To mark Inc.'s 40th anniversary, the Founders Project matches 40 experienced entrepreneurs with 40 up-and-coming founders throughout 2019. Here, three mentees share the best advice that came out of those conversations.
Eliza Blank, The Sill
Eliza Blank is the founder of hipster-chic houseplant startup the Sill. Her Founders Project mentor is Tina Sharkey, co-founder of values-driven D2C site Brandless, which hit a $500 million valuation in 2018.
I wanted Tina's advice on strategic partnerships with large retailers. We've been getting more inbound interest, and I thought we should go after our dream match. She explained that big-box retailers are becoming more inclined to create their own brands and that it would be better to partner with specialty home-goods retailers like West Elm and Crate & Barrel.
I asked whether I should try to form relationships with those retailers' executives. She said yes, but added that it's at least as important to talk to the merchants and the buyers and develop small programs with them that are really big hits. She said if you just go in top-down, there will be less natural support and enthusiasm, which I thought was incredibly wise advice. She challenges me to think bigger in terms of what I'm capable of. --As told to Leigh Buchanan
Sheena Allen, CapWay
Sheena Allen is the founder and CEO of fintech company CapWay. In August, she closed a "pre-seed" round of $840,000. Her mentor is Jennifer Fitzgerald, co-founder and CEO of Policygenius, which has raised $52 million to fuel its fast-growing digital insurance brokerage.
Jennifer knows what it's like to navigate a new space and some of the hiccups there. In particular, I appreciated her advice on how to handle investors who don't know my business but still want to challenge me on it--investors who goad me into spending our entire meeting teaching them.
The first thing she said was to stand my ground--to know that I know my space and that I know my company--but be mindful of what types of insights I'm giving away. Some VCs will pump you for information to take back to one of their portfolio companies. She encouraged me to trust my gut in those situations--and to politely and professionally end those meetings. --As told to Maria Aspan
Stephen Lease, Goodr
Stephen Lease is a serial entrepreneur whose Goodr sunglasses are in more than 1,500 stores worldwide. He's being mentored by Morris Miller, veteran CEO of Xenex Disinfection Systems and managing partner at Tectonic Ventures.
One thing I struggled with during our rapid growth at Goodr was finding someone I could trust who knows what I'm going through. Enter Morris Miller.
We officially teamed up for the Founders Project this year, but I've been using Morris's advice since we hit it off at an Inc. event in 2018. Morris comes from a different industry and background, so when I'm stuck in a loop, he advises me from a totally different vantage point.
For example, Morris recommended we use a revenue-per-employee model to gauge if we can afford new staff. It's made budgeting and hiring easy and actually fun, especially considering we're hiring 40-plus roles in 2020. Before Morris, we pretty much just licked a finger and stuck it in the wind to gauge hiring. The mentorship has been invaluable. --As told to James Ledbetter