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Zillow COO Amy Bohutinsky talks at the Inman Connect conference
Zillow COO Amy Bohutinsky talks at the Inman Connect conference

SAN FRANCISCO — Ten years ago, Zillow co-founder Rich Barton approached Amy Bohutinsky with what seemed like an impossible task on her first day of work at the online real estate startup: Grow Zillow’s audience to more than one million visitors per month in six months.

Bohutinsky, a former TV news reporter who was recently promoted to COO at Zillow, recounted the task today at the Inman Connect conference, calling it “the hardest challenge of my career.”

Amy Bohutinsky.

Bohutinsky got to work, and blew right past the goal, obtaining a million visitors in the first three days after Zillow’s launch and five million visitors in the first month. Through some savvy public relations and grassroots marketing, Bohutinksy grew the brand, focusing on key product features “and building stuff that people love.”

It didn’t hurt that Zillow launched with an online tool that allowed home owners to check out the valuation of their homes, a tool known as the Zestimate that went viral.

Zillow is now the dominant player in online real estate, reporting this week an average of 141 million monthly unique users during the second quarter.

Here is more from Bohutinsky’s remarks.

“My first day at the office in Seattle 10 years ago, Rich Barton, our founder, walked over to my desk and he said: ‘I have a challenge for you. When we launch this May — it was about six months away — your goal is to have a million people visit Zillow per month by our sixth month of existence and you can’t spend any money doing it.’ And he walked off.

I started thinking: ‘What did I just do? That’s impossible.’

What that caused us to do — and I think it is a great lesson for any and all entrepreneurs — it caused us to really set the goals high, get scrappy, become very creative.”

Bohutinsky talked further about how Zillow built its brand without any advertising dollars for the first seven years.

All of us who started Zillow had come from other startups and companies. We had lived through the first internet boom and bust. We saw company after company fall under for investing way too much in advertising in the beginning. Knowing that really changed our approach to building a brand.

Marketing for us starts with product. We invested a lot in technologists and developers, making the best product we could and getting ahead of things like mobile, but we didn’t spend anything on advertising for seven years.

Product is king. The absolute best marketing you can possibly do is to build a product that people love, obsess about it, make it as great as you can because word of mouth is powerful.”

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