Dreamer, Planner, Creator, so says Nick’s profile. Only a few years ago, he was also a college drop-out and pizza busboy. Now he enables us to build houses, with one click. Nick is co-founder of Atmos, a company aiming to change how we build houses forever.
When you meet him, he is low-key, charmingly diffident, and doesn’t immediately reveal the extraordinary brain. Yet his dreams include modernizing the American dream and impacting humanity in ways most of us can barely imagine.
Nick Donahue grew up in North Carolina. Both his parents worked for housebuilders, but he didn’t particularly have any ambition to follow in their footsteps and build houses himself.
When he was in 3rd grade, around eight years old, Nick decided he wanted to do something that changed the world. In time, he came to understand that would mean being an entrepreneur. At that point, he also started to excel at maths but fell behind in reading and writing.
He went to study mechanical engineering at North Carolina University but dropped out. He worked for Dell for six months on placement and knew that wasn’t for him. Nick explains that entrepreneurship feeds his desire for freedom, provides energy, and offers the flight or fight challenge he was looking for.
Nick co-launched an app called NextUp Music, which allowed people to queue music with the people around you in the same way as a digital jukebox. Soon afterward, he got a call from a friend in San Francisco who suggested he visit to experience the entrepreneurial scene there.
Nick bought a return ticket and went for a month. Two weeks in, he became part of Hilo’s founding team, a social platform for Crypto Traders. He was hoping to learn from the more experienced founders there and at the same time gain an understanding of San Francisco and the global start upmarket.
From the start, he and one of the others, Austin Kahn, were spending their evenings working on various side projects of their own. Before long, one of those side projects became Atmos, founded in 2018 with Trent hedge and Matt Rastovac.
Atmos – customers can build houses with a click
Atmos pulls all aspects of building a home together in one online site. Using highly developed and continually evolving tech, they enable people to buy a lot, select a design to build their home, and pick a specialized team to customize it. Interiors can be purchased as a package or designed individually. This is completely different from the traditional way to build houses. Atmos has a partner in supplying finance, has fully vetted builders, and oversees the entire project for you. They can even sell your existing home.
Nick had seen how technology could revolutionize how custom homes could be designed and constructed. For the customer, this means they can build houses far faster yet still optimize the personalization.
However, Nick kindly showed me a preview of their future tech, which will takes this to another level. Their virtual reality will enable buyers to see their lot in street view, try out different homes there. Once selected, they can customize and see what every change could look like. Change the cladding, the roof materials, the flooring inside, all on view for the prospective owner. The viewing sensation is not unlike that of playing a computer game yet with the serious purpose of designing your very unique and personalized house.
Atmos has a few competitors, including Welcome Homes in New York and another in Napa Valley, but most are concerned with the tech and simplifying the processes. Atmos, however, don’t just build houses, but is customer-focused and brings the lots and the houses together, which makes them so unique in the space. Their new VR is taking them to a new level of customer focus.
Atmos says that they are modernizing the American dream. I asked Nick what that meant in real terms and in connection with how we build houses. He explained that the American dream has changed for his generation. They have lost sight of the American identity as the world has grown. But on a microscale, part of that identity has always been owning your own home.
It is nearly as strong a part of the American culture as it is in Tokyo, where they have an immensely dynamic home-owning culture, and you lose respect if you are forced to live in someone else’s home.
By enabling people to build houses faster but in a completely personalized way, Nick hopes to revive the American dream of home-ownership. Atmos is on a mission to improve housing quality and turn how we build houses on its head.
While they first launched the site a year ago, their biggest challenge was to get the first few customers who would trust (as Nick puts it) some 20-year-olds and a new idea with their biggest in a lifetime investment.
Once they had a few customers committed, life got easier. They were then able to build a network they can leverage of realtors and those vital trusted builders.
The investors, too, were difficult to convince initially. They thought the idea too complex, challenging and that it would be better to stick to SAAS products like everyone else rather than this complex concept of enabling people to build houses in a fast and personalized way.
Nick and his fellow founders also quickly realized that they would have a problem developing in the usual way through customer feedback because of the builds’ time scale. They couldn’t afford to wait perhaps ten or eleven months to build houses without evolving. They learned to develop a reporting loop that evaluates every stage to overcome this.
They have a team of twelve now, and Nick says he finds it incredible how bonded everyone is. It is his first experience of growing a team. He talks of how he has had to learn the entrepreneurial journey of setting up processes and creating an organization that stands on its own, with its own values. Thanks to everyone involved, it has taken on that life of its own. Nick says before his head has been totally engaged in product and, now, he is moving into his CEO role.
They have an impressive array of investors. Their first had known Nick and Austin at Hilo and told them both if they ever wanted to do something on their own, he would back them. Another followed, but Nick saw COVID hitting.
In true entrepreneurial fashion, rather than baton down in the face of the unknown, Nick went out to raise substantial finance. He joined @Pioneer.app, which Nick describes as an online accelerator group where the companies play video games, give weekly updates on their progress and plans, and compete against each other. Then their peers vote on the winners.
Their performance there helped them get into the Y Combinator. Nick talked to 300 investors and raised $2m in their first-round fundraise in just a few months.
I asked Nick if he was someone considered to develop in this way at school, and he laughed and said no. His teachers would not have expected it. Back in 3rd grade, when his maths progressed, he fell behind in reading and writing so far that he was in the bottom percentile.
As a result, Nick consciously became more visual and creative. His college experiences speeded those processes he had begun in 3rd grade, and the dream of becoming an inventor prompted questions of how he could change things.
Nick read about Einstein, who couldn’t even get into a college course of his choice, worked as a clerk in a Patent Office, but expanded his thought experiments to achieve different levels of understanding ideas. Nick started to study and develop techniques on how to generate ideas and how to understand them.
Nick also read about Nikola Tesla and how Tesla would sit down and practice visualization. Tesla could see his models in his head and develop them there in his mind so that they worked from day one. Tesla worked to create this for complex ideas. He imagined a sphere rotating in a super-vibrant color. Tesla then added a diamond in a different, vibrant color, turning at a different pace, and then another sphere at another speed. He found he could see the opposite sides of an idea and change things on it. Nick was struck by this and started to develop his own visualization techniques.
Mentors are considered vital where Nick comes from. His mom had impressed on him early what her mentor had told her; in your life, you will have just three or four people who will change your life, even if that isn’t obvious at first.
Nick says they were never more vital than when he moved to the Valley knowing only one person. Currently, Nick has three mentors. Each helps him in different areas they specialize in to get the very best from each person.
Vision is more than just to build houses
I asked Nick about the mid-long-term plans for Atmos, and he shared a glimpse of just how far they aim to go. The goal is not to “just” build houses for people but to make substantial challenges to the way people live their lives. The building of individual homes will expand into neighborhoods and even cities. These goals are within their 5–10-year plan, and with 70% of Americans wanting to own their own homes, and a growing population needing to build houses, it becomes incredibly credible.
But Nick doesn’t want to stop at enabling people to build houses. He wants to be involved in changing people’s lives far above and beyond that. Nick explained that initially, we have seen tech becoming engaged in electricity and water supplies and gathering data. In the future, every house will have a brain, and he hopes to help people extend themselves by tapping into the incredible potential this will offer.
Nick foresees the internet will morph into a representation of humans as a whole, and each person will have an external model within that, built through devices and perhaps AI glasses. He sees a world whereby people can access that model and pull it into their subconscious.
Entire communities will function around these systems as AI and robotics push ahead. How fast this enormous change in the future will happen will depend on any significant catalysts occurring, but Nick foresees it within 30 years or possibly much faster.
Nick plans to be at the forefront of making it happen.
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