A Feathr Touch: Navigating Customer, Employee and Investor Relations with Aleksander Levental

Aleksander Levental jokes that the first Board Meeting he ever led was the first Board Meeting he ever went to. Before co-founding Feathr, Aleks was a researcher in the physics department, a delivery driver, and a waiter. So fresh out of college, he had to quickly learn how to grow a company and navigate relationships with employees (Feathr now has about 100) and investors (who have put in over $11M). Find out how he did it and lessons he’s learned along the way on the latest episode of Founder Shares.

Transcript

Trevor Schmidt: Hey everyone, I wanted to hop on real quick to tell you about a special giveaway that Hutchison PLLC is putting on for listeners of this podcast. A few episodes back, Robbie Hardy shared the unbelievable story about how she used a magic 8-ball to help her decide whether or not to sell her company. All signs pointed to yes for her, and she had a successful exit. Well, we all have major decisions to make every day, so Hutchison thought it would be fun to give away one magic 8-ball each month in a drawing. And to enter the drawing, all you need to do is write a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen – and let us know by sending an email to podcast@hutchlaw.com

Trevor Schmidt:Hello, and welcome to the Founder Shares Podcast. We’re so happy that you’ve chosen to spend some time with us. I’m your host, Trevor Schmidt. I’m an attorney at Hutchison law firm in Raleigh, North Carolina. We work with founders and entrepreneurs as they fight, grind, stress and push to bring their visions to reality. We are inspired by their incredible stories of success, failure, reworking and trying again.

Today’s guest is Aleksander Levental, co-founder and CEO of Feathr. Based in Gainesville Florida, Feathr unifies marketing efforts in a single platform that offers detailed analytics, targeted digital advertising, influencer marketing, and more for underserved markets like associations, non-profits, and charities.  

Aleks and his co-founder Aidan started Feathr back in college at the University of Florida, but the company has changed quite a bit since their first idea.

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  Aiden’s actual initial startup idea. The one he really wanted to pursue as a 21 year old or 22 year old, however old we were was an app to replace business cards. After about a year of that, we pivoted to mobile apps for trade shows and conferences, and that jump there was, there’s a huge chicken and egg problem with the digital business card app. The reason none of them have ever worked right. There was a Bumble 10 years ago, and there have been a few Evernote, tried LinkedIn tried the reason they never worked. It needed to get over the threshold of simplicity of just handing somebody a business card. So you need to feel really, really confident somebody is going to have that other application on their phone. 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  In the grand tradition of startups pivoting to find their best product/market fit, Feathr, moved away from digital business cards to a niche marketing platform for associations. And now, just 8 years into the business, Feathr has raised over $10M and has about 100 employees. Employees which Aleks knows he has a responsibility to…

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  The kind of company we want to be has been clear. I think for a while, right? The last five or six years, I think if I were exceptionally pithy, I would say an honest company, but there’s something about that that I think pervades, ultimately every decision that we make, uh, I think something that is obvious to me, Which may not be obvious to the whole world.

I may not even be true, but something obvious to me is that  there is no decision. If it is an honest decision that can be perceived negatively or the ultimately Ray is a bad decision. If you are honest with yourself about why you’re making that decision. If you are honest with the people who are impacted by that decision, then it’s the right choice to make, even if it ends up being wrong.

And so the way that we’ve talked about, I think ultimately to answer your question about having a conception of who we want to be as a company is I tend to talk about it. Our company has three constituencies, right? People we are beholden to. And those constituencies, I think in order are our customers, our employees, and our investors.

And again, when we talk about this and the way that I talk about it is those are all people who have given us something of themselves that we owe something to and just taking seriously that dynamic, right? Our customers, obviously they give us money, but I think a larger part of that is they give us some expectation of their business.

We’re a B2B company, and these people trust us with some aspect of their business. And  whether it’s an individual who’s in the marketing or communications or engagement role, trust us with their job. I remember early on, somebody told me, or I read somewhere. It’s like, just make sure nobody gets fired for buying your product and took that to heart and our employees.

I think the same thing, right? Our employees give a piece of their lives to us. They entrust us with their livelihoods and obviously right, their families and their family’s ability to put a roof over their heads, but also, you know, the commitment that people make to their companiesandatheir jobs is non-trivial.

They are giving us literally a piece of their lives years of their lives. Uh, and I think we owe something to them to take that seriously and to think about that exchange. And then our investors are no different. There are people who work jobs and part of those jobs is distributing money and they give us their money and we owe them something in return, being honest about what that exchange was.

So ultimately I think it’s that every decision that we have made as a company about our culture, about our HR policies, about  pricing, about packaging ultimately starts from, you know, what’s the real honest exchange that’s going on. What do they really honestly expect? What do they really honestly want?

Can we provide it or not? And in some sense, right. It’s continuation of just trying to get at the truth. Right? Kidding yourself about. What your employees want or what your investors want or will be happy with our customers want to have it, doesn’t get you anywhere. And so investing the effort to actually figure out what the real answer is as that vision of the company has been clear.

Everything else sort of around that I think is just prop, right? It’s a prop, depending on where the story is in the development of the company. 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  How big is the team now?

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  95 or something about a hundred, a little bit earlier in the year had some kind of natural turnover and people kind of maturing out and then we’re starting our next hiring wave.

It’s it’s been a little bit, but yeah, I think somewhere around 95 or 98. 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  And has that been a steady growth over the years? And was there a kind of a big jump at one point in time  in this company? 

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  Up until last March, April, it’s been pretty steady for the last few years, pretty consistently doubling every year.

I mean, I think I ended up 2016 or end of 2015. We were like five people and of 16 was like 17 people. 18 was 40 and of 19. No, it was like 34 and of 18 end of 19 was. 70. And then we had planned to get to about 110 by the end of 2020. And we even finished around 95 to a hundred because we more or less stopped hiring around covid.

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  Right. And is your team all in Janesville or you’re a distributed team? 

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  More or less all in Gainesville, we are slightly. Non traditional, I guess, non traditional in the startup sense, but traditional in the company sense that we are and have been an explicitly non remote team, but we don’t really accommodate for, and in some sense, don’t allow permanent remote work.

That’s changed a little bit over the last. 10  11 months. And we’ve had a few people who either moved closer to their families to kind of be around them. If they’re going to be alone for 11 months, might as well be around your families. Or we had a few people who are sort of mid move coming to Gainesville who stayed where they were.

But as we eventually sort of returned to being in the office, we will return to being an entirely in-person company. 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  So what’s the thinking behind that? What’s the motivation for wanting people to be in the office?

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  There’s two parts where I guess I’d say that there’s sort of a single reason and a framework around that reason.

The framework around the reason is we haven’t really reevaluated that decision yet. And the ultimate decision in the beginning was. Were bad managers, we’re bad at running a company, specifically myself and Aiden, as I have loved to say at every single point that there is the largest company I have ever run.

That is not only a true statement. This is the first post-college job I have ever had still. And before that I was either a researcher in a physics department, or I was a  waiter. I was a delivery driver for a pizza place. I’m a terrible manager. I. Awful at knowing and sort of predicting who needs to be looped in on what and talked about with what and all of that is exponentially more true four or five years ago.

Uh, and so the decision was just, you’re not going to do a good job at having remote employees. We’re going to leave them out of meetings. We’re going to forget to call them in. We’re going to have ad hoc discussions in the office and. They’re going to hear about something they’re gonna be upset. And so it was just then the clear policy decision was we just don’t have remote workers.

And when the time comes to reevaluate that happy to reevaluate it, and every single time it has come up, the way that I frame the question is, is it time to reevaluate this question and which means reevaluating the entire policy of the company. And if it’s not that we don’t need to talk about it. 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  You know, this is a broader question, but COVID obviously impacted how have you adapted within the office as far as how you manage and deal with your employees and post COVID?

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  Yeah, we we’ve been  effectively the exact opposite of that. Everybody remote and at home, since mid-March the we’re in Gainesville, Florida, as you can tell, and that initial kind of stay at home quarantine order is like March 17th, I think. Uh, and we have been default at home. Since then we opened up the office, I believe starting July 1st, essentially as a coworking space.

Hey, if you want to go in there, obviously we have a nice internet connection and there’s plenty of room now. You’re welcome to use it. We have whiteboards set up. I think we have something like 25 different breakout offices. And so you can pencil in one of those rooms for a day and you can be in there.

You don’t have to wear a mask because you’re the only one in there. We’ve had five to 10 people per day in the office, pretty steadily since then. So there has not been a large push to get back to the office. So. We’ve been a technically entirely remote company for 11 months now. Honestly, the adaptation has been  difficult to think.

Feathr over the last year has not been the same kind of company in ways that maybe have been coincidentally appropriate or maybe intentionally appropriate, but things have moved slower. We have developed less quickly. We have acted, I think a little bit like an older company, which is let’s just continue to do the things that we do and do them.

Cleanly effectively as efficiently as we can. And we’ve done all of the things that I think a lot of companies have to try and keep up morale and culture. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the game among us, very popular. So we’ve been a company among us. Gain some point in January, split everyone up into different rooms, played that we do every Monday.

We have our meeting that we call all wings, which is our play on all hands, but the company is Feathr. So obviously everything has to be bird related when possible we do that remote. So we have every quarter, all company meetings are typically kind of two, three hours, half day. Obviously all of that is remote.

Continue to do those. And then departmentally. Each individual manager or team  has been doing a variety of different activities to just try and keep morale up or stay connected. But in a lot of, I think genuine ways, just Feathr over the last year has not been the same kind of company. As I said, that’s either been okay because the last year has demanded a different kind of personality for the company, a slightly more patient, one and a slightly more.

Tolerant, one of things, not moving at the pace that we’re used to, but I think that effect is noticeable and not, not to get too deep in the weeds, but I think some of the turnover that we have had this year is people subconsciously or consciously just intuiting that and going, you know, like this isn’t the same vibe that I was used to then also, you know, I’ve been in Feathr for a longer period of time.

So mainly we’re just still continuing to be patient, uh, in view of eventually being able to. Act and behave in the way that the company typically does. 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  Yeah. And that’s interesting to me because I wonder how much of it is the team not being around each other and not having the energy that they can feed off of each other for that, how much of it is  the energy coming out of the economy is a lot of events shut down and conferences stuff happening.

I mean, can you speak to that a little bit? You get a sense as to which is more important? 

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  Yeah, my answer because it’s my job to be an extremist and it is my job to. Politically craft. Every single item that we talk about into something that is under our control. I would say it’s far more the sort of distance between the people in the company.

Because as I’ve talked about a few times to the company and just with random people, there’s actually no part of the challenges that we face as a company pre COVID. That we had any input on, right? We didn’t build the association industry. We didn’t build the events industry. We didn’t set any of the rules for how that’s run.

We didn’t set any of those budgeting dynamics and ROI dynamics and revenue targets. None of that, what we looked at that was we were sort of presented with this situation and we’re going to look at it and solve it to the best of our ability. And if something works, we’re going to double down on it again and again and again, until we reach a ceiling and if something doesn’t work, we’re going to  back up and try again.

And I think in some respects, COVID is no different, you know, obviously there’s a tremendous amount of economic pain and human pain that’s happening right now that has affected our industry. But the industry is not dead and it’s not dying. They just have challenges. And they had challenges a year ago, two years ago, three years ago.

And we looked at that pretty soberly and said, we think we have the ability to help them. So I think in the most significant ways, The differences in the company have been more tied to, it’s impossible to be together and talk to each other and move a little bit quickly because I mean, it’s not to get too into the weeds about sort of company performance, but we had an okay year in 2020.

I mean, we had targeted about a hundred percent growth. We ended up somewhere around. 30% I think, but really we have two different customer segments, pretty similar, I think for most founders or most startup companies, uh, and enterprise set of customers and then SMB and enterprise because  enterprise large companies, so revenue and budget driven, they’re the first to react on the downside and the slowest to react on the upside.

So that segment of our company. It’s actually contracted last year, about 66%. And the SMB market ‘

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  SMB being what? 

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  SMB is basically trade associations, organizers, publishers. And if you think about our revenue, it’s like 20 million revenue down in terms of company like that customer segment for us grew 65%. And then a lot of that I think was due to the effort of the company.

So I think if we had been together, if we could have done things a little bit differently, I don’t know that we couldn’t have gotten to 80%, at least in that market. And that would have been a pretty good year for us. 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  Yeah. Well, I mean, it sounds like, you know, your position yourself. Well, cause I mean, like you said, conferences, aren’t going away, but it’s just been put on pause for a while.

So if you can have the growth in a down year and then return the other line of the business, then it’s just continued growth. It sounds like. 

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  Yeah, and there are people in our space who would not agree with my statements, that conferences aren’t going anywhere. I’m unconvinced, I’m  either a virtual event, atheist or virtual event.

Antagonist. I tend to agree and believe that pretty soon, the world will look almost identical in terms of right live events and human behavior to the way that it did. Two years ago now. 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  Yeah, probably true. I want to go back to talk about, you mentioned one of your other constituencies, your investors, talk about your experience, I guess, with that.

And you know, how does your role change as a CEO and how does running a company with other people’s monies kind of changed the approach? And what’s been your experience with that? 

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  Yeah, the, I think the entry point to that answer is, well, we talked about earlier, which is first sitting down and taking seriously.

The consideration, I’m accepting the burden of another group of people we are beholden to and responsible to. And that’s not just bureaucratically, right? Not just in the corporate charter and voting rights agreements and all the information rights that they get. That stuff is pretty easy. And actually, I think most lawyers would agree.

None of that stuff  almost ever comes up. Right. What is the particular voting rights or threshold? Almost every decision is unanimous. Once you get to a unanimous decision, except for the one in a hundred times, it’s the worst day ever. And there’s some kind of non unanimous decision, but it’s the, but it’s the process to get to that point.

It’s the consideration. Who am I taking money from? What are their goals? What is their target? What is their timeline? What will they be happy with? And some consideration, like, can we honestly fulfill this or not? So. Our fundraising experience either has been completely standard. Or I would say we’ve been on the luckier side of the draw early on.

We had help from some of our early advisors and investors who were kind of half retired people in the. B2B event space. So people who had been entrepreneurs in that space exited their own businesses. And by virtue of exiting their own businesses, they’re not running full-time day jobs inside of event organizers or whatever company, but kind of that hybrid consultancy angel investing, advising  role.

And they found myself in Aiden and helped us a little bit. But when we went, we made that decision. We were able to get a few introductions to actually, uh, some of our clients. Who were interested in getting into corporate venture capital? So we, we raised 2 million at the end of 2015, and about half of that was corporate venture capital.

And the other half of that was sort of institutional kind of small, early stage funds. And that first wave, right. In terms of how it affected my job as a CEO is learning about what it means to be a CEO, especially in those first few years. Again, one of the hilarious things that I loved loved to repeat was.

You know, that first board meeting that we went to was the first board meeting I had ever run. The second board meeting that we went to was the second board meeting. There was a lot of learning and sort of trial by fire, both for us and for our investors who maybe weren’t used to that level of eating experience.

 And they were patient and magnanimous. And I think they did their best to teach us. But the kind of parallel thing of the company is running into decisions and items and developments. While these kids, children are learning how to do this stuff, certainly produced tense moments and tense meetings and meetings that were scheduled for four hours and went six hours.

And then as that went along and as we got better at our roles and our jobs, I think the simplification of that is. We just have three people that we think about when we make a decision, how does it affect our customers on a spectrum employees and how does it affect our investors? And there’s a pretty well-established.

Kind of a feedback loop and dynamic with them, right? Your customers pay you a certain amount of money and you do your best to establish right. What their expectations are for that money. Same thing. Employees kind of give you their time. You do your best to continue to reestablish what the trade for that is.

And same thing with investors. So when we make decisions, we tend to think about, does this affect. On investor’s  behalf, right? What is the effect that this might have on the timelines that our investors have that we are well aware of? Or what does it affect? Just the perspective or opinions that our investors have and the harder part of being beholden to someone isn’t right.

The board votes, the harder part is when you’re in a meeting or when you’re on a phone call and somebody says something, one of your investors says something, one of your board members say something, you have to listen, you have to listen. Cause you have to care. Because you accepted, I’m gonna care about this person’s perspective and I’m gonna care about this person’s trajectory.

So it’s the kind of human effort that goes into. What is their background? Why did they say that? Why was that thing interesting to them and potentially how do I give them that? Right? How do I give them that pay off that they want? And I don’t mean purely financial, but also purely financial.

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  Right to me, it seems like an interesting, a long way from the basements of the physics department, you know, not dealing with people, having to be in a boardroom, you know, navigating the desires of board members and investors and having that almost  political interplay.

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  Yup. Yup. Yup. And again, on the, I think a lot of our board members and investors and advisors have either metaphorical or literal scars associated with my process for learning how to do that for taking that seriously. Again, this is something I peed a lot, but it’s because it’s true. I was. A very arrogant, selfish narcissistic brat, six, seven years ago, the notion that I would force myself to listen to somebody or something that I disagreed with, because I was sort of view my responsibility to, I have to understand their perspective.

Right. I have to force myself to genuinely engage with the thing that they’re saying right now, in order for me to understand it. Was so foreign to me. Right. It was just like, I styled myself as smarter better. It kind of sucks to say that, but there’s what I felt like better than other people, because I was a physics major or a math major because I was working on these things.

And if there were people I didn’t agree  with. Mostly in sort of social circumstances. I had the freedom, either freedom or audacity, whatever the right word is to say like, well, I just don’t like that person. And you know, they’re not for me. And this life now in life experience is exactly the opposite.

Right? You have to be able to invest in. And anyone you’re interacting with, like, what is their experience? What is their perspective? And having faith in their genuine intentions. Again, even if you’re in an argument, even if you’re in a disagreement, right? That ultimately somewhere behind the emotion is some genuine intention, you have to figure out a way to get to what is the basis of that genuine intention.

And all of that has been completely foreign to me and has been a learning experience for the last several years. 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  You have specific business leaders or kind of other people around you that you kind of look up to or try to model. And if your leadership style after, or, you know, if there’s a CEO out there, you’re like, that’s kind of what I would like to be like? 

 There are 

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  a few, it’s kind of like, um, my visualization of it is something like, you know, when the power Rangers would all get together to form the Megazord, I think it was, is I take bits and pieces from either what I observe or read. And there are different qualities. One of those early advisers who helped us as guy named Marco.

And if Marco ever listens to this, I hope he doesn’t because he’s not allowed to hear me say nice things about him. But I remember observing very early on in our meetings that he would always drink the meeting to a better place. Uh, and at first he was doing it in a way that was transparent to me. I couldn’t tell he was doing it.

And then as I got to know him a little bit better and just been through more meetings, I could see actively the things that he was doing to further the conversation in a positive and productive way. Uh, and so, you know, like that somewhere is in there that reminder to act like Marco does in a meeting and don’t don’t drive meetings or discussions in a less productive path, but drive them in a more productive path.

 So I used to have an Obama book, like standing right here, but there are aspects of Obama’s leadership, both as a, as a president, just during my life, but also from his stories about his political career that I think have been critical in the way that I think about it. One of the most important. Lessons. I came from Obama.

Elon Musk is a slightly less comical version of Elon Musk, pre Twitter. And pre… 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  Ha I was gonna say there are two versions Twitter version. And then there’s like the business leader version. 

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  Yeah. Both of them talk about, you know, they’re sort of good leaders who build effective teams and like great leaders make any team effective.

So again, that, that framing for me is also really important, uh, is a, is a part of the development of. Not judging people, not trying to build a company in a particular way. And instead recognizing that there are different people who can contribute different things, how do you sort of build an organization that allows them to be.

Effective, you know, there are aspects of football coaches  that I kind of pick up for me when I observe other leaders. It’s typically I’m contextualizing it. I’m trying to look at why are they making the decision to say the thing that they’re saying or say it the way that they’re saying it now? And what can I take from that?

One of our, one of our customers, it was Reed exhibitions who. Was for many years, the largest trade show organizer in United States. So this is a multi-billion dollar revenue, multinational company, not to have lunch with their CEO one day. And one of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given as a CEO was when you get sick of saying something is when people first start hearing it.

And that is. It’s still like ingrained in my brain because that human experience of you repeating something over and over and the desire to not sound repetitive and redundant is such an awful thing to indulge as a CEO because you’re like, eh, I don’t want to bore them. I don’t want to bother with the same thing and just realize like, well,  my job is to.

Hammer home the same simple points over and over and over. So for other people, the goal or the mission or the framework, or the boundaries are clear. So yeah, it’s a little bit here and there from that, I actually, when I was thinking about this question, right, because you sent over some of the questions that you might ask, I was trying to think of a non-traditional answer to this.

So I want to give also the non-traditional answer to this. Well, what I settled on was Gandalf from Lord of the rings. So I’m a huge Lord of the rings nerd and the depth of his story and his leadership. I also think strangely is particularly relevant to the experience of a CEO and kind of a first-time CEO or manager of people.

And in particular, the fact that he sent Frodo out alone with the ring on that mission, because if you indulge in this analogy or metaphor, the ability to trust someone, With the most important thing you can possibly conceive of  because you recognize they have a skill or an asset or a quality that you don’t is incredibly difficult and is, I think well-represented by Gandalf there and his recognition that he lacked the willpower to resist, right?

The attraction of power. Obviously the ring man, that’s mirrored so much in being a CEO, the ability to say. Somebody else is going to do this better than me and I have to let go of it and I have to let them do their version of it because it will definitely fail with me that also kind of resonates with them.

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  I love it. Yeah. I want to explore that a little bit more. We might be running out of time, but I want a full study on Gandalf as a CEO and the implications that it has for companies. 

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  I think there’s somewhere there’s a great blog post about Gandalf as a service driven leader. Because he does everything he does in service of the fellowship.

Uh, and I also think that there are moments I could pick out where he has the correct perspective to take a step back.  And allow the people, he is ultimately leading to deal with pain, frustration, and challenge. And he also has a strong sense for when he needs to step forward and be the one that makes a particular sacrifice.

And I think also right, being a CEO is that’s a sometimes difficult line fussy. 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  That’s interesting because that’s actually where my mind went is, you know, it’s not only that he is left photo out in front of the world, but then he kind of meticulously picks those times to come in and say, this is where.

You need the help. And that’s not just every time it was to avoid pain or suffering. It was particular times when they wouldn’t be able to get off on their own. So that’s a great analogy, but you know, we are the founders shares podcast. So I always like to ask our guests, you know, what is one piece of advice that you want to share with an entrepreneur or an existing CEO or somebody who’s thinking about kind of following this past someday, what would be your piece of advice?

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  So the short version would be whenever you’re talking to. Anyone, but I think particularly comes up, especially in the early days a lot  with your co-founders or your partners is whenever you’re in a room and you’re talking about something, make sure that it is all of you or both of you, whatever it is against the problem.

And not you versus each other debating or exchanging different perspectives because that ladder is a poisonous path. No matter how committed you are to getting to a solution. If you start to associate yourself with a particular perspective, You just reduce the efficiency of the marketplace of ideas in that room, in that conversation and in that relationship.

And that was, that was a statement that was like a piece of advice that Aden and I picked up on early on. And we would used to repeat that to each other when we could see meetings or just discussions kind of getting carried away was like, it’s us against the problem. All we’re trying to do is figure out what the challenge here is and bring to bear the information and resources that we have.

So that’s the pithy version. And I think some places, because I’ve seen this advice, otherwise, it’s like you should have a physical  representation of that thing. You should have some kind of token, whatever it means to you, that you can put on the table in front of you. And as you look at it, you’ll see, like, that’s the thing that we’re talking about.

We’re not talking about me versus you right now. We’re talking about this now we’re trying to get to the point of that, but I would represent, or reframe that advice in a broader way, which is, I think has been the most significant realization slash advice that I have gotten as an entrepreneur is that to really be successful, you have to care about building a successful business.

Full stop. The only thing that’s gonna matter to you, right? If you ever visualize the goal, the goal has to be the business being successful, not yourself, being successful, not your particular ideation of some solution being successful. The biggest pitfall that I have seen in my now very old age, I’ve gotten to observe younger entrepreneurs or kind of people go through that early stage cycle and  ourselves too was.

The single biggest indicator of failure is are the founders attached to a specific solution or a specific product or service, or do they just care about getting to a successful business? Because nobody’s first idea is ever, right. Nobody’s second idea is ever right. It’s difficult to describe, even when I talk to other founders.

Just how many permutations you go through to get to a business model with reasonable success in scale. And I think what I have observed of successful entrepreneurs kind of runs counter to the narrative that were presented by society or by media, which is the most successful companies. The most successful startups are driven by passion and commitment to a particular thing.

Apple is successful because Steve jobs. I was 13 years old and he had a fever dream about an iPhone. And he drove until that  iPhone was reality, no matter what. And actually I’m not only was the actual experience of apple and the success of apple different jobs did fall into that trap in the eighties of commitment to a particular product or solution outside of the success of the company.

And he was fired and apple almost died because of it. And then when he sort of reentered apple, That perspective that, Hey, we’re just a company that is using engineering to make people’s lives better. And if that’s a music player, it’s a music player. Music is a part of people’s lives. And if we can use computer engineering, computer science to do that, why not?

Elon Musk another example, we were told this story about this guy who is just so passionate about apparently so many different things. He was passionate about online payment transactions with PayPal. He’s passionate about electric cars. He’s passionate about space exploration, passionate about digging tunnels under the earth.

He’s passionate about  neural interface with whatever and reality. I think the incredibly admirable thing about Elan is that he is a very simple kind of businessman. What he does is he like he fast, forwards. 20 years. And he says, what is definitely going to be important 20 years from now? I’m just going to start working on that now.

Right? So PayPal was, he looked at the internet. He’s like the internet is going to be super important 20 years from now. What’s a pretty boring standard thing. That’s going to be an important part of that payment transaction. So I’m going to start a company that just does payment transaction, same thing with Tesla, right?

Hey, what’s super obvious is going to be really important 20 years from now. Alternative energy for vehicles. Cars are very boring thing. The fact that we’re running out of oil is super obvious. I was just like, I’m just going to make an electric car company space X again, like what’s super obvious is going to be important more and more private access to space because the importance of how satellites and communication and the internet, all of these, like they’re very, very plain business analysis.

And I think that’s for me, the most admirable part of his decisions and other business  people is. They just want to build successful businesses, right? And the people that I’ve seen that have embodied that, which is, I just want to make a thing that makes money and has customers that are happy and gives us money and is happy to continue doing that.

They tend to be successful. The ones who are like, man, I really want to make this thing. And I really want this thing to be successful because if this thing is successful, that means I’m super smart. I have yet to see that work. 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  Right. You may have just answered this question, but what wakes you up in the morning each dayto come to work to Feathr?

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  Ooh, I sleep like 50 feet. That way. She was just already there, right? Yeah. No, I’m super weird. It’s weird for me to answer this right now, but now it’s the ability to provide opportunities for other people to be successful so that, you know, my contribution in Feathr.

Is it just a consistent cycle of figuring out what our employees want to do? What do they want to do with their lives? What do our customers need and what  value do our investors need to see? And just finding the common ground in there that hopefully gives all three of those groups what they want. And either I’m good at that.

Or I have some whatever characteristic that just makes me more able to tolerate that stress or communication. I think that’s the most motivating thing for me, because it’s so hard to imagine that I really think this, but the only gratifying thing that has ever happened at Feathr is seeing. Our employees be happy and proud of themselves or seeing our customers be happy with the kind of progress that they made because of us.

Money is boring. It’s cool. And I work to make sure other people make as much money as they need and want, but there’s nothing ultimately motivating about that. And even ultimately the prospect of selling the company, it’s super hard for that to be motivating in the morning. But knowing the people who work with us for us and that they can  take steps in their lives that they want to take.

And if we can figure out a way to like, Hey, that step happens to further something that would help customers and because it would help customers, that step also happens to further the generation of enterprise value for investors who will hopefully eventually either continue to be happy with us or be happy with us.

That’s an interesting problem. And ultimately I find that the most motivating. 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  I like it because I think that’s a lot of people lose sight of it. And I think the money is the motivation, but it’s only gonna motivate you so far. And very few people can get out of bed in the morning just for that purpose alone.

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  Yeah. That’s a good comment. And I want to shoehorn another piece of advice for entrepreneurs, and this is going to be my, like, I’m going to take a counter-cultural swing based on everything else in the startup and venture capital scene. So my piece of advice would be like, stop worrying about dilution, who cares?

Shut up, move on. Give up on that term. This is not the whole point of the company. It doesn’t matter. Let your investors win, let your board  members win. It doesn’t matter. Just move on. I spent so much time talking about that sometimes. And when I lose patience with the thing I always repeat is like, I cannot envision a day.

Let’s say we are fortunate enough and able that Feathr sells one day and there’s some windfall I cannot imagine losing. Uh, microgram of sleep because I knew I netted 13 million instead of 14.7 million in that transaction. That is not a reality that exists. And so like our days and weeks and months of stress or throwing away a deal or a relationship because of that worth it.

Now it’s just fake. This is, I don’t know if this is advice because nobody ever tells me this. And every feedback that I get is I’m incredibly wrong and stupid. This is a personal covenant is. Life is super easy on the 49% side of a 49 51 deal. Like let other people have 51% of the deal, give them a small win and get back to the stuff that is interesting.

That is motivating. That  is difficult. That is challenging instead of just arguing forever about percentage points. 

Host: Trevor Schmidt:  I love the tech and I love the different perspective and I really enjoy talking to you and I can chat with you for hours, but probably better to let you get back to running the business or by the skateboards and behind you.

But I appreciate you taking the time and talking with us and just wish you the best of success. 

Guest: Alexsander Levental:  Thank you for the invitation, sorry, in advance for the people who have to listen to this and deal with it. But now, similarly, I always enjoy talking to you guys and dealing with Hutchison. You guys have been one of the relationships that ultimately showed me like, man business is not the thing I thought it was when I was 19 years old.

It is apparently just finding nice people who you trust and who you respect and leaning on them when you need to. So not only has this conversation been pleasant, but also just dealing with you guys has always been wonderful.

Full Episode Transcript

GIVEAWAY: A few episodes back, Robbie Hardy shared the unbelievable story about how she used a magic 8-ball to help her decide whether or not to sell her company. All signs pointed to yes for her, and she had a successful exit. Well, we all have major decisions to make every day, so Hutchison thought it would be fun to give away one magic 8-ball each month in a drawing. And to enter the drawing, all you need to do is write a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen – and let us know by sending an email to podcast@hutchlaw.com.

Hosted by Trevor Schmidt, Founder Shares is brought to you by Hutchison PLLC, and is edited and produced by Earfluence.

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