Transcript – Dana Dunford of Hemlane

Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Dana Dunford, CEO and Cofounder of Hemlane, an online property management platform.
Last updated
November 3, 2021
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Before diving into the real estate industry, Dana worked in finance for Symantec and Apple.
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Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Dana Dunford, CEO and Cofounder of Hemlane, an online property management platform. Transcripts for other episodes can be found here

“For anyone out there starting a company, just start with one pain point and build something for that. And then start layering on everything else.” – Dana Dunford


Dana Dunford (@dana110001) is CEO and Cofounder of Hemlane, an online property management platform. She started her career in finance with Symantec and Apple before working in business development at Nest. Her work with Nest built up her interest in the real estate industry, and she received an angel investment directly out of business school to start Hemlane.



Infinite Games: Dana Dunford of Hemlane on Building the Rental Management Platform of the Future


Daniel Scrivner:

Dana, thank you so much for coming on Outlier Academy. I'm super excited to chat with you today about the rental market about Hemlane and about your background.


Dana Dunford:

Great. Likewise, I'm excited to be on the show.


Daniel Scrivner:

So I wanted to start by just covering your background, because your background I think is fascinating in just the kind of progression that you had. So for everyone listening, can you just share the beginning part of your story up to founding Hemlane?


Dana Dunford:

Well, I would say at the beginning, if you asked me when I was 18 years old, and working full time while going to school, if I would have started a company or been in property management, I would have said no way. And so from that perspective, I started in tech, I was fascinated by technology and the power it had to bring people together. So started at Apple, new product introductions team, all the way to Nest home technology, which got me really fascinated with real estate, to helping manage real estate for my family. And suddenly all of that transpired into Hemlane. But I would say from that perspective, it wasn't like I had this path that when I was 15, I said, I'm going to be an entrepreneur, I'm going to build a company in prop tech, it wasn't like that. It was just me following what interests me. And along the way, it was building blocks to what Hemlane is today.


Daniel Scrivner:

And before you founded Hemlane you also took a break and went to business school. Can you talk just a little bit about that experience and what that was like for you?


Dana Dunford:

Yeah, a lot of people go to business school, quite frankly, because they're a little bit lost. I think that was very similar to me in the sense I wasn't lost. I loved my job. I love working. But I was that person who always asked the questions why? Which I think you had mentioned off the show, kids do that, three year olds do that. I did that as well. I was like, well, why do things work this way? Why do we have to do things this way? And so I took a step back to go to business school and see what else was out there. And the benefit of that, of getting out of the day today was it just made me think large. And I was in a design and innovation class and asked, hey, what could you do to change the world or change something? And they said, it can be anything from making a hanger better, in your closet, hanging up your clothes, all the way to doing something that is developing country and getting food supplies there, whatever it may be.


Dana Dunford:

And for me, I basically took what I knew about real estate and wrote a paper on why property management, why it worked the way it did, but it just didn't work well enough. And took everything I knew from being so detail oriented and asking why do you charge 10% of monthly rent? Why are you only doing the background and credit check this way? Why aren't you doing additional reference checks and taking all of the information I knew, and putting that together to say all of this is how it works. Here's all of the basically problems with how it works today. And then here is why I think that we could have a better solution. And that actually led to starting Hemlane because the professor not only gave us the top grade, but said go build it. And we even got a check, our first angel check out at the door for it.


Dana Dunford:

That was the impetus of Hemlane, was going through that process and I actually thought it was really beneficial because when I went into business school, I had no idea, I thought maybe I'll go back to Apple, maybe I'll go to Nest again. It wasn't like I went there and said I'm going to start a company no matter what, it was just that was the path and direction that I went after being out of the day to day and thinking, at a higher level, what impact I could have on the world.


Daniel Scrivner:

I think it would be super interesting from there, if you can give a little elevator pitch about what Hemlane is. And then I would love to dive into some of just things that you saw that you felt like there was massive room for improvement in that paper, and in the industry that Hemlane is in.


Dana Dunford:

Yeah, so today, if you just look at the market of real estate, there's 44 million renter households, over 72% of them are self managed. Where if you talk to any tenant, they say I really don't like my landlord. They don't listen to me. They don't respond fast enough. If you talk to the landlord, they say my tenants are really needy, they want a ton of things. It's not an experience where people say I love my landlord, I love the people who are living in my home. No, you've never heard that. And so when you look at the market today, there's two options. It's either do it yourself for a landlord, or a full service property manager. And 72% of rentals are self managed. And so you don't have that level of professionalism of these fast responses making someone who's living in that home feel like it's theirs. And also providing these guidelines of here's what to expect. You walk into a store and you see a price tag on it, and you know exactly what to expect of it.


Dana Dunford:

I want this shirt, this is how much I have to pay for it. In rentals, there's a lot of ambiguity of who's going to cover what, what are the expectations? So that gets to the elevator pitch. Hemlane is an all in one platform that basically allows owners to do what they do well, but provides technology and local support to do everything else, everything from 24/7 repair coordination to someone to show your property, communication with tenants, and really making sure it provides a level of professionalism for the tenants as well as for you. So that as a landlord, you don't feel overwhelmed by the requests from your tenants, or find it an inconvenience. And then for a tenant, they actually finally feel like the customer where their needs are put first.


Daniel Scrivner:

That 70% stat around the number of rentals that are self managed seems staggering in that more than two thirds are self managed. And I'd know, from talking to a few people that on rental properties, that's not a small amount of work, and it can be a massive inconvenience when it's needed. So I'd be curious for some of your takes insights on why that number is so high, makes me think of a mom and pap business where there's just not that much money to be made at the end of the day. So people are nickel-and-diming, so that may be part of it. Why else are some of the other reasons why people continue to manage properties themselves?


Dana Dunford:

Yeah, the average real estate investor owns, it's between two to four properties based on what source you're going to. Average person owns between two to four. So it's super SMB, SMB, small, medium sized business and much more on that small end. And when you look at those types of businesses, no matter where it is, like a retail store, or restaurant, or in this case, real estate, all of them are very cheap with operations and whatever is below the line. So below revenue, so you'll see they'll pay a lot of money if they think it can get them a higher rental price. But when you look at operations of actually managing the day to day, they don't actually value their time as much. And this is all SMB. This is not just rental properties, they don't value their time as much. So even if their time is $100 an hour, they'll say, oh, if the property manager charges me $100 a month, that's too much, even though they're going to put in more than an hour worth of time, they're going to say that's too much, I'm going to do it myself.


Dana Dunford:

So they don't value their time as much as they should. And the second reason is also incentives are misaligned. So let me give you just one example. But there's hundreds out there. One example is rent, it's 10% of monthly rent, it's pretty standard fee that a property manager charges. Now when you look at properties, and just the management of rental properties, properties that are on the lower end, so say it's $500 a month, that is the rental rate, that means a property manager makes $50 a month to manage that property. That property is much more difficult to manage than the $4,000 a month rental in a city where the management fee is $400 a month. So what happens is you see majority of people that are over that $1,000 a month, they will say I am going to just manage my property myself, because the more my rent goes up, the higher fee that the property manager takes.


Dana Dunford:

And so that's a misaligned incentive where it's like, well, it should be flat rate, it shouldn't be a percentage of monthly rent. So there are certain examples like that, that when you dig into the details, you continue to see it. And that hasn't changed for over 100 years, those rates have just stayed the same. And no one's ever questioned it. No one's actually decided to change that model. And so I think that's where technology can really come in and say, what isn't working in the industry? And how can we align the industry and bring it together better with rates that makes sense, aligning incentives between tenants, owners and managers, and providing a new level of service that has never been seen before.


Daniel Scrivner:

I'm curious if we zoom out a little bit, if you could talk a little bit about some of the other more legacy players or more established players in this space. So obviously, you guys are coming in, focus on disrupting some of these legacy players, Folio comes to mind. And there may be others. But can you talk a little bit about some of the existing technology solutions and why you felt like those came up short?


Dana Dunford:

Yeah. So there's basically two extremes. One is software that caters to property managers. That's the Yardi and the AppFolios of the world. Those have been around for 10, 20, 25 years, even before the cloud was there. They had the desktop versions and they provide property management software to property managers, but we know the mass market doesn't want that. People are okay managing their own property. And so from that perspective, it was not interesting for us to just go and compete in a space that had already existed. And I believe that space will always exist, I also think it's going to be a smaller part of the pie, I think more people will be enabled and empowered to manage their own properties through technology in the future. So those are some tech players in this space.


Dana Dunford:

The other ones are the ones that go after the do it yourself market, examples are rental listing websites like Zillow and Zumper. But you also have Cozy and Avail and certain software's that are built, they're free, usually free or close to free. And they're built for the DIY or to do everything themselves. Again, we weren't interested in going into that market, it's not changing the market, it's just providing operational tools for people to become more efficient. Our problem was creating tools to make people more efficient, doesn't actually... Might increase satisfaction a bit. But it doesn't make it worse, suddenly, a landlord says, wow, you just changed my life. Like, oh, good, I'm collecting rent online versus offline, but it doesn't change their life, they still have to work with the tenants and collaborate and get the service professional out there, etc.


Dana Dunford:

And so when we came up with the platform approach, we said, we want to do something entirely different. We want owners to feel empowered, where they can control what they want to control, such as rent collection and rent going directly to them, we also want to take the burden off of them for the things that are super stressful for them, such as a two-way call where a pipe has burst and they have no idea how to shut off the main valve, they have no idea how to get a water restoration company out there and a plumber out there, they just don't know what to do. That's what we're going to take off their plate.


Dana Dunford:

And we're going to use a tech first platform to be able to do it. And so that was the impetus of Hemlane and creating something in the middle that catered to real estate investors, those who own rental properties, but empowered them to make those decisions. So it wasn't an all or none of you, do everything yourself and you find your tools or you use a full service manager. It was great, you'll let us know what you need and our platform will help you with that.


Daniel Scrivner:

I think it might be helpful if we talk through a customer journey of someone signing up and using Hemlane. So it sounds like some that prototypical say on three rental properties, and I come on Hemlane. I'm guessing I'm setting up each of those properties and then I'm choosing what services I want for each of those. Is that correct? And if not, I guess, can you walk us through what that journey looks like?


Dana Dunford:

Yeah. And actually, with the journey, it's very difficult when you create something new to a market, it's very difficult to talk to customers who don't come through a referral and haven't heard about you. And so what we found is, by telling people here are the services that you would need, they're like, whoa, whoa, whoa, wait, I need a full service manager, I want to do it myself. And so we've actually found as part of that customer journey, the first thing we do is figure out what are your pain points, what are you not good at? And so the typical customer who comes to Hemlane, and this is just real estate investors in general, who owned three rental units. They're really good with finances, they love Excel, they love coming up and looking at their cap rates and the GRM and figuring out what properties are going to provide them a good return, they have that covered.


Dana Dunford:

But the next questions we ask them is like, do you know how to do repair coordination? Are you available 24/7? Or is that going to be a pain point for you where you're going to need someone to take those calls and do that administration to how to troubleshoot the requests when a repair request comes in. Are you physically there? You might have three rental properties and one is next to you in Denver, and the other is in Atlanta, Georgia? Well, how are you going to fly out there, you do need a leasing agent. So by understanding people's needs first and just what they need, then we can basically set them up for the package that best fits their preferences of what they need from there. And then it's education through the platform. Our belief with technology is that we build it as if it is someone who is in fifth grade, going through a process and has never managed properties.


Dana Dunford:

And we take them through and put tips and tricks in there, just letting them know this is exactly how you should be thinking about every question. And we don't overwhelm them with it. We don't say like, oh, do you need repair coordination right now? Here's the phone number. It's like, no, the tenant has put in a request. Okay, great. Here's what to expect next. And we take them through it at that point in time. And once they go through the first experience, such as advertising their rental property, they begin to trust us because they're like, oh, they just walked me through what I need to do next and then they continue to expect that and that's what we want. We want it to be at the right time and right place when they are educated of what we do, what they need to do. And what is expected of the tenant?


Dana Dunford:

And so from that perspective, most people come to us when they have a vacancy, but they can come to us at any point in the rental lifecycle, we figure out, what is that pain point? What are they trying to get done? And how do we get that done for them, because if we can show that we do that, with that A plus service, we'll be able to do everything else the same way.


Daniel Scrivner:

And it sounds like just reading between the lines there that you guys truly are able to help people from advertising a property to signing a lease to collecting rent, it's like full customer lifecycle or full rental life cycle, do I have that correct?


Dana Dunford:

Yeah. And actually, one thing that's really interesting about that Daniel, that I learned about too late in building Hemlane, for anyone out there starting a company, is they typically say just start with one pain point, right? Just start with one pain point and build something for that. And then start layering on everything else. With Hemlane, one of the things we did, it wasn't like, you build the scooter, and then you build the skateboard, and then you build the car, and then you build the truck, that's how you should be doing if that where every individual component you can sell on its own. When we started Hemlane, we built all in one altogether. We're really like, yeah, we'll do your repair coordination.


Dana Dunford:

Yes, you need a leasing agent, we'll get a leasing an agent, you need rent collection, don't worry, our system has that. You need background and credit checks, don't worry, we're not even going to just provide those, we're going to recommend to you whether to accept or deny this tenant based on big data. And now it works out now that we have a large enough team to do it. But it actually made the beginning of the process really stressful. Because we were trying to do everything. And when you try to do everything, you don't do anything well.


Daniel Scrivner:

Just a clarifying question on that. I mean, it seems to me like you've struck on the chord of if someone is building a platform business, ultimately a platform business has to solve many, many, many pain points. And so it almost feels like you can have the goal of being a platform business. But you don't really want to start there, you want to start on a single pain point and then grow towards that.


Dana Dunford:

Exactly. And I learned that too late, we took the difficult path. I always think there's an easier path to entrepreneurship. And we've definitely took that for difficult path. Now that we've done it, like in hindsight, I see that. But from that perspective, one thing, I would say, we've listened to our customers early on. And when we spoke with our customers, they said, if you just do rent collection, that doesn't solve my problem, or if you just do repair coordination, that doesn't solve my problem. You just being there whenever I need something that solves my problem with property management. And having a lower entry fee, like not paying 10% of monthly rent to get that, that is attractive to me. And so we really listened to customers in order to build what we have today.


Dana Dunford:

But we might have been able to segment those customers into who needed what, and built it a different way than we did to get where we are. We're still at the same place that we would be at. It's just we took a different path, I would say, and probably a more stressful one where it was a lot of more all nighters than it otherwise would have to be.


Daniel Scrivner:

One more question around that, you talked about hearing from customers to solve their problem, you really needed to be able to solve all their problems. And so I'm curious, it gets back to the whole chicken in the egg. Do you start with one pain point when you're ultimately building a platform? And I guess you guys were tackling all of that stuff early on. But what insights there, if you have to solve all your customers problems, but you need to start somewhere small, does that mean you should look for data further down the cycle? Once you've built enough to really be able to look at things like net promoter score? How do you think about that? Getting data from customers at the same time when you haven't solved all their pain points.


Dana Dunford:

Yeah, I mean, now you can definitely use net promoter scores and data of like, we send out customer surveys and say, okay, what are the biggest things we're not solving today? And we don't ask them for solutions ever. We just ask, what's the problem? What is keeping you up at night that we can solve for you? And then we figure out how to solve it in a much more methodical way than a customer telling us how to solve it. But at the beginning, really, when you start a business, you're just on phone calls, you're not using big data to figure that out. You're just talking to customers. And it's a slower process from that perspective. But really make sure that those first people you're talking to love you. And I think that was really important with Hemlane, because how we grew, I mean, we bootstrapped it.


Dana Dunford:

And how we grew was listening to every single customer, what they wanted, and then we just continued to make them feel like we were building the stress for them, even though we were getting other users and they were sitting there referring 10 other people to Hemlane saying, this has changed my life. I was thinking of using a property manager. I'm doing everything myself. I'm stressed out because I have a job and I'm traveling and I can't do it all and now Hemlane just came along and just solved this pain point for me. And so I really think at the beginning, it's not a lot of data. It is focusing on customers who you know, there's a big subset of them. In other words, you can if it's a small market, our market is huge. But if it's a small market, and you're just listening to one customer, it's probably going to be something that later on down the road you regret spending so much time on. But what we did was we took, who are the average real estate investors, and listen to them, and they just continued to build for them over time.


Daniel Scrivner:

I'm curious to take a sample set of customers, but what was their experience? What were they using? What was their system before Hemlane? And what are some of the uh-huhs when they're making the switch? From a customer's perspective, where is the needle really moving and what are some of those stories that you're hearing?


Dana Dunford:

Yeah, there's basically with customers and you have your curve of when customers come in and are interested in new technology. And those very, very early adopters. There's very few of them who are going to try something brand new and be the first ones and take a chance with that. With them, what was really interesting is they almost had a Hemlane process that was completely inefficient. But they had built Hemlane themselves. In other words, they were folks who had an average of I'm thinking of David, who lives... And I'll give you an example of a customer. He lives in San Diego, he has seven rental properties. And all seven rental properties are in different locations all around the US, Florida, Utah, Colorado, Texas, you name it, they were everywhere.


Dana Dunford:

And what was really interesting was he was self managing those properties. And so he wasn't comparing us to a full service property manager, which was good. If we had started with customers who were using full service property managers, they would have been like, this is terrible, you don't do everything they do. Right? We get there, but as we continue to build, but we started with people who were basically building Hemlane in a really inefficient way, because they didn't have technology. So what David had was, he had a leasing agent in every city, where he would work with an agent to help find to place a tenant. He would help them by advertising it himself manually on Zillow and Trulia, hot pads, and Zumper and forward-rent.com he would manually do all of that.


Dana Dunford:

And then he would go and manually review the background and credit check with the leasing agent. And then when the tenants had repair requests, he would have the funnel to him, which was a huge pain point, because they were calling him at 2:00 AM. Or like 6:00 AM on a Saturday, which they thought was 9:00 AM for him, but it was really 6:00 AM. But he had that same process. And then he tracked in Excel all of this stuff. And we listened to him, I was like, hey, with this process, what's going wrong? And he was like, a case where there was a hurricane and a flood, and like we could have helped mitigate the damage to the asset. But he didn't have that setup. He had a... Wouldn't call it a dumbed down version of Hemlane, but he was trying to haphazardly put together various different processes manually, not on a platform to do what Hemlane could do for him better.


Dana Dunford:

And so we took customers like that, where there were like, wow, this is exactly what I was trying to build, but I didn't have technology to do it. And those were those very first customers. Then from there, once we started getting the processes set up, we could get to the next curve where people are like, oh, cool technology, I'm in tech, let me give you a shot. And they were usually managing the properties themselves. But they were super excited just to use something new, and experience how it made their life more effective. And now we're at the stage where it's really interesting. It's people with property managers who come to Hemlane, where now they say, hey, I have a property manager, and you're doing it better than my property manager did.


Dana Dunford:

But those types of people, if they came to us at the beginning, they would not be with us today. We didn't have what we have set up today for them. So it's at these different life cycles, I'd say that you get a different types of customers. But you're building for the massive market, who we're building for now is not those early day customers. Those early days customers still come, but it's a different type of customer we're going after and like a much larger part of the market.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah, it's fascinating. I've never heard anyone articulate that as well of how a business can have very different customer profiles at different points in time. And I mean, it makes a ton of sense. And I imagine it's also incredibly exciting to see customers with full time property managers coming to you, because you're like, here we go.


Dana Dunford:

Yeah. And it's easier now, we are able to provide and solve the problem for so many more people at the beginning, we weren't able to do that. And so it's much more difficult to find those first few customers than it is now. Now it's much easier to grow and scale than it ever was at the beginning.


Daniel Scrivner:

I want to go back to before you founded Hemlane with your co founder. And I know in 2008, 2009, you started buying some rental properties. And I'm curious if you could talk a little bit about that experience your experience there. Some of the pain points. I guess what I'm curious is like how much of building Hemlane is just scratching that itch? Or maybe that was the impetus and now it's far exceeded that?


Dana Dunford:

Yeah, definitely. So back in 2008, the market crashed. And I was actually just starting my career in the sense I had no other obligations. I'd been working through college and my brother in law had said, hey, I'm getting a ton of real estate investments in Denver. Do you want to be part of this? Basically, through that process, there's a couple of things. The first was, I didn't really understand real estate investing. And most real estate investors those who are landlords also don't understand what they're getting into. It's kind of this, oh, great. Someone will pay my mortgage every month for me, you fantasize about being a landlord. And then you become one and you're like, this is terrible. It's terrible for the tenant. It's terrible for me, this is a horrible process. But at that time, it was right opportunity.


Dana Dunford:

My older sister and husband were basically saying, "Hey, we're going in on properties do you want to help out?" And so that was the start of my real estate investing. And then from there, what I realized was property managers, the ones we were working with weren't the right ones for us. And so we started bringing that in house and just doing property management ourselves and not working with the traditional folks in the industry, who worked very well, for some people but just didn't work for us. And so it had this itch to think about like, well, how can we make this process better? Again, that question of like, why does it work this way? Why couldn't we do something better? And it's interesting, because I knew the problem back then, but I didn't know the solution.


Dana Dunford:

If you had asked me to build Hemlane back then, I couldn't have. And part of the reason was building for myself was not building for the rest of the industry. And so there were certain things that I was super nitpicky about, that I realized like mass market wasn't. And an example of that would be at the beginning, I was really, really focused on the background and credit check. And making that so good because there was an eviction that we had gone through, that was terrible. And so I really wanted to make that better. But what I realized was like, hey, the current process and the APIs that we can integrate with, they basically serve 99% of me, so why am I building for that 1%. And so I think it's bad to just build for yourself. It wasn't until I met my co-founder, Frank, when I realized, oh, wow, he has pain points as well in this industry, we can get other people together and start listening, and then figuring out based on everyone, what their problems are, educate them of, this is the best flow to do with your rental properties.


Dana Dunford:

And here's why we've designed it this way. And this will mitigate the most amount of risk without just building for myself. So I think there's something to say about if you just build for yourself, you might be going down the wrong path. But if you're building for others, and then they start paying you for it and you hear the same thing over and over again, then you continue to build that. And then you're building a much more valuable product.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah. It's a great, great, great story, because it's like just scratching your itch doesn't mean that anyone else has that itch. It could just mean it's something that you're focused on. And I think that's a fascinating example of over indexing on background checks and having that turn out to not actually move the needle for people. I'm curious, I think it'd be great if you could talk a little bit about your relationship with Frank, how you found Frank, and decided to found Hemlane, and how you guys come at problems from different angles. And how that works. This isn't a question I normally answer. This is an area I'm starting to just get really curious about because I feel like there's so many businesses with co-founders and yet, we never really talk about the dynamic or the relationship or how that works. So anyways, I think it might be interesting to give people a little bit of an example at Hemlane.


Dana Dunford:

Yeah. And it's actually important to talk about it because 50% of failures at the early stage, they say are because of co-founder dynamics, it's very difficult. A lot of times you choose a co-founder, who's your friend. Someone you know and you're like, this is another rockstar who works around the clock and is fantastic. And we've worked together on such and such projects, and we did really well together on them. So we're going to succeed at starting a company. And I actually don't believe in finding a co-founder who was like you, in part because your personalities are too similar. And your skill set is too similar. And in the case of Frank, Frank was someone I had never worked with before. So I got lucky in that sense. I got lucky with a good co-founder. But he was on the engineering side, full stack engineer, but we both had that same itch of, okay, there's something here because he has rental properties in Florida, Georgia, San Francisco, but he's small time too, four rental properties, not a lot.


Dana Dunford:

So he was mass market, but knowing there was a problem in the market. And so in finding him, it brings me back to that point that he had all the skills I didn't. He's a full stack engineer who is so good at product, and design, and innovation, and really pushed my limits. There were things I said, it's going to be impossible for us to build this and do this well. And he said, Dana, I guarantee you with technology and with data, I can build that. And I mean, his team did. And he proved me wrong time and time again, but I feel like if I had said, let me start Hemlane, and I didn't have Frank and I went to search for Frank, I don't think I would have ever found him. It was a mutual friend, Thomas Hopkins, who was interested in this space as well. They both had gone to Stanford together, I believe. And then that was the introduction to Frank.


Dana Dunford:

And we had actually worked on projects with Thomas about, how do we think about this? We did some background and credit check research that I actually did as a school project with the two of them. And so we had started building stuff already in the industry. But then once Frank and I started Hemlane and founded that, and really went forward with it, that is when we realized we were on to something, and how well we work together. But it could have been where I started working with Frank and realized he was slacking, he was terrible. You just never know, I did get really lucky with him. But I think it's hard to be an entrepreneur, because a lot of times you hang out in your work culture, as well as your personal culture with people who are like you. And I think that does a really big disservice to innovation. I think the only way to innovate is to bring together people with completely different perspectives, and bring them together to actually build something that is very thoughtful, and doesn't just think about one subset of a market that thinks about the entire market.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah, I think bringing together multiple perspectives when you really want to build something that's nuanced and holistic, makes a ton of sense. And I think that it's an amazing story. So thank you for sharing that. I think it'd be great to transition and talk a little bit about lessons learned, what this journey has been like for you. And one question I'd be curious to ask is today, if you could go back to yourself when you were in those early days founding Hemlane and whisper any words of wisdom or bits of advice into your ear, what you might have said to yourself back in time when you were finding Hemlane.


Dana Dunford:

Oh, gosh, where do I begin? How long do we have? And why I joke about that is now I understand why a lot of investors say I'll take second time founders, they'll invest in them over first time. There were really hard times that we went through, and part of it had to do with bootstrapping the company, we made the decision to bootstrap it. But it also had to do with comparing ourselves to others of this company in a completely different space is doing a lot better than us. And if I could go back and whisper in my ear, anything, it would be two things. One, keep going, you guys are going to make it through this, just keep building and keep talking to customers, keep focused on what you're doing. That would be the first. The second thing that I would say is don't compare yourselves to others. Because one thing that we noticed, and we still see today is that had we taken the path of raising a ton of money early on, which we had the opportunity, we had investors very early on come to us and say, hey, here, do you want to raise some VC money?


Dana Dunford:

And this was back in 2016, when we didn't have all the puzzle pieces put together, we just knew there was a problem, I guarantee we would have gone out and hired a ton of engineers, and ton of business people. And then they would have also felt our stress of trying to figure out oh, is this scalable? No, it's not. Here, we can actually change and think about it a different way. And I think once you bring on a team, you're focused on culture, you're focused on keeping that culture, making sure they're happy. And when your path is going like this, and you don't have product market fit right now, it becomes much more difficult to align everything and do everything. So I would say keep going. And then I'd also say don't compare yourself to others, just continue to focus on the market and focus on who you're building for.


Daniel Scrivner:

I'm guessing that, that second piece of advice is partly because there's literally nothing good that comes from comparing yourself. Because one, you don't have all the data points. Two, I fundamentally believe that each of us is playing a different game, we just need to focus on that. Are there are other reasons why you should just not look and listen?


Dana Dunford:

I believe that it's like a relationship. You never know what's going on internally, unless you're in it. You could see it from the outside and say, oh, well, this person looked like she was crazy. And then you're in the relationship, you're like, actually, you have no idea what goes on behind closed doors. I think it's the same thing on the company side, because one thing that Frank and I noticed is everyone who we thought was our competition early on, that we focused on, no longer is in business. They are all out of business. And we're still at it. And they had never heard of us back then even though we had heard of them. So I think it's sad. I also think it's innovation. The second you start looking at what competitors are doing and copying them. You're not bringing anything to society, then you're just building what someone else has and competing against them.


Dana Dunford:

And we tell our sales team this a lot, when you're talking to people, if someone's like, well, how do you stack up to full service property manager? And how are you going to provide me with exactly what they have at a better price? It's like, no, we aren't. We'll tell customers, you are much better to go to full service property manager because what your pain points are exactly what they cannot provide a solution for. And I think when you're innovating in a space, which is the only thing that's interesting that becoming a new category in an industry, you can't think about competition, because if you're comparing yourselves and building what they're building, then I mean, why don't you just work for a big company that's competing against another? You're not creating a new category. And that's one thing I would say, it's like, really just don't focus. I think I spent too long looking at competitor analysis and what other people were doing. And I could have saved a lot of time by not doing that.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah, there's not a lot of wisdom to be absorbed from competitive analysis, at least if you over sample on it and spend time on it. I want to go a little bit deeper into one point you made, which was the way you talked about why it was important to bootstrap it early on. So you could take things slowly, you could be really methodical, you could make sure that you had product market fit. And then once you did, starting to actually raise capital more aggressively, I think it'd just be great if you could talk about that. And why it's important because I feel like that as well is not something you hear many stories of, of founders doing this intentionally. And I think it's important. And I think your model, especially watching all of your competitors go out of business. And here you are taking this slower approach. It's staying in business and surviving and thriving. I think it's fascinating example.


Dana Dunford:

Actually, it's interesting, because sometimes we have folks, especially in our latest round of funding, some of the investors I spoke with thought of it of like, wait, why would you bootstrap it? Why would you just... And I was like, oh, this person's never started a company.


Daniel Scrivner:

It's a modern day VC question.


Dana Dunford:

Yeah, exactly. They've never started a company and they don't understand it. The thing is, is that your first folks you hire, there's two things, and these people have to be absolute rockstars. Your first couple of hires have to be the top performing individuals in order to get where you can get that massive growth and get to an inflection point where you really know this is going to grow and scale to a billion dollars. Those first couple of people have to be absolute rockstars, for a couple of reasons. One, they have to be good at everything. They have to be generalists, where they say, oh, gosh, this isn't working. Let me figure this out. Let me dive into the details. But the second thing about these folks is they're in high demand, anyone who's a rock star like that, can get poached anywhere else. And so by them having confidence in you, and then having confidence in the idea, if one of those things starts to falter, like you yourself start going crazy, or drinking too much, or not setting a good example for the team and leading, they'll go off and they'll find another rockstar startup to get behind.


Dana Dunford:

But the second is the product, if they see every day, you're changing things and you're scrapping the website and starting it over again. It leads some thinking, is this going to work? Because they forget about the future. They are thinking about just the present and like is this going to work for me in my career path, because they want to be part of a rockstar company. And so it depends on and you don't know this until you've gone through it. It depends on how long it takes you, some people can get that product market fit within a month, where they get really lucky with what they're doing, but not everyone. And so my biggest piece of advice there is when you're starting, bootstrap until you know, hey, when I hire people, and these people are your team members, they're also your family, you see them more than your family. When you do, you want to make sure that you have the conviction behind what you're doing, and that you're just on the right path that things are going to change.


Dana Dunford:

Don't get me wrong, let's test this sales strategy, let's test this, let's test on the product side, launching this product or this product and see which one works better. But if you don't have the foundation built for you and your co founder, and you start hiring and say we'll figure it out along the way, that's where I see a lot of these companies implode. Where they've been lying to themselves too long that they're going to get somewhere. And then suddenly, it's like, they can't lie anymore. And this is companies that get to series A, Series B, it's companies that get to series E or suddenly they lied themselves into thinking they were on this product market that path, but they had to lead and present that because they didn't want to lose rockstar team members. So from that perspective, people have their own paths, but I would recommend if you have the luxury of living off Top Ramen, like we did, and bootstrapping it as long as you can, you will sleep better at night.


Daniel Scrivner:

I want to ask two closing questions. And both of these are things that I think are just super interesting in your background in the story. And the first is, going back to your role at Apple in the finance team, I feel like there aren't many founders I know that have deep background in finance. How do you think that's helped you? And how do you maybe think that's hindered you? Or is moving from a finance only role to a CEO role? What have you had to change around that approach or that lens?


Dana Dunford:

I think actually this is just really good for all founders to know, the moment you start a company, people assume you know everything. When you're at the top, it's very hard for you to go and say like, explain sales 101 to me or explain it product 101 or design. People just assume you know this stuff. And so for me, I was in finance at Apple and knew so much about what is actually going to drive revenue and what isn't, because we were focused on new products and launching the new products, and how would that cannibalize our existing products. Really understanding and just doing analysis at a high level before you even start to think of building it, I think that was super helpful. I also think at Nest, I had business development. And I finally learned how to sell. All of that experience helped by the time I got to Hemlane that I didn't have to ask someone else for those questions, I could do that stuff on my own.


Dana Dunford:

And I think that too many people's careers are I'm going to go into X throw a lot of company. And my goal is to move up as quickly as possible on the corporate ladder. And the thing that you shouldn't think about when you start a career, whether you're 21, and fresh out of college, or 22, or when you're even younger, and you start working at a restaurant, when you're 16 years old. The question is, how do I get enough skill sets that I'm so diverse, that I can go and I can lead something big, and really become my own CEO, or become head of growth at a company. And the only way to do that is to get experience across a ton of different industries, and also a ton of different divisions within an organization. And so I was thankful I had that from Apple, from Nest, etc. where I could go into it now and say, okay, let me look at the gross margin of this. These numbers don't make sense. Why did competitors have pricing like this? They're going to go out of business, this makes no sense to me. And having that structure from Apple really did help.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah, it's fascinating. I want to ask if you could share the story of your professor writing you that initial check for 30k. Because when you told me that before, one, it's super profound meaning I haven't heard many stories where like the genesis of the business is a business school professor writing them an angel check. But two, it's just also a really wonderful, generous thing that that teacher did. So I think it just be special if you could share that story with that one.


Dana Dunford:

Yeah. So back when we founded Hemlane, I had offers from Apple, from Nest. Nest was being acquired by Google at that time, to go back full time after business school. And Frank and I had been working together, but we weren't really quite sure what Hemlane was. But that professor I wrote the paper for literally had seen me every day in the AI lab, Friday night, Saturday morning, just working on ideas and thinking of what we were doing and talking to customers. And he had asked me, I think it was the last day of class, he said, what are you going to do? And I said, I still think I want to work with Frank, but I've got these other job offers. But I think Frank and I are really onto something. And he said, okay, sounds good. And I totally forgot that conversation. And then two weeks later, he came to me and said, come into my office, the day after graduation, it was like a Sunday morning. I was like, okay, sounds good.


Dana Dunford:

And I go in, and he just hands over a check for 30,000 and goes, go build it. And that was such a cool experience. And the reason he asked on Sunday morning was because as a professor, you're not allowed to I guess write angel checks. You have to wait until they graduate. And so I wasn't quite sure about the timeline. Now I know. But actually, that first person who believes in you is one of those experiences where like now when I think about, how can I give back and change someone's life, I want to be like tallest to share, I want to be like that professor because that set us up on a completely different path, where we said someone believes in us, and $30,000 I think between the two of us, we were able to make that $30,000 last year.


Dana Dunford:

And it did, and we just continued to build and then we really knew that we were on to something and we could raise more capital. We could bring on a team. But it was really having that belief from someone in us. And yeah, so I definitely recommend if you're sitting out there and you know someone who has a good idea, maybe go give them a $30,000 check.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah, probably the easiest due diligence you've ever done.


Dana Dunford:

Definitely.


Daniel Scrivner:

For anyone that's interested, where can they go to learn more about Hemlane, maybe follow you or follow the company on social?


Dana Dunford:

Yeah, you can go to www.hemlane. H-E-M-L-A-N-E .com. The benefit of having the name Hemlane is that no one else has it. So if you look us up on Facebook or Twitter, you'll also see us listed under the handle sub Hemlane.


Daniel Scrivner:

Amazing. Thank you so much. It's been amazing conversation.


Dana Dunford:

Thanks for having me.




20 Minute Playbook: Dana Dunford of Hemlane


Daniel Scrivner:

Dana, thank you so much for coming on the show. It's wonderful to have you.


Dana Dunford:

Thanks for having me, Daniel.


Daniel Scrivner:

So this should be a lot of fun. We try to keep these conversations to 20 minutes so they're a little bit faster pace and we'll ask you the same 10 questions we ask every guest. Are you ready?


Dana Dunford:

I'm ready. I think.


Daniel Scrivner:

Okay. First question, what have you been excited about or fascinated by recently?


Dana Dunford:

Okay, this shouldn't be a surprise. I'm in real estate. And so, one of the things that I think a lot about is affordable housing, and how do you provide great housing for the masses. So self driving cars is what is to me something I'm super excited about. And the reason for that is more people are able to work from home. If you have cars that can get you into work faster, you don't have to take that public transport, as well as the freedom to live anywhere you want. You suddenly increase that housing that's in city centers, and you make it more affordable, because people can now select to live farther away from their office location or their headquarters to do what they love.


Daniel Scrivner:

Are there any companies you're following in that space? Any projects?


Dana Dunford:

I think all of them I follow. I'm excited about Cruise. I'm also excited about [Lemo 00:47:02]. Fun fact, I was actually in Cruise's most recent advertising video, and not intentionally, I was walking across the street, and they were advertising. So I've been there in the ad video now.


Daniel Scrivner:

Well, there you go. You're part of your view of the future. It's a great place to be. What do you think are your superpowers? And how do you harness those strengths?


Dana Dunford:

Superpowers? So no one else is going to say this. And it might sound odd, but I love working. And that doesn't sound like a superpower. But let me give you an example. When I was in third grade, my mom just saw me sitting there copying encyclopedias down and she asked why. And I used to write quizzes on them. And I said, because the teacher doesn't give me enough homework to do.


Daniel Scrivner:

Which has never been said before.


Dana Dunford:

Never been said by a third grader. And so she went back to the teacher and said, the third grade teacher Mrs. Clark, and was like Dana needs more homework. And so I would get in my own packet of homework to do just so I could do more work.


Daniel Scrivner:

Wow, I don't even know what to take from that. But that's an incredible story. On the flip side, what do you struggle with, maybe the same thing? And how have you improved or worked around those things over time?


Dana Dunford:

Yeah, I mean, it's really difficult when you struggle with something to improve and work around it on your own. It really comparing myself to others. I'm always thinking about what are other companies doing? How do I grow? And even if they're not in our market, I'm still comparing us to them. And I think part of that has to do with I have a twin sister. And so I was always compared to her because we're identical. So it probably is something subconscious there. But I say how to improve and get around it is you can't really do it yourself. And so I funnel that energy into working with Gavin, who let her series seed round and really focused on how do we just focus on our own growth? And how do we focus on our path versus the path of others and using those people around me to help improve myself and focus on the things that really matter, that are really going to drive the needle.


Daniel Scrivner:

So it seems like part of that is just making sure you surround yourself with people that are going to fill in some of those holes and maybe keep you pointed in the best direction?


Dana Dunford:

Yeah, exactly.


Daniel Scrivner:

It's super interesting. On the habits side, what habits have you experimented with that have had a positive impact on your life and performance? And so these can be things you do today. This can also be things you just aspire to do again, worked really well previously. Anything like that.


Dana Dunford:

Yeah. I love this one because it's what I'm doing most recently, especially now, with things opening up more, it's the power of saying no. So I'm a people pleaser. I'm the type of person if I'm invited to an event, I used to always go to every event no matter what, or every dinner party no matter what. Now, I suddenly have started saying very politely, no, and very quickly. Right when I'm invited, not telling them I'll go and then cancel at the last minute. And what I found is that by doing that, without having those obligations, I'm much more focused. My center and motivations and stuff, are really now applied to my team at Hemlane. It's applied to my health, it's applied to my family. Rather than having this checklist of 5,000 things to do on the weekend. And just trying to get around to them all because I was invited to them. I found that that's been super impactful and helpful.


Daniel Scrivner:

I imagine it's hard if you're a people pleaser. If you're someone that just naturally you feel the yes coming up. Leave your mouth as soon as someone asks you a question. And have you gotten to the place where you can be so confident and quick to say no? And is that still difficult for you? Do you just have any techniques where you're like I'd say no to start. How do you work around that natural disposition?


Dana Dunford:

Yeah, I mean, I think from that perspective, it is thinking about always on the other side if I were that person. So if the person invites me to dinner and I've told them three weeks in advance that I can't go to that dinner, it's okay, because and I know it's going to be super late night dinner and I really need to get my sleep or whatever it may be. It's okay for me to say no politely and I'm okay with it now because I know that now they can extend that invite someone who really does want to go. So from that perspective, I think the speed of response has really helped me say, it's not that bad to have the alternative. Because on the flip side, if I wait too long, or I feel guilty about it, that I'm not doing what's right for me or what's right for that person.


Daniel Scrivner:

That makes sense. On the health side, what's your approach to diet, exercise and sleep? And how have those things evolved over time for you?


Dana Dunford:

I think they evolved over time is the easiest one to answer because of COVID. It's really helped with my diet, and how in part because working remotely has made it increasingly easier for me to eat healthy food. I eat yogurt, and oatmeal, and eggs in the morning. I always have a salad for lunch, and then on the health side of things, and really changing and evolving over time, before COVID, I used to go to work every morning at 7:00. And I would come home at 11:00 PM every night. And I never had dinner, I would always eat in the office and I would always have a power bar or remember those Soylent that were really popular?


Daniel Scrivner:

I still See those around sometimes.


Dana Dunford:

I would have a Soylent for dinner, which is terrible to have that for dinner every night. But now I cook dinner every single night with my husband, every night, we have dinner together. And it's actually made me much more productive, over just work and getting things done. Because taking a little bit of time away from work makes you remember, oh, the big things I need to get these things done rather than the little things. And then I think on the exercise side, which I think is super important, too. I work out every week with a friend. And we hold ourselves accountable where we have to meet together. And then this friend that I work out with, she's a professor at UCSF, so med school background. And I think that is actually helpful to do exercise with someone who's not in your industry. Because then she keeps me very balanced. She has a different take on things. So while we're exercising and catching up over work, it makes me remember everything else out there that doesn't have to do with technology and the industry of property management.


Daniel Scrivner:

It's a great balancing factor in your life. On the ideas side, what books, podcasts, even movies have had a striking impact on the way that you think and that could be in your personal life, at work, just anywhere.


Dana Dunford:

Does everyone say your podcast?


Daniel Scrivner:

No, actually, no.


Dana Dunford:

Besides Outliers Academy, I'd say there's two, in two different ways. Po Bronson wrote a book called Why Do I Love These People. And it's small stories about just individuals who were nothing and made something big and changed people's lives and started from nothing and builds great companies that you've probably never heard of. They're not the tech companies like the Ubers and Airbnb that you've heard of. And I love that, it's so empowering. The other book that I love is Thomas Friedman's I know it's super old, Lexus and the Olive Tree. You see things very polarized right now, especially with what you saw happening in Afghanistan and culture as well as capitalism really pulling at each other. There's no right answer, right?


Dana Dunford:

And that's why things are pulling in different directions. And there's wars out there and all of that. But I think it's important for you to think of the pros and cons of both capitalism as well as keeping culture and roots and technology and how can we have a good balance. Because I don't think there is a right answer. And I think that book really opened it up, there is no right answer. But what we have to do is make some very educated and conscious decisions of how we build things. And what we do to make sure there is a balance between globalization and everyone having their unique cultures.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah. Which I think we're going to continue to struggle with and grapple with for a very, very long time. But those are great books, because those are new answers I haven't heard. Tools, what tools do you use to manage your work tasks and time?


Dana Dunford:

I love this question, because there's one that I love so much that I would hope more people would use. And shockingly, I don't hear it. So I use Boomerang in my email inbox. And it's the biggest thing for project management for me. So every email that I get, I basically if it requires a response, I say if it's within one week or four days, and I don't hear from this person, send it back up to the top of my inbox. And what's the benefit of that is nothing goes undone when I'm trying to get work done. It also reduces the amount of to do lists and spreadsheets I need, because it's just at the top of my email, op, I need to respond. Or if someone says to me, hey, I'd love to partner with you guys but it's going to be another month, I say great.


Dana Dunford:

I'll check back with you in a month, Boomerang in a month and it's back to my inbox and I can respond rather than putting together a task and then checking off the task and then going back to my email and following up. So I've loved Boomerang, it's been super helpful and I think quite a few salespeople use tools like that, but it's been fantastic.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah, I use a feature like that called remind me at Superhuman and it's been similarly life changing because yeah, many, many, many occasions, where it's like, well, how about we talk in October? Or how about we go and do this in three weeks and just be able to quickly be able to set reminders is super, super helpful. On the success side, what is your definition of success?


Dana Dunford:

I think this probably more broad, it's making the world a better place before I leave. So time is very finite, right? We only have a certain amount of time. And we never know when our time is up in this world. But making sure that I do everything possible for people to say, wow, this has changed other people's lives and made them better. And I'm doing that through business, obviously, through Hemlane and feel really passionate about that. But I think for anyone, when I look at other humans, it's what are you doing to make the world a better place from that perspective, and really changing the world and not just doing the same process every day and that really isn't inspirational.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah. I love that. When it comes to failure, can you share a favorite failure? And I think what we're looking for there is something that didn't work out for whatever reason, but that taught you something valuable or propelled you in a better direction.


Dana Dunford:

I've got a lot of failures. So one I can think of, it was called Portico, I think we still have the Portico Instagram handle. So basically, Frank and I had started by saying, hey, the process to qualify tenants is very difficult. If you're looking for tenants, it's very difficult. You have all these people come in and you're trying to qualify, who has great credit, great stable job, etc. What if we create LinkedIn for tenants? And so in other words, instead of going to Zillow, Trulia, Hotpads, PadMapper, Apartment List, Zumper and Finding properties, what if there was just one place where a tenant said, here's who I am, here's when my lease is coming up. Here's how qualified I am. And here's what I'm looking for. And you would basically get matched with them before your lease is up to say up, you can connect with this person and invite them to come to a showing, and that way, tenants don't have to look as much for homes as well as you get pre qualified folks right off the bat.


Dana Dunford:

And it completely failed for so many reasons. We don't have time to go over. But I think that really led to me really understanding what are pain points and how to solve them. And realizing that was not one in the industry. It was hard to grapple with, because we were pretty passionate about it. But now in hindsight, I know a lot of reasons why it wouldn't have worked.


Daniel Scrivner:

Did you learn any tricks or clues to be able to tell when you have an idea that's just totally out of left field and is not going to be something that's a common enough pain point?


Dana Dunford:

Yeah, it took us too long. And I think this is where strategy versus hard work plays a huge roll. I think from that perspective, we were doing too much of a parallel to the employment world, where I was relating it to myself, like when I got the job at Apple, I didn't apply. They reached out to me on LinkedIn and said, are you interested in a job? And I said, no, they said, great. We'll see you on Monday morning. And that was how I started a job at Apple. So from that perspective, I was relating it to the same thing, of hey, I'm tired of searching for properties. I just want to see what's out there. But I didn't talk to enough people before building it. We literally started building it. I didn't go out and do any sort of design, user experience research of like, okay, so what would happen is next.


Dana Dunford:

Now, what happens if you get these apartments? What would be your concern? Would you still go out and search for apartments to see if you could find something better? I never asked the right questions and set up a really good design process, which Daniel, you know so much more about than I do. But in hindsight, we definitely should have done that.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah, I think the strategy versus hard work pieces. I love the way you phrased that. I think that's one of those instances where hard work is not going to get you there, grinding harder is not going to make Portico take off, it's kind of taking a step back and really thinking from first principles. Last question, I'm very excited to hear your answer to this one is around gratitude. And the question is just super simple. It's what are you most grateful for in this phase of your life?


Dana Dunford:

That's actually a pretty easy opportunity. I feel like when I left business school, there was this weight on my shoulders to do something big, then I had this opportunity, but I didn't have the puzzle pieces. And it actually makes it really stressful. It makes you think, why can't I just go back to 9:00 to 5:00 and not have to think about career and changing the world. But now I feel like we're at the right at place the right time. We're closing around to funding right now. And we have this huge opportunity and we have an incredible team. And so I'm most grateful for that, that it's come together and we have an opportunity to make so many people's lives matter. And that's a really cool feeling.


Daniel Scrivner:

That's very cool. And that's a great note to end on. I know you work a lot, can people follow you on social? Can people find you on social?


Dana Dunford:

Yes, of course you can. My name is Dana Dunford D-A-N-A D-U-N-F-O-R-D the only Dana Dunford you'll see, most of my social says @Hemlane and so anyways, would love for you to follow me there.


Daniel Scrivner:

And where can people go to find out more about Hemlane?


Dana Dunford:

You can go to www.hemlane which is H-E-M-L-A-N-E .com.


Daniel Scrivner:

Thank you so much for coming on, Dana.


Dana Dunford:

Great. Thanks, Daniel.




On Outlier Academy, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. 

Explore all episodes of Outlier Academy, be the first to hear about new episodes, and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.

Daniel Scrivner and Mighty Publishing LLC own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Outlier Academy podcast, with all rights reserved, including Daniel’s right of publicity.

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