[quote style=”boxed”]You’re never done tweaking your business. Never be satisfied with any area of your business. Constantly optimize and refine. Small, incremental changes add up to big gains over time.[/quote]
Dan Roitman is committed to enhancing the lives of others through a business that has experienced astounding compounded annual growth of over 70% since 2002, and 105% percent growth in the past year.
He is founder and CEO of Stroll, a Philadelphia-based education e-commerce platform company that has been named one of the fastest-growing businesses in America. Beginning in his dorm room at the University of Maryland, Roitman moved the company to Philadelphia in 2003. Today, Stroll is a professionally managed organization with over 160 employees and projected 2012 sales of $80 million, up from $35 million in 2011.
Roitman holds incredibly high standards for the operation and growth of Stroll. He is actively seeking educational products to sell through his e-commerce platform, with a goal of becoming a $1 billion + business by 2020.
A passionate, driven entrepreneur, Roitman’s fascination with personal development products began in college when he needed to quickly learn how to build and manage a business. Roitman was able to self-fund the growth of Stroll through his own constant commitment to business improvement and the ability to leverage sophisticated marketing analytics and advanced e-commerce techniques.
Roitman’s proof case is Pimsleur Approach, a once forgotten language learning program that he has transformed into the leader in audio-based language learning. Roitman’s secret is his ability to cost-effectively market the product to consumers through an array of online channels and an in-house call center located in Philadelphia.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m working on setting the stage for the company to expand beyond organic growth into inorganic growth. Essentially, we want to buy companies or license additional products starting in 2014 so that we can make progress pursuing our billion dollar plus vision of having a portfolio of consumer education businesses.
Where did the idea for Stroll come from?
I realized that many companies produce great products, but do a poor job selling them. Even today, when I describe our company’s mission, it’s to transform lives by discovering the best educational products and turning them into best-sellers. By connecting with mentors and learning from internet marketers I admired, I came to the realization that the Internet provides the perfect laboratory for combining marketing with analytics and optimization. This combination allows companies to position their products for maximum sales, and it’s the premise on which I built Stroll. It has empowered us to turn our flagship product, Pimsleur Approach, into the leader in audio-based language learning and the #2 language learning brand in the U.S.
What does your typical day look like?
At the start of each day I make it a point to check our daily analytics report. It gives me a high-level read on order volume and the overall financial health of the business. Then I consult my calendar to get an idea of what my day will look like to see when I have openings to focus on project work, such as: PR, capital raising, M&A, strategy and networking. These activities help me to continue growing and bring in best practices from outside wherever possible. I keep a constant to-do list and check it every day to see what needs to be prioritized, usually looking at high-level projects first and checking-in informally with my direct reports. I also try to check-in with at least a handful of people on the marketing team each day to get a sense of the pulse of the business, as they are the main drivers of Stroll’s growth. In general, I’ve tried to organize the company so that there’s inside and outside leadership. In that sense, with our COO in place, I am free to focus on my areas, knowing that our operating plans and general execution efforts are being skillfully managed.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Very carefully. Stroll is growing rapidly, so, we carefully plan our next opportunities and strategies for capturing them. I’m usually six months to one year ahead of where I’d like the company to be in terms of cultivating more tactical ideas. I’m constantly networking with people on the outside, to bring new concepts in and share them with the team. But, the last thing I want to do is create chaos by throwing them into the mix of our day-to-day projects. I don’t want to change priorities at random; I’d rather introduce an idea very slowly and wait for the right time for it to make it onto an operating plan. So, I try to seed ideas very early, starting with an informal discussion. Then about a month later, further discussion. Usually these things tend to work themselves into our plans at the right time. I don’t like to take an idea and push it on the team right away, because I know they’re working on the highest value things already. In my experience, the more a company grows, the more opportunities it has and the more imperative it becomes that a leadership team has some framework for maintaining focus. This means that sometimes my job is to decide what’s out so that we stay focused and can capture what’s in.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Online retail continues to grow year after year. The more people get comfortable buying online, the larger the opportunity for Stroll to grow. We’re incredibly invested online and that’s where we see huge potential in the coming years.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
Working as an intern for the marketing department at the United States Postal Service headquarters in Washington, D.C. I lasted about six weeks before I quit. I was eager to learn, so I took a 2/3 pay cut in what I was making per hour in my ongoing software consulting job to go there. I didn’t feel empowered with any projects and really couldn’t sink my teeth into anything and contribute. I was making less money and feeling less fulfilled — not a winning combination. I learned that you have to fully empower interns and entry-level employees, treating them like a true member of the team, so they can learn from the experience. As an entrepreneur, this practice pays off. Our director of marketing has advanced to become a senior member of our team since joining Stroll as an intern in college nine years ago.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would trade money for time. It took three long, hard years to get the business off the ground. Fortunately, I now have the capabilities and foresight to start a new business or division with a bang. I would deploy the capital needed to hire a senior team and have them build out the organization. Or, I would just buy another business, which is what we’re trying to do moving forward. We prefer to buy fully functioning businesses and figure out how we can serve as a resource to them. We want to come in and apply our secret sauce, which we developed over the past decade, to help them grow more rapidly and recognize new potential.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
You’re never done tweaking your business. Never be satisfied with any area of your business. Constantly optimize and refine. Small, incremental changes add up to big gains over time.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
One entrepreneurial failure of mine involves the false-start of a product launch. While still in college, I partnered with a Swedish manufacturer to market a student study-aid to colleges in the U.S. Before the product got off the ground, the manufacturer unexpectedly pulled out of the U.S. market. I made the error of failing to ensure that my partner was committed to the marketplace and was left with no product to sell.
I shifted to online marketing and after a few more failures, the knowledge gained culminated in a major success when I decided to move forward in marketing Pimsleur Approach. Obsessive learning, a great network with whom I could brainstorm and perseverance saved the day.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Regardless of what you’re selling, sell first. Prove that you can sell (even if you’re selling air), and then worry about infrastructure, offices, business cards, and everything else. None of that matters until you actually catch a fish. All that matters in the beginning is whether or not somebody actually bites on your idea.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?
I would figure out some way to improve education, starting with the home. Help people create a set of values to help guide their own lives as well as their kids’ lives. A seemingly large percent of the population is not self-directed in terms of knowing what to do to help foster the next generation. People aren’t deliberate enough about how they are overseeing their children’s education or their own ongoing education. Maybe that could make the world a better place. Maybe the next generation can be better so we don’t keep this cycle going.
Tell us a secret.
When I graduated college, I bought myself a new VW Jetta. About two years later as the business was taking off, I ended up trading my car with a friend for a 10-year-old beat up minivan with chipped paint. I drove that clunker for 9 months just so we could deliver our packages to the post office which was located 2 miles away from our office. To save money, I was in an office which was on the second floor of a strip mall office building which didn’t have an elevator or loading dock so no one would do a pick up. Having moved back in with my parents to keep my “burn rate” down and then driving such a family clunker, I was so embarrassed that I didn’t go on a date for 9 months until I got my old car back. I guess that’s called focus!
What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?
• Wunderlist – It’s an excellent, free tool for managing your to-do list and sharing items, and prioritizing them.
• LinkedIN – This tool is great for staying connected and reaching people that would have been much more difficult to get to in the past.
• Online testing tools – If you don’t have your own, there are so many out there. Nothing can give you more leverage than that.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Getting Everything You Can Out of All You’ve Got by Jay Abraham. It’s just a good place to start about thinking more holistically about marketing opportunities.
Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?
I don’t have time for Twitter! I read far too much stuff to fit Twitter in.
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
I laugh out loud every day. I think you have to be serious about what you do, but also remain very lighthearted. At the end of the day, I believe you should have a job that you love and have fun doing it.
Who is your hero?
I can’t say I have one hero. There are so many different aspects and categories of business that you learn over time, and different areas of your life that you’re constantly thinking about. Whether it’s an author, a speaker or just an individual you admire, heroes can exist in every category, so I really can’t pinpoint just one. I don’t like the idea of single favorites because life is multidimensional and complex.
What makes Stroll so successful?
We have structured every area of the company and developed standard operating procedures for each task from human resources to our call center, marketing, accounting, and IT. Our fundamental commitment is to constant optimization, or the ability to continually make small incremental improvements that compound over time to deliver triple-digit growth. For instance, we have built sophisticated financial models that allow us to accurately predict cash flows a year out in time. These types of procedures and processes allow us to grow more in one month than most companies do in one year.
How do you define success?
I’ve always believed that success is a journey, not a destination. It’s ultimately about the doing, not the arriving. Success is having achieved an overall balance of the multiple facets of your life so you can be happy in more than one aspect – personally and professionally. Who wants to end up as a rich, fat divorced guy who was never clear on his values nor learned to prioritize what’s most important?
Stroll’s Website: www.Stroll.com
Pimsleur Approach Language Learning Website: www.pimsleurapproach.com
Dan Roitman on LinkedIn:
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.