of it. You need to kind of lay out mile markers that help everyone be aligned on where they're going. You need to be able to bring in more leadership that's also seeing the moving, so that's a lot of what's top of mind for me, is continuing to elevate my team and the leadership team to help us on the next chapter of growth. I think in many ways I always say that we're Amazon in the book phase. We are nowhere near where I see this company going.
So how do we start to layer in other things that we think are game changing to the business, and so I think there's multiple things that we have incorporated that have been proven, but there's also a lot of things that we've built as a company that we pioneered that no one else has done. And I think that's really critical, so like an example would be all the things we do around trust and safety. So early on, we built out our TruYou program, and we did it because we knew trust really mattered. We're bringing two people together face-to-face.
Well, who is the person that you're actually engaging with? And so how TruYou works is you can opt in for it. First step is you scan an ID. Second step is we ask you to take a selfie, and then we actually do some image recognition, and match that. If you do it, you have a really prominent badge on your profile that says you're a TruYou member, and that's a big endorsement, we think, in the community.
Spencer: It's pretty much everything that Craigslist is not.
Nick: Yeah, they didn't do that, or where do you wanna meet? That's a logistic challenge, and people go back and forth on that. We try to make that simple, so we leverage natural language processing. We actually suggest meetup locations, and as you've seen, we have this in this lobby. We have thousands of these meetup locations around the country, in retail stores, in police parking lots. That's something, again, that we pioneered. We kinda just said, “We wanna make it easier and find well-lit locations to have people transact," and so that's another thing that I think we focused on and we said, “Trust matters, and we're gonna do something that hasn't been done before."
Spencer: Do you find competitors now trying to drop behind that and use those spaces and –
Nick: Not, I think, to the degree that we do. I think that it's easy to say, “Oh, yeah, we care about trust," but I think you have to really kind of look at how much investment and time are you really focused, and we really – it's a core part of our team and our company's trust, so –
Spencer: So for listeners who are scaling their own company and thinking about how to take their company to the next stage, I guess one of the things that I'm hearing is you're very deliberate and thoughtful about this. You're not just a boat kind of letting the waves take you in one direction or another. You're trying to be really circumspect about what do I need to position the company for success over the next couple of years? And what do I need from my management team? What do I need for me? I mean you're probably asking yourself, how do you need to change as a CEO?
Spencer: I mean, at least when I was at – when my company was at your size, I was in the process of changing things, like what meetings do I go to? How do I communicate? What input do I give? So when you're 30 employees, 50 employees, 100 employees, the CEO, or other executives that doesn't even figure, but as the company gets bigger, I've had to change the way I communicate. Does this resonate? Is this –
Spencer: Yeah, okay.
Nick: [Laughter] Yeah. I'm going exactly through this metamorphosis right now. Yeah, and I think the – sometimes I miss the days when we used to sit at one table with 20 people.
Nick: Like you didn't have communication challenges. Everyone knew what you were doing. The downside, you can kind of limp along at that stage and do one thing. As you get bigger, alignment and communication becomes the challenge, and you have to over-index on that. And so I've had many mentors tell me the same thing. You need to repeat yourself, and again, I feel like I'm treating people like children, but I realize, “Hey, wait. You have new people here. They haven't heard the same message."
Nick: I find lately I'm kind of evolving into more of a coach role too, where I'm trying to help other people do the same, where they'll get frustrated and say, “Well, I already said this to Bob," and I said, “Yeah, but you need to say it again. We're evolving. Just make sure it's top of mind." And so that's one. I'm very focused on my calendar and my time and wonderful people on my team that are helping me to kind of manage my time, but I'm also – I'm looking at it now and I'm already mapping out next year.
I'm like, “How do I wanna be spending my time?" So I'm trying to be very thoughtful and deliberate on how I want that to change, and then what meetings I need to be in, and how I need to be in them. I think how I communicate, same thing, where words matter. One word – I've got – you're kind of screwed either way sometimes, and I'm like, “Man, I said that one thing and it made that person upset. Now I kinda wanna follow up and say, 'Hey, you know what? Let me elaborate a little bit more.'"
Nick: I think part of the challenge also with communication is I don't have a lot of time in a day. I don't have time to read big decks. I don't have time to go into e-mails. I don't have time to explain for 30 minutes what I mean. I have to be succinct and I need information presented to me that's succinct so I can make an informed decision. So I think that's really happened a lot more in the last year, just being sensitive to my time a bit.
Spencer: We've experimented with different decision making rubrics. LinkedIn uses rapid. There's another one called RACI, R-A-C-I, or something. They're all different acronyms for things that basically say when you're trying to make a decision, determine up front who's the decision maker, who provides input, who needs to be informed, et cetera.
Spencer: Because there are a lot of things, as we've grown, that it's just not clear whose decision it is. Is it my decision? Is it someone's decision? I don't know. Nobody knows.
Spencer: And we definitely struggle with this. On the communication thing, what I've done is I've tried to make a habit of explaining who is – when these words come out of my mouth, or through my keyboard, or my phone, in what capacity am I saying it? I'll be like, “I'm giving this feedback just as a user of the products. Just take it for – as one person's input."
I'm saying, or I'm saying this as the CEO, “Go do it," or I'm saying it as the, you know, someone that's providing input to you who's gonna go make the decision here, and this is just my advice, do whatever you want. And like, giving that context is helpful, mostly helpful, well, certainly helpful for the recipient, but also helpful for me as well, to like, remind myself of – in what form, in what context am I providing this input [crosstalk] that's helpful? Let's just say five years from now, OfferUp doesn't achieve the success, its destiny that you think it's on the path of. What went wrong? What do you think happened?
Nick: I always say that the problems are internal, not external. I believe that, again, I obsess over shaping culture, I think, and developing people, and helping the team to evolve. So I think that's a challenge. It's even harder, rapid growing companies, especially these days, where if you think about companies and financing and the time horizons a decade ago, you could go for years and do, like – there's just more, faster, and I think my obsession is really trying to help elevate leadership and shape culture and really make sure the right people are at this company and are thinking long term.
And I think that's it. I like to think of our phase as the awkward teenage years where we're not quite the adult yet. We've got acne. Our voice is cracking. We're tripping sometimes. So how do we kind of best get through that and kind of hit our stride and really be high performing? I think we're just kind of in that phase. So I think that's the biggest thing I think about.
Spencer: You're an engineer, and you created the product in your own –
Nick: I wouldn't say I'm an engineer.
Nick: More designer product guy I would say. I'm a terrible – I coded on the web, but I'm a terrible developer, so –
Spencer: Okay, so you're a product person?
Nick: Yeah, more product.
Spencer: And you created the product in your likeness to solve a problem that you had.
Spencer: How do you think about your ongoing connection to the product? As the company gets bigger, do you decide to step back a little bit from the product and let others exhibit more product ownership so that you can focus on some other things, or is product – is OfferUp you and you will always be OfferUp from a product standpoint?
Nick: That's a good question. So I would say my obsession and where I wanna kinda evolve is I think I'm really good at the end-to-end experience, and so the first product I designed, and I didn't design in a vacuum. I would draw things in Photoshop. I'd ask my wife on the couch, and she's watching TV. She got sick of me showing her designs, and I said, “Okay. I'm gonna go out and just start to talk to people." So I talked to friends and family. I would go talk to local merchants. “What do you think about this?"
And I would constantly get feedback, and I find I've been doing that ever since, and even today, I'm probably one of the top people in the company to find bugs in the product. I definitely have a lot of opinions about the experience and it only gets more complex as the business evolves, so I don't think I'll ever stop obsessing over the end-to-end experience. And I think just given my visibility and what I understand about the market, I think that's my strength, and I think that's what I bring to the table. Where I think I can evolve is going from, you know. I don't have to be in product meetings and going deep for hours on end.
I think that's things I'd be willing to kind of give up, but I do really care about the end-to-end experience, because I think if you stop focusing on that, it becomes really – it can become spaghetti and not great. And I do believe what I tell our team is, “We're not building a marketplace. We're not building an app. We're building an experience," and I don't think there's many things in this world where you think of that.
I think of the iPhone as an experience. I think of the Tesla as an experience. It is something that kinda grabs you, and it's like, you can't explain exactly what it is, but it's so elegant and easy and it just becomes part of your life that it just – you use it every day. And so I think that's my obsession. I think that's where I'm the strongest, which means I gotta give up other parts of the business.
Spencer: And at 250-something employees, have you already started letting go of some of the detail on product, or that you were forward-looking in what you just ______.
Nick: To some degree, but I like to do more, because I think we're definitely more complex now. We have more lines of revenue. We have more things that we're getting into, and it's just not scalable for me, so it's again where I'm looking around at the leadership team and saying, “Okay, great, but we also have gaps and roles we wanna fill."
Spencer: I remember the woman that runs product at Zillow, for Zillow products, when I started pulling back, as you're describing, from some of the detailed product decisions, and I started delegating more, as you need to, to free up more time to do other things. And she said to me – there was a particular decision that I delegated to her and to the team to make. And they made a decision that I didn't agree with. It kinda came out the other end in the product, I don't know, three, six months later. It was a tiny little thing. I don't even remember what it was, and I remember when I went back to her and was kind of, you know, giving her a hard time about it, she was like, “When you delegate a decision, you need to accept the outcome."
And I was like, “Oh, yeah. I guess she's right. I guess I do need to accept the outcome, whether I like it or not." So I mean what I found at this stage, from like, 200 to 400 or 500 employees, as you're going to experience soon, as I started pulling back from some of the product details, that was definitely the right decision. It was the right thing for the company.
Well, congrats on the success of OfferUp so far. I'm excited. I mean, the last time we got together without microphones, I think you were like, 50 employees and the company was a lot smaller. It's amazing to come in today, and see new office space, and an incredibly vibrant culture, and the success that you've had, and I'm excited to see what's next for you.
Nick: Thanks. Well, thanks for having me.
Spencer: Thanks, Nick.
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