Episode 45: Turning Your Blog or Podcast into a Lead Generation Machine

Creative marketing outlets are ripe for the picking. Seemingly every big company has its own blog, as do countless small and medium businesses. Many organizations are also finding ways to reach thousands upon thousands of consumers through podcasting. Although it’s easier than ever to create content through these mediums, the market for blogs and podcasts has become fiercely competitive. Thus, the path to monetization can be tricky to find.

That’s where marketing expert Dorie Clark comes in. Clark—who is an adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, a professional speaker, and a bestselling author—preaches patience and perseverance when it comes to content marketing. As she points out, the average podcast only lasts 12 episodes. Similarly, a high number of blogs run dry after a handful of posts. So while the creative marketing field is crowded, it becomes considerably less cluttered once an extensive base of content is established.

On this episode, Clark shares her experiences in the content marketing arena. She discusses insightful dos and don’ts of web media, while also explaining how to know it’s time to reinvent our marketing strategies. You can listen to the episode here.

Here are some sample Q&As from Clark’s interview with Drew Neisser:


Drew: How do you create a blog today, particularly if you’re a CMO or an aspiring senior marketer who wants to cut through?

Dorie: A lot of people who may be in the early stages today look back and they say, “If I had started in 2007, then great. It was open terrain then.” But now, it’s gotten filled out. It’s gotten crowded. Let me share two thoughts. The first one statistically comes from the world of podcasting, but it is very relevant to blogs as well. There’s actually a study that I quote in Entrepreneurial You, which was a longitudinal look at podcasts between 2005 and 2015. And what they discovered is yes, it is true there are hundreds of thousands of podcasts, but what they also discovered is the average duration of a podcast…is 12 episodes. When we look out at the field we say, “Oh it’s so crowded! I could never compete!” But the truth is, yes, if you’re at the starting line, there’s huge numbers of aspirants. But if you literally can keep it going past a dozen episodes, the field thins considerably. All of a sudden you’re not competing against 300,000 people; you’re competing against 3,000. In some cases, depending on what field it is, 300. In many ways, it is a persistence game. It is a longevity game.


Drew: What is your second thought?

Dorie: The second thing that I’ll just mention briefly is that it’s absolutely true that in the early days of any content creation that you’re doing (podcasts, blogs, whatever it is), you’re not going to have an overnight success. You’re not going to have millions of readers. But it’s really important to think about the interim metrics. And what I mean by that you won’t be successful if the only thing you’re looking for is wide scale. However, a blog can be incredibly successful for you—even if you have a hundred readers or fifty readers—if you write a post and it enables you to close a deal. In the early days, understanding how your content creation factors into your sales process and aligning those very closely saying, “I’m going to write this post” that lays out the answer to ideal clients’ problems, and being able to share that in a targeted fashion with them, often helps expedite the decision-making process when somebody is saying, “Which company should I be going with?”


Drew: How do you create direct business value through blogging and podcasting?

Dorie: It’s likely to take a while. I’m not a podcaster, but in terms of my blogging, which I’ve done quite seriously, it took me two to three years of consistent blogging—and by consistent, I mean 10 to 15 times a month—in order to literally get any clear value in terms of inbound, unsolicited inquiries. Now once you cross that threshold, now I get a lot. But it took two to three years before I saw anything at all. That’s the dark period…where people are worried that it’s not happening. It’s not going to happen for them. You have to plow through that in order to get to the other side where the competition is scarce.


Drew: You really are a connector of people. How do you recommend others grow their networks?

Dorie: One of the things that I’ve studied over the past number of years, especially with my book, Stand Out, was the question of “How do you become a recognized expert in your field?” And what I came to discover through my research is that fundamentally there are three key pieces that you have to keep your eyes on. One is content creation, which we’ve just been talking about. The other is social proof, meaning what is your perceived level of credibility? What affiliations do you have that give people confidence in you and your ideas? The third is your network. Your network is critical for a whole host of reasons. One is that they’re the people who can speak to you honestly. They can tell you what’s a good idea and what’s not a good idea. Another is that you’re kind of judged by the company that you keep. Your network is part of your brand in some ways. And then also, your network, if done right, they’re the people who often want to be your earliest evangelists.

Are You Sure You Want to be an Entrepreneur?

On the orders of Spain’s Queen Isabella to bring back riches, Christopher Columbus set out for uncharted waters in 1492. While discovering vast new lands assured his place in posterity, Columbus’s real triumph was uncovering vast beds of oyster pearls off the coast of Venezuela, a rare natural gem that the queen coveted beyond all else. The “pearl rush” that Columbus started way back when is not unlike the rush to entrepreneurship underway today, a surprising outcome in a challenging time.

And more to the point, the beloved pearl provides a lustrous metaphor for the joys and pressures of entrepreneurship, something I’ve discovered personally and as a result of recent interviews with the founders of four start-ups. Though each of the entrepreneurs I interviewed offered pearls of wisdom worthy of an entire article, this provides a deeper dive into the collective mindset of entrepreneurs, especially the type of founder that is prepared to bootstrap their company from inception to market introduction.

It takes an irritant to get started

OpenInvoWhile the proverbial “grain of sand” is a myth according to Wikipedia, it does take “an irritating microscopic object [to become] trapped within the mollusk’s mantle folds” for a pearl to get started. For entrepreneurs, the irritant can be as simple as personality type. According to Emily Lutzker, the founder of OpenInvo, an innovative resource for idea generators, “I only had one ‘real job’ once and was told I was disruptive in the workplace,” thus necessitating her entrepreneurial journey.

BennuSometimes the irritant hits the founder personally. Ashok Kamal, founder of Bennu, explained that, “like any good business, the idea behind Bennu was born out of a problem–the obscene amount of garbage being dumped into landfills.” Jeff Stier, got the idea for the voice tagging utility called Blurts after a voice message from his daughter was annoyingly and irretrievably deleted. And Jesse Middleton, founder of GetMinders, a service that reminds people when to take their medicines, got the idea when thinking about his grandfather who has Parkinson’s and the toll it was taking on him and his family.

Growth usually requires outside help

It was the rarity of natural pearls that made Columbus’s discovery so important in the 15th Century. Today, more than 99% of the pearls sold are the result of human intervention through a 20th Century process known as cultivation. Not surprisingly, entrepreneurs are almost always dependent on the help of outside resources, both in terms of capital and expertise. What is surprising is how many boot-strappers find those resources close to home from friends and family. Noted a grateful Lutzker, “I didn’t ask for money, [friends and family] volunteered.”

GetMindersOutside help also comes in the form of advisers who can add layers of experience. Offered Bennu’s Kamal “You can avoid a lot of unnecessary mistakes by establishing an advisory board from the outset.” “It’s easy to neglect this task in favor of immediate concerns but once we recruited seasoned and candid advisers, Bennu become much more efficient and productive,” added Kamal. In Jesse Middleton’s case the critical advice was more home grown, as his “wife gave [him] a kick in the ass to really get the ball rolling!”

Success has its own measurement scale

As long-time leaders in the pearl trade and the first to patent a cultivation process, the Japanese also established the unique weight measurement scale for pearls known as momme. For modern day entrepreneurs, measures of success tend toward the benevolent, hoping that their products and services make the world a better place. Explained Lutzker, “I’m a bit of an idealist and I want to live in a world that fosters and rewards things that make us human and celebrates our differences.” Added Middleton, “getting our product in the hands of millions that need to remember to take their medicines would be pretty amazing for us.”

BlurtsMany entrepreneurs share the ability to see beyond the making of their first “pearl,” measuring success in terms of helping others grow their own. Offered Kamal, “I hope the business will outgrow its founders so at that point, personal success would mean being in a position to help aspiring entrepreneurs to achieve their dreams.” Similarly, Middleton noted, “I’d like make it to a point where I can invest in other’s ideas that can make the world a better place.” Added Lutzker, laced with the irony that bedevils boot-strappers, “I’d like to think that success is still a starting point, not only a result.”

You still have to beat the odds

Naturally occurring pearls of a decent size are literally one in million. Columbus and Co had to harvest hundreds upon hundreds of oysters in the West Indies just to find a single pearl worthy of their faire queen. So it is with start-ups, hundreds are conceived while few achieve notable success. Beating these odds takes an indomitable spirit. Explained Stier, “if you’re not passionate and pigheaded about what you believe in even when everyone is a naysayer, you’ll never get it done.”

Kamal took this a step further, suggesting that entrepreneurs needed to be more than thick-shelled, “I’d subject the [would be entrepreneur] to a psychological exam to ensure that they are just crazy enough to start business.” Acknowledging the ups and downs, comes with the territory. Noted a cash-challenged Stier, “the depressing moments have to be outweighed by the moments of joy, like knowing we’ve birthed something from our mind that other people are talking about.” Concluded an undaunted Lutzker, “Yeah, sure I knew it would be hard–when are worthwhile things not hard?”

Final Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I became a bit of a pearl diver myself when I agreed to help Jeff Stier with the launch of Blurts.com. For you angel investors out there, I’ve recorded this Blurts for you Click on the following links for the complete interviews with Lutzker, Kamal, Middleton, and Stier.

The Ups and Downs of Being an Entrepreneur

Why did you want to be an entrepreneur in the first place?
My career started in a creative corporate environment, the advertising world.  But  the idea of someone monitoring and curating my ideas didn’t sit well with me. I wanted to run with my ideas and figure out for myself if they were good or bad; not have someone else tell me.

Where did the idea for Blurts first come from?
I was working hard at a major ad agency and not seeing my kids a lot.  They kept leaving voice mail messages for me, and I kept saving the ones I thought were really special like: “Daddy, I know you couldn’t be here but I scored my first goal today.” One day I went to play one of my favorite saved messages for my wife but it was gone, eaten by the voicemail devils.   Losing that voicemail stabbed my heart emotionally much like losing the only picture I owned of my beloved dog growing up. At the moment of that loss I realized that under the right circumstances and as told by the right person—- a voice mail or a voice memory, or a blurt— was as important a media for saving and sharing memories  as text, photo or video.

What does it really take to be an entrepreneur?
The three P’s:  passion, persistence and patience.

Did you have any major pivots?
I’ve evolved the business model at least three times in response to market direction and consumer behavioral shirts.  Because I was at JWT I was as the forefront of the convergence of brand story telling and user generated content. I thought to myself what better way for brands to encourage consumers to be part of the online conversation then by suing their voices.  By letting them literally be heard.  This was a major moment for us.  Also the concurrent rise of mobile and social media which has created an online environment in which millions of people want to share everything including their voice and opinions.

Talk to me about the challenges of raising that first round of money
The first round was the easiest in many ways. It was an emotional appeal to friends and family. They were mostly older and I said you’re at an age when you’re starting to look back and understand what your life story and history was. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could easily tell that story in your own voice and have it preserved for generations to listen to?  That struck a cord.

Give me a sense of the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur
Not everyone has the immediate emotional connection with Blurts that I want them to because Blurts is my baby.  I hate when they give me a blank stare which means they just don’t get it.   This happens all the time in money raising to. Every high net worth individual, VC or angel has their own point of view.  Sometime I’ll have a meeting one day and the potential investor rails on the model for X reason.  The next day in a different meeting a different potential investor LOVES X.  This drives me crazy.  Can everyone please just make up their minds and get on the same page?!

Is there a moment as an entrepreneur, where you say “What am I doing?”
I have a moment like that almost every day. To keep going forward those moments have to be balanced by moments of exultation which we are lucky to have our share of.  For example, a couple of weeks ago the  #1 video news site in France ran a two minute story on Blurts.  They get 19mm unique monthly viewers in the US and over 50 mm globally. When we saw that we were like “wow!, we’ve birthed something, from scratch that people are talking about. Without those moments I think many entrepreneurs would be jumping off cliffs.

There’s a lot of angst. A lot of time, effort and thinking invested into the business.  There are people you inevitably disappoint along the way and you try to limit those. But no matter what happens you have to stubbornly stick to the vision because if you didn’t have stubborn visionaries you would never get past the naysayers and the bumps along the way.  I have to say that life during a company’s early growth is not the most pleasant or healthiest  way to live.

Did you have any epiphanies along the way?

I remember the CEO [Note to reader: that would be me] of our agency  walking into the room one day after we had been through meeting after meeting and  he said, “it’s not easy making something simple.” If you’re going to build a utility like blurts make it stupid simple.  In the end we did that.  We spent a lot of time and effort that I wouldn’t take that back for anything in the world. Because everyone talks about how easy it is to use  blurts to infuse passion and nuance into flat unemotional tweets. photos, texts, emails and more.

What’s next?
We’re at a tipping point:  great reviews, fantastic and expanding partner base, and  growing usage.  We’re looking for the next level of financial partners. Strategics who not only bring money but also experience, relationships and a passion for disruption and change.  Partners who share our vision for building a global open mike and soapbox that makes it easy for everyone to be heard in the social sphere…with the texture, tone and authenticity of their own voice.

Start-Up Service Connecting People With Their Medical Reminders

This is the transcript from my interview with Jesse Middleton, founder of GetMinders, a start-up service that hopes to make missing your meds a thing of the past.

What is GetMinders?
GetMinders connects people with their medical reminders, their medical professionals and their families/support networks all via a quick phone call or text message. Our system calls patients to remind them to take their meds, get to their appointments or do their therapy and then offers to connect them with all of the above people to help keep them compliant, happy and healthy.

We’ve been running a super early pilot and the feedback has been amazing so far. We now have a private beta launched that is making over 350 calls per week and we’re really excited to continue to grow the company, build the product and gain more advice and feedback throughout the industry and from people like you.

Where did the idea for your business come from?
While I was traveling recently I began a discussion with a distant cousin who is a dentist. As we got talking about the needs of his patients I thought of my grandfather, in Florida, who is in a very late stage of Parkinson’s. It’s easy for someone in his position to forget to take their meds, mess up which ones they take when most importantly become disconnected with his family, friends and medical professionals.

Why are you doing this?  I mean why not just get a job at a fast growing company and stop killing yourself?
I’ve been on both sides. I started my first company at 16 and I’ve worked for numerous large corporations and start-ups over the past 8 years. I felt like it was just the right time to take the leap and try to build a business that could help people on my own. NOTE: My wife gave me a kick in the ass to really get the ball rolling. She told me that right now we have some cheap rent and two annoying cats to take care of. One day we’ll have kids and other responsibilities and it’ll be a lot harder to do.

What does success look like for you personally and for your company?
As a company, getting our product in the hands of millions of people that need to remember to take their medications, keep track of their compliance or take care of their loved ones would be pretty amazing for us. For me personally I’d like to make it to a point where I can invest in others’ ideas that can make the world a better place.

How long have you been at it and where do things stand right now?
We’ve been working on GetMinders for only a couple of months. The real coding and build out came only about a month ago. We’re now in a very early stage where we’re making over 350 calls per week and looking at next steps including funding and market testing.

Other than money, what are the biggest barriers to your success right now?
The biggest barrier for us is the need for a real voice. Speaking to the right people in the industry can be hard. Insurance companies are huge, pharmaceutical companies are even larger and medical networks and hospital systems have so much red tape it can take years to get things from idea to production. Making sure that we’re getting the right introductions and talking to the right people are very important to our success now.

Describe some of the highs you’ve experienced thus far
Right after the first weekend I built a very simple prototype we were making over 100 calls per week with our platform. When I put out simple request for testers on Twitter/Facebook the emails were overwhelming. The fact that people jump at the opportunity to help their friends (and others in the same industry) gives me a strong feeling that we will be successful.

Just a day ago I presented at a technology Meetup in Stamford, CT run by Roger Wu. After presenting our product to over 40 people along with 4 other start-ups we won the user-choice award. It wasn’t so much the winning that mattered but the fact that people sat and listened and offered fantastic input as to the future of GetMinders and the health industry as a whole.

And what are the low points?
I’m not sure that there have been any real low points so far. The hardest thing has been cutting back on spending. Having spent a few years in larger corporations (I last worked for LivePerson, a publicly traded tech company in NY) with a real paycheck it was easy to forget about the budget that my wife and I had set out. Now that my partner and I are working really hard on the start-up, I need to really focus on the spending. No one is signing expense reports or bi-monthly checks anymore.

Where has the money come from to get you this far?
It’s come right out of our pockets. My co-founder, Mike, and I have put smalls amounts in where we need it. We’ve had little overhead as we don’t have an office space yet and the minutes and message costs are all pay-as-you-go through Twilio. For now we’ve kept costs low but eventually we’ll be ramping up and that’ll be a whole new ballgame.

How hard has it been to raise money?
Well we’re still in the process so I don’t know that I can speak to the final outcome. What I can say is that the most important thing I learned through the process is that you have to ASK if you want to get money. Too many times I’d end a conversation with thanks for the input instead of, “So, do you believe in us and would you be willing to invest?” Learning to say this sentence has done wonders for us while raising funding.

Looking back, what would you do differently?
I would have done this two years ago instead of now. I was afraid before to go out on my own. Now that I’ve taken the leap I’ve found that the support network that I have spreads much further than I thought. We could be so much further along had we started long ago.

Did you think it was going to be this hard?
Yes. I’ve heard the stories of how hard it is to start a company, build a product, raise money and then sell the product to people from friends who have been through it. I was lucky enough to enter this whole thing pretty grounded.

Has you business taken any major pivots from concept to where you are today?
Not any major pivots. The idea began with medication only. We’ve branched out to looking at all sorts of healthcare and wellness but we’ve stuck to the same industry.

How much money do you need to raise now to get you to the next stage?
We’re currently looking at a small friends and family round (below $200k). This will let us really figure out the right market, build out an even more stable product and to get even further along with discussions all over the healthcare world (pharmacies, insurance companies, etc).

If your friend was about to start a business, what advice would you give them?
Just fucking do it. A good friend of mine has JFDI tattooed on his arm. He’s been telling me those same four words for a long time and finally did it. If you don’t give it a shot I can guarantee you will not succeed.

Do you see yourself as a serial entrepreneur or is this your one big idea?
I am pretty sure I’ll wind up being a serial entrepreneur. If I do my job right this start-up will grow into a real company. My hope is that my next steps involve helping others do the same thing.

What lessons do you wish you’d learned from others?
As I mentioned in the advice I’d give to a friend, JFDI. So many friends have went off, raised money and built successful companies. They all struggled until they finally dove it and did it. I think I learned that lesson now but it took me a heck of a long time to get here.

An Unexpected Entrepreneur’s Success Story

The following is an interview I had with “unexpected entrepreneur” Emily Lutzker, founder of OpenInvo, a start-up with an innovative approach to innovation.


What prepared you for being an entrepreneur?
Before launching OpenInvo I was an artist and academic, and felt more comfortable at an art gallery doing a performance work in the nude, or moderating a panel of cultural theorists than in a boardroom. But not only now have I discovered that being an entrepreneur is one of the most exciting and creative things I have ever done, but my former life was the best preparation for bootstrapping a business that anyone could ask for.

As an artist, I created sculpture, video and performance works and showed my work internationally. Like many early career artists, I did not make much money from my work, nor did I have big budgets for any productions. When I needed to recruit 5 other performers, costume them, organize rehearsals and film, I normally did it on a shoestring. I can’t remember spending more than $500 on a project. Out of necessity and drive, I managed to wrangle people who were enthusiastic to help and resources that got the job done without spending much money. It does take time, attention, and people skills to get such projects done — the same skills needed for managing a startup. I can go on about this at length, but I think you get the idea.

Since I began OpenInvo, I’ve approached it with the same budgetary constraints and understanding as I did as with an artistic production. I know that the people involved are my greatest assets. That, even though 3 people give you high estimates for a job that there are always alternatives, but most importantly that people like to help. (I like to help people too).  They especially like to help when they see enthusiasm and drive for a project — those things are contagious.

Now, OpenInvo has been in live beta since the end of September, and growing at a steady pace. I do hope that in the near future we won’t we bootstrapping it quite to the extent that we have been in the past, but I do know that just about anything is possible with a little creative problem solving.


Where did the idea for your business come from?
My friends were tired of hearing me come up with ideas for new products and services. They all said, “why don’t you do this business or that one — that’s a great idea!” But I had an art career and didn’t want to be a business owner, although I would have loved to prosper from my ideas. Then my (now) co-founder said to me, “Why don’t we have a business selling ideas?” I said, “That can’t be done!” With a mountain of research I happily discovered I was wrong. It’s the only business I ever wanted to be the owner of — so far.

Why are you doing this?  I mean why not just get a job at a fast growing company and stop killing yourself?
I only had a “real” job once. At some point, I was told I was disruptive to the workplace. I’ll admit it,   I was bored. I’m sure I was disruptive. Actually, It never occurred to me to work at a “fast growing company” or hardly a company at all.  Besides, I’m sort-of un-hirable… my resume says PhD, artist, media producer. My web presence says a combination of crazy naked person and esoteric cultural studies scholar. Companies see “troublemaker.” Sure, I’m good for a university Art or New Media department, and I did love teaching, but I’m not a true academic in my heart.

What does success look like for you personally and for your company?

This is a trick question! Success means changing the world, no?  Seriously… to have a thriving marketplace where people with great ideas get valued for their ingenuity, where companies get true fuel for innovation. Success for the OpenInvo is to be a center for innovation, a support system for the innovation process, and to constantly keep growing and evolving from within. I’d like to think that success is still a starting point, not only a result.

On a large scale, I think that the wonderful things that people dream up should be seen as a commodity. Over the last 50 years, any art form that can be reproduced has become increasingly cheap or free — music, films, books, etc. The people who suffer from that phenomenon are the independent thinkers, not the pop-culture successes. But independent thinking and creation are the assets of humanity, and not to foster that aspect of culture is a shame. I don’t believe we should return to a pre-mechanical reproduction culture, but instead move forward and reinvent. On a philosophical level OpenInvo can inch us towards valuing people’s creativity, rather than valuing “stuff.” Seeing that kind of shift occur will be success for OpenInvo as well as for me personally. I’m a bit of an idealist, and I want to live in a world that fosters and rewards the things that make us human and celebrates our differences.

How long have you been at it and where do things stand right now?

The original conversation that inspired the company occurred more than 2 years ago. I was living in Tel Aviv. A year and a half ago I moved back to New York to start OpenInvo, mostly because my network is here and the innovation business, in terms of content, should be here. I then had a bit of a learning process in the business and startup arenas — it’s still not over, but I’d like to think that I gained some skills and had some that I repurposed from the art and media world. In a way, I could say that I’ve been at it all my life, I just didn’t know what “it” was. It took me until March 2010 to officially form the company, and the first public release of the platform went up in late September.


Other than money, what are the biggest barriers to your success right now?
Gaining trust from the would-be Idea Provider community. To have those users understand that not only does OpenInvo NOT want to “steal their idea,” but we actually don’t want ideas to be “stolen” at all.

Describe some of the highs you’ve experienced thus far

I didn’t ask anyone for money, they volunteered. I raised a small amount from friends and family who felt my enthusiasm and believed in me, saying they wanted in. That was an amazing high — to be heard and supported like that.

And what are the low points?

The low points are only the few days when it’s more of a struggle than an adventure — realizing what I don’t know and how much there is ahead. I have an impatient streak, which makes me frustrated when things don’t go as fast as I would like. Also, it would be a relief to not spend time worrying over the lack of budget. It is a bit of a roller-coaster ride… Ohmmm…


Where has the money come from to get you this far?
Friends and family.


How hard has it been to raise money?
The small amount I raised I got without asking. Now I’m just starting to look for the right investors to grow with. I’ll let you know how hard it’s been when it’s done.


Looking back, what would you do differently?
Who has time to look back?


Did you think it was going to be this hard?
Struggle isn’t something I was ever afraid of. Yeah, sure I knew it would be hard. When are worthwhile things not hard?

Has you business taken any major pivots from concept to where you are today?
Major, no. Minor for sure. And I’m sure there are some to come. I thought i would raise money earlier, but instead just blasted ahead. I wouldn’t have been able to without the amazing support of the people around me, and perhaps a touch of insanity.

How much money do you need to raise now to get you to the next stage?
Need? I’ll make it work with whatever I have. But with 500,000-600,000 OpenInvo would be able to grow at an optimal rate.

If your friend was about to start a business, what advice would you give them?

I’d just make sure she/he  knew the level of commitment and drive it takes. I would load a bunch of resources into her/his hands, spin her around three times and, say, “go get em! Call me when you need me — for advice, a shoulder to lean on, or a drink.”


Do you see yourself as a serial entrepreneur or is this your one big idea?
I can’t imagine not having another big project ahead of me. Whether that will be a for-profit business or not, who knows. Do we have a name for someone who embarks on one big project after another that are not necessarily business ventures? I’m a serial one of those.

Someone said that “any idiot can learn from his/her own mistakes, it takes a genius to learn from the mistakes of others” — what lessons do you wish you’d learned from others?

That business isn’t boring at all. That the language may be different for different industries, but often the skill set is easily translatable. And that when someone offers you a breath mint, take it.

Innovative Start-Up Making Products Out of Recycled Materials

This is the transcript from my interview with Ashok Kamal, founder of Bennu, a start-up dedicated to making new products out of the stuff you throw away.  This is the first in a series of interviews I conducted for a FastCompany.com post on entrepreneurship that will go live later this week.  I also have Ashok to thank for the pearl metaphor I’m using for my larger story with his comment, “bu diamonds and pearls are made under pressure, and so are great businesses.”

Where did the idea for your business come from?

Like any good business, the idea behind Bennu was born out of a problem. The difference with Bennu and other social enterprises is that our problem affects society as a whole, not just individuals. We wanted to address the obscene amount of garbage being dumped into landfills. Therefore, we started Bennu to make products out of recycled materials, both solving a practical consumer need and protecting the environment for all of us.

Why are you doing this?  I mean why not just get a job at a fast growing company and stop killing yourself;-)

To me, entrepreneurship is another word for freedom. Freedom to live your values, freedom to work with people you care about, and freedom to innovate. Once you’ve experienced the freedom of running your own business, conventional employment feels like a prison sentence.

What does success look like for you personally and for your company?

When your lifestyle revolves around your business, the line between personal and professional success is blurred. In the short- and medium-term, my success entails creating a stable enterprise that delights both employees and customers. Bennu’s mission is greening the standard for a new lifestyle so our goal is also to influence peoples’ behavior by promoting sustainability. Over the long-term, I hope the business will outgrow its founders and operate as a well-oiled machine.  At that point, personal success would mean being in a position to help aspiring entrepreneurs to achieve their dreams.

How long have you been at it and where do things stand right now?

My partners and I began working on Bennu during our first year of business school in the fall of 2009. We entered and won the Baruch College & Merrill Lynch Invitational business plan competition and officially incorporated in July 2009. We continued to develop Bennu during our second year of business school and committed ourselves full-time to the venture upon graduation in June 2010. Currently, Bennu is a fully operational, revenue-generating company and we are focused on establishing our brand, designing products and creating marketing programs.

Other than money, what are the biggest barriers to your success right now?

Business is about seeing around corners. As a socially responsible company, Bennu caters to the green consumer segment, which is growing rapidly but still represents a fraction of the mainstream market. At present, the volatile demand for green products is a threat to our business, especially since sustainability adds cost. We’re betting on a green tidal wave that changes consumer preferences such that corporate social responsibility is the expectation, not the exception. The risk we assume is that we’re peering too far around the corner, waiting for a paradigm shift that may or may not occur.

Describe some of the highs you’ve experienced thus far:

As student entrepreneurs who made the leap from classroom to market, a definite highlight was being selected to compete in the 2010 Rice Business Plan Competition in Houston, TX. The event is considered the most prestigious student business competition in the world and participating validated our concept and potential. Additionally, making our first sale was a thrill. The idea becomes viable when a customer agrees to pay for it, suddenly making the business real. As a corollary, it was equally fulfilling to successfully deliver our first order. When customers are consistently made happy, it signals not only the start of a business, but also its likelihood to thrive.

And what are the low points?

Running a startup involves constant troubleshooting. From supply chain disruptions, to managing cash flow, to technical glitches — almost every problem could spell the end of the business because there is little room for error. While no single crisis stands out in my mind, the persistent challenge to withstand shocks and survive can be stressful. Entrepreneurship is an emotional roller-coaster and some days the low points compound. But diamonds and pearls are made under pressure, and so are great businesses.

Where has the money come from to get you this far?

Bennu was awarded $40,000 in seed money by winning the 2009 Baruch College & Merrill Lynch Invitational business plan competition. This capital injection allowed us to start up and earn revenue, and also compelled us to put skin in the game and invest in ourselves.

How hard has it been to raise money?

Bennu is a bootstrapped startup by design. Rather than exhaust resources chasing money for an unproven business, we decided to operate lean and focus on proving our concept. Raising external capital to support an unconventional business model in a down economy would have been extremely difficult. Now that we have an emerging brand, company infrastructure and base of customers, we hope that growth capital will be more accessible than if we had fundraised out of the gates.

Looking back, what would you do differently?

Bennu took too long to evolve. We launched by selling customized backpacks made from recycled plastic bottles. While these Greenpacks have been successful, they don’t suggest the growth of a successful company. A singular product focus is risky and nothing is safely protected from imitation. By listening to both our champions and critics, we realized that our core competency was developing marketing programs for recycled products, which could include but were not limited to children’s backpacks. Our business model became an integrated product development and marketing company focused on the recycled market.  We can help larger companies deal with their waste by offering structured corporate social responsibility solutions based on our diverse products and marketing programs.

Looking back, did you think it was going to be this hard?

When you feel fear, you can either run from it or confront it. Obviously, an entrepreneur is someone who faces fear head on. The psychological leap forward is scary and nothing can prepare you ahead of time. Accepting that all responsibility falls on your shoulders and there is no safety net is something you can only digest in real-time. However, the anxiety becomes overshadowed by the excitement of positively impacting the world and achieving your dreams.

How much money do you need to raise now to get you to the next stage?

In order to scale up and accelerate growth, we will be looking to raise at least $800,000 by the summer of 2011.

If your friend was about to start a business, what advice would you give them?

First, I’d subject the person to a psychological examination to ensure that they are just crazy enough to start a business. Assuming they aren’t either too sane or too crazy, I’d advise them to become consumer-facing as quickly as possible. Regardless of the idea on paper, the ultimate success lies in the hands of the buyer. The most important feedback, especially at the outset, is also likely to come from consumers, so it makes sense to prototype and test before investing unnecessary resources in a dud. Lastly, I’d remind my friend that passion should be at the center of the business. It’s the driver that will get the person through setbacks and make the victories more meaningful.



Do you see yourself as a serial entrepreneur or is this your one big idea?

I see the entrepreneurial lifestyle as a chronic disease, and I consider myself hopelessly afflicted.

Someone said that “any idiot can learn from his/her own mistakes, it takes a genius to learn from the mistakes of others” — what lessons do you wish you’d learned from others?

I think you can avoid a lot of unnecessary mistakes by establishing an advisory board from the outset. It’s easy to neglect this task in favor of immediate concerns, but once we recruited seasoned and candid advisors, Bennu became much more efficient and productive.