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Interview with Lamine Zarrad, Founder & CEO of StellarFi

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Interview with Lamine Zarrad, Founder & CEO of StellarFi

What Is StellarFi? Tell Us About What You Do And How It Works.

StellarFi is a credit-building platform and public benefit corporation on a mission to disrupt the U.S. poverty cycle and provide credit access to 132 million Americans with low or no credit.

Members can begin using StellarFi through a tiered monthly subscription, which empowers them to build credit by paying the bills they already have, such as streaming services, rent and phone bills. We report bill payments made through StellarFi’s platform to the three major credit bureaus – Experian®, TransUnion® and Equifax® – building a positive payment history for our members. The website application launched in June 2022, and we are rolling out a mobile app later this year.

I’ve been on a trajectory of creating solutions for larger problems. I went from optimizing logistics at one military base to tackling banking challenges across a whole industry, and now, I want to take on issues facing entire populations and help those whose lives have been impacted by a lack of financial literacy or a string of financial challenges.

What Is Your Background? What Led You To Starting Your Own Company, And How Did You End Up In This Space.

My goal is to leverage technology to help others succeed, but growing up, my goal was about trying to survive. I was born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan SSR, which was a former republic of the USSR. When the Soviet Union fell, my family was forced to escape from an ongoing ethnic war on Armenians, which my mother was.

Suddenly, my comfortable childhood was turned into being a refugee with nothing but a bag of clothes. After fleeing to Moscow, eventually making it to the United States and going to school here, I joined the Marine Corps.

On my first deployment to Iraq, my inner entrepreneur really took over. I always noticed inefficiencies and assessed processes, and I would pitch ways to improve infrastructure to the colonel running the base I was on. Thankfully he was very receptive to my ideas and allowed me to help manage logistics for our base of 20,000 personnel. The resourcefulness that I honed as a refugee and immigrant helped me make significant improvements to our infrastructure and logistics during that time.

After the military, I earned a business degree and landed my first job in financial services at Merrill Lynch. I wanted to continue in the financial sector, so I went to grad school to study economic policy and worked for a hedge fund. Then, I accepted a position as a bank examiner in the U.S. Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

As a regulator, I had a unique, 360-degree view of the banking system and saw that banks, both large and small, were (and still are) profoundly reactive instead of proactive. This prompted my interest in how we could use data-driven technology to help banks make more advantageous decisions and provide better experiences to customers. These experiences led to the birth of my first startup, Tokken. Since then, I’ve founded Joust (acquired by ZenBusiness) and now StellarFi.

What Was The Inspiration Behind The Company Name?

The inspiration is the double entendre of “stellar” credit that signifies financial excellence and illustrates the grandness of our cosmic concept.

What Have Been Both Your Favorite And Least-liked Parts Of Your Entrepreneurial Journey? What Have Been Your Most Challenging And Most Exciting Moments For You And The Company?

My favorite part of the journey is the process of creation. I love synthesizing seemingly unrelated concepts into something completely new and then bringing that idea to life. The least liked experience is having to fire people. I always take it personally.

The most challenging moment for the company and me is always the decision to actually commit to the concept full time because there’s no going back once you head down that road. You either succeed or fail, but either way, you must complete the journey.

What Was The Fundraising Process Like For You? Tell Us About Your Investors And How You Use The Funds You’ve Raised.

In March, StellarFi closed a $7.2M initial funding round. The round was led by Acrew Capital and co-led by Trust Ventures with participation from Accomplice Ventures, Fiat Ventures, Vera Equity, Permit Ventures, Kindergarten Ventures, and angel investors.

Since March, we’ve brought on amazing talent from across the globe and publicly launched the StellarFi credit-building platform. With thousands of members now using the platform, we’re busy improving the current experience and designing valuable features we’re excited to launch later this year.

Who Are Your Co-Founders Or People Who You Work Very Closely With? How Do Their Skills Supplement Yours?

My founding partners are Stacey Tisdale and Angela Yee. Stacey Tisdale is an award-winning TV broadcast financial journalist, financial behavior expert and CEO and co-host of Wealth Wednesdays, a digital financial empowerment platform. Angela Yee is a serial entrepreneur. She co-hosts the nationally syndicated morning show The Breakfast Club and Wealth Wednesdays, and she hosts her own podcast.

Stacey and Angela are both financial literacy advocates and have done great work to inform and empower their communities. StellarFi is a public benefit corporation with a mission to improve the financial well-being of Americans. Stacey and Angela share this vision and they have the tools to speak to the underserved communities we want to reach.

StellarFi Is A Public Benefit Corporation. Tell Us More About This And What It Means In Terms Of Your Company’s Values And Goals.

People deserve more. Anyone who pays rent should have the opportunity to buy a home, and no one should be stuck in a cycle of not being able to get credit because they don’t already have credit, or paying more for things because they have less financial power. That’s what inspired me to found StellarFi as a public benefit corporation. We want to generate new opportunities that anyone can access.

Earlier this year, StellarFi co-hosted its first community-focused financial literacy event with the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority chapter to promote financial literacy for the BlPOC community. In turn, the city of Bridgeport mayor named April 30, the date of the event, Stellar Credit Day in honor of the event.

This event came on the heels of StellarFi’s “Get Your Bills Paid with Stellar!” $10,000 Sweepstakes to help people pay their bills with sweepstakes prizes totaling nearly $70,000.

StellarFi also partners with Stellar Credit Day keynote speaker Stacey Tisdale, who also is a StellarFi founding partner, and Angela Yee on initiatives including sharing financial literacy best practices through their digital finance empowerment program “Wealth Wednesdays.”

Tell Us About Your Typical Workday Schedule. What Are Your Morning And Evening Routines? What Are Some Tips You Have For Staying Productive?

I really, really dislike routines. But I recognize the value of having some predictability in the day. So I try to have consistency in my daily activities but reserve the right to be flexible in changing and modifying whatever I’m doing.

What Are The Top Qualities or Skills You Believe Entrepreneurs Need In Order To Be Successful? Also, What Advice Do You Have For Entrepreneurs Who Are Just Starting Out?

Resilience (because it’s a freaking grind). Empathy (because you MUST KNOW thy customer and team). Killer Instinct (because you only eat what you kill).

You must ask yourself if there’s something else that you could do for a living, if the answer is yes, then do yourself a huge favor and pursue that other thing. If the answer is: I absolutely can not do anything else but be an entrepreneur then go for it.

What Is One Thing About Building A Business You Did Not Know That You’ve Learned So Far Since Launching StellarFi?

We thought our product was solving a big problem for a small group of people. Instead, we realized we have a mass market solution.

Tell Us A Story Of Something That Happened To You That Taught You An Important Lesson.

Although it’s a funny mistake now, it was terrifying back then. The funniest mistake I made was at my very first significant investor pitch to Wells Fargo. Investor pitches have a specific format with only so much time allotted and specific points to hit, and at this pitch, there were dozens of investors, high-profile people, and a handful of other startups. I had shared my ideas before and spoken to investors and thought I had my pitch down, so I barely spent any time practicing.

When it was time for my pitch, I stepped up on the stage and blanked. I was so nervous. Every second felt like an eternity because I couldn’t push a word out. Words finally started coming out of my mouth and I’m still not quite sure what I said. I said some things about the business and maybe about the business model. After I finished, I sat down next to one of my co-founders and he said “Well, the silver lining here is no one can steal our idea.”

The takeaway from that experience was no matter how good you think you are, practice is essential. Every new experience is unique and requires practice for success. I felt I was experienced in selling my ideas and public speaking, but since then I’ve learned it’s important to prepare.

What Do You Do In Your Free Time?

I spend time with my family, read, exercise, play and try to carve as much time as possible to think.

Who Is Your Role Model?

I don’t have a role model.

What Is Your Favorite Quote And Why Does It Resonate With You?

Failure is a factor of success” is my mantra.

You have to embrace and anticipate it. No matter how experienced you are, there will be failure and you have to manage it, leverage it, then turn it into success.

How Do You Think Your Industry (Or The World In General) Will Change Post-COVID?

Fintech provides compelling ideas and technologies to emerge that will alter the state of our ever-changing world. Here’s what to watch for:

Accelerated evolution: Because of COVID-19, remote work was an absolute necessity for over two years, and platforms like Zoom and Slack scaled at absurd rates to keep businesses operational. Tech investments were completely recalibrated, with billions in capital going to the digital economy. The lesson from this is to continue our technological and entrepreneurial evolution to better prepare for the unknown and unpredictable tech evolutions, in fintech specifically.

Decentralized trust: For better or for worse, Americans have disassembled their trust in the mega-entities that once dictated our opinions, decisions and ideologies. But, as with anything else, decentralized trust has a silver lining—especially for fintech. Consumers who once feared using a credit card online are now comfortable depositing checks digitally, using apps to transfer money to friends and family and investing in blockchain. In short, decentralized trust has a ripple effect that leads to consumers accessing loans, investment tools and more through fintech that would otherwise be unavailable.

Mass empowerment: There are swaths of the American populace that don’t understand the power of a good credit score—not because they lack financial literacy, but because they’ve never experienced life without good credit. With inadequate credit, consumers pay more for necessities, lack access to credit-based investments like homeownership and education, and endure financial emergencies with no safety net. Poor credit begets poor credit, and the consequences persist from generation to generation. Although Americans are facing immense challenges in a post-COVID world, it has opened the eyes of many to better understand and adopt financially literate practices.

Any Other Thoughts You Want To Share Relating To Current Events, The Economy, Political Climate, Or Any Other Topic?

Inflation is currently at a forty-year high as a recession looms in the near future. Americans don’t have to feel weighed down by a troubled economy and can take straightforward steps to ensure financial stability in the coming months and year:

  1. Get current on your credit card payments

Falling behind on loans and credit card payments can have serious consequences for your credit. Payment history, which represents your track record for repaying your debts, accounts for 35% of your credit score – more than any other credit rating factor.  Lenders can only report delinquent accounts to the credit bureaus if they’re more than 30 days overdue, but they may charge penalties if you pay even one day late. Coupled with inflation, those late fees can snowball into a serious deficit in your budget. Automating your payments can help if you simply forget due dates. If you find yourself making late payments because you don’t typically have cash in your account when the bill is due, look for areas to reduce expenses temporarily while you get caught up.

2. Build an emergency savings fund

Saving money is challenging, and unfortunately, building a savings fund becomes even more challenging during an economic downturn. Although it’s tough, focusing on stashing some cash away can keep rising prices and financial emergencies from causing long-term damage. For example, if you need to cover an unexpected repair or medical bill, a savings account helps you avoid going into debt to pay the bill or fall behind on your other expenses.

3. Reduce your spending and expenses

The forces driving inflation are complicated, but the effect is simple: as prices rise, life gets more expensive. Take a look at your accounts to see how your spending has shifted in recent months. If you notice vulnerable areas or your spending is no longer aligned with your financial goals or income, look for ways to cut back. You can’t control the price of gas or food, but you can control how often you drive or eat out, or eliminate unused memberships and subscriptions.

What Does Success Mean To You?

Success = freedom to do most daily things not out of necessity but because you want to do them.

Interviews

Interview with Ekke Uustalu, Co-Founder of Planyard

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Interview with Ekke Uustalu, Co-Founder of Planyard

Co-founder of Planyard with a background in B2B software and cyber security. Now tackling profitability forecasting in larger construction companies to make sure they don’t go out of business due to insufficient visibility.

He was born right when Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 90s. This experience has been invaluable as he saw the rapid development and life quality improvement this new way provided.

When growing up, everything in his life was digitalized – the communication, the school work, government and medical services. This meant that that was since childhood the normal. He couldn’t really expect less than excellent and user-friendliness from any service. This part is probably normal for 99% of Estonians though.

He studied computer systems in his university studies and found entrepreneurship interesting from early on. He worked in various startups during studies and attended various startup events and competitions. Some of these competitions were also where the first attempts (and failures) at personal startups took place.

He also tried Amazon FBA (Fulfilled by Amazon) product selling which failed quite miserably as the product was completely custom designed and was just a one-time thing. The product was also partially a safety device so Amazon deciding to now allowing to sell the product was a good learning point. Never give too much decision power to someone else. Also, don’t make safety products without having great suppliers. 🙂

After a short stint in a cyber security company, he was invited by acquaintances to work on Planyard. This has been the main focus for the past few years.

Where did the idea for Planyard come from?

The idea for Planyard came from our acquaintances working in the construction field. Many of them work as project managers and complained that they don’t have good tools that help them do financial tasks efficiently.

They often need to use multiple unlinked spreadsheets with duplicate data where the processing and data copying takes way too long. So when one of our founders had multiple discussions with these PMs, he was able to identify key issues that we started to work on once the mockups were confirmed.

So now we are providing a cloud-based software tool for construction companies to automate much of the annoying manual work they have to do anyway. This can save up to 5 days for each project manager per month. Additionally, colleagues and managers can also easily see what the status is if the company prefers to share the access inside the company.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Since we are a small bootstrapped team, the day consists of various tasks that have to be done – often some development work, marketing actions if we have some content planned, calls with customers and representatives from tools that we integrate with.

It is important to list and then prioritize all of the things that need to be done in the day to make sure that you can really focus on the important tasks. Depending on the task, we have different Trello boards to track them or for stuff only specific to me, I also use Gmail snoozing to not lose anything.

How do you bring ideas to life?

We often hear about problems that our customers are having. When we hear these brought out, we have to validate that many or most of our customers face similar issues. When we validate that indeed this is a relevant issue for many people, we then start work on solution proposals.

We then make very low-quality mockups that we can validate with all of the parties and often do multiple rounds of these discussions to tweak the solution before we start implementing it.

This means that we can be very sure of the technical solution before we do anything. We might make small adjustments to the design or the process later on, but the fundamental assumptions are correct, thus reducing the amount of rework we have to do.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Young and/or tech-savvy people who are becoming decision makers in (construction) companies. They have grown up with productivity tools and user-friendly tools and expect that when they try to find a solution. Also, a more bottom-up management style is nice since everyone’s’ opinion matters and the boss doesn’t decide alone.

This means that our potential customers are more open to embracing technical solutions that will make their life easier. Additionally, when looking for solutions, they are very selfishly trying to find a great experience. That differs from the “old school“ enterprise sales where the management would just decide for something and the end users would not really benefit from it.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

If you don’t get it 100% clearly, just ask again. I think I need to fully understand the problem and why it is a problem to be able to solve it for the customer.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Ask more questions before rushing to propose solutions. You probably didn’t fully get it yet.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Probably not that unpopular, but raising money is not everything. Raising money too soon can hurt or end your business.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Blocking out time for deep focus time. This is probably more a techy thing to do, but having the freedom of no distractions for some part of your day really lets you achieve a lot.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

We still need to do a lot of work on our online presence and messaging, but we for sure are already seeing successes from our SEO efforts however limited the time is that we put in there.

In short, it’s better to be where the customers are searching for you instead of cold calling and reaching out to them yourself.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

A few years ago, I tried doing Amazon FBA (fulfillment by Amazon) as a business. We developed our own product from scratch for just a one-time event.

The production delays and strict Amazon restrictions meant that we actually could almost not sell any products to our customers before the date. We lost a lot of time and money doing this, but I learned to value my own control over the process more. In that case, we did make a lot of mistakes on our own as well. But giving so much power to someone else can be risky as they can just shut you down when they decide to do so.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I recently heard of an idea for an app to order food in the restaurant. So basically Uber Eats to eat in – no waiting for the waiter, no payment struggles, and the possibility for the company to do dynamic pricing.

I’m not sure if it is a great idea, but it’s an idea.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Trello. Keeping track of what you need to do, what you did, and to prioritize what needs to be done. Without structure, you just do whatever you want to in the morning and that probably won’t take you too far.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross and Marylou Tyler
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

What is your favorite quote?

Change in all things is sweet – Aristotle

Originally published on IdeaMensch.
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Interview with Neil Parsont, CEO of Zero Cheating

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Interview with Neil Parsont, CEO of Zero Cheating

Born in Livingston, New Jersey, Neil Parsont moved to Florida with his family when he was twelve years old. After graduating from high school, he attended Florida Atlantic University (FAU) where he received both his undergraduate degree in Finance in 2008, and his MBA in 2016.

Since entering the professional world, Neil Parsont has been a prolific entrepreneur. He is currently in the midst of launching Zero Cheating, an online exam proctoring company with patent-pending hardware and software solutions designed to prevent all forms of academic fraud. One of his earlier ventures, Cram Tutoring, is a successful tutoring business offering instruction for business and math students from middle school through graduate level.

Neil Parsont is also the CEO of 6-Pack Macros, a firm that creates custom fitness plans, including workouts and nutrition programs. The company recently launched a mobile application met with tremendous reviews from users. Neil is also involved with 6-Pack Crypto, a cryptocurrency incubator hedge fund based on fundamental investment strategies.

Among his many business accomplishments, Neil is most proud of helping thousands of students graduate from Florida Atlantic University and gain acceptance to other schools through the services provided by his academically focused companies. Additionally, he has worked with several startups to form successful business plans, one of which was in the top eight of the FAU Business Plan competition. Neil also raised half a million dollars in capital funding for his own businesses.

Today, Neil Parsont still resides in Florida. When not hard at work, he enjoys chess, tennis, and golf. When he was younger, Neil played tennis competitively and won a few local tennis tournaments. He also once hit a hole-in-one at the Red Reef Golf Course in Boca Raton, Florida, an accomplishment for which he received an official certificate.

Where did the idea for your career come from?

I was part of a large group chat of FAU students who decided to kick me out of the chat so they could cheat. Using secondary accounts, I saw students sharing the entire exam, and I decided this dishonesty needed to be stopped. Armed with years of firsthand knowledge of how students circumvent existing proctoring services and cheat, I knew exactly how to prevent it going forward.

It’s a patent-pending software and hardware system that prevents all forms of cheating within online exam environments. Creating the business was my way of making a difference. I’ve been a tutor for about a decade and a half, and in that time, I’ve seen every way that students cheat. Unfortunately, the practice has grown exponentially since the onset of the digital era—and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread adoption of distance learning. Academic fraud devalues degrees, which isn’t fair to the students that actually put in the time and effort to learn the material. A lot of universities are continuing to use lecture capture online exams, but the current system is highly flawed. I’ve seen a group chat where over 75 students shared screenshots of an entire exam. Once I saw that and realized all the other ways that students can cheat, I was motivated to create this system. Simply put, it prevents all manner of academic fraud without violating the privacy of students.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I wake up around 5:30am to pray and meditate with a sunrise view centering my mind on God and helping others. I swim for 30 minutes and then head to the gym where I work out for an hour. After taking care of my mind, spirit, and body, I head into my office. I’ll work from 11 am to around 5 pm, focusing predominantly on tutoring while making time for my other businesses. After work, I like to relax by playing chess, eating dinner with friends, or other social activities.

Regarding Zero Cheating, it’s in the development phase, right now. I currently have a company building both the underlying software and the prototype, and I’m also working with someone that’s finalizing the business plan. Day-to-day, it’s just a matter of trying to source and put together materials for pitching to an investor. I’m talking to some lawyers to set up a regulation CF to crowdfund on WeFunder, and that will probably launch in the next two months.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Immediate action. Once I have an idea, I find a way to make it concrete and implement it. For example, when I realized the extent of cheating and formulated a solution, I immediately contacted a patent attorney. Once the non-provisional patents were filed, I began the process of writing a business plan with a partner and sourcing a technology provider. As of now, the camera and software are being built, the fundraising is started, and testing is scheduled for Spring Semester 2023.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Health and fitness. We’re seeing more and more people valuing their health and wanting to get into good shape, and I’m excited about this trend. A healthier general population is a panacea; there is no downside to it.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I don’t hit the snooze button. When my alarm goes off in the morning, I get up without hesitation, write down my specific tasks for the day as a to-do list, and check off the items as I accomplish them.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Listen to older people. Their experience and perspective are invaluable.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

You can lose weight without necessarily being in a calorie deficit if you understand how your metabolism and hormones work. I’ve done it before. I’ve looked at how much I’ve eaten versus how many calories I’ve burned that day and lost weight, and I have a good idea why.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I constantly bounce my ideas off of people who have previous experience in a similar field. Any time I have an idea, I check in to get the opinions of someone who’s already been through the process and come out the other end successfully.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Focusing on what the consumer wants. By asking and constantly testing what the consumer wants, I know what features and services to develop, which areas to market, and where demand is.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

One company I created early in my career was called Owl Tutors, and it was a platform for tutors to list their services and find clients. With this model, the tutors would pay a membership and a per lead fee, but they would keep all the money they made with the client. The failure I encountered was not listening to the tutors who were using the platform. My marketing team interviewed all the tutors and the tutors constantly said all they wanted was access to students. Getting students was very costly and difficult, so I focused on providing other services a businessperson running a tutoring company would want. These included a scheduling system, payment process, and marketing materials including posters and business cards. However, none of these items directly made tutors money so they were not interested. Instead of switching the revenue model to splitting the revenue with the tutor, I stubbornly stuck to my original plan. By the time I accepted my business model was not viable from the tutor’s perspective, it was too late, and the company’s cash had run dry leading to a bankruptcy. I’d love to say I overcame the failure, but in reality, I learned a valuable lesson—provide only products and services the consumer is willing to pay for. Had I focused on the consumer’s (tutor’s) willingness to pay, Owl Tutors would be in business today.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Look for any changes over the past year or so in how people are behaving and what they’re consuming, then figure out how to cater to those trends. After finding a suitable niche, consider what consumers are willing to pay for. Focus on the source of the demand and build a business around it.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

On Sunday, I had a date. It was my first date with someone who could be my future wife. Suffice it to say, we got along great and really connected. Looking at it from that perspective, it might be the best $100 spent in my entire life.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Acuity Scheduling. I schedule all my clients using this service. It takes care of billing, gives reminders about appointments, and keeps me organized. It also syncs up well with my Google Calendar, so I know exactly who I’m tutoring and what subject I’m tutoring them in, and it enables me to bill and charge them. It also sends text and email reminders to clients.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I recommend this book to everyone because it teaches you to genuinely listen to people. It teaches you to understand what they think from their perspective. It helps in the development of relationships because you learn how to be less self-centered in conversations and not just talk about what you want to talk about.

What is your favorite quote?

“No one ever won a game by resigning.” — French chess Grandmaster Savielly Tartakower.

Key Learnings:

  • Listen to the wisdom and experience of older people.
  • Take immediate action when a business idea comes to mind.
  • When building a business, always listen to what the customer wants and is willing to pay for. Then focus on providing those services or products.
Originally published on IdeaMensch.
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Interview with Alex Harrington, Co-Founder of SecureCo

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Interview with Alex Harrington, Co-Founder of SecureCo

Alex Harrington is an accomplished technology founder and executive with 20+ years leading start-ups and growth technology enterprises. Prior to SecureCo, Alex was Chief Executive Officer and board member of PeerStream, Inc., a public communications technology company.

Alex previously served as CEO of MeetMoi, LLC, a mobile social platform, prior to its sale to Match.com. Prior to that, Alex served as the Senior Vice President of Strategy and Operations for Zagat Survey, where he oversaw a transformation of the digital business which ultimately culminated in the company’s sale to Google.

Alex holds a MBA from the Wharton School and a BA from Williams College.

Where did the idea for SecureCo come from?

SecureCo’s co-founder and I ran PeerStream as CEO and CTO, a business that provides live video communication apps to hundreds of millions of end users around the world. In the Middle East and Asia, we had become a political speech platform, which began to elicit cyber-attacks from nation-state actors who wanted to block or take down our service and go after our end users. We had to develop military-grade defensive capabilities in order to maintain uptime, protect the privacy and identity of our users, and penetrate through national firewalls intended to block our service. We had conviction that the knowhow that protected PeerStream would be valuable to other organizations, so we bought out the IP and the team to launch SecureCo as an independent company.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

As the CEO of a small growing business, I wear nearly every hat. In a single day I will be working on product, technology, marketing, sales, finance and customer service. A versatile skill base is must, time management skills and the ability to switch context are all critical. One you get used to a start-up environment, it’s hard to go back to a role with a narrow scope and long planning cycles.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Inspiration for new business ideas comes from many sources. Startups are unbounded by a long operating history, freeing them to explore nearly all avenues of opportunity. Decision-making is extremely agile in a startup environment, and the organization can turn on a dime to capitalize on an opportunity or new customer requirement. However, the temptation to chase every bright shiny object has been the undoing of many promising young companies. Large organizations have checks and balances against reckless course changes, but this can also snuff out innovation. The challenge of a start-up is to figure out when to exercise the capacity for agility and innovation, and when to stick to your focus or niche.

What’s one trend that excites you?

AI-enabled, self-driving cars are not very far out in the future. I believe this will be even more transformative to our lives than the advent of the smartphone. Traffic will flow much, much faster once human error is removed. People will travel and commute much longer distances, because the driver is now a passenger who can spend time productively. Cars will be designed with seats that fold flat for sleeping. Urban street parking becomes obsolete since cars would find some inconspicuous underground parking until summoned. On the downside, driving as a career or side gig becomes superfluous, which will cause economic displacement for millions of people.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I am a compulsive list maker, to keep tabs on and prioritize the dozens of simultaneous work streams and the associated tasks.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Be bolder. Overcome the imposter syndrome – most people will give you the benefit of the doubt. Youth and inexperience can be an asset – older, more experienced people are often seeking to partner with energetic, coachable talent. Seek out experienced mentors and don’t hesitate to share your insecurities. Forcing yourself to confront your limitations will clarify that most of them are surmountable.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Conventional wisdom says that effective people clear out their inbox or complete their to do list. I believe the opposite is true. At all times we are swamped with rather unimportant tasks that are easy to accomplish. It’s very tempting to clear the decks and push off the difficult, yet very important stuff. The truly disciplined thing to do is prioritize what truly creates value and push off those hundreds of minutiae until failure to complete them has consequences.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Spread your bets out, preferable at large scale. I wasn’t trained in sales but learned the hard way what every entry level salesperson knows. Most things in business are a numbers game, and you can’t count on any one opportunity coming through for you, no matter how certain it seems. Figuring out how to scale your outreach and widening the top of your prospect funnel is a big part of making sure that your outcomes line up with your expectations.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Invest in relationships. To some people this comes naturally. But to others who are more introverted, and would rather work with code or numbers, other than people. The fact is all opportunities come from people and the goodwill you generate with them. Making a personal connection with your business associates can make a world of difference, since the conventional wisdom is true – people don’t remember what you said, they remember how you make them feel.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Taking the long view on your life and career, failure is a much more effective learning experience than success. But it usually feels awful when you are going through it. Still, even in the moment of failure, there are almost always ways of making lemonade out of lemons. Twitter and Slack were originally both pivots from failed ventures. Often, even in failure, there are some great things that you’ve created that can form the nucleus of a new, potentially much more successful venture. Twice in my career I have built successful startups by extracting assets and IP out of another struggling business.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

There is a huge gap between the current state of cybersecurity awareness and training needs. This goes for consumer awareness, non-technical employee training, staffing and training for entry level cyber jobs. Presently there are approximately 600,000 unfilled cyber jobs in the U.S., but this figure will grow into the millions in a few years. Businesses that support the pipeline of personnel to fill these jobs should do quite well.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Airpods. I’m on the phone constantly, and absolutely need to be hands free and to be able to move around, potentially out of range of a speakerphone. I also use the downtime I have, while doing perfunctory tasks to listen to podcasts and audiobooks. They are as indispensable to me as shoes.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

It’s tough to choose only one. Calendly is a scheduling solution that I’ve found to be very useful, especially to allow third parties to schedule the mutually available time of my partner and me.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

A brilliant finance professor I had at Wharton recommended The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro to all his students. Strangely, it’s not a business book at all; it’s about a seemingly trivial set of occurrences in the life of an English butler. But the narrator meditates profoundly on topics like dedication to a professional craft, work-life balance, and perceiving the impact of your work on the broader world around you. It is utterly captivating – the only novel I’ve ever read in a single sitting.

What is your favorite quote?

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” This is such a powerful statement by Eleanor Roosevelt, which applies to both personal and professional life. Building a business up from nothing means you are the smallest company on the block and will be for a long time. It’s easy to feel inferior when you have no market power and are sometimes scratching to survive. But the innovation and entrepreneurial audacity of small businesses can be a superpower, and big company leaders admire and seek alignment with these characteristics.

Key Learnings:

  • Successful entrepreneurship requires not just bold thinking, but bold execution. Key thoughts from this interview:
  • The superpower of entrepreneurs is their ability to boldly embrace innovation and sell a compelling vision of the future. These qualities will draw admiration that compensate for other shortcomings of your startup.
  • Nelson Mandela said, “I never lose, I either win or learn.” This is true in entrepreneurship if you take measured bets and fail fast. There is no better teacher than failure, and often successful businesses emerge from failed projects.
  • Never place your bets on one or two big deals – diversify your risk by scaling your outreach.
  • Confidence and resilience are so important in facing off with larger competitors or surmounting the imposter syndrome. While some people have these as inborn traits, I do believe that you can cultivate these attributes.
Originally published on IdeaMensch.
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