Alex Schiff is the CEO and co-founder of Fetchnotes, and a junior at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Prior to starting Fetchnotes, he was an early employee at Benzinga, a financial media startup, where he spearheaded business development and various editorial initiatives.
Outside of entrepreneurship, Alex has a strong interest in the stock market, politics, media and writing of all sorts. He is also a huge fan of Detroit and Michigan sports, particularly football.
[quote]I would have picked only one thing to focus on. For awhile both my co-founder and I were equally working on a few startups at once, and that just doesn’t work once you go from idea to company-building. You can definitely play roles in multiple ventures but you need to pick one that is your baby.[/quote]
What are you working on right now?
Fetchnotes — the quick, easy way to get tasks, ideas, grocery lists and anything else out of your brain and into your workflow. My co-founder Chase and I have been working on this together since March 2011. We aim to be the simplest application in the note-taking space with a focus on shorter, more immediate notes rather than longer-form things like recipes and meeting minutes.
We’re also the only company that lets you text in your notes, at least to my knowledge. This not only leverages the default behavior among many people (be honest, you know you’ve texted yourself notes), but it also allows non-smartphone users to take advantage of our service.
Where did the idea for Fetchnotes come from?
It’s funny, it actually came from another idea I was exploring (an ideas marketplace) for a college course. I had a bunch of other ideas at the time and realized I had no good way of jotting them down and keeping them organized. I started asking people what they used to solve this problem and realized everyone hated their current solution, if they hadn’t given up on finding one entirely.
I tried a lot of apps and services on the market, but nothing was as easy as I wanted it to be. So me and Chase teamed up and we’ve been going at it ever since with our excellent team.
What does your typical day look like?
It’s probably a lot different than most of your interviews since I’m a student. On most days, I wake up around 9AM, go to class, and whenever I’m done I go right into Fetchnotes work. That typically includes a lot of emailing, phone calls and meetings since I’m the “hustler” of the startup (though my hacker co-founder does plenty of hustling as well). Right now, most of this communication centers around sending out beta invites, gathering feedback and gearing up for our big PR push.
I’m usually up until about 2AM, generally working on Fetchnotes stuff. I guess school work fits in there somewhere.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Tenacity. So much of being a successful entrepreneur is being able to just will things into reality. Especially in the early stages when cash is non-existent, it’s hard to recruit and retain the right people, keep them motivated and get things to the finish line.
Everything that can go wrong will go wrong — Murphy’s Law is amplified in startups. You’ll discover competitors with huge head starts. People who said they’re 100% on board will flake out. New information will be discovered that seems to invalidate your entire business model for one reason or another. The startups that survive are the ones who are led by determined entrepreneurs who can’t even conceive of giving up.
3 trends that excite you?
1) The newfound emphasis on design and UX. In general, products are becoming easier to use and nicer-looking.
2) More and more brick and mortar stores are embracing new forms of communication and interaction with their customers. An example is Chase Bank’s app that allows you to deposit checks via your phone. My dream is to be able to take care all of my errands online. Going to stores and dealing with people trying to up-sell you on whatever their new product is…it’s such a time-suck. It takes away from time I could spend building my business.
3) I forget who said this (don’t give me the credit), but the tech startups of today are not just “take this real-world thing and put it online.” They are coming up with completely revolutionary solutions and creating completely new industries.
What is the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
It’s a tie between being a camp counselor and when I drove around this guy I found on Craigslist the summer I graduated high school.
For the first one, I got sucked into the illusion that being a counselor is just like being a camper when I was 16. It was absolutely awful. One of my campers literally had a colony of insects under his bed. One night he came out of the cabin to tell us that he had found a turtle living in his mess of rotting fruits, cereal and wet swimsuits. I also had to have a sexual harassment talk with a seven-year-old because he was running around with balloons in his shirt touching other girl’s chests saying, “my boobs are bigger than yours.” That was interesting.
The other terrible job I had been driving around — in my car, mind you — a credit card processing salesman I found on Craigslist. Supposedly, he had donated his car but ran into some hard times that prevented him from getting another one. I picked him up in the morning and we would go on a series of sales runs. I was only supposed to drive him within the city but we ended up driving as far as an hour away. He also made me cold call funeral homes to see if they wanted to accept credit cards.
It was just an all-around sketchy experience. Once he called me at 6:30AM, and then every hour until I woke up, leaving angry voice mails that I “missed out on a lot of runs today.” When it came time for my paycheck, suddenly there was good news and bad news — the bad news being that the people who paid him were late and he couldn’t pay me until next week, the good news being that there were a lot of runs tomorrow.
My parents, girlfriend, friends, etc. actually became worried for my safety after awhile. They kept on insisting that I quit, but what the heck was I supposed to do in a state with 15%+ unemployment? Unemployment literally peaked the month I took that job. But after he tried to flake on my second paycheck, I told him I’d come over that night to get it. He tried to argue that he should only pay me for runs that resulted in sales, and then wanted to dock my mileage reimbursement because I ran the air conditioning…IN JULY! After I cashed that check, I quit.
From that experience I learned a lot of things — how to stand my ground in a negotiation, how to put up with a soul-sucking job, and more generally I learned that most people are full of crap when it comes down to it.
Related to that last point, that summer I also applied to a social media marketing job. This was when social media was just starting to get really popular for business. I had no idea what that even meant, so I called a local firm that did SMM pretending to be a potential client and asked what they would do for my business. In that 15-minute conversation, I was able to pick up enough knowledge and buzz words to pass the interview and get the job (though he later flaked out, naturally). This taught me to 1) be very resourceful and 2) never trust “social media marketing gurus” unless they have a proven track record of success. It’s probably some kid like me who happens to have a Twitter account.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would have picked only one thing to focus on. For awhile both my co-founder and I were equally working on a few startups at once, and that just doesn’t work once you go from idea to company-building. You can definitely play roles in multiple ventures but you need to pick one that is your baby.
What is the one thing you did/do as an entrepreneur that you would do over and over again and recommend everybody else do?
Hire amazing people who you know can learn a skill rather than good people with experience. Most of the people working for us picked up a new programming language or framework (or several) or had no prior experience in mobile development. But we have an amazing company culture because of it — our team is intrinsically motivated because they’re learning a new skill on top of their work, and many of them are grateful we gave them a shot to prove themselves. One of my proudest moments as a young entrepreneur was when one of our developers started a meeting with me by saying, “Before we get started, I just wanted to thank you for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this and giving me a chance to learn on the job.”
I recommend this to every single entrepreneur I know. First-timers, especially with business backgrounds, tend to think of recruiting as filling holes. For example, “Okay, I need a mobile developer, so I need to find someone who has done iOS or Android development before.” WRONG! You need to find someone who a) you would look forward to working with on a regular basis and b) is capable of picking up mobile development.
Tell us a secret…
I’m pretty transparent so that’s hard. And if I had a secret, chances are I would say something like that in order to make it seem like I didn’t have any.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Financial software is completely messed up. Have you ever tried using a stock screener? They are the ugliest products you’ll ever seen in your life. They’re like using computers from the 1980’s. I think there is an absolutely monumental opportunity to serve retail investors with a set of stock screening, back-testing and valuation tools that focus on design and a dead-simple UX.
The problem is the cost of the data — it’s a costly business to be in. But with the advent of extensible business report language (XBRL) in SEC filings I’m hoping that this changes and that innovation finally hits this sector. The subscription rates you can charge here are very attractive.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?
I personally love Kurt Vonnegut books, especially Galapagos. I always thought that one was underrated. It’s one of the few books I’ve actually re-read.
If you weren’t working on Fetchnotes, what would you be doing?
Working on another idea. Probably that financial software one.
Three people we should follow on Twitter, and why?
To be honest, I just follow a ton of entrepreneurs, VCs, angels, journalists, etc. and don’t really pay attention to the individual tweets of one person or another in most cases. I use Twitter as a socially-curated news feed.
When is the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it.
Tonight while reading dontevenreply.com.
Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?
Nathan Stoll. He taught the class that Fetchnotes sprang from and is one of the entrepreneurs I respect most in this world.
What is one strange or crazy thing you do professionally?
I network very methodically. I treat every blog post, tweet, comment on something, etc. as an opportunity to reach out to someone and make a connection. Quora is also very helpful in this regard. You can read my blog post on that here: http://blog.fetchnotes.com/post/5975326121/why-quora-is-a-better-networking-tool-than-linkedin
I put all my contacts in Fetchnotes as #contacts and then tag them as #entrepreneurs, #vcs, etc. Not to toot my own horn, but Fetchnotes actually does a pretty nice job as a CRM if you’re just looking for a storage place for your contacts. A lot of my peers make fun of me for how avid I network.
What is one strange thing you do personally?
I study and do a lot of work in bars and pubs. You get that twitch in your brain that says “I want to go screw around on the Internet” every 20 minutes or so. You can end up wasting a lot of time on Facebook or reading random articles. When I’m at, say, The Blue Leprechaun (an Ann Arbor pub), all I have to do is look up at the football game on TV or look around and watch people acting like idiots. 30 seconds of distraction and I’m back to productivity.
Facebook: www.facebook.com/alex.schiff or www.facebook.com/fetchnotes
Twitter: @alexschiff or @fetchnotes