Andrew Laffoon is living out his dream as an entrepreneur. He is co-founder and CEO of Mixbook, a company well on its way to success. Mixbook’s annual sales top $25 million. The company is profitable and employs 60 people.
In December 2012, Inc. Magazine recognized Laffoon and his partner, Aryk Grosz, in its annual “Top 30 under 30” – a list of entrepreneurs to watch. In 2013, Forbes Magazine named Laffoon one of its “Up and Comers” and one of “America’s Most Promising CEOs Under 35.”
Laffoon’s story is not, however, just about entrepreneurial success. His Christian faith helped him through difficult times. Faith influences how he runs the business and is a guide on how he deals with struggles and challenges. And faith shapes the vision he has for his business and his life.
A Lifelong Entrepreneur
Since age 12 Laffoon wanted to be an entrepreneur. At the age of 14 he started a computer consulting business with a friend, which he operated while in high school and college at UC Berkeley. In college, Laffoon met a like-minded entrepreneur in Aryk Grosz, a classmate in the College of Engineering. When Laffoon and Grosz partnered in an entrepreneurship competition and won, they realized that they made a great team.
Laffoon and Grosz often brainstormed startup ideas with their entrepreneurship professor, Jon Burgstone. But it wasn’t until Grosz had the idea to create an online service for school yearbooks that Prof. Burgstone finally said: “Good idea. You guys should start that business.” Laffoon and Grosz immediately started to meet with potential customers and to write a business plan. Two months later, in June 2006, Mixbook was born.
Funding Struggles: The Early Years of Mixbook
The business struggled in its early years. Laffoon and Grosz could not get venture funding. “We went to around 50 venture firms who rejected our business plan,” says Laffoon. “Nobody wanted to back a couple of young kids with a vision but no product.” In addition, they had trouble getting interest in the yearbook idea:
We had one yearbook teacher who was very excited about the idea, one of our most passionate early advocates. But when we went to demo our early software to him, his jaw dropped as he realized that our product would destroy traditional yearbooks. He refused to allow it at his high school.
At the time, Laffoon and Grosz had been thinking about switching from yearbooks to the broader photo book market. “I had already created two photo books, but the existing photo sites were clumsy to use and were not integrated into social sites where people were putting their photos,” says Laffoon. Laffoon and Grosz envisioned a site that would be flexible, easy to use, and allow people to share photos and build photo books together.
The day after the yearbook teacher meeting, Laffoon and Grosz met with another entrepreneur, Joshua Chodniewicz, a fellow Christian and founder of Art.com. They showed the demo to Josh and his co-founder of Art, Michael Marston. Within 24 hours, Josh and Mike offered to fund Mixbook to attack the photo book market. With additional money from other family and friends, the team had the funds they needed to start Mixbook.
In 2007, they launched Mixbook.com, but it failed to get traction quickly. A few months later, they launched their first application on Facebook called Photobooks. People loved the product. Soon Mixbook had millions of users. With product acceptance, Mixbook was able to raise $800K in funding from Labrador Ventures and the Band of Angels. Within a year, the company turned profitable and experienced hyper-growth. In 2011, the company raised an additional $10 million in venture funding.
Laffoon describes the company vision this way,
We are dedicated to creating the best end-to-end photo book experience imaginable. Something magical happens when your photos are transformed into a book of your creation. We won’t stop until everyone has experienced this magic. We are a company of fanatics. We are driven to make the entire photo book experience exceptional because anything less would be unthinkable. We are passionate about building something truly great, no matter the effort.
The company moved the Facebook app to a Web-based application to allow people to collaborate and use photos from a variety of sources, including Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, and others. And the company closely screened and built relations with printing companies around the country for the printing and delivery of photo books, yearbooks, scrapbooks, cards, and calendars.
Addresses the Mobile Market
In the fall of 2013, the company launched Mosaic, a mobile app to tap into the popularity of mobile devices. “We thought it would be powerful to provide the ability to create a photo book in a few minutes — on a train, between meetings, standing in line, or whenever with photos you just took. And you could do so without having to sit down at a computer.”
Recently, the company launched Montage, another app which bridges the gap between the quick and easy Mosaic app and the more sophisticated Mixbook Web application, the company’s core product.
With its ability to address customer needs as technology changes, Mixbook is poised to accelerate its growth in a wide open market. “The photo book market is already large, yet only 50% of Americans are aware that you can make a photo book on the web, and less than 10% have actually created one,” says Laffoon.
Keys to Success
At the age of only 31 and as a life-long entrepreneur, Laffoon has developed what he believes are the key ingredients for success.
Persistence – “You don’t have to be a genius to be an entrepreneur, but you need persistence. Persistence can overcome a multitude of problems. I love the quote from Winston Churchill when it looked like the Germans might take over the UK. Churchill said, ‘We will never give up. We will never surrender.’ Never give up.'”
Passion – “It is hard to have persistence if you don’t have passion. If you are not passionate about what you are doing, you won’t be able to get through the dark times that inevitably come with accomplishing something great. Passion without persistence doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Customer focus – “Businesses don’t exist without customers. Always put your customers’ interests ahead of your interests. There is a temptation, especially once the business has scaled, to do things that are good for you, but not for the customer. That is really dangerous.”
Dream big – “An entrepreneur I greatly respect likes to say: ‘The cost of a big dream and a small dream is exactly the same, it’s your entire lifetime.’” What are you willing to give your life for?”
Every start-up company faces challenges that threaten its existence. Mixbook is no exception. In the early years, Laffoon and Grosz went through years with little and often no pay. They faced repeated rejections from investors, potential customers, and possible new hires. In 2008, the company nearly ran out of money. “It was at the point that I was feeling terrible,” says Laffoon. “I would come home, eat dinner, and throw-up, I was so nervous.” His Christian faith, however, helped him get through the early struggles.
I prayed. When my mental and emotional resources were depleted, I had access to a deeper spiritual place that I could go to restore my energy and hope — an internal place of peace that couldn’t be shaken by circumstances.
That’s how I could go through disappointments and failures and hardships and all kinds of problems.
It wasn’t just about having rose-colored lenses or expecting a divine miracle, although I’ve experienced that too. It was that I could stand on a rock, a firm foundation. I could stand confidently in the hope of God’s promises and know that what I see is not all that there is. If it were not for my faith and trust in God, I don’t know what I would have done.
Faith and Business
Having a strong sense of calling is how Laffoon describes how his faith affects his role in business. Laffoon feels he was called by God to become an entrepreneur. He was inspired as a child by Christians who were in business and were able to use their platform and their wealth to make an impact for God and in the world in a positive, meaningful way. He also senses that God not only provides a calling, but also provides the ability to fulfill the calling. And the benefit of working in a position in which one is called “enables another level of passion.” Work is not a job. It is a passion if one feels called to a certain role.
Faith is central to the way Laffoon runs his business.
My number one thing as a Christian is integrity. Aryk and I decided early on that integrity and honesty were essential in running the business. We committed to do what we say we are going to do. We are not going to lie, and we are not going to mislead others. Those are fire-able offenses at Mixbook.
Treating people with respect, dignity, and love is part of the Mixbook culture. But Laffoon is quick to observe, “Love also means being brutally honest. Jesus was, after all, brutally honest with the Pharisees.”
Faith and Family
Faith also helps Laffoon navigate the demands of running an entrepreneurial business with his role as a husband and father of two young children. “As much as my calling is to be in business, is my calling to be a good husband and dad. My calling is to love my wife and kids more than I love myself. My calling is to put their needs in front of my own, as much as it is to put the needs of my employees ahead of mine.”
A significant tension for an entrepreneur is the amount of time required leading a start-up company and the need and desire to spend time with family. Laffoon admits that doing so is a challenge, but has found a way to ease the tension. He established the habit to come home to have dinner with his family. “I highly value dinner time with my family. I’m typically back online at ten in the evening, however. I also commit to at least one full day at home with family on weekends.”
Fulfilling one’s dream requires overcoming many challenges. For Laffoon, faith is at his core. Faith is the key ingredient that helps him navigate the challenges inherent in leading an entrepreneurial business.
Below is a short video in which Laffoon describes keys to success for an entrepreneur and how he sees the integration of faith and business.