Focus: As a young entrepreneur, you want to do it all and at the same time. Focus on delivering exceptional value to your target customer before voyaging into new markets, services or client base.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tarek El Gammal.
Tarek is an entrepreneur focused on transforming the pet industry. He is the CEO of HealthySmiles Pet Dental, which provides pets with the highest quality dental care without the use of anesthesia. Prior to catching the entrepreneurial bug, Tarek started out climbing the Wall Street ladder with J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs in New York and Miami.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m a lifelong pet lover and proud pet parent of two big and handsome dogs, Paco and Tommy, and a mischievous cat, Sylvestre. I left a successful career on Wall St. advising entrepreneurs, celebrities and CEOs to start an eco-friendly, on-demand car detailing company, WashMyWhip, that called auto giants like Uber and Carmax its clients. I landed in the pet space in 2018 when FetchMyVet, an in-home veterinary start-up, made me their President. I’m now reimagining pet dental care as the CEO of HealthySmiles Pet Dental.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
As the President of FetchMyVet, I noticed the fast-growing need for non-anesthetic pet dentals as many pet owners understand the need for regular cleanings but fear the risks of anesthesia. After some research, I realized that non-anesthetic dental cleanings have yet to make their way to most US markets. The humanization of pets is real. Why not take your dogs to get their teeth cleaned?
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
During my first year at JPMorgan, a senior member of my team sat me down to tell me that I should consider becoming an entrepreneur because they saw me doing something big. It was a 10-minute conversation that made me think why not. Later on, the journeys taken by my entrepreneur clients also fascinated me. I quickly realized that their jobs were much cooler than mine.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Although the sum of everything we do is what truly makes us special, we are creating a new category in pet dental care. Traditionally, pets get their teeth cleaned under anesthesia, which absolutely terrifies most pet parents. Through a deep understanding of pet behavior as well as the use of calming techniques, our dental technicians are able to safely deliver quality dental cleanings at a fraction of the cost. Delivering more value while being less expensive is a great proposition.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We are giving pets that would otherwise not be able to get their teeth cleaned the access to do so. As pets get old and sick, many are not suitable for anesthesia, yet regular dental care is imperative for their well-being and life expectancy. Also, by making pet dental care more affordable, we are increasing the compliance of regular dental cleanings, which is helping tens of thousands of pets live happier and healthier.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Learning how to fail well (and quickly) has been critical. Although it hurts to fail, you quickly realize it’s part of the entrepreneurial process. When you take bold action, expect bold outcomes. At WashMyWhip, we rolled-out a national agreement with Uber’s Xchange Leasing to clean their fleet of vehicles. At the time, it made sense to invest the little capital and resources we had to become the tech giant’s exclusive car detailing company nationwide. When Uber unexpectedly pulled the plug on Xchange Leasing, we tried everything we could to bounce back, but WashMyWhip became deeply impaired by the strategic decision to grow with Xchange Leasing.
Empathy is also such an important trait. Treating others as they want to be treated is one of the hardest things to do as a business leader. Managing the expectations of ultra-high net worth individuals and leading a team of auto detailers requires a very different mindset and approach. Knowing what inspires and moves others is critical.
Work smart and hard. Being efficient and managing your time is necessary but not enough. Building a business is hard; harder than I ever thought. You have to put in the time. It requires sacrifices, many of which friends and family will not understand. At the end of the day, you have to put in the time and effort.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Someone I worked with in New York told me that moving to Miami was a mistake. Eight years later, Miami has become one of the fastest growing cities in the country. I still very much love New York and plan on doing business there, but moving to Miami has been rewarding both personally and professionally.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
As a business leader, I’m committed to the employees who believe and work so hard to fulfill our mission. When Xchange Leasing closed their doors, hundreds of WashMyWhip employees and family members depended on me to navigate the storm. Although we weren’t able to save every job and difficult decisions were made, management did everything possible to keep bread on our employees’ tables, including forgoing our own salaries. Those were some restless nights.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
Something greater than yourself has to inspire you. For each person and every situation that may be different. In the case of WashMyWhip, the spouses and kids of my employees drove me to move forward. Beyond that, God and my family keep me centered during the turbulence.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
The first step is to recognize there will be high and lows. It’s inevitable — growth isn’t linear. If you prepare for the unexpected, knowing it’s inevitable, you’ll be more confident in your ability to bounce back. As we all know, walking, exercising, a good diet, sleep, and meditation all help.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
When first starting the business, bootstrap. It gives you an intimate relationship with your business because you feel what it takes to get it up and running. Once you have a minimal viable product or signs of traction, you can begin conversations with investors. Very early investors, however, will likely be angels and not venture capitalists. Assuming the market opportunity is big enough to gain interest from venture capitalists, your company should have product / market fit and proven it’s scalable for venture capital to get involved.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Timing: Many failed startups had great ideas, talented teams, and good execution, but the market wasn’t ready for it. Conversely, if you’re too late, your chances of success are also hindered by the incumbents.
- Focus: As a young entrepreneur, you want to do it all and at the same time. Focus on delivering exceptional value to your target customer before voyaging into new markets, services or client base.
- Culture: Make sure you know what your company stands for and attract people who stand for the same. The beauty of being an entrepreneur is creating meaning and finding people who believe in it. Hire a diverse group with varying skillsets who share common values and deeply believe in the purpose of the organization. Protect it dearly and don’t let anyone contaminate the company culture.
- Branding: I consider a well-defined company brand to be imperative, especially if you target direct to consumers. It goes beyond great design and copy, and the companies who get it right are usually able to withstand time.
- Say No: Be selfish with your time and company resources. Don’t think twice about politely saying no to a meeting or service provider that doesn’t add value. Stay away from the “experts” that promise you magic, be it a marketing guru, lawyer, or my favorite — a fundraising professional who guarantees introductions to their network of wealthy investors and venture funds.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Naturally, entrepreneurs get excited about their business idea and want to do it all. However, make sure you test your hypothesis and validate your assumptions before swimming off into the deep end. Start small, build a solid foundation, and grow from there.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
Have a well-defined schedule. Wake up and go to bed at the same time, know what your calendar looks like, schedule time to exercise, and prioritize the important family and life events. If you plan well, taking care of yourself becomes a habit and naturally fits into your schedule.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think that the simple things in life are what bring the most joy and happiness. If we all hugged one random stranger, I’m confident the world would be a better place. Now more than ever, considering the solitude and confinement we’ve all been living through.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Orlando Bravo. In addition to being from Puerto Rico, where I’m from, he’s one of the leading private equity investors in software and technology, which I have a deep interest in. I trust that breakfast or lunch would be enlightening.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Follow me on linkedin.com/tarekglenn/ !
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!