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PODCAST EPISODE 36: MIKE TASSONE | CO-FOUNDER & COO, OWN UP





Finding a mortgage can be a very overwhelming and opaque process, and after years in the lending industry, Mike Tassone and his co-founder built Own Up, a digital platform designed to ease this process by doing things differently. Mike, who serves as the COO, talks about how their search for transparency in lending led to their overall commitment to it throughout the whole organization, whether it's in the way they interact with their clients or within the team itself. Mike describes how implementing OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) inside the organization at every level has been a somewhat painful but very rewarding process, how OKRs can inspire accountability and collaboration, and how to start this initiative at your own organization.


Here are my two big takeaways from the conversation:

  1. Implementing a goals and trackers system successfully requires buy-in from the top leaders.

  2. Understand that the initial process will take time and be challenging but it gets easier and becomes part of your DNA.


What a great episode and so timely! I had no idea when we started our conversation that this would end up being a tactical episode about goals and accountability in all your team members. Enjoy and set those goals!


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SHOW NOTES

Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs; by John Doerr

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TRANSCRIPT


Mike: You're thinking about, okay, what does the team need to do in these furthermore, these individuals need to do to get this metric moving, you know, X percent in whatever direction your searches are targeting here.


Aaron: I'm Aaron Levy. And I have this vision of a workplace where your manager doesn't suck; where instead your manager is your coach helping you to reach your full potential. I founded Raise The Bar, wrote Open, Honest, and Direct and started this podcast to help companies transform their workplace to a place where both the company and employee succeeds.


In this podcast, I get to interview leaders who built high-performing teams. And learn from them on what it takes to unlock a team with potential.


Today, we're lucky to have Mike Tassone , the co-founder and chief operating officer at Own Up, a company built on the idea that technology can simplify the home financing process. In this episode, Mike talks about the importance of measuring what matters and being intentional about what you say yes to and what you say no to in your business.


Aaron: So Mike, I think one of the first questions I have for you is what inspired you to co-found Own up and why get into mortgages?


Mike: Well, thanks, Aaron. Once you're in mortgages, it's really hard to get out and the only way out is to start a company. My background prior to Own Up was actually as a mortgage banker; even prior to that was always in consumer finance, so done stuff in student lending and personal lending. And I had done a startup prior to my mortgage banking experience. I had been through sort of a boom and bust cycles there just about eight years and was sort of at the kind of end of my, I think probably mental rope and, you know, I think whether it was instinctual or, or sort of by design gravitate it sort of the thing that felt like the opposite of a startup at that point, which was, you know, an established bank and ended up co-leading the mortgage group there with my now co-founder I was there for a little under three years and, you know, it was a good experience in the sense that I knew nothing about mortgages. You know, we helped 30,000 plus consumers acquire homes and, you know, finance the purchase of those homes.


But when when I got my own mortgage, when my co-founder got his own mortgage, we didn't use our own bank. And people found that really odd that they sort of run this department by all accounts. They've gotten, you know, tens of thousands of people, really good deals.


Why did you not use your own institution? You know, was it privacy? Was it you know, something wrong with the bank? And it was really neither of those things. We had all the tools of the industry insider at our disposal, we could access pricing engines and get real, real live pricing from you know, the capital markets.


We had a unique understanding of how mortgages were priced and you know, a lot of it was due to some of the way the sales compensation is set up in, pricing that into loans and ultimately getting passed on to consumers. So we were able to get better deals for ourselves.


Then we were able to get at our own institution and while the light bulb didn't go off after, you know, closing on our mortgage at a bank that wasn't ours. It did start spurring some of the conversations around some of the issues inherent and the fact that it is really difficult to shop for mortgage.


And most people sub-optimize just because they don't know how to do it. There's a big like referral network that exists. You know, you find out who to talk to for a mortgage from your real estate agent or from, you know, your brother or somebody at like a barbecue. But because the industry has made it kind of needlessly complex to shop.


And, in fact I would argue, has made it a core tenet is preventing shopping. That was sort of the Genesis of the idea that has now become, you know, Own Up where we've helped tens of thousands of folks find out exactly what they should pay on their mortgage. And in most instances secure a far better financial outcome that they could.


Aaron: That's so fascinating that it started from, you know, a problem that you had that you didn't even realize was a, was a solution and more people wanted. And it sounds like it's the, the idea of transparency. And how does that translate into the business and the culture that you just created over the last several years?


Yeah. I think transparency is an overused buzz word in, in many cases. And, you know, I think we started using it really early on because it was an industry that was opaque and, you know, we always use this term, Hey, we'd love to flip the broker screen. Like how do we show consumers what we see as bankers and give them perfect visibility into what they should pay on their mortgage?


I would say it's been a real important component, not just of our kind of go to market strategy and our consumer acquisition approach. But you know, also how we engage with each other internally. You know, every department sees the KPIs of every other department and we kind of track live how those perform, we send, you know, a narrative to the team each week.


Mike: So they know exactly what was, what was accomplished in, you know, the marketing group. What was the challenge that was encountered that past week, what's being addressed to mitigate the challenge, you know the saying where. if you don't tell a lie and you're sort of forthcoming with information, you don't have to worry about remembering whether you told the truth or not or some sort of derivation of that.


But I fundamentally believe that that's really true. And one of the reasons we've built a strong culture and one of the reasons we've had very little, what I would call it, regrettable churn, you know, folks that have left the company that we were really sort of bummed to see leave is. there really is a coalition around the mission.


People feeling like Hey, I'm working for something in, in FinTech but that's actually doing a lot of great things for consumers. I'd say the majority of people that have bought a home or refinance to home, majority of our employees have used our service and you know, sort of runs counter to what I told you about my, and Patrick's founding story and having not not used our own employer for our original financing back then.


So that's really heartening, when you can create a business model that combines the ability to do broad good for consumers and also make money. And, do so in a, in a manner that, you know, I feel like proud every day or when my dad sends me a referral for, somebody that he's friends with or a family member, Hey, like work with Own Up, they'll make sure you get a good deal; that, you know, sort of warm swarms my heart a bit.


So yeah, it's at the core. Again, the word has become trite and I think a little bit overused; but it's really at the core of, you know, our company ethos, how we sort of handle ourselves and interact with each other internally.


And then by extension, how we go to market and present information to consumers. And I think one thing that is worth noting, you know, we provide our service completely free to consumers; you could come in today and say, I'm looking, buying a plan to buy a house in Chicago. You know, here's sort of my scenario.


And we would tell you exactly what you should expect to pay for your specific mortgage based on data from 16,000 plus lenders that we take in on a daily basis that are really customized to your profile. And we'll show you that range. Here's a great deal for Aaron. Here's a mediocre deal and here's the subpar deal.


And then you can take that information. And if you've already got, you know, a lender relationship or you know, somebody that you're working with you can go and use that data to help you negotiate on your behalf just to get a better deal.


You know, some people will say well, you can't make any money just sort of referring people elsewhere, you know, telling them to take your information.

But our view is we're fine being the second opinion because if you're the second opinion, enough times, eventually you become the first opinion or the first check. And so that's the type of, sort of transparency we're focused on bringing to the market and you know, something I'm really excited about bringing to even more markets, as you know, we entered new states.


Aaron: Yeah, I love the way you think about that. Right? So it's, as you said, the openness is not just a part of the inspiration for the business, but it's how you serve your customers or the market and how you serve internally. Then you said something really interesting. You said, you know, we track KPIs and we send weekly narratives.


Can you tell me more about what a weekly narrative is and kind of the value it serves?


Mike: Yeah, absolutely. So each quarter we sort of lay out the company OKRs, and these are, sort of started with the leadership team within input from each of the kind of team leads. And then we get to sort of, one of the core things that we need to work on as an organization to propel us forward in the next quarter.


And that extends across every single function of the company; from those company OKRs the teams develop their team OKRs and that cascades one layer lower down to the individual layer. And the idea there is how can we give confidence to the most junior employee whose just joined within the last couple of weeks to leadership that they're working on the most important thing that day, that week, that month, and ultimately that quarter.


Aaron: For those listening, what Mike's referring to are OKRs: objectives and key results. It comes from John Doerr's book. I'm blanking on the name of the book. But essentially it's a method and methodology for goal setting and goal tracking, which is what Mike's describing.


Mike: I think you're talking about the book Measure what Matters which is John's book. Yeah. And it's a really great framework for just helping organizations, you know, focus on the right things. And then I think, prioritize and, fundamentally what I think is hard for a lot of organizations and also a lot of individuals.


It's saying like, what are you going to say no to? And when you know, a new potential opportunity is brought forth or, you know, someone says, Hey, I think we should work on this project. You can reflect on the OKRs that have been established and say, does this help push that objective forward?


So, you know, once you sort of go through this quarterly process, the most important thing you can do then is sort of measure the specific actions that are being taken and the results against those OKRs. So we've got sort of a company-wide dashboard, which is just all of the metrics that we're tracking for every group on, on a real-time basis.


But that only tells you so much. And so what we've decided to do in addition to that, to really supplement the. KPI dashboard, key performance indicator dashboards that everybody can see is provide a little more insight into what each team's biggest accomplishment, biggest challenge and biggest opportunity was from that week prior.


And we're sort of religious about sending that out every Monday. The heads of each team provide this narrative to us. And it always connects back to the accomplishment has to connect to one of the OKRs; the challenge has to connect to one of the OTRs and the opportunity your investment has to connect to one of the OKRs, and the idea there is to spur not only dialogue and questions about okay, is there something I could do to assist, the marketing team with this particular challenge?


Mike: But also just to make sure that everybody understands where the efforts are being spent at other areas of the organization and, and what it helps prevent is, well, you know, the product team isn't doing XYZ, or, you know, sales, isn't doing anything. Well, you can see exactly what they're doing, cause we're giving you access to the data.


And then we're also providing, you know, some real context around it. So we're relatively new at this. We're still building our OKR muscles but the early indications have been that it's been a it's been a time-consuming yet powerful tool that, you know, we expect it's going to pay dividends.


Aaron: Mike, I absolutely love this. I love the way you're thinking about it, the way you talk about it. And when we look at the data on what creates team performance, two of the three most important factors are clarity and context. And what you're saying is, Hey, We're not just giving our departments and the people under them clarity.


We're giving everybody in the organization clarity and context as to what's going on in the whole organization. So it's not like Mike and marketing is just in their silos, but it's Mike and marketing can see what's happening in sales, can see what's happening in operations. That's so powerful.


Mike: Yeah. A hundred percent.


And in many cases, the company OKRs will overlap multiple groups. Each function has a real big responsibility, not only to themselves and sort of moving forward on theirs, but also to the other teams, because, one could be a predecessor step that enables, you know another team’s performance.


So yeah, you're spot on - it's the visibility that enables really powering forward on this.


Aaron: Oh, I love that. I might have to steal that. We do a headlines and challenges meeting every two weeks where we do What are the headlines from the last two weeks? And what are the challenges as it relates to you know, our goals and trackers and I kind oflike the, the way you talked about as a narrative.


So that's going into my takeaway from today. What I'm curious about is you mentioned low regrettable turnover. I'm curious. What have you seen as the impact of implementing, this dashboard of metrics, looking at goals, being clear on what you're saying yes to and saying no to establishing, insight into the business that everybody can see?


What are you seeing as the impact of, of this work?


Mike: Yeah. Well, I would say the first thing you see is. Well you said a couple things you see engagement from those that I think relish the opportunity for accountability and like measuring not only their own performance, but the performances of their group.


I think you see, some people that this is very foreign to, and in some cases, even uncomfortable, you know, like being held accountable, It is sometimes just not something that certain individuals are are used to, or you know, take kindly to, if, they feel like maybe I'm, I'm falling behind in a particular area.


But one of the things that is really important is, making sure that those team members have buy-in as to what the OKRs are, especially as it gets down to the team and individual levels. And, you know, by their definition an OKR is supposed to be something that, you know, it's probably achieved 65, 70%.


That's a good idea of a well designed OKR, right? It's like ambitious enough that if you come close to achieving it, you're going to propel the organization forward, but you know, not so simple that you're going to hit it a hundred percent. If you're gonna hit it a hundred percent, then you probably shouldn't do it should be more of a task versus something that's, you know, that's more aspirational.


So I think it's really charged up some of our higher performers link between what they're doing on a daily basis and ultimately company performance. And, if I had to look at our organization critically, I would say the area that we have prior to sort of rolling out this okay, Our framework the most metric driven accountable activities has been in our sales org.


It's very easy to measure. We measure everything there and know all the predecessor steps that ultimately drive the engine, which is revenue. But hadn't had that in other other groups and, you know, part, cause it's harder than other groups, you know, like if someone's working two weeks on a piece of the product you know, having that really tied to something that is, is measurable. Historically, we just haven't done a great job and that can lead people to like, okay, is this really important? Is this ever going to see the light of day? Is this just a feature that I'm just working on?


Because you know, we think it's going to be impactful, but I actually have no idea, like, what are the things we're going to measure to determine whether this exercise works; is this output really worth the effort here. So yeah, I think it breeds accountability.


I think really challenges those who want to be performance driven to be engaged in the process, especially the process where you're, you're laying them out, because it'd be one thing, if we said, Hey, here are the OKRs, go deliver it. But the very basis of the fact that they're collaborative and you know, many cases built from the bottom up after you establish the key themes for the company is designed to build engagement and get buy-in from the team.


It's not like, Hey, I'm giving you a goal that you have no remote idea how you're going to hit. So again, we're still kind of in the early innings of it, the early read is that it's something we're committed to. And you know, it is like building a muscle. The first time we did it, it was, you know, I would say in some ways a flop, you know was not designed in the best manner, did not engage enough of the team and putting them together this past quarters.


And that's it. The first time, you know, we came pretty close to the mark and that was largely driven by incredible amount of time spent by the leadership team on this; like a few painful, long meetings to, to really hammer these out in there before. Yeah. Yeah. And you're just like, gosh, is it even worth it?


And you know, these are things that will take a little time to start seeing the real payback in terms of business performance. But, you know, we're already seeing some of the early reads and some of the things. we said, Hey, we want to get you know, conversion to X on the sales team.


We need to get our profitability at purchase profitability being people that are buying a house. Like what are the actions that the various groups are taking to move that forward and starting to see that that's where you start getting some of the reward, again, it's going to take a while before it's all comes through revenue and you know, you're you're sort of psyched, cause you felt like you've really moved the company quite, quite a bit forward.


But just the fact that we've had everyone sort of turn their narratives in and engage in conversation about it indicates that there's appetite here and, you know, people want to know what they're working on in it. That it's important. And if it's not important, then you know, you shouldn't be doing it. So,


Aaron: yeah, I absolutely love that. And what I've seen in our organization and other organizations that follow a goal process, very similar to this is. What it does. It saves time in the explanation of things. It saves time and the explaining why we're doing X, Y, and Z, and having the false starts of initiatives, because it all aligns to something that everybody can see and point to there's no you know, backend politicking that's happening.


Everybody knows what's going on because everybody sees it on a weekly basis.


Mike: Yeah. A hundred percent.


Aaron: I mean, like the false starts is so useful to hear. Cause it sounds right in the way you talk about it. It sounds brilliant and smart and thoughtful like, oh man, this company has got it all set up and I love that you've acknowledged, Hey, it's not so easy.


And it takes time and it takes building the muscle. If someone's listening and they're wanting to start this process, what's one piece of advice you'd give them to maybe learn from one of your mistakes?


Mike: Yeah, I think a couple things. One I would read John's book, man. That's sort of the Bible on OKRs.


Mike: and he's got a lot of good case studies in there, including companies far more successful than us like Google and others. And then I think you got to get engagement from some of the very top of the organization, you know, in our case, the founding team, or whether it's your executive team or leadership team there's going to be discomfort.


Yeah. Especially from, as I said, folks who aren't necessarily used to maybe having a whole lot of accountability. And then I think you got to sign yourself up for being really, really patient and diligent and working through it. And then recognizing that you're going to come with maybe a list of three to five OKRs that the company level is going to go to the team leaders with those, and they're going to push back, you know, they're going to come back with sort of areas where this is not a good OKR altogether, or, you know, needs considerable refinement, and you gotta be okay with sort of multiple iterations.


I'd say start early as well. You know, if you're thinking, Hey, I'd love to launch you know, an OKR process and Q1 of 2022, you gotta be starting now.


In fact, you probably should have started last month. Just to get through all of the revisions that it's just sort of a natural progression here, especially as you're just starting out. Now, I do expect that they're going to get faster and they get faster for a couple of reasons. One reason is, you know, your OKRs go from Q4 to Q1.


For example, it shouldn't be so drastically off unless you absolutely crushed it in Q4, which means you probably set some shitty OKRs at the outset. They weren't ambitious enough. And then you get sort of the teams really sort of tuned into, okay, here's the process, you know, a few weeks before you know, the quarter we're going to sort of get the company ones that sort of finalized company ones, then we're going to come back with the team ones, understanding what OKRs is like, it has to be measurable. It's not an activity, it's an outcome. And you know, it's something that can be measured, whether you get the measurement scale, right? Like if you say I'm going to do this, improve this by 10% and you weren't even close, you only improved it by one. That's fine.


Especially in the early days, at least now you have a benchmark and you understand hopefully what the levers are, you know, to move whatever that particular metric is. But if it's not measurable and it's just like an activity than sort of a useless OKR. If it's, Hey, I'm going to achieve this; this is my outcome and here's my expectation of what that outcome is. That's a far better way to do it.


So yeah, patience and then really digging in on and there's a couple of good you know, websites and blogs on sort of the pitfalls and you know, pros of this approach.


And there was also different methodologies, different naming conventions for things that, that matters less. Take one and stick to it and it will likely be better than what you're currently doing. But yeah, we're fired up about the prospects of it and, and really just having this become part of our, our team's DNA, much like, transparency.


Aaron: Yeah. And I love that you, the last statement you said too, cause there's a lot of naming ways and people and different ways to talk about it. There's goals and trackers. There's OKRs, there's, you know, there's 1,000,001 ways, and it's the concept that matters and the concept's been around for quite a bit.


And so whichever one you find. I think that the pieces of advice that you share that I thought were really, really important to reiterate is 1) get founders and the founding team and the executive team on board with this early; they're the people who have to really start it. It doesn't work if they're not doing it. 2) start early, plan for iterations, plan for fuck-ups.


Take it one step at a time.


And then the other one is it sounds like schedule it in advance, right? You know when the quarters end, you know when the years end, so you can put it on your calendar in advance that you have time for the iterations. So you time for the back and forth to really get it down.


I love that; that's like super tactical, super helpful. I know this will really help our audience. I had no idea which way this conversation would go. And I'm so grateful for you to share the passion, the energy, and it's even more exciting that you're kind of in the thick of it right now, because I think that gives a really useful perspective to other businesses and business owners and leaders on their teams for the excitement, but also the challenges that they'll face in, in measuring what matters.


Mike: Yeah, for sure. And we'll sort of report back on how we're progressing against things and yeah, the, the goal is this is, this becomes part of your, your company's DNA and it's sort of second nature and sort of really fruitful exercise.


Aaron: Open Honest and Direct is produced by Raise The Bar, where we help organizations level up their leadership by empowering their managers with the tools, skills, and training to be better leaders of people. You can get in touch with us at raisebar.co.


Thank you for listening and go put your learning into practice.