The Machine and the Beast

Redfin has hired Tom Vogl as our chief marketing officer. It once seemed hard to ask a total stranger to be the ambassador for Redfin’s brand: of the ten people now on our management team, only one prior to Tom hadn’t been promoted from within Redfin.

But almost immediately, we began to feel that Tom was one of us. Halfway through our first dinner together, Tom made a stray comment about having an unusual nickname from his time running Dell in Brazil. I looked up at from the blast-radius of bread-parts and beet salad that had, until that moment, been my evening’s main focus.

“What was the nickname?” I said.

“Well, I used to be called ‘The Machine,’” Tom said. “It wasn’t always a compliment.”

“I’ve been called ‘The Beast,” I said. “It’s one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me.”

And then I knew Redfin would hire Tom. He started last week.

For nearly six years before that, Tom ran marketing for REI, a co-op that happens to embody some of Redfin’s most cherished values. As a mission-driven retailer that, even in a savagely margin-sensitive industry, puts customers and employees before profits, REI has its fair share of ex-hippies and tree-huggers.

And so do we. The first time Tom met me for coffee, he looked the part: he was wearing a rock-climbing outfit with those crazy all-rubber shoes, having just descended the summit of a lonely peak. It became clear then why Tom had dedicated himself to building the REI brand. He was the REI brand.

It isn’t easy to find someone who is both a machine and a hippie, a believer and a beast. The people who are the most driven are usually the ones driven by all the wrong things.

And at Redfin, what drives you matters. After all, we aren’t just trying to draw attention to a media site. We’re trying to make our case — that real estate can be different, that the Redfin agent you see on our site puts customers, not commissions first — that we’re worth a shot. It’s a great leap of faith for our customers, and, for us, perhaps the greatest marketing challenge on the Internet. If we don’t believe, no one else will.

And so we interviewed folks for chief marketing officer who had hyped bogus diet pills, doomed websites and dubious financial services, but could never get excited by a hired gun. After every interview, Redfin’s Matt Goyer would shake his head and say, “Doesn’t love Redfin enough.” He reminded me of a Jewish mother-in-law. No one was good enough for his child.

But finally Matt and the rest of the team found someone not only good, but absolutely, insanely great. We popped the question, and the rest is history. Over the next year you’ll probably see from Redfin, for the first time in our history, a significant investment in marketing.

Part of this is because of the expertise Tom brings, and part of this is because we’re finally growing up, with a service we think everyone should try. We need to tell the world about it. Mostly, we’ll do this without marketing — through our own website and mobile tools — so we can spend more of our money giving consumers the best tools and the most value and giving our agents great pay.

But with the arrival of Tom and of another great marketer, Kuba Poraj-Kuczewski, we will also probably begin to advertise at larger scale, across the web and other media. I’m glad we held out in our earliest days against advertising, but also glad we are open to it now.

Of course, Tom’s importance goes beyond being a mouthpiece for the brand. Marketing at its best is every sensory organ for a business, its eyes, skin and ears, listening to customers and refining the entire Redfin experience – from the first website visit to the final closing — based on what we learn.

Not many people have the brainpower, the empathy, the moral authority or the belief to do that. Tom does. Welcome Tom!

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