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2012

BizSchoolDropout_Body.jpgby Iris Dorbian. 

 

At an age when most of his peers are either grappling with the demands of a first job or figuring out what to do with their lives, 24-year-old Jamal Robinson belies the stereotypes. The ambitious Fort Wayne, Indiana-native started to pursue his dreams at the University of Central Florida’s College of Business Administration, but he put academia on the backburner when a plethora of opportunities surfaced. From 2008 until this past spring, he was president of sales at Novis Communications, a watch brand that he co-founded. His latest venture, Chicago-based Desiar Eyewear, has attracted the attention of venture capitalists, private equity groups, and celebrity clients like rapper/producer Soulja Boy, and recently launched its retail distribution at the Randolph Street Market. So what tips—and caveats—does Robinson have to offer others who may be contemplating life as an entrepreneur rather than a college student? Robinson shares his experiences and insights with business writer Iris Dorbian.  

 

 

ID: Why did you decide to stop pursuing a business degree and drop out of college? 

JR: There was an opportunity for me to design and make my dream a reality in running my own fashion business. I took that chance. I went to UCF and then I transferred back home where I was going to finish my bachelor’s degree at Indiana University—Purdue University Fort Wayne. I stopped after my associate’s degree to pursue building my business.  

 

 

BizSchoolDropout_PQ.jpgID: What were the opportunities that you pursued in Florida? 

JR: I went there to connect with individuals who were successful in business. I met someone who was in real estate. He was looking to start a woman’s brand, Foxy4. I told him I could develop a line of clothing if he just gave me the opportunity. That’s how I got started. After my second year at UCF, I designed that line [which included hats, t-shirts, bathing suits, and dresses] and then decided to move back to Fort Wayne, drop out of UCF, and pursue building a fashion business. From 2008 to 2011, I did custom eyewear for celebrities. I had a buzz around my name in Florida and that opened up great opportunities. That’s when I decided to pursue fashion and build my brand rather than go to school.  

 

 

ID: Do you have a design background?  

JR: When I got the opportunity to design for Foxy4, I would spend nights reading fashion magazines like Elle, Harper's Bazaar, and Vogue. I would also watch videos on designers, especially Karl Lagerfeld, in a series called “Signe Chanel.” 

 

 

ID: What convinced you to take on the designer gig even though you didn't have a design background? Was it the same kind of impulse that convinced you that you could succeed without a business degree? 

JR: I have always been creative and I knew designing was something I could do if I learned a little more about the technical aspect. That's the same thing I felt about school. Education is very important to me, but once I saw what school could offer I knew when the opportunity came, I would be able to leave school while still creating a successful company. 

 

 

ID: What do you feel are the pros and cons of your dropping out of college?  

JR: I’m learning what they can’t teach you in classrooms, which are the trials and tribulations of what it’s really like to start a business. You can have simulations, you can have internships, but nothing can give you that real world experience, which I feel is the most valuable thing I’ve learned so far. Also, schools teach you to be part of a business and add value—not so much to start and develop your own business. Even with entrepreneurial programs, the core courses are still based around big business.  The con of dropping out is missing the proper things that you learn in school that will eliminate some of the learning curves at building a business.  

 

 

ID: What are some of your strategies for handling critical business tasks like managing cash flow and other technical skills that they teach in college business classes? 

JR: I am a firm believer in mentors. I have five people who have been, and are, entrepreneurs who assist me in growing as a small business owner. They are my sounding boards for how I handle cash flow, credit, and scalability, especially as my business grows. 

 

 

ID: Can you describe what led to the formation of your eyewear company?  

JR: I had a pair of sunglasses that I really liked and I had the idea to put Swarovski crystals on them to make them flashy. That was in 2008 and that’s how I got started creating custom sunglasses. Up until last year I was still enhancing glasses with crystals by myself. Then this year I decided to source my manufacturing and I did that through relationships. That’s a challenge in itself. And in growing the brand this year, I raised the capital. It took me about six to seven months of meetings with venture capital groups, private equity groups, and business people to really nail down who I’m going to bring in as an equity partner.  

 

 

ID: How specifically did your affiliation with Soulja Boy help grow your brand? Can you cite an example? 

JR: Affiliation with entertainers just opened doors and added credibility to what I was doing. I was a young kid running to every concert I could with a bag of sunglasses. When Soulja Boy started wearing them, I became the young kid who made Soulja Boy's sunglasses. It was never a strategic business move, but it did give my brand credibility. I knew the Desiar concept at the time was cool and could work, but when a major celebrity begins to wear your product, it gives you a boost. 

 

 

ID: What are some of the obstacles you have dealt with? And how have you overcome them? 

JR: I would say understanding cash flow was an obstacle starting out. Being a small business, every penny matters so I'm learning to be as efficient as possible. The best way I handle that is by calling one or two of my mentors and asking them questions that I may have problems with. They never tell me what to do, but they give me suggestions on how they would handle my situation. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don't but it's always good to have a different perspective. 

 

 

ID: Do you have other employees at Desiar?  

JR: No, it’s just me—it’s your typical start-up. I have someone who helps me in marketing, but that person is not an employee. He’s a good friend of mine. With Desiar, I design, develop, market, and create the content. The only thing I don’t do is manufacture, which I outsource.  

 

 

ID: What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?  

JR: Anyone who is interested in becoming an entrepreneur should surround themselves with mentors who have been successful in business. For example, I searched out mentors who were very strong in areas I wanted to focus on, such as finance, general business, fashion, and manufacturing. I didn't force any relationships, but I waited to connect and associate with people who wanted to help see me grow as a person and entrepreneur.  

QAmichaelzeto_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.

 

Have you taken a small business up on an offer via your cellphone? You very well might soon, thanks to new efforts to engage customers through location-based mobile technology. Michael Zeto, CEO and founding partner of Atlanta-based Proximus Mobility, is at the forefront this new frontier, dubbed hyper-local proximity marketing. Recently, he talked with business writer Erin McDermott about what small businesses can do with this intriguing new media to increase their revenue.

 

 

QAmichaelzeto_PQ.jpgEM: In layman’s terms, can you explain hyper-local proximity marketing and how it works?

MZ: Hyper-local proximity marketing is really the distribution of relevant, location-specific advertising and marketing content to consumers’ mobile devices in and around the point of purchase or that critical decision-making moment.

A consumer interacts with a call to action—some signage possibly that says to receive special offers turn on their Bluetooth or WiFi. They do that if it’s not already enabled, and in most cases one or the other would be enabled. And then they receive information when they’re in range of an access point or in an “offer zone.”  

EM: There are plenty of people who aren’t necessarily comfortable with a lot of technology when it comes to their privacy. Proximus is doing it another way: The customers need to opt in, correct?

MZ: Yes. Everything we do takes that into account and it’s all opt-in based. So regardless of which one of our offerings you’d choose, there will be some step that you’ll need to do to opt in ensuring that we stay in line with all of the privacy regulations.

 

EM: What works in terms of how a business can get clients and customers to want to enable or opt-in to that contact? 

MZ: It comes down to the content and the relevance of the offer. It doesn’t have to be a giveaway—it just needs to be something that is relevant to the business that would give value to a consumer out there. It could be a two-for-one coffee or it could be a special ingredient for how they make one of their better-selling items in a restaurant—something that would be of value for somebody to know. We’ve seen people leverage proximity marketing to increase per-head spending, increase repeat visits back to a location, and increase the sale of higher margin items to the consumers, which adds to the business’s bottom line.

 

EM: How have people been getting those messages across? What have been some creative uses in how they’re connecting with customers?

MZ: The first step is that call to action, so it’s about letting people know there’s something available for them. In some cases, it’s at events and they’ll have street themes and T-shirts with a catchy saying. In some cases, it’s signage like poster boards or a banner flashing across a digital sign.

 

EM: In terms of the actual message, what have businesses been sending that you think have been effective?

MZ: People always want offers. So for the business owner, for the ad to be effective, the offers need to be something that provides a benefit to the consumer and to the business itself. That’s why we try to promote the increase in per-head spend, where it’s not a giveaway offer of something they’d normally buy. You offer them an appetizer along with the purchase of an entree.

 

Or, for example, a hair salon giving a clip of a new hairstyle that’s been seen on a Hollywood celebrity. The hair salon’s saying “If you want your hair to look like Jennifer Aniston, get your hair cut here. And, oh, by the way, she holds it together with Aveda products.” So they’re not only giving the consumer something valuable—which is what’s new in the world of hairstyles they might want—but they’re also promoting the salon and an up-sale of products, which has a very high margin to it. And in some cases, the company that provides the product to the salon may actually pay to place it there as an advertisement.

 

EM: On the business side, how can someone determine the effectiveness of the technology?

MZ: When you leverage mobile, it’s pretty measurable. With our solution, you know if somebody has opted in, and if the content has been browsed on their phones or if they’ve viewed 18 pages of ad content, and they’ve looked at it for the last two-and-a-half minutes. That’s all very valuable information because that means they’re spending that much time on it and there’s value to what the retailer is giving the consumer. So that means you’re on the right track as far as what you’re developing for the consumer.

 

EM: Each of these new forms of media seem to have their own rules of etiquette—you shouldn’t pin too much on Pinterest, you shouldn’t overcrowd people on Facebook. How can proximity-marketing users figure out how to get their message right in terms of tone, frequency, and content? What’s the secret to engaging someone?

MZ: I think it’s to be as non-intrusive as possible. Again, if the content is valuable, that’s the key. The reason people get tired of being bombarded, I think, is because 80 to 85 percent of the content they’re getting hit with is not really that relevant. It’s not exciting enough to be bombarded with. But if somebody’s giving great stuff, that’s important. And that goes to a business’s strategic objectives and what their initiatives are. If their strategic business objective is to increase per-head spending when somebody’s in the store or increase basket size, as a grocery store would say, then they need to structure their content around that.

 

EM: Speaking of customers being in the store, there’s been a lot of news coverage lately about “showrooming—the trend of smartphone users going into a retailer’s shop to test out a product they’ve seen online, then buying it on another e-commerce site—and the effects on big and small businesses. A recent Wall Street Journal article talked about proximity marketing being one possible solution for retailers. What have you seen? Don’t these also fall into the category of possibly also being intrusive?

MZ: Not necessarily, because with showrooming [customers] are in the store. The goal is to get you to spend money in the store and not go in and look at stuff then go and buy it somewhere else. So if they’re served an offer that’s made while they’re showrooming, you may, for instance, be able to get an offer relevant to that item, or an item, and provide them with a price that’s listed to engage them with the proximity solution while they’re in the store.

 

EM: What have been some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced with this type of technology?

MZ: The biggest challenges have been that there are a lot of options out there from a mobile perspective. There’s proximity, as we do it, via WiFi and Bluetooth, there’s geofencing, there’s just straight text, there’s app-based stuff—there’s a lot of noise in this space. And so the biggest challenge has been that there’s all these other options and getting retailers to take an integrated approach. There’s no one silver bullet. If you really want to communicate with as many people as possible at the right times, you probably want to leverage multiple types of mobile technology offerings to get content into people’s hands. We actually offer all of the above in our solution.

 

EM: Where do you see this type of technology five years from now?

MZ: It’s projected to reach tens of billions of dollars just in the U.S. It varies whether that might be through the purchasing of solutions like ours, or a digital/mobile ad spend. I think that it’s probably going to move a little slower, but the potential of those numbers is certainly there. And as consumers adopt the method that they like the best, or the multiple methods they like the best, I think you’ll see it grow rapidly. It’s like anything else—it’s all about consumer adoption. That’s what really drives those big numbers. If the consumers want the content delivered to them, then retailers and brands eventually will have to deliver their content that way—if they want to stay competitive.

Body_SweetSpot.jpgby Susan Caminiti.

 

As most entrepreneurs will attest, it takes drive, focus, and a nearly round-the-clock time commitment to start, and successfully grow, a small business. Yet entrepreneurs, when pressed, will also admit that owning their own company often takes a toll on their personal life, eating into precious family time, vacations, and even sleep.

 

PQ_SweetSpot.jpgAttempts to grab some of that balance back are not always successful. A recent survey by insurance company Hiscox showed that just five percent of the small business owners it spoke with say they maintain work/life balance by not working weekends. Not having their smart phone at the dinner table or in the bedroom? A paltry three percent of the survey respondents say this is how they keep the work/life formula in check.

 

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Entrepreneurs are actually in the best position to create and maintain a manageable level of work/life balance—and are able to set the tone for the rest of their employees. “It really does start at the top,” says Kathie Lingle, executive director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress in Scottsdale, Arizona. “As the boss, you are in control of how you work and that example sets the pace within the rest of your organization.”

 

Find some flexibility

That’s certainly true of Lizanne Falsetto, founder and CEO of ThinkThin, a Los Angeles-based company that makes a line of all-natural, gluten-free snack bars. The single mother of two pre-teens says work/life balance for her is all about flexibility. And she’s not alone. The Hiscox study found that ‘flexibile working hours’ was the most popular work/life balance strategy, cited by 51 percent of small business owners. “The idea of work and life being 50/50 all the time just isn’t a reality for me,” she says.

 

Each day of the week is different for Falsetto, depending on the number of meetings scheduled and what obligations she has with her kids. “Today I had a 7 a.m. call, worked until 2 p.m. and then spent a few hours with my daughter,” she recalls. “I came back in the office at 4 p.m. and worked a few more hours. The rest of the week will be different and that flexibility is what allows me to have balance in my life.”

 

Falsetto says she extends that same flexibility to her 130 employees. “They know what has to get done and I don’t micro-manage their time,” she adds. On Sunday nights (“After all the kids are in bed for everyone,” she explains) Falsetto has a conference call with her senior managers to review what’s on tap for the week ahead. “It’s a good way for everyone to come in on Monday morning and be able to move full-speed ahead without a lot of confusion,” she says. “I do believe that chaos creates anxiety.”

Know when to turn it off

To be sure, there are times when a certain 24/7 mentality takes over and work/life balance is nearly non-existent. “In the early stages of any business start-up, work is going to overtake other things in your life,” explains Jaye Smith, president of Breakwater Consulting, an executive coaching firm in New York City. If you’re in a competitive business and need to be available to clients or customers, then that’s what you have to do, she explains.

 

But Smith counsels entrepreneurs not to sacrifice their mental health—or that of their employees—for the sake of responsiveness, a trap that technology makes all the more tempting. “When you promise a client an answer on something, it doesn’t always have to be in the next 10 minutes,” she adds. “It’s okay to suggest getting back to them the next day, if possible.”

 

The same goes for emails. “You don’t want them going out to clients at 2:30 a.m.,” she advises. “It sends the message that you’re not in control of things and need to conduct business at unreasonable hours. Wait until your normal business hours to communicate.” Not only does this help rein in your own schedule, but it also prevents customers from expecting you to be available at any time of the night or day, she says.

 

Learn how to take a break

Christine Figliuolo, founder and president of Creations by Christine Events, a wedding and corporate event planning company based in northern New Jersey, has established her own version of work/life balance. “My business is cyclical, with spring and fall the two busiest times of the year,” she explains. Oftentimes corporate events and weddings are back to back and her home life—she’s married with three teenage daughters—gets less of her attention. “I manage through it because I know there’s an end in sight and my schedule will slow down” in the off-season, Figliuolo says.

 

It’s during those periods that she makes sure to spend time with her daughters, taking day trips or simply going out to dinner or the movies. “I also make sure to take care of myself,” she adds. Yoga, massages, and time to work out are “another element of my business life,” she says. “If I don’t refuel during the down times, I won’t have the energy to get through the crazy times.”

 

As with most things in life—and in business—balance comes down to the basics, say the experts. Enjoy the work you do. Get enough sleep. Spend (uninterrupted) time with the people you love. Disconnect occasionally and just think. Says Smith of Breakwater Consulting: “An investment in yourself is ultimately an investment in your business.”

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