Don’t try to give JD Ross, BSBA ’12, a job to do. He only wants your problems. “I’m a terrible employee,” Ross said. “I’ve always been bad at being told specific things to do. If you tell me there’s a problem to solve, I love that.”
Today, he’s loving this problem: helping homeowners sell their houses instantly, without the heartache of weeks or months on the real estate market. Ross and three colleagues tackled the problem with Opendoor, founded in 2014 and boasting $30 million in venture capital support.
Only three years out of Washington University, Ross already had a string of startups on his resume, including Fresh Prints, a student–run custom apparel company he founded on campus, where he developed the staff and built the logistics to manage every aspect of the million-dollar business.
He was the fifth employee at Addepar (now more than 10 times that size), hired to create the product team for the Mountain View, California-based startup that builds financial portfolio analysis software for investors. He left to create Opendoor with former Square COO Keith Rabois and two others.
But even earlier—as a 13-year-old—Ross founded his first company: GenY Computer Consultants. Ross charged $60 an hour to clean viruses and malware from customers’ machines. “I could do the same thing as the adults, faster, and I could guarantee it. It was a great learning opportunity,” said Ross, who was installing computer systems for the local school district by the time he was 17.
His business school education was instrumental, as well. Every professor encouraged exploration, but he particularly recalled Lamar Pierce, his introductory management professor, and Michael Gordinier, his statistics teacher. “They probably pushed me the most,” Ross said. “When you’re a freshman, you look for some authority to tell you you’re going in the right direction.” They were key, he said, but “there isn’t a single person at Olin who didn’t encourage you to stray from the normal path if you wanted to.”
“There isn’t a single person at Olin who didn’t encourage you to stray from the normal path if you wanted to.”
The future, Ross said, belongs to the multiple disciplinarians: Be among either the top 0.1 percent of people with one skill, or the top 5 percent of those with two or more.
“Everyone should find things they’re interested in and build skills around being able to do that,” he said.
With his computer skills and business training from Olin, it’s no wonder that Ross became the guy who could build Opendoor’s first prototype from scratch, then overcome skeptics who doubted anyone would pay a premium over typical real estate commissions to sell a house instantly. Now, Opendoor buys four homes a day in Phoenix and will soon be expanding into Dallas and Portland. And Ross, who runs product development, spends 40 percent of his time hiring new people for the growing company.
“Your job at any given moment is to replace yourself,” says Ross. “Everyone’s job in a startup is to grow the pie.
To succeed, you need to hire people who can take over slices.” He continues, “The only way to develop leadership is to drown someone in responsibility.”