Ex-Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff on the need for new social media, iBuying, remote work, and more

Former Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff speaks at the Opening Party at the 2021 GeekWire Summit in Seattle. (GeekWire Photos / Kevin Lisota)

On a day when the biggest social media company on the planet went offline for several hours, Spencer Rascoff talked about why he’s been building a small social newcomer around food and why the effort leaves a better taste in his mouth than Facebook and others.

Rascoff, the co-founder and former CEO of Zillow, returned to Seattle Monday as the featured guest at the opening party of the 2021 GeekWire Summit. The Summit continues Tuesday with a full agenda, featuring speakers such as Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, entertainer and entrepreneur Ciara, and more.

In a conversation with GeekWire co-founder John Cook, Rascoff was called out for snapping a photo of his food during lunch between the pair earlier in the day. But the move does relate back to one of the many ventures keeping the tech veteran busy these days.

Rascoff’s work alongside his teenage daughter, Sophia, on the new social app Recon Food, provided insight into his views on toxic social media environments, the need for new social verticals, what it’s like working with his kid, and more.

Recon Food launched this summer as a place to bring people together around a shared love for food. Asked whether there aren’t already enough social platforms, Rascoff couldn’t resist taking a shot at Facebook.

“Well, we have one less today,” he said, referencing the outage that also took out Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp. “My thesis is that social has become so big, so ubiquitous and so horizontal, that it’s unbundling into these verticals.”

Rascoff said food is just fun and doesn’t come with the toxicity, politics, and stress of regular social media. And he thinks a viable business can be built around powerful, dedicated vertical spaces. He hinted that he’s working on another one, but he wasn’t ready to announce it on Monday.

Rascoff shows off his custom Nike shoes with Pacaso branding.

The former Hotwire and Expedia executive has a hand in everything these days, from a SPAC to a media company to a vacation home ownership startup, but he called working with his daughter a perfect case study of the importance of diversity in product development.

The diversity in this case was generational. Exhausted by traditional platforms, Sophia was able to guide her father toward a version of Recon Food that he didn’t originally see and which made the app better than if he had worked on it alone.

Rascoff touched on a number of other topics on Monday including iBuying in real estate; lessons learned at Zillow, building Pacaso during the pandemic; and more.

  • Evolving view on real estate transactions: When it comes to iBuying, the streamlined process that removes many of the complications of real estate transactions, Rascoff said he’s become a huge bull. Zillow Offers, RedfinNow, Opendoor and Offerpad are examples of iBuyers that have made buying or selling a home more like an e-commerce transaction. “Consumer expectations around the ease of a transaction have changed. Remember, these services don’t exist in a vacuum. We can sit here and talk about Zillow and iBuying all day long, but to the consumer they’re not thinking about one particular service. They’re using a variety of services. They’re using Uber for a car, DoorDash for food, Hippo for insurance, and all these vertically integrated services, where they’re pressing a button on their phone and having magic happen. Consumers brought that expectation into the real estate transaction. And they expect a vertically integrated, seamless, magical experience when selling their home.”
  • Zillow takeaways: Rascoff is proud of the 15 years he spent at the Seattle real estate company, and is trying to replicate Zillow’s culture, values and opportunities at every company he is involved in today. But even though Zillow became focused on diversity, equity and inclusion over time, it wasn’t front and center back in 2005. “These new companies that I’m hatching, DEI is front and center from the start,” Rascoff said. “I try to ensure that these companies recruit diverse teams right from the beginning, because if you don’t, it becomes very hard to build diverse teams later. And secondly, we’ve built in some cases, software tools to measure and ensure appropriate workplace behavior.”
  • Pacaso and the pandemic: The startup that makes it easier for people to own a vacation home by splitting ownership of such homes into different pieces has already reached $1.5 billion valuation after launching in October 2020. Rascoff thinks the concept is here to stay even after COVID’s disruption of traditional vacations because companies have adjusted their expectations of where workers can do their jobs. “There’s a permanent step change in how often people will be able to use a second home. It is a perfect business with that tailwind. Also, the sharing economy has come really far. Pacaso probably wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago, partly because you were more tethered to your desk, and therefore less able to use your second home. But also because the sharing economy wasn’t as developed. So the idea of co-owning a home with a stranger, it doesn’t seem quite so crazy anymore.”
  • Remote mindset: Rascoff also touched on how he and co-founder Austin Allison decided pre-COVID to make Pacaso fully distributed and remote so they could hire people all over the place. It turned out to be smart in retrospect because that’s the way most companies moved. “From a recruiting standpoint, it was such an advantage. We’re now 140 people at Pacaso, the company’s a year old. When Zillow was a year old, we were only fishing in one pond, that was Seattle at the time. And it was very, very difficult to hire. Now, we have no problem with recruiting.”

Rascoff wrapped things up by answering a question we plan to pose to many of our Summit speakers: What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve encountered during COVID? And how did you overcome it? If you did overcome it.

“The shift to working from home was tricky. It’s very hard for me to know when to stop working. I’m sure many of you have experienced this, the line between work and play … there is none. And then practically speaking, I mean, stupid Amazon comes to my house like three times a day and that drives my dogs crazy and so it’s just very noisy at my house. So I solved that by locking my dogs up during most of the work day. Figuring out the when to work, when not to work, I block time on my calendar a lot more aggressively, like 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. be offline, the kids are coming home from school, I want to be with them a little bit then I can work again, like 5 to 7. I’m just pretty aggressive about about my calendar in order to try to create some sense of what is working, when does it stop and when does it start again.”

Editor’s note: The entire Spencer Rascoff fireside chat session will be viewable to registered GeekWire Summit attendees on-demand. Go here to register to view the on-demand session, and to tune into the full GeekWire Summit livestream — including fireside chats with Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, singer Ciara, Microsoft executive vice president Christopher Young and others — on Oct. 5.

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