What it takes to be a Successful Entrepreneur: DukeGEN sits down with Jordan Scott Baltimore of Oyster Digital Media

By: Jozef Krakora; Published March 28, 2010 

Jordan Scott Baltimore is the Founder and CEO of Oyster Digital Media, the first end-to-end solution for retail digital media and merchandising.  Before Oyster, Jordan launched Ocean Supply, an international distribution and development company based in New Jersey and in the Turks & Caicos Islands.  Jordan also spent time working at Goldman Sachs, and was a founding member of Empirical Research Partners, an equity research boutique.  Jordan received his MBA from Duke University, The Fuqua School of Business in 2001, and his BS in Management from New York University, Leonard N. Stern School of Business in 1996.

This interview was conducted at Sushi Samba, where we were protected from the rain by an outdoor sidewalk table umbrella, in downtown New York City, on Friday evening, August 28th, 2009.

Can you start us off by walking us through your background and early beginnings in business?

My first job was when I was 13 years old working in a sporting goods store.  I found that two of my favorite things to do were sell and interact with people, and sporting goods.  It was the best thing in the world.  I tend to look back and wonder if I actually netted very much money because I spent so much of it on baseball equipment and sneakers.  Luckily I’m not dying for sneakers anymore otherwise I’d still be working in sporting goods.  I’ll tell you more about baseball in a little while, because it’s now part of my career.

Beyond that, I started my own business in junior year of high school, doing tech consulting.  I initially started by doing tech work for my father’s business; other people heard what I was doing, and I got a job with a clothing retailer in Brooklyn.  They introduced me to another clothing retailer, who introduced me to another clothing retailer.  One manufacturer of software specifically for clothing retail realized that I was bumping into them so many times that I started working on a number of their installations.  They weren’t able to service all of their customers in the New York area as well as I could because I was local, so they started sending business my way, and next thing you know through college I was running a POS consulting firm, on my own with a bunch of part timers.  That’s while I was at Stern.

One of my customers was my high school, so there was no way I was leaving New York City.  I didn’t even apply to any other schools; it was Stern or bust.  I continued the business through college and didn’t do any internships or work for any other companies.  Then I started working alongside a computer retailer in Brooklyn, and they were very interested in growing into this side of the business.  They were open 9 or 10 years at the time and had less than $1 million in annual revenue.  I was more interested in retail, they were more interested in corporate business, and we came to an agreement right before I graduated to sell my business to them.  Part of the deal was that I had to go work for them.  I continued there for 3 ½ years, and by the time I left, we were one of the top 100 computer retailers in the country.   

I left there because I thought it was time to start growing up a little bit.  It was interesting to go through a small business environment, as we grew tremendously.  The owner was kind of fat and happy.  The business was six times its size, only three years later.  It was a cash windfall for him.  I had hired a very close friend of mine into the business who also went to NYU and we both looked at each other, and said, this guy is not interested in expanding, we don’t own a piece of his business. I had already sold mine, so now I was an employee, and I enjoyed it, loved it, every minute of it, but when it came to the point that we had only one store, and growth wasn’t important, clearly, it was time to move on.

So why was an MBA right at this point?

First of all, it was sort of a validation of my experience.  Everybody else had this real world consulting experience, and in my experience, it was all small business, it was all entrepreneurial, it was all stuff that nobody has ever heard of, so you try and explain the story to people, and say you’re very qualified to do this, but you only worked for a single retail store.  The reaction was that it was sort of nebulous; they didn’t know the reality behind that story. 

I should have, in retrospect, started another business, but instead decided to go to Duke.

Why did you choose Duke?

I chose Duke for a couple of reasons.  First, it was the best warm weather school in the country as far as I was concerned.  Second, it was a great opportunity to get out of New York.  I always had an edge, admittedly.  Very aggressive, I thought I could improve my business skills by softening some of the edges.

I felt like I had areas for improvement, significant ones.  And I thought the best thing to do was two-fold.  One, get out of New York and learn to be a “kinder, gentler” person, because the things that are socially acceptable in New York, aren’t elsewhere. 

The other thing was I wanted to get some experience from others.  I wanted to learn from other professionals.  I was young at 24 when I entered, and wanted to learn from others’ experiences, certainly international ones, but also other industries, other professions, learn from the experience of others.  So it was a no brainer at that time to go back to school.  Plus I had no responsibilities, I was 24 years old, wasn’t married.  I just got up and moved.

Is Oyster Digital Media your most recent start-up?

No, my most recent start-up is a non-profit that I’m launching right now.  It’s a youth organization where I’ve been coaching baseball.  I had been coaching for a number of different organizations and ran 2 programs over the last four years, and experienced so much frustration because there’s some awful politics around youth baseball in New York for some reason.  It’s a very strange place, strange environment, and there was enough frustration with the parents in the organizations I’m in that I decided it was time to do it myself.  I love not only coaching baseball, but also teaching the kids life lessons through baseball.  So it’s not just baseball that we teach, it’s a very different level of teaching, teamwork and responsibility.  I’m in the process of launching that right now, so Oyster is my 2nd most recent start-up.

What was life like at Fuqua, and how did Oyster start?

It’s interesting, because Oyster was actually born when I was still at Fuqua.  While I was at Fuqua, I was a 2nd year, I came back from a start-up environment, loved technology, loved the business of technology more than the technology of technology, although I wish I knew more hands-on technology now at this stage of Oyster, but that’s a different story.

2nd year I wasn’t into Fuqua Fridays, I’m not a beer drinker, wasn’t a huge golfer then, I thought, well how much golf can you play?  Of course now, there’s not enough golf you could play, I wish I had played more when I was there.  2nd year, I came back, and I wanted to work.  I felt like I wasn’t working enough.  I was a TA for a couple of different classes.  I was a career service fellow; I love working - useful if you’re an entrepreneur.

I decided I wanted to go get a job, and I looked at what would be the best places to go and work near Fuqua.  There was Dick’s Sporting Goods.  There was Best Buy.

Then I looked at Circuit City, which was purely a commissioned sales job.  I took this little exam, and did well and they asked me if I’d like to work in the computer department, and I said, sign me up.  I started working 30 to 32 hours a week at Circuit, while taking classes at Fuqua.  I picked my own hours because I knew just after a couple of weeks, that Friday nights, Saturdays, and Sundays after church lets out were my key hours.  Then I’d work other nights during the week.

What was it like working at Circuit City? 

I had a phenomenal experience there.  I’ve been known to say that I learned as much at Circuit City during business school about business, as I did in class about business.  It was an amazing environment.  It wasn’t a job where I was paying my mortgage or supporting my family.  It was a job where I couldstudy the psychology of customers, and the psychology of other employees.  Some of them were very young; some of them were much older and supporting families. 

It was a commissioned environment, so you got to watch the behavior of employees under different circumstances.  In November, everybody is earning 400 to 600 dollars a day, so everybody is everybody’s best friend.  In January, February, you’re  earning $100  a day, and other salespeople are hoarding customers, and fighting with people.  It was a study in every aspect of running a business, only it wasn’t my business.  I could get to stand there and get paid to work, and watch this all go on.   I got to sell digital cameras, got paid a commission, and had a tremendous learning experience.

You mentioned psychology, and you mentioned sales.  I think it’s not an accident that these two concepts are closely tied to what entrepreneurship means.  Tell us more.

I made my own little environment, there’s something that’s different than other stores, particularly Best Buy.  They have real-time inventory.  I could see what inventory was in other stores, so if I wanted to take somebody’s money there, and I don’t have stock on something, I could go to Raleigh, and have the inventory transferred.  Most customers didn’t want to wait, so I would tell customers that I was going to Raleigh that night, I would pick up their camera, and it would be there the next morning. 

Obviously if I did it for one camera it wasn’t a good investment on my part.  Because I’d make only $10 or $12 selling one camera, driving to Raleigh for just one camera, between the gas and time, was not a good idea.  But if I could do it early enough in the day, my goal for the rest of the day was to sell at least one more, if not two or three more, so I could make it worth my while to go to Raleigh. 

It became fun.  I started doing it on a consistent basis to the point where we were outselling Raleigh’s digital cameras and selling their inventory as well.  For my manager, it was a huge boom.  In the regional managers meetings, it came up finally, “Why were Durham’s digital camera numbers so high, and why are you selling out of Raleigh?”  And he explained that we have someone actually camped out on the digital camera aisle, he’s a graduate student at Duke, and he’s thinks it’s fun.  And they thought it was a blast!

Is this where the idea for Oyster came from?

Yes.  The retail circulars come out on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, and all the Sunday sales are going on.  On Saturday nights the managers at Circuit City come out with all the little fact tags, the little index card price tags.  They hand them out pretty randomly to everyone who works there, and you’re supposed to go around putting them on.  All these employees that work there are on commission.  It’s a Saturday night at 8:00 PM, and either there are no customers left, or you are helping a customer.  So the last thing you want to be doing is hanging around not getting paid, or not helping a customer.  So you have to get those last few customers before they go home.  So all the kids that were 18 or 19 years old, they would wait for the managers to go into their office, and stuff the price tags into their pockets instead of putting them on the shelves.

So the next morning, there was a huge rush of business after church, every Sunday, week after week, customers would come in and say, “Excuse me, why is the price of this $199, it says $149 in your ad.”  I would try to explain, it’s because Joe has the price tags in his pocket right now, but of course I wouldn’t say that.  For every person that asks this, there’s probably 2, 3, or 10 people who see the price and leave and go over to Best Buy instead.  So I realized at that point, it would probably be interesting if you could have digital price tags primarily because of all the constant price changes, but also, because people weren’t changing the price tags.  And I wondered what it would cost to do that and what it must cost Circuit City to print and display the paper price tags. 

I didn’t follow up on it immediately.  I finished Fuqua, came back to New York, got a job at Goldman, thought it was the dream job, I was going to be in private wealth, but it wasn’t the job for me.

So you went from Circuit City to Goldman Sachs - interesting transition!  Was Goldman all you expected it to be?

It wasn’t; the market was down, and I always used to joke with everyone that used to work with me that I have a back up plan.  If the job at Goldman didn’t work out, I’m returning to Circuit City.  Sure enough, six months later, Circuit City cut out commission entirely, and everyone went to hourly, so there went my “backup plan.”

Why did you leave Goldman Sachs?

I didn’t love my job at Goldman.  I liked the firm, but didn’t like what I was doing.  It wasn’t the right job.  I got a call from Mike Goldstein who, as far as everybody was concerned, was the brightest guy on Wall Street in terms of equity research.  And he specifically said he wanted non-Wall Street sales people to come sell - would I interview.  I liked him and his approach and worked there for six months.  The firm was wildly successful in a very short time but I was bored to tears.  Didn’t love equity research sales.  Part of it was smiling and dialing again, but we were calling existing customers so I wasn’t hunting as much as I was harvesting - a sales job dream.  But I wasn’t intellectually stimulated.

How long did you last at Empirical Research Partners?

I was just plain bored.  It was the only time in my life where I was underworked and over paid.  And in retrospect, I think, “Why did I leave?”  I liked Mike Goldstein.  I liked getting paid.  But I left because I got an offer to become a COO of a distribution company.  It was for one of my clients from my first business.  At first I didn’t accept the offer, I preferred to do some consulting for them.  But as the months went on, they made the offer good enough, so I agreed to join the firm.

From Wall Street, to building materials, and on to COO of Wall Systems Supply.  Did that work out?

It was a tremendous opportunity for me.  They had one location and were looking to grow regionally.  Within three years we had tripled the business and increased gross and net margins.  After three years, the owner died suddenly, and his brother in law came in to run the business, but that wasn’t for me.  Bad personality fit.  He mistreated our employees and I couldn’t be a part of that.  Interestingly enough, my brother-in-law had been working for me as head of sales in that company, and my two biggest customers came together with him and asked me if I wanted to launch a competing building materials distribution company.  I looked at my brother-in-law, and said that I didn’t love this business.  He said I would love it because it will be ours.  I don’t love building materials, I don’t care about building materials.  Yeah, we had a great run for three years, but I don’t enjoy anything about building materials. 

How important was it to love what you were doing?

I had second thoughts about launching a business that I didn’t love.  The truth is, if things fail and it’s yours, it will be more challenging than if it’s not yours.  And if you don’t love it, it can still be going well.  But for my personality, if I don’t love what I’m doing, I’m not hanging around for very long, which was evidenced by my career.  Even if I’m doing well financially, if I don’t love it, I can’t stick with it.  Very often I look back and wonder what in the world was I thinking.  I did it anyway.  We drove some new business in New Jersey, and in the Turks & Caicos Islands.  I was still single and thought “what could go wrong?”  I’d be working all day, sailing in the afternoon, come home back to New York, work for a week, go back; it sounded perfect.

We got the business off the ground.  It was a very rough start.  Partnership issues, both good and bad, some of which I predicted.  There were very different personalities, which can be good, but definitely a double-edged sword. 

I’ve heard that there is one if not two founder divorces in every start-up, so I’m not surprised with what you say.  Did you manage to work together?

There were some issues with that.  The four of us had sat down at the airport, coming back from the Turks, and I think one of the partners said now that we’d seen the opportunity and evaluated the business first hand, lets all write down what we think about the business.  And my version of evaluating the business was a SWOT analysis.  The other partners didn’t have business educations, they were just experienced in business, so they had plenty of intelligent things to say, but mine was literally in a SWOT framework, because it was the easiest way for me to think about the business at that moment.  One of my things in life has always been to be very critical.  I always see the weaknesses and threats in everything; and almost to a fault.

Would you say that part of what makes you a successful entrepreneur is being as critical as you are, seeing weaknesses early on and avoiding problems that way?

It’s two things, yes, to everything you just said, but I have to admit, it has made me skeptical enough to not have started some businesses that to this day in retrospect, I say, “How could I not have started that business?”  So I’m overly skeptical, and I’m disappointed in myself.  I mean there are a couple of businesses that to this day I think about starting, no question, eventually I will because I still think they are good business models, but they should have been started years ago, and the reason I continued working for other people, was my skepticism; I’m overly skeptical, and my wife will be the first person to tell you that.  But I don’t take enough risk.

Was there something at Duke and Fuqua that prompted you to start your own business?

I’ll be honest, at the time, the culture at Duke, and most other business schools, was not one that truly encouraged entrepreneurship.  I’m not saying it as a knock on Duke, because entrepreneurship is not for everyone.  Now that everybody is losing jobs, everyone is saying they want to start a business, but it’s no walk in the park.  There are days that I sit there and say, what in the world am I thinking.  At the same time, the culture at Duke was, look for a job, network, network, network.  The sense was really to be mainstream, to be smart, go work for a great place, and it was terrific for them, but follow the path and do the best you can in this path.  And that wasn’t for me.

Do you think there was a point in your career where you realized you wanted to start a company, or has it always been part of your intuition and personality?

I’m not one of those people who say they can’t work for someone else and need to be their own boss.  Being my own boss has never been my motivation for starting a business, and because of my personality, people would say, he’s got to be crazy, he has to be his own boss.  My favorite roles in my career have been as the “number two,” and not as number one.  I’ve loved being number two.  That being said, my motivation has been a burning desire that says, “I want to go do that”, regardless of starting a new business, or working for somebody else. 

If there is something that I love, that’s what I want to be doing.  And I don’t care if I’m the boss.  So the motivation for starting businesses is doing something that I love, and something that will make money.  It took me years, not to finally get the nerve to start Oyster, but to get to nerve to get over my skepticism.  I was overly skeptical.  

There are two types of entrepreneurs.  One is people who invent things - new ideas, new business models.  But I never looked at myself as that type of entrepreneur.  I always felt like personality wise, I was just a hard working, go-getter kind of individual type person.  I guess that’s entrepreneurship too, but you can start a business and do a business better, and not invent things.  Oyster was the first time I felt like I had invented something. 

I had gone for years feeling like I wasn’t an entrepreneur because I hadn’t invented a light bulb.  Oyster was a light bulb.

What is it about your career that most excites you?

Being in a position professionally to do what I love.  Having the feeling of dreaming something – developing a vision – and driving toward and building a team to realize that vision.

Do you already have a product that is designed and developed?

We’re developing right now.  But it’s under wraps and in stealth mode by design.  What we have, it has value, it’s tangible, it’s unique right now.  And we have a patent application in for it, but until we’re truly off the ground, there’s not much to talk about.

What is it that drives and motivates you?

The challenge of pursuing my dreams and passions.  I literally had a dream, and it was Oyster, it all made sense.  It was one of those things that I felt was too good to be true.  I spent years doing research, trying to figure out why it doesn’t exist.  Finally one day I said, “Let’s go!”  Everybody in the industry was saying it’s a great idea.  I also realized that Oyster is a culmination of everything I’ve done professionally.  It’s distribution, retail, customer service, it’s pricing, it’s everything rolled into one. 

For me, it’s a dream.  It’s also the culmination of 20 years of work.  So that’s what drives me to continue Oyster.  For example, the night before I got the call from our first client, I was minutes away from saying to my wife that I was going to wrap up Oyster. 

Have there been any setbacks?

There were plenty of times in the last few years, where I’ve said, “It’s not going to happen.”  There have been setbacks, a million of them.  And it’s truly one step forward, two steps back.  You need a stomach for it, and it’s not easy.  I didn’t expect it to be easy, but I also didn’t expect it’d be two years from the time I said, let me do it, to the point where I’d say, we’re getting somewhere. 

Getting a meeting with anyone in the industry was exciting, that I had one phone call for the day, to interrupt the research or working on the model.  That I was going to talk to another human being.  There were other days I would call and call and call, and nobody would return my calls.

What are your thoughts on failure and instinct?

Most often, when I look back, I knew that before something failed that the failure was going to happen.  The same can be said about relationships sometimes.  There’s a little pit somewhere between your heart and your stomach that tells you that you’re not doing the right thing.  And for a variety of reasons, whether it’s love, or some other externality, you choose to ignore that funny feeling.  And every time I’ve ignored that funny feeling, it’s turned out to be a failure.  I’ve learned to trust, what I’ve learned in class, what I’ve learned in business.  It’s not just instinct.  It’s more than instinct.  And whenever I’ve had that funny feeling, things turned out the way the feeling predicted.  I’ve learned that I really need to trust my instincts.

Do you think there are some key attributes that an entrepreneur must possess to be successful?

You can think of it as a framework of the different segments of your life that you need.  One of them and maybe the most important is your wife or husband.  The luckiest thing that happened in launching Oyster, regardless of whether it’s a success or failure, I had just recently gotten married.  I had just recently started Ocean Supply, which is the building materials company, and I had been earning a good living for years.  Ocean was doing well.  I looked at my wife, and said, “Listen, I want to launch Oyster.  I’m not going to have an income for a long time.  Things may be a little tough for a while.  It may be six months or a year.  Is that OK with you?”  She said, “Number one, I don’t want you to look back in life and have to say, ‘I should have done this,’ and think for a second that you missed something.  So I want you to start this business.”  Number two, I don’t care if we live in a one-room apartment eating peanut butter sandwiches, I want you to do this.  And I don’t care, money, or no money.”  And having that as a partner in life is second to none.  If you come home to nagging, you cannot do it.  You need the support, the trust, you need somebody next to you.  If you are married and your wife or partner is starting to nag you about money, you’re business is dead. 

That being said, be genuine with yourself.  My father taught me two things that have been critical to successful entrepreneurship:

Number one, if you ever go into politics, make decisions that will affect your grandchildren.  Think long term.  Thinking back on failure, there are times I made mistakes and failed was when I stopped thinking long term.  Anytime I acted short term, it’s been a failure.  You must have a concept of the consequences down the road because those are far more important than they are today.

Number two, he said to always be true to yourself.  As Shakespeare wrote, “Unto thine own self be true.”  There is no question if you’re not honest with yourself, you will not succeed.  This goes back to trusting that funny feeling between your heart and your stomach. 

Aside from that you need a stomach like no other.  The roller coaster is not something you read about in Business Week.  The roller coaster is real.  The ups and downs, small victories and huge losses, are very real. 

Also, perseverance might be more important than persistence, as perseverance is dealing with the failures and focusing on the goal, while persistence is just doing the same thing over and over again.

Finally, surround yourself with smart people, and know when you don’t have the answers.  Oyster is the first business that I’ve ever started, where I cannot do every job in the company.  I’m in the process of building a team with Oyster.  I’ve got the business idea, the drive, but maybe I’ll be in a strategy and business development role one day.  But I need a CEO, CTO and a CFO.  I need people that are smarter than I am if this business is going to succeed.  Know your limitations.

Regarding passion, can it be both a good thing and a bad thing?

It definitely cuts both ways.  First of all, I think in my experience, if I’m not passionate about the product, it doesn’t work for me.  It may for others, but not for me.  I’ve also seen some that are so excited, so passionate, that they’re deluded with the concept of their idea being successful, yet there’s no market for it. 

If things are going well, then you’re happy with the money being made.  But when things go poorly, and there are times they will, if you’re not passionate about the product, the first thing you’re going to do is quit.  You can turn around and make more money being a waiter at a restaurant and it may be a fun job.  So you’ve got to have passion to persevere through the down times.

Sounds similar to what I’ve heard VC’s say about the team versus the idea.  Often it’s the team that they look at more when deciding whom to invest in.  Can you tell us more about how you have been funded?

When I wrote my business plan, I wrote that I needed $5 million dollars in funding to launch.  When our first funding deal fell through on July 11th, 2008 and then the market tanked, I retooled, and decided I needed only $2 million.  Then I decided I was going to self-fund until I could get to a point when the company is more valuable than it is today.  In a down market, the valuations are awful.  Good ideas may get funded, even in bad times, but at different, less attractive valuations - that is what they forget to tell you.  I don’t want a bad valuation.  I will increase the value today, and then start raising money.  I will give away whatever amount of the company is necessary for it to be successful. 

I’ve stopped looking for funding for the most part.  I should have been bootstrapping from day one, to get to a point of better valuation.

You suggest it’s a great time to start a company if you can bootstrap it.  Do you think there are other pros and cons, given the economic conditions, versus during a time when things are more inflated or favorable?

If you start in a boom, sure it’s easier, but then I look at some of the businesses, particularly those that cater to high-end clientele.  They have plenty of luxury items that people don’t need, and so many of them are out of business right now because they started at the top of the market.  They thought they could start whatever business, charge whatever they wanted because there was so much money flying around. 

The problem with good times is that bad ideas get funding.  But in the first market downturn, they’re finished.  Because those just go out as quickly as they started, so in that sense, starting in a good time may hinder good judgment.  Starting in a downturn may prove a bit more realistic. 

In bad times, even good ideas will have a tougher time getting off the ground.  You have to wonder, if you do get funded with a relatively low valuation, and succeed to the tune of lets say $10 million - what if there was a slightly better market and you got a slightly better valuation and you sold for $100 million and you got a bigger piece.  So I don’t think the down market is a better time to start a business.  Valuations are down; demand is down.  It’s hard to tell.  You’re best off starting the business on the upswing, but it’s hard to time it. 

Given that you grew up in Brooklyn, went to NYU, and really only left NYC to go to Fuqua, do you have any advice for those who want to start a company in New York?

New York offers access to capital, although it’s “difficult” capital.  Everyone says it’s easier out west, but I don’t know if it’s just a case of the grass being greener on the other side.  I’ve never started a company in San Francisco, so I don’t know.  There are plenty of financial firms and investors that are here.  That being said, they are very tough critics.  But for the most part, in success and failure, I’ve had very good experiences in meeting with VC’s and investors.  My understanding is that it’s not as tight knit a community as Silicon Valley. 

Here, you’re also competing with Wall Street for employees.  There is a very different culture here.  Rent is not cheap if you want to go out and get office space.  If you want to make it, and here is where your customers are, the risk is higher, and you’ll pay more in rent and expenses, but the reward is higher as it will sell for more. 

I do have a sneaking suspicion that it is easier to start a company in the Valley than it is here.

Do you think there are certain industries that have an advantage of being here in New York?

Media and finance are better off here.  I tend to wonder if Boston would have been a better place to launch Oyster, but may never find out.  Raleigh-Durham has a great crop of students coming out.  The concentration of brainpower is fantastic there.  But when I think of the concentration of brainpower that would work on something like Oyster, I can’t imagine a better place than the Valley or Boston.  From a technological standpoint, those are the two places where, in retrospect, I would have started Oyster. 

I’ve been to plenty of events and met with dozens of people within government and other organizations that are trying to make New York more entrepreneur friendly.  Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen. 

Do you have any other advice for entrepreneurs?

One of the most important issues in business and entrepreneurship is blame.  If your management style is one of blame, you should reconsider your career.  Blame is guaranteed to fail.  If blame is a priority over solving the problem and making the customer happy, you’re doomed.  You have to solve a problem collectively, make the customer happy, and then find the cause - not the other way around.

There are two types of networking.  There’s networking because you form that natural relationship, and then there’s networking that starts with “Hi I’m Jordan, and I think you can help me.”  If you are meeting somebody for the first time and you are asking for a favor, you have a low likelihood of long-term success. 

Form genuine long-term relationships.  The help that I’ve gotten is from genuine friends who genuinely believe in the idea, and are generally wonderful people.

Do you have any other advice to current students at Duke?

Do something you love.  That’s been constant throughout our conversation.  If you love making pizza, and you’re a bright person, and that’s your passion, I guarantee you will find a way to have a successful pizza business.  That happened here in the city - some guy started a Neapolitan pizza place, because that was his dream.  Now there’s an entire industry based on that idea.  Although New York did not need another pizza place, he was determined that New York needed his pizza place. 

So learn as much as you can, do what you love, and form genuine relationships.  That is key.  Forget about the grades.  The grades will follow, just like the money will follow when you do something well.  Go to school to learn.

Looking out to the future, where do you see your company in five years?

I don’t know right now if five years from now is the time horizon for an exit.  It may be sooner if we grow quickly.  For a larger media company, or other potential suitors, Oyster will be worth more to them than it is to me.  In which case, I’d like to sell the company.  I think constantly about what we will do in the next six months; it’s all about building blocks and how we’re going to get the company off the ground. 

We are not a digital signage company.  We are a customer service company.  We are going to allow companies to communicate with their customers better.  It’s not about digital price tags, but about communication.  I want to enable communication and a better customer experience.  That’s my passion - customer service and retail.  I’m just crazed for it.  And I want Oyster to enable phenomenal customer service at retail.  Interactive digital tags are just the beginning.  Our first products are just building blocks for where we’ll be five years from now.

How do you define success?

Wow, that’s a tough question.  Being with somebody you love is success.  I look back to when I left the equity research job.  In retrospect, if had I had that job now, I might not leave it - because I derive so much pleasure from being with my wife and the time we spend together that going to work would almost be a secondary interest.  Before meeting my wife, when I didn’t have that fulfillment in my life, I only derived my pleasure intellectually from work.  If I wasn’t intellectually stimulated, regardless of the finances, I left.  So success comes from personal fulfillment.

Success is definitely financial also.  If you can get paid to do something you love, that’s success - like playing professional baseball.  The truth is that getting paid to do something you love is exciting.

Four years ago, I started coaching youth baseball.  I have never had the wonderful emotional experiences in my entire life that I’ve had in the last four years, with children that are not even my own.  And that’s been the motivation to launch this youth organization.  Watching these kids grow up from eight to 11 or 12 years old, and mature so much, is just amazing.  Experiencing their joys and emotions on the field… there have been time and time again, where I’ve been seen with tears in the 3rd base coaches box.  And it’s not because we won a game, but because I saw a child that did something that was so phenomenal. 

There has never been a business or financial experience in my life, like the feeling I get from coaching youth baseball.  I never thought I’d be able to say that.  Ever.  Nothing feels that good.

So, success is from within – it’s a matter of loving every minute of your life and sharing it all with the people you love.