“The housing market is enormous and complex.”
According to a 2018 study by Homes.com, one in three Americans was reduced to tears when buying a home. For them, Senior Software Engineer Tim Robertson’s words are an understatement. Between competing homebuyers, bad listings and price negotiations, numerous factors make the process incredibly stressful.
OJO Labs wants to change that with a text message. Their mission is to weld machine learning and human intelligence together in order to upgrade the home-buying experience for the customer.
“We constantly push ourselves to bring the customer to the front and center of every single decision we make and encourage employees to never forget the lives we impact,” Robertson said.
By gathering a user’s home preferences and budget, OJO communicates conversationally through mobile text as a personal advisor throughout the home-buying process. Just like online takeout and e-commerce, mobile home-shopping is the wave of the future. According to a recent report by Grand View Research, the global digital assistant market is expected to reach $1.23 billion by 2025, and analysts at Forrester report that 45 percent of end users prefer digital assistants to other forms of communication for customer service inquiries.
But what makes OJO different than other digital assistants?
According to Robertson, the answer is human intelligence. Their team in St. Lucia works diligently to tag, categorize and provide real-time responses to create a conversational experience for the customer and an opportunity for the AI to improve. Together, Robertson said they create the ultimate home advisor. Think, a friendly real estate agent with unlimited listing access, who is never aggressive with commission and only works for you.
With a $45 million Series C funding round last March, OJO plans to expand the company’s data science, product and engineering teams, as well as drive product development. We sat down with Robertson to discuss the exciting technology OJO is working on, including a new neuro-linguistic programming conversation engine. Robertson also shared plans for harnessing the real estate data gained from their recent acquisition of Wolfnet and RealSavvy, as well as strategies to expand their product nationally. As the company’s AI improves, Robertson hinted that OJO will be turning home-buying tears into tears of joy.
Tell us about your engineering background and what brought you to OJO Labs.
I started my career in technology right out of college with a job at IBM working on mainframe languages. It was an amazing way to start off my career in tech. I was able to learn from an incredibly smart, hardworking and humble group of engineers. Throughout my tenure at IBM, I had the opportunity to experiment with a slew of different emerging technologies at the time, including the cloud and mobile-based platforms.
I then went on to focus on application and mobile development at two forward-thinking startups, Spredfast and Netspend. I achieved some of my proudest technical successes at these organizations and benefitted from working with companies that had a direct, positive impact on people’s daily lives.
That focus on making a meaningful impact is a large part of what drove me to join OJO Labs in 2019. In my first few weeks on the job, I was blown away by the engineering talent at the company and the drive to create that permeates throughout the entire organization.
Tell us about a mentor you’ve had who has influenced your work.
I was fortunate to work with brilliant and experienced engineers early in my career. One in particular, Nick, was able to show me that, despite the narrow things I learned in school, there was a wide world of technology out there — most of which is not on the bleeding edge. I think the most valuable thing I learned from that relationship was to look for technologies that really move the needle and aren’t just new and shiny. I also learned customer empathy and how to really build and maintain software for the long term.
The platform we’re building moves the home-discovery process beyond the search engine.”
What is the biggest engineering challenge facing the real estate industry? How are you working to overcome that?
Scale. The housing market is enormous and complex. For example, people often talk about the multiple listing service as the single source of truth for finding listings. In reality, there are actually 600 to 700 distinct, often very different multiple listing services in the U.S. The home you’re looking for in San Francisco will be wildly different than the home you’re looking for in Salt Lake City, and having technology smart enough to understand those differences, as well as the support you need along a potentially multi-year long journey of ups and downs, is a monumental task.
We are working to overcome these challenges by creating a world-class consumer experience that leverages AI to deliver personalized listings and recommendations proactively. The platform we’re building moves the home-discovery process beyond the search engine and develops an understanding of the consumer, delivering more than just the information they think they are looking for. We also want to proactively serve up listings they might have missed and suggest patterns and commonality they might not even know they have.
What makes OJO’s AI technology so unique?
Our human-in-the-loop AI model has allowed us to deliver high-quality models faster than would ever be possible with traditional AI. That model, combined with a world-class data science team — and a wealth of real estate data as a result of our WolfNet acquisition — allows us to iterate our product quickly and deliver increasingly impactful consumer experiences.
Beyond any specific model, something I’m really excited about right now is our NLP conversation engine. We are building a fully conversational AI, something you can speak to in your natural language and not have to dumb down lest you confuse the machines. This is a huge task; how many times have you been personally confused by the context, tone or intent of a text message? That’s what we’re solving for.
This year will be a big year for OJO Labs. We have all of the technology, people and processes in places to rapidly develop and deploy new models, and make a meaningful impact on how consumers purchase a home.
Tell us about the resources OJO has in St. Lucia.
Our team in St. Lucia is the engine room of the company. These employees are the key to our ability to rapidly scale our AI and make a greater impact in the lives of consumers. Doing AI at scale is incredibly hard and requires a massive amount of high-quality data. Collecting that data is incredibly difficult and oftentimes leads to a cold start problem that is so hard to overcome that the technology fails.
The folks in St. Lucia are able to tag, categorize and provide real-time responses to messages around the clock. This diligent work is what enables OJO to become smarter and smarter. Additionally, we’re proud to have created new jobs on the island and to make an impact on the local community there.
What is OJO’s mission? How does that mission manifest itself in the office culture?
OJO Labs was founded on the belief that complex decision-making could be made better. We’re combining our patented AI with human expertise to create a deeply personalized, impactful home-buying experience for consumers.
Buying a home is, for most people, the largest purchase and financial investment they will ever make — and this is something we don’t take lightly at OJO. We constantly push ourselves to bring the customer to the front and center of every single decision we make and encourage employees to never forget the lives we impact.
OJO labs was founded on the belief that complex decision-making could be made better.”
What is one trait engineering candidates must have at OJO?
Beyond strong technical skills, we look for candidates who have high emotional intelligence and a drive to create something meaningful for the consumer. It’s not enough to just be a good coder. We work at a fast-paced, constantly changing company trying to solve some very hard technical challenges.
We need people that can communicate effectively, both when giving positive feedback as well as during more challenging conversations. Being able to keep your nose to the grindstone and continue to do the work that needs to be done, even if it might not be glamorous for a time, is key.
The amount of collaboration and trust amongst engineering teams at OJO is unlike anything I’ve witnessed. While I might not always get what I want, I’ve never had any friction in having conversations, feature requests or just general questions in any conversation with any engineering team at OJO.
Tell us about what we can expect from OJO Labs in 2020.
Impact. We’re focused on delivering meaningful experiences to consumers and doubling down on a model of home discovery that is incredibly proactive and personalized.