Nothing can run your business like a well-oiled machine than having improved processes in place. This then affects your productivity and, consequently, the profits generated. How do you start improving your process? In this episode, Eric Anderton brings someone whose experience runs deep in developing and executing processes in construction. He sits down with Whitney Hill, the co-founder and CEO of SnapADU, an accessory dwelling unit (ADU, guest house, granny flat, casita) construction company serving San Diego. Here, Whitney sheds light on the importance of processes, offering great tips and strategies to help you improve them. She also highlights some of the struggles many businesses encounter along the way—from resistance towards documenting to the cycle of communication. Find solutions to overcome these roadblocks to success. Join Whitney in this great conversation to gain insights on improving and executing new processes.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Boost Your Productivity And Profit With Improved Processes With Whitney Hill
Tips And Strategies For Success
Process improvement is vital if you are going to scale your company or sustain your company’s success and that is the topic of this conversation with Whitney Hill. She is the Cofounder and CEO of SnapADU, which is an accessory dwelling unit construction company serving San Diego. I bring her on because she has deep experience in her educational background and also her background prior to construction in developing and executing processes. Though her company is a smaller residential company, the principles that we discuss here are applicable to large commercial construction companies as well.
We talk about why processes are important, how to improve the process, how to document processes accurately, why people resist documenting and improving processes, how to overcome that resistance, as well as the cycle of communication that is essential if you’re going to be able to execute new processes in your business. If you need to improve your processes, this interview is for you. Enjoy it and share it. If you can do this for me, I’d appreciate it and that is to give the show a rating or a review wherever you get your shows. Thank you for reading.
Whitney, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Eric. It’s great to be here.
I’m excited to have you on because I know that you are passionate about processes. I don’t usually do this but I’ve got to tell you a story before we dive in. I had a tooth that was taken out and my dentist put in the fake root. You got to put the fake root in and the root has got to get bonded in with your bone structure before they put the crown on top. I’m a total sissy when it comes to going to the dentist. I hate it.
She injected me and all this kind of stuff. I sucked it up and I was brave. I had to take antibiotics to put the swelling down. It was a big pain in the neck. Everything’s all good and then I go back to the dentist to get my teeth cleaned and for her to check on the root bit because the actual crown’s going in a couple of months.
She says, “Did I tell you not to brush with an electric toothbrush?” I’m like, “No.” I’m proud of the fact that I floss every day and use an electric toothbrush. She’s like, “The vibrations from the electric toothbrush may have moved the root that we put in and it may not have bonded into the bone. With that, we might have to take out the implant and the root and then put a new one in.
It struck me right there. I said, “Why didn’t you tell me this?” She was over her shoulder talking to her assistant, “Can you make a note to make sure that’s in the documents from now on?” I’m like, “It’s a process. You should have done something about that.” That’s why I’m so excited about you coming on and talking about processes. What is your main focus or passion when it comes to improving processes in a business?
My main passion in it is best leveraging your team. If you have not taken the time and effort to make sure you have streamlined processes, you’re probably filling in some gaps with manpower that could be better allocated elsewhere.
Let’s back up here. Tell me what you mean by a process. Give me a definition of a process.
A process is any concrete sequence of actions that contributes towards a task related to broader goals in your company. That might be on the production side or the company support side on things like marketing. As it relates to production, for us, processes all tie together so that we can build each one of our accessory dwelling units in the same way and ensure, like your dental visit, that we have not left out any crucial steps along the way.
When you’re talking about best leveraging the team, I can think of my poor dentist. This thought was bouncing around in her head for a long period. “Did I tell Eric not to brush with the electric toothbrush?” That’s one thing that the process does. It helps you to leverage your team by simplifying and then amplifying what it is they do daily. Is that right?
That’s exactly it and it reduces that mental burden of having to keep in mind all of the things like, “Don’t brush with an electric toothbrush.” A lot of folks will get pushback on having concrete processes in place. A lot of the things that we heard, in the beginning, were, “I don’t need to be told how to make a peanut butter sandwich. I know the steps.” Sure, because you’ve made hundreds of those over your lifetime.” You’re sometimes documenting things that seem very straightforward to more seasoned employees but you have to keep in mind that you’re doing this documentation so that everyone’s on the same page about what the process is.
You can more quickly onboard new team members. You can reduce that mental burden on yourself because if you stop a process or a task midstream, you can come back to it on that checklist. You can hand off those tasks to other people on the team. There are so many benefits to doing this and making sure that everything is in writing or your project management system in both of those places in some cases. The real benefit is reducing that mental burden we’re talking about.
It’s interesting because sometimes, we think that we’re being over burdensome by detailing even the smallest thing but you think about that small piece, “Eric, don’t use your electric toothbrush.” That one piece of information because they didn’t give it to me had a massive impact. Sometimes we miss the fact that being detailed has a tremendous impact. Tell me, specifically in the construction world, why do contractors specifically struggle with putting processes in?
There are probably a couple of big ones. One big reason is that we’re not working always with something that would allow a repeatable process and that can often be because we are trying to do too many different types of jobs. At SnapADU, when we first started out specializing in accessory dwelling units, to you that might sound highly specialized but within the field of ADUs, you can do an attached ADU or a detached ADU. You can convert an existing space.
In the beginning, we were bidding on all different types of projects. What we found was that it was such a different bidding experience and sales process for those. It’s a very different buildout process. Some require site visits to do a bid accurately and some don’t. We were finding that we couldn’t build a repeatable process because we’d not cast a narrow enough net. We were trying to get every job.
We had to go back and turn away some business and that’s very hard to turn away work but we did. That allowed us to specialize, which not only allowed us to get better at advertising in our niche and bringing in leads but then to set up processes because we were going to deliver the same widget every time, more or less.
A lot of times having too big of a scope of what the company or the department takes on can make it much harder to come up with solid processes. The other one is a bit of what we talked about. This reluctance to document because there’s either not a single way for people to do it. Maybe you have institutionalized knowledge that’s different across project managers. They handle it differently but by not forcing themselves to put something on paper, you’re setting themselves back. Those are some of the biggest roadblocks to coming up with some processes.
It’s interesting because when it comes to this idea of the scope and the fact that sometimes contractors struggle because they are bidding on a diversity of projects and then if they win them building a diversity of projects, that sounds like if I’m a contractor with multiple divisions, I have to be considering a variety of processes across those divisions if I’m going to be implementing processes effectively in the company. Did I hear that right?
That’s exactly right and that’s how we talk about it too. We’re specialized in detached ADUs that are design-build and if we want to add on another division that does take on conversion work or does buildouts from other people’s plans, we could do that but we would fail if we tried to put it into the same machine, the same set of processes that are currently working for detached use. If you’re going to have different business units, you have to be very thoughtful about where to draw those lines and what different requirements each will have to serve that target effectively.
As far as the reluctance to document, what do you think are some of the sources of people’s reluctance to document?
There are a few things. One is often bandwidth. Having the folks who are in the operation try to step back and do that is difficult within the day-to-day and why we were successful is that my partner was already running a smaller contracting business when we met. When I first came on, my role was to supercharge what was happening. I was not necessary to the operation. I was outside of that and I was able to step back with a fresh set of eyes and only focus on documenting and figuring out our software and all of that piece.
You have to resource it accordingly and not necessarily expect that your existing team can do this on their own. The other reluctance comes from the lack of clarity on what is going on. When you set out to document it, it’s a mess because there’s not a clear set of goals that you’re working towards. You may have to do some of that foundational work before you can get into the process side of it.
Your background, I noticed that you worked as a management consultant for Bain & Company. When I think of Bain & Company, I think of Fortune 500 or even Fortune 50-type companies. What were some of the main lessons that you learned there that are applicable to smaller organizations and specifically, as it relates to this discussion around processes?
It’s funny. You’re going to see a lot of the same problems no matter how big of a company you’re dealing with. Even if you’re at a Fortune 50 company, you’re still walking into an environment where a lot of things evolved organically over time. People were wearing multiple hats and perhaps their current role is not in step with the goals or processes that the company is trying to set up and use.
That’s the learning that we’ve used in our organization. You need to step back every once in a while and reassess the landscape of where have we evolved. Do the roles and the team still supports all of the goals and how those have evolved? That’s universal, whether you’re a smaller commercial contractor or a computer manufacturer. It’s that same struggle with aligning your talent with supporting your operation.
What role does ego play in the reluctance to document the process?
That’s such a great one, Eric. You’re hitting on a big point here where some folks feel like it might be jeopardizing the role to put things on paper. It might be almost this mentality of, “I need to stay valuable. That’s all in my head and that’s important.” In all of these kinds of initiatives, we are redefining roles and then the processes that go along with those about making it clear that this is going to allow the employee to be engaged in a way that most takes advantage of their skills.
Also, looking at how this is bogging on their day. By not having these documented, you are offering them a way to outsource some of their lower-level tasks. Always approaching it from that mentality of how we’re going to allow you to have a better work experience is important to overcoming some of that reluctance.
It’s interesting because some people have the mentality of, “You can’t do what I do.” When someone comes along and asks them, “What do you do because I want a process in place for it,” they begin to feel a little insecure around that sometimes.
Yes, it’s threatening for sure. Involving your team with these process improvements is super important. Make sure that it is a co-creation situation so you have their buy-in and they know it very well. A lot of the beginning, when I was starting to work with my partner was brain dumps from him. I was learning from what he was currently doing and then translating that into his system. If you can do some of that groundwork and then almost show 80% finished product, it’s easier to get their buy-in because you’re only reflecting them what they’ve already told you.
Let’s explore that a little bit. How did you go about the brain dump process to build processes?
This goes with this whole idea of like, “Where do you even start,” if there are a lot of different moving parts. We started by understanding what was already in place on the bread and butter of his business, which was the construction side. I interviewed all of his team on what their current roles were to get that landscape and then also understand what the current bottlenecks are. It’s doing a lot of interviews, honestly. It’s getting familiar with the detail but then where did it start? I didn’t on day one walk in and say, “Let’s change how construction is run.”
I looked at where our business as a whole had the biggest weakness and for us at the time, it was in our sales and marketing part of the business, which was non-existent. It was my partner answering the phones and emails as best he could and I’m sure he is doing a great job as one-offs but it’s not repeatable and scalable.
We started at the weakest point of our business and worked our way forward from there until we addressed the construction piece at the end. As we built the new flow of how a job would flow through our system, we attack those problems one by one almost in sequence because it is also difficult to take things that are already off the ground and running and try to fit them into a new system. We ended up allowing the existing work to run its course in the old way and we were able to put new jobs into the beginning of this machine that we were building.
You started then at the sales point to build the processes and then took it from the sales to the estimating, building and billing. Am I hearing that?
That’s exactly what we did. For a while, you do have two parallel operations going where you’re filtering out what we call the hangover jobs where it’s like the old way and you have these new ones coming in. It’s because if you were to try to transition everything overnight into the new system, you’re going to deal with a lot of legacy issues. It doesn’t work with this new flow.
Also, by not trying to shove it all in at once into the new flow, you’re able to put a minimum viable product out there, figure out how it’s going to work and tweak it before you have a bunch of volume going through. In the beginning, we were only handling 3 or 4 jobs in this new system. We have 50 of them there, which is way bigger than any volume we had done previously. It’s this iterative thing where you do have to phase out the work that’s already in process.
Did you intentionally select certain people internally to try out the processes or did you give it to whoever was available?
We try to pilot with a subset of employees when we can so that we can tweak it so that it’s more accessible for the rest of the team when we’re ready to roll it out. We do try to do it at a smaller scale before going all in.
As you began to roll out these processes, what were the main sticking points and challenges for you? I can picture you coming into an organization and you don’t have a background in construction. You’ve got to win credibility with people. You’re introducing a whole bunch of new things. Sometimes in construction, you get this and the guys and the gals are like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I know how to build. How did you work through all of that dynamic?
This is not just construction. I’d worked in warehousing prior to being at Bain. We would roll out new things like scanners. It was such an uphill battle getting that buy-in. It’s something I’ve had a lot of experience with. The secret is to get employees involved as early as you can. Frame things as a pilot where you want to get their feedback, give them that channel to vent and take what you can out of it. Often, there is a lot of good feedback.
There are some you’re going to have to not act on and at the end of the day, as a business owner, you’re going to have to make that call whether or not it’s always the most popular decision. The difficult thing with a lot of software or tech rollouts is a lot of times, it feels like you’re building a rocket launcher to launch a paper airplane. It’s because of the scale you’re operating at, it’d be a lot easier to throw that paper airplane. It’s easier to pick up the phone to email than it is to use project management software, for example.The difficult thing with a lot of software or tech rollouts is, a lot of times, it feels like you're building a rocket launcher to launch a paper airplane. Click To Tweet
That’s also important that you need stress that you’re building this foundation for the next five years. It’s not necessarily going to be the easiest, most streamlined way at this moment. We all know what our current flow is and that’s easy but that flow will not allow us to scale 10X what we’re trying to get to in five years. Painting that picture, always giving the context and getting employees engaged is critical to a successful rollout.
When you’re rolling out a new process, how much time do you allow to pass before you check in and tweak? How does that work?
The analogy we use a lot is that it’s like doing a load of laundry of whites and you accidentally have that red sock in there and now it’s pink. You’re going to have to put the pink load into the dryer. A lot of times, we have people who are still frustrated like, “Why is the laundry still pink?” It’s like, “We did take the socks out of the next one. The next one’s going to come out white but it’s taken a while to get to the dryer.”
Having that patience is crucial because you need to see it through a full cycle before you can see the results and know what is going to have to be tweaked. It’s depending on how long a process you’re working with. In our case, our build cycle from the start of somebody saying, “Yes, let’s do the design-build,” to get in their keys is typically a twelve-month process. The build-out itself is 4 to 6 months. It’s only been in the last year for us that we’ve seen the full scope of a job come through. You need to be comfortable with not having the full results for a while and asking people to say, “Let’s reevaluate this in three months,” or whatever length of your time is to get a widget through your system.
There’s always one word that keeps popping into my head with this idea of communication and perhaps over-communication, where you’re giving the vision for why you’re doing it. You’re giving the vision for the process of implementing the process and you’re making sure that people have an open line of communication to be sharing some of their challenges as you go through it.
Actively soliciting that because even if people have these ideas in their minds, not all of them may be comfortable unless you actively solicit. When you’re planning the process improvement, you’re planning a communication program along with that.Even if people have these ideas, not all of them may be comfortable to share unless you actively solicit. Click To Tweet
How much work do you guys self-perform?
As far as the construction itself, we have supervisors on site but we do not self-perform any of the trades.
That brings up another question then, whether you’re a small company or let’s say I’m a billion-dollar GC. I have processes in place. Also, I have subs that I have to deal with who perhaps do business differently. How do you work with your subs to make sure that they’re on the same page with you in light of executing in areas where you guys are integrated and you need them to be on point with their processes?
It’s a good segue because it goes back to the same thing about communication. It’s such a bland term, Eric but it does come down to that. We didn’t do a good job of this, frankly, because we were still figuring out our internal processes and we didn’t do a great job of onboarding our subcontractors. It starts with needing to as quickly as you can, getting some working version of how your subcontractors would be expected to fit into this process and having an hour-long meeting with every one of them to describe what we’re trying to do and to ask them what they need from us to make it possible on their side.
We didn’t do that out of the gate. We muddled through. People got different messages and then we’re going back to do that work. If I were to give advice to someone doing this from the get-go, along with the communication plan for your internal team, you’re also thinking about what will this necessitate as far as re-onboarding a lot of your subcontractors.
The fact is you’re going to have some that don’t operate in the new environment and you’re going to have to make a decision about whether your team is going to fill in those gaps and still work perhaps an old method with some of your subcontractors. How long are you willing to do that versus going out and sourcing new subcontractors that are willing to deal with that and frankly, can keep up with your pace of innovation?
That’s been something we’ve struggled with too because the subcontractor base that serves construction operations that does 10 jobs a year versus 60 is very different. You have to be prepared to manage that evolution as well. Back to the comment about not assuming the team can take that on, that was another problem we had where we were expecting our project managers to deal with the subcontractor evolution. We needed to have somebody dedicated to dealing with subcontractor management. It couldn’t be an operational person. There wasn’t time. Appropriately resourcing during this time is going to ultimately save you time and expense down the road.Appropriately resourcing during this time will ultimately save you time and expense down the road. Click To Tweet
It’s interesting to me because you hit on something that is tremendously challenging for a lot of companies. I’m a GC and the mentality of subs is like, “I know the GCs bringing it but we run the job.” If GC is saying, “I want you to do process X,” and I’m the sub and I know the GC needs me, I’m like, “Thanks for your process X but I’m not going to do process X because I’m going to use process Y that I like.” You described the balance well there, Whitney. I was going to ask you, as a GC, when do I walk away from a sub who’s not willing to adopt the processes that I want them to adopt?
It comes down to how quickly can you find someone else to do it and sometimes you might not find someone for a year. We’ve been dealing with this for a while and we’re still filling in those gaps. This goes back to also aligning your talent appropriately with your organization. If you can give the person who is having to fill that gap with the subcontractor some tie-in to help solve that problem by either finding a new subcontractor or training the existing subcontractor, make sure those roles are aligned so that the incentives all match up.
It’s directly going to affect your employee if they don’t deal with the problem because otherwise, you’re having to solve it yourself. That’s a big part of it. The other part with the subcontractors as we talked about was piloting. It’s the same thing with subs. If you can get in the weeds and the field with them in seeing how it’s going to play out for their team on their side, take that time. Do the pilot with them. Run it with 1 or 2 projects before you pull the plug and say, “We’re going to do all ten with this new flow.”
In other words, what you were describing is a lot of hard work.
Also, discipline. It’s not glamorous. It’s landing it out and rowing the plan.
What have you seen in terms of increases in profitability or customer satisfaction as a result of rolling out processes in your organization?
On the sales side, we’ve grown our sales 10X in 2.5 years. On the margin side, over the course of 2 years, we’ve also seen those improve by 50%. We’re finding ways to bring in the same net for a lot less work because we’ve gotten much better at the estimation piece as you talked about. Feeding back all the information, we’re learning from the job cycle, like construction. Back to the design team so that we can get around those from the beginning and also sell appropriately to our clients from day one.
We were absorbing a lot in the form of change orders because we didn’t know enough about the space. Another critical component overall to effective process improvement is a good feedback loop through your company where you’re ensuring someone in the day-to-day who’s experiencing the problems in the field and is able to channel that information back to the appropriate places in the organization where things need to change upstream so that you can fix it for the next time. We’re at a great size to do that. We still have a lot of connections between our departments where they’re interacting daily.
We’re also a fully remote company, which means we’re on Zoom a lot and the barrier to connecting with people is pretty low, which means that we have a lot of quick fixes going back and forth like, “We should update this in the template. We need to do this in design.” That stuff is happening almost in real-time and that’s what’s allowed us to evolve so quickly to become a leader in our space.
It’s interesting there because a couple of things I want to ask you about is this idea of when to start doing processes. Oftentimes, what happens is people build a successful large company and then their hair is on fire and things are out of control and profit is leaking out the door and then they start on processes. It sounds like what you guys are doing is you’re saying, “We have goals that we want to achieve in terms of the growth of the company to get there. Let’s get the processes in place.
It doesn’t have to be as daunting as it might sound. “We have to start on processes.” You are going to have to do it anyway. To get a widget out the door, you’re implicitly working a process. The trick is to somehow document that as you’re figuring out what that process is. We also like to say, “I’m going to do it until I’m tired of it.” That’s what we’ve done a lot where we don’t know the answer yet to the process. One person is on point for it. “I’m going to do this myself until I can document it adequately to outsource it or turn it over to another team member.” Doing it until you’re sick of it is a good gut check on whether there should be a process. If you’re sick of it, there for sure be a documented process for doing it.
You brought something up. I wasn’t going to initially ask you about this but this idea of remote work. As a construction company, when you say your team is remote, who is remote?
Let’s go the other way. The people who do still have to show up on-site would be the superintendents and then our project managers. Maybe 1/3 of our team still goes somewhere in person for work but as far as a company coming together, we do not have an office. The sales, marketing, design and pre-construction team, all of us are working from our home offices. About once a quarter, we’ll have a WeWork space where we bring everybody together who is geographically in San Diego.
We have a couple of team members who are not in San Diego. We’ll do that quarterly or so for business purposes and then we’ll have happy hours once a month. We’ve chosen to forego the office expense, put it towards team-building-type activities and rethink it. We’ve found it to be a huge selling point for working for this company. People cannot find remote work to the extent that it’s demanded.
If you look at any of the graphs for demand for remote positions versus remote positions that are available, the demand greatly exceeds the supply. We have found that to be a differentiator for us. Even though there is some physical part to a project manager role, the flexibility to be able to work from home the rest of the time is huge for people.
How does that remote aspect affect the handoffs from the sales estimating side and the project management side? How do you guys go about doing those?
It’s a lot of Zoom meetings and phone calls. That’s fine. We’ve planned that into the fabric of what we’re doing. We’ve got to the point though, where we feel like Zoom is more effective than an in-person meeting because you can each have your screens up. You can share and annotate. We’ve at some point dropped off those in-person meetups because, in the first year or so, we were doing some of that because we thought it had to be done in person. It always had been done in person. Once you start questioning that, it’s amazing to see what you can accomplish virtually.
Let me ask you this then. Let’s say I’m a company. I’ve got project managers. I have project engineers supporting them or superintendents. I’m a project engineer and I’m sitting here listening to how Sally, the Project Manager is dealing with a client issue. I’m watching her do it because she’s right next to me. I’m in the office with her. I’m learning through osmosis and I’ve thought a lot about this in terms of how that osmosis effect so to speak, is diminished in a remote work environment. Tell me what I’ve got wrong about that perspective, Whitney.
There’s some validity there. To replicate that, you have to set up an environment virtually that mimics it. We use Zoom Chat in addition to Zoom for all of our communications. Within Zoom Chat, we have different little rooms where people interact. It might be for a break room where people are interacting on fun, silly things. There is an office room where it’s announcements for the team and that sort of thing. There’s a Q&A one where people pop in their questions. Do you have to start thinking about how can I foster that?
The other thing we use is Loom to record our screens. We’re often doing those little heads-up videos to people when it’s development-type things that are a training or feedback sort of a situation. When it gets down to it, the piece that you can’t replicate is the availability of somebody right across your desk. I worked like that for many years. We all did where you’re maybe more likely because they’re top of mind. You have to try to find a way to keep people on top of mind for each other. We’ve done that by being very active during the day on Zoom.
If there was one thing you could change about remote work, what would it be?
There’s not a lot I would change, Eric. At this point, I can’t imagine going back.
What’s missing in remote work? You’ve described the tools. You’re using Loom and Zoom. All those are tremendous but what’s the one thing I need to make remote work more effective in the construction context?
You still need to know when there will have to be a physical element with clients and that’s probably the part that we almost went too far in the virtual world. We started during COVID and no one wanted a site visit and that was great. It allowed us to grow fast. We’re then going back to rethinking, “Are there maybe a few checkpoints in this process for the sake of making the client feel seen, heard and understood like it was a good experience? Are there a few in-person touchpoints we should put into place?” We are having to reexamine for clients, are other touchpoints that we would do even if our remote work environment would tell us elsewise?
Let’s go back to the idea of processes then. What if I’ve started down the process trail? I’ve met all the resistance and failed miserably. I’m like, “Screw it. We’re going to go back to the way that we’ve done it before, which is winging it and leveraging my genius.” What do I do then? How do I get a reset in place?
I do think sometimes it takes an outside person to help do that and we’re at the point in our company where that’s happening. We’ve brought in a consultant to help us with some of these higher-level org challenges, process improvements and communication challenges on our team to reset norms and get the owners back into perspective. At least in our case, we evolve so quickly in a startup environment.
We’ve worked so closely with these people. It’s difficult for us to step back and be objective. Sometimes, it might take a targeted independent contractor hire or similar to turbocharge that support, give you another perspective and co-create with you. That’s something that we maybe waited too long to do and now having done it, I wish I had done it sooner.
It sounds like a lot of the stuff with improving processes is the implementation of technology. What is the one piece of technology that’s had the biggest impact on your organization?
I’d have to say our project management software. It’s become the place where we house all of the communication and systems related to our jobs. That’s the most indispensable piece of what we’re doing. We have to think about this. As you developed a software stack, it’s like, “What would we use if this one went away? How would we lace our new technology together?”
The one that’s at the heart of your business where you’re meeting the customer demands, oftentimes that’s going to be the most critical part of your infrastructure. If you’re embarking on a software hunt for that main component, that other thing will have to be built around it, understanding what the core functionality is and making sure that it’s going to meet all those needs is super important. Also, it’s going to integrate with all the other pieces you’re going to need.
When you were implementing that project management software, how did you pick the one that you wanted? Why is this one, as opposed to every other software salesman out there that’s pedaling their wearers and saying that it’s going to make your life awesome?
We picked it because we use Buildertrend, which is a leader in the residential construction market. We wanted one that had a lot of partnerships with other companies. They’re partnering with Home Depot and a couple of other design-type portals. We knew that if they had those big things in place that they were going, they’re coming. My partner always says that you are either coming or going. We could see the trajectory there for them. That was a big one. You don’t want to pick an obsolete tool that even if it has awesome functionality if there’s not enough momentum behind it, it’s much riskier that it’s not going to be there in a few years.
Tell us a little bit more about yourself. How did you get into construction from your background in Bain?
I’d always had a financial interest in real estate and I left Bain thinking that I was going to be doing real estate investing in small apartment complexes. I started to explore that space. In the meantime, a general contractor approached me about partnering on some flipping opportunities. At the time, I was living in New Jersey. We started doing high-end by popping the top off of houses and expanding the square footage and gutting them.
I was doing that around the time I moved out here to San Diego and then heard about accessory dwelling units. In a lot of ways, that was similar to what we were doing on the East coast by adding the square footage in a constrained space. During the flips, I started learning more about general contracting. I’d started as the money partner and put together the deal analysis. I started to learn more about contracts as we got more into the weeds and I realized candidly that my partner had a lot of room to grow there.
During that time, I learned about Buildertrend and the project management side of it. When I then came to starting up SnapADU, I was able to hit the ground running because I already had that context of how residential construction flowed. All of that allowed us to spin it all up much more quickly the second time.
Your background as far as education is in Psychology. Did you do that intentionally with a business view or was that something that you grew into as you developed yourself?
I’d say both. I started in economics because that seemed the most related to how I would want to pursue business. It was candidly way too dry so I left economics and focused on social psychology, which is the flip side of the business. It’s about money and its psychology of it. It was intentional in the sense that I knew that would apply to whatever business endeavors I later would undertake.
I also went back and got the MBA to fill in some of these gaps. Along the way, I was learning so much from those early roles I did in operations management at a supply company. It all has fit together. When you find that dream role for you, it’s been so fun to see all the different skills that you’ve developed over the last decades come together. For me, that’s what SnapADU is.
As you look back at your educational background and reflect upon your career background if you had to do it all over again, would you go back and get an MBA or would you say, “I learned more by doing it than by going to school and getting the MBA?”
If I had to pick one, I would say learn by doing it. I got a lot more out of it. However, certain opportunities are only going to be open to you if you have the credentials and I don’t think I could’ve worked at Bain & Company if I didn’t have the MBA. For me, it had to be both but when the chips are down, I’ve learned more in practice doing things.
In your study of Psychology, what are some of the insights that Psychology gives us about human behavior that people most often miss?
One as simple as framing effects is one that folks can forget to take in mind with business. Framing things in terms of losses versus framing things in terms of gains and how that might translate in the construction world here. If you’re talking about giving folks a credit for something, if they opt not to do it versus charging them for something if they do choose to do it, you’re going to get two very different scenarios and different acceptance rates of that opportunity.
Give me a real-life example of what you described, please.
Let’s say that you have a component of your job that is doing a virtual rendering of the project before it’s going to be completed. You can either choose to offer that as an add-on for $5,000 or n include it in the project scope as part of that and then offer a discount if they don’t want to do it. Depending on whether or not you frame it as an add-on or as included and they can remove it, you’re going to get people doing different things.
Which one would you choose of those two, the add-on or the discount?
It depends if you wanted to do it or not. If you are hoping to sell it or it’s something that you’re going to make money on, we typically would offer it as something that’s included. If the negotiation goes the way that they’re trying to strip things out, offer them the opportunity to take it out but that puts you in a better position then because you’re allowing a space that you can then meet their need in by taking it off as a discount.
Who’s your favorite psychologist?
I mentioned Esther Perel. She is a relationship psychologist but there are a lot of her teachings that translate into business.
Which book should we buy from her? Do you know a book off the top of your head?
She has a couple of TED Talks I would recommend looking up.
Tell us a little bit more about SnapADU.
SnapADU is the leading design-build contractor in greater San Diego. We build about 50 ADUs a year. We have specialized to become one of the leading builders of ADUs in California. We’re deciding how we want to take this, whether we want to continue to grow in our geography or consider expanding.
Tell me what you missed the most about the East Coast.
I miss the fall. Fall is lovely on the East Coast with Halloween and everything. That’s what I miss.
What do you like best about San Diego?
Also, the weather thing. I like not having to plan for any weather with my kids. If we’re going out, I can safely put them in jeans and a t-shirt. It’s going to work out.
How can people get ahold of you and connect with you?
They can reach me through our website, SnapADU.com. We have a contact form there if you’d like to get in touch.
Whitney, I appreciate you coming to the show. Thank you very much for your time.
Thanks for having me, Eric.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed my interview with Whitney about process improvement. You may wonder what happened to me with the dentist. I didn’t finish the story during the episode so I’m going to tell you. The dentist said that perhaps the root that she had put in would need to be taken out and replaced because using the toothbrush would’ve stopped the root from embedding in my bone. She said, “Eric, I’ve got to take an X-ray.” You can imagine I was a little perturbed.
She took an X-ray and then we had to wait for 2 or 3 minutes while the X-ray was processed. Thankfully, despite me using the electric toothbrush, the artificial root that she put in has joined to the bone and we’ll be able to get the crown on my tooth. Nevertheless, though, she should have had a process in place to help deal with that issue. If you ever go to the dentist and you ever get a tooth removed and a new implant put in, don’t use an electric toothbrush. I appreciate you reading this. Feel free to share this episode with other people.
- Esther Perel
- TED Talk – Bonus: Relationships at work with Esther Perel
About Whitney Hill
Whitney Hill is the co-founder and CEO of SnapADU, an accessory dwelling unit (ADU, guest house, granny flat, casita) construction company serving San Diego. SnapADU has become the leading builder of ADUs in San Diego as part of a broader shift in how California is thinking about generating affordable housing. The company designs, permits, and builds 50 ADUs a year and has $15M in revenue. Whitney has been named to San Diego Business Journal’s 40 Next Top Business Leaders Under Forty 2022. Before getting involved in residential real estate, Whitney gained strategic & tactical experience as a management consultant for Bain & Company and as an operations manager for an industrial supply distributor. Whitney earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Yale University, as well as an MBA from the Stern School of Business at NYU with a specialization in Entrepreneurship and Management of Technology & Operations.