Continuing my theme of talking to as many cool entrepreneurs as possible I was able to sit down a few weeks ago with Margo Redfern, founder of Flattenme and cofounder of the Tahoe Expedition Academy. Last week I also spoke to Steve Papa regarding his experience as the Founder/CEO of Endeca, which just sold to Oracle for $1.075 billion. For this post, I will explain the timeline and process that Margo has gone through in creating her businesses and then I will delve into the interesting bits of knowledge I pulled from talking to Steve about his experiences.

Two Very Different Ventures, One Very Determined Entrepreneur

Inception

Flattenme is a website that allows for you to insert pictures of you or your children into books, essentially casting yourselves as the main characters to a number of pre written stories. I have never heard of a book like this, and thinking back to my childhood I think it could have been awesome to see either myself or my siblings or parents as the protagonists of a story. Margo told me that there were similar companies in existence when she started Flattenme, but nobody had done an aesthetically pleasing or convincing job of using the technology. Margo’s Husband Joff originally created a book for his daughter, casting her as the main character in the book. She took the book around and showed it to everyone she saw, to the point that people were asking Margo where her daughter had gotten the book and were looking for one for themselves. This was the moment where Margo realized she had a potentially huge business on her hands – if she was able to create a little bit of buzz around this idea, and her daughter was so absorbed an interested in it, all she had to do was get it out to the masses.

Growth

I was interested in the marketing channels that Margo first chose in order to get the Flattenme name out there, and she explained that they used print ads targeted to moms as well as affiliate programs and social media. But the biggest thing for promotion of the product came from hiring a very skilled PR person, who was able to get the books featured on the Today Show, the View, and Oprah. This was accomplished mostly through connections, again making it obvious how powerful networking can be in getting your company off the ground. I also asked Margo about any growing pains the company might have experienced, and she recounted one particular experience with a Groupon promotion that sold 10,000 units in 48 hours – crashing their server for a significant period of time. However, this was probably a good problem to be having all things considered and by hiring a few more people and instituting new procedures Flattenme was able to make sure that type of thing didn’t happen in the future.

Expeditionary Learning

Margo and her family soon moved to the beautiful Lake Tahoe area, but discovered that the schools in the area were well below her standards. Being an entrepreneur, Margo saw a problem and decided it was an opportunity for a business. Although she had no background in education Margo felt she could handle the operations/business side of the school if she could find good people to help her with the education side. The prospect of a school – something that could have a positive impact on hundreds of children and their families – made this venture particularly interesting for her, and after its first year of operation it is fair to say that the Tahoe Expedition Academy is a great success. I talked to her about the school environment and couldn’t help but think of how awesome it must be to attend this school. The kids spend 1/3 of each day in the field actively studying nature and mankind’s interaction with it. In addition to this constant learning through experience the kids are exposed from a young age to self-confidence and character development classes which help prepare them for a world where you must be socially competent and confident to reach your full potential. One of the aspects that I thought was the coolest was class mobility, meaning if you are reading at a 3rd grade level in 1st grade, you can take class with the 3rd graders! Doesn’t sound so complicated, but I remember asking for extra, harder math homework in early grade school, hoping that I could find some material that was harder than what we were being taught, and I can only imagine how happy I would have been at the chance to actually move up to the next grade for that class. The most telling thing Margo said was that in a survey sent out to parents at the end of the year, the most commonly checked box under “things we should change” was “nothing.”

Experience and Luck

My interview with Steve Papa was very different from the one I had with Margo – instead of talking about specifics of the company Steve seemed to be more interested in talking about his general experience as an entrepreneur and what he had learned from it. He is a guy that really goes by the stats and we immediately got into a discussion about distribution of opportunity. Steve is of the opinion that one of the biggest factors in the success of a business is being in the right place at the right time, and while you can maximize your chances of success it comes down to luck in the end. This is the reason that someone with no experience can succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Where industry knowledge and experience comes in to play is during the shifts that a company experiences. An inexperienced CEO has a high chance to either overreact or under react to the shifts that occur during a company’s life. Someone who knows the industry has an intuitive feeling as to whether a new idea will be a fad or is actually an emerging trend, and this is an invaluable skill for a leader. Of course, someone just blindly leading a company in random directions will succeed sometimes, and there are many people out there doing just that. When Steve started Endeca he already had experience in the software industry and the IT and Services industry, having worked for Inktomi, a company that provided software solutions to ISPs and eventually sold to Yahoo. He also worked at Teradata, a company that provides data services across the board for big companies like eBay. The experience in these companies helped Steve come to the conclusion that he could run a company comfortably in this sector and help it achieve success. By founding the company in Boston, Steve hoped that Endeca would be a marathon company – something more calculated and steady over a long period of time – as compared with most of the companies that are started by younger people in the valley which can be considered sprints. It is clear that this marathon mentality has worked, as Steve just sold his company but will still remain on as the CEO.

One thing that Steve mentioned really struck me as an important insight. When I asked him for the one piece of advice he would give a young entrepreneur like myself he responded by asking me if I was actually an entrepreneur. When I said I had started a couple of things to make myself money he cut me off and said that that doesn’t necessarily make you an entrepreneur. Being an entrepreneur requires the undying desire to bring an idea to fruition through any means necessary, and requires that you have actually created something not just had an idea. Anyone can have an idea, and a good entrepreneur might even steal an idea from someone else and make a better version of it than the first person ever could have.