Building, Burning Man & Big Swings: Co-Founders Robert Hohman & Rich Barton Open Up About Their Winning Partnership
“The idea for Expedia was to give power to the people; power to the little guy.” With that one goal, Rich Barton transformed the travel industry — it also became the foundation for all of the companies he’s co-founded: Expedia in 1996, Zillow in 2006, and Glassdoor in 2007.
“I really only had one big idea,” Barton told an audience on the edge of their seats at Glassdoor’s headquarters in Mill Valley, CA. “Really, each of these companies — Expedia, Zillow, and Glassdoor — are variations of the same concept: people want power. They want to control their own destinies. Information powered to the people.”
In a conversation with his longtime friend and colleague, Glassdoor co-founder/CEO Robert Hohman, Barton shared lessons learned, risks taken, and the entrepreneurship “near-death experiences” during one of Glassdoor’s Speakers’ Series, which was live streamed to its offices in Chicago, Ohio, Dublin and London. Since Barton’s last all-company visit to Glassdoor, the fastest-growing job site in the U.S. has added about 350 new employees, many of whom were babies when Barton and Hohman first worked together at Microsoft.
“Way to make us feel old, Dawn,” Hohman laughed as moderator Dawn Lyon, SVP of Corporate Affairs, took the co-founders and the audience back to the mid ‘90s. Chuckling and each running their hands through graying, albeit lush, hair, it becomes clear why Barton and Hohman, two Stanford University nerds, have been pals-turned-colleagues-turned-business partners and “sounding boards” for so long. “Robert and I have worked together for eons,” says Barton. “There’s no formality.”
During the 70-minute fireside chat, the two bantered about everything from Burning Man (Barton has attended the desert fest a whopping 15 times) to Hohman’s wife begging him to stop playing World of Warcraft in their basement. However, the most memorable gems from the afternoon had to do with the courage to build and fail, what it takes to lead and empower, and a reminder that helping people everywhere find a job they love is inspiring and energizing.
Here are some of the top takeaways from the afternoon:
1. Inspiration strikes when you least expect it.
While Barton has created a string of successful startups, he insists that he’s not “sitting around thinking about building new companies” all the time. “The harder you push something, the harder it pushes back — solutions come when I’m relaxed, so I don’t push very hard,” Barton said.
Take, for example, the idea for Glassdoor, which came about completely unexpectedly. “Glassdoor stemmed from an HR incident where salaries got printed out on a public printer by accident and we thought, ‘Why not? Wouldn’t pay transparency lead to better pay practices?’… If you were compensating people right, they’d say, ‘Yeah, that makes sense,’ and that’s how the seedling of the idea was hatched,” Barton shared.
These days, in order to spur creative thinking, Barton recommends “putting yourself in an environment that allows you to think organically and disconnect.”
“I did a rafting trip recently — there was zero connectivity, no electricity or wires, just rafting down a river with my family and three other families… that inspires me. I go to Burning Man. There are a lot of people out there who are taught to self-select early on — ‘You’re good at math, but your sister can draw, she’s the creative one.’ Well, it turns out we’re all creative. We just have to be encouraged and given some structure for that creativity to flourish.”
2. Prepare to be brought to the brink.
While discussing the acquisition of Expedia when both Hohman and Barton decided to leave, suddenly Hohman had a flashback. “Remember the fraud scare?” Barton leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath to tell the story of one of their biggest teachable moments.
“Every company goes through near-death experiences,” said Barton. “Early on, people were using stolen credit cards to buy first class tickets on Expedia then selling the tickets for a tenth of the price. For a 24-hour period, we worried we might go out of business. It was a scary time for us.”
Of course, the company was able to recover, but it taught Barton an important lesson. “Every company has near-death experiences, even companies where looking from the outside, you think it must be glorious, the sun is shining, it’s filled with Supermen and women. No company is really like that.”
3. Advice for budding entrepreneurs: “Take big swings”
“Take big swings. Be courageous,” said Barton frankly. “There’s very little downside to swinging and missing. People over exaggerate how bad it is to fail. It’s not bad and you feel for good for having tried. Courage is by far my best piece of advice.”
4. “Dig your own oil well to fuel your own economy.”
While talking about the evolution of Netflix, where he has served as one of the company’s directors since 2002, Barton emphasized the value of Netflix creating original programming starting with series’ like House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black.
“Our oil well at Glassdoor, what we do that others have a hard time replicating, is our content. We are giving people access to a world of info that heretofore had been withheld from prospective employees. The strategic lesson for any company is asking, ‘What is it that we do that others cannot do? What is the differentiator?’ For us, it’s content… Unique content attracts users. Those users create unique content. It’s a snowball and it gets bigger every turn and roll down the hill. It’s a magic feedback system. It’s so exciting to me.”
5. Leadership is hands on… and off.
“I’m from the Tom Sawyer school of management,” joked Barton. As dozens of millennial faces stared back at him in confusion, he explained the literary parallel. “I’m not very hands on.”
Hohman chimed in instantly, “In the book, Tom Sawyer gets the other kids to paint the fence for him.”
“If you’re a good leader, you want to be there to lead your team and empower them, but you also have to get out of their way,” Barton continued. “Even if that means letting people make mistakes. That doesn’t mean being neglectful — it means being there to be a sounding board. If you can cultivate great people that are working for you and you empower them, that’s how you scale and grow.”
6. Never stop building.
“Painting future scenarios that are compelling, that are inspiring, is what gets product teams fired up. Having a vision for the future — that is something that goes beyond creating a great business. Start there, then take a big step forward. [You need to] have great people to build stuff.”
Ever the engineer, Hohman doubled down on the audience of employees and aspiring entrepreneurs: “Start building. Being an entrepreneur is 0.1% idea and 99.9% building. Bringing ideas to life is hard, but these big dreams inspire me. I’m in the trenches every day making decisions to bring work transparency to people and businesses, but it is very encouraging to know that in 20 years we will step back and see how we transformed the world.”
Photography: Lenny Gonzalez for Glassdoor