Mike Schneider co-founded First, a data science company that helps real estate agents win more business by focusing their time on the right relationships across their network. First is the latest venture in Mike’s entrepreneurial endeavors, alongside several social entrepreneurship initiatives both during and after his time at Duke.

Duke I&E: After you graduated from Duke, you stayed in Durham and you started your career in nonprofits. What motivated you to do so?

MS: I’ve always been starting things. I love the process of identifying problems and iterating through creative ideas until you find a solution that is a win-win-win for all parties. At Duke I became fascinated with “social entrepreneurship,” the idea of taking business principles and applying them to the big social issues. Durham was a unique space for that. Fifteen years ago, most of Main Street was boarded up. There were over 500 non-profits in Durham and quite a resurgence at the time across sectors. So many diverse, vibrant communities and business leaders getting involved in “how do we help revitalize the city?” and it was an exciting time to be involved. The nonprofits I helped start were focused on measuring and increasing impact – what are we trying to achieve, what is the best intervention, and how do we measure and iterate to identify what’s working?

Duke I&E: First is a data-driven real estate tech business. What piqued your interest in data science for real estate?

MS: I found my interest in data science and the AI world as a founding member of an early stage investment fund. I got a front row seat to see how companies were leveraging AI to transform different online products, and it became very clear to me that the next wave of AI was going to start reworking industry-specific workflows. From the perspective of vertically-targeted plays, real estate is the biggest and most fragmented market in the U.S. There are some truly unique opportunities for technology to reshape how the industry works.

Duke I&E: What were the biggest barriers to starting a business like First?

MS: One of the challenges for any data-driven AI startup is that you have to get to a significant amount of data before you know if you have a product and a model that is valuable. It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg problem where you identify a problem that you might be able to solve, aggregate massive amounts of data, and then iterate on models to see if you can help. Early on, those were the biggest challenges to First – getting access to the right people, getting the data we needed, and then hiring great senior leadership to start building out the platform and turn it into an actual product.

Duke I&E: Can you walk through some of your metrics for identifying who makes a great person and how they would contribute to your team?

MS: First, we make sure every hire fits and reinforces our unique culture. After that, we look for curiosity and persistence in our leadership. One of our core values is Continuous Improvement, so we’re looking for people who are learning and improving themselves every day. That’s the best indicator they will continue improving the business. We’re also particularly interested in people who have scaled with companies before. When you are reinventing so many things at a startup, it’s helpful to have people like our VP Engineering who has scaled a product to over one hundred million users before. They have learned so many lessons we leverage to either not make the same mistakes, or to go faster this time around.

Duke I&E: Were there any mentors that helped you out?

MS: Absolutely. I can point to a key advisor behind just about every major success we have had at First, from forging our key data agreements, to building our initial ML models, to locking in a partnership with the largest franchisor in the world. Mentors have been so key in my life that I encourage each of our senior employees to find mentors and advisors of their own.

When I came out of Duke, I partnered up with a very successful CEO and essentially apprenticed with him for six years. He was certainly the greatest influence. Since then, I’ve surrounded myself with people from the different industries that are particularly relevant to the business we’re building at First. Whenever we are about to work on something new, I try to hunt down a world-class advisor to speak into our plan. I’m always amazed by the caliber people we find in our network, by their willingness to share their expertise, and finally by the value that kind of insight provides. Some of those random connections have become formal advisors and even board members. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

Duke I&E: When it’s all said and done, what kind of impact do you hope to have made with First?

MS: One of the things I love most about the industry is the opportunity to improve the efficiency of the 240,000 most successful real estate agents. We can literally make them 5-10 times more effective in generating business by leveraging our technology and their relational networks. When you realize those agents collectively generate $60 billion in commissions, we are talking about a big opportunity. On a more human level, I think back to a call from an early customer who had just gone through a messy divorce, and was so thankful she had signed up for our product because making $40-50K more really helped her through that time. I find it incredibly motivating that our products can empower the second-largest group of 1099 contractors in the US to make a great living and be home for dinner with their families.

On a separate note, some agents are worried AI in real estate will disrupt their job security. I am building an AI-first company to do the opposite. AI-driven software is certainly the next wave of technology, and it’s going to reshape how people work. But we see a way to reshape this industry and reinforce the agent’s value, rather than remove them.

Duke I&E: Has your entrepreneurship journey made you more into the person that you envisioned you would become after graduation from Duke?

MS: One of the decisions I made right out of Duke was whether I was going to go into a cookie-cutter career path or not. It was either going to be consulting (which the Career Center was happy to help with), or startup. I chose to jump off a cliff into this crazy startup journey, and I’m really glad I did. I know I would have learned a lot in consulting too, but I optimized for my learning to be around bringing people together around new ideas and starting companies.

My startup experiences have humbled me in many ways. As a founder, you have a vision and drive company direction, but ultimately it comes down to being able to hire the right people, motivate a team, and equip them to be successful. It’s not about you. It’s about whether or not you serve and manage others well and whether you’re able to deliver a great service to your customers. Society has created a rockstar pedestal for entrepreneurs, but that’s not what it’s about. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you are signing up to be a servant of all. You’re there to figure out how to find the right people, and how to serve them so they can best serve your customers.

Duke I&E: Where do you see yourself currently in that journey of being a “servant of all”?

MS: I think I have a long way to go. For example, I’m just now learning to lead a senior management team as we grow from an early stage startup to early growth, and hopefully to where we’re an industry leader. I’m hiring people who have been in senior leadership for decades. It’s a very different type of leadership that’s needed now than a year ago. That’s what I love about it. I love that my job changes every six months, and there are new challenges at every stage.

Duke I&E: What advice do you have for current Duke students?

MS: First, I would highly recommend finding a successful entrepreneur to learn from. I was always starting things, but 90% of what made me a good entrepreneur was working alongside a great one. Go find people who are starting stuff, then come alongside to see, learn, and help. You will quickly figure out where you fit and add value in an early-stage organization.

Second, focus on the problem you want to solve and not “entrepreneurship” or “startups.” The best founders are laser-focused on solving an important problem for someone specific. Once you find a valuable problem to solve, then figure out how you can help 10 people who have that problem, and then 50, and then 100. A lot of people are daunted by the concept of starting a company. It’s all about solving problems for people. It’s really that simple.

Lastly, I’m excited about the emphasis Duke has on entrepreneurship. Duke has come a long way in its focus on student innovation since the time I was an undergrad on campus, and students should capitalize on that as much as possible. Tap the network! I would love to hear from anyone who’s starting something and wants to talk about it. Happy to be a resource. Just reach out, or come down the street in Durham and jump into a startup for five or ten hours a week. You’d learn a lot.

To learn more about First, visit its website.

To read about more Duke Entrepreneurs, click here.

Interview by Judy Zhu

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