Tim Haitaian, Co-founder and CFO of RedShelf, talks with host Justin Gray about co-founding a company with his college roommate, turning a side hustle into a successful business, and the highs and lows he’s experienced along the way –– all on the the latest episode of Driven & Co.
What does RedShelf do?
RedShelf is a digital textbook distributor in higher education. We work today with about 550 college campuses across North America. We provide access to content from about 300 academic publishers, including small publishers all the way up to Pearson, Springer and McGraw-Hill. The total catalog today is about 500,000 titles available to students.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A business owner. I started working pretty early on. I was a caddy for a couple summers. Then I started working in restaurants where I did everything from washing dishes to waiting tables. At one point there were a couple managers in their mid 20s, and maybe I was being cocky at the time, but I looked at their responsibilities and thought I could do it. That’s when the entrepreneurial juices started bubbling up.
When did you know you wanted to pursue entrepreneurship?
I met my co-founder Greg in high school. His dad had started a couple different businesses and was successful, so that was my exposure to entrepreneurship. I worked for his dad doing a ton of different odd jobs, and that really taught me how to take initial momentum and light a fire underneath it.
How did RedShelf come about?
Greg and I were roommates at Michigan State our freshman year. He had started a business that was like an early version of Craigslist, but focused for the campus side of things. The number one thing it saw activity for was course materials, such as notes, study guides and scans of previous terms quizzes or exams that could be used to gear themselves up for upcoming exams. We both looked at it as an opportunity to automate that process.
What are your thoughts on the debate between having a side hustle versus quitting your job and being hyper-focused on the business?
I 100 percent agree that at some point, you have to fully commit. The question is when? Validate your hypothesis while you still have a job. As soon as you believe that you’ve got enough data, or your gut tells you there’s a real business here, then go after it and put all of your energy behind it. But at least remove some of the unknowns before you fully jump ship.
When did you know it was time to go all in?
By then all of the original partners had solid growth term over term. We were seeing traction in new customers. We said to ourselves if we’re going to do this, let’s go at it now. Neither of us were married, neither of us had any kids, no house or anything like that. What’s the worse case? If everything imploded we knew we could go back to the jobs that we just gotten out of college.
What are some of the biggest highs and lows that you’ve seen as an entrepreneur?
Getting to the size we’re at today and looking back to where we came from is a huge sense of accomplishment. In the first three years that Greg and I quit our jobs, we paid ourselves a total of $61,000 – that’s basically $20,000 a year, living in Chicago, and we made it. Today, the company is 47 people and in a much different place.
As for lows, entrepreneurship is not easy. It puts a lot of strain and stress on your personal relationships. I’m married now and the first couple of years were just really, really tough. I think it’s also tough for your friends and family. Even today, I think there are a few people who fully recognize where the business is at, but it’s very easy for people to not see the same progress that you’re seeing and maybe discount how far you’ve actually come.
What’s your advice for folks that are getting into business with a friend?
There have been times in the business that the personal and professional relationship became very, very strained. Communication is key. Be open and honest with each other.
What’s your key to bringing in talent?
I’m stealing this advice from a book called “Rework.” One of the things they tried to do was keep their company culture like a dinner party rather than a cocktail party. At a cocktail party, it’s very surface level. How’s the weather? What do you do? You never really get below the surface. At a dinner party you’re comfortable having what otherwise might be sort of an uncomfortable conversation. You’re open with your ideas and your thoughts and other people are accepting of you and who you are.
Greg and I both interview everyone. Our questions typically are most centered around the person. I’m interested in what are you trying to learn right now? Do you have any hobbies or skills or interests outside of work? What books are you reading? Why are you leaving the job you’re at now? What are you looking for most?
Meet Justin Gray
Justin is a serial entrepreneur and the CEO and founder of LeadMD, the world’s largest revenue operations agency having implemented over half of the Marketo user base. Justin has made a career of launching successful companies and scaling them, with successful exits of over 200MM+ in the last decade. Justin’s latest endeavor launched in 2016 when he co-founded Six Bricks an online learning startup designed to combat employee and customer churn through experience-based education. Over the past 10 years, Justin has emerged as a strong voice for entrepreneurship, marketing and culture. As a recognized speaker, Justin has been published over 350 times in industry publications and holds his own column, Tribal Knowledge in Inc., while writing for Entrepreneur, Tech Crunch and others. Justin and his wife Jennifer met over marketing and three years later welcomed their son, Grayson, into the world in April of 2017.