Published September 21, 2010
Jeff Avallon is one boss who encourages his employees to write on the wall.
Avallon is the 26-year-old co-founder of IdeaPaint, a startup that sells paint that can turn almost any surface into a dry-erase board.
“It’s a more dynamic version of the standard whiteboard,” he said.
The idea was hatched when his friend and fellow co-founder John Gosha was a freshman at Babson College brainstorming business ideas with fellow classmates. “They ran out of room on the whiteboard and said, ‘God, I would love to write over the walls.’”
From there, a business was born. Gosha worked on the project himself for a few years and then enlisted two of his classmates at Babson, Avallon and Morgen Newman, to come on as co-founders.
But while the concept of IdeaPaint came quickly, the technology behind it didn’t. It took six years of product development and three different laboratories (two of which said the idea was impossible) before they came up with a winning technology that met their standard.
In 2008, IdeaPaint was unveiled at Neocon, a commercial interiors trade show held in Chicago. And after years of waiting, the IdeaPaint founders were not holding back.
“We had been dreaming about the launch for years and so we couldn’t just have IdeaPaint’s launch be a square sample at a booth. So what we did was paint every inch of space we could. We built walls outside of the main entrance and painted a café inside and enlisted 25 artists to draw murals,” said Avallon.
Today, IdeaPaint has received the attention they were craving. They have more than $8 million in investments and distribution deals with everyone from MDC Wall Coverings to Lowe’s.
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Six Shooter Q&A with Jeff Avallon of IdeaPaint
1. What do you wish you had more of: time or money?
Without question, I absolutely wish that I had more time. It’s not that I wish for more time to manage “the basics” of our business, but I do wish that I had more time to pursue cool side projects.
For example, we recently worked with New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees's foundation to create innovative, entrepreneurship centers in struggling New Orleans high schools that will be “central command” for an ongoing high-school start-up competition. I wish I had more time to pursue these side projects that I think are really impactful and align so strongly with IdeaPaint’s core values.
2. Who is your biggest inspiration?
Being inspired by a single person is dangerous. I have many different inspirations within all aspects of my life and business, but the one thing that seems to motivate me the most is any interaction I have with anyone who is absolutely passionate about something they are doing.
I love hearing the stories, thoughts and vision that individuals have, whether it be business-related or not. I seek out those conversations and always leave them having learned something that will inspire me in some part of my life.
I am also inspired by people who have the mindset that the safest thing you can do is also likely the riskiest. These are people who dream big, are opportunity-obsessed and know that to create something great you typically must do things differently than others, even though the approach may seem riskier.
Steve Jobs has done this time and time again at Apple. At first, his unrelenting dedication to his vision and refusal to follow the norms of the way his industry was developing precipitated his departure from Apple. It was not until he came back that he was able to achieve what he originally set out to. Richard Branson is also someone who inspires me....
The people I follow the most are the people who articulate the risks they took while building their businesses, and the failures that resulted from those actions along the way. It’s funny how once they are successful they don’t mind sharing details about their setbacks!
3. What is your biggest tip to other wannabe entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurs have to get out there and “make it happen.” You can only plan so much and you can’t let uncertainty terrify you. Your business will be shaped by the experiences you gain from both your successes and failures once you put your business out there. Constantly be challenging what you are doing and testing new ideas; it will be your ability to react quickly once you are out there that will build your business into something great.
4. Do you think the entrepreneurial character is something learned or something inside you?
I believe that entrepreneurship is a way of thought, and thought processes can always be learned—if you have the drive and motivation to pursue that knowledge. I also don’t think an entrepreneur is only somebody who starts their own business or organization. Everybody can be entrepreneurial in their own job or their own activity. Entrepreneurship is about having the ability to dream big, the drive to find creative solutions and the desire to uncover the best outcome for the task at hand, whatever that may be.
5. What is your advice to someone running a startup they didn’t think up?
An idea is simply an idea. Most ideas never come to fruition because people don’t pursue them, or cannot envision the idea’s potential. It’s the creativity, execution and hard work that you put toward an idea that determines its success or failure. Plenty of people had the idea to sell coffee before (Starbucks founder) Howard Schultz, but he was innovative in his approach and captured a new segment of the market. Other people had similar visions, but it was his execution that made Starbucks happen. I also believe that a startup is not about a small group of entrepreneurs who launch a company. In fact, everybody who works at IdeaPaint is an entrepreneur in their own right, which is why our culture is so strong. My advice: You must have a passion for where you’re going with the business, and as long as you’re excited about what can be created you can always be motivated.
6. Why will IdeaPaint succeed and why will Jeff Avallon succeed?
IdeaPaint won’t succeed on concept alone, but we’ll succeed in large part because of the team we’ve worked so hard to build around us. Our great team doesn’t just include IdeaPaint employees; we have worked extremely hard to develop amazing partnerships with our distributors, our investors, other core partners and our customers. The support that we derive from these relationships is the impetus for our success.
A startup is a very fluid experience, where change is constant and mistakes are not infrequent. But, I believe it’s how you react to changes that truly influence outcomes in the long-term. Our partners agree and it’s because they are willing to adapt and change with us that I’m so confident in our continued success.
As for him:
1. The people around me. My family, friends and colleagues all influence me in distinct ways.
2. Excessive optimism. If I don’t believe I’m destined for success, how can I expect others to have faith in my ideas and goals?
3. My belief that personal success is not determined by money or materials. I’m motivated by a goal of achieving happiness and understand that success in a business sense means little if I can’t be proud of what I accomplish outside of work.