In the second edition of our Facts + Snacks lunchtime event, we chatted to Alexandria Procter, the Co-founder and CEO of DigsConnect about how she’s approached creating an optimal remote environment for her product team to thrive in.
Transcript of the discussion:
Welcome back everyone to our second Facts & Snacks event. Alexandria, I was going to have some spicy Mexican food for lunch today, but I decided against it because I didn’t want to get jalapeño up in your business.
On that glorious high note, my name is Jomiro, and I’m the Host and Producer of the OfferZen podcast. It’s cool to have you all back. If you’re new here, Facts & Snacks is where we chat to South Africa’s leading entrepreneurs every Thursday between 12 and 1230, which is now, and today, and we are chatting to Alexandria Procter as our guest speaker. I want to give you the honour of introducing yourself – sort of an elevator pitch for maybe a two-story building.
Okay. My name is Alexandria Procter. I am one of the Co-founders and the CEO of DigsConnect.com. We are the largest student accommodation marketplace on the African continent. I guess that’s pretty much me whenever I describe myself, I always describe my business, and I feel we’re kind of the same thing.
Yeah, and fun fact that I thought you might touch on because I thought it was interesting, but you’re also a pilot in training.
Yes, yes, I am. It’s the thing we started the conversation with. I’m this frustrated explorer. My whole life, I have been obsessed with National Geographic, with just being out there travelling and being on the frontier of exploration. Flying is super cool, and I fly from the Stellenbosch Flying Club. A friend of mine was doing his pilot’s license there, and he took me on a flight while he was getting his hours and I just loved it. I did my medical, passed, signed up, and now I am getting my hours.
That is amazing. Cool. I will keep that in mind next time I need a private jet. A little bit of introduction to how the next half an hour is going to go. We’re going to start with some rapid-fire questions to get to know Alexandria a bit better, and then we’ll go into a deep dive, and we’ll also have some time in the end for an audience Q&A.
In terms of tech specs, you will see that there are tabs on your screen, like chat questions and polls. Please, use the chat function to get to know each other and see who’s here, and the questions poll is where you can dump all your stuff for the Q&A. You’re also welcome to upload any questions you want us to check out, so the more uploads they have, the more likely I’ll ask them because they’ll be interesting. Please use those throughout the chat, and I will remind you in between as well.
Finally, there’s a swag competition, as usual, it wouldn’t be an OfferZen event without a swag competition. It is only open to South African attendees, but one lucky person will get a swag hamper just for joining. We are more likely to know who you are if you use the questions, subtle plug, but stick around we’ll announce it at the end.
Let’s jump straight in. Alex, as you said, you’re UCT alumni, you an Eastern Cape born gal, which is cool and CEO and founder of DigsConnect, which is redefining co-housing for students, and that is quite an exciting thing. You also did those dinosaur races on UCT campus that went viral, that was a time, but you got quite a cool CV. So, just to get into a little bit of your psyche and see who you are.
What is one thing that a non-product CEO can do to foster a better relationship and trust with their product team?
Well, the first thing I did was move my desk into the dev office. We used to have our dev team and then with everyone one else who wasn’t working on the dev side and I used to kind of always treat tech as if it were this black box, where everything can just magically happen but quite recently I’ve been like yeah, I want to get absolutely involved in the line by line nitty gritty, so I am completely there. I inserted myself into that space and kind of soaked up the conversation so that I could understand and upskill myself because I want to become a product CEO, and I’m having to learn what it takes to be that.
What are two lessons that you’ve learned about co-founding a business that you wish you’d known earlier?
One is focus. The ideas just keep pouring in all the time. You’re always like it would be so cool to do this, and this and I could see all these ways of increasing efficiency and big innovations, but you need to just focus on the core value offering until we’ve got it completely waxed, until you’re extremely experienced with what that core value offering is and don’t look at anything else.
I spent so much time chasing these red herrings, so core focus is one thing the second thing I’ll say is to delegate – learn how to find your incredible team that can just let go of things. If you do everything yourself, you’re halving the business because now you have this conduit and it’s going to pass through you – so just delegate.
Then what is the most worthwhile investment you’ve ever made? It could be money, it could be time, and it could be energy?
The most worthwhile investment is the people stuff, absolutely the team. When you have the right people on your pirate ship that pirate ship becomes like a space rocket. The right people are everything, it’s extraordinary. If you get the right people on board that are doing stuff that just wow’s you every single day, it is the best investment you can make – 100%
This is a tough one because a lot of people think it’s tough because it’s a world we can’t imagine but if you could only work for two hours a week on your business, what would you focus on? For an advocate of focus, can I just put it out there let’s dive straight into what your focus would be?
Only two hours a week. I would look at our sales pipeline, what’s driving the KPI and the sales pipeline and figuring out what’s strangling that and then just for those two hours do that one thing that is strangling the sales pipeline.
Why is that?
The sales pipeline is indicative of the health of your business, it’s kind of like a temperature. Specifically in our case, the number of users that are managing to start and to get to the end, and, find a home or place a tenant. If they can move through that beautiful, that just shows like a temperature gauge of everything.
It can tell you about your UX, your UI, it can tell you about what stock you have, it can tell me about the people using it. It just tells you so much about the health of your business. If your sales pipeline is just beautiful, people move through it and are happy with what they are looking for then you’ve got a good thing going, but if people are struggling and there are many bottlenecks along there, there’s a lot of problems that you need to start fixing like really fast.
And then a different spin on an age-old question, but for the young entrepreneurs out there, what would you say is some real-world advice that you think they should ignore?
That they should ignore? I would say ignore everything, just ignore it all. I think, just do it. So often we’re waiting for permission. As young entrepreneurs you have probably just come out of school or out of varsity and you have been in this system for the last 20 years, and everyone’s telling you to sit in a robe, put your hand up if you have a question, wait to get told what to do, here’s your assignment, click here – everyone’s telling you what to do, and I think it breeds this thinking of “I can just deflect authority, someone else will do it, it’s not my place to speak up, it is not my place to do this”. I think what is important here as an entrepreneur, is it is your place.
It’s completely your place, and it is your responsibility to do it. We’ve seen how previous generations have – they’re fine. I think our generation is extremely critical about what they’ve done in terms of environmental and social justice in terms of how we embrace technology because of efficiencies and effectiveness. There are a million things – our country – there’s so much efficiency we can do, and it’s up to us this generation to push that, and we must build a better future.
So stop waiting for that permission, stop waiting for someone to say it’s okay and stop deflecting authority. Claim that authority and say “I’m going to build this, I’m going to do this, I’m going to redefine this industry.”
Cool. I feel pumped and ready to disrupt. That’s good advice. I love it. We’re going to dive into the deep dive questions now. Peeps that are listening remember to drop your questions in the questions tab. I see some people are doing that already, which is great.
The thing I wanted to focus on for the next 10 minutes was your team, and obviously, with COVID-19 you had to respond to the remote setup, but you were busy with a project build in and amidst all this uncertainty and chaos. I wanted to dive into how you approached that and what you learnt that you’re going to take forward. Briefly, could you give me some insights into what that build was?
Yeah. DigsConnect is a seasonal business, so we do a long-term AirBnB, essentially, where you find your home and most leases are at a minimum between six and twelve months as the academic year is usually 10 months – February til November. People start looking for a home and depending on the city, Stellenbosch moves first, then Cape Town, then Johannesburg and Pretoria kind of lags behind.
Generally, people start looking for a home in September, October, November, or December and if you are tracking our Google Analytics it’s literally like a camel’s hump in terms of it starts picking up hectically around December and then in January it just explodes when everyone is looking.
We run our season from September to February. That’s when everyone is looking for the year, they sign a lease, they find a home, and they’re in. Then what we do is we learn as much as we can from that experience, we learn from the landlords what they experienced and what they liked, what they’re did not like, where there are inefficiencies in the system, and we learn from the students how they found using the platform and if they are looking forward to using it again and if they had a great time.
We just measure everything. What is the ideal situation, and how did reality compare to that? We take notes of everything and then at the end of the season around the end of February the whole team will go away usually to Kalk Bay where we have this beautiful house that we rent and take a couple of days. The first day is chaos, and you go supping, and we have braais, and we reconnect as a team, and then we sit down and say what did we learn?
What are the key lessons that we need to improve the product for the next season, and then we start taking down notes and start talking about it, and then we distil that into projects and how we can improve the product.
What’s cool about this is that everyone in the team is involved. If you’re the API engineer, or if you are doing support, you’re just gonna do that but when it comes to building the product it is this collaborative process, everyone’s involved, which is so exciting because if you want to learn everything about every aspect of a business from building the business model, to pricing, what’s the UI, how users are engaging with that – it’s almost like an MBA in six months, you are learning every part of what makes a business work. You sit there as a team, you discuss these things, we distil to projects, and then we plan on how we are going to actually do this now.
We need to start with what the project spec needs to be, what’s going to be the UI design, bring in any more people that we need for that discussion, we break it down to look at the build, what people are needed for the back-end and the API. We just break the whole thing down into the nitty-gritty of that.
We use Asana as our project management tool, which is great, and we also use Slack, which is also cool and then we just start the build, then we have check-ins obviously, and we have sprints and that kind of starts around March for us.
We’ve just started going into our plan that goes from March to the end of August. So, we kind of just wrapped it up now and it’s been quite a hectic week because this is our wrap up week, any day now we’re going to be launching.
So from March to August, we just go into building mode, and that is just building the next iteration of the product. In the meantime, users are still engaging and right now we have people going through the platform finding a home. Our support team is still dealing with that, and our business ops teams are dealing with that, and our engineering team is still focusing on the build.
So, we just started that, and then COVID hit. It was a week before the President announced the hard lockdown and we were like guys we should probably go remote. No one knew what’s going on, there was no data, and no one knew what was going to happen.
Let’s just play safe and go remote, and it was overnight, it was a Sunday morning, and I was chatting to Greg, my business partner – what should we do? Should we like to go to the office, no-one knows what is going on, and I reached out to all my mentors to ask what are you guys doing? I was like let’s go remote, let’s just do it.
We were really worried about productivity. We’re really worried if the team would be happy with this because we’re a very close-knit team and we spend much time in the office together, hanging out, at dinners together, that work-life boundary is very blurred with us and we just really enjoy each other’s company, and so we were really worried about that.
We went remote, and it worked incredibly well – it was so seamless. I think it’s because where we were in the product cycle, everyone knew what they had to do. We talked, we’ve had the innovation, we had the team break-away, but now it’s just here’s a list, head down, do the work. That worked well, and the tools we found very helpful was Slack, as we had used it a bit before, but we usually just shout across the office to each other, which is inefficient, so it is great that we decided to use Slack now.
How big is your team now? I know you said you’re a small team. I can’t remember if you said. Eight people? Right.
So we use Miro, which is such a cool tool and then obviously do video chats, all day, every day. We FaceTime each other a lot, and we introduced other things like we tried to add the social aspect to our calls and it worked well.
The one thing I would say though, which is a bit contrarian, is that my view on remote work has changed a lot. I think that in some sense, especially over the last couple months, how remote work has impacted the team, I think that depends on what stage the project you are working on is in, what stage the company is in and how big the team is.
And from DigsConnect’s perspective, we’re a very small, tight-knit team and everyone weighs in on everything, everyone’s involved in decision making, and we’re also a young company that is iterating quite fast, and we’re quite innovative, and I think that remote work doesn’t lend itself to innovation.
I think that when we’re all sitting together in the office, and we have this big piece of paper, and we’re writing things down, we stick up sticky notes and the energy is just high. We just have these incredible ideas, these incredible breakthroughs. We kind of feed off each other’s energy, like what do you guys think about that and everything just happens so fast.
I feel if you have a very innovative setup, I find remote work does not lend itself to that and I think that in terms of speed, remote work doesn’t lend itself to that either because if everyone was in the same room you could make decisions fast and you can just do things.
The other side of that I found that when it comes to just doing work, remote work was like really helpful because in the office our banter is next level, we’d often distract each other if something really funny would happen and we’d be everyone listen to this, we would share the joke, and people are hysterics, and then we chat about it.
So if you are at home and you just work, people get a lot more work done and also in terms of the work-life balance it does give people space to find that new way of how they integrate work into their life. I think that’s quite powerful.
We’ve realised that there are other ways of tracking output. I think tracking hours is ridiculous and tracking outputs in a more mature forward-thinking way remote working has been great for that. But yes, I think it depends what you’re working on in terms of innovation, making fast decisions in terms of iterating fast, having the team together wins. But if you want to sit down and get some work done, then remote work does lend itself quite well to that. So, I think it is a balance. It’s a blend, and it depends on where you are in your company lifecycle, and where you are in your product life cycle.
Yeah. So that’s, really interesting and what I like is you’re sort of using this experience now going forward into how you’re setting up your team and how you’re thinking differently about, I guess, leveraging the benefits that being in a room together can have, but also the benefits of being in your own room at home, whatever it is, can have as well.
So how are you taking some of those experiences and some of those lessons forward and what is your setup and what have you learned from that?
So, what we’ve tried to have is a blend. Some companies have given up the office completely, but we have kept ours as a productive zone. So it’s nice I think to have that space where people can go and just plugin, which has been fantastic, and we want to keep that because we always want to have space for people to go, especially if you want people to collaborate.
It could be the entire company or just a team that wants to collab or if we have a client meeting or something in a formal or a more kind of focused setting having that space is important. I think that the physical environment where this is a space created for you to work in, to focus, to meet or whatever it is, is quite important. So, I think we would keep that space.
Whether it be our current office right now or a co-working space, they are super cool and they’re super great in that they lend themselves well to flexibility for modern teams. It is not necessarily your company’s own space, where you lock the door, and that’s your space, but you can still work in a coworking space, you can book the boardroom, book those desks and do your thing. Co-working spaces lend themselves to space where your team can go and meet but not being as structured as before.
I don’t have any hard and fast rules, and we are learning every day. I’ve realised lately that office space has lent itself to innovation in the last three weeks or so. Yeah, so I think, the only rules I have is that I don’t have any rules around this yet as we’re still learning how this works.
For the team, their opinions have also changed on this. For the first couple weeks, everyone’s like yeah, remote work is awesome, you can work in your pyjamas, and you can just stay home, and you can work from bed if you want to, and everyone was super stoked about that.
Then after a couple of months, people start getting over it. It’s distracting. This is my home space where I want to relax or socialise, or I just want to watch TV or just chill, now it’s got this hectic work energy where I’m on video calls and grinding. You need that kind of divide between this is a workspace, and this is a chill space, and I think for some people it meant that those boundaries started blurring. You must have some boundaries when it comes to your mental space around working and then relaxing.
Also just having people in your living space distracting you. For example in the first two weeks of lockdown I was staying with my family in Eastern Cape, and they would just walk in – like, do you mind walking the dog? No, I cannot, I’m actually like, super busy.
On that point, I think that’s super important to remember as well that working remotely in lockdown and working remotely post-lockdown is going to be two different things. It’s going to be another adjustment when you’re working remotely when lockdown has eased, and I think no one knows when that’s gonna happen. It’s a stab in the dark but I think that’s an important adjustment.
I like your adaptability to it as you said, it depends on where your company is, where your team is but being adaptive but also knowing for yourself what works best.
I struggled a lot with thinking ‘I don’t want to go into the office today, and I feel really bad about it because I used to enjoy – it why am I feeling guilty about that’, and I think you have to be gentle to yourself in those ways and supportive of your team in that way is useful.
Also, our team’s close and we honestly are very social, but we’re human beings. Some days you wake up and you just slept badly the night before and you kind of do not feel super social. I love the idea that we can build a world where we can cater for that. To allow humans to be humans.
Just because some of the team is having a day where they slept funny or their neck is sore whatever it is, and we allow that space to just be the best version of themselves because we know that they super committed, they’re going to do incredible work, we’re going to build the best product, they’re going to bring their A-game and they love what they’re doing but we can remove that layer where they don’t have to be almost inauthentic about how they feel.
Yeah, I think it’s so exciting that we don’t have to subscribe to what has been done before. As I said in the beginning, don’t wait for permission. Don’t wait for the authorities to say ‘well, these big companies are doing that, so we should do that’. Do what makes sense, do what’s true for you. And what’s true for us is that we want to build this kick-ass product, we want to redefine the industry with the best possible experience for connecting landlords to students, and to do that, some of us want to work from home, others don’t. Let’s just follow the truth, not just dogma.
I love that idea of remote work leaving space for a little bit more humanity than we had before. But just before we run out of time, I want to tackle some of these audience questions. They’re super, super interesting. So, we’ll just try and bash them out with quick-fire back and forth. Elijah asked, have you experienced imposter syndrome and what is one thing you did to deal with it?
I guess as a young founder without a tech background moving into the tech industry,
I think I am a bit of a bull in the china shop. I think I miss certain social cues. Sometimes I kind of just go for things and afterwards I’m like ‘Woah that thing happened’. Often, I am almost too obtuse to pick up imposter syndrome, I just go and do things. Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever felt or experienced a sense of when you say something you shouldn’t say you feel kind of a sense of skaam. I’ve got like zero skaam.
And then as a non-technical founder, Robin asks, how have you approached hiring tech talent?
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I think that you must lean on your current tech team. Our tech team is just incredible. I trust and respect them so much. I trust the calls and decisions they make. Not all the big decisions of the company are just made by me sitting at a little table. It is this collaborative thing when it comes to meeting or making a call about technical things, especially when you’re bringing people on – it’s a huge deal for us when we bring someone on – so I rely heavily on my tech team.
When we bring people in we have an immersion day, which is kind of like a dating process. You bring some of the team in, they kind of hang out for the day with us, they do work with us, and I lean quite heavily on the dev team for that.
And almost linked to that, we have another question: It looks like you didn’t have a technical Co-founder in your team. So, did you feel that was a big disadvantage in the beginning and if not, how did you cope?
So yeah, when we started, it was me, then me and Greg – a friend of mine from the SRC (Student Representative Council) that we were on at UCT, and that’s how this whole thing started. When I started, I spent a long time trying to find a technical Co-founder. If you look at my different Slack channels you’ll see my posts kind of like – hey guys, starting a company, who wants to join?
Yeah, I mean absolutely at first I was looking for a Co-founder but then what I did was focus on my idea – I had this idea of linking up landlords and students, and I just boiled away all the extra stuff. I was like, essentially, I need a place that landlords can post listings, and students can search for those listings.
I was able to use free or very cheap online tools like WordPress, Wix, Squarespace. These were free and easily available, easy to use online tools to get to the core value add. In general, the core value of DigsConnect, is that landlords want to find tenants, students want to find a home. That is it.
We’ve added on all these cool things on how to make the experience incredible now – like a ten-star experience, but the core value offering, when you kind of get to that, wasn’t too hard to get to. So, it was focusing on that. And then when Greg came on, and Greg is just amazing, he is just like unstoppable – he’s relentless – and he was like, we’re going to do this, we’re going to figure out how to do it, it doesn’t matter how – we’re going to do this. So, he was able to take ideas and distil theminto very practical small steps that we could take at that time. So, just do what you can at any one moment, you know.
And I like this next question, just before we end. Off the back of this is ‘getting a core value add’, in terms of the initial team that you set up, Nicola asks, did you start with contracting or hiring full-time members, and also who did you look out for in the beginning, what were the core characteristics or core roles you wanted?
So I mean, the core roles were our product roles. I think we found that between Greg and I and our competence, mine was generally finding good stock. I would just call a bunch of landlords and be like, “Hey, I’ve started this thing. Do you want a listing? The whole no skaam thing was great. I’d just do cold calls for hours on the phone, just one call after the other. I must have called everyone who has a property in this country – they’ve heard my voice. I had people shouting at me on the phone countless times.
Greg is really strong with operations and marketing, so he will get the students excited about us. But we lacked the technical kind of side to the company. Our hiring philosophy is what do we need right now and what is the key thing that is missing? Once we figured that out, we started looking into that.
Before we fundraised, it was difficult because, when it comes to bringing people on, you can’t match salaries to what AWS is paying or the other big tech companies in Cape Town, so you are looking for people that are stoked about what you’re doing, and they believe that this will pay off in the long run, which is tough because you have to pay super reduced salaries.
We were kind of in survival mode and I think that was scary for many people because if you’re looking at cool tech companies, they offer you a lot, and before we fundraised, we’d have to say, we only have a little, so it’s finding people that are stoked with that and willing to stick with you.
Awesome! Alexandria, thank you so much for sharing so many insights. I think it’s an interesting time for all companies and it’s cool to see where you’re going. People can find DigsConnect on Instagram and Twitter and all cool places and thanks to the audience as well for their questions. Appreciate it.
Our swag winner is Steven! Congrats! We’ll reach out to you and ship your gift ASAP.
Our next upcoming speaker is Trevor Gosling. He’s the Co-founder and CEO of Lulalend. So, watch out for that. When this event ends, the page you will be redirected to is that event. Register if you’re keen – it should be an interesting chat again. But yeah, thanks again, Alex! Hopefully we’ll see everyone next week.
Cheers guys. Thanks so much.