Andrea Petersen of School of Whales: Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup
An Interview With Paul Moss
Support — Have your people and keep them close. You’ll need them. Creating a startup can take over your whole world. People around you will give you a reality check, help you if needed, and be your best sounding boards. They will also force you to disconnect and take a break from things. Always realize that support is a two way street so don’t go into the bubble and stop being there for your people. Keep going to the birthdays and dinners and connecting with people. This will not only maintain your relationships but give you the much needed mental breaks to recharge. A lot of times our best ideas and solutions come about when we are “resting.”
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 Andrea Petersen.
Andrea Petersen is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Miami-based financial technology start-up and real estate investment platform School of Whales.
Together with her fellow Co-Founder, Chief Operating Officer Daniel Pena-Giraldi, Petersen launched School of Whales in June 2021. A seasoned financial force, as CEO she is intimately involved with all aspects of the business creation — from the early design stages of the website, managing regulatory approvals and compliance, identifying investment opportunities and everything in between.
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 am originally from Venezuela, went to school at Tufts University in Boston and then landed in Miami after graduation, looking for a job. I worked in banking for over six years, even though it had never been my aspiration nor what I really wanted to do. Numbers just always came easy to me. And it was hard to leave something that was “easy,” where I was doing well and, honestly, a place that was a good environment to work in. Inertia is hard to break!
Luckily, life gave me a little push and I left banking to help out my best friend’s dad manage his company’s finances. In the end, the move turned out helping me as I embarked on a path of learning about business building and management and opening up a whole world that gave me the tools and confidence to embark in creating my own business.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Flash forward to a few years later and I am talking to my partner, Daniel Pena, who is a real estate developer and very creative thinker. He tells me that crowdfunding real estate development is an actual possibility thanks to the JOBS Act. We talked about what this could mean for real estate investing: developers being able to connect more easily with investors and being empowered to do projects that were out of the box and did not necessarily fit a bank’s underwriting checklist. And on the flip side, people being able to join forces with others to create a pool to be able to invest in development projects directly.
I immediately thought to those friends of mine who were incredibly smart and hardworking and fantastic at their fields, but knew nothing about finance. How cool would it be for them to actually invest in real estate development?
This was my “aha moment.” What if we could create a platform that not only gave people access to real estate investing but also to information and content? That made them realize that part of being mindful and practicing self care is taking care of your finances? Because even though money does not buy happiness, we all know that a lack of it can certainly create a lot of stress and heartache. What if our platform showed them the benefit of saving, responsible investing, and diversifying? And directly gave them a tool to do so?
I have always found it incredible that people can graduate High School without receiving a basic personal finance course. 18 year old kids are offered credit cards during their college orientations, without any notion as to what they are signing up for. I think that since we started working on School of Whales, there has already been a movement around creating greater financial consciousness; my dream is to also be able to help normalize the fact that everyone should have access to knowing about basic personal finances.
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?
When I said previously that I went to help my best friend’s dad and the experience really ended helping me, I was understating the impact that the experience of the job, but most importantly, the one who gave it to me, has had on me. Norman Cooper, Founder & President of The Cooper Precision Companies, has had a profound impact on my life. The last nine years of working with him have taught me most of what I know about business (and a lot of very valuable life lessons) and gave me the “wings” to embark on my own projects.
Norman has many famous sayings and memorable quotes but I like the definition he uses of integrity and it is something I carry with me: “Integrity is doing the right thing even no one is watching.” (I believe this is attributed to CS Lewis). Having been able to work so closely with him: traveling, going through very hard times, relishing in successes, having him make me laugh till I cried, I have had the privilege of being able to see him live by this, even in the most stressful of circumstances. When I initially started working with Norman, our company was specialized in selling specialized equipment in Mexico. When business took a turn for the worst in 2014 he held on to every single one of our employees way past the point of there being any reasonable justification for it and, even when he did manage to bring himself to lay people off, he was tremendously more generous than required with their severance packages. At this point, every dollar he paid out was a dollar he had to take out of his personal funds, yet he did not think twice about it. Four years later business picked up in Mexico again and those same employees have been the ones to build the business back up for him, many of them leaving other jobs to have the opportunity to work under his leadership again. He did not make his decisions trying to buy loyalties but, in the end, when you do the right thing and provide value, good things come naturally. This has been a lesson I have watched him exemplify repeatedly and one that has shaped the way I do business and approach my personal life as well.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
When people learn of School of Whales many are amazed by the fact that we allow anyone to have the opportunity to invest in large commercial real estate developments with just $500. But above that they are drawn to our example partner projects (https://www.schoolofwhales.com/projects/), some of which are in our pipeline, because they are honestly projects that would make any investor feel proud.
When The Langford Hotel was built by our partners, everyone was very skeptical of the vision of turning an old, dilapidated building, with a lot of restrictions due to its historic designation, into a boutique hotel in Downtown. Ten years ago Downtown Miami was nowhere close to what it is today and people dd not feel investing in the area was necessarily a smart move. It was hard to get support, financially and otherwise. As soon as the hotel opened and people were able to see the end result everyone knew it was not only an immediate success but something that would set the tone of what the entire city block would become. This is what School of Whales wants to accomplish. We want to show that you can generate profits and create wealth in a way that creates a positive impact.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I would like to think that we bring good to everything we do. When we initially dreamt up School of Whales we were excited about the educational component of what we were creating. This is why we used “School” in the name. As a matter of fact, if you look at our logo, it is a whale tale but can also be seen as an open book. The intention of what we want to create has been there from the beginning. We don’t want to create just another fund, or just another business that generates profits. I am passionate about there being meaning behind the things that I do and my gut tells me that we can create something that helps drive the message that mindfulness and well being is tied to your financial discipline as much as to meditation and other forms of physical and mental self care.
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?
Hard working: I am a very hard worker because I hate to fail, and when I do, I need to know that it was not because of a lack of effort. I become very passionate about the things that I do and bring a high level of intensity to things.
I remember a couple of years ago we were working on a bid with a short deadline. I worked through the weekend to be able to submit it on time. When Monday morning rolled around I turned the bid in to be told that the deadline was being extended for a week because the other bidders requested an extension. I felt frustrated and angry but am convinced that that was the reason we got the job.
Curiosity: I love to learn and anybody who meets me can tell you I ask a million questions (although earlier in my life I was usually embarrassed and held back a lot). This leads to a lot of learning and an obsession with making sure I know as much as I can about things.
This came especially handy when building the platform for School of Whales. I knew nothing about building a website and it was a veeery steep learning curve. But I found that I could not speak to website developer or even understand the difference between a UX designer and someone who created the code for a custom WordPress without learning about it. So I took online courses, read as much about it as I could, and luckily had people around me who I could ask a TON of questions to. As the business now comes to life, this curiosity makes me look into all of the data and insights as to what our users and our potential customers are behaving like and how they are reacting to the platform. This is something I could be doing out of discipline but the fact that I am genuinely curious makes me be much more engaged and have the desire to get as much information as I can which is useful for making decisions and creating a growth strategy.
Loyal: I have a strong sense of loyalty. This has helped me build long term relationships with incredible people that support me and trust me. Without these people I could never be a successful business leader. They catch me when I fall, and applaud my successes. Both are equally important and I would not be able to have done the things that I have without them.
I am convinced that who you are and the things you live by are what attract the people in your life to you. I am lucky to be able to say that at this point in my life and career I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by people who are as loyal to me as I am to them. This includes my business partners. A partnership cannot be built without trust and the fact that we value loyalty and have shown with our behavior that we are incredibly loyal to each other, to our values, to our people, creates an incredible amount of trust that lets us sleep easier and walk a little bit lighter. To me this is critical to be able to deal with the stresses and hardships of building and managing any business.
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?
This is a tough one because, as corny as it may sound, even my mistakes have been instrumental in getting me to where I am. Even spending six years in banking following the advice of family members when I got the job offer (and subsequent promotions) — which is something I said I would never do when I was in college and was not a job I was passionate about — gave me the incredible experience that I still use to this day. It also makes me much more appreciative of doing something I love now.
If I force myself to really find something (although clearly not as impactful): I really wanted to buy an investment apartment in Brickell in 2006 but was given advice not to do it. I regret that. One of the many times I have kicked myself and been reminded to always follow my gut.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I think the process of creating the website, figuring out the back end of the platform and getting together all of the moving pieces so that people can now click on a button and become investors in less that three minutes was really, really tough. There was a lot of frustration and feeling like I had no idea what I was doing or that it was never going to be what I envisioned. I remember calling a good friend of mine who now lives in Spain and who has experience web development and telling him that I had spent thousands of dollars on creating a website and there was zero progress. The developer kept telling me that the design files were no good and the designers told me the developer did not know how to use them and my lack of knowledge on the subject rendered me useless. There was a point during the process where I really doubted what we were doing.
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?
I have to give a lot of credit to my partner, Daniel Pena Giraldi, who is an eternal optimist and one of the most even keeled people you will ever meet. Being around him usually makes me raise my game and figure out a way around things and find the grit to keep on going. We also luckily got help from a very talented UX designer at the perfect time. She actually created a user survey to build a customer persona and seeing our theory about our vision being proven out through her research gave me a lot of energy to keep pushing and learning and insisting. In the end, the patience. Grit and drive for excellence is usually the difference between failing and not.
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”?
Find things that keep you grounded. Whether it is family, hobbies, exercise, or anything that makes you feel like you. I am introvert at heart so I need time and space to reset when there is a lot going on. But it has taken me a lot of time (and is still a work in progress) for me to get to know myself and identify what I need. By now I know what things help me feel like me; which to me means feeling completely relaxed and at peace.
Also, find a way to be get rid of the fear of failure or not achieving as high as you’d like. What works for me is playing out what I think is the worst case scenario in my head which usually leads me to realize it will be OK.
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?
Bootstrapping still costs money. But if you have the option, I am a fan of bootstrapping to prove out your concept and especially to prove out a concept and stay efficient.
Venture can bring a lot of benefits. There is a lot of “smart money” out there that can add a lot of value. But often you can run the risk of losing your vision or the founder’s essence, particularly if you are at a very early stage. It takes some time to find your way and often is it easy to doubt yourself. This is more easy to overcome the further along you are in the process.
It really is up to what your short and medium term goals are and what you need to get there.
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.
Startups, by definition, don’t have developed processes or structures. One person or a handful of people do it all with no manual so it is very easy to get caught up with the day to day, “putting out fires” and losing track of the strategy or bigger picture.
With School of Whales, we were very close to receiving final approval from the SEC, when we realized that allowing for our investors to have an option to enroll in a ‘recurring investing’ feature was critical to our business plan and for lowering our customer acquisition cost. This was always part of our plan, but we got worn down with the creation of the website and platform and lost sight of this along the way. Having to go back and add this in meant we had to change our offering circular and make changes to the platform, delaying us 8 months.
You have to be disciplined in every step of the way, including having a high level road map and checking in with it consistently.
You are starting a new business. There are a lot of ifs and uncertainties that you have to face along the way. Staying flexible is a must as you inevitably run into the unexpected.
When we were going though our approval process, we were told we would be able to market our fund nationally with no issues. Along the way, we learned that we would need to be affiliated with a broker dealer in order to be able to offer our services in some pretty major markets. I wont bore you with the details, but this meant having to go back to the drawing board and tackle a problem that was not even on our radar. This will happen a lot and it is easy to get worn down if you don’t have an ability to pivot and stay flexible to deal with changes.
3. Trust Yourself
Follow your gut and be clear on your mission. The concept and idea behind School of Whales was always driven by our desire to creating something more than just a real estate fund. We were passionate about our purpose of advocating for financial mindfulness and supporting projects with a positive impact.
When we initially started doing focus groups to test our audience, we got results that contradicted our thesis. People were responding in ways that led us to believe that there was no market for creating a community of curious investors who wanted to get together to invest, grow their savings, learn, and be proud of where their money was being put to work.
So we set aside our mission and began working on a crowdfunding platform. But this did not feel right. So we went back. And looked at how we were asking the questions. And read material on the psychology of focus groups and how people’s rational responses often don’t match up with their behaviors. And we decided to create a staging site around our original concept. With that in hand, we went back to people and showed them the platform. And the response was overwhelmingly positive, validating our original mission.
Always trust your gut. Do the research, work hard, but learn to listen to yourself.
You and your co-founders won’t know about or have experience in everything you need to get started. And it is hard to manage processes or trust vendors when you do not have a 100% handle on all subject matters. Be ready to learn. A lot. Be ready to work and study and become an expert in things you knew nothing about.
Our website development learning curve was incredibly steep. We now know about coding, and UX design, and SEO and website optimization thanks to some incredible people we were fortunate enough to come across along the way. Always remember, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” When you begin a startup, you will soon realize there is a lot you don’t know and you better be ready to have patience and perseverance to climb the learning curve.
Have your people and keep them close. You’ll need them. Creating a startup can take over your whole world. People around you will give you a reality check, help you if needed, and be your best sounding boards. They will also force you to disconnect and take a break from things. Always realize that support is a two way street so don’t go into the bubble and stop being there for your people. Keep going to the birthdays and dinners and connecting with people. This will not only maintain your relationships but give you the much needed mental breaks to recharge. A lot of times our best ideas and solutions come about when we are “resting.”
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?
Not being clear on their WHY. And not asking themselves WHY enough at any point. You can find motivation, purpose, direction or the root cause of all issues if you ask “why.” Simon Sinek is the obvious reference for this and anyone who is not familiar with him should immediately listen to his 2009 Ted Talk.
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?
Discipline. Be disciplined about your routine and include activities that contribute to your physical and mental wellness. Know yourself and know what helps you stay sane. And be religious about sticking to a routine that makes room for that.
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 would lobby for including personal finance courses as part of the required high school curriculum. I honestly believe education is the answer to most problems.
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.
My dream is to meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which obviously and unfortunately will not happen. Her intelligence, determination and superhuman grit is something that I truly admire. I would have loved to ask her questions about the hard parts of striking a balance between work and her personal life.
Other than that, Barack Obama or Warren Buffet. I admire them both greatly and can see myself asking them a million questions.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They can find me on LinkedIn or connect with School of Whales directly by following any of our social media accounts (@whalesfund) or by going to our website (www.schoolofwhales.com) for some interesting and insightful blog posts.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!