Mentor Spotlight: What I learned in my 20s about starting (and failing) a business

ImageSeth Kravitz is the Cofounder & CEO of Technori. Additionally, he is the Cofounder of Bow Truss (a premium coffee roasting company) and Strange Pelican (a craft beer brewery). Seth participated in Mentor Day in Chicago on June 11, 2013.

Graduating with a 1.92 GPA from high school, my mother encouraged me to apply to as many colleges as I possibly could, with the hopes that at least one would allow me to show up in Fall. Her persistence, plus the four times I retook the ACT to better my score paid off, when OSU chose to accept me.

At 20, I entered my third and final year at “THE” Ohio State University and it had become obvious that I wasn’t college material. In my previous two years my largest college related accomplishments were joining a fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and quite honestly the fact that I was accepted in the first place to OSU.

I would often spend three to four days indoors, mostly in my room alone, I’d pass the time building websites, creating really awful electronic music, and eating endless amounts of Hot Pockets. Upside: I learned the skill that has shaped so much of my life. Downside: I was intensely lonely.

I decided that if I was going to be a hermit and build sites all day alone, I at least should build something that I own. Something that could have a life of its own and much bigger than just one website for some local business.

With some inspiration and a swift kick in the behind from a friend, I launched a flash memory store online. It failed after six months, so I tried to launch a 3D modeling company. When that fell through, I tried to sell pet urns online. Just like dogs & cats it served, that business met its demise after a few months.  I realized that it’s quite hard to launch a startup alone, vowed to find a cofounder to build something with, and then stumbled into a connection that changed my life forever.

In 2004, InsuranceAgents.com was born – although it wouldn’t be called that until 2008, back then it was simply a collection of brutally ugly websites designed for one purpose only: traffic generation. My business partner, Lev, had figured out ways to game Google, Yahoo, and MSN for tons of traffic via PPC, while I was busy building dozens of sites. We were ramen-profitable by our second month, operated out of Lev’s parent’s basement, the sites were hideous, the industry was boring, and I was the happiest I’d ever been. We moved into a windowless hovel of an office in downtown Columbus in 2005, then into hovel with windows, and finally there were five us at the beginning of 2007 on the brink of building something big. On the home front, 2005, 2006, and 2007 would bring engagement, marriage, and a move to Chicago.

Two Roller Coaster Years That Would Change Me Forever

In 2007 we had done $750,000 in revenue and at the beginning of 2008 we did nearly $12MMat awesome profit margins.When something works out dramatically different than you expected, but in a good way, it’s a feeling unlike any I can describe.This was the moment you spend all of those 18 hour days hoping for and why you tell yourself those little white lies every morning about how “one day we will make it big!” My ego was growing by the day. At home we were thinking about buying a big condo downtown!! Yea!!

At the beginning of 2009, It was time for a major technology overhaul. It took until July for our web dev team to prepare the new platform. Even though we both sensed that the platform had been rushed and probably wasn’t truly ready to go live, on July 1st, 2009 we told the dev team to push it out anyway. It’s so easy now to look back and say, “wow, that was dumb …”, but when your head is buried in the process, it’s all too simple to ignore the warning signs.

In the 45 days following the relaunch of the site, every single system the company depended on to operate had failed, was currently still failing, or was just barely working. By the end of the year, we had lost quite a few people, burned millions of the company’s and our own personal funds, lost hundreds of customers, damaged our reputation in the industry, and morale was that of a funeral home.

Things had to change and they needed to change now

Step 1 was seeing a psychologist to organize my thoughts & feelings. Step 2 was joining several Meetup groups, taking speech & singing lessons, and attending events where I forced myself to walk up to people and say, “Hi” (terrifying… ). Step 3 was dropping 20lbs.

From the first moment Lev and I met to talk about insurance, I was bored. I loved the idea of building a company, watching it grow, and potentially exiting it at some point, but I never was interested in the world of insurance for a second. It was approaching six years since we started and 2009 showed me how messed up my life priorities were. I needed something that I could sink my teeth into and it needed to be in an industry I actually enjoyed. On top of that, it needed to be something community related, because I refused to ever be in a situation again where I was alone and without any local friends.

In 2010 it was becoming obvious that something amazing was happening in the Chicago startup world. There was a ton of action happening, but very little sense of community. Out of that opportunity, Technori was born. Five of us started it as a passion project, with no intent to turn it into a business. It was something we could all throw ourselves into and each of us found our own purpose in it. Through 2011 Technori would grow to the point where as a passion project, it was taking up more and more of my attention and cutting into my InsuranceAgents.com time. Additionally, I was tired of digital startups in general and I needed something tangible. I would step down from my role at the company in Oct 2011 and focus all of my effort on a new startup, Bow Truss Coffee Roasters.

2012 would see the launch of our roasting house, the sale of InsuranceAgents.com to Bankrate (NYSE:RATE), and the emergence of Technori as an actual startup. Coming back from the edge to stability in my life and business in 2012 was the biggest accomplishment of my twenties and a wonderful way to close out 29.

No one knows better than an entrepreneur what it’s like to start and fail a business on the path to success. What business idea did you think was going to bring you great success but taught you some tough lessons instead? Leave a comment below!

About IBM Global Entrepreneur

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4 Responses to Mentor Spotlight: What I learned in my 20s about starting (and failing) a business

  1. This was a great read. Thanks for sharing.

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