Everybody needs and deserves a place to live that is clean, maintained, and safe. Better yet, It makes perfect sense to get someone else to pay your mortgage by giving them a great space at a great rate and share some resources.
Today, I am talking to Lisa Wise, co-founder of Nest DC, which manages residential units throughout Washington, DC. The company is committed to customer service, quality spaces, and excellent living experiences.
[02:23] Nest continues to experience exceptional growth and measures success by revenue and number of jobs it’s created.
[02:34] Fun Spaces: Fixing an Adobe duplex where nothing’s square and everything’s made of dirt led Lisa to love her accidental landlord role in property management.
[04:09] Non-profit Dedication: Do what you can for the community, in terms of what you want to do professionally, due to ability to manage and maintain properties.
[05:04] Origin of Nest DC: Grow one property at a time, and focus on service forward to take care of tenants, spaces, and places.
[05:56] Property managers can make a meaningful impact by helping people and families preserve a better quality of life in their homes.
[11:00] Bad Strategies for Building Relationships: Ignoring problems, letting things fall into disrepair, not paying expenses for repairing things—none of those are good..
[11:23] Property Manager Opportunities: Daily variety, unique challenges, freedom, and direct impact.
[13:32] Cycle of Suck: Bad managers control costs and fail to maintain property; if people are unhappy with where they’re living, they’re less likely to be great tenants.
[19:20] Onboarding Process: Set expectations on maintenance costs and educate them on why they need to maintain the property at the highest level to take care of tenants.
[21:28] Ways to strategically grow through painful stages: Evaluate technology, be nimble, and cherish staff.
Jason: Welcome, DoorGrow hackers to the DoorGrow Show. If you are a property management entrepreneur that wants to add doors, make a difference, increase revenue, help others, impact lives, and you are interested in growing your business and life, and you’re open to doing things a bit differently, then you are a DoorGrow hacker.
DoorGrow hackers love the opportunities, daily variety, unique challenges, and freedom that property management brings. Many in real estate think you’re crazy for doing it, you think they’re crazy for not, because you realize that property management is the ultimate high-trust gateway to real estate deals, relationships, and residual income.
At DoorGrow, we are on a mission to transform property management businesses and their owners. We want to transform the industry, eliminate the BS, build awareness, change the perception, expand the market, and help the best property management entrepreneurs win. I’m your host, property management growth expert, Jason Hull, the founder and CEO of DoorGrow. Now, let’s get into the show.
We’re here with Lisa Wise of Nest DC in Washington, DC. Lisa, welcome to the show.
Lisa: Thanks for having me.
Jason: Glad to have you hear. Lisa, I’m going to read a little bit of your bio. It says that you’re the co-founder of two companies—both anchored in the real estate management company, both entirely unique in their contribution to the housing landscape. Nest DC was co-founded by Lisa Wise and Jim Pollack at the start of the “Great Recession” in 2009.
Nest manages residential units throughout Washington, DC with a commitment to customer service and an emphasis on quality spaces and excellent living experiences. From 2011-2015, Nest DC was voted a top property management company in the Washington City Paper’s “Best of DC” issue. In August 2016, Nest placed in the Inc 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing companies. That is a reflection of an investment in the workplace. In 2013, Nest DC was named a “Small Business Gem” in Washingtonian Magazine’s “Top 50 Places to Work” issue.
Year over year, Nest enjoys exceptional growth, measuring success not just in revenue, but in the number of good jobs that have been created since inception. I’ll stop there, but why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and how you go into property management?
Lisa: I lived in Tucson, Arizona. I was going to graduate school there and had an 1893 Adobe duplex which was one of the coolest spaces I’ve ever lived in. I got a nice degree in Political Economy and enjoyed a long background doing political consulting basically, but I liked working with my hands and having an Adobe duplex is the best place in the world to get comfortable working with your hands because nothing’s square and everything’s made of dirt. There was no stem wall and it was actually pretty easy having […].
I liked the idea of being able to do a thing and then turn around and having adding proof to the space. I had worked on the plumbing to patching the roof to doing paint. I feel like I’ve painted, many, many, many square miles at this point. It was something that I think came really naturally to me and I enjoyed that process and working with my hands. I had grown up in an environment where working with your hands is definitely something that was what you did.
The great thing about that duplex when I asked my landlord if I could buy it and he said yes was it was a duplex. I automatically became a landlord and I loved that. It made perfect sense to have someone else pay my mortgage. It made perfect sense to give someone a great space at a great rate and share some resources including a backyard, dog care, and all those kinds of things.
I fell into being, I think what you might consider an accidental landlord, but really loved it. I have had an instinct that I would love it but I had always had this non-profit draw to do what I can for the community so there’s a little bit of tension and conflict there in terms of what I want to do professionally.
If we fast forward many years, and we did bump up against that recession and I was in the non-profit environment, doing a lot of fundraising and felt like I wasn’t changing the world very quickly with my non-profit work. I was actually really ready to do a thing and get paid for it. At that point, I had a few more rentals that I had acquired over time and still really enjoyed that work.
It was really originated as a side hustle. It was a great way of bringing in that extra revenue. I was good at managing and maintaining those spaces. I kept telling people, “You should start property management company. I think it’d be a really great business model.” Until one day I thought, “Maybe I should do that. It seems to be something I have an aptitude for, and interest, and enthusiasm, and a passion for.”
Around 2009, we decided to launch Nest and the idea was just to grow one property at a time, very organic, focus on being very service forward and taking great care of tenants, spaces, and places. It worked, especially in DC where service doesn’t always tend to be stellar and where a lot of the management companies were high volume and not really building relationships one tenant at a time or one owner at a time. We came up with a really refreshing approach to the business. A really refreshing approach in terms of our relationship to community. The city was clearly ready for us. That’s the origin story of Nest DC.
Jason: Love it. You’ve got sort of an activist built into you it sounds like. In property management, I wanted to touch on this, I think a lot of times we get so caught up on business, but I think property management can have a really big impact—on families, on people. Maybe you could touch on that a little bit because I get a sense that that’s something you’re passionate about. What impact you feel like you get to have or ripple effect you get to have as a property manager? Why is that interesting or inspiring to you?
Lisa: That’s a great question. It’s truly an act of trust and intimacy to be invited to manage someone’s home and personal space. Doing it well is really an opportunity for us to create meaningful impact in people’s lives every single day. Everybody needs to live someplace. Everybody deserves a place to live that is clean, well-maintained, and safe and we get the chance to make that happen. We get the chance to be responsive and make people feel that their home base is that safe space for their family.
It’s been pretty intriguing to feel that I can make more impact on people’s day-to-day lives in this business than I did in a lot of the healthcare and environmental work I did in my previous professional career. Because I do think that we give people a chance to have a better quality of life from them living in one of our spaces. We do get a chance to take good care of these properties. A lot of our properties are older and older as in historic. There is really a lot to be said for the fact that we’re stewards of these legacy places and historical buildings, we’re preserving them, and we’re making sure that the landscape of our city, which is architecturally really significant, is in good repair and well-maintained.
That’s an important contribution we get to make as well. That’s part of our whole value-space philosophy for us to be around management, but at the core, we’re being invited to help people have better quality of life in their homes and that’s a pretty important role to play.
Jason: You’ve really discovered something that I think was really significant. You said that you’re able to have a bigger impact by being a property manager than by the environmental work that you’ve done and other non-profit stuff that you’ve done.
Jason: Just to explain that a little bit because I don’t think people realize the impact that they can have as property managers. I think we can paint a bigger picture for the industry of that inspirational aspect. I think we would attract better property managers into the industry. I think there would be a better perception of the industry out there. I think tenants would have a better experience. I think families’ lives would be better.
People that are living in these different units underneath the property manager would have a better experience. The owners would be happier. I think the industry could use a little taste of this so explain that a little bit because you have experience with this. Paint a little bit of the contrast there? I think that’s fascinating for me.
Lisa: When you’re in a non-profit environment, you’re sometimes very far removed from the outcome. If you’re working in healthcare policy or if you’re creating new systems for people to green their procurement supply chain, you’re very distant from the end user, you’re very distant from there being a positive outcome and this is in high contrast to that.
We’re working with clients and we had a flash flood this week. We had probably 55, 60 affected buildings and units. We were able to pick up the phone every single time and help people walk through something that was very stressful for them. They’re worried about their things; they’re worried about mold, they’re worried about their safety, they’re not sure whether or not they’re going to experience damages.
That comes down to protecting the actual space, helping tenants and residents navigate how to deal with a threat to their belongings and their own quality of life in that day, and then owners making that someone’s responsive in an emergency. That’s all about building relationships, being a trusted partner, and helping people make sure that, again, their quality of life is preserved and someone’s honoring that. It’s every single day when you get to see the person who is that end user, recipient, or benefactor of how we do our work differently.
That’s not always a luxury that people get in their day-to-day work. In fact, I’d say it’s probably pretty rare unless you’re a provider. Let’s say you’re an ER doctor. Someone comes in and they’re hurt, or they’re scared, and you can help them. That’s a pretty powerful place to be. We’re in similar situations often when someone’s been—maybe they had a fire in their unit, maybe they have no hot water and they’ve got a baby—all these things that can impact the livability of a unit that isn’t just about inconvenience. It’s truly about making sure that people are safe and protected in their spaces and we want to solve those problems cheerfully. We want to take care of those people and want them to feel like we’re a good partner in making that that part of their life is taken care of.
Ignoring problems, letting things fall into a state of disrepair, not caring about style, not caring about the building, avoiding paying for the actual expense of repairing things—none of those are good strategies to building solid relationships that help people feel that it’s a good partnership. We like to emphasize partnership as one of our key strategies for doing the work well and to success.
Jason: Lisa, something that I think is probably really appealing to property managers, I mentioned in the intro some of the things that I’ve noticed clients mentioned to me that they resonate with. They love the opportunities, daily variety, unique challenges, freedom that property management brings. I think there’s quite a few property managers or maybe most that really do love that direct impact that they get to have. As the company scale, they lose the ability as the business owner to maybe have that experience of having the direct impact, but they still get to have that ripple through their chains. How many doors does Nest manage or units does Nest manage presently?
Lisa: We manage about 1000 doors.
Jason: That’s a lot.
Lisa: Yeah, it’s a lot and all in the district proper. We’re very focused on managing condos and buildings that will be like associations or single-family homes. We have a lot of townhouses. It’s probably a 70/30 split. Anything in the suburbs, it’s easy to get around the District of Columbia. We have a high-density portfolio and we really focus on an urban landscape for our work. That’s become our specialty.
Jason: DC has some of the highest rent, probably in the nation, right?
Jason: Okay, we’re not going to talk about fees, but I would imagine if you charge anything, you probably do alright in DC as a property manager.
Lisa: Honestly, it’s a good environment from that perspective but at the same time, all of our cost of living as a business…
Jason: Is really high.
Lisa: …so, I’m going to pay more in salaries. I’m going to pay more in occupancy. I’m going to pay more for insurance. Certainly, the cost of doing business is much higher in this environment.
Jason: Got it. Why do you think it’s such a challenge in some of the inner cities or the larger city markets for there to be good property managers? Is it because the costs are high for the management companies or they’re just not charging enough? What’s your perception because it does seem like in some markets, there are some bad manager. It gets really difficult and it’s not that small-town feel, especially when you get into large multi-unit. What’s your take on that?
Lisa: I think if you are trying to control costs and you’re unwilling to maintain the spaces at the highest possible standard and keep them in good repair and not wait until something is just broken, but you’re upgrading on a schedule or you’re making sure that these properties perform really well so that people are having a good experience in them. I understand that people don’t want to spend a lot of cash in making sure that these units are well-maintained, but not doing so means that you’re going to start renting spaces that are not comfortable, not attractive, not appealing. When people aren’t happy where they’re living, they’re a lot less likely to be great tenants.
For us, if you have a great product, you’re going to attract great tenants. If you have people that you enjoy working with, you’re going to have a better reputation, better relationships, and better outcomes but you have to start with a great product. For us, we’re very choosy about managing spaces that we think meet particular standards for us. We’re not going to be the owner’s beard and make bad maintenance decisions and undercut the needs of the space because somebody wants to save money. If we have an owner that is insisting that we not keep that space in good repair, then that’s not a relationship that we’ll keep. That’s a boundary that we’ve set, and we set it early.
Every time we’ve been stressed from a business perspective and we’ve got to increase doors because we need to grow faster and we’ve compromised on those values, it’s never […] out. It really works—great property attracts great tenants, when people are happy where they live, they make better neighbors, better neighbors equal better neighborhoods. It’s the same formula we’ve had from the very beginning. When we’ve strayed, we’ve definitely suffered from that. I hate when people manage crappy properties. They’re making excuses for why it’s crappy. They’re having to explain bad decisions. That’s a bad relationship float to get started on.
Jason: I’ve talked quite a bit and people for me talk about the “cycle of suck” but I think this is an interesting ingredient that’s overlooked is as a property manager, in order to stay out of that “cycle of suck” of having bad properties, bad tenants, and bad reputation in the market, one of those ingredients is to have a philosophy of maintaining the properties at the highest level because that is going to dictate the types of tenants, that’s going to dictate the type of situations that you’re going to have to deal with.
Something you mentioned that I think is really key is the importance of having a proactive strategy towards maintaining these properties rather than a reactive strategy towards maintaining these properties. I think there’s probably a little gradient scale. You should draw on a piece of paper, “Am I reactive or are we proactive?” I think most property managers could figure out where on this continuum they sit.
If you’re off of middle towards reactive, they’re probably a company that’s dealing with pain and problems that are unnecessary, and it’s because they didn’t maintain that boundary like you’ve talked about with the client from the beginning, and they haven’t continued to maintain that when those problems arise with an existing client.
Lisa: We’ve had owners who say, “I can’t believe I have to replace this hot water here. It’s been working perfectly for 25 years.” You’ve been rolling the dice and getting lucky but just because it’s now a rental and it worked fine for you doesn’t mean these things doesn’t have an actual lifespan. Sometimes there’s a tension between owners who just truly don’t see the value of maintaining things to the highest possible standard, but the cost of dealing with the flood is much higher than replacing the hot water heater in the first place. Sometimes you can’t explain to simple math and logic and people if they’re emotionally attached to the idea that you shouldn’t spend any money on it.
We’re actually in the opposite position where, say, it’s a rental, take great care of it, it’ll take great care of you. Someone’s paying for your mortgage. You can capture depreciation. You’re probably saving some money, substantially, on taxes. You’re going to build an asset and make money basically on the interest rates of a mortgage and I think replacing a water heater is not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.
They look at it transactional instead of looking at the big picture which is too bad. I think it’s on the part of the property manager, we have to educate our owners on what it means to be engaged with that property and keep it in good repair. We give them estimated costs for maintenance over the course of the year and what they should expect. We have them sign off on that, being the expectation over the course of the relationship, that they will spend money on the properties.
We make the counterpoint that properties that are in great shape and well-managed tend to keep tenants in them for longer periods of time which means that the turnover costs—the things that you don’t necessarily have to do annually like painting. If people hold over as tenants, you’re going to have to do it. If you’re having a high turnover, you’re going to have to pay a leasing fee. There’s a lot of advantage to having the nicest possible property and taking great care of it, but it can be hard to walk owners through that.
If you’re a proxy for owners, and management company has not given the resources to adequately take care of the space, then they’re really truly not able to take good care of the tenant and then you’re stuck being the bad guy. I think a lot of property managers have been in that position. It’s hard to explain that to a tenant. They don’t care who owns the property. They just want it to operate really well.
Jason: All of this really starts with your onboarding process with new perspective clients, it sounds like. You’re throwing little things out there that I think people are missing. You are taking people through an estimated maintenance cost and you’re giving it to them upfront, so they have an expectation to spend money to take care of these things. You’re talking about educating them. You have some sort of verbiage, process, or something. You’re taking them through to educate them on why they need to maintain this property at the highest level.
You’re shifting their mindset away from trying to keep cost low and charge rent high and over the life of the property, make sure it’s a good investment. You’re also helping educate them on the importance of keeping in it long-term, and there’s probably other things that you guys do as a company to shift towards this. It sounds like you’ve really worked backwards from the idea of, “How can we have really great properties and how can we make sure that we have owners that will allow us to keep them really great?” I’m guessing based on your background, what really seems to drive this, what I’m hearing is that you really want to take care of the tenants.
Lisa: Oh, absolutely. A happy tenant is going to take great care of that space. If they’re feeling well taken care of, then it’s truly in the best interest of the owner and property to do so. Again, people are happy where they live then they’re just better neighbors. That’s what we’re all about.
We live next door to a lot of our properties. We’re around our tenants all the time. We’re part of this community. We want them to have a happy living experience. We want that to not be a stressful thing for them because life is stressful enough. When they have a maintenance request, we can respond to it and take care of them quickly and swiftly and they know that we were on top of it for them.
Jason: Lisa, for those that are listening, they’re like, “Lisa’s got 1000 doors.” You’re like one of the whales in the industry. You’re one of the unicorns that’s made it magically to this place, that every property manager maybe dreams of, or they think would be incredibly painful to get to and doesn’t dream of.
What things do you think you did early on that allowed you to grow through some of those really difficult, painful stages? There are painful stages in property management in terms of growth. How did you weather through those while other companies get so stuck?
Lisa: I’d say technology, being nimble, and staffing are the three top things that we do. Being nimble is the first one. We stop all the time and evaluate our systems and strategies for how we do our work. We’re very open to the idea of changing the way we do things for the better. That is something that I think over time we all know that you’ll hit a certain number of doors and all of these systems that worked great for under 200 doors suddenly, it’s just the house of cards at 300. We had to get really deliberate about stopping and pausing long enough to study the work and reconfigure it so that it was working well for us.
That led to us being really thoughtful about using technology really effectively. Our property management software, we kept using these workarounds for different tasks that had to be done. We weren’t pausing often enough to go back and see if the tool had changed enough to accommodate our needs where in fact, it had. We get a lot more focused on making sure that—AppFolio is the software that we use—that it was meeting our needs. We keep […] just in terms of how we relate to that company. We’re asking for the change that we wanted and needed. We started relying even more heavily on it. We started creating, really tried and true conventions around how we work with the software, the tools, and the processes.
Lastly, and definitely not least and the most important thing we did, was really honor and cherish the staff that we have that comes in everyday to deliver on this promise—that we’re going to provide exceptional places for great people. The talent, the staff, and the commitment has been extraordinary to me and something I think I’m most proud of in the work. If you’re not taking good care of your team, then you cannot be an exceptional service-based company.
Making sure to profit share, being as generous and thoughtful about benefits and any other extra that you can be, working as a team member, not taking people for granted, giving people a lot of time off and flexibility—basically, anything we can do to underscore a culture that makes this a great workplace will lead to better outcomes for management as well. It’s the staff, it’s hard work, and it’s technology, all of that is the secret sauce, but it has worked to get by in and get people to get very invested in the work that we’re doing. I think the tenure of our team really indicates that we’ve nailed that one.
Jason: I think everybody knows they need really good staff. I think everybody goes, “Yes, we need really good technology.” I think you mentioning being nimble is not something you typically would hear. I think a lot of property managers are like, “What?” I love this idea.
How do you actually go about being nimble? How do you maintain that? I think every company likes to believe or hope that they can stay young, stay fresh, and not get stuck in their ways, but it happens. Over time, they start, “This is how we do things,” and they […]. Do you have a process? Is this something you tactically sit down and do on a regular basis? How do you guys actually become nimble?
Lisa: We actually spend a lot of time retreating and having conversations about our systems. We commit a lot of energy to those conversations. We’ll do a quarterly all-staff, all-day retreat. Often times, those retreats are about how can we streamline and be better at our work and we’ll break into different teams. We did a really fun thing that I actually picked up from someone that had presented in NARPM where we had people do a shark tank session. We had teams get together and proposed different ways of engaging with our clients that would accelerate the client experience. We implemented every single one of them.
When you’re asking for everybody to contribute, to revisiting and focusing on how our systems can be more improved, from the plumber to the CEO, we have everybody participate in those all-day meetings and coming up with ideas for how we can be even better at what we do. They see that the fruits of that time. We did something with those ideas. I think everybody’s really motivated to make sure that we take that time away from our work to revisit how we’re doing it.
To be honest, everybody will hate a certain aspect of their job, they’ll dislike something, or something will get tedious and I invite people everyday day, like, “Stop and steady it. Ask yourself, do you have to do that task? Can you do it differently? Can someone else do it? Is there a faster, better, smarter way of doing it?” If you’re inviting everybody to ask themselves whether they have to do something that they don’t like doing, that’s pretty motivating.
Like, “I really hate doing this data entry or this workaround on managing the utilities or something.” I’m like, “Should we be doing utilities at all? Is this something that we have to be doing the same way?” I think everyone is being invited to find better ways of doing their job and enjoy their job more. That’s the investment. When that’s the incentive, then I think people are a lot more engaged in being nimble.
Jason: I love it. We do that as a company as well and that’s built into our cadence of planning system that we do as a company. It’s amazing when you allow your team members to give you feedback, the ideas that they come up with. Because our perspective as CEO or entrepreneur as the head of the company, we have what we think we need from the top view but my graphic designer, she’s going to have a different perspective from what her standpoint, what we could do differently in our process when we get into that piece.
I imagine it’s the same in property management businesses. There are so many moving parts, especially when you get into to your size and scale, everybody sees things from a different perspective, and they see things that bother them. They see things that could be improved. They have ideas to innovate and when you allow them the space.
I think the magical thing that you’re doing is you’re allowing your entire company to shift at a tactical day-to-day operation for a short period of time into strategic planning. You’re allowing this step and strategic time in a business is the time that grows companies. Companies that only are doing tactical work, maintenance requests, leasing, tactical day-to-day, emails, phone calls, sales, whatever, if you’re only doing tactical work, the business can’t grow. It just doesn’t seem to grow. It’s the strategic work that helps you trim the tree so that it can grow. It’s the strategic work that help you plan and figure out what you can do next to innovate and create. You built that in as part of your process that you do every quarter.
Lisa: Yeah. 100%.
Jason: Okay, very cool. I love the idea of the idea of the shark tank sessions and you said you implemented every idea.
Lisa: I did. It was really fun. People thought about infographics that we could use to describe what happens you become a tenant and who you’re interacting with. We were able to use different Upwork tools and Fiverr tools to get access to talent that before we had thought was out of reach and being really thoughtful about how we used different modern-day side hustle economies to capture talent, and skill sets that we don’t have inhouse so that we can some of these big dreams come true for our team. It’s been awesome.
Jason: Okay, I love it. Is there anything else in the new paradigms in property management, or topic at hand, that you think we should bring up? Because that a really good one, maybe even one to end on. I love that idea.
Lisa: I think you ask varied questions and I really appreciate your patience with my technology snafus.
Jason: Okay. That’s alright. Everybody has technology snafus that has technology. It’s just part of what happens with technology, right? Lisa, really appreciate you for being in the show. Thank you for sharing those insights. I think there were some really practical takeaways for people watching that they could implement.
Lisa: Awesome. Thank you, so much and great luck, with all of your work.
Jason: Okay, thank you. All right. A little bit of delays and lags but that’s the internet. I’m at a remote location and doing things a bit differently. Hopefully, you guys can hear me okay today. I appreciate you guys tuning into the DoorGrow Show.
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