I had an incredible opportunity to speak with Steven Izen (AEM ’13), Founder and CEO of Lokai. During our conversation, I learned about the early stages of Lokai, challenges Steven faced while creating a product as a student entrepreneur, and the key drivers behind Lokai’s creation and increasing impact. The following takeaways were adapted from our conversation, which I hope student entrepreneurs–or anyone aspiring to be entrepreneurs–will find insightful.
While on a family trip to the beach, Steven Izen learned that his grandfather had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The stark contrast between a blissful time and distressing news spurred the idea for Lokai in 2009 and a finalized product in the form of a bracelet in 2013. The name Lokai was inspired by the Hawaiian word “lokahi,” which means unity and to blend opposites.
According to Lokai, its bracelets incorporate elements sourced from the highest and lowest points of the earth: Mt. Everest and The Dead Sea, respectively.
The white bead is infused with water extracted from Mt. Everest, while the black bead encompasses mud from The Dead Sea. Linked together by a string of clear beads, the white and black beads represent the natural highs and lows of life’s circular journey.
Lokai’s message is a simple and universal reminder: find your balance within life’s unpredictable journey of success and setbacks, and everything in between. You may not always be able to control everything you encounter in life, but you will always have the ability to change how you move forward.
- Starting a business in school is difficult, but encouraged. Starting a business in college is an appropriate time since your only key responsibility is to be a student. Being in school allows flexibility. While starting Lokai, Steven Izen was a full-time student, ran on Cornell’s Varsity track team and was a member of the Psi Upsilon fraternity. Building a product wasn’t easy, but doing so has taught him far more than he expected to learn as a student. Time management is key. A calendar was crucial for Izen, as it had set a reasonable time for his tasks and commitments to be accomplished. As an academic setting provides a safety net, take advantage of flexibility.
- Don’t cut corners. As you’re planning the big picture, don’t lose sight of the details. With so many accessories and types of clothing to choose from, Steven chose bracelets as his product, as it can be worn daily. He could have started selling Lokai bracelets a year after he had the idea. However, he decided to wait 4 years until selling his first product because he wanted to wait until the product was completely finalized before being sold. It was important to create a well-planned and well-executed product. In doing so, the original Lokai bracelet design has never been changed since the first Lokai bracelet was sold. Your product’s details must work hand-in-hand with your strategic plan.
- You’re never too young or too “inexperienced” to start. Before starting Lokai, Steven turned a woodworking hobby into a custom pen business. Although he didn’t learn nearly as much as he did with Lokai, he was able to learn how to structure a company and allocate proceeds appropriately. Don’t be afraid to start.
- Follow your own instinct on creating a product and moving it forward. In Steven’s case, Lokai bracelets were built predominantly with instinct. However, Calum “Cal” Turvey, I. Myers Professor of Agricultural Finance in Cornell’s Dyson School, has especially helped Steven bounce ideas back and forth. Although listening to suggestions is useful, it’s important to note that there are pros and cons to listening to other people’s advice, even if others are more experienced. Go with your gut and don’t get lost in everyone’s suggestions.
- It’s all about the people. A reliable team is crucial to a company’s success. When Steven Izen is hiring for Lokai, what matters most is the person behind the application. Similarly, Lokai’s investor treated Steven the same as everyone else because he believed in not only the product, but also the man behind the product. At the end of the day, dig deeper than just the exterior.
- With the help of social media, word of mouth can go a long way. To date, Lokai hasn’t spent any money on advertising. And yet, Lokai bracelets have attracted the attention of many, including celebrities like Ashley Greene, Emma Roberts, and Justin Bieber. A reason that Lokai bracelets have been doing well is the fact that its message is applicable to anyone and everyone. For Steven, spreading Lokai’s encouraging message was his motivation for starting Lokai, and impacting one person at a time makes him come alive as an entrepreneur. Leverage social media to spread your company’s mission or product’s message.
- If you have passion for an idea, go for it. Regardless of whether you succeed or fail, you will have learned a tremendous amount. Steven Izen is someone who doesn’t take no for an answer. From the progress that Lokai has made in the past few years, it’s evident that his unwavering determination has always found a way to reach his goals. Continuously work towards your goals, and your efforts will come to fruition.
When asked when he’s achieved his ultimate goal, Steven Izen didn’t necessarily have an answer. He has never had a solid plan set out because he is always looking to pursue bigger and bigger dreams for Lokai. In the meantime, when Lokai becomes a global household name, Izen would say he’s reached a major achievement! It’s safe to say that Steven’s consistent thirst for improvement will continue to contribute to Lokai’s increasing success and impact. Although Steven isn’t sure what will happen with Lokai in the next 5 years, there will be big news for Lokai in 2015, so keep your eyes peeled! We will be sure to update everyone once we find out!