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Making Something From Nothing: Jeff Leitman Of Rocksteady Corp On How To Go From Idea To Launch

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Find ways to rely on your people more. As leaders, we often think that our job is to come up with the ideas and then get our people to execute them. By encouraging your team members to innovate and being open to putting those ideas ahead of yours is not only liberating, but it makes you better.

As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Leitman.

Jeff Leitman is the founder, President and CEO of Rocksteady Corp. and Killer Concepts, Inc.

Rocksteady, makers of the Rocksteady Stadium portable sound system, markets a highly immersive and connectible wireless sound system and will soon launch the world’s first wireless and connectible portable subwoofer.

Killer Concepts, best known for its family of Piggy phone stands, sells and markets mobile phone accessories at retail and online, throughout the US, Canada and in some parts of Europe.

Jeff is a passionate leader, focused on teamwork, growth, and team member development. He and his wife Mia live in Irvine, CA and are parents to two daughters, Jenny and Madelaine.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in Montreal, a French speaking city on the East Coast of Canada. After High School, I studied Economics in College then shortly after graduation, I left to see the world, returning 18 months later to begin my career.

It began on a salesfloor selling PC’s just as ‘a computer in everyone’s home’ was becoming a reality. A year later I was moved to Vancouver as a category buyer for that same retailer, and it was in that role that I first developed the entrepreneurial spirit and leadership skills that I carry and use today.

At 25, I moved to LA and married two years later. Soon I found myself living in Dallas with two kids before returning to California.

Looking back, my life so far has been a great adventure with the final chapters still unwritten. I wasn’t a happy kid growing up and it often feels like that pursuit of happiness continues to drive me today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I loved playing basketball when I was younger and it was on the courts where I learned the power of the force multiplier that comes out of teamwork and good leadership.

Later in life, it was a mentor of mine ( Kent Schlichtemeir) who simple truth would be a reminder to me to find strength and courage to take on big things. “Everything that is easy was once hard; and everything that is hard becomes easy,” he would say.

Building a company, hiring people and expanding offices, brands, and taking on large projects is best done when you are strategic with your approach and fearless in your objectives.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I seek out opportunities to interact with and listen to high achievers and thought leaders, and Podcasts are great ways to do this. I have a curious mind and love to learn how things work, why things happen, and how decisions were made.

I often find myself seeing the world through the eyes of Economics. “People I Mostly Admire,” hosted by Steve Levitt, a non-traditional economist, is one of my favorites. His guests have diverse backgrounds and are each inspirational in their own ways. “Stuff You Should Know” is a fun podcast with diverse topics and a chance to learn lots of random things. NPR’s “Planet Money” is a good way to review the top headlines within a non-political and honest viewpoint.

Developing the skills of critical thought and problem solving takes practice and an open mind. Taking ownership of your mistakes is the best way to learn from them, and reading and listening to Podcasts are ways to avoid the mistakes in the first place.

However, the greatest gift you can give yourself and to ensure your success is to invest in your professional network and friends. “How to Win Friends & Influence People” teaches you great lessons which will serve you along your journey.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?

There are all kinds of ideas and businesses, and mine is centered around consumer packaged goods. All businesses are formed around some basic gap in the market, be it better service, better pricing, innovation, and probably more. Understanding the size of your market, the business rules in your category, and an understanding of financial reporting will make your path easiest.

My process is usually the same. Do the free stuff first, which is to study the market, determine a strategy, and create your business plan. If the analysis rings true, then build your roadmap and execute the next step.

Rocksteady Stadium started with a vision about how we wanted to use speakers. We knew the roadmap ended with deliveries to customers but the steps between A and Z many, some uncertain, some unknown, and most harder than planned. Start with what you know and work to fill in the gaps. Determine your first milestone event and focus on those smaller steps between A and B to remain productive and sane. Eventually you get to a point where you see that what remains is easier than what you’ve already overcome, which will energize you to get launched.

Tuning the sound on our Rocksteady Stadium speakers was the hardest thing we’ve ever done, and we couldn’t have done it without great partners. Our initial roadmap had that taking a couple weeks, when in fact it took nearly 8 months.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

For consumer packaged goods, it is often the case that if it isn’t sold on Amazon, then it likely doesn’t exist yet. A Google search should be next; then you should consider who else (other than you) are best positioned to take this idea to market, and then research to see what they are doing in that space.

If the coast seems clear, then you should build a rough business plan in order to gain the confidence to start investing in next steps. Depending on the idea, the next step may be to speak with a patent attorney.

For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

When I started Killer Concepts, I built a sourcing network in China. So with Rocksteady Stadium, finding our manufacturer was about interviewing as many factories we could find until we had the right match. I prefer factories where I can meet and know the owner or senior management and where their culture is aligned with mine.

The location of your factory will either make sense due to the proximity of your customers, the proximity to you, or the proximity of the up-chain suppliers who make the parts and provide the raw materials needed to make your product. Once you’ve determined the where, use your network to find multiple options. I feel like I fail more than 50% of the time when I do something new, so persevere and use those failures to prepare you for the next meeting.

Your patent attorney will search for both utility and design patents, and both granted and filed applications. Interview several in your search, starting with some referrals and some web searches. Depending on your idea, you may need an attorney trained in your technology, as they will be instrumental in understanding the nuance that makes your idea great.

Finally, getting distribution and ending up on a retailer’s shelf is about hard work, having a good product, being priced right, and working your network. As a rule of thumb, a product that sells well regionally or at a small chain will sell well nationally and at larger chains. Finding our products at Wal-Mart could not have happened if we didn’t start with a local store, and it wasn’t until the Buyer at Wal-Mart saw our products at a store near him did he agree to add it to his assortment.

Retail can be expensive and difficult, so understanding the margin requirements of each partner that stands between you and your customer will allow you plan for success and to make the right decisions in your manufacturing process. While Rocksteady has a retail future planned, today’s ecommerce environment offered us a faster and more controlled path to launch.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why?

Find ways to rely on your people more. As leaders, we often think that our job is to come up with the ideas and then get our people to execute them. By encouraging your team members to innovate and being open to putting those ideas ahead of yours is not only liberating, but it makes you better.

Rocksteady quickly grew into something that was bigger than me. It was only when I trusted people with larger chunks of decision making that we saw progress and productivity really pick up.

Focus on hitting singles, not homeruns. It will keep you sane and is much more manageable. Getting to the starting line and launching Rocksteady Stadium was exhausting. I hoped that the market would go nuts over our innovation but the hard reality of marketing a launch in crowded and noisy world was sobering and frustrating. Once we got back to work and focused on smaller goals did we finally see ourselves progressing.

Our upcoming subwoofer is an amazing product and one that I can’t think of anything short of a homerun, but my expectation now is much more linear, which relaxes my nerves and helps us to avoid costly mistakes.

Share your vision often and clearly, and allow it to evolve. Your people are your force multipliers and your culture ultimately becomes an extension of you. I try to be a clear communicator at every opportunity and seek feedback whenever possible to be sure we are aligned. The Rocksteady Stadium Subwoofer is an integral part of the portable sound system solution we are creating, but market forces and cash flow forced us to take a harder path. Now, with our subwoofer close to launching, we feel more confident in our plan than ever.

Enjoy the ride and live in the moment. Running a business can get complicated, and it can feel like you are time jumping between now, tomorrow, and the future beyond. Take time to get out of the office and be in the moment. At the end of each year, I like to write down a list chronicling the highlights and struggles from the previous year, and it is only when I look back at previous years can I appreciate and recognized the journey, which is a shame.

Save for rainy days and extend your runway. The Pandemic hit us at a very vulnerable moment and we almost didn’t make it. As we are now regrowing and planning further and further into the future, doing so with the lessons we’ve leaned these past years will ensure we are more resilient and flexible. At Rocksteady, this meant learning how to become direct marketers and converting to a largely ecommerce focused company.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Your friends want to support you, so they may not be as blunt as you need them to be, and you are likely so invested in your idea that you may hear what you want to hear. A focus group will validate your idea and help you to understand the scale of the opportunity. The feedback you receive may also be invaluable in determining the execution and plan, so find ways to get clear responses.

When you are ready to move forward, create a forecast in the form of an income statement. Plan out revenues and identify all the variable costs. List the fixed costs and seek advice from other business owners about what you are forgetting. Done right, this process will clarify what your pricing model should be and what your cost of goods needs to be. If the numbers don’t line up where a path to profitability doesn’t seems realistic, then you may want to pass or reimagine a different go to market strategy.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Getting expert opinions and bringing experience and knowledge will help you build your business. The cost has to make sense and you need to protect your ownership interest as well. I have no experience with this as I haven’t hired invention development consultants in my past, but I have hired consultants to help us with hard decisions and to overcame gaps in our road map.

Having brought several ideas to market over the last decade, doing it again and again feels second nature to me now, so if you can find someone you trust and is capable, do it.

Striking out on your own will prepare you for your next go round, but having battle scars aren’t as valuable as having early success.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

There are pros and cons for each funding option and the right one will largely depend on your business plan. If your business plan outpaces your ability to finance the company, venture capital may be your best options.

There is a certain freedom that comes from having enough capital to execute your plan, where your only focus can be towards execution and growth. That freedom though comes at a cost, so choosing the right partners is critical, especially if they can bring more than just money to the relationship.

I bootstrapped both Killer Concepts and Rocksteady, which brings me certain satisfaction. But I am a little envious and curious about how things may have turned out had capitalization not been a central focus of my stress at certain times over the last decade.

The best way to decide if you should do one or the either will be revealed by your business plan. The cash flow requirements from your balance sheet may just make the decision for you. In reality, most VC will want to see some progress before they cut you a check, so chances are that by the time you are ready for VC, you’ll have other options as well, such as SBA lending, friends and family, and other lending institutions.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We source responsibly and use recycled and recyclable materials whenever appropriate and available. I try to develop our employees and give them a brighter present and future as well.

I take tremendous joy in the knowledge that I have helped put people’s lives on the right track. For some, I have started them off with their first 401k retirement accounts and for most, I have helped them develop skills that will advance their careers beyond their time with me. My philosophy has been to empower the people I work with to contribute beyond their initial comfort level, which expands their role and potential.

Longer term, I’d love to the time and capital to invest in larger goals that go beyond my touchpoints, but for now, it is family and employees first, country second, and fixing the rest of the world third.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire 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.

Thank you for the kind words. Though we have not hit our goals yet, it is tempting to look beyond and consider our legacy. Mentoring others and helping them to navigate the perils of business and life is something you can pass forward. Changing one life is not only noble, but can be generational. We all have the ability to find and help someone, and when millions, or billions of us, decide to prioritize this, the world will be a different place.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest 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.

Rocksteady Stadium is an amazing product with the potential to scale it way beyond our ability and scope. With some luck and more capital, I see an ecosystem ahead of us to build and protect. Beats showed us the power of influencer marketing, as Dr. Dre showed that good marketing can be more effective than R&D. So if I could choose someone to meet with and talk business, it would be someone who my shared a passion for music, for business, and is eager to think big.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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