It has been stated that start-ups do not die, the founders only stop working on them. In order to not give up when most others would quit, you need a belief in your product/service and more importantly, yourself. According to research, most start-ups do not reach profitability until 18 to 24 months. Thus, start-ups need capital whether through internal or external means.
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 Zachary Thames.
Zachary is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of GoldenIntellect.com, an online marketplace where businesses assign tasks to and pay college students for the completion of assigned tasks. Zachary came up with the idea while assisting approximately 75,000 college graduates under the age of 35 through the Florida International University Young Alumni Council of which he served. Additionally, Zachary is a Florida Certified Public Accountant (CPA) with approximately 4 years of professional experience at a Big 4 Accounting Firm and in 2019, was awarded the Florida Institute of CPAs Horizon Award for accelerating the accounting field forward.
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?
Thank you for hosting me. My backstory originates in Mobile, Alabama where I was born and Miami, Florida where my entrepreneur journey grew. I attended Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, where I majored in Accounting, aka “the language of business.” During my time at FIU, I maintained a decent but not stellar GPA and balanced a full-time school schedule with a full-time retail job and extracurricular organizations (e.g., Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated, Beta Alpha Psi Honorary Accounting Organization). Fortunately, during my undergraduate years I was able to obtain an internship. Unfortunately, many of my peers were not due to the limited supply of internship opportunities available and an excess demand of college students. This led to unemployment and underemployment among many of my peers due to no professional experience related to their major. To my surprise, this was the case for many college graduates throughout the United States of America. This helped launched my journey to help college graduates and in 2017, I joined the Florida International University Young Alumni Council where I sought to help college students and graduates build their brand as they sought internship and full-time work opportunities. With that said, I as well began my career as a Big 4 Accountant where I worked with regional, national and internationally operated businesses.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
My “Aha Moment” came when I was driving home past the University of Miami (FL) after a long workday filled with tedious and monotonous tasks. I thought about how there are thousands of college students on their campus fighting for the opportunity to work on the same tasks that are making my workday longer and harder. The solution to both of our problems would be available if there was a business that could establish a connection to where business professionals could assign tasks to college students who would be rewarded financially and professionally through the completion of assigned tasks.
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?
The list of people who have inspired me ranges from Kobe Bryant to James Baldwin to John Galt (character) to my Mother (Patricia Thames) and other individuals who truly chased their dreams in a manner that I respect and admire. In regards to helping me start my business, I would say my significant other Kayla Thompson. Prior to the idea of helping businesses and college students connect through an online task marketplace, I was working on a different business idea that had an insufficient business need but I was glued to the idea. Kayla consistently challenged and questioned the business idea and strategy. The revenue model would have been cumbersome and overly reliant on ads to breakeven yet, I convinced myself it would work. Her consistently challenging me as a business and entrepreneurial professional, in addition to helping me vet my business strategy led to me being open-minded to other possibilities and strategies that subsequently led me to Golden Intellect.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Golden Intellect stands out because we focus on the underdogs in the college recruitment process while the present system primarily favors big corporations and cum laude college students. Further, many small and medium size businesses don’t have the human resource capabilities and resources to pay for attendance and registration fees at multiple universities. This limits their access to college students who in turn have less access to internship and job opportunities.
An interesting story I have is during graduate school, a local accounting firm I worked for sent me to a University to recruit accounting students. Unbeknown to the Human Resources director at this local accounting firm, the career fair we were recruiting at was an undocumented human resources career fair and the University held an accounting student career fair, on a different date, on a different campus 30 miles away. The attendance fee for this human resources career fair was approximately 1,000 dollars, not including the lost revenue by other audit associates and myself not working on client engagements. Needless to say, no accounting students were interviewed or hired that day. Which brings to the point, Universities charge businesses if they want access to their students. Golden Intellect focuses only on connecting businesses and college students, and businesses only pay once the tasks they’ve created and assigned is completed.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Helping the world be a better place is very important to me. For that reason, I am the 2021 to 2022 Corporate Relations Director for the Young Professional American Cancer Society of Broward County. Additionally, I have been the Black Professional Network leader for my Big 4 corporate office since 2020. In 2019, I was awarded the Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountant Horizon Award winner for accelerating the accounting field forward through professional experience, leadership, entrepreneurism and professional credentials. Lastly, from 2017 to 2018 I sat on the Florida International University Young Alumni Council where I supported more than 75,000 Young Alumni (35 years of age and younger) in the areas of career, networking, leadership and philanthropy opportunities.
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?
The three-character traits that I believe lead to success and will lead to future success is grit, optimism, and self-confidence. For most new endeavors there is a learning curve which can bring along frustration and disappointment as a result of mistakes. Grit helps one push past those mistakes to learn from and grow from it. Further, optimism gives you the trust and confidence that your 10th step is not in vain but that it is part of the million steps necessary to reach your higher purpose. Lastly, self-confidence is the belief in yourself. Self-confidence feeds grit and optimism thus forming the strongest shape, a triangle. There is a reason why the Great Pyramids and Eiffel Tower are in the shape of a triangle.
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?
Wow, great question. I’ve received a ton of great advice over the years and a fair share of not so good advice. With that said, I never follow advice blindly so if I did follow through on it then it must have made sense to me at the time. I don’t believe in regret but one piece of advice I would not follow in the future is going along with an idea for the sake of agreement rather than because I believe in the idea. If you’re the captain of the ship, you want the ship to sink not because of someone else’s advice but because of your own decisions. Thus, accountability and ownership of the decision-making process was the lesson I learned.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When starting a business, the two most challenging aspects for me were communication and wearing multiple hats. Communication because when creating an online marketplace, I had to communicate my vision with software developers. The way software developers access problems and solutions are very different than the way I as a business professional would access problems and solutions. This feeds into the other challenge of wearing multiple hats. As a Chief Executive Officer, I am ultimately responsible for accounting, human resource, marketing, research and development, and sales decisions which requires orchestrating all the different components at once. Tracking finances, looking and working with contractors, tackling market campaigns, testing out features on the website and organizing a sales strategy can be extremely difficult as there is a learning curve with each. With that said, nobody is perfect and brick by brick you get better and better until the process feels like organized chaos.
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?
Ever since I was 6 years old, I always had a very big and vivid imagination of reaching excellent heights. As a Kobe Bryant fanatic, I used to hear all the negative comments about him such as him being a ball-hog or bad teammate. I understood then that even when you reach the top, you will encounter challenges so I’ve always envisioned reaching the top, encountering new challenges and overcoming those challenges so there’s been an inner belief not in the difficulty of the challenge but in my ability to overcome them. Self-fulfilling prophecy probably plays a role in the dream turning into reality.
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”?
Michael Jordan once said “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” To piggyback off that statement, nobody is perfect so take the opportunity to learn from the lows and the highs and you will experience even more highs.
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?
Well, I would say it depends on how badly their startup needs capital. Some startups based on the nature of their product/service require more capital to launch than others. If a young founder does not have the capital necessary to launch a business without funds received from a venture capitalist, then I would say venture capitalist is the way to go but please vet the venture capitalist and confirm they have knowledge of the industry you aspire to operate in. Not all money is good money. Secondly, review their track record and see if they have had any disputes with previous companies, they have invested in. History can be a great teacher of the future.
Personally, I went with the bootstrapping strategy because I was able to raise the necessary capital without loans or venture capitalist. Additionally, it would’ve been difficult for me to give away pieces of the pie without knowing how big the pie will be in a couple of years.
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.
It has been stated that start-ups do not die, the founders only stop working on them. 1) In order to not give up when most others would quit, you need a belief in your product/service and more importantly, yourself. According to research, most start-ups do not reach profitability until 18 to 24 months. 3) Thus, start-ups need capital whether through internal or external means. Whenever trying something new like riding a bike, you need training wheels and when it comes to business, there are plenty of learning lessons to be found. 4) Find a knowledge source to expand your business upon whether a mentor, a book or social media influencer. Lastly, you need to learn when to let go. Captains are often times the last to depart a sinking ship. 5) Letting go of ideas or old habits and knowing when to abandon ship can determine whether you ever captain another ship again.
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?
The most common mistakes I have seen CEOs and founders make when starting a business is failing to market their product/service. A CEO can have the greatest product or service on earth but if their customer base never learns about their product/service then that product/service will be the most unused product/service on earth. To avoid this mistake, I advise creating a marketing plan for your business, perform market research on your product/service, identify your customer group, perfect your sales pitch, condense your target audience/niche, and present all of the above to your target audience.
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?
Work on what you are passionate about and what you believe in because that motivation will make the long hours not feel as long. Secondly, Muhammad Ali once stated “I don’t count my sit-ups; I only start counting when it starts hurting because they’re the only ones that count.” This mentality will separate you from your peers and help you maintain the discipline necessary to make progress on your laziest and painfullest of days. Lastly, have fun. No kid grew up wanting to work all day and night. Let your inner kid have fun from time to time.
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. 🙂
The movement that I would create is building computer software workshops in low-income and urban areas. We are in a digital transformation and workshops providing skills that will enable successfully entry into present and future jobs will raise the quality of life of communities.
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.
I would love to have a private breakfast with Robert Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners. Breakfast because it is my favorite meal of the day and Robert Smith because he is a man of vision, very articulate on complex matters and has a dynamic background. Additionally, he has shown a strong capability of helping businesses improve operations and scale and as a start-up, that information and knowledge would be extremely beneficial.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Our readers can follow our work online by following GoldenIntellect.com and following my LinkedIn: Zachary Thames, CPA | LinkedIn.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!