Kevin Li Of HomeOptions: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder
Life is short — don’t live somebody else’s vision of life for you.
As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Li.
Kevin Li is Founder and CEO of HomeOptions, a startup that’s on a mission to level the playing field for homeowners. HomeOptions pays up to $2,000 for the right to help sellers find real estate agents whenever they decide to put their home on the market — there’s no obligation to sell and customers never have to return the money. Kevin has spent most of his career in a diverse set of real estate and financial services companies: Facebook; Bank of America; Greenhill; Athena Bitcoin; and HomeLight.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up pretty poor and was raised by a single mother. She moved to the United States without graduating from college and never learned how to speak or read English fluently, but her American dream was to own her own home. When my mom and dad divorced, she worked multiple jobs simultaneously to take care of me, my sister, my grandmother, and my two cousins. We were fortunate enough to own our own home, but every time my mom needed to change jobs, she had friends who were real estate agents who would ask to help sell our home and help her buy another home. She never realized how expensive it was to sell real estate in the U.S. and how important it was to find and work with a great real estate agent. She ended up selling multiple homes over a decade-long period and all of the fees ate up most of the equity that she had built up. I still remember how devastated she felt. In the 25-years since then I would have thought that somebody would have used innovation and technology to make buying and selling homes more transparent, easier, and cheaper for people like my mom. Unfortunately, very little has changed and the real estate industry is still broken. I spent most of my career in finance and came upon the idea of paying homeowners for the opportunity to be their future real estate broker — helping people who need money the most and connecting them to top ranked real estate agents when they’re ready to sell their home. That’s how HomeOptions was born!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
In order to do what we do and give money away to homeowners, we need a large amount of money to give away! I talked to over 400 investors before the first one invested in me. It was brutal — I spent almost 6 months talking to anywhere between 5–10 investors a day before we got our first check. Nobody believed that we could succeed at doing something as crazy as giving away money.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My mom used to tell me to never give up — to always push on. One of our favorite phrases that we came up with is “a thousand no’s and one yes, is a yes.” A quitter never wins.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going really well for me and HomeOptions. We were successful in raising $9.5mm in a large seed round and have found partners to help us finance contract acquisitions. Grit and resilience isn’t a one-time occurrence — it is a daily occurrence. Without it, you would have to be stupid lucky to succeed.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This was only funny in hindsight because of how ridiculous the situation was. One of my first businesses was running a frozen paleo meal delivery service. My wife and I were the co-founders and we had just cooked up a heaping 200-lbs of hot barbacoa and needed to transport it to another facility 3 miles down the road. I put the meat into a commercial grade food container in the trunk and started driving. I didn’t tie the container down. We made a sharp right turn and I hear a “thump.” I knew…
I parked the car on the side of the road and opened the trunk and there was barbacoa EVERYWHERE. We ended up needing to cook an entirely new batch and my car smelled like barbacoa for 6 months afterwards even after spending $300 to detail the trunk. I learned — tie EVERYTHING down. I couldn’t stand the smell of barbacoa for a few years after.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are unique in that we give money. A lot of people that initially reach out to us think we’re a scam because “nobody in their right mind would give money.” This still happens daily. A potential client will call into our customer service line and scream at us and accuse us of being a scam, but after we calm them down and explain what we do, they often become our biggest supporters and even get their family and friends to sign up with us.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Here’s what works for me:
• Sleep 8+ hours
• Avoid social media and unnecessary entertainment — it drains dopamine
• Eat a healthy diet
• Go to the gym
• Spend time with friends and family that give you energy
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It truly does take a village to raise a child. I have had dozens of people that have helped me along the way, but the person that really helped us catapult to the next level is a fellow entrepreneur. The first time I shared our business with him (even though his business is in a completely different industry), he fell in love with the concept and immediately offered to introduce his investors to me. I’ve had many people tell me they would introduce investors, but never follow through. Ben Baltes from ToyBox followed through and It wasn’t just one or two investors — he introduced me to dozens. He and I have become good friends over the last few years and I still thank him for his help.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The money that we give to consumers has been used to pay off medical bills, put food on dinner tables, and pay for school supplies. We’ve had dozens of homeowners call us and thank us for helping them when nobody else would. Hopefully I can continue helping millions of homeowners.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Do the hard things. Being an entrepreneur is hard. The concept of giving away money to be somebody’s future real estate broker was thought to be insane. The interesting thing is that there are very few people that are willing to do the hard things to succeed. There are very few people that are willing to suffer to succeed.
2. If you’re raising money from investors — try to get a priced round as quickly as possible. Silicon Valley likes to use SAFEs (Simple Agreement for Future Equity). SAFEs are easy, but rarely are they good for the founders.
3. Pick co-founders carefully. Who you work with is more important than what you do.
Co-founders are your work spouses. Make sure they complement you and you can work well with each other. You’ll be working with each other 12–16 hours a day for years on end. You’ll spend more time with them than anybody else.
4. Take care of yourself and your team. Building a company is a long journey. Make sure you take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. Even more importantly, take care of your team. They trust you to guide them — don’t underestimate the responsibility.
5. Be careful what you wish for. I got this advice when I was just starting out and it rings more true every day. More success does not make life easier. It actually often makes it much harder. You’re responsible to more customers, more employees, more investors. Wins are great, but be humble, build good teams, and don’t quit.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Everybody is going to be different, but I like to disconnect completely and go out into the woods for a few days every month. No cell phones, no i-pads, nothing but myself and nature. Some people like boxing or yoga or reading books. Find your escape — you might need to pick a few and figure which one works the best.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Life is short — don’t live somebody else’s vision of life for you. I would start a movement that empowers people to do bold things.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!