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More than Numbers

Amy Bohutinsky '97

Amy Bohutinsky '97 believes that buying and selling real estate is more than a numbers game. She wants to tell the stories behind the sales, and as chief operating officer for online real estate site Zillow, she is able to connect to consumers through advertising that tells those personal stories.

"A house is more than a number. Most people approach buying a house with little information," said Bohutinsky. In her role as COO for Zillow Group, which owns a family of the largest real estate brands in the country, including Zillow, Trulia, HotPads and StreetEasy, she oversees brand strategy, marketing and growth across the portfolio.

Also one of the company's founding members, Bohutinsky said she and her partners dreamed of empowering consumers by creating a place online to access information.

Bohutinsky's route to Zillow Group began in Kansas City, Missouri, where she grew up. Looking for a small college where she could play tennis and study journalism, she decided to come to Virginia and enrolled at Washington and Lee. "I wanted to study journalism to unearth and tell meaningful stories that had an impact on people," she said.

Immediately after graduation, she went to work for NBC 29 in Charlottesville, covering crime and cops and anchoring the Saturday morning newscast. She then moved to Fort Myers, Florida, to work as a reporter the next two years for the local ABC affiliate.

When her contract was up, she made the first of two transformative decisions in her life. Intrigued with the opportunities available because of the Internet, she moved to San Francisco in 2000 and took a job with a public relations agency, where she helped start-up companies get noticed in the news media.

"Having worked in the news, I felt qualified to do that," she said.

One of her clients was Hotwire.com, an online site devoted to booking discount hotels and travel deals. She got to know the founders at Hotwire and eventually moved in-house to run the company's PR and communications.

Five year later, Bohutinsky made the second transformative decision in her life: She moved to Seattle and joined the founders of Hotwire and Expedia in creating the online real estate site Zillow, with the goal of using their experience in transforming the travel industry to create a new company in a field underserved by the Internet at that time.

Ten years later, after going public in 2011, Zillow is valued at $7 billion and employs 2,000 people. Bohutinsky said that there is still opportunity for growth in the company, and she and her team of 150 work on that every day. As the company grew and acquired new brands like Trulia and StreetEasy, her role evolved into more of a coach and mentor. "I hire the smartest people I can and empower them to do their best," she said.

Bohutinsky is motivated by Zillow's mission and purpose. She likes helping people through a process that is "big, scary and expensive." Because of her company's work, Bohutinsky said people are "infinitely more informed about buying and selling real estate than they were 10 years ago." Prior to the housing recession, she said people got into mortgages they couldn't understand and "thought housing prices would just keep going higher. Now they are more informed."

She also says big ideas motivate her. "We're ambitious in ideas and how fast we move." She likes to see the big ideas through and think of others to take the company forward.

Looking back on her days at W&L, Bohutinsky remembers Professor Bob DeMaria, head of the broadcast journalism department, as an influence on her. "He was always accessible. He was a professor, mentor and friend," she said. "Having that kind of close relationship with a professor gets you motivated and creates a personal connection with the school and the faculty."

While journalism is not the traditional route to a career in marketing, Bohutinsky said she relies on many of the same skills she learned at W&L in her current career:

  • Speed: She learned to always be on deadline and not to belabor the process. "This is useful in an entrepreneurial role. I love to hire people like that."
  • Storytelling: "The best marketing any company can do is to tell a story." She learned at W&L how to gather information and tell a story that resonates. "A journalism degree teaches you in a way that no other degree can to understand the market and tell a story to touch them."
  • Ask questions and listen: An important skill for leadership but often missed by leaders, Bohutinsky said. At W&L, she developed those skills in leadership positions with the campus TV station and as rush chair for Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.

Outside of her job, Bohutinsky is married to a professional chef, and they have two children, 4 and 7 years old. She said she loves the outdoors and the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, especially when she can experience it with her children.

 - by Linda Evans

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