Following its acquisition by RBC and with Karen Starns at the helm, OJO Canada is readying itself to reshape the real estate landscape
Karen Starns is no stranger to the world of technology and innovation. She spent decades at global powerhouses like Amazon, Microsoft and Pearson in leadership roles ranging from brand strategy and global media to insights and consumer experience and, most recently, served as CMO at OJO Labs, a real estate platform based in Austin, TX.
OJO, for the uninitiated, is not your ordinary property listings website. It’s a trailblazing fintech company that delivers a more complete consumer experience by meeting consumer needs with perfectly timed insights, advanced personalization, and deep expertise to find, finance and successfully own their next home. This points to a range of offerings that include more integrated pre-approval and pre-qualification tools, along with better recommendations and support based on their financial requirements.
Karen’s extensive background in the tech sector, along with the pioneering strides achieved by OJO, speaks volumes about her acumen for driving transformative change—and it’s something RBCx is counting on. Last February, RBCx announced that its parent company, RBC, was no longer simply partnering with OJO (as it had over the last few years), but rather, had snapped up its entire Canadian operations.
The acquisition elevated Karen to CEO of the newly spun-off company and, propelled by her unyielding pursuit of reimagining the status quo, OJO Canada is poised to make an even greater impact, reshaping the very essence of how Canadians approach home ownership.
In this exclusive sit-down interview, we delve into what distinguishes OJO Canada from its competitors, how Karen is shepherding her intrepid team of over 120 staffers (and counting), and why the backing of RBC paves the way to make home ownership more accessible to more Canadians.
In other words, Karen Starns and OJO Canada are just getting started.
When you were appointed CEO, you wrote that the thing that you were most excited about was the opportunity to create an ‘outstanding culture’. What does that mean to you?
The way we’ve been laying the groundwork for culture at OJO Canada is a combination of values, operating principles and practices. If you’re happy at work but the business isn’t making progress toward its outcomes, then you’ve only got part of the puzzle. An outstanding culture ensures people are flourishing—individually and as teams—and business outcomes are being achieved.
Post-acquisition, how has the integration into RBCx been?
We were really very thoughtful about the people we’re taking with us and how we marry our culture with the values and culture of RBC. Many of our people hadn’t worked for large enterprises, so you think about who would be well-positioned to work in an organization that has more structure, more resource capabilities, and where a long-term career with RBC and RBCx could be a selling point for them.
It’s early days, but my goal is to really take care of people and understand the pain they are having in the transition, because it’s not easy and has a human toll. We’re really checking in with our people to make sure that we’re spending the right amount of time not only on the work, but on the ways of working.
Other than being a brand marketer and brand leader, has there been a throughline in your career?
I’m a builder. I like hard, messy problems and gravitate toward big challenges where I can evaluate multiple paths to success. I’m really comfortable with the idea that there is more than one way to solve a problem. It helps me be optimistic and a good leader—I can encourage the team to reevaluate, to reprioritize, or maybe to scrap an idea that isn’t working. Being a builder is not about being perfect. It’s about demonstrating progress and showing that you’re resilient in the face of a challenge.
What’s the hard, messy problem OJO Canada is trying to solve?
The dream of owning a home is more and more out of reach for Canadians: mortgage rates have tripled, home ownership rates are on the decline, and monthly costs for renters rose at a rapid rate compared to homeowners. The context is challenging, but the reality is there are lots of things that people can do to prepare well before a purchase. Do you have your savings strategy in place? Have you built your credit? Are you gathering information on neighbourhoods and school districts? Our aim is to be the home ownership platform of choice for Canadians by helping home buyers build their knowledge base and hold their hand while they get ready.
We look at our role as helping people prepare so that when they are ready to move forward, we can match them with a real estate agent and introduce them to a mortgage specialist, supporting them on their way.
Our aim is to be the home ownership platform of choice for Canadians by helping home buyers build their knowledge base and hold their hand while they get ready.
In what ways is OJO different from other real estate search sites?
Making a decision on a home is so complex, right? It’s why I don’t buy into the concept of a dream home, at least not for first-time home buyers. Buying a home requires dozens upon dozens of trade-offs, both big and small. We aspire to be a valuable ally to consumers by helping them look at all the different ways that they might achieve their goals of home ownership.
How does OJO Canada’s technology help users with buying and selling homes?
I’ll give you an example. In June, a big third-party survey found that, for the first time, Canadians were looking to buy smaller homes. OJO Canada takes all of that external information, along with what consumers are telling us through behavioural data, and ploughs it back into the platform to help us provide that wise counsel.
That might mean helping people to reconsider certain homes—say, presenting a two-bedroom where the main suite is big enough for a desk instead of a three-bedroom or maybe presenting the idea of buying a cottage while continuing to be a renter. Our secret sauce is helping Canadians navigate those trade-offs and push their initial assumptions to help them find a house that fits their needs, taking into account their distinct lifestyle preferences to match them to a property. That’s something that our technology platform is uniquely positioned to do and something we always aim to get better at.
Our data-driven understanding of the buyer also means they are better matched to talented, high-performing real estate agents and mortgage specialists that may have specific knowledge of certain areas, including local neighbourhoods. Over 2.5 million Canadians come to us every month, and that number is rapidly growing as OJO increasingly becomes a trusted resource for them.
What I really love about our business model is that all of the incentives are aligned to prioritize consumer success, which in turn benefits the entire real estate ecosystem.
How have RBC and RBCx contributed to OJO Canada’s success in the market?
It’s significant. We have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage RBC’s data to get a better picture of the Canadian consumer on their home journey and seamlessly support them to be financially ready. The company invested in a proven model, with a proven team, and is applying it at scale by enabling us to build out a full home ownership experience on a single platform. By buying OJO Canada, RBC is playing to win.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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