🍦From Ice Cream to Y Combinator: An Interview With Rob Hunter

I Interviewed Rob Hunter, Co-Founder and CEO of Lexria, a company that is helping people eliminate student loan debt through bankruptcy (13 min read)

Homescreens is a publication about how we interact with our most intimate possession, our phones. Each week I interview founders and creators across industries and we reflect on the apps they use, how they’re organized, and their philosophy on notifications and mindfulness.

Rob Hunter has been an entrepreneur his entire life—selling Japanese wrestling tapes to pay his way through college, to eventually owning a franchise of seven ice cream stores. Rob would later found HigherMe, a graduate of famed startup seed accelerator Y Combinator, that helps retail and restaurant employers find and hire new employees quickly—where he now serves as Chairman.

I met Rob when he shared incubator space with the startup I worked for. I was introduced to him through a mutual friend, who told me Rob was the pitch-guy. I could tell immediately. Rob speaks very thoughtfully, you can hear the smile behind his words, and it just seems natural for him to be pitching a VC.

Today, Rob's focus is on tackling the $1.6 Trillion student loan crisis through bankruptcy—something most consumers thought was off-limits. This new technology company, called Lexria, partners eligible consumers with attorneys to discharge student loan debt through bankruptcy. I'll let Rob explain in his own words before we rummage through his phone and pick his brain.

What follows, is our interview.


Rob, last time I saw you, we were running into each other at the incubator three years ago. I've been following what you've been doing with Lexria— it looks very cool!

Thanks, yeah, about a year ago I said to myself, “Hey, I've taken this to a certain level, what else can I do with my entrepreneurial life?” So I turned my attention to the student debt crisis in America. Student debt is a massive problem, particularly for the middle class, and a lot of people should be considering bankruptcy as an option to deal with their student debt. But, there's this commonly held misbelief that student loan debt can't be included in bankruptcy.

I've partnered with one of the leading researchers who released a paper at Harvard many years ago. Looking empirically at the data, it turns out you actually can under certain circumstances. You need a good lawyer that can do it, and many people can't afford that. We're about connecting consumers with an attorney that can help challenge their student loan debt to be included in bankruptcy, and set them up on a payment plan, so they do not have to come up with $10,000 for a lawyer upfront.

Right, I thought that was etched in the Ten Commandments—you can't wipe out student loan debt through bankruptcy, so this is interesting.

It's a pretty interesting option; the media and financial institutions promote this belief that turns into common wisdom that empirically has not been true. That was Jason [Luliano]’s study: looking at thousands of cases to find that when people tried to challenge it, it turns out you can win.

So looking at your phone, tell me about it. Do you rely on it to run the business?

When I had my ice cream stores years ago, a couple of stores made some money, and many stores did not. So I had this sort of Pavlovian response to notifications and calls because when things were going wrong, the creditors would call you all the time. When the phone made a noise, it was almost always followed by bad news. So I do use my phone for business and I am on my phone constantly.

I am very much a work-life balance non-existent person, but—here's my hack—I only get notified by phone calls and text messages. I don't get Slack notifications, I don't get email notifications, no Facebook Messenger—I have almost no notifications allowed on the phone. I think it empowers me to say, “Hey, I'm going to check my email, and then I'm not going to be bothered after that,” right? So my notifications are almost always voicemails, you'll notice the “101” there.

I was going to ask about that, the top half of your screen has almost no notifications, and then you see "101" on the Phone. Those are all voicemails?

Typically I can rarely answer the phone when someone calls because of my schedule, I’m in back-to-back stuff, so ninety-nine times out of one-hundred, I'll let it go to voicemail. These days it will just transcribe it, and it's not "read," so it's still there.

Which app is getting the most time recently?

Probably podcasts!

What are some of your favorites?

There's some that are, pardon the pun, serial, that will have six or eight episodes and then not be on for a year. Like the Malcolm Gladwell one [Revisionist History], Against the Rules with Michael Lewis, then there's this one that was my second podcast, Reply All, that I don't think I've missed an episode of those guys yet. And then there's my closeted secret—there are a lot of professional wrestling podcasts, with hundreds of thousands of listeners that are pretty big enterprises believe it or not. That's my guilty pleasure, I guess.

I don't think I've seen the StubHub app on someone's main home screen before. Did you download it and that's just where it fell, or do you go to a lot of concerts?

Right now, it's more wishful thinking than anything else with COVID here. My wife and I have two kids, one kid pre-COVID and a baby six weeks ago; we've always sort-of been thirty-five even when we were twenty because we're not partiers—we go to bed pretty early. But we do like to get out, and I think we've done a really good job of having a host of babysitters and being able to go and see a concert, but a lot of the time it ends up being a game-time decision.

What I found with StubHub is you get some incredible deals if you're booking an hour before the show starts—so you book the babysitter and just have a date night if you don't get the tickets you want. We've had some wild, wild, wild last-minute deals. It's part of a game for me; it's like "watch to see how far it goes down.”

Being that everyone is now remote, what are you using for running day-to-day operations and for office communication?

We're small enough that we don't have perfectly defined procedures yet, so there are days where I've done a one-on-one on Zoom, a one-on-one on Slack video, and then a one-on-one with Hangouts later in the day. People pick their favorite. Zoom's not on my home screen because I don't do a lot of mobile meetings, but it's pretty common.

One thing that I can't not talk about is on the bottom left of my screen, Garmin Connect. Have you heard of what's going on with Garmin?

I have a Forerunner watch and the Garmin Connect app on my phone as well, but I haven't heard anything?

It's been down since Thursday, they had a massive ransomware attack, and no one has been able to access any data in the app, and there have been no updates.

I just opened my phone, and I see that now— I guess I haven't exercised in a while!

I'm like a quantified-self person. I put my weight in every day, I track my calories—this is a total first world problem, and I'm very cognizant of that, but it's like I don't know what to do—I'm tracking stuff in the Notepad! [Laughs].

Do you use it for anything else, are you a runner or a cyclist?

I'm a runner, and I'm on a twenty-year mission to run a marathon in all fifty states. I think I'm at eleven states right now, so I have to average two or three a year to get it before my fiftieth birthday. I was very fortunate, I did a marathon in Albany, Georgia, on March 7th, which was like right before things went down.

With Spotify, do you have any favorite bands or weird playlists to share?

So much of Spotify to me is running. Typically with a long run, I'll do the first half of a podcast and then the second half with Spotify. Nothing really out of the ordinary, a lot of Top 40, a little country, some T-Swift here-and-there to break up the day. I've been a Spotify user since probably 2013 or 2014.

Wow that was early for Spotify, what made you make the jump with them?

I don't know if there was ever a jump, I never got into iTunes, I would do Kazaa and Morpheus on an MP3 player. I wasn't an Apple person, and I’m still the one weirdo in the tech companies I'm involved with that uses a PC instead of a Mac. It's funny, the company I first broke into tech with in 2013 was a really early seed-stage company that didn't have an Android app, only an iPhone app—so I had to get an iPhone.

I will soapbox a little here—I'm holding up a [iPhone headphone] dongle, and these things are the bane of my existence! I have oddly shaped ears, I suppose, and I have never found an earbud that will stay in my ears, especially if I go for a run. So these old-school Sony over-the-ear headphones are the only thing I can wear. I have perpetually two or three extra pairs of these in storage in case they discontinue them. Since I've had this iPhone that has no headphone jack for about a year now, I bet I've been through eight or nine of these things. It was the smartest and most evil thing Apple ever did. If you could sell me one that would last two years, I'd pay $200 for it.

Do you have any rules that you enforce on yourself with your phone? Like no phone at dinner, turn it off at night, etc.?

You know what? I really don't. I'm able to spread out my work throughout the day, and I think that works pretty well—ownership of your day and ownership of your priorities. Maybe I'm spoiled because I'm the founder and CEO of the company, so you get a bit of autonomy, but it's worked out for me.

There's not a night that goes by where I don't at least check email and Slack within an hour of going to bed. Ninety-five times out of a hundred, there's no actual action items there, it's just making sure we're still okay and in a steady state. I'll do a half-hour podcast before bed and fall asleep to a wrestling podcast—it just sort-of calms you down. My mind is so crazy and firing at a million miles an hour that actual focused attention on one thing slows it down a little bit.

I take it you're a big baseball fan? The MLB app and The Athletic are right there.

When I lived in the US, I could stream the Blue Jays games, and ironically, now that I'm in Canada, you can't even pay to see them because they want you to subscribe to the cable subscription.

And The Athletic—I heard of those guys for a long time because they're another Y Combinator company, they're a tech startup that's raised a bunch of money now. It's curated—so not just articles ad nauseam. They've gotten a lot of top writers that otherwise would have been in more traditional journalism. I don't know if it would be on my home screen normally; take, for example, Uber, it would probably be on my home screen in normal times, but I haven't taken an Uber since February or March. So it made the cut because of baseball season but may get relegated to another page if I'm so inclined.

Give me an idea of what's on the other pages of your home screen.

One that should be on this home screen is the Subway app that I use a lot, I find it really handy to order ahead and just show up and get the food. That's one that may get promoted later.

I've been following companies like them and Chipotle, that through the pandemic have thrived because they have really well-made apps, plus the infrastructure to support online ordering and touchless pickup/delivery.

I'm really curious to see what the future of online ordering and delivery is because I don't know that the idea of having this outsourced third party that a whole multi-billion-dollar company has to make a profit off of will work.

We spent the pandemic in my local town of fifteen-thousand people and the Domino's Pizza there was like a money tree, just printing money! There's a tipping point of demand for a restaurant to be able to offer in-house delivery with in-house drivers, and one interesting byproduct of COVID is if the average delivery orders went up 10-20%, they don't need the infrastructure, right? There will be open-source apps that facilitate payment and order, and the actual delivery person can be in-house. That will knock off a ton of the fees.

I agree, I think we're in a bubble right now. No one is loyal to Door Dash, GrubHub, or Uber Eats—they're loyal to the restaurant they want to order from, and they're loyal to promotions.

Maybe it's a big city thing, but it only works maybe 75% of the time for me. A good one-in-four orders are either late, very cold, or never show up at all. I think as a restaurant, if I employed that driver in-house, that error rate goes way down. We'll see how things evolve.

It's always a little bit of a gamble. Speaking of games, it looks like you're a big Words With Friends fan. I used to play that for hours.

So you want to talk about limits—I don't play with other people at all. Their one-player mode is about all I do each week. But I'm not going to lie; it's probably one of the only apps I've ever spent money on. I think it was a Sunday afternoon and I didn't have any coins, and I was at like twenty-nine of thirty stars, and there was one more guy to beat, so I said okay—here's $.99.

With Yahoo Finance, are you just following industry news or your own portfolio?

Just stock prices here and there, I'm not a big stock guy, but I like the barometer of where the S&P is at or where the Canadian dollar vs. the US dollar is at. I did, like so many people in the spring, experiment with options trading on Robinhood, so I suppose I could just have Robinhood downloaded. Yahoo Finance is an example of apps getting more cluttered. Everything gets more cluttered; even Facebook is cluttered.

I deleted my Facebook for a couple of years; I've recently brought it back, and the redesign is much cleaner and reminds me of Facebook 1.0.

I'm not going to lie; I'm squarely in that older millennial generation. I still use Facebook a fair bit, I know the cool kids these days are on other stuff, but it's my jam.

I saw Balaji [Srinivasan], one of the VCs tweeting about Substack. I think the idea of a personal newsletter is something I need to get on myself.

Newsletters are making a comeback, it reminds me of the Web 1.0 days.

I'm behind the times, I'm tweeting more than I'm used to, but with Twitter, you have to build up an audience, and I don't think Twitter is great for that—you have to be a celebrity already. [Substack] allows you to become that, and build up a following. I really think this is a cool idea, and it gives you a good excuse to talk to people.

Exactly. Hopefully, other people enjoy it too. Thanks Rob, I appreciate you participating.

Wish you all the best man and keep me posted!


Endnote

Thanks for reading my interview with Rob. Find him on LinkedIn here, and learn more about his company Lexria here.

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