Seth Sarelson (’04): So You Want to Start a Company

Seth Sarelson ’04 was introduced to my Managerial Economics class as a weary traveler (his C2C bus broke down) with some great entrepreneurial advice. I don’t know if I agree with the first part because, despite his eventful trip back to Cornell, Seth was personable, enthusiastic, and knew exactly how to relate to a room of 200+ students with varying attention spans. When he announced that he left Cornell wanting to start his own business, but not knowing exactly what type, I sat up and started taking notes. As he talked about taking a job at Citigroup to further his corporate education, re-connecting with a friend from freshman year who would become his co-founder, and faking it until he made it with his start-up, I felt inspired to follow in his footsteps.

Seth is the Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of RevTrax—a marketing technology company that helps its clients translate dollars spent on online advertising and promotions into real brick-and-mortar sales. Ask yourself: What is the value of a tweet to a consumer goods company? How about the value of a Facebook “share” to a QSR restaurant? RevTrax is a service that provides the answers to those questions.

Throughout his talk, Seth managed to weave together valuable advice with anecdotes that were both funny and edifying; this effective combination made for an enjoyable and enlightening lecture. Later, Seth was generous enough to answer some follow-up questions:

Why did you choose to go into the banking industry after college and how do you think it helped your “corporate education”?

I went into the banking industry for a variety of reasons:

  • Corporate training:  Banks give a fantastic corporate training where you sharpen hard skills (excel, accounting, etc.)
  • Understanding the machine:  Corporate America is very different than academia and it is important to understand how it works if you’re going to be a business that ultimately sells to larger corporations.  I understand many of our customers and the challenges they face internally better because I worked at Citigroup. 
  • Compensation:  Starting a business requires capital and if you have a solid salary it is easier to bootstrap later on.
  • Finding a start up idea:  As a consumer, the only businesses you think about are consumer-facing.  When you work at a corporation, you become exposed to a large number of business to business companies that sell things you wouldn’t have ever thought about (ex. marketing technology).  Working at Citi helped me think more broadly about the type of business that I might want to start.

How did you continue to dedicate yourself to RevTrax during periods of uncertainty, setbacks, and even failures?

Even in the bad times, I always believed in myself and the rest of our team.  With the right people, you can get through anything.  With the wrong people, you can’t accomplish much.  My faith in the team has always helped me get through the more difficult periods. 

What is the slow path vs. fast path to success?

I often talk about an East Coast versus West Coast mentality.  I see East Coast as being focused on profitability and disciplined growth.  I see West Coast as being focused on getting as much traction/users/scale as possible quickly (even if this means spending enormous amounts of money) and selling a company before profitability.  I tend to be more financially conservative and couldn’t sleep at night if I felt the company I was responsible for was operating recklessly by wasting money. This ultimately meant having people on our team wear more hats for a longer period of time, but it also meant that when we made mistakes, everything ended up ok.  When businesses scale too quickly and make mistakes, it can be a recipe for disaster.

You mentioned the benefits of being a small company, but do you plan to grow RevTrax?

We are aggressively growing the company, but it isn’t the type of business where we are going to have 1,000 employees.  They key is to have disciplined growth but not lose the small company values that we have today where everyone on the team is genuinely excited about the journey that we are all on together.

Do you have any additional advice for entrepreneurial-minded students?

  1. Take a CS class or two and make friends with some developers.  
  2. Success isn’t about business ideas – it’s about the right team.  Who you go into business with means everything.
  3. Don’t hold back – share your ideas with anyone and everyone.  The worst thing an entrepreneur can do is keep his/her thoughts close to the vest.

If you want to catch more of Seth’s advice and experiences, check out any of his twenty-five eClips on topics ranging from transitioning into a start-up to learning from failure here!