Steve O’Dell is a social entrepreneur and activist. He co-founded multiple companies including The Odd Job Brothers, KOTU Inc, Iliad Tech, Tenzo Tea, ACCESS and Ad Valorum. In terms of schooling, Steve briefly attended UCLA before deciding to leave to explore exciting entrepreneurial opportunities.
While at UCLA Steve played volleyball, wrote op-eds for the Daily Bruin, and enjoyed time with friends. Going back further, Steve attended a Jesuit Catholic school in Rochester, New York, which is also his hometown. He loves reading, writing, going for walks, learning, and most recently, coding stylish websites. He also maintains a blog on social entrepreneurship.
In this interview, Steve shares how he took calculated risks to venture into social entrepreneurship. He shares a bit about his two businesses, their processes, and why they're unique and ahead in their industries. He and his team believe in the process of iteration and the iteration cycle — things that keep them grounded.
His advice for entrepreneurs starting a business in California:
Network, take advantage of the people; Culture, California is a global cultural leader. It’s important to recognize and play off it’s strengths; and last, befriend talented people. Skilled entrepreneurs are always looking to connect, so go meet them!
So, Steve what’s your favorite part of being an entrepreneur and why?
There’s a lot of good things about entrepreneurship. Specifically though, working, learning and talking with people are a few of my favorites. I’m lucky that entrepreneurship is filled with the things I enjoy. Each day, I find fulfillment in my work, learn new things, and have the honor of meeting great people. I’m lucky.
As my career as an entrepreneur has progressed, I’ve begun to find more and more satisfaction with the social aspect of entrepreneurship. I’m not interested in building one-off mobile apps or a new piece of enterprise software. I’d rather make the terms “entrepreneur” and “social-entrepreneur” synonymous, instead.
How did you get started? Was there an ‘aha moment’?
I got started with entrepreneurship in the summer of 2014 while taking a summer class at UCLA called, “Entrepreneurial Communication” with Dr. Stephen Peterson, PhD. On the first day of class we listened to a speech by Simon Sinek, called “Selling with the Why”, this really sucked me into the class and beyond. When it finished, I was already calling myself an entrepreneur.
I wouldn’t necessarily qualify this as an ‘aha’ moment because it was more gradual, I didn’t sleep with entrepreneurship on the first date. But, I did explore and learn. I found that a lot of the skills I developed as an athlete translated perfectly to entrepreneurship. Hard work, leadership, strategy, and even things as random as contingency plans all applied to startups as well as athletics.
How did ACCESS and Tenzo Tea get off the ground? Did you bootstrap them?
Tenzo Tea wasn't bootstrapped. Fortunately, by the time I was trying to get it off the ground, my partner and I already had a network built to the point where we could raise a seed round before developing a tangible product.
ACCESS is bootstrapped. We're selling T-shirts and doing other guerilla marketing techniques in order to raise money for our gala, where we plan to raise between 50-100k.
Despite each company's different tactics, bootstrapping is an essential skill for entrepreneurs - especially when starting your first company. It’s practically impossible to raise capital because you’re unproven and startups are risky. Bootstrapping is your first challenge as an entrepreneur. It proves you’re a creative thinker and skilled at handling and generating capital. And for all the aspiring entrepreneurs, if you do a good enough job bootstrapping, you’ll only need to do it once.
What roadblocks did ACCESS and Tenzo Tea face initially and how did you overcome them?
Tenzo is relatively simple. But, there have been challenges related to hiring and the business model. We were much too diversified in the beginning. Instead of doing a few things really well, we did a lot of stuff okay. Let me be the first and last to tell you - average work does not grow a business.
The Tenzo Team believes in the process of “iteration” and the “iteration cycle”. From top to bottom, no process in the company is perfect. We can always get more information or become more skilled in order to make better decisions and work more efficiently. This philosophy of iteration is all geared toward providing the best drinking experience in the world.
ACCESS is different because the staff isn't paid. It’s run completely on volunteers. All the board members, advisors, and day to day managers work for free. In the beginning, it was difficult to get work finished because it’s not practical for everyone to spend significant amounts of time working on something with no financial return. Gotta keep the lights on. Although, I have to say that because of our great team, everyone has bought into the mission so this isn’t too much of an issue anymore.
What’s been your most epic moment so far as an entrepreneur?
Dropping out of UCLA was by far my most epic moment as an entrepreneur, and in my life as a whole. It was an extremely challenging experience all the way from bootstrapping multiple companies to explaining at family parties why you dropped out of one of the best public universities in the world.
It was a risky situation, but that’s what entrepreneurship is about, taking calculated risks. It is absolutely essential to take risks in order to achieve great things. In fact, you can bet that everyone who's achieved anything truly great took a calculated risk to get there. By dropping out, I placed the risk square on my shoulders. This was a calculated risk, I felt comfortable betting on myself. I either had to succeed, or I’d be an unemployed dropout... and that’d be even harder to explain at family parties.
What makes ACCESS and Tenzo Tea unique and how did you find your niche?
Tenzo Tea is unique because we embrace a lot more than the typical tea company. We are the Matcha Men. We’re essentially one big Tenzo Communitea whose adopted the Tenzo lifestyle. It’s more than matcha - it’s about leading a healthy life, and providing your body with the nutrients it needs to do that.
ACCESS is unique because we are the first diversified group of young adults to tackle higher education head on. I say this because there are a lot of groups that do this or that for higher education. But it’s not everyday you hold a board meeting with people of all different skin tones, operating together towards a common goal. Our diversity is our niche.
What’s interesting about both companies is that the niche was planned prior to the formation of the actual business. You can either spend time crafting your niche slowly through experimentation and testing, or you can plan carefully and decide before you begin. Experimentation is good, but you’ll save a lot of time if you can plan ahead.
This is a big one, how do you balance your personal/professional time?
I find balance (and happiness) by intertwining the two. I live with two of my best friends, Robbie Page and Dan Glamack. But, we also work together, travel the world together, and meet great people together. That’s pretty awesome. My parents are the first people I call when something exciting happens and of course, they’re avid matcha drinkers as well.
I think it’s a big mistake to completely separate these parts of your life. It’s not like you’re one person at work and another at home. You’re always the same. This might not work for some people, but if you can be realistic with your personal and professional needs then be realistic and don’t let one affect the other.
What’s your greatest fear as a brand owner?
A terminal error. I’m paranoid that something could happen and completely crush one of the companies. I like to think I’m doing everything possible to protect and secure the future success of them all, but you can never be 100% sure. As long as I don’t end up like Rockefeller I’ll be okay—a little paranoia is healthy.
Can you explain how your personal mindset influences your life and business?
I am a firm believer in the “growth mindset”. I believe anyone can improve at anything. Obviously, not everyone can be the best at everything. It’s always important to remain realistic with your goals, but rest assured knowing you can always be doing a little (or a lot) better.
The same goes for business. We’re never perfect. And more generally, no matter how “good” you think you are, you can always be better. After all, denial is the silent killer of startups. I like to believe that you’re only as good as your sales numbers!
What are your top 3 bits of advice for starting a business in California?
- Network - Take advantage of the people. There is a lot of culture and pizazz out here. There’s a lot of opportunity, too. Take advantage of it! Go to events, coffee shops, talk with people, etc. California is a great place to start and get the word out about a new business.
- Culture - One of the most famous words in the world sits high on Mount Lee in big bold letters. It reads, “Hollywood” - California is a global cultural leader. It’s important to recognize and play off it’s strengths.
- Befriend Talented People - There are smart and skilled people nearby. We have Silicon Valley of course, and now the newly minted, Silicon Beach. Skilled entrepreneurs are always looking to connect, so go meet them!
One of the best parts about Startup Savant is their commitment to helping children all over the country receive the resources necessary to excel in the classroom.
Startup Savant helps thousands of students each year, and for this campaign, Ryan and I have agreed to partner with the "Stand and Learn Campaign" from a classroom in Fairport, New York.
My Brother, John O'Dell is the teacher behind this campaign. He has dedicated his life to educating the youth. We're here to help him achieve his mission and let students stand up and learn for themselves.
Help kids stand today! Visit Startup Savant's Impact page.