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“Stay Focused On The 3 Things That Matter” 5 Startup Strategies With Andrew Laffoon, Founder of Mixbook

I had the pleasure to interview Andrew Laffoon, the Founder of the popular photo and design tool, Mixbook

What is your “backstory”?

Ever since I was young, I’ve had a love for stories. As a kid, my dad would tell my brothers and I a bedtime story every night. We would go on adventures, slay the dragons, escape the dungeon, face the enemies and save the day. My first “business” was related: making comic books and selling lots and lots of them…to my brothers and their friends. I was the nerdy kid — instead of playing baseball, I built computers and wrote software. In college, I thought I would major in computer science, but then I found a product that tied my love of storytelling and passion for building things with code, together — photo books. After I built my first book for my girlfriend (now my wife of 12 years), I was hooked. I wanted to help empower others to tell their stories in a personal and beautiful way, and that’s how Mixbook was born.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One of the lessons that I learned in building Mixbook is that the best things often come from surprising places. When we started, we had a very hard time raising money, so we largely bootstrapped the business on friends, family and angel funding for the first five years. We scrapped together all the resources we could on a shoestring — we rented office space from the non-profit where my wife worked and all our furniture came from the donated items that they didn’t want. I remember so clearly a prospective marketing executive coming in for an interview in a crisply-ironed suit. As he walked in, I saw him take in our class C office with disdain. When he sat down in the old, squeaky green chair in our conference room, he was clearly uncomfortable and complained about it. I knew he wasn’t going to fit at that stage in the company. So what happened? We attracted a scrappy, hard-working team who cared a lot more about our customers and the products we built than about having a fancy office and nice perks. And that made all the difference — that focus on our customers paired with a scrappiness to get things done even with minimal resources has enabled us to grow into the company we are today.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes Mixbook really stand out is our care for our customers. It started with a letter. Back when Mixbook had no money and the founders weren’t taking salaries, things were tough. But we got a letter from a customer whose dad had passed away. Her dad had been the glue that held her family together — she didn’t really keep in touch with her mom or her sister anymore. But she got an idea from a friend to make a Mixbook about her dad’s life. So she started on it, but then she realized that her sister and mom had a lot of pictures and stories about her dad too, so she invited them to join. Next thing you know, they were talking on the phone every night about the book, her dad and the stories they had shared together. Instead of grieving for her dad, they were able to celebrate his life and all the good that came of it. Instead of being disconnected, they built stronger relationships than ever before. For us, it was a $70 order, but for them, it was life transformation.

That’s why we go above and beyond to take care of our customers. We know that Mixbooks are often created about the most important moments in our lives and shared with the people we most love. So we try to take advantage of every opportunity to help where it’s needed — from getting a book expedited to ship next day for a bride’s wedding guest book, to ordering flowers for a customer who recently lost her son in a bike accident. We take the opportunity very seriously that we have to come alongside our customers in their meaningful moments, where our goal is to help them thrive!

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

We are still working on making it easier to make products with photos. The biggest problems our users encounter today are mostly around getting their photos — we all have too many photos on too many devices. We think we can solve a lot of those problems and help our customers bring their photos off their devices and into the hands of the people they love.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

The single most important thing you can do as a leader to help your team thrive is to let go of control and empower your team. There is a magic that happens when you hire great people and then empower them to get results — new ideas are born, goals are achieved, obstacles are knocked down and people all around are inspired to do their best work. But you can’t get those results if you hold tightly to control yourself. Empower your customer service reps to truly take care of the customers. Let your team have great ideas and run with them. And don’t be afraid to let your team fail sometimes — failure is the best teacher.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

So many people have helped along the way. Joshua Chodniewicz and Greg Baszucki, who invested early and have stuck with us through thick and thin. My co-founder Aryk, who had the original idea for Mixbook and after working together for almost 12 years, he is more than a partner, he is a friend and brother. And most importantly, my wife, who was willing to tolerate years with little income and long hours. She was the breadwinner for our family in the early Mixbook years, and her love and support were critical in getting us to where we are today.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

There are many little things we do, but these days I’m looking to answer two questions: (1) How can we bring goodness in a scalable way and (2) How can we inspire our team to bring goodness in and outside of their work at Mixbook. For the scalable goodness, right now we’re working on adoption — there are over 150 million orphans in the world, and it is one of the greatest unsolved problems. It turns out that people who want to adopt in developed countries need a book — so we’re working on making that easier and supporting adoptive parents to accelerate progress in finding homes for every child. For inspiring our team, we do service projects in our local communities. Last year, I got to take part in a visit to bring food and gifts to children in an orphanage near our office in the Philippines, and it was one of the most powerful and emotional experiences I’ve been a part of.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story and example for each)

Stay focused on the 3 things that matter:

● Don’t let your head get crowded with the other 300 things. When we first started getting real scale in the business, everything was on fire all the time and we lost focus on listening to customers and building what they wanted. Because of that, we missed a couple years’ opportunity of innovation and wasted time on things that customers didn’t care about. We could have saved a lot of time and grown faster if we had stayed focused.

Don’t let success get to your head:

● It will, but watch out when you start thinking success is inevitable. That’s usually right before you encounter your biggest challenge yet. In our case, it turned out that our biggest marketing channel was a lot less profitable than we thought, and we had to turn it off, losing 33% of revenue instantly. It took more than a year to recover.

Hire slow and fire fast:

● I know everybody says it, but in real life it’s far harder than you think. You have to trust your instincts — if you know in your gut you should not hire someone, don’t do it! Then you’ll deal with the pain of having someone wrong in the seat until you fire them. And if you wait, then your most talented team members will notice. I’ve lost great team members because I kept a mediocre person for too long. It’s the worst!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

“Whatever work you fear most, it’s likely the most important for you to be doing.”

Fear is the enemy of all that is good. If you can figure out your fears, you can face them. If you can face your fears, you can beat them. So face your fears and do your best work!