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Ask the Expert: Young Entrepreneurs On The Fast Track
Luggage Foward Co-founders Aaron Kirley and Zeke Adkins
Zeke Adkins founded Luggage Forward with high school classmate Aaron Kirley in 2005 to provide doorstep-to-destination luggage delivery. According to Adkins, Luggage Forward required very little initial investment, but has since taken off with high revenue growth. Luggage Forward finished at #21 on the 2012 Inner City 100 and averaged a year-over-year growth rate of 55% between 2006 and 2010. We spoke to Adkins about Luggage Forward’s success as well as Adkin’s experience being an entrepreneur and business leader at a relatively young age.
You were 28 years old when you co-founded Luggage Forward. Where did you get the idea and what in your background best prepared you to start your own firm?
The idea came from the simple fact that hauling your luggage to the airport and checking it on the airplane is not a pleasant experience. It’s actually a terrible way to begin and end every trip – and it doesn’t make a lot of sense from a logistical perspective. From the moment you finish packing your suitcase until you open it at your destination, it is a burden to you.
We calculated that a subset of travelers would value an alternative to hauling their bags with them and letting the airlines – who have a somewhat dubious track record – get them to the destination. I had a background in business development and marketing while Aaron has a background in technology and process optimization. Both of us had a similar vision for creating an exceptional customer service experience for our clients but beyond that we each brought unique skills to the business that allowed us launch Luggage Forward with little outside help.
What pushed you to take the leap into starting your own company?
Aaron and I were high school classmates and had written several business plans together for businesses that for one reason or another did not end up launching. With Luggage Forward, the further we developed the model, the more sense it seemed to make. In retrospect, the fact that this was the first company we actually started, and that neither of us had background in travel, was helpful. Had either been true, we probably would have thought of a multitude of reasons why Luggage Forward’s model might not have worked. Fortunately for us at the time, we could only think of a few reasons, and in our minds, they did not outweigh the possibilities for success. In most cases when starting a company, a little bit of naiveté (but not too much) can go a long way.
A lot of people coming out of college are looking to start their own firms right away. Would you recommend that? What is the biggest piece of advice you would give them?
Students coming right out of college have an amazing ability to innovate and develop solutions to problems or capture trends. What is inherently lacking for people without professional experience is the ability to execute. What is really, really important for young entrepreneurs is to ask questions and surround yourself with seasoned advisors. There is no substitution for experience and if you don’t have it you need to find people with it.
When you started Luggage Forward, what surprised you the most about being an entrepreneur?
When you start a company, you know that you’re going to work very hard and you hope that you achieve some tangible success. What was somewhat surprising was the sheer ratio of hours and hours of hard work to the fleeting moments of success. You can often toil for endless hours over weeks and weeks to achieve a piece of great customer feedback, a mention in the press, finalizing a strategic partnership; which you can enjoy for a short while and then it’s right back to work. Having a co-founder in a startup can be very beneficial in that you can more frequently share every small internal success with each other, which goes a long way toward sustaining the motivation and effort required to prevail in the long run.
At what point did you realize that Luggage Forward would become a successful firm with a solid growth trajectory?
We were fortunate to have a number of successes early on that gave us a pretty good sense that we were on the right track, from partnerships with American Express to positive reviews in the New York Times; however, it was a number of years before we were comfortable categorizing our trajectory as “successful.” We have always managed our cash flows to aggressively grow the company, meaning that we have re-invested the vast majority of earnings into initiatives that have allowed us to grow, at the expense of having a large cash reserve. This meant that we could not afford to have a bad quarter or even a bad month, which does a lot to focus you on achieving your immediate objectives.
What do you believe is the next necessary step in your professional growth to help the company take it to the next level?
At every stage, it is important for founders to relinquish some responsibility to key hires and focus their time on areas where they – and perhaps only they – can add value. It can be challenging to let go of things that you have overseen since day one and entrust someone else to own them. We continue to find ourselves reevaluating what is required to take Luggage Forward to the next level, and usually that means entrusting a larger and more critical part of the operation to someone else. It’s a very difficult thing to do, but absolutely fundamental to continuing to grow as an organization.
Do you know of any young entrepreneurs that have started a small business and deserve recognition for their success? Nominate them for the Inner City 100 where they will be recognized in FORTUNE, receive free management education at Harvard Business School and access tools to help them grow. If you are a growing firm, apply for the program today!
BY Alex Rodriguez on September 4th, 2012
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