Gene Swank, a self-described “serial entrepreneur,” came to speak to interns at the Veloz Group this Monday and share his business wisdom. Gene spends his time working on his successful businesses, investing, or searching for a new business idea. He also has a background in telecommunications industry designing wireless routers and bridges.
The Rise of a Serial Entrepreneur
Gene graduated from the University of Central Missouri with a BSBA in Computer Informations Systems. He left the telecommunications industry around 2009 when the market was shrinking. Interested in assuring his financial security, he decided to start his own business. Many colleagues were international, working in the States on visas. Because of this, Gene saw an opportunity to start an overseas tech company and grabbed it.
He then went on to found a niche printing company, Swanky Prints, out of his garage in 2011. He initially funded it with $150 of his own money. The company started out by making the backdrops for photography studios before expanding into custom printing. At the time, the only major materials used for these backdrops were paper and fabric, both fairly expensive, short-lived products. Gene discovered that printing on vinyl was significantly cheaper and longer lasting than the other materials.
In the beginning, he sold on free marketplaces like Amazon, Etsy, and Ebay. He ran the business out of his garage until one day he saw that he had $10,000 worth of orders to fulfill. It was then that he decided to move to a warehouse. The company is now a multi-million dollar corporation that sells in 9 countries. What once was just a hobby for Gene turned into a great source of income and kickstarted his entrepreneurial spirit.
Soon after Swanky Prints’ success, Gene worked with his wife to start Swanky Baby Boutique, an online children’s clothing store. They also invested in property and now own several properties from San Diego to the Midwest.
Gene’s next big move involved children’s education. He co-founded an educational app, Screentime Learning, with David Dowling, another experienced entrepreneur. Screentime Learning allows parents to monitor their kids’ time spent online through studying. By requiring users to answer educational questions in order to gain time with the device unlocked, the app encourages self-directed learning. The app itself acts as a lock screen and parents can set the number of questions needed for minutes online.
In order to determine the best way to encourage children’s learning, Gene works with Psychology professors at UCLA as well as educational researchers. The app not only motivates kids with the internet incentives, it also has a game-like interface that shows a character moving along a board, illustrating the child’s progress.
The app further encourages learning by analyzing a child’s Item Response Time and lesson retention. If the child is answering questions too quickly, the app generates more difficult ones. Likewise, if the response takes too long, the app produces easier questions. Child psychology research suggests children retain lessons for an average of 2 weeks before forgetting information. The app counteracts this by reintroducing the same topics periodically. When a child seems to have retained information, the app will lower the frequency of those topics or vice versa if the child has forgotten.
Not only did Gene inform interns on his businesses, he also offered advice to those wanting to start their own. For e-commerce, he suggested testing out a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) on the market with minimal advertising. MVP’s are often used in product development to satisfy customers and provide feedback for future products. Furthermore, you can test out potential success by offering pre-orders to see if you can achieve the minimum amount necessary for production. He also recommended using an outsourcing app like Fiverr or similar offshore programs for independent contractors for web design and other similar services.
Gene’s biggest piece of advice is not to take investors early on in a company. He highly suggests “bootstrapping” or paying out of pocket for a start up if it’s possible. The Venture Capital world is brutal. Investors that get board positions often try to kick the founders out of the company. He also stresses the importance of a good co-founder. You need to be on the same page and equally interested in the company’s growth in order to start a successful business. Starting a new business requires extreme focus and distracted partners will only make it that much harder to be successful.