“I've gotten really good
at saying, ‘Weather
the storm, and this
thing is going to
come out on top.’”
John Rondi, founder and CEO at Stunited
John Rondi is the founder and CEO at Stunited, a social networking app that connects students in need of tutoring based on their academic strengths and weaknesses. Here he talks about how to brace for moments of uncomfortable feedback, and the misconceptions about the entrepreneurial struggle.
What was your initial vision for Stunited?
I was a sophomore in college one night. I went to Rowan University, and I was up trying to write a paper. It was like 2:00 in the morning, and at this point I really couldn't find the help that I was looking for. My professor obviously wasn't answering her emails. I couldn't find help online and really couldn't afford a tutor. So what I did was I reached out to my friend from across the hall and explained to her this whole situation I was in. She happened to not be so good at math, which I was pretty good at the time. So I said to her: "Listen, help me revise this essay, and in return I'll tutor you in your algebra class." She loved this whole idea of academic bartering and getting the help that she needed in exchange for helping me out, and I loved the idea for the same reason. Then it wasn't really long until I started making a business out of this, and realized that I'm not the only student thinking like this.
What drew you to that vision on a personal level?
I had a personal need. I went out to actually look for the solution. I tried to look in the app store or for a website, and it just wasn't there. And I realized that my first instinct was to either go directly to a friend or go on social media and try to find that help, so why not have a niche base social media that's sort of bridging the gap between what we're already on and education? Our whole little slogan is that we bridge the gap between education and social media.
Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur?
In the beginning, there really is no fear. You kind of just take a fun little idea and you're getting some good feedback from your friends and your family and people that you're talking to. For me especially, because the idea and concept just makes so much sense to everyone that I'm speaking to, there was no negative criticism. So initially, I had a ton of support. We had a really great launch party, which we had like 350 students come out to, and it was a great time. So I was coming in like I'm going be the next Mark Zuckerberg. [Laughs]
I really didn't have that fear yet because it was all fake. It was almost like my imagination, and then reality sort of hits you. I feel like that's where the fear starts coming in, when it's like month three, four, five, and six, and things aren't happening as fast as you'd like them to or the way that you pictured them.
What has been your biggest struggle in founding Stunited?
I was getting a ton of great feedback and support and downloads—everything to my face was great. I had kids coming up to me at school and saying, "Oh, you’re that Stunited kid. I love that app. I downloaded it." But the actual app metrics—as in the usage and the amount of students actually connecting with each other—just weren't matching up. So I knew that people were coming at me with a fake response to my face to make me feel good. That was really hard to deal with because, at the same time, you don't want to admit that [disconnect] to the world. When someone says, "Hey, your app's doing really well," your first response is going be like, "Yeah, it's going great. Thank you for your support and feedback."
It's really hard for me to say, “Well, if you love it so much, why aren't you using the app? Have you used the app yet?” You don't even want to ask that question because the response could be negative. They say to me, “Oh, no. I haven't gotten to it.” They start making excuses. I don't want to hear that. It's going to create an awkward situation. I guess the hardest struggle for me was to break down my ego and just say, “I don't care what people say. I need to learn from this feedback.” Nowadays I don't care. Like, if you tell me, “Hey, I love the app,” I'm going to tell you to your face: “Thank you for your support. How can the app improve?”
What has been the greatest triumph in your founder’s journey so far?
Just sticking with it when even I thought this wasn't going to work, or other people thought it wasn't going to work. I've learned it's all about patience. I can have the most passion, the most charisma, and have these skills that I need to be a founder and this app could have worked and went really well. But if I didn't have the patience to make sure this thing lasts and if I quit when I thought this was going to end, then I wouldn't have reaped the benefits of seeing this thing really come into fruition. I pride myself on sticking with it when everything else sort of went down. It's funny, like every time that something negative happens, I tell myself, “Okay, I have one of two options: I can either stop right now, or I can keep going.” And every time I tell myself I'm going to keep going, something really good happens. So I don't know if there's one specific achievement, but I feel like I've gotten really good at just saying, “Weather the storm, and this thing is going to come out on top.”
“I haven't been at this
for too long, but I try to
give as much knowledge
as I do have to as many
people as I can.”
John Rondi, founder and CEO at Stunited
What has been your greatest sacrifice?
I think there's the portrayal of entrepreneurship online and social media and things like that. Everyone wants to make you feel like it's such a hard thing to do. You have to work 24/7. You have to sacrifice your life, your family, and your friends. There's such an extreme nowadays because people want to make themselves feel so good and that, just because they're an entrepreneur, they're better than everybody else. I don't believe that. If you have a passion and you have something that really is solving a problem and you enjoy doing it, this should be fun for you.
The other thing is, this thing is on 24/7. My mind is always on Stunited. I'm not ever on the computer for 24 hours straight or doing something specifically that long, but Stunited is always on my mind. I don't ever get the break to say, “Okay, I'm going to go on vacation,” or “I'm going to go out tonight and just forget everything and have a great time.” That sometimes is really hard to do, especially when things aren't going well. You'll have a great time for about five minutes. It’s funny, like I'll sit at the bar sometimes and I'll grab a drink. I'll be sitting there and then I'll think about the business, and when things aren't going well I'll sit there, depressed. I'm like, “Why am I even here? I should be home doing something, and trying to make this thing better.” There are times when that weighs on you. I think growing as an entrepreneur is being able to go out for an hour or so, whether you're in the gym or you're enjoying time with your family. In that hour, it's not going to make or break your company. Try to relax and have fun with it.
Was there anyone in your life who tried to dissuade you from becoming an entrepreneur?
Absolutely. Actually, I just met somebody the other day—he runs a startup accelerator—and the first thing he said to me was, “Listen, I will never tell an entrepreneur whether or not your idea is going to make it because if that was my job, I wouldn't last too long.” Every great idea has had people tell them thousands of times that this isn't going to work. So when someone says that to me, I’m like, you can't predict the future. Maybe you can try to steer me in the right direction by saying, “Hey, I think what you're doing right now may not work, but try to pivot in this route.” I'll look at it through that light and that perspective, but for someone say to you, “This isn't going to work. You should probably give up now.”—I'm discrediting everything you're saying.
Now when my parents or someone tells me, “Hey, at the end of the day this could have been a great learning experience and you can write this on your résumé and you can get a job,” I understand where it's coming from. My family and my friends just want me to be okay. My mom and my dad don't ever want to see me fail, so it's hard for them when they see me go through these hard times. They say, “Maybe you can just go get a job,” and, “I have this person who wants to interview you,” and things like that. I know it's coming from all love. And if it's not coming from love, I usually don't listen to it.
Is there anyone in your personal life who has been a constant source of support?
They say it all the time where like, people want to see you succeed, but not better than them. So with my friends, I try to stay very low key. I don't tell them what's going on with my business or how great today went because, number one, I know they don't care. Number two, the jealousy sort of thing. I don't want people to think that I think I'm above everybody else because I'm doing what I'm doing. They see me living this life that they're not living and—I mean, I'm not even talking like monetary lifestyle. I'm talking about like, where I can wake up when I want to, or there are specific dates where they're at work and I'm at home on a computer. I already sense that sort of jealousy, and I don't want that to ever happen.
But my mom, like anything I say and do is fantastic [to her]. She gets so upset when things go wrong. She starts hating on the person I was speaking to that didn't give me the right response. But any time an inkling of success happens, she's the first one to be so excited about it. She's been there since day one, really helping me out in terms of support. And my dad, too—my dad is always there. They want to see me succeed sometimes I think more than I do. I'm lucky and fortunate enough to have that sort of support system in my life.
What does your work-life balance look like?
I'm not a structured person at all, but I think the best thing to do with a startup company is try to be as organized and prepared as possible. I could try to schedule out a week, and it just never works out the way you expect it to. So I'm prepared and I know that I can go into a meeting in 10 minutes right now and I'll crush it, just because I have everything in line and everything in place. I try to wake up as early as I possibly can. I try to go to sleep as early as I possibly can, just because I never know when a meeting is going to arise. With education, the sales cycle to a school is extremely long. People like to pass things off to the next person. Anything to add extra work is sort of like a nuisance, and they may not see the overall picture of how this is going to benefit their school. You have to really find those innovators at the school who see where this thing can go and how it's really going to provide some benefit. So when that specific person says, “Hey, I can only meet right now,” or “I can only meet at this time on this date,” I say yes every time. I'll drop everything that we're doing and make sure that I can schedule my day around that.
Did you ever come close to giving up?
Oh my God, that's like every day. Any entrepreneur that says that's not a thought that goes in your mind—it's more rare to not have that thought pop up in the day. Every day, you always have that little voice. The way I describe it is, the voice gets quieter and quieter. In the very beginning when something happens negatively to you or your business, that voice carries on for days on end. You wake up depressed and you're like, “What am I really doing? Why don't I go get a job? I'm wasting too much time.” Nowadays when I hear that voice, it lasts maybe seconds and I can really shut that out and say I'm not listening to it. My whole thought process is that success is inevitable to me. If I wait this thing out and I make sure I'm doing the right things, it's going to happen. I almost like to take those negative thoughts head-on and embrace them and understand that they're going to come and they're going to go.
What would make you feel as though you accomplished what you set out to do with Stunited?
To become something that I feel allows every student—regardless of your race, your gender, your ethnicity, your income—to have the same opportunity as everybody else. So like, if I'm a low-income student from the projects or whatever it is, I can leverage the skills of an MIT student. They may not have ever gotten that chance to speak to that kid [from MIT] for whatever reason, and now, because of my app, they’re allowed an even playing field. I think that's such a great thing to offer the world. Why not leverage the technology that we have to really help people learn and learn together?
I also want to make learning cool again. Right now, everyone sits in a college classroom and it's cool to slouch and it's cool to not care. Let's try to remove that stigma that it's cool to not care, and really actively try to learn for the years that you're in college. I love learning. I think it's so cool to just listen to somebody talk who knows more than I do. But I fell into the same trap, where I would sit in class sometimes and I had to be the cool kid. I had to pretend like I didn't care and get things done the last day [before it’s due]. It's almost like you have to show that you can pass and be, quote, unquote, smart without trying. And it's like, why not be even smarter by trying really hard?
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
It just goes back to patience trumps passion every day. I don't care how passionate somebody is, if they don't have the patience to wait for this thing to happen, it'll never work. I can't control the time at which this is supposed to happen. I have to be able to have the patience to wait this thing out. So patience is key. Try to stay as positive as you possibly can and try to enjoy this. I really see this now as a game. This is just a fun game that I'm playing, and when things go great, that's awesome. When things don't go great, I can reflect on it and there's a reason why they didn't go great. If everything went fantastic, that wouldn't be fun. It would take the enjoyment out of something like this. You have to feel these lows so you can appreciate the highs.
What is your favorite thing about being an entrepreneur?
I think just being able to do whatever I want. This is what makes it good and bad, that there's no specific textbook or place that I can go to learn how to make my startup work. I can learn from the experiences of other people, but one plus one doesn't always equal two in this sort of thing. I can't read word-for-word what Airbnb did or what Tinder did and replicate that and automatically have success. It just doesn't work like that. You have to find your own way and be able to say, “Wow, that was really cool that I made this thing work doing these things.”
Having the ability to do that, and then having an impact on other people who are trying to do what I'm doing—I do love that, too. I love to give back as much as I can and help out younger entrepreneurs who are at where I am, or people who are just not where I am yet. I haven't been at this for too long, but I try to give as much knowledge as I do have to as many people as I can.
This interview has been lightly edited from a phone conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.