In this monthly column, Victoria Shapiro asks top young business leaders in the DC area to share their thoughts on succeeding in business and life.
Business Leader of the Month: Micha Weinblatt, co-founder and CEO of Betterific and co-founder and CEO of Crooked Monkey
Relationship Status: In a relationship with Miriam Rubin, digital media supervisor at OMD Media
Education: B.A., University of Maryland, and near completion of course work for a master’s degree in public policy
About Betterific: Betterific is the digital suggestion box that allows people to suggest ways to make the products, companies, services and events they care about, better. Users tag their contributed suggestions with Betterific’s relevant categories and topics, which organize the platform’s content. The company builds a community around these suggestions, allowing users to follow one another other, vote and comment on others’ input. Additionally, Betterific is signing up companies interested in efficiently receiving customer feedback.
About Crooked Monkey: The company sells t-shirts with cheeky messages and graphics aimed at consumers ages 18 – 28 online and has been carried in over 500 retailers across the United States, including Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters. Weinblatt founded the company with a best friend, Jon Mervis, while in college.
Victoria: Micha, we’re really pleased to have you as our March Business Leader of the Month. Our selected leaders need to have demonstrated a sense of adventure, innovation, tenacity and commitment to community, which you have. You’re a chosen, chosen person (laughs)!
Micha: Thanks Victoria! What an honor!
Victoria: Let’s jump in. You’ve been instrumental in founding two companies: Crooked Money, when you were in college and Betterific, just last year. The tech space is rapidly expanding, and the t-shirt market was crowded when you started and still is. How are you making an impact?
Micha: Betterific allows consumers’ voices to be heard. Crooked Monkey allows people to look good! We started Crooked Monkey in 2005. The market for t-shirts with witty sayings was crowded, but we made sure our humor was unique.… The graphics and quality of our shirts was and is great. We focused on getting our shirts into retailers rather than selling online. We found that selling shirts in stores made more sense for us at the time than selling online. That’s really how we infiltrated the market.
Victoria: You’re an ideas guy, and you’ve always considered how to make things better, right? Your co-founders Jonathan Schilit (Betterific COO) and Brad Cater (Betterific CTO) are also very innovative. Betterific is a perfect venture for you guys.
Micha: Yes, that’s always been one of my things.… I remember once when I was nine, I was so passionate about Entenmann’s pound cake that I found the toll-free number on the back of the box, called them up just to tell them how much I loved their pound cake and offered some ideas on how they could do some better marketing. Jonathan and Brad (co-founders at Betterific) are also very passionate about making things better. In the world of the internet, most people won’t go to the lengths that I went to when I was nine to get in touch with Entenmann’s. So, when you’ve got those ideas and you don’t know where to go, Betterific is your place.
Victoria: Betterific is still in the development phase, right? Can you give me a snapshot of what’s happening?
Micha: Betterific is a consumer-focused site with an enterprise model, meaning we are growing our user base and simultaneously getting companies involved with the site…. We are excited to announce that we recently signed Arby’s. Their customers are participating with Betterific, using our public platform to tell Arby’s how to make Arby’s better.
… Eventually we will get to the stage where we aggregate the data for companies and connect them with people who have offered specific ideas, so the companies can learn more about the ideas…. In addition to being the platform for people to share ideas, we will also be the information curators for participating companies. The site that it is today will probably be different than the site it will be in three years.
Victoria: What lessons did you translate from your experience with Crooked Monkey to Betterific?
Micha: Being an entrepreneur is an amazing experience, fraught with challenges. There are a lot of ups and downs, but at the end of the day you’re creating your own company, which makes it all worth it…. The hardest thing about starting a business is actually starting it…. I have seen a lot of entrepreneurs get into analysis paralysis where they think about what they should do rather than just trying things out…. Figure out what your first step is, and do it…. When we were starting Betterific, Jonathan and I had pages and pages of ideas…. All of the conversation was important in developing the vision, but we needed to move, get the product up and see what works.
… I always talk a lot about execution, because it all comes down to how you execute an idea…. Everything falls under that umbrella. From Crooked Monkey I really learned how to move on an idea and execute.
Victoria: Lots of people say never do business with friends. You feel differently. Can you talk to me about doing business with friends?
Micha: As we meet with investors, often the first question they ask is: ‘how long have you known your co-founders? What has been your relationship beforehand?’… I agree with that mentality. I think you want to make sure that you do go into business with friends.
… For Betterific, we focused on building a great team from the very beginning. Jonathan and I have been friends since seventh grade at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS). We have phenomenal chemistry . We knew we would be good business partners. We have similar qualities and complementary strengths…. To complete the team, we interviewed a bunch of very talented engineers. We needed to find someone who would be exceptional on the development side, but more importantly, we would want to go have a beer with. We found that in Brad Cater.
… Friendships matter. I founded Crooked Monkey with my friend Jon Mervis, whom I also went to CESJDS with. When we started, we made a decision that our friendship would outlast the company. I ended up buying him out. When the buy-out negotiations began, we both decided that a few percentage points either way didn’t matter. We focused on making sure that our friendship was paramount and business was secondary.
…You need to look at the bigger picture. You are about to go through a crazy journey, and you want to have good friends with you for that journey. If it doesn’t work out in the end, as long as you keep your priorities straight, then it will all be fine…. Starting a business is a wonderful thing to do with friends. The experiences fortify your friendships.
Victoria: Your father is a rabbi. What influence did your upbringing have on you as an entrepreneur?
Micha: The concept of making things better, tikkun olam, has influenced me in co-founding Betterific. I wouldn’t say that Betterific is rabbinic, but there are roots of tikkun olam in it. My dad has three main Jewish principles that he teaches: tikkun olam; “Kol yisrael eruvin zeh lazeh” – all of Israel is connected to one another; and ‘where there are no men, strive to be a man.’ These concepts have greatly influenced me and the way I try to live my life. I learned a lot from both of my parents. My mom is Sephardic, from Iraq. She has a tremendous amount of business savvy. She is adept at understanding relationships, personalities and how to continue looking towards the future…. Together they form a great ‘in-house’ board of advisors.
… Morally there are truths that I live by. My connection to Judaism is what I live… giving back to the community and trying to have an impact on the world around me…. When I was in college I had been interested in running for office, but the reason I never pursued politics is because I never thought you could actually get anything done. Think about all the cooks in the kitchen, the executive office, senators, congressmen, their staff, lobbyists, think tanks…. I felt like I could have a bigger impact starting my own company than by working in government.
Victoria: What advice do you have for others who want to start a business?
Micha: What do you think I’m going to say?
Victoria: Start a business with friends, have fun and most importantly, just get started!
Micha: I was going to say ‘just get started,’ but I like that you added ‘start a business with friends and have fun,’ so let’s go with that too.
Victoria: (laughs). That’s getting into the column.
We at GTJ wish Micha, Jonathan Schilit and Brad Cater great success with Betterific and look forward to exciting developments!
Victoria Shapiro is a senior account executive at Susan Davis International, a full-service communications and public affairs firm on K Street. She is also an advisor to her family’s company, The Donald J. Ross LLC, the licensing company for the 20th century golf course architect.