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TechTO September featured a one-on-one conversation with Ian Wong, co-founder and CTO of Opendoor. He discussed his journey to and through startup-dom, sharing tangible insights for other entrepreneurs.

“There’s no right way to be a founder,” said Opendoor‘s Ian Wong, during his recent discussion with TechTO co-founder Alex Norman, during this month’s TechTO Together segment. In fact, his journey to become a co-founder was unique and circuitous. Having left his PhD program at Stanford where he was studying statistics, he met the COO of Square at a early users meeting (while a bored grad student, Wong answered a bunch of statistics questions during Quora’s early days).

Six weeks later he was at the very small start-up — so small, in fact, he couldn’t analyze the data he was hired to analyze, as they didn’t have any transactions yet. While there, the company went through dramatic growth, and he immersed himself in software engineering, data science and machine learning,

“Square introduced me to the idea of creating value for customers. It gave me the entrepreneurial itch,” he explained.

His experience at Square also exposed him to many other fields, and he learned the value of using technology to eliminate friction. He wondered about the application of this idea to the single largest transaction of people’s lives.

“My PhD taught me to research, and Square gave me broad exposure to many other fields.” Wong took these experiences and used them to co-found Opendoor.

Start-Up Insights From the Founder

Opendoor is in the business of making buying, selling and living in a home a lot simpler. “The process is so painful right now,” said Wong. “It’s really long, stressful and complicated.” Addressing the fact that there’s only one way to sell a home, “and that way sucks,” Opendoor provides instant cash offers to home sellers who get paid in a matter of days. Today, Opendoor is in twenty-one markets in the U.S. and growing steadily. During the conversation at TechTO, Wong presented the following insights for starting, running and scaling a business.

Create strong messaging

Opendoor is very intentional about creating messaging that would solicit a very strong response from the customer. “It’s not optimal if the response is lukewarm,” Wong said. “We wanted either an extremely engaging or extremely disapproving response. We are soliciting extremes.” In doing so, they could know that their messaging could break through the clutter and understand how to adjust their message.

Stay focused yet agile

We generally think that meaningful things take time to get right,

Opendoor’s north star is to deliver a seamless customer experience, and they stay focused on that goal. Market needs change, however, so they leave themselves room to make adjustments when necessary. “We generally think that meaningful things take time to get right,” said Wong. “If you’re distracted, you won’t make progress. Keep the main thing the main thing.”

Fake it till you make it

When it comes to product market fit, Opendoor had a hypothesis — that the home selling process is broken, and that there will always be people who want to sell right away. They had to iterate to prove the hypothesis and took steps to validate that people wanted their service — but until then, they took a leap into the unknown and assumed their hypothesis was right.

Be scientific about solving problems

When the company experienced a lull over the winter, they wondered whether they were growing as much as they wanted. They had to dig deep to make sure they were building the right experience. “From product operations to marketing to execution, we had to be really scientific about breaking problems down.”

Hire for vision alignment

With a start-up, nothing is more important than the vision. The founder's job is to constantly preach and teach the vision, and ensure every member of the team is aligned.

With a start-up, nothing is more important than the vision. The founder’s job is to constantly preach and teach the vision, and ensure every member of the team is aligned. For that reason, screening for vision during the hiring process is critical.

Wong shared his hierarchy of hiring criteria:

  1. Can you do the job? For instance, if you’re an engineer, can you do engineering?
  2. Do you align with our values? Are you open and customer-centric?
  3. Are you on board with our vision? In other words, does what we do align with your professional career?

Build a collaborative culture

Even in a remote work environment, team building still works, advised Wong. “You need to rely on your team to build great products. We have been intentional on how we create teams and a collaborative culture.”

While there is no right way to be a founder, looking at examples of great founders and learning from their success stories can help entrepreneurs shape their ideas and shift them into viable businesses. Sharing the stories and insights of leaders is part of TechTO’s mission. Check out their online lineup to join an upcoming event.

For more start-up insights, check out TechTO Health.