Lauren Haw is the CEO and broker of record at Zoocasa.com after acquiring the national online real estate domain from Rogers in 2015.
Often portrayed as a young, fresh-faced entrepreneur who came seemingly out of nowhere, Haw is actually a shrewd veteran when it comes to running her own business — with more than 10 years’ experience — stretching all the way back to when she was a franchisee of College Pro Painters at age 18.
Already seeing great success in the online mortgage space as a partner in True North Mortgage and the director of RateHub.ca, getting her real estate license was as much a business move as a career move, with the goal of seeing the same business success online and offline in the adjacent industry of real estate.
Now heading up Zoocasa, Haw has combined the pinpoint customizable online search specificity of her earlier venture Scholarhood and the name-recognition and national scale of the Zoocasa brand with the personal touch and specialization of a boutique real estate brokerage. This has led to the creation of an experience wholly unique in Canadian real estate technology and service, she says.
Haw walks us through the Zoocasa user experience and describes what sets it apart from its competitors. She also shares what she sees as the biggest issue in the Toronto real estate market today and what she predicts will happen in the near future.
What initially attracted you to real estate?
I got my license in 2011-2012 and at the time I was an owner and director of RateHub.ca and True North Mortgage. We were leading the online space in mortgages. Anytime you googled “Mortgages” or “Best Mortgage” we ranked No. 1. At True North we were doing more than $1 billion in funded mortgages across Canada so I had a deep understanding of offline and online mortgage sales across Canada and wanted to create the same success in an adjacent industry.
What appeals to you personally about the real estate industry?
I’ve always been attracted to the idea that you get what you put in. Real estate is amazing in that if you work smart, work long hours, work hard and persevere you can be successful. You’re not on a running track. You really get to create your own path and create the lifestyle that you want.
You were originally part of a website called Scholarhood. How did that start?
We launched Scholarhood my second year in real estate to generate leads online. We were essentially providing users with information about school zones and listings in the same place, so we were able to meet clients that way. I started Scholarhood to build a small team around families that were looking to move to the first time into a school district or sell their starter home and move into a better district. It was a way for us to meet young families and generally the clientele that’s most interested in good school zones are educated themselves, are generally professionals and have good budgets, so they’re the type of client we wanted to work with.
Why did you acquire Zoocasa from Rogers?
The reason we acquired Zoocasa is it’s such a well-known brand in the big cities and its URL Zoocasa.com has such high domain authority. It was an old domain and Rogers put a lot of money and time into advertising, so Google trusted it, which meant it was an opportunity to take the Scholarhood team that we had and scale it in a major way overnight.
Did Zoocasa present an opportunity to expand past school zones into other areas?
Exactly. On our site you can still look for school zones, but it’s much better than what we had with Scholarhood — it’s now Scholarhood 2.0. On Zoocasa you can now search for townhouses and the site will show you both freehold and condo-style townhouses unlike other places. It’s just little things that make the user experience easier. You can search for homes with basement apartments, which you can’t do anywhere else, making it easier for investors. We’re really just trying to make it what people are looking for.
Is there anything else that separates Zoocasa from the other real estate listings websites out there?
A lot of it is the user experience. It is intuitive, and you can draw your own map and save your searches within it. I think the difference is we’re the only place where you can say, “I want to buy an income property in this school zone and then within this school zone only show me the properties that have a nine ranking with a basement apartment.” Zoocasa can very quickly show you exactly the type of property you’re looking for without having to do six different searches and cross over them. It goes much faster and then compared to some of our competitors, we refresh the listings every hour during the day. If a new listing is posted, it’s on our site immediately.
Once users find what they are looking for, what’s the next step?
We focus on both the user and the client, knowing that sometimes a lot of our users are other agents looking for better information to give to their clients. The user is our online profile and we want to provide good information to them regardless of whether they’re going to work with us as a brokerage. If you do want to work with us, you generally fill out an online lead form and request a meeting with one of our agents. We aim to get back to them within seconds and start the client process. It’s a little different for us on the client side.
Since I spent a couple years on the frontline as a realtor, we absolutely put the agent first. As opposed to many of our competitors whose approach is, “The more agents, the better.” We’re very much a team-hybrid brokerage, which means we only want a small group of highly productive agents. Our average agent, including some who were brand new to the business, did 27 buy-sell transactions last year. Our clients get an experienced agent who is doing a high volume of transactions. Thanks to this set-up, our agents are really able to specialize by area and type of property and our clients receive more individualized attention.
What do clients most commonly misunderstand about working with a real estate agent?
This is actually a problem in our industry. A lot of clients don’t understand what they should expect from an agent and they think that all agents are created equal. The problem with our industry is we have too many agents, the licensing exams are far too easy, our renewals are too easy and because it’s so inexpensive to be an agent, it means everyone and their brother can hold a license.
Unfortunately, we have a lot of people running around. The average agent in Toronto does less than a deal a year, so we’ve created the public perception that an agent doesn’t do anything because more than half of our agents don’t. The clients are confused about who we are, but if they actually met with agents who do this full-time at a very high level, those agents will save them money on the buy side and make more money on the sell side. They will help them understand the risk and help them make the best long-term decisions for themselves.
This is why Zoocasa emphasizes education and gives as much data as we can. We’re not here to hold back data, we’re here to help people make decisions and find their best route to their personal wealth and happiness.
What issues or innovations are you going to see that will drive the Canadian real estate industry into the future?
The biggest thing you’re going to see going forward is choice. Users online and clients offline will have more and more and more choice. There’s so much information out there right now and that’s only going to get heavier and more cluttered. So I think where the future of real estate is, and what we’re working towards building, is helping users online and clients offline distill this information. How do you take the plethora of data that’s out there and tie that in with your own personal needs and wants and make sound decisions for your future.
I think what we’re going to lead to is an overabundance of data with the winners being those who can best distill, understand and convey the information within to help clients through the maze.