The Impatient, Steady, Unwavering Climb of Zoocasa CEO Lauren Haw
“I’m sorry if I sound out of breath while talking to you. I’m 8 months pregnant and walking home to meet my nanny.”
I was set to interview Zoocasa CEO Lauren Haw at their King Street East offices in downtown Toronto, but had to move it to a phone call due to a scheduling conflict. As it turns out, that was a good thing. Lauren needed to meet her nanny and would have had to end our conversation short if I’d come into the office.
With Zoocasa expanding - the organization has hired 12 employees so far in 2018, bringing the headcount to 55, and is planning to recruit more - Lauren’s pregnancy could not have come at a more interesting time. However, this is her second pregnancy and fifth business; she’s capable of handling what’s about to come.
We started off with some basic chit chat, and Lauren was more than happy to answer all of my questions, diversions, tangents, and fascinations. I mentioned to her that I’d been a journalist for some time and had the privilege to interview some brilliant Canadian entrepreneurs, and it turns out we have some contacts in common - Lauren knows both RateHub founder Alyssa Furtado and Clearbanc founder (and Dragon on Dragon’s Den) Michele Romanow.
No silver spoon
For Lauren, growing up in Scarborough was “happy and healthy.” There was “no silver spoon;” she attended public school and worked as a lifeguard during the summers in high school. However, both her parents and her grandparents were involved and supportive.
It wasn’t until she left to attend Queens University for undergrad that she started to wonder about how different her life may have been from her peers.
“People think of Queens [University} and it feels like half the population is private schooled. There are so many negative connotations of being from Scarborough, but I had a suburban upbringing with a supportive family. You don’t necessarily know how much to appreciate it until you grow up and get into the real world. The supportive network [of family] allowed you to do what you want. You can jump in and your parents are behind you.”
Make or break; do or die
Jumping in became a mantra for Lauren, who took every opportunity to be entrepreneurial. She didn’t want to get a job because she didn’t like being reliant on others for her financial success (“I’ve always wanted to be financially independent”). Instead, she started a College Pro Painters franchise. Her family was immediately supportive.
Starting off with an ask of her father to borrow the car, she learnt the entire business system: lead generation, closing sales, hiring and training other students to be painters, delivering quality work, and collecting payment. She ended up being the top salesperson in Ontario, second in Canada to only one franchise in British Columbia - a fact she did not relish as she recounted it.
“I was home on Christmas break knocking on doors. I just followed the system. I made $45,000 my first summer… but I completely burnt out. I didn’t see my family. I was working 100 hour weeks as an 18 year old on summer vacation.”
Despite the burnout and hinting at exhaustion, it seemed the College Pro experience solidified Lauren’s future as an entrepreneur. “I’m much better suited to being on my own - make or break. Do or die.”
Charting her own path
After graduation in 2007, Lauren moved back in with her parents. While some may consider this a temporary step backwards or a soft landing after a rough university experience, for Lauren it was a foundation.
“At 21, I had no responsibilities… I looked around to find a small business [or franchise] to buy.”
Working with the same partner she had from her College Pro Painters days, Lauren bought the rights to an Oxford Learning Centre franchise at the corner of Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue in Toronto. It opened in January 2008, about half a year after graduation.
“At the same time [as purchasing and running Oxford], I was at home watching Dragon’s Den. I saw someone pitch a mortgage company. I ended up giving him a call and that was our first foray into mortgages. We [Lauren and her business partner, James] invested in True North Mortgage in 2008.”
Following experience through to opportunities
After investments in both Oxford Learning Centre - a stable but low-potential business - and True North Mortgage - a higher risk, high reward potential investment - Lauren and James came up with a plan. They’d invest in companies 50:50, enabling diversification of risk and industry.
The pair ultimately decided to sell the Oxford Learning Centre after just a couple years and invested in RateHub.ca, a mortgage broker-comparison website. This was a natural next step for Lauren, as her experience with True North meant she knew the ins and outs of the mortgage business.
“We worked on mortgages - the history at True North led to RateHub. In services, you have to know what you’re talking about. It’s different from most people in tech who just jump in. Each piece you learn, you find out how the market works and find opportunities within it.”
RateHub was founded in late 2009/early 2010, and by 2012 Lauren was growing in her career yet again; she started selling real estate.
“I wanted to get a sense of the big players in the space,” she said, succinctly and plainly. For three years from 2012-2015, Lauren sold real estate with two of the biggest brokerages in Toronto - ReMax and Keller Williams. It was a natural progression for her, slowly getting to a place of having worked in every major area of real estate from mortgages to the selling process.
In 2015, when Rogers put Zoocasa up for sale, it was “serendipitous” for Lauren and James. They had experience from RateHub in terms of business lead generation, B2C relationship building, marketing, and broker relationships. That, combined with Lauren’s three years of experience selling real estate and an investment in a mortgage company made her “the perfect person” to buy Zoocasa.
Reasons or results: you can only have one
On one side, Lauren is passionate and happy when talking about her work. All of her work to-date has been focused on people’s lives. Whether painting their home, educating their child, getting them a mortgage, or selling them a home, Lauren’s businesses inhabit crucial emotional moments in her clients’ lives.
On the other side, clients expect a lot, so Lauren and her team deliver a lot. And that means Lauren demands a lot from her team. In the same vein as the 18-year-old student working 100 hour weeks, Lauren expects results from her team and admits to having very little patience or tolerance for people who can’t deliver. “You can have reasons or you can have results. You can’t have both.”
This mentality and world view merged from her parents always supporting her combined with her personal drive for independence, and it impacts her current management style. She is committed, though, to supporting people who deliver. “If someone will be a good fit then you give them all the resources and training you can to help them succeed.”
For Lauren, the tension between lavishly supporting people who deliver versus not tolerating those who don’t makes sense because she puts a lot of trust in her employees and gives them autonomy. “I think this [management style] goes part and parcel with giving up the reins and saying ‘hey, go and do this’.”
Sitting at the top of her mind at all times, though, is a self-aware streak that keeps her learning from others. Because she is a demanding leader, she recognizes that her lack of patience for those who don’t deliver consistently can be a weakness.
Even though she’s not a boss that tolerates incompetence, she’s also not a boss that blames an individual for all the challenges that may happen to them. She looks internally, asking if she provided the right resources to help that employee succeed - or if she mistrained them. These introspective conversations help her fine tune the types of people she recruits for and helps her grow as a leader. She also focuses on learning from others. “Ask as many questions as you can… as many people as you can.”
Building the patience to learn
Zoocasa re-launched their tech platform in late 2016, and are at “20% of where [they] want to be in the build.” There’s a dream for an end-to-end service - everything from the moment you start looking up real estate for self-education all the way to when you get the key and move in - and there’s a lot more coming down the pipeline.
With baby number two on the way, though, Lauren’s views on work-life balance seem to have permanently shifted. After her first daughter, she only took three weeks off before beginning a slow-ride back into the office full-time (two days a week, then three days a week, then slowly back to full-time over the following weeks).
This time around, she’s home by 5:00-5:30 pm each day, “or else I resent my company.” She logs back in after the baby goes to bed around 7 pm. She has blocks during the weekends. She only allows herself to miss one bedtime per week for work. She’s lucky to have an incredibly supportive husband who shifted up his career to have more time during the day and she has a nanny that “feels like a part of the family,” but it’s a balance between family and the pressure she keeps on herself, much like her team, to deliver.
Taking this mentality into how she grows as a leader and how she manages her team, a key focus for her is empowering her team to learn from the world around them. In a big company, there are often full-time professionals dedicated to offering learning and development for specific types of work - not to mention that senior individuals with 20+ years experience are the norm. In a startup, it’s not quite the same. Each person could very well be the most experienced person in their given line of work, meaning that many people will face career development challenges if they are only supported when they look within the company.
That means that Lauren is working on how to give people on her team the resources, time, and trust for them to learn on their own and continue developing and delivering.
“At a startup, our best people create their own job descriptions. They get in, they see what we hired them for, hopefully do that well, then keep creating. Everyone takes ownership… but when you’re in a startup community you have to give people resources to reach out into their personal communities [resources to attend things like conferences or the time to learn from peers in other companies].”
Guest Writer: Stefan Palios