Alumni Spotlight: Dan Woolley’s Success in Building from Scratch

September 29, 2020

UCI alumnus Dan Woolley (B.S. ’90) realized his ability to build something from scratch as a teenager after creating a “rudimentary version of Donkey Kong” on his dad’s Osborne 1 PC, one of the first portable personal computers. He’s been building ever since, with his latest creation being W+R Studios, a startup he founded in 2008 with Greg Robertson that provides software for the real estate industry. This year, W+R Studios not only received a 2020 Software Companies to Watch Award from Startup Weekly, it also made its seventh appearance on Inc. 5000, an annual list of the nation’s fastest-growing companies. Here, Woolley talks about his years in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), what led to his startup success, and why ICS graduates should consider creating a startup of their own.

What first sparked your interest in computer science?
My dad bought one of the first Osborne 1 PCs back in the early ’80s (check the link — it’s hilarious). I loved messing around with it after school, but there weren’t many games available for its CP/M operating system. I taught myself BASIC so that I could create a rudimentary version of Donkey Kong and really enjoyed showing that to people. It amazed me that I could start with a blank screen, no permission and no money, but I had the freedom to create something from scratch that people would enjoy.

What led you to UCI for your B.S. in information and computer sciences?
Irvine and the surrounding area, especially Newport Beach. I grew up in San Jose, but I loved the beach, so OC was a magnet for me. The UCI campus was about half the size it is now, and it was so beautiful and easy to get around. I met my wife there too, so that worked out really well for me.

How has your ICS education helped you throughout your career?
My oldest daughter is hoping to attend UCI next fall to study computer science, so I’ve been emphasizing to her that the number one thing a top university like UCI teaches you is how to learn. Things evolve so quickly with technology that you need to be able to constantly adapt and learn new skills. Another really important skill is communication, in both written and verbal form, because these are essential for explaining new ideas, managing people, marketing and many of the other non-technical aspects of running a business.

What did you enjoy most about your ICS education?
One of my favorite classes focused on the societal impact of computers. We had to go out to a local business, interview employees about their use of computers, uncover the benefits and challenges that computerization was bringing to their jobs and how it was affecting the business. This was in the late ’80s, before the internet and even networking, when computers were fairly new to a lot of employees and business processes. It had nothing to do with programming, but focused us on understanding from the user’s point of view. I still use those skills every day in business and product development.

What prompted you to start W+R Studios?
This is actually my third company in this space — software for the residential real estate market. In 2008, we recognized that the tools consumers had to research the housing market — sites like Zillow and Trulia — had become better than the older enterprise tools that professional realtors were forced to use. We felt that we could fix this imbalance by creating pro tools that were well designed, focused on single tasks, and sold as subscription web apps with free trials. The timing was right, and our second product, Cloud CMA, took off and is still our highest seller.

What has been the key to your success?
I’ve found that the most important thing in building a business — and the hardest — is building a good team by hiring right. The culture of a small business is so important, and every single team member matters so much. It’s not only one of the keys to success, but a great team also makes the journey much more enjoyable.

How has your company shifted to deal with the global pandemic?
We already had two offices —one in Huntington Beach, California and another in Boulder, Colorado —plus a lot of other support and sales people spread out across the country, so we were already set up for remote work. When it came time to send everyone home and shut down the offices, we relied heavily on our Slack channels for real-time communication and Zoom for video meetings. We were also able to add some Zoom integration into our products to help our customers meet with their clients remotely. It’s been a weird, unprecedented time, but I’d say our employees never missed a beat and are as productive as ever.

Any words of advice for ICS students?
When you graduate, consider getting together with a small group and bootstrapping a product and a business that solves a real problem for a specific group. You’ll have fun, learn a lot, and the risk of complete failure is really small when you don’t have a lot to lose. ICS students are in very high-demand, so worse case, you can quickly get a “regular job” if it doesn’t work out. The skills you learn doing that will make you an even more attractive hire.

Shani Murray