Eric Griffin – Co-Founder, Mobile Outfitters

Eric Griffin co-founded Mobile Outfitters, an Inc. 5000 company, which is a U.S. manufacturer, innovator, and consumer brand of mobile accessories, with over 280 stores spanning 33 countries. Mobile Outfitter’s new innovative RapidCut system is an all-in-one solution for on-demand manufacturing of mobile screen protection and full body skins directly in retail stores, completely eliminating the need for inventory.

Eric is also a board member of the Philadelphia chapter of Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a non-profit network exclusively for entrepreneurs, co-founder of GSW Apartments, a real estate development and property management company, and co-founder of PAW5, a brand of puzzle feeders and enrichment products for dogs. In his spare time, he enjoys running, biking, gardening, woodworking, cooking, and coffee.

Tell me about your early career.
I was born in Lafayette Hill, PA and my career as an entrepreneur started in the sixth grade. I saved up all summer and bought a CD burner for $600, then offered custom mix CDs to students for $20. My fascination with computers led me to go to Villanova University for computer engineering, but I started my first “real” company sophomore year in college and my focus quickly shifted to running a company. After college (which I never completed – one class short from a diploma), I joined forces with my friend and current business partner, Dennis, and we hired our first employee for ImportGSM.

How did the concept for Mobile Outfitters come about?
Dennis and I had started a company before, called ImportGSM, where we’d import unlocked smartphones that you couldn’t get here in the U.S. This is before the iPhone, back when Germany, Hong Kong, and Finland all had the best phones in the world. That was taking off, and we wanted to add products and services that added to the sale of a phone. So we thought, “Hey, if we installed a screen protector on the customer’s phone before it shipped, then they’d have an amazing experience and have bubble-free protection.” We launched our “custom cut screen protector” and it was immediately a hit – 80% of people added the protector when they bought a phone. The problem was that we couldn’t keep screen protectors in stock for the hundreds of models we sold, so we decided to make the protection in house, on demand. This way, we’d never run out of stock. When the iPhone came out, ImportGSW tanked, and we started a company around the screen protector product, calling it Clear-Coat, and focused entirely on this clear protection product. We knew people liked it. We just had to figure out how to make a business around it.

How was the first year in business?
The first year was all “boots on the ground.” We were working 12 hour days, 7 days a week. Not only were we making our products ourselves and running the business, but we also opened a kiosk in a mall down the street to sell our Clear-Coat product to the end user. So, one of us would open the mall kiosk and work there while the other worked at the office answering emails, phone calls, making product, you name it. Then, at 3:00pm we’d switch, and the person at the office would go to the mall with the stock they produced and work the kiosk while the other wrapped up things at the office. We didn’t have any employees, just an intern doing some design work, so we were doing literally everything ourselves.

What was your marketing strategy?
What was our marketing strategy and what is our marketing strategy are two very different questions for us. At the time, our strategy was to be the “best quality at the best price.” We all know that doesn’t work. There’s no such thing as top quality, at cheap prices. Over the years, we’ve discovered that we’re really good at making the best product, so we also sell it for a premium and we’re laser-focused on selling our products in unsaturated sales channels (mall kiosks). Today, our sole focus is marketing to entrepreneurs around the world who want to open their own business.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We’ve never had a year where we didn’t grow. The first year we grew 500%, second year 300%, third year 100%, then about 30% every year after up until today. Of course, now the 30% growth is a lot more meaningful. It’s easy to grow 500% when you’re starting at zero.

How do you define success?
Creating a sustainable business that is larger than any one person or executive team. A sustainable business creates jobs, creates opportunity, and adds value to customers and community.

What is the key to success?
The single biggest key to success in the formative years, what I’d say are the first five to ten years, is focus. Don’t try to do everything, and don’t try to sell it everywhere to everyone. There’s three buckets you need to get laser-focused on: your customer, your product, and your sales channel. Figure out who your customer is, who exactly is it, what are they looking for, and what do they need. Figure out what your product is, what it’s going to offer, what it’s not going to offer, and what it does. Then, figure out the channel you’re going to sell it in where your customers exist. This last one is the key, and something more people ignore. The example Dennis and I give to show the power of a sales channel is turkey legs. Someone starting a business selling turkey legs may wrongfully assume that the key benefit is that it fills people up, and his customer is a hungry person, so he’ll open up everywhere where there’s lots of hungry people. The reality is, no one wants to eat a turkey leg in the mall, in an airport, or at a flea market. However, at a renaissance fair, or at Disney world, everyone wants a turkey leg. The sales channel defines the likelihood that your customer will buy your product. In the wrong sales channel, turkey legs sell for cheap and hardly sell at all. In the right sales channel, they sell for an insane price, hand over fist.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
For us, finding the sales channel to sell our products in, and rebranding our company around that sales channel and target customer, completely transformed our business and boosted our growth.

What are some of your favorite books?
Traction by Gino Wickman
Scaling Up by Verne Garnish
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Hyper Sales Growth by Jack Daly

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Leaders get the organizations they deserve” – Rand Stagen

“If you’re climbing a mountain, talk to the people on their way down to learn how to get up.”

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I fired my biggest customer, who was 50% of our business. It was scary, a gamble, and financially made no sense. We thought we’d have to lay off half our staff, or run out of money. It ended up being the best thing we ever did.

I learned that by the time you think “I’m not sure this customer, or employee, is right for me,” it’s already too late. You’ve known for a while it’s time to move on. The sad thing is that we let that thought simmer and stew for months or years before we do anything about it. We wait for a breaking point, a point of no return, or a black and white reason to end it.

Truth be told, as soon as you sense that feeling, it’s over and time to do something about it.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I look around and see other people succeeding at whatever it is I’m trying to do and think, “If they can do it, I can do it!” That’s always driven me, and proves that if you keep trying and learn from your mistakes, eventually you’ll move forward again.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Just start. Most people never get started. They overthink things, they ask their friends and family what they think (and of course, everyone is going to tear your idea down), and they think about all the hurdles of getting their company perfect before launching. The truth is that you don’t have a parade going down Times Square for your company. No one’s going to know if it’s not perfect. Every business starts out flawed. Just start, get out there and do things, and you’ll find your path if you keep your eyes and ears open to the feedback (not from your friends and family, but from the sales you’re doing or not doing)!

Seth Goldman – Co-Founder, Honest Tea

Seth Goldman co-founded Honest® Tea in 1998 with Professor Barry Nalebuff of the Yale School of Management. In March 2011, Honest Tea was acquired by The Coca-Cola Company, helping to further the reach and impact of Honest Tea’s mission by becoming the first organic and Fair Trade brand in the world’s largest beverage distribution system. Today, Honest Tea is the nation’s top selling ready-to-drink organic bottled tea and Honest Kids® is the nation’s top-selling organic kids’ juice drink. The brands are carried in more than 130,000 outlets in the United States, including all Wendy’s, Chik-fil-A, and SUBWAY restaurants. In 2016, Honest Tea’s distribution expanded to Europe.

In 2016, Seth transitioned to a new role at Honest Tea as TeaEO Emeritus and Innovation Catalyst for Coca-Cola’s Venturing & Emerging Brands business unit. This transition allows him to take on an additional role as Executive Chairman of Beyond Meat, a privately held California-based enterprise on the cutting edge of plant-based protein research and development.

In 2015, Seth was named the #1 Disruptor by Beverage World, and Beverage Executive of the Year by Beverage Industry magazine; he was also inducted into the Washington DC Business Hall of Fame. Seth has also been recognized by the United States Healthful Food Council with a REAL Food Innovator Award for helping change the food landscape by providing options that are healthier for both the body and the planet.

Seth serves on the advisory boards of Ripple Foods, the Yale School of Management, the American Beverage Association, and Bethesda Green (a local sustainability non-profit he co-founded). He graduated from Harvard College (1987) and the Yale School of Management (1995), and is a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute. Seth and Barry are the authors, along with graphic artist Soongyun Choi, of The New York Times bestseller Mission in a Bottle. The book, told in comic book form, captures their efforts to create a mission-driven business in a profit-driven world. Seth lives with his wife and three sons near Honest Tea’s Bethesda, MD headquarters in an eco-friendly house.

Tell me about your early career.
My earlier work was much more in the activist mode. I worked for a nonprofit, and also on Capitol Hill and a political campaign. That was more of my inclination. Right after school, I had spent two and a half years traveling abroad. It was a little bit of an entrepreneurial undertaking just being out in countries where I didn’t speak the language, or know anybody, and have to get around. That was a way for me to gain the confidence operating in unfamiliar environments and circumstances.

How did the concept for Honest Tea come about?
I was first exposed to the idea, mainly, because I ran track in college. As a runner, I was always thirsty, and I just always felt that the drinks out there were just too sweet. So, just this feeling that there was something missing in the marketplace. That crystallized when I was at the Yale School of Management and my professor was leading a case study around the beverage industry, where once again this idea emerged. My professor was pretty excited about the idea. He wanted to do some samples and focus groups, but I wasn’t in a place where I could do anything seriously about it at the time. Subsequently, after I graduated from business school and worked a few years, when I was in New York, and after I gave a presentation, I went out for a run in Central Park and I went to a store to buy something and I realized there was just nothing there. So I reached out to that same professor, Barry Nalebuff, and said I think I was ready to do something about it now. He had actually just come back from India, from studying the tea industry, and he came up with the name, “Honest Tea”, so everything just started to connect. An idea of a less-sweet drink that had social-responsibility embedded into it.

How was the first year in business?
It was fun, exciting, and challenging. There was just so much to do in such a short amount of time. I launched the company in my house, February of 1998. The goal was to get on the shelf by Memorial Day, which is a very tight timeline to launch a company, raise the capital, sell the product, and make the product, but we managed to do that. We made a lot happen in a short amount of time.

What was your marketing strategy?
Very grassroots. A lot of sampling. It was basically anything that we could afford. So, it was giving out samples to the stores. Getting free media coverage, in terms of selling our story with people. So, that was basically being authentic and getting the story out there.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years in business?
We grew really quickly. When you grow from nothing, you grow really quickly. We went from $0 (sales) to about $250k in first year. From there, we went to $1 million, to $1.9 million, and to $3.2 million. It was about 100% growth, or 80% growth, every year.

How do you define success?
For me, there’s three different forms of success: personal, business and impact. In terms of business success, it’s when you’re creating something that penetrates people’s lives to the point that it plays a role in their lives by changing their behavior, and patterns of consumption. When it becomes a brand that they know, trust, and embrace.

In terms of impact success, it’s if you have an impact on the issues you care about. For us, it’s about having a prioritizing diet and health. Can we play a role in helping people move to better and healthier diets? We like to think we can. Another thing important to us is our environmental footprint. We know that being organic has a lighter environmental footprint, so we’re focused on if we can help more communities shift to organic sourcing. Right now, we’re buying 20 million pounds of organic ingredients, so that could be a way to talk about having an impact. The other thing we focus on is fair trade sourcing. We’ve invested more than $1 million back into our supplier communities, so we’re focused on helping those communities shift from subsistence farming to being more sustainable, not just environmentally, but in terms of economic self-sufficiency, which is a positive step.

And then, in terms of personal success, for me, I think this is a bit more about the definition of happiness, but it’s the idea, or equation, that what you have is greater than what you want. Some people assume that the way to be happy is to have more. For me, I think the way to be happy is to want less. To really understand what is important to you, so you can protect and support that, and not get hung up on the things that don’t really drive you.

What is the key to success?
I think the key is understanding that equation. If you know what it is that really makes you happy, then it’s much easier to focus in on it. If you don’t know, and if you haven’t identified what is important to you, it’ll lead you to want all different types of things that’ll lead you to be unhappy. Most people assume that money will make them happy. It takes a lot of time and effort, and they end up with money, and then they realize it doesn’t make them happy, and that could be a bit of a letdown.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Recognizing that happiness isn’t about having more of everything. It’s about having the right things. I learned another lesson in 1988, when I was doing advanced work for a presidential campaign. I was doing a lot of intense work. It was really high-stakes. I just remember running around. Things were very tense, and at the end of the campaign, the supervisor said, “You did a great job, but you can do that same job and just sort of take the tension out of it. Just think about enjoying it. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to rush. Just sort of flip your mindset and enjoy doing it.” That really hit me.

What are some quotes that you live by?
The one that’s on our office wall at Honest Tea is, “Those who say it could not be done should not interrupt the people doing it”, which is a Chinese proverb. For us, that’s something we really live by. We’re doing something that many people assume is just too hard to do, or not the way beverage businesses are built. Most companies will assume that if it’s what the consumer wants today, then that’s what you should be providing them. We’re really trying to think about what the consumer wants tomorrow, or what the consumer aspires to want. We’re not offering a product that’s supposed to win the taste test, because the product that will win that test will be the sweeter product. We’re developing products we hope our consumers will develop a taste for.

The other is a quote from a Fat Albert episode, which is “He who throws mud only loses ground.” It’s this idea that you’re never going to help yourself by trying to put others in a negative light. The best is to, when you can, be positive with what you’re doing.

Another one is a Chinese proverb, “If we don’t change the direction of which we’re headed, we will end up going where we’re going.” So, you look at some of the real problems we face in the world, and in this country, and unless we change our behavior, these problems are not going to go away. We need a different approach to some of the ways we live, and some of the businesses I’m involved with are part of that.

What are some of your favorite books?
One book I really love is The Call of the Wild by Jack London. What I love about it is that it highlights the fact that we’re all animals. So, it talks about instinct. The story starts off about this dog, that started off as more of a domesticated type of dog, and eventually, the wild part of his animalistic instincts come out and I think so much of society tries to teach people to suppress those instincts. As entrepreneurs, we do have to rely on our instincts. So, you have to make sure you know what is in your mind, and connecting with your own instincts is an important task.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
We had quite a few. I’ll talk about one that was personal. We were trying to raise money, and we were really in “fly by night” mode. Things were tight. We were strapped for cash, so if someone said they wanted to invest in the business, I would talk to them. We had this person up in Boston who claimed he represented a wealthy family. I had talked to him on the phone quite a bit, and he asked me to come up to Boston and arrange a meeting. I had some meetings there too, but I went up to Boston, and it was my son’s birthday. I believe it was my son’s 8th birthday, so it was maybe 2002. So, I pushed for an earlier meeting, like 1:00 PM, so I could get on a plane after and make it back to spend some time with my son. So, I go to the meeting and it’s just this guy. Meanwhile, I told him over the phone that I needed to meet with the family. He was just trying to take advantage of the fact that we were strapped for cash. He was playing games, and trying to get something for himself. So, it was a waste of a trip. And then, there was a snow delay on my flight home, and I basically only got to say “Happy Birthday” to my son as he was falling asleep. I’ve always been pretty good about protecting my family time, but I was unsuccessful and my wife was disappointed in me. My son was too young to know, but I was disappointed that it happened, and just having this feeling like I’m trying to chase these investors was tough, and demoralizing to have that not work out. There were more life and death situations, but that was the one that was, personally, just miserable. There were other years when we were running a bottling plant and I’d be driving back and forth, and the bottling plant wasn’t working well and we were losing money, so I had to drive back and forth to Pittsburgh. That was challenging. There were other times when there was broken glass in a bottle of tea and we had to withdraw all of our product from the market. Those were intense moments. There was another time when I was driving through a blizzard to a production modeling facility and I flipped my car off the highway. That was definitely a low point.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Certainly, the impact. The opportunity of the business. The idea that if we do this right, we can really help move people’s diets in a better direction. That’s certainly part of it. I would also say the impact we have on our supplier communities, by knowing we’re helping thousands of people in these communities live better lives. So, just the duel sides of our impact: the consumers who drink it, and the suppliers who supply our ingredients, are really motivating.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
There’s a few. First, make sure you’re doing something you believe in. The work is way too hard to just do it for the money. No matter how much money you’re making, there’s other ways to make money. Of course, a lot of times it won’t end up working out anyway. So, make sure you’re building something you really believe in and have a sense of ownership. The other thing is to make sure that your differentiator is clear. For example, some entrepreneurs may think they’ve got a great tasting salsa. Well, there are many great tasting salsas. So, you must have a fundamental difference that would be compelling. With Honest Tea, we came to the market with drinks that had 100 calories for an 8 ounce serving, and we brought our tea in at 17 calories per serving. This other company that I’m now involved with is called Beyond Meat. We sell a burger, but it’s not anything like a veggie burger. It’s really a breakthrough product. It’s dramatically different, which is important. You can’t come out with a “me too” product and expect to get traction. Finally, I think it’s important to find great people you can bring into your enterprise. Whether that’s partners or employees, it’s important to bring in people who are going to share the passion, and who don’t think the same way you do. All those things are important parts of what you’re doing.

Jeff Cayley – Founder & CEO, Worldwide Cyclery

Founder and CEO of Worldwide Cyclery, Jeff Cayley went from racing mountain bikes professionally to building a one-of-a-kind boutique bicycle shop. However, Worldwide Cyclery is no ordinary bicycle shop. With retail locations that double as fulfillment centers on the East and West coasts, the company is a multi-million dollar, omni-channel retail operation that’s landed on the Inc. 5000 list consecutive years, as well as on the Entrepreneur magazine 360 list. Jeff managed to do all this in his early twenties, and his company is now filled with dozens of employees that enjoy a phenomenal company culture and a fast-growing business in an industry they love.

Tell me about your early career.
I started Worldwide Cyclery at age 21, and before that, there was not much of a “career.” I spent five years racing mountain bikes all over North America, two of those years I was racing professionally. On top of the racing, I was working at a local bike shop in Newbury Park, California, where I grew up. I worked at that local shop for a handful of years and really enjoyed it. Working face to face retail teaches you a ton, and that experience is something I think everyone should have at some point in their life. My “career” in eCommerce in the early years is much more entertaining. At age 11, I was selling all sorts of stuff on eBay. Be it random things from around our house and garage, or stuff on consignment for neighbors and friends. I was actually making some decent money in middle school doing this. It was awesome. At one point, when I was 19, my friend’s dad got me an account as a retailer at a big home goods liquidation company. I was young and didn’t really know what I was doing, nor did I know any of the formal rules and regulations of business. The idea was that he was the sales rep, he’d pitch me good deals they had, and he’d buy the product. Then, I would flip it on eBay. This actually worked pretty well, and in one summer, I sold $250,000 worth of faucets and shower heads. Then, one day, he got fired and I got a call from the owner of that company. Turns out, everything I sold was stolen and my friend’s dad was quite the swindler. Luckily, the owner of that company was an understanding guy. He wrote the whole thing off as a loss and went on with his business. He actually ended up letting me keep my account there as long as I got a tax ID number. I did get a tax ID number, but as it turned out, I couldn’t sell much product if the prices were the real prices. All in all, it was an incredible learning experience, not only in eCommerce, but in people, trust, and ethics.

How did the concept for Worldwide Cyclery come about?
I was observing and paying attention to trends in the bicycle industry, and in retail in general. I saw how things would evolve and knew there was a big opportunity to capitalize on with omni-channel retail in the bicycle world. I also saw a major opportunity to export bike products. I knew the niche I wanted to target and how I wanted to go about it. I spent a year thinking about the idea, testing the waters, and developing the strategy. I had the advantage of being a sponsored racer, so I had plenty of product laying around that I could sell. Between eBay and industry forum classifieds, I was moving product and getting feedback, and just noticing things like where buyers came from, how they preferred to shop, and the kind of products and deals they were looking for. I was diligent with spending time on this and learning everything possible before I actually launched the business. On day one of the business opening, I had already done so much market research and other due diligence around the concept that it gave me a lot of confidence in my idea and how I was going to make it work.

How was the first year in business?
Honestly, it was brutal. I was working an insane amount of hours and was ridiculously overwhelmed, constantly. But, I was on a mission to succeed at making it work, and I was in touch with the reality of what that would take. Being 21 made it pretty tough. If I didn’t have such supportive parents, I don’t think I could’ve pulled it off. There was so much to get done before we could even make any revenue, not to mention profit. I was a one-man-show doing this. I had a friend helping out part-time that first year, but he was of little help, and well, he was not in touch with reality when it came to what it would take to make the business succeed. I had a lot of pressure on my shoulders and knew what I was trying to do, but did not really know how to do it or the best way to go about it. I’ve yet to hear a story of any business that had a smooth or easy first year. Mine was much the same: rough and extremely challenging. But it was not catastrophic. I made it through and we didn’t fold. 🙂

What was your marketing strategy?
I get this question a lot. I know it’s because most successful businesses got there because of their marketing strengths. This was actually not the case for us. We didn’t spend a dime on marketing for just over three years and we were well over $1 million in annual revenue before we started doing any marketing at all. Marketing was not my background. I knew nothing about it, when I started. I did, however, know the bicycle industry. I knew where the holes were, what products people wanted, where they were shopping, and how things were evolving, as far as consumer purchasing habits go. Because of this, I took a very different approach that centered around omni-channel retail, data utilization, and filling the needs of customers who were struggling to find retailers doing what they wanted. This meant finding ways to get thousands of products listed on multiple channels (website, eBay & Amazon), while keeping inventory levels accurate and product data, top-notch. The cycling industry is very global and it’s shifted online a ton, just like several other industries. We did a good job of using product data from our distributors and getting it in front of our customer’s eyes simply by getting the products listed online where the traffic was. Finding buyers on third-party marketplaces, giving them astonishingly-good customer service, and helping them find what they needed – and shipping it the right way to their particular location – was key. A lot went into this strategy and its execution. So, unlike many other businesses, marketing was not our method for growth in the early years. However, marketing has played a big role in our continued growth, beyond year three.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We were growing pretty fast. 172% year-over-year growth from years one to two, and 80% from years two to three. It gets harder and harder to stack big, year-over-year growth percentages as your annual revenue climbs, but even in our seventh year now, we have not grown less than 38% in any given year. It’s nothing crazy. We are not some heavily-funded, mass-market tech company from Silicon Valley, that’s for sure. But for being in a cool and fun industry and more of a lifestyle business, we are very happy with the growth.

How do you define success?
I believe “success” is radically different for each person on this planet. For me personally, success is a combination of a number of things: being able to chase my dreams, my passions, being happy, giving back, smiling, experiencing amazing things, and just getting the absolute most out of life each day and having genuine fun. I guess it boils down to being able to do what I actually want to do every day I’m alive. For me, this stuff is riding bikes, playing the game of business, laughing, any kind of adrenaline rush, getting out of my comfort zone, making people smile, etc. It’s stuff I do everyday, already. 🙂

What is the key to success?
I think the key is first defining it for yourself. Not someone else’s version, but your own true version. What is your ideal life? Figure that out and then go make it happen, or at least as much as you possibly can. It’s not really that complicated. Just live the life you personally consider to be epic!

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I don’t think I can pinpoint a single one. There are thousands and I continue to learn more each day. But I’ll give you a memorable one I’ve grasped better in the last year. Respect and admire everyone for who they are, even if you completely disagree with their way of living and/or their goals (or lack of goals). As I’ve grown up, I’ve kind of sucked at doing this and still sometimes mess up. I’m pretty adamant about living a great life, chasing your passions, and just being the absolute best human you can be, every single minute you’re alive. I seriously care about this, and my attitude of just going after life in a positive way has made me who I am and made me love life so much. I want to show that to people so bad. But at the same time, everyone is different. Just because the way I live my life is phenomenal in my eyes, it does not necessarily mean it is even close to “phenomenal” in someone else’s eyes. I’ve really learned to appreciate people for who they are and the choices they’ve made, and are presently making, even if it’s not what I would do. It’s so important to be open-minded, respect people, and always remember that things are very complex in each of our lives. Making any quick judgments makes you a fool.

What are some quotes that you live by?
This is more of a saying than a quote, but it sums up lots of good things:

“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.” – James Michener

What are some of your favorite books?
There are plenty! I read a ton. Some standouts:

Shoe Dog – Phil Knight
The Hard Thing About Hard Things – Ben Horowitz
Zero to One – Peter Thiel
Start with Why – Simon Sinek
Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I’ve luckily not had that many rough days or situations in business. Especially, when compared to some stories I hear from other entrepreneurs! In comparison to some of the madness I’ve heard about, I have nothing significant to say here. Sure, there have been struggles. There have been plenty of times I felt overwhelmed and plenty of stress from who knows what or why, but that’s standard stuff. This isn’t an easy game and is not for the sensitive.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
My desire to live an excellent life and do something I consider awesome with my time on the planet. I genuinely care about chasing my passions and making my dreams a reality. No matter what happens, I’ll keep going because that’s what I want and what I’m going to get.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Read a boatload of books, don’t ever dare think you know what you are doing, never stop learning, be open to change, and be open to evolving as you go. Make damn sure entrepreneurship is what you truly want. It is NOT an easy game and it will chew you up and spit you out if you’re not truly passionate about the sport of business.

Reena Gupta – Founder & CEO, TargetRecruit

Reena Gupta is CEO of TargetRecruit LLC, a talent management ecosystem built on the Force.com platform. Founded in 2008, Reena’s vision was to build an integrated platform for CRM and ATS.

Reena was running an IT staffing firm when one of the clients approached her and said, “We just purchased Salesforce.com and we don’t know what to do with it.” Reena instantly fell in love with the platform and specialized her company to be the first SF partner in Tennessee. In 2007, her company become one of the first ten companies to be incubated by Salesforce and there was no looking back after that. TargetRecruit is now an end-to-end talent management platform with an ecosystem of customizable apps, helping organizations make their business operations efficient.

Tell me about your early career.
I started working as an Access developer in the early years of my career for an IT company. I was always fascinated by programming and kept learning new languages, from ColdFusion to Java. My first entrepreneurial venture was starting a Java users group in Nashville, through which I built connections with leading industry experts. I kept taking aggressive career jumps and became a chief technical architect within four years. I started Avankia in 2002 as a consultant for McGraw-Hill.

How did the concept for Avankia come about?
I was working for a startup that was run by the mayor of Tennessee. It was later bought over by McGraw-Hill and I lost my job in the process. But that was the best thing that ever happened to me. McGraw-Hill called me back within a month, but I was pregnant. So, I established Avankia as a sole proprietor and joined McGraw-Hill as a part-time consultant.

I saw the need for more resources at the company, due to the aggressive growth plans for their product. I knew the product very well (I designed it), and I decided to scale the team. I converted Avankia to an IT staffing company and started placing resources on the project. My first employee was a stay-at-home mom who was a good friend of mine. Slowly, she took over my job and I started focusing on Avankia. In the first few years, Avankia grew tenfold and we added many more clients.

But more importantly, I consider 2008 as a milestone in my entrepreneurial life, when I founded TargetRecruit, an end-to-end talent management platform. While I was running Avankia, one of my clients said, “We just purchased Salesforce.com and we don’t know what to do with it.” I instantly fell in love with the platform and specialized my company to be the first SF partner in Tennessee. When the Force.com platform was launched, I thought of building an integrated platform for CRM and ATS. After that, there was no looking back, and I started TargetRecruit in 2008.

How was the first year in business?
The first year of Avankia was as smooth as it could’ve been. I was working with some very nice clients. For TargetRecruit, it was a product that I created, designed, and built. When you are so close to a concept and believe in it, the rest becomes easy. The company doubled in size in the first few years of operation. We are one of those handful of companies that made a profit in the first year of business.

What was your marketing strategy?
We do have a digital and field marketing strategy, like any other B2B company. But AppExchange, the business app store from Salesforce, gives us headway in achieving our marketing goals. I believe, “Happy customers are loud and unhappy ones are louder.” My team and I exclusively focus on getting good reviews from our customers and ensure that we have enduring relationships with them.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We were featured on the Inc. 500 in the first few years, so we were definitely doing pretty well, clocking double-digit growth, YOY.

How do you define success?
I tell this to my kids all the time. Spiritually, success is having a smile on your face in the end.

Success is beyond setting up a profitable business. It is being able to give back to the community and adding value to the society. I will consider myself successful if I am able to do my bit for women all around. In addition to activities like supporting girls’ education in India, I am working towards my success through mom-relaunch, a platform for women to get back to work after a career break.

What is the key to success?
The key to success is as simple as identifying opportunities, not letting go of them, and persistently pursue them. In addition to this, what keeps me disciplined is task prioritization and allotting my time to each task in accordance.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
“To let go at the right time” is the greatest lesson I’ve ever learned, the hard way. It is very tricky to understand when to let go of people who are unproductive and products that are obsolete. But if you keep clinging on to things and refrain from making decisions, it can be disastrous for your business.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Time is the scarcest resource and unless it is managed, nothing can be managed.” – Peter Drucker

I strongly believe in this and live it, day in and out.

What are some of your favorite books?
I have two children, so kids’ books are my favorite for a long time now. 🙂 However, whenever time permits, I make sure that I utilize it to read. I follow Bill Gates’ recommendations. Some of my favorites are Where Good Ideas Come From, Management Mantras, Rework, and What If?

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurial life is like a game of Whac-A-Mole. Every day is tough, and it gets tougher than the day before. The challenges that you have today will make you feel that what you went through yesterday was nothing. So, you have to always be ready.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Memories of my dad and his smiling face push me to keep doing what I am doing, and strive to do more. He is my inspiration. My “go-getter” trait, and many others, are his inheritance. He is the one who always pushed me to rise above normalcy in life, and to do something bigger and better.

In addition to this, I am an ardent follower of The Art of Living by my mentor Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Meditation and breathing have changed my life and has instilled in me the belief that everything will be okay in the end. That is a great motivation!

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
When you are in business, it’s not what you know. It’s who you know. So, my advice to young entrepreneurs is to network, network, and network. Never shy away from speaking about yourself and learning about others.

Technical folks turned entrepreneurs have to be careful. Even if you have a good product, people need to buy it. You should spend as much time marketing yourself and building a brand.

April Foster – Founder & CEO, Inked Brands

April Foster is the founder and CEO of Inked Brands, a pioneer of influencer commerce, where she’s obsessed with combining relevant products and smart marketing with influencer brands. She lives in Kentucky with her husband, Greg, and four young children.

Tell me about your early career.
My very early career started at age four, when my sister and I designed greeting cards for my dad’s customers at the lumber mill and hardware store my dad owned in South Texas. We walked around selling these so-called greeting cards (aka typing paper with crayon drawings) for a quarter a piece so that we could spend massively at the Hello Kitty store in the Lake Jackson mall. We were big time entrepreneurs.

Later, I received a degree in speech therapy, but during my final internship, I realized it wasn’t a good fit for me. I was an entrepreneur at heart and so I pivoted into pharmaceutical sales since I was a natural salesperson and knew how to read research papers. After gaining accolades and a promotion to manager, while I was on the road four nights a week, I decided to apply those skills to my own venture, StudioCalico.com. My husband, the risk-taker in the family, was so supportive of this subscription craft business I wanted to pursue. We grew organically until I quit my pharma job after two years in business.

How did the concept for Inked Brands come about?
Luck, and paying attention.

Studio Calico was growing and we worked with an increasing number of industry experts, who would now be labeled as influencers. One in particular, we partnered with to create an entire co-branded product line, which resulted in thousands of orders and generally drinking from the fire hose for about six months. As soon as we could come up for air, I said, “Let’s do it again!” That’s when we launched our first two influencer sites: AliEdwards.com and Shop.ABeautifulMess.com.

How was the first year in business?
Exciting growth, but filled with lots of failures. We would ship orders and label them too heavy, costing us thousands of dollars among many other operational errors.

What was your marketing strategy?
Studio Calico was built by micro-influencers, including myself, who had highly-passionate audiences. We focused on making high-quality products and wowing customers, and that spread the word organically. Since then, we’ve relied on our influencer partners to do the same.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
40-70% YOY, entirely bootstrapped.

How do you define success?
I haven’t figured that out yet, but I can say it feels awesome to deliver quality products our influencers love, on a site they’re proud of, and see their followers treasure it.

What is the key to success?
Honesty with yourself and your results, followed closely by discipline in making necessary changes to yourself or your organization.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Forgiveness of myself and others. As an entrepreneur, wife, and mother, I have to forgive often, and quickly, and hope for the same in return. I make mistakes every day.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Well done is better than well said.” – Benjamin Franklin

“You can accomplish anything in life, provided you do not mind who gets the credit.” – Harry Truman

“Trust, but verify.” – Ronald Reagan

“A players hire A players. B players hire B & C players.” – Steve Jobs

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” – James C. Collins

“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” – Steve Jobs

What are some of your favorite books?
Good to Great by Jim Collins
Business Brilliant by Lewis Schiff
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
The day my COO was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Ken Marshall, former executive at Camping World (reporting to Marcus Lemonis of CNBC’s The Profit), had left to work with me at Inked. We were in lockstep with one another; I trusted him implicitly. Together, we were laying the foundation for a Series A round and his maturity and experience were vital to our success. He was diagnosed in February 2015 and passed away only four months later, working with me to the end. I spent many days crying in the car on the way to the office, putting on a brave face, and having conversations that just days earlier didn’t seem as urgent, but now I was taking notes feverishly and trying to learn from every word. I am forever grateful to him for making the leap and for his family for sharing him with me so unselfishly.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
One of my advisors says my body manufactures its own crack. Joking aside, I require little sleep and the more I’m surrounded by smart people and the more I’m challenged, the more motivated and excited I become.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with smart people, and not “yes-men.” It’s good to have a multiplicity of opinions and people who aren’t afraid to challenge you.