Aaron Rosenthal – Co-Founder, E-File.com

Aaron Rosenthal is director of marketing and founder of E-file.com. In 2016, E-file.com along with another of Aaron’s businesses, were ranked by the Jacksonville Business Journal as two of the top fifty fastest-growing companies in North Florida. In 2017, E-file.com was ranked as the 79th fastest-growing company in the country by Inc. Magazine.

How did the concept for E-file.com come about?
Another business of mine focused on lead generation in a few B-to-C verticals. One of them was tax preparation. The companies buying my leads were only interested in them from January 15-April 15. I had customers looking for tax preparation outside of these dates. Rather than look for someone else to sell those leads to, I started E-file.com.

How was the first year in business?
Even though I had some experience in the space from my lead generation background, I treated year one like a big beta test. Since the company was self-funded, we made lots of small “test” ad buys – when something worked then, I would push additional budget to that source. When something didn’t work, I would cut it, learn from it, and move on.

What was your marketing strategy?
E-file.com competes against tax software providers that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on branding and advertising. Going head-to-head is nearly impossible. We decided the best way for us to complete was by focusing on the simplicity of our product and also making sure we were priced extremely competitively. We utilized lots of coupons and discounts to help achieve this.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
In 2017, according to Inc. Magazine, we were the 79th fastest-growing private company in the US. By their calculation, we had a growth rate of 4,641%.

How do you define success?
Setting a goal and meeting it without compromising.

What is the key to success?
I like setting milestones that serve as checkpoints on the way to my goal. I expect to modify and revise the milestones periodically along the way to reach my goal. While I don’t mind changing milestones, I don’t like changing my goals. Once I set a goal, I know that it is where I am going and I just have to find the best way for me to get there.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I sold (technically, it was a merger) my first business for stock in the acquiring company. The purchasing company made loads of verbal promises, but at the end of the day, most of them fell flat. These promises were the reason the deal looked so attractive, and the reason I was willing to walk away with stock rather than cash. I learned two things from this: 1) never rely on “verbal promises,” get everything in writing, and 2) when accepting stock in a private company, always understand the plan for getting your money back out.

What are some quotes that you live by?
I like to think that I treat those working for me, partners, customers, etc. fairly. I don’t ever want to be a business that mistreats someone for the sake of making a profit. So I guess the quote I try to live by is somewhere between the Golden Rule and Dr. Seuss’ quote, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

What are some of your favorite books?
I own two businesses and have three children, so I don’t get a lot of leisure time for reading, but I will say the The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss sits on my shelf and is one of my favorites. Now, this is less about the content of the book and more about my story in conjunction to it. If you’re not familiar with the premise, Tim talks about working just four hours a week and the lifestyle behind it. Prior to the book, Tim was doing this with his own business where he sold a dietary supplement online. In order to help facilitate the business and work minimal hours, Tim out-sourced different components of the business to various companies. He had turned over the marketing and a lot of web development to the agency I was working for at the time. For years, I handled most of the online marketing/advertising for this business. When Tim talked about the book he was writing, I remember feeling like “Why am I growing someone else’s business? I should be out focused on my own.” This helped propel me into being a full-time entrepreneur and thus remains one of my favorite books.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Last year, I made a decision to move away from a company who I partnered with to help provide E-file.com’s tax software. This company had been a very good partner over the years, and this relationship had been in place since E-file.com was first launched. With that said, I felt if E-file.com was going to keep growing, I needed to move on. The unnerving part of the decision was, I had just 60 days before the upcoming tax season. This left an extremely little margin for error, and if things did not go right, E-file.com could be left down for the entire tax season and it could jeopardize the business. The days working up to this decision were some of the most difficult I have faced, but once the decision was made, I did not allow myself to look back.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Today, my wife and kids provide me with all the motivation I need to work through any adversity. Before I had a family of my own, I liked to use everyone/everything that made me feel like I couldn’t do something. Memories of being told “You can’t do that” tend to stay with me, so I’d use them. I would ball up those feelings from anyone who ever told me this and then use that to help drive me whenever I needed an extra push.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Two pieces of advice I would extend to young entrepreneurs are: 1) don’t wait for the perfect time, because you’ll be waiting forever. With that said, it is okay to hedge your bet. I built my first business while I was still working full-time. 2) Also, you’ll never work harder to make something succeed than when it’s your money on the line. Every one of my businesses started out self-funded. I rolled profits back into the businesses to help them grow and did not even consider outside investment before I had already built a viable business.

Rodney Marshall – President & CEO, Aldevra

Rodney Marshall served in the US Marine Corps from 1989 to 1993 when he was honorably discharged. He served as an infantryman and squad leader in the Persian Gulf War under Task Force Ripper and was awarded the Rifle Expert Badge, National Defense Service Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Southwest Asia Service Medal with 2 stars, Kuwait Liberation Medal, and Sea Service Deployment Ribbon. Mr. Marshall suffers from disabilities related to his service, which qualifies him as a service-connected disabled veteran.

Mr. Marshall has chosen to make the best of his situation and is determined to succeed. He has owned his own business since 1998 as a registered basketball official and trainer. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree in Interpersonal Communications from Western Michigan University in May 2010.

Mr. Marshall is using leadership skills honed in the military, communication techniques acquired in college, and his gregarious personality to continue to serve his comrades and Aldevra’s clients by providing commercial food service and medical equipment to those in the battlefield and the homeland.

How did the concept for Aldevra come about?
A fellow coach encouraged me to start a business to sell to the government since I was a disabled veteran and the government had a goal to do a certain amount of business with companies owned by disabled veterans.

How was the first year in business?
The first year in business was a struggle. There was so much I didn’t know or understand. I’ve thought about writing a book on how not to start a business.

What was your marketing strategy?
At first, the marketing strategy was to lead with my certifications. Then, I learned that most customers want a good product or service first. The certifications are a bonus, not the lead.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The company grew really fast in the first few years. Then, I almost closed the doors when our mentor became our competitor.

How do you define success?
I define success as having a healthy, happy family for whom I can provide.

What is the key to success?
The key to success is having a great support system (my wife especially), paying bills on time, and communicating regularly with customers and suppliers. Basically, I try to treat people how I would want to be treated.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The greatest lesson is to listen to my gut.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Integrity is doing that which is right when no one is looking.” – It’s a Marine Corps quote.

“Send the elevator back down.”

What are some of your favorite books?
Forty Million Dollar Slaves and The Art of War.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Finding my wife and VP crying on the bathroom floor because she was so overwhelmed and tired,

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I’m a Marine. We always push forward in the face of adversity. There is no option.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Don’t ever quit, pay your bills, and never burn a bridge.

Mark Steiner – Co-Founder & CEO, GigSalad

Mark Steiner is the co-founder and CEO of GigSalad. As chief visionary, he leads the company’s business and marketing strategy, focusing on building a strong customer-centric team and connecting with strategic partners. His career in the entertainment industry has spanned more than thirty years, including a decades-long stint booking high-level talent for performing arts centers, festivals, concerts, and corporate events through the agency he founded.

How did the concept for Gigsalad come about?
It was the early 2000. After forming my talent booking agency, and having a website created for that business, I immediately began being inundated with inquiries by way of phone calls and emails from the two separate sides/”parties” of the event market space.

How was the first year in business?
Awesome, thrilling, new. Me and my business partner/co-founder were nothing but excited about exploring and discovering a world in which we didn’t know a whole lot about.

What was your marketing strategy?
Path of least resistance. I started contacting those in my personal and professional “rolodex” that were supply-side and everyone that was buy-side, which is potentially anyone and everyone. I informed them we had this beta stage online directory we were building, and invited them to get on it.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Fast enough for us to pay the bills. As a bootstrapped company, we put in a few thousand dollars of seed money. After that, it  was self-sufficient. The real growth came after our official launch in January 2007. Just a couple years in.

How do you define success?
A profitable company, living within our means. On top of that, a culture that most everyone loves and no one wants to leave.

What is the key to success?
A bright idea, hard work, laser focus, be flexible, be present, have fun, and enjoy the ride.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
You can’t pay attention enough. Take nothing for granted. Trust your gut.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

“The cream rises to the top.”

“Slow and steady wins the race.”

What are some of your favorite books?
Be Here Now, A New Earth, Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life, and Falling Upward.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
There are lonely days, especially when I have to make any tough decision that I know will alter another person’s life. Firing people. Even though it is the right thing to do, it’s tough.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I believe in myself.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Believe in yourself, but be humble, find a mentor or two, and get lots of help.

Scott Selzer – Founder & CEO, StruXure Outdoor

As founder and CEO of StruXure Outdoor, Scott leads by example and never gets too comfortable with his successes. Scott oversees the strategic direction of the company, delivering on record-breaking sales, while overseeing growth in areas such as new products, market expansion, development of sales and marketing strategies, and the development of company culture. After obtaining his teaching degree from Western Michigan University, and starting his career as a teacher, Scott’s summer employment as a remodeling contractor ultimately led him to build one of the premier luxury outdoor structure brands in the country.

How did the concept for StruXure come about?
It all started when I was working part-time as a remodeling contractor during breaks from my full-time job as a middle school teacher. One of my clients asked me to find a solution for creating an outdoor shade structure that could be attached to his house that would still allow sunlight to penetrate into his home’s interiors. I conducted an exhaustive search, and found nothing suitable, so I decided to design and engineer my own product.

How was the first year in business?
The first year was both exciting and challenging. Seeing my design and engineering concepts come to life was awesome. However, figuring out how to sell our product with limited resources was difficult. I could have given up so many times, but I knew that I had a great product and that if I could get the word out about it, people would want it.

What was your marketing strategy?
Early on, our marketing strategy mirrored what our competitors were doing, because I didn’t know any better. But later, I discovered that in order to be best in class, I needed to buck the status quo and do things differently. We needed to stand out from the crowd by finding a better way to go to market and a better way to service clients.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
I started the company in 2011, and we grew over 50% the first year, and, in fact, every year since. We know that eventually our growth will flatten out, but we are so proud of what we have been able to accomplish in just eight years.

How do you define success?
I measure success by growth, rather than by reaching goals. You can achieve goals without advancing your business. If you’re not intentional about developing your company, and instead focus on following a routine, then your business will become stagnant. With growth, a lot of great things can happen. At StruXure Outdoor, we grew from two employees to 65, not by trying to reach hiring milestones, but by bringing on good people and developing them so they could help create something special.

What is the key to success?
For me, the key to success is a formula: the right people, the right product, and the right attitude.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I’ve learned so many important lessons in my lifetime. One of the most important is that learning is never-ending. If you think you know everything, that’s when you (and your business) stop being effective.

What are some quotes that you live by?
Some of my favorite quotes are by author Simon Sinek, such as, “Never give up trying to build the world you can see, even if others can’t see it.”

What are some of your favorite books?
As for books, Sinek’s Start with Why is a great read. It actually had a lot to do with how I came up with our company mission statement. I am also inspired and influenced by successful entrepreneurs’ biographies.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Well, there are a lot of missteps along the way in any business, some bigger than others, but I’ve never believed that it’s productive to focus on failures in a negative way. Instead, I look at them as opportunities to make things right, to create improvements, and that makes even the toughest times feel worthwhile.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I look at adversity as a growth opportunity. Not only do I want to keep growing personally, but I want the company to keep growing, and what better lessons to facilitate that growth than those learned through adversity. This approach also helps me to remember that I’m working for something bigger than myself.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
You need to start with a really good idea or product and then never give up on it. And you need to be willing to roll up your sleeves and work harder than you ever could have imagined.

Kevin Casey – Founder, New Avenue Homes

Kevin Casey founded New Avenue Homes in 2009. New Avenue is the leading builder of healthy, financially attainable and socially connected homes in and around our cities. The company uses an innovative platform to build more efficiently and a 60-person team delivers all of the design, financial, and building services needed to create sustainable custom projects such as Accessory Dwellings (ADUs), new homes, and transformational whole-house remodels.

Casey lives in Berkeley with his wife and two sons, obtained an MBA from Berkeley, studied Anthropology at Fordham University, and was a Fulbright Scholar in community development.

How did the concept for New Avenue Homes come about?
I was studying at UC Berkeley 10 years ago and recruited a team of computer science, urban planning, architecture, and business students to research the future of housing. We went door to door to 300 homes and interviewed the owners. We found that 30% of the owners wanted to modernize their home to make room for family, an income producing apartment, working from home, or all of the above. It turns out they all were afraid to start the project because it is just so difficult to manage architects and contractors.

What was your marketing strategy?
Be transparent, do really, really, good work and then get word of mouth referrals. It worked!

How do you define success?
A super-short commute, a mortgage that isn’t a burden, and being home for dinner – this goes for myself, our clients, and the architects and contractors who work with us.

What is the key to success?
Planning ahead and making decisions that protect your time.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The institutional systems that we rely on can change – don’t take them for granted, and you can change them for the better.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Go forth and set the world on fire.” – Jesuit named Ignatius of Loyola

“Only those who risk going too far will ever know how far they can go.” – C.S. Lewis

“Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I love seeing our clients and partners create something new that changes their lives. Whether it’s a contractor’s new business, an architect’s new practice, or an owner creating a new home, it is a privilege to be a part of their story.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Get a great foundation for the life you want to live first. Be a hermit in school, put your head down and study hard, get a job that teaches you a ton, and save every penny for years. Then, start when you’re in the position to commit for a few years.