Mrs. Braski’s 1976 kindergarten class was the beginning of a beautiful friendship for Dave Gooden and Cameron Henkel, their joint entrepreneurial ventures just a gleam. The boys’ northern Minnesota upbringing gave them a competitive edge — as teammates in the heart of hockey country, they learned the definition of hard work firsthand.

  • Lifelong friends and northern Minnesotans Dave Gooden and Cameron Henkel started LakePlace.com in 2003 after witnessing inefficiencies in the waterfront home search process.
  • In 2006, the website, which started as a classified ads model, became a referral brokerage at which 100 agents currently work.
  • Agent training at the company heavily involves how to handle and convert internet leads, as over 50 percent of sales started as internet leads from the founders’ websites.
  • The business partners' latest startup venture is the launch of another property website, DaneArthur.com, which features all the MLS listings from Minnesota and Wisconsin displayed in a simple layout modeled after Craigslist and the like.
  • The early-internet entrepreneurs originally came at solving a problem in real estate from a consumer's perspective, and their business model now leverages the benefits of technology with the service of professionals.

Mrs. Braski’s 1976 kindergarten class was the beginning of a beautiful friendship for Dave Gooden and Cameron Henkel, their joint entrepreneurial ventures just a gleam.

The boys’ northern Minnesota upbringing gave them a competitive edge — as teammates in the heart of hockey country, they learned the definition of hard work firsthand.

In the mid-1990s, the duo jumped on the tech train early with a burgeoning opportunity: a little something called the internet.

Turns out, they’d done their research. In 1997, Gooden and Henkel caught their first big break selling refurbished computer equipment on a commercial website, capturing $1 million in revenue over a year’s time.

Nearly two decades later, their entrepreneurial spirit — and friendship — hold steadfast. In the meantime, a real estate startup idea came to them and inspired a new venture in 2003 — LakePlace.com, a search site for waterfront property.

Most recently, the founders just launched another domain in September (DaneArthur.com) with a minimalist property portal twist.

As business partners and friends, risk takers and investors, experimenters and entrepreneurs, Gooden and Henkel’s endeavors bring to light an evolving hybrid beast where technology meets human experience in real estate.

Their integration into the industry illustrates how an outsider perspective can blend efficiency into systems without disrupting what works.

The genesis of LakePlace.com

Perhaps it’s not surprising that, as Minnesota natives, Gooden and Henkel dreamed of owning a cabin with a water view.

But few who grace the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” take that dream and turn it into a business venture.

While scanning newspapers and looking for waterfront property listings on disjointed Realtor websites 14 years ago, the idea for LakePlace.com was born.

“We started LakePlace.com due to the difficult experiences we had when searching for our own vacation homes back in 2002. It’s such a cliché, but it’s true; we believed there had to be a better way,” Gooden said.

“We started it from a client’s perspective rather than an agent/broker perspective.”

Screen shot: LakePlace.com homepage

Screen shot: LakePlace.com homepage

Drawing from all the MLSs in Minnesota and Wisconsin, LakePlace.com lists lake properties, cabin rentals and family resorts across the two respective states.

The founders’ aim with the launch was to become the dominant brand for lakeshore properties in those two states.

There are over 15,000 lakes in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. These largely serve as vacation spots but some are located in upmarket metro centers — so the big market made these locales a natural fit.

Lead generators turned brokerage owners

In 2006, LakePlace.com, which started as a classified ads model, became a referral brokerage.

The founders hired a broker so they could refer leads out exclusively to more than 50 brokerages. Henkel became a Minnesota and Wisconsin broker in 2008.

Then in 2010, the tech entrepreneurs were presented with an interesting proposal.

“One of the agents from the brokerages, our referral agent, contacted us,” Gooden explained. “He said if we would be interested in opening in the market, he thought 12 agents would want to join us.”

They took up on the invitation and have been a full-service independent brokerage ever since.

Headquartered in Bloomington, Minnesota, LakePlace.com has 18 locations — 13 company-owned offices and five franchises.

A natural momentum has been building in large part thanks to the leads brought in by LakePlace.com.

Combined with the founders’ sister site that offers land for sale in Minnesota and Wisconsin (LandBin.com), the company recieves 10,000 leads per annum with LakePlace.com alone attracting more than 3 million annual visitors.

“The company’s size doubled in the last year and in all honesty, we haven’t done much recruiting yet,” Gooden said. “Agents find us online or their clients ask them about being featured on one of our websites and that always opens a door.

“We’ve also hired a lot of agents through introductions from our current agents and brokers.

“Sales professionals are always interested in hearing how their peers are staying so busy, and that has worked in our favor,” he added.

The founders have also brought in Randy Johnson, an experienced executive who owned four Re/Max offices and a title company, to help manage the brokerage.

This has helped stabilize the company through its growth spurts, as Gooden explains: “We didn’t have a lot of experience; we had just been lead generators.”

Creating a complementary company structure

The entrepreneurs have borrowed the stand-out systems of different business models, from both real estate firms and Silicon Valley tech startups, to “build the company we would want to work with if we were agents.”

They cite a commitment to ongoing sales training and company culture as the two of the most important pieces of their business.

Gooden and Henkel have an in-house tech development team of three and built their own internal social network for company communication.

They describe it as a cross between Twitter and Facebook, a platform that includes chat, office calendars, lead distribution, sales board, training videos, software downloads, marketing materials and more.

So far agent retention has been close to 100 percent for the 100 agents that currently work there, said Henkel.

“One thing that we don’t do is charge referral fees to agents on leads,” he added. “We look at all of our agents as our business partners. Our job is to create as many leads and opportunities as possible; our agents’ job is to turn those opportunities into happy clients.”

The latest entrepreneurial dive: DaneArthur.com

Agent training at the company heavily involves how to handle and convert internet leads, as over 50 percent of sales started as internet leads from the founders’ websites.

And the entrepreneurial pair is counting on creating a lot more leads with the launch of another property website, DaneArthur.com, which they are hoping will drive the charge as they expand into the main metro centers of the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Madison.

DaneArthur.com (Henkel and Gooden’s middle names combined) went live in September and has every listing from every MLS in Minnesota and Wisconsin — around 100,000 on any given day.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-1-00-25-pm

Screen shot: DaneArthur.com homepage

It is the largest real estate website in the Midwest, they say.

“A lot of people don’t realize that a third of our business is residential real estate. Of course, we still sell mostly recreational properties, but one third of our business is residential non-lakeshore,” he added.

In time, they expect DaneArthur to “blow by” LakePlace.com as far as traffic and leads are concerned.

“We’re not sure how long it will take, but the wheels are in motion,” said Gooden.

The entrepreneurs have set an ambitious sales volume goal. With a forecast of $200 million in sales for 2016, up from $110 million last year, “our eyes are on a billion,” they said.

They estimate they will need around 500 agents to achieve this — along with a combination of independent brokerage acquisition and adding more franchises (something they just started in October 2015).

Website design 101

What makes DaneArthur.com stand out? The fact that it doesn’t.

You won’t find bells and whistles, pops of color or fancy trimmings on this domain. And this is the founders’ intended user experience.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-1-00-46-pm

Screen shot from DaneArthur.com

Gooden and Henkel are frank about the rather basic design of the site, which purposely resembles the Craigslist style of layout.

“The idea behind DaneArthur is that as technology advances, everyone is building prettier, shinier, more complicated websites. In our view, the majority of these websites look good, but they are slow, clunky and difficult to use,” said Henkel.

“We stepped back and asked ourselves what our favorite websites were, and why our list was filled with utility-type websites that give us what we want quickly, not websites with huge pictures or videos playing on the home screen.”

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-1-01-10-pm

Screen shot of a listing on DaneArthur.com

Henkel notes that “Brutalism,” a design style that originates from the French word for “raw,” is the “hottest new trend.”

Gooden added: “It’s pretty obvious that Craigslist, with over 49 million monthly users, significantly influenced our design choices. Craigslist gives you what you want and gives it to you quickly — we are just trying to do the same thing here.”

“Google is pretty ugly, Reddit is ugly, a lot of the ugly websites are the most popular — we are hoping to join that category.”

Speed, SEO and the startup way

So users might not describe DaneArthur.com as “easy on the eyes,” but speed is the flip side of the minimalist coin.

The founders say they split test DaneArthur.com against the big local, state and national sites.

And on average, users were able to navigate to the listings that interested them in less than half the time it took on other sites. In some cases, it was less than a quarter of the time, according to the duo.

Although DaneArthur doesn’t seem like a slam dunk as a website name — and seems potentially problematic for SEO, the founders (who consider themselves SEO experts) are confident in their decision because they’ve had success dominating SERPS (search engine results pages) with their current sites.

SEO is a not a short-term plan; it’s a long game, and you have to stay on top of it daily for years, Gooden said. As for other real estate websites, such as Zillow or realtor.com — they don’t rely on them.

He added: “We syndicate our listings to as many websites as we can, but the impact is barely measurable. We rely on our own technology.”

As the team expands their internet footprint, is there any chance of expansion beyond Minnesota and Wisconsin borders?

Someday, perhaps.

“Right now we are focused on Minnesota and Wisconsin but you never know when an opportunity will present itself,” Gooden said. “Even though we’ve been around since 2003, we operate like a startup and can turn on a dime when necessary.”

Email Gill South.

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