The Direct Tie Between Leadership and Scalability: Alex Iceman of Genium


Summary of Episode

#28: Alex Iceman joins Annaka and Ethan to talk about Genium, the tech startup he founded to address pain points in global tech hiring. The founder also dives into how he finds and vets developers in Argentina, the impact his role as an AHL hockey referee has had on his entrepreneurial mindset, and his 'reverse pyramid' management style. 

Alex Iceman is a serial entrepreneur and, most recently, the founder and CEO of Genium, a tech startup that provides solutions for affordable, quality tech hiring on a global scale. Iceman is also an advisor at Hawaii-based accelerator, Blue Startups, and in his spare time works as a hockey referee for the AHL. 

Podcast Episode Notes

The story behind Genium and the problem it is solving. [1:39]

What is the difference between a consultancy and agency? [3:58]

Alex’s thoughts on positioning and developing the right mindset to scale this business model. [7:53]

Shifting your perspective to delegate more as a leader. [10:02]

Behind Genium’s transition to hiring developers overseas. [12:33]

How Genium vet’s their developers and ensures they are a good culture fit. [17:33]

The secret behind Genium's 90% retention rate. [20:15]

The inspiration behind Alex’s goal of launching a company before the age of 25. [24:04]

Alex’s work as an AHL referee. [26:05]

How Alex’s relationship with hockey has influenced his entrepreneurial journey. [27:47]

Achieving balance as an entrepreneur, advisor, and composer. [31:08]

His role as an advisor, how he helps startups excel. [36:23]

How can startup founders choose the right accelerator for their business? [39:57]

The story behind overcoming a $300,000 roadblock early on. [43:13]

Alex’s number one piece of advice for early stage entrepreneurs. [50:17]

How you can support Genium. [51:22]

Full Interview Transcript

Annaka: Hey, everyone and welcome to Startup Savants, I'm Annaka. 

Ethan: And I'm Ethan. 

Annaka: If you're a returning listener, welcome back and if you're new, this podcast is about the stories behind startups, the founders who run them and the problems they're solving. This episode we’re joined by Alex Iceman, founder of Genium and advisor at Blue Startups. 

Alex is a jack of all trades that still manages to run his company and the rest of his life. He found a few minutes to talk to us about how he built a platform that solves the problem of global tech hiring and all three of us enjoyed some superior bonding time over hockey. 

Ethan: Yeah, the love for hockey was thick in the room during this conversation but we also talked about startup stuff. And, one of the things you have to have to be a successful startup founder is grit. Alex told us a story about a tiny little $300,000 pickle that they got into in the early years. He told us what they did to survive and the steps they’ve taken to bounce back even stronger. 

Hey, entrepreneurs listening, if you’re looking for resources, guides, and tools, you can find them for free over at startupsavant.com. But, enough about that. Let’s get into our conversation with Alex Iceman. 

Annaka: Hey Alex, welcome to the show. How's it going today?

Alex Iceman: Thanks for having me. Going amazing.

Annaka: Excellent. We're very excited to dig into Genium and what you all are doing. Can you start us off by telling us how you started Genium and the problem you all are solving.

Alex Iceman: We started Genium about seven years ago when my first consultancy company, here in San Francisco, was doing really well, but my clients started to ask for more affordable rates, because engineering rates were going up. Genium is a premium consultancy company, we help companies to build software teams in Latin America and all around the world now, but originally we started with Latin America and they help US companies to grow and build the product pipeline faster, all around software, whether it's mobile apps, React, front end, back end anything related to software that needs a higher security and higher quality of software development. And I've been doing that for quite many years prior to that but prices of engineers in San Francisco were skyrocketing at that time and clients were having a hard time paying the rates. That's when they started asking me, "Hey Alex, is there anything else that we can do to lower the rates or find an alternative?"

And I started looking elsewhere. I did quite a few trial projects. I did a project in China. I did projects in Mexico, Philippines, Eastern Europe and I tested all those locations and Argentina was last on my list and I sent out two projects to Argentina and they came out a success, a total success, a total match for the values I have, which is effective communication, responsibility, accountability, forgiveness. It was a really good match for what I was looking for in engineers and people and the way you work and I started expanding there. I started hiring more and more engineers and administrative staff in Argentina and then we grew into a greater Latin America since then. In the sense I've listened to my clients and I've listened to what they wanted and adapted to their needs and that's how Genium came about.

Ethan: That's a good story and I think we're going to go more into finding those folks overseas and a little bit more detail into that later. But the first question I want to ask you is, you mentioned that you see Genium as a consultancy. Can you tell us what the difference between a consultancy and an agency is?

Alex Iceman: Consultancy to me, I look at consultancy is we position ourselves as a partner, so it's not a vendor and vendor relationship, but partnership collaboration where the interaction is much tighter, the integration is much tighter in my sense and when we build teams, they work directly for the companies and they're very integrated into clients teams. We also specifically do client interviews, which I do prior to taking a client. I see if it's a good partner for us, so they don't treat us as a vendor, "Take this and just run with it." But they treat us as a partner. We're in it together and you're going to get full support from us and we expect the same from you. To me, that's the definition of consultancy versus an agency, where agency comes in, they take on a project, they do it more independently and they just give their hand off the results. And I think there's a component of effective communication is missing and the deep integration, so we can adapt and react to business needs much faster.

Ethan: I see. I had always had this thought that agencies were very good businesses for new business owners, because while you have to have a technical skill, you have to have a bit of sales. You don't need a whole lot of cash or an outside investment to get started but they're scalable, so do you see a consultancy having those same types of traits in that they are good for young businesses, but they're still ultra scalable?

Alex Iceman: To me, I think both agencies and consulting companies, they have a lot in common and it really depends on target demographics, because look, we offer agency type of services within the company as well if you're looking at visual designs or marketing or some other aspects. There is an agency aspect inside of a consultancy company so it's hard to differentiate if you do one or the other, it really is geared towards the type of clients you serve and their needs. Sometimes you do consultancy. Sometimes you present yourself as an agency to a specific problem or approach that as an agency to a specific problem.

But to your point, there are agencies that are working with multi-billion dollar companies and there are agencies that are working with startups and it is really agency versus consulting is, to my point of view it's not just geared to companies that are starting up or growing or there they could be at different stages. It really is how you position yourself and what problems do you solve at what level of business? And obviously, certain agencies are geared towards businesses that are just starting, but as I said we have agencies that work with us and we're established over eight figure company and they help us as well, but we're not a startup anymore, but they do help us on media, on video production and some other stuff that's happening. To your point, different targets and could be both.

Ethan: Absolutely. Since either of these types of businesses could be a good business to start as a new founder and since that's the case, a lot of them end up staying small. These types of businesses are out there helping out mom-and-pop shops and they stay, some of them stay fairly local. But you mentioned positioning, so I want to hear about positioning and I also want to hear about your mindset that allowed you to take this business model and scale it all the way up to your current size.

Alex Iceman: Great question. I think it's in the background on how you look at certain things. I look at building businesses as a scalable process and I look at businesses as a collective of processes, and once you have the right process, it's easier to scale that and all you have to focus on is setting up those right processes and just have the right team members to scale it. To me, I enjoy scalability, I enjoy growing businesses, I enjoy helping more and more people and if we do something really well, I don't see a reason why you should stay local and just serve your local community, because you could be helping way more people. You just need to apply your skills, to streamline it and create a process that you can scale.

Most of the businesses that don't scale, they don't have a process and they don't know how to create that process that could be scalable. And I think that's where people get stuck. They work for their own businesses and that's where I've learned to step out of working for your business and managing and leading that business to scale, because I was becoming a manager snowflake, where I would manage everything and everything would tie it to me and I tried to eliminate that. I tried to build processes and assign people to manage those processes so I don't have to be involved in decision making and et cetera, et cetera. I'm mostly involved in strategic initiatives or high-ticket items and that's where you process, you scale the process and that's how you scale.

Annaka: You touched on something that is always very interesting to me. It seems when talking to founders that a lot of them have this shift between, "I was doing literally everything and then one day the switch flipped and I started delegating and trusting the team more." What is that like when you just, you have to do it or you're not going to make it as a human, much less as a business owner. What is that perspective shift like?

Alex Iceman: Well, it's been amazing. I had to work with coaches to get that mindset. I couldn't get to that mindset myself and I had to ask for help and I asked outside and asked for a friend of mine and certain business partners and even hockey supervisors, and some of them were able to share their wisdom on how you do certain things, how you approach certain things and one of my business mentors, Dave Meltzer, he suggested that initiative that you should take yourself out of that equation and start delegating more. What I found later, most important thing to do in your business is to get your first three to five first hires into your company and that's vital for your company. Those are the people you're going to be delegated to manage everything and you should spend an enormous amount of time vetting those people, getting them on board, training them and that's what's going to define the future of your company.

They will continue hiring more like minded people by the same process you hired them, because you established that relationship process and they will basically continue hiring the same type of people that they are themselves as a group, and that will determine how your company is going to operate, what's the values and just the whole ecosystem. Once I've got the first three hires and I started delegating properly to those people because I've trusted them, I've trained them. I'm a fan of processes, I fly airplanes and checklists are vital for saving lives and they're there for a reason. I started applying that mentality into business and creating simple checklists that would go through the key points of a process to get to a high quality or safety or whatever it is, and that's how I started scaling up and delegating more.

Annaka: Yeah. And I love checklists, everyone that knows me, knows that I love checklists.

Ethan: We do know that.

Annaka: Having a process like that is so interesting. Something that came up in your company profile is that a lot of your talent is outsourced from other countries, but you started with a US based engineering team. Can you walk us through that change? You talked about it a little bit coming from a client perspective, but what pushed you more towards that choice and how has it worked out for you so far?

Alex Iceman: That's a great question. I needed a scalability of the consultancy company that I had, Iceman Softworks, which was the first company. We had 15 engineers here in San Francisco working on mobile projects and the competition for the engineering force here was just enormous, and I just couldn't compete with the salaries, just let alone right now, TikTok offers almost $300,000 for an engineer, for a mobile engineer a year.

Annaka: Did you say TikTok?

Alex Iceman: TikTok. Yeah.

Annaka: Wow.

Alex Iceman: 300,000 and that's just base salary. Plus you get bonuses, you get stock options and it piles out really quick. Google has the same policy. Apple has the same policy. If you're looking at senior engineers, we were mainly focused on working with senior engineers, the ones that can get the job done the right way and if you get a team of 15, you're looking at a yearly payroll of enormous amount of money. Those are almost four and a half million dollars just in payrolls a year so to justify that, the project had to be enormous for the 15 engineers to make it a profitable business.

That's where I started listening to my clients and at that time I had about 10 clients and I started talking to them. I started talking to CTOs and CFOs as well and said, "Hey, what would make this thing work? What would you like me to do? How would you like me to move forward?" And they all said, "Look, we like the quality, we want to keep the quality but we need to find a way to lower down prices." And I started looking everywhere and I started doing the test projects for the quality because quality was number one priority for me. We do work around cybersecurity related companies that need data protection and their client sensitive data as well. I needed to find the right place and mentality and I couldn't build a success model in any other location up until I came around Latin America. It was test and trials, it took me almost eight months to figure that out and I failed.

I had a story where I've hired a person or actually two people to work on a mobile app and I wouldn't tell the country, but it's outside of the United States and everything was going well. I was checking on what's happening and I would see visual images of things aren’t progressing. Then five days prior to delivery, we had to deliver a feature to a client. I look at the results and they're so bad, looks okay, but it just doesn't work the way it's supposed to be working and I'm horrified. It was Thursday, I think and delivery was on Monday, so I had to sit down and recode the whole feature myself through the weekends I almost didn't sleep, so in five days I've built something that those guys were building in two months and I just rebuilt completely the whole thing, and I delivered on time and it was a success, but that's how miserable those five days for me were. I've lost money, I've lost my time and probably had to recover for a couple of weeks after that.

I did really thorough tests on those locations and then I finally got to the Latin America, which I love and everything just clicked. Very good English, good education there, European mentality and Argentina specifically, a lot of European descent went to Argentina in the late '50s. The Spanish language itself is a very energetic language and they like to converse, they like to talk and that makes a huge difference for the teams that work remotely, that's effective communication value in my company that I have, we all share that and they started over communicating certain things and sometimes I had to even shorten the meetings because they would over communicate what they're doing.

But that's great for something that, for the collaboration and for remote work. Everything was, and the time zone, obviously it's the same time zone with New York, most of the time and four hours with California, if they adjust their hours a little bit and it works, it works like charm. They are all online, they all work together and it's not the cheapest location. They're not cheap, cheap, but it's up to 40% savings compared to the US and a very good market to grow and scale.

Annaka: Yeah. And if you told me I had to go visit the Argentina office, I don't think I'd complain a whole lot. Can we talk-

Alex Iceman: Let's meet up and we're happy to have you.

Annaka: No, I'd be like, "Bye guys, I'm going to go hang out in Argentina for a month/forever."

Ethan: Yeah. We're not getting you back.

Annaka: Yep, I'll go to Argentina. It'll be fun. Can you tell me more about that kind of screening process? How do you A, find them and B, vet them, put them through their paces because you can't just grab an engineer off the street and be like, "You look like you know what you're doing." How do you test them out and vet them in that position?

Alex Iceman: That's a great question. First of all, we never post job offerings online saying, "Hey, apply to this job." We always reach out and we always reach out to people who we already think will be a good fit. We have an amazing HR team and People's Ops team. They do great lead generation basically. We have a database of people that are really skilled in their field and sometimes they're not available for a job, but guess what, people do change their job every three to four years or sometimes five and when the time comes, I want to be there for them, and I want them to think of us and come and work for us so we have that database. We're also reaching out a lot and then once we have a handful of candidates, we run them through three to four interviews and we have obviously the initial screening and then we have a cultural fit interview, which is important for me, is more important than anything else. If there is not a cultural fit, I'm not even going to test the technical skills and that's what makes our company unique.

We have very good people working together and I have a saying that we have one life and it's better to work with nice people and we spend so much time working, therefore sometimes we take an extra week or two to hire the right person that would be a good team player, so we don't get troubles later down the road. The psychological profiling and then after that, we have a technical assessment where we assign a technical architect from a specific area. They would do the technical interview that typically hour and a half, two hours with some coding exercise and such.

Then the very last one is also an architectural interview and sometimes that happens with our clients as well and in conjunction sometimes we do that on our own. I am a big fan of the right architecture. I've seen a lot of bad code that doesn't scale well, that has security problems and I've made a promise to myself to hire people, engineers that know how to build software the right way. They know the right architecture, the foundations and that's where we would test that at the very last meeting, and if everything checks out, the hiring committee makes the call and they get a person on board.

Annaka: Excellent. That's a lot of people generally applying for one position, but I also notice that your retention rates are extremely high. I think I could be wrong, but I think I read 90%, which is kind of unheard of and hearing you talk about the cultural fit, pointed me back there, but what's the trick to high retention rates?

Alex Iceman: Good people. First, competitive salaries, if you're not getting paid enough, you have to be on the market so we are a little higher than the market, and that's where our clients allow us to do that with providing really good services. But then you find the person who's passionate about a specific thing, a good example would be, you can get an amazing engineer who would work for a large corporation and he would be just one gear in that big machine and he used to have all bells and whistles around how he works, a bunch of quality engineers that will test what he's doing, there's a certain process, and he thrives in that environment. If I take that amazing engineer with a lot of experience and put him in a startup, he's going to most likely miserably fail, now he has to do way more things, much quicker, sometimes changing processes and he will not be able to navigate and adapt quickly.

For us, it's vital to find the right match and find the right talent to feed the team dynamics, so when we do interviews with our clients, the People's Ops team, my team does interviews with clients to understand what type of people work together on their side? What's their psychological profile? How they like to work? How they like to communicate? What are the processes? What are the meeting schedules? What are the tools? We get all that information and then find somebody who is comfortable working within this environment while matching the skill sets. All we need to do is to find a person who would thrive in that environment. Who's passionate about that project, that team, that language and once you put the right person in the right place, it just magic happens. They’re all happy, they want to do what they're doing, they enjoy doing it, they're getting good feedback, we're getting good feedback, everybody is happy so people are staying longer within companies, because they value good management.

I also have a management style that I've adopted a while ago, which I called a reverse pyramid. I'm at the very bottom of this reverse pyramid and my job is not to tell from top down, but my job is to support people from the bottom up and my first question to my direct, the direct employees is what can I do to make you more successful? What can I do to make your life easier? And I'm here to work for you to serve you and remove barriers for you to thrive and I encourage them to do the same up the pyramid and they feel, and they feed off of that. They feel that responsibility and trust and just being a human and be being a good supportive manager, not even a manager, it's a different word. I don't manage them, being a good supporter, I'd say, and that goes throughout the whole company. I think that's what keeps the retention rates high. We also, just to brag a little bit about that, we had three people last month return to the company, the ones that left a year ago. They came back.

Ethan: That's awesome.

Annaka: Yeah. Dang.

Ethan: All right. I want to take it back to the very beginning, even before Genium. In your company profile, you mentioned a story about being 18 and seeing a friend running a successful business, and you made yourself a promise that day. It seems like that was a catalyst for your move to Silicon Valley and launching your first company before you turned 25 so tell me more about that. What was the goal that you set yourself? What was your mindset at that time and how did you make it happen?

Alex Iceman: That's a great question. When I started working as a hockey official, and I started when I was 16, so at the age of 18, I've already worked for three years and I had some experience, and as an official, you don't really go to an office. You have assignments, you travel there, you work a hockey game, you do something that you really like and then you work on your own schedule around the games, it's not a typical job. At the age of 18, I saw my friend and his dad working on a... Building a successful company, and to me success was a different measure at that time. They had a store where they would sell RC toys and they were more... But specific, professional helicopters, airplanes and specific radio controlled stuff for niche audiences.

They were successful at it and they had fun now and I saw all that. They were very passionate, they had fun, they worked on their own schedule, they drove a nice car and I thought to myself, "Wow, I really would enjoy that lifestyle, especially being a hockey referee. I didn't want to go and work for somebody else. I just wanted to continue that vibe." And I made a promise to myself and he was, I think he was 26 or 27 at that time, my friend, he was a little over 25 and I said, "I want to beat him and I want to open my company when I'm 25, not older." And I did open my first company when I was 25, so I did open my first LLC at age of 25.

Ethan: Nice. That's awesome. It's nice to have a little bit of friendly competition.

Alex Iceman: Athletes, we compete and that's in our nature.

Ethan: Yeah. Let's talk about that for a second. You have been a hockey referee for quite some time, am I right that you still ref games?

Alex Iceman: Yes. I'm still a professional referee working for the American Hockey League and its affiliate clubs of NHL and I constantly skate with NHL players that are just up and coming and NHL referees that are up and coming to work at a show.

Ethan: All right. I've never been more jealous in doing this podcast. Hockey's my sport, I'm from Missouri originally so I am a lifelong Blues fan. Which has been painful for many years and then pretty good the past few years and you refuse to tell me your favorite team, which is good because we want to keep this-

Annaka: We're all friends right now.

Ethan: Podcast friendly. I know Annaka's a Red Wings fan. Which team strives.

Alex Iceman: People forget about referees and I cheer for them. They don't have it easy. There's not a lot of people cheering for them, so I do cheer for them and we have four of them on the ice and we have a bunch of them off the ice, which people don't realize, but more than 12, 15 officials off the ice helping the crew on the ice. It's a big sizable team that we cheer for.

Annaka: And those guys get hit just as often for doing literally nothing wrong. I'm like, "Don't."

Alex Iceman: It's part of the job.

Annaka: I'm like, "Watch your back." It always scares me.

Ethan: So, a guy who's as smart and as busy as you are, I don't assume you're going to continue doing this type of activity just because it's something that you like. I assume you're getting something out of it. What do you think that being a referee for so many years has taught you about business?

Alex Iceman: First of all, I love hockey and I've been doing that for many years and it's part of my life. It's part of my routine and that's who I am. I like routines and I like to be strict about the schedule and preparation, and I think a lot of it helped me to be a successful entrepreneur is routine and work ethics and that's what you get as an athlete or as a professional referee. You have to work on your own, you have to push yourself almost every day to work out or learn rules and do certain things. What I find, I started to find a lot of similarities with professional hockey and running a business is every hockey game for me is almost an intense situation with either clients or business, et cetera. You manage high emotions on one side and the other for both teams and you have adults, they have a common goal and they try to play for a buck and there's high emotions, and you manage those emotions.

You want to make sure everything is fair and everybody is getting value. Spectators are getting value, teams are getting value, they trust you, they trust that you do your job right and protect the players and protect the game so it's all fair. I find a lot of similarities with business, whether it's negotiation, when you have to negotiate with a heated coach and he's yelling at you or he has high emotions and you have to manage those emotions, same with clients or employees or anybody else in that sense.

I just find that it's very elevated for me and every game is a challenge that I'm looking forward to, just to practice my skills and apply all that I know to have my values on the ice, which is being fair, safety first and just have fun and provide the same environment for all the hockey players. And the same thing in business, once they step off the ice, when I have a meeting, I want to make sure that it's fair and hear what the other person has to say and we all have a good laugh or a good mood after the conversation. Just in general, helping people and helping them on the ice, off the ice, whether it's clients, hockey players, your fellow officials, coaches, I think find a lot of similarities in that.

Annaka: Well, and hockey gets heated. A lot of sports get heated so I think the emotional regulation of being able to de-escalate, bring everyone back to a baseline. I think we all need some help in that.

Alex Iceman: Absolutely. And be a little bit of a showman too. In business you got to learn how to do that too. Sometimes you have to sell things a little bit harder than the other times, and that's, selling is also part of the process on the ice.

Annaka: Yeah, exactly. Wow. Now, I have so many book ideas now. It's like, "Okay, The parallels between hockey referees and CEOs." It'll be the next best seller.

Ethan: That's a series of books right there.

Annaka: Yeah. We can even branch out into soccer and stuff after.

Ethan: Sure.

Annaka: All right. Okay. We've talked about hockey before the interview actually started, we talked about your background in music and composing. You're also an investor and an advisor at Blue Startups. How do you balance all of this and then a company?

Alex Iceman: It's a great question. I think, and I've analyzed myself how I've gotten to that point and I'm able to still do everything at a such high level, and I have to sit down and think through what are the success factors for me? I find a few key things that I do consistently to keep up with everything. First, I have to be a student of my calendar. I constantly look at my calendar and see how I can improve things and how I can make it more efficient and then I look at ways how to make it more efficient. First of all, geography, my house is very close to my office, it's close to the airport I fly airplanes off of, it's literally 15 minutes to my office, 15 minutes to the airport. It's about 25 to 30 minutes to the closest NHL arena where I do a lot of work.

I have a sound recording studio where I compose right at my house so I would, and more importantly, it's always on. It's always on, no matter what time of the day it is, sometimes if I have an inspiration and I have an extra half an hour, I just step in, sit down and start composing, it's always on. That's one of the things that I have to do, everything has to be on. Same thing with my gym. My gym is at my house and it's a specific gym for hockey training so I have certain tools and stick handling and treadmills and a couple of bikes and sliding board specifically geared towards hockey. I also try to exercise every day, stretching is important so I adjust the geography.

Then I have my priorities, so obviously business takes a lot of my time and it's a priority for my clients, it's a priority, my employees are priority. Then hockey, you cannot move hockey games, right? You cannot call and say, "Hey, move hockey games." Obviously, once I get my schedule for hockey, that's when scheduling for everything else happens for business meetings, for my travels. I typically travel outside of the United States in the season break so once the season stops somewhere in June through August, I would do all my international travels. I would go to Argentina for a month, go to Europe to do some business meetings there and come back, because the preparation and training starts and mostly once the season starts, it's all the same routine. You get ready, you prepare, you go to a game, you do a game, come back, you do meetings and it's all really a student of my calendar and geography optimization and everything has to be on.

For work, I have the workstation set up. My phone is a really good tool for me, I've set up my phone that I can do almost every task that I need to do on my phone and that helps a lot, because I'm mobile and I can, even during the workout on the ice, I can pull out my phone and reply to certain emails and make certain decisions, sometimes even make a call right being on the ice. That's part of the job, that's part of who I am and sometimes clients and vendors understand that and I can just do a call without a video and say, "Hey, I don't have a video. I'm right on the ice right now. How can I be a service? How can I help?" I think those things really resonate and work ethics. Work ethics, you optimize things all around and I use Pareto rule, which is 80/20 rule, 20% of efforts give you 80% of results and I always find those 20% that would give me 80% of the outcome. That's how I manage my calendar and my activities.

Annaka: Yeah. I have had the conversation with people where they're like, "How do you just do so much?" And I'm like, "There are some things that are non-negotiables. They keep me grounded  and sane." And it sounds like a lot of that's very similar to you.

Alex Iceman: And having a good team all around. I have coaches and trainers for hockey that work on my skating, on my physics. I had a memory coach that helped me with rules, memorization and players memorization. My wife is a tremendous help and my parents and my brothers and my family is all supportive and in business, I also have multiple coaches helping me as well. One thing that entrepreneurs don't realize is that we are athletes as well, we're competing for the market, we're competing for customers, we're competing against other competitors and we need coaches. Every professional athlete, no matter if you're an NHL superstar or a tennis player, they have coaches. They have coaches, they don't do anything except observe what you do and suggest the right strategy. Sometimes you're getting so worked out, you don't see a broader picture and you need those people in your life and I have them in every aspect of my life and they help a lot.

Annaka: Speaking of coaches, you just set me up for this one perfectly, because you are a startup advisor. How did you get into that and what areas do you advise on specifically?

Alex Iceman: I've gotten into that a while ago by a referral. A friend of mine, he was involved with Blue Startups and they were looking, at the time, for a tech mentor who understands technology, software, mobile apps, websites, back ends, et cetera and has the business side of it, who can understand both technical and business aspects of the challenge. They've invited me in and said, "Would you be open to be a mentor at Blue Startups?" And we met up and became a mentor. They run this program every year and they select a handful of startups that go through that program and every year we meet up with them and I provide my knowledge, wisdom and on multiple things, first, a lot of the questions come from scalability. If my architecture and software architecture is right, will it scale? Will it work? Can you look at it or can you suggest the certain tools or servers technologies, how we should build this? And I would advise them on that.

The other important aspect is team building. How do I build my engineering team? How do I... Where do I start? Who do I hire? Do I hire a CTO or I hire an engineer? Where do I hire them? What is the budget? How do I do all that? And a lot of the startups have the same question and they would come to me and I would analyze where they are, what they have, what the goals are and then suggest them based on my experience, how to make it happen. I've gone through over, probably 80 startups in my career and I see what works and what doesn't work in specific marketing conditions in specific industry so I'm able to advise them on the right structure.

And then also, recently more and more people are asking about business, about sales as well, how do we set up sales? How do we do... How it all works. A lot of the entrepreneurs, they one man shop, they do a lot of things themselves and sometimes I just help to prioritize where you should put your eggs in which basket to grow faster. Those are the areas that I help out a lot and specifically at Blue Startups, but I'm happy to, a lot of startups just reach out in Silicon Valley through networking and they would ask those questions and for advice.

Ethan: Blue Startups is an accelerator, they're in Silicon Valley, correct?

Alex Iceman: They're in Hawaii actually so they're based off of Hawaii and they're promises east meets west. They combine Asian market startups and Silicon Valley startups right in that region and investment line as well for those startups. They do come to San Francisco once a year, they have a working session for, I believe two weeks and that's where we all meet up and get through all that stuff. Some typically go to San Francisco, drive up and that's where we would meet up with them.

Ethan: Gotcha. There's a few accelerators out there that are big names that lots and lots of people have heard of like Y Combinator, Techstars, but I'm sure that all accelerators are not built equally. If I'm a new founder, how would you advise me on making the decision to join an accelerator and also to vet them and ensure that they're a good fit for the company that I'm running?

Alex Iceman: That's a great question. I think first, you have to realize who you are, what you're building and what your goal is, and then look at the profile of companies that specifically applying for that accelerator. If you're looking at Y Combinator, you have to get in, you have to pitch your ideas so it's not like you want to get in there and they just get in. They take a specific profile of companies, so if you want to get in there, you have to be a specific profile that they would like, and enjoy the right structure. I think to me, I've never been a part of the Combinator, I would go there if I don't have a team yet and I don't have financial strength and knowledge to navigate the new market, that's why I would go there for that community and for that help. A lot of people just don't know where to start and that's a good starting point.

Many different Combinators, I think you should really focus on the one that complements something that you're missing, if you're missing technical co-foundership, there are certain things that help you with this certain accelerator programs that help you with this, if it's sales, marketing, there's also that part. Some people really struggle with structure. I am a self-starter so I can work anywhere, anytime and I don't really need a motivation to work and produce results. Some people need a structure, they need to go to an office, they need to have a group of people around them and sometimes certain programs offer that. You go into a specific building and you collaborate, you brainstorm and be part of the group that keeps you accountable.

It really depends on the needs, the goals, the exit strategy, the growth speed, the financials that you have. If you don't have anything, just go in somewhere where they can give you some money and advice on how to grow or build a prototype or again, complement your weak points and right now there's all different Combinators and programs you can get. Blue startups for example, they specifically focus on half of it on local Hawaiian startups and half of it east meets west, so people from companies from Asia or from California as well come in, but they also have this local presence for supporting Hawaiian startup ecosystem. Which have grown and since the pandemic, a lot of engineers have moved to Hawaii and started working remotely off of Hawaii.

Ethan: Sounds enjoyable.

Annaka: Sounds like I need to move somewhere with a beach.

Ethan: Are you just trying to escape?

Annaka: Kind of.

Ethan: All right. I want to talk about an incident that happened early on in your first company. Essentially one of your major clients got themselves into a bad spot, went underwater, and then they weren't able to pay their invoices to you for more than $300,000. Obviously, this is a pretty dark situation for any young company, but maybe it was an even bigger deal since it was your first company Iceman Softwares and that you were self-funded. Can you tell us a little bit about your mindset at the time and how you were able to dig yourself out of that hole?

Alex Iceman: Oh yeah. That's one of those stories when people say, "Hey, I went bankrupt and I..." Those are one of the darkest moments and when I reflect on it, it was a really tough challenge for me. The first time I faced this, I didn't have any help, I didn't have any coaches at that time, I was just starting out as an entrepreneur and I had to figure things out on my own and figure this out on my own. The situation happened, it was a large deal and a large client and they just couldn't close the next round of funding and they paid for us for a year and a half, no problem, pretty big ticket items, a hundred thousand a month. Everything was really, really good and then essentially they couldn't raise a round and they halted operations, but they didn't tell us up until month three and they were already late on the previous two invoices, and obviously the last one came in and that totaled right around 300.

It was devastating, because I had to pay salaries for three months, I had to finance that and I also had to pay all the taxes, the insurances, the office, all the expenses and it was a big client. I didn't know what to do so really I had to figure things out and number one, I sat down and thought, "What are my priorities? What am I doing?" And I didn't have a lot of clients at that time, we only had three clients and was a major client and we had two minor clients, so we had a little bit of mine coming in, it's not like we're completely done, but this was a pretty major contract.

I sat down and started thinking through my priorities and the first priority for me, it was to take care of my people. I was like, "All right, no matter what, we're taking care of my people." I promised to pay, I paid everything to everybody on my team and that was number one priority. I cut down my salary and then I took three loans to cover the payrolls, just the credit card payments that I went on, because I was already short for quite some time as they weren't paying for the last three months and they'd never had a problem and we didn't know that they had troubles. They raised over $30 million in the span of the whole life cycle of the company so I didn't have any red flags and I did look for a while, for run unfortunately at that time.

I took a lot of loans and I just paid off one loan seven years later last year. It was pretty devastating, but I was able to keep the guys on the team for quite some time. I gave them two months runway extra time to find another job. We kept half of the team and half of the team had to find another job and I said, "Look, you can stay for two months. We can just work on whatever we have, but past two months I will not have an extra budget for you to stay, so you have two months to find another job." They were able to find it much quicker, because engineers probably in high demand, but I too, I did everything I could to take care of the people so that was number one priority. Moving forward, the long story short, if your client stops paying you should really consider stop working right away and that's something that, or at least minimize the cost that you are burying, is-

Ethan: You mean stop working with that company right away?

Alex Iceman: Not with that company but dial down on the expenses you are occurring, because you have to think that you probably were not going to get that money for a long period of time. What are the options? What are your options? And you can be open with your client and say, "Hey, I'm in this position where I will not be able to support my team and what they're doing if we're not getting funds, and I understand that you might be going through a tough time. I think the best decision would be for us to just pause for now until we get the funds, because I do want to take care of people. I do want to make sure they're set up for success and they have full transparency." And you can have that honest conversation with your client and see what they say and how they want to do that because sometimes they say, "Hey, I don't have that much, but we can dial it down a little bit and just keep the guys on payrolls."

You can figure things out. You can negotiate in the best interest of the people, because once you take care of people, they take care of you and they take care of the product and the clients. I've gone through that situation, I supported them for a couple of months and they've all found jobs. I felt much better, but then I had to pay those almost $300,000 worth of loans over the span of five years. I've got business loans, I've got extra credit cards, lines of credits. I've got quite a few of them.

Guess what, I started working more in sales. I started selling more, started reaching out, doing more networking, connections, just getting more business and eventually I paid it off. Started getting more and more meat back and made a promise to myself that we always take money first in advance and then just continue working every month. It's never do work, invoice and then wait for payment. It's the money first and then work next, and that's my motto that protects my people and people that have families and it's there to protect them and the community that I feel responsible for.

Ethan: It goes back to sports, the you work more, the best defense is a great offense. You can set yourself up to weather the storm as long as you've got plenty of work to weather the storm.

Alex Iceman: Trust the process, help people, genuinely help people and that's what I've been doing. It's not even sales, it's really talking to a person that needs help and then if I can help, I really go all in, build that partnership relationship, which is trust and supportiveness on both sides and I would just, not blindly, but I would throw myself at this problem and I would go all in to help and solve that and that's what I would expect for my vendors and partners to do for me, and I'd do the same for them. People don't realize when, right now some people say there's an economical recession coming in. I think it's a great opportunity to work even more and set yourself up for greater success, because once you're at the bottom, the only way is way up. There's nowhere to go deeper, it's just up from there. Just work hard.

Annaka: Yeah. Dang. That's just such a good story, because I would not, I know myself, I would fall into a pit of despair before doing any of those things that you did. There's a reason that-

Ethan: First step, freak out.

Annaka: There's a reason that I'm a podcast host and not a founder. What is your number one piece of advice for early stage entrepreneurs?

Alex Iceman: Ask for help and learn how to ask for help. I didn't ask for enough help. Didn't reach out to enough people just to ask advice or help, whatever it is. I think that's important and I've over overlooked that fact and I started asking for more help later on and that helped to accelerate the business and not just business, every aspect of my life, ask for help. For small companies, the number one rule for business is stay in business. As simple as it sounds, stay in business and then everything will come naturally.

Ethan: Short and sweet. We love it, Alex, this has been really awesome. We really appreciate your stories, your insights. I think there are a ton of actionable takeaways for young founders, small businesses and people that just are ready to get started. We have one more question for you and that is how can our listeners support Genium?

Alex Iceman: That's a great question, I think for us, we've been very successful with the really good client pipeline and we're selective about what projects we work on and very excited. I personally learned that helping is very important to my life and just the way I operate so if anybody out there needs help or advice or going through a tough time or just don't know how to scale or have software questions, please feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn or Instagram, very active, I'll be happy to help. It takes a few seconds to reply and give my thoughts but it might change somebody else's life and ask for help and I'm here to help and provide that support and my knowledge.

Ethan: Awesome. We'll put those links and everything else in the show notes and thanks Alex again for stopping by, and that is going to be all for this episode of the Startup Savants Podcast. Thanks everybody for hanging out with us so listeners, I'm going to switch it up a little today. Normally I would ask for a review on Apple Podcast, but today I am not going to do that. No, instead, drum roll please. I'm going to ask you for a rating on Spotify, so different, right?

We're seeing more and more awesome people subscribing and listening on Spotify, so we want to make it easier for other business line... So we want to make it easier for other business minded folks, just like you to find us over on that platform and bonus Spotify makes rating podcasts so much simpler than Apple. All you have to do is find the Startup Savants page, look to the left below the image of our beautiful faces and tap the rating button, so thank you very much for your support on Spotify. For tools, guides, videos, startup stories and so much more, head over to truic.com. That's truic.com, T-R-U-I-C.com. See you folks.

Annaka: Bye.

Expand to view full transcript

Tell Us Your Startup Story

Are you a startup founder and want to share your entrepreneurial journey with our readers? Click below to contact us today!

Request an Interview

More on Genium

Founder of Genium.

Founder of Tech Startup Genium Shares Their Top Insights

Alex Iceman, founder of tech startup Genium, shared valuable insights during our interview that will inspire and motivate aspiring entrepreneurs.

Read More

Genium logo.

Genium Company Profile

Genium is an innovative startup dedicated to connecting companies with world-class engineers, security experts, and developers.

Read More

Genium logo over people working in an office.

How Genium Is Enabling Business Growth in a Fast-Paced Technological Landscape

Genium is an innovative startup dedicated to connecting companies with world-class engineers, security experts, and developers.

Read More