Lisa Wise – Co-Founder, Nest DC

Lisa is the co-founder of two companies – Nest DC and Roost DC – both anchored in the real estate management industry, and 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 rental units throughout Washington, DC with a commitment to customer service and an emphasis on quality spaces and excellent living experiences. From 2011 to 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 growth 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. Nest continues to increase capacity through vertical integration. Nest is now a licensed general contractor, providing design and renovation work to compliment the needs of its portfolio. One program took on an identity of its own, when Roost DC set up shop in January 2015. Every employee of Nest was invited to become an owner/investor in Roost DC, LLC. Today, fifteen owners are now working to grow a highly-successful and symbiotic company to Nest. Roost DC builds on the Nest legacy by continuing to fill a unique need in the real estate marketplace by providing high quality of life for tenants, and infinite opportunities for employees. Altogether, Roost tends to 65 buildings throughout DC proper. Like Nest DC, Roost DC is a socially-responsible business that is deeply rooted in the city’s wards. From fundraising to food delivery, Roost partners with essential city nonprofits throughout the year.

Prior to starting Nest DC, Lisa founded Wise & Associates (financial planning for the rest of us), a Washington, DC-based personal finance consulting company that focused on the needs of individuals in the middle- and lower-end of the economic scale. This values-based business evened the playing field, giving individuals access to critical personal finance strategies that are often unavailable to those who need it most.

In addition to her work with Wise & Associates, as well as Nest DC, Lisa served as executive director of the Center for a New American Dream, a national nonprofit organization that promotes environmental sustainability and green living. At New American Dream, Lisa worked with staff to develop strategies that helped individuals, institutions, communities, and businesses conserve natural resources, promote conscious consumption, and change the way goods are produced and consumed. In 2008, Lisa was named in as one of the country’s “leading environmentalists” on the subject of what ordinary people can do to help save the environment. While at New American Dream, Lisa was instrumental in developing the Conscious Consumer Marketplace, providing individual consumers with access to better products and information about the environmental and social impacts of consumer choices, while exercising more control over their own financial well-being.

Lisa also has an extensive background in healthcare policy and access issues. She was a political field manager for the Planned Parenthood Federation for America. For five years, she designed grassroots campaigns and worked with local affiliates around the country to effectively engage community constituents. After her tenure with PPFA, Lisa served as chief operating officer at Genetic Alliance, a national healthcare coalition in Washington, DC where she oversaw organizational operations and developed novel partnerships that lead to traditional and non-traditional funding streams. Using both non-profit and for-profit funding models, Lisa refined and expanded the organizational approach to development. She continues her work with Genetic Alliance as a volunteer and serves as board president of La Clinica del Pueblo, a DC-based health Federally Qualified Health Center that meets the medical needs of the under-served Latino community.

In addition to her personal finance, health, and environmental advocacy work, Lisa is co-founder of Pan Left Productions, a non-profit media company in Tucson, Arizona designed to give members of the community access to media-making technology. Pan Left celebrated 20 years of video activism in 2014.

She has a B.A. in Political Science, a B.M.A. in Media Arts, and a M.A. in Media Arts with an emphasis in political economy from the University of Arizona. She and her wife live in NW Washington, DC with their son, Beckett (5), and a whole bunch of animals.

Tell me about your early career.
By early career, do you mean the jobs I had that tested the outer limits of child labor laws? Or more traditional careers? Kidding aside, I was all about the hustle when I was young. I did everything from vacuuming the neighbors’ houses for cash and dog walking to selling painted rocks. I dreamed of a morning paper route, but the tiny town I lived in had a paper that only came out twice a month. By the time I got to college, I was doing overnight shifts at a classical music station, driving sandwiches around town, and doing wedding videos (worst job ever, with the best stories). Even though I had an entrepreneurial spirit, I also had a pretty strong moral compass and felt my real professional trajectory was oriented toward the non-profit world. I settled into the health-care and environmental advocacy world for 15 years, and I worked my way into senior leadership roles. It was a terrific way to orient myself to the professional world and do cause-driven work that made me feel good about my contribution.

How did the concept for Nest DC come about?
When I was in graduate school, I inherited a Honda Civic from an old relative. At the time, I was living in an 1893 adobe duplex in Tucson, Arizona. I had always dreamed of owning a home (specifically one I could fix up and rent) and I decided to reach out to my landlord to see if they were up for selling. They bit, and we negotiated an agent-free sale and I used the cash from the car to put the down payment on the house. I then set about fixing up the second half of the duplex and rented to a med student. He paid all but $75 of my mortgage, and I gave him a great space and a great deal. I was instantly hooked on the power of rentals and started to acquire a few more properties here and there over the years. I also started a side hustle (see a theme here?) managing units for other folks. I pursued my non-profit career but always had in the back of my mind that my property management methods could be a game changer in the field.

How was the first year in business?
I kept a full time job when we started Nest – and we kept our operating cost to just about $200 per month – so even though we really went all in, it was time we were investing. My business partner and I did everything from finance, to maintenance, to tiling counter tops, to sales, writing the website, etc. We put together swag bags with an organic cleaner and our business card and would go to realtor open houses all weekend long. Getting to know agents was key, since we never sold property – we didn’t present competition. Slowly, the word got out and we started to capture some business. By the end of our first year, we were up to about $900 a month in management fees with a $700 “profit.”

What was your marketing strategy?
We focused on branding from our very first day. We put together a logo/website/image that was really attractive and appealing to people. We positioned ourselves as city experts and highly-focused on exceptional client experiences. In other words, we worked to be everything the traditional landlords wasn’t – stylish, approachable, sophisticated, boutique, and community-focused. We hit Facebook hard, did open houses, networked, and kept our fees very reasonable to build a quick book of business. The best move we made was in year two when we made a play to win the Washington City Paper “best of” in their property management category. We only had 18 properties at the time, and the typical three different companies were always on the list. We came out of nowhere with a creative Facebook campaign and took the top spot. That year, we added 80 properties.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We hit 100 properties in 2012 and I was still working three days a week in the non-profit world so we could free up resources to add staff. This was the best possible move. We added some young, ambitious team members that helped us deliver on the promises we were making to our clients. We were getting a lot more visibility and adding about 8-10 properties a month. It was getting incredibly chaotic. We knew by the time we were at 200 properties we would be sustainable and able to pay a salary for the owners. By that time, I had bought my partner out and I was able to dedicate my time to Nest 100% in late 2013. Not a day too soon.

How do you define success?
For Nest, we define success by the number of great jobs we create, the quality of the services we offer, and the positive impact we have on the community. Right now, we consider ourselves highly successful.

What is the key to success?
Invest in others first. We believed from day one that doing good business was the path to getting more good business. Along with my senior staff, prioritizing our team and creating exceptional opportunities, while at the same time doing absolutely whatever we could to provide best in class service. We went many years without adequate compensation and were totally overworked and maxed, but we built a loyal clientele and team that truly believed in the mission and the work. Many of those folks are still with us. Giving before getting was the trick.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I learned to ask a lot of questions, be interested in the answers, and lead with humility.

What are some of your favorite books?
I really love reading. Last book I read is perhaps one of my all time favorites – Evicted. Powerful, important story told. I’m also a big fan of Nickel and Dimed (I’m a real liberal in a very conservative industry). On the business book side, I like The Power of Habit and most Malcolm Gladwell books.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
When we got sued for the first time. And, looking back, we deserved it. I’m a “jump in and get started” kind of entrepreneur, but much of our field is technical and regulated. We had a lead paint abatement issue and we just didn’t get it handled properly. Ultimately, the contractor was liable, but we should have had a much better handle on the complexity of the issue and our role. I still like to jump in and go, but now I have a team that keeps me from making mistakes by over-simplifying when it’s a potential liability.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The hard stuff is fleeting. We used to really suffer the clients that treated us poorly or the problems that just didn’t resolve logically. But over time, I was able to really understand that hard days end. If we pursued our work with integrity, commitment, and good intentions, we could get beyond every hard issue and get to the good stuff sooner.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Honestly? If I knew how hard this would be or how complex it was, I never would have done it. But as I said before, I just jump in and with enough passion, I can convince myself and others that just about anything is possible. After eight years and more than $3 million a year in business, I think it’s worth saying blind faith has some merit. And passion is key. Do what you love. I’m thankful and happy with my career every single day.

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Interviews are conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.

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