In the midst of an incredibly frustrating experience with their own remodel, wife-husband team Adi Tatarko and Alon Cohen envisioned a better way to renovate their home. That vision became Houzz, the company that today gives people a new way to design their homes, providing access to design inspiration, decor products and remodeling professionals – online or from a mobile device.
In four short years, Houzz has shaken up the $300 billion home remodeling and design industry. The company now boasts a community of more than 15 million unique monthly visitors and more than 250,000 home remodeling and design professionals.
The team at MariaShriver.com chatted with Adi Tatarko, CEO of Houzz, who shared her perspective on the importance of work/life balance, building a strong team and standing apart from the crowd.
What experience/event motivated you to create your business?
In 2009, my husband Alon Cohen and I started renovating a 1950s ranch home we had just bought in Palo Alto, CA. We were excited for the renovation, and had big dreams for our home and what it would be like to renovate it together. Unfortunately, we quickly found the process to be incredibly difficult and frustrating. We had a hard time finding good resources and inspiration to help us articulate a vision for our home and selecting the right professionals to make it a reality.
It seemed that while every other major industry had gone online – from retail to travel to real estate – home remodeling and design was stuck in the past. We relied on the clumsy process of clipping pictures out of magazines and on professional referrals from friends and family who didn’t necessarily have the same vision or needs as we did. We ended up throwing out the initial plans we received from an architect and starting all over again, which was both expensive and time consuming.
We were so frustrated with the process that Alon and I decided to create Houzz as a side-project to help us through our remodel. We thought that if we could bring homeowners like ourselves together with professionals in one community, we could address many of the challenges we were experiencing. We shared our concept with other homeowners – mainly parents at our kids’ school – as well as designers and architects in the San Francisco Bay Area, and found that both groups were excited by the idea.
We were surprised when we started getting inquiries from other remodeling and design professionals like kitchen designers and contractors to open more categories on Houzz, and from homeowners and pros in markets far beyond the Bay Area. A parent of my son’s friend called to tell me that her sister in Oregon had told her to check out Houzz! We quickly realized that Houzz could be much more than a personal side project. So, in the fall of 2010, Alon and I both left our jobs to dedicate ourselves to building Houzz full time.
Does your reality match up with your vision?
It’s been incredible to see how something that we thought would be useful for ourselves has been useful for so many others, too; we never expected it! That small community of parents from our kids’ school and architects from the Bay Area has grown into a community of more than 15 million monthly unique users and more than 250,000 home improvement professionals across nearly 60 categories.
We’re incredibly proud of what the Houzz team has accomplished over the past few years. Every once in awhile Alon and I take a few moments to reflect on the journey we’ve been on. That said, there’s still a long road ahead of us and we spend most of our time working on our next big challenge.
What was the most useful mistake you made starting your business?
Not realizing that Houzz was a big business early on, which allowed us to focus on creating a great experience and doing something we love and feel passionate about.
What mission statement/mantra kept you going when forced to confront obstacles?
It’s not about a statement or mantra for me. Keeping our company’s mission – to deliver the best technology, user experience and products for home remodeling and design – at the forefront of everything we do has helped us build Houzz into what it is today.
We review our mission at the start of every company meeting, and Alon and I use it as the filter through which we evaluate all opportunities and obstacles that come our way. I strongly believe that focus is a key element for success. By constantly referring back to what we originally set out to achieve, we’ve been able to navigate through the highs and lows of running a business.
What does it mean for you personally that your business exists?
Probably the most rewarding part of our job is reading the great things that homeowners and professionals alike say in our App Store reviews and in emails and comments that we receive. Knowing that we’re solving real problems is incredibly gratifying. It makes it all feel worthwhile.
How do you find balance juggling all areas of your life?
Keeping a work/life balance is very challenging, especially when you live with your co-founder! I think what has helped me the most is to prioritize the areas where I can make the greatest impact, both at work and at home. I quickly realized, early on, that I can’t do it all, at least not very well. By focusing on what’s most important – such as cheering my kids on at their basketball and soccer games, or being involved in hiring decisions at Houzz – and delegating the rest, I’ve been able to maximize my time.
I’ve also found that being transparent with our kids about the challenges we face and involving them in finding solutions has been incredibly helpful. When Alon and I were first building Houzz as a company, it was very easy for us to lose our balance, and our kids noticed. We sat down as a family and figured out, together, how to make things right. Now, we have regular check-ins to assess where we are. As needs at home and at work change, you have to be able to adapt and adjust.
What was it like to start/run/build a business with your husband?
It was, and still is, a lot of fun. Alon is always joking about the fact that working together with me is easier than remodeling the house with me! The truth is, we really enjoy working together. The foundation of any successful business partnership is trust, and while founders that are not related to each other may face challenges on that front, we trust each other more than anyone else in this world. We also don’t have any conflicts of interest and we enjoy building things together, both at home and at work.
How do you feel you complement each other?
I think that having complementary skills, and giving each other the space to lead, is critical to running a company with a partner. While Alon and I make every major decision together, his background is in technology, so he’s focused on technology and the product while I’m more focused on the editorial and business aspects. In many respects, the way Alon and I run the company is similar to the way we parent; Alon does some things better with our children, and I do other things better. We divide the day-to-day responsibilities of running Houzz in a way that maximizes our different backgrounds and areas of expertise. This broad range of capabilities and interests enabled us to build everything from scratch in Houzz’s early days and helps today, since together we know about all aspects of the company.
What are the three most important tips you can offer someone looking to start their own business?
1. Stay focused. Most founders will encounter naysayers when they’re starting off, or receive advice that would take their business in a completely different direction. They will come across many people with varying perspectives who want to get involved as partners, investors or employees. While you shouldn’t ignore valuable insights – or close doors that might be beneficial to your business – your decisions should all be grounded in your foundation and guiding principles.
2. Partner with the right people. Recruit the right people for the brand you are trying to build— particularly in the early days. This includes investors and business partners, whose values and brands should complement your own. Hire talented people that believe in your vision and want to be a part of the journey. Since day one, recruiting the right people for Houzz has been critical. Many of our employees had used Houzz to renovate their homes before joining the team. Others have become passionate about the product while working with our site and apps. Ultimately, you want team members who are true ambassadors for your brand and who are a good fit for your culture.
3. Innovate. It’s common in Silicon Valley to see companies pivot and chase the hype; often by the time a company pivots, the trend is already old news. Innovation is about being a leader, and doing something new or different to solve a problem. Get into the business for the right reasons – to build something great that you’re passionate about and that fills a real need.
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