Tag: entrepreneurs


The below post and podcast was republished with permission from PluggedIN, an automated talent recruitment and matchmaking platform specifically focused on startup companies. PluggedIN was founded by Colleen Liebig, who serves as an Industry Career Specialist & Advisor at Olin, with specialization in entrepreneurship.

“When we look to hire people, we look to see that we can get along as a team. We say that they need to pass the barbecue and beer test. Would we want to sit down and have a barbecue and a beer with this person?”
—Jaye Connolly-LaBelle, CEO, RippleNami

Imagine the last time you needed something. Whether it is the nearest grocery store or best-rated dry cleaner in the area, a quick Google search would provide an accessible answer and even a map to take you to your destination. While these benefits of a connected society are often taken for granted in developed nations, people in many parts of the world do not have access to these resources. From 6-hour searches for suitable drinking water to nonexistent information about the nearest primary school, unconnected people in developing nations struggle to get the basic information relevant to them.

Out of this need arose RippleNami. Although the startup is less than two years old, RippleNami has set out to provide unconnected people with simple mapping technologies to better visualize the resources or situations relevant to them. Working with NGOs, logistics providers, aid organizations, and governments in several developing countries, the company has already begun to realize its mission and establish a global presence.

We had the opportunity to learn about RippleNami’s unique work during a podcast episode with CEO Jaye Connolly La-Belle. During our conversation, Jaye shared a host of insights into how she became involved in the project, manages a global team, and helps work towards RippleNami’s mission on a daily basis. Some highlights of our discussion include:

  • How Jaye transitioned from her career in finance and accounting to connect with RippleNami’s founder and help operationalize the idea
  • Why she embraces a globally distributed team and how she hires the right employees in developing nations
  • What leadership strategies are key to running a start-up and why successful entrepreneurs must be able to handle all aspects of the business
  • How RippleNami is building its simplified mapping technology and where the startup sees itself in the future
  • Why Jaye felt St. Louis was the right startup ecosystem to grow RippleNami, and how the company is participating in two accelerator programs (Capital Innovators and Prosper Women Entrepreneurs).

Disclaimer: I probably use a derivative of the word failure 25–30 times throughout the post, noted.

Failure is terrible.

It’s true, failing flat out sucks. There are few things more heart wrenching in life than seeing yourself or your company flop. All of that time and money, out on the curb and gone to waste. But who wants to read about that? That would make for one boring story, because let’s face it: Everyone fails every once in a while. Luckily, that is not the complete reality.

Failure is not the worst thing that can happen to you.

But let’s get things straight. I do not see a need to parade around and celebrate my failures. But I do believe that learning from failure is crucial because failure is inevitable. Though, what could be worse than failing?

In the American school system, a 57% is generally an “F” and a 75% is the average, a “C”.

A “C” allows you to pass the class while F prohibits you from moving on. One, demoralizing; the other, sufficient. Though, I argue that failing is more beneficial than scoring in the average.

Yes, failure>mediocrity.

The reality of life is that it is impossible to always finish at the top. There will be times where you lie to the left of the 99th percentile. But how bad is bad, and what do we consider to be a failure?

Failure, at least how we define it in school, has always meant under 60%. Failing in middle school meant having to stay 15 minutes past the bell to relaunch my baking soda & vinegar bottle rocket. In high school, it meant missing the homecoming weekend to redo my physics lab. And now, in college, it meant missing the party of the semester to retype my Writing 1 essay.

Sad? Yes. Agonizing? No.

Throughout my 15 years of formal schooling I never had an opportunity to accept and admit defeat in the classroom. I place that blame, for the most part, on the structure of schooling. The nature of schooling breeds mediocrity. Students are often incentivized to be average: on assignments, projects, and tests. In middle school, teachers reward students who have just passing grades with shiny stickers. In high school, the principal honors students who maintained above a 2.0 GPA with a noble seat at graduation. And in college, students can earn credits, as long as they maintain test averages above failure.

This process fosters average people who get average grades. Students work hard to simply fall above the arbitrary pass-fail line. People rather pass (barely) than admit defeat. Passing allows you to get credits, avoid embarrassment, and graduate. What does failing get you? So then I ask the question: 65% & shiny sticker or 59% & F? Choose the latter.

Learning from your mistakes and persevering is essential to success.

Learning from your mistakes and persevering is essential to success. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

I want to be an outlier. Outliers learn the most and progress the fastest.

Recognizing failure is a vital part of an individual’s journey towards self-actualization and development. Failing is essential to growth. “You’ll struggle to find a great invention that wasn’t preceded by a series of failures.” Of course, not all failures are created equal. People fail for all sorts of reasons: laziness, priorities, effort, incomprehension, and critical errors. You may not learn as much from errors rooted in a lack of internal motivation. Rather, it is best to fail at things you can not prevent without having experience. These are the biggest life lessons.

So why then do we stop people from failing early on? Why do we hold them right above the water until we release them into the real world?

Mediocrity is inbred in our society. The shiny stickers and external support provide the perfect amount of comfort for an average civilization. But we need to be moving in one direction or the other. It is impossible to tread forever. I argue that the ordinary school system does a poor job of teaching students the proper way to fail, as well as how to improve.

We all should have failed more in school. The time and setting are ideal, the consequences were minimal, and the only thing in jeopardy was our social standing for the day. If only I understood this sooner.

Learning from failure in business

Outside of the classroom, failure has really real consequences. Stickers are replaced with pink slips as people lose their livelihoods due to shortcomings.

In the business world, a 75 percent (average) means absolutely nothing. “Earning” a 75 percent from your work will cost you 100 percent of the job.

That simple concept took me two years and potentially thousands of dollars to truly digest. The only way to understand this is to experience it. But as you enter the real business world, these experiences become more expensive, draining crucial time and money.

Fail as early and as quickly as possible.  This applies to both in the formal learning environment as well as in business development.

I define this as a fail loop: the period between starting something and reaching inevitable failure.

Those who are able to tighten this loop the fastest are at an extreme advantage. Tighter fail loops make for faster learning. Developing this is not easy, but those who do it well are best off.

So what did I take from this concept?

I will repeat what I said early on: failing is never your goal. But, as I hope I have demonstrated, it is better to fail outright and learn from your failure than to get stuck in between two arbitrary guidelines, while never admitting defeat.

And so, I present my failures…And I think I learned a thing or two from doing this. Hope this was not a complete failure, or maybe I don’t.

Try and make your own, you may learn something as well.

This post was originally featured on Medium and was republished with permission from the author.

Charity Wear

This is the story of how Andrew Stachel and I, along with the help of many friends and mentors (S/O Nina Kravetz), built an organization called Charity Wear.

Charity Wear started via phone call as a school project–and that was our first mistake. “Project.” There is no urgency in calling something a project. Projects are closer to hobbies than they are to real businesses. Projects do not change the world.

But nonetheless, we were 15 and did not even have our driver’s permit. Who cared?

After chatting a bit, we did what every naïve, run-of-the-gun wantrepreneur does: We chose a name. Yep. 3 hours into our phone call we, the two-man team with no revenue, no customers, no anything, had an unlicensed name and a gmail account ready to conduct some business. What that business was going to be was still unknown. Fast forward two weeks: we change our name to Charity Wear.

So what was the plan?

We wanted to efficiently sell shirts to other clubs at our school and donate that money to charitable causes. We believed that the process of in-house design and ordering online was too complex for clubs (initial assumptions). Answering these needs was going to be our core competency (we definitely did not use the word core competency, ever). But we always knew there was more potential to our idea.

Jordan Gonen's email launching business

The mission: redesign the typical fundraising model by forming a unique product market fit with the way we designed, manufactured, and advertised apparel.

Charity Wear was to be a non-profit club, 100 percent run by high school students.

The reality

Starting Charity Wear was like nothing I had seen in the movies. There were no whiteboards, yoga mats, lean startup canvases, or books about VRIO analysis. We did not even call ourselves social entrepreneurs (God forbid).

We simply started. As Paul Graham would say, we started with the first quantum of utility.

Our first try

This event would be a product of sheer will and making mistakes. We kicked off this endeavor in aid of the Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund. We were excited—much more excited than our potential customers. Truth is, we flopped, big time.

This is the part most bloggers and entrepreneurs leave out. They talk about going from 0 to $100,000 really quick, but never tell you that the first $100 is 10x harder than the last.

They leave out that getting over the first road bump is what separates sustainable companies and bankruptcies. Most people would never tell a hopeful “entrepreneur” (let alone a 15 year old) this, but I wish someone did. Just in case either of those two types of people are reading this, I will put it in bold: YOU ARE GOING TO SCREW UP & FAIL. 99 PERCENT OF BUSINESSES DO.

What Happened?

We raised about $250 for the Relief Fund selling our t-shirts. Though not an utter failure (after all we did provide some help), it was an embarrassing showing. We could have raised more money collecting donations from parents.

Analyzing our mistakes:

  •  Overestimated sales: I still have leftover shirts under my bed.
  •  Ordered wrong sizes: We bought way too many XL shirts.
  •  Designed inefficiently: As you can see in the picture below, there are two designs. WHY?
  •  Annoying: Yep. We were annoying (mainly me) and marketed to our consumers poorly.

This brought us to a fork in the road. It forced us to improve. And in doing so, we gained traction.

Do things that don’t scale

This is a concept from Sam Altman’s YCombinator: Doing things that don’t scale. When you are a startup and have a small team, you can do things that big companies cannot. You can afford to individually email reporters and Facebook message to advertise because your time is not on salary. A founder’s metric should not be efficiency, but rather total output. This is your competitive advantage as a startup.

After enough time of doing these things and running small campaigns, we found an idea that we thought could work.

Cue the part of the movie where a flashing light bulb appears and the tempo of the background music picks up.
An example of the first t-shirts created by Charity Wear

Play Big

Big. Remember that word. It represented our aspirations and challenges entering our junior year.

We spent the summer planning our biggest event yet: the Play Big Football Game. All of the funds would be donated to a cause much closer to our hearts, the Samantha Stachel Play Big Scholarship Fund at ASU. The concept was to sell the apparel themed for our rivalry football game against Saguaro High School. We integrated the spirit of the cause with the fire of the game in all of our marketing.

This time, we did everything we could, especially things that do not scale.

  • We cold-emailed hundreds of potential media outlets
  • We were featured in the Arizona Republic, East Valley Tribune, Jewish News, AZ Central, and on television
  • We designed and manufactured shirts for the opposition, increasing profits.
  • We negotiated the printing price.
  • We marketed on the announcements and all over social media.

And it worked: We raised $9,000 in two weeks by selling t-shirts.

What do you do after your first success?

This is a tricky question. No one talks about it, yet it might be even more difficult than finding success in the first place. We analyzed the causes of our initial success and found ways to repeat them. In addition, our campaign was still not perfect. Once again, we ordered too many extra-large t-shirts and failed to sell them out. All of this experience is extremely valuable. I define this process in this quote:

“Trim the fat and iterate over your successes”

For the rest of the year we continued to build on the things we got right. We launched more fundraising campaigns, this time in partnership with other organizations on campus. We raised over $2,000 for our special needs department to fund iPads. We again walked in the Relay For Life, raising the most money in Arizona. But we knew we were not done.

Play Big II

The next big challenge was to repeat the success of our initial Play Big game. It’s easier said than done.

The aim this time was to not only play bigger, but also play better. We focused on execution and used our experience as leverage for making critical assumptions. In addition to iterating on the things that made us successful, we became a bit more professional to cover up our sloppy errors from the first game. We consulted more mentors and took our time in constructing our business plan. We built a larger team to fill our bigger aspirations. All of these things paid off:

  • We partnered with a nationwide Twitter community, Smack High. We gained support from students across the country getting excited about our rivalry football game.
  • We used professional designing experience to build a shirt that people loved to wear.
  • We set up a marketing system in which marketers from all school levels promoted the product. This allowed us to reach more consumers.
  • We partnered with a large Arizona radio station to broadcast the tailgate.
  • We brought food trucks to the game to increase excitement.


We raised the most money in the history of my high school: $13,000 in 2 weeks.

We helped thousands of people play big.

This event was a success for many of the same reasons our earlier endeavors were deemed to be failures. For better or worse, we were kids who were not afraid of making mistakes. I am confident in saying that without our earlier mistakes, as well as the help from mentors along the way, we would not have been successful in any capacity.

Charity Wear, today:

I know what you are thinking. If Charity Wear was such a big success, where is it today? The truth is that even after all of that, we screwed up. And only now, 6 months removed, is it crystal clear.

We relied too heavily on ourselves and did not plan for the future.

This is a mistake many founders make because they want to do all of the work themselves. But it is also a fatal error. Think of teaching others as an investment.

A great founder is able to inspire others to be as motivated as the founder himself. Always think of the future in the back of your mind.

Today, Charity Wear has become integrated with our high school, still putting on the annual Play Big Event. Since we did not plan ahead, we lost the opportunity to potentially impact thousands more.

I also believe that the idea behind Charity Wear was a great idea and still exists in many forms. Let’s get things clear: selling t-shirts is not revolutionary. But there are good and bad ways to sell t-shirts. Look at successes like teespring for validation. The insight is that we were headed in the right direction.

What you can take from this:

While not all of the lessons I learned while working with Charity Wear are applicable everywhere in business, I am confident I can bring with me many of these skills when attempting to solve future problems. Throughout Charity Wear, I gained experience in design, management, marketing, supply chain, finance, and design. But more than that, I learned how business development really works.

As a summary:

  1.  Do things that don’t scale, as long as you can
  2.  Trim the fat, iterate over your successes
  3.  Start right away
  4.  Do not be afraid to email
  5.  Work with people you know
  6.  Find mentors
  7.  No excuses, ever

I am taking these lessons with me as I look to develop new projects.

Special Thanks to the team: Andrew Stachel, Nina Kravetz, Trent Waller, Rachel Greess, Adam Ichilov, Alexa Ehrenfreund

This post was originally featured on Medium and www.managermint.com, and was republished with permission from the author.

JD Ross of Opendoor

Don’t try to give JD Ross, BSBA ’12, a job to do. He only wants your problems. “I’m a terrible employee,” Ross said. “I’ve always been bad at being told specific things to do. If you tell me there’s a problem to solve, I love that.”

Today, he’s loving this problem: helping homeowners sell their houses instantly, without the heartache of weeks or months on the real estate market. Ross and three colleagues tackled the problem with Opendoor, founded in 2014 and boasting $30 million in venture capital support.

Only three years out of Washington University, Ross already had a string of startups on his resume, including Fresh Prints, a student–run custom apparel company he founded on campus, where he developed the staff and built the logistics to manage every aspect of the million-dollar business.

He was the fifth employee at Addepar (now more than 10 times that size), hired to create the product team for the Mountain View, California-based startup that builds financial portfolio analysis software for investors. He left to create Opendoor with former Square COO Keith Rabois and two others.

But even earlier—as a 13-year-old—Ross founded his first company: GenY Computer Consultants. Ross charged $60 an hour to clean viruses and malware from customers’ machines. “I could do the same thing as the adults, faster, and I could guarantee it. It was a great learning opportunity,” said Ross, who was installing computer systems for the local school district by the time he was 17.

His business school education was instrumental, as well. Every professor encouraged exploration, but he particularly recalled Lamar Pierce, his introductory management professor, and Michael Gordinier, his statistics teacher. “They probably pushed me the most,” Ross said. “When you’re a freshman, you look for some authority to tell you you’re going in the right direction.” They were key, he said, but “there isn’t a single person at Olin who didn’t encourage you to stray from the normal path if you wanted to.”

“There isn’t a single person at Olin who didn’t encourage you to stray from the normal path if you wanted to.”

The future, Ross said, belongs to the multiple disciplinarians: Be among either the top 0.1 percent of people with one skill, or the top 5 percent of those with two or more.

“Everyone should find things they’re interested in and build skills around being able to do that,” he said.

With his computer skills and business training from Olin, it’s no wonder that Ross became the guy who could build Opendoor’s first prototype from scratch, then overcome skeptics who doubted anyone would pay a premium over typical real estate commissions to sell a house instantly. Now, Opendoor buys four homes a day in Phoenix and will soon be expanding into Dallas and Portland. And Ross, who runs product development, spends 40 percent of his time hiring new people for the growing company.

“Your job at any given moment is to replace yourself,” says Ross. “Everyone’s job in a startup is to grow the pie.

To succeed, you need to hire people who can take over slices.” He continues, “The only way to develop leadership is to drown someone in responsibility.”

This article first appeared in the 2015 Olin Business Magazine as one of several profiles highlighting successful entrepreneurs, innovators, and disruptors. Look for upcoming profiles on the Olin Blog, or pick up a copy of the Olin Business Magazine.

Varsity Tutors CEO Chuck Cohn

When Chuck Cohn, BSBA ’08, was a junior at Olin, he saw an opportunity to put his smart WashU classmates to work. In 2007, he launched Varsity Tutors as a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction. Varsity Tutors has grown rapidly since then, expanding nationally to connect nearly 50,000 students to more than 15,000 thoroughly vetted instructors.