Our featured member for November 2014 is Adnan Aziz. Adnan is currently CEO and co-founder of Swaggable Inc. and has over ten years of experience in technology and entrepreneurship. Learn more about his background and his experiences below.
- Current Employment: CEO and Co-Founder, Swaggable Inc.
- Previous Employment: Google, AdMob, First Flavor Inc.
- Undergrad: University of Pennsylvania, Bioengineering(BSE), Political Science(BA), Mathematics(minor)
- Industries: Marketing, Consumer Internet, Mobile, Entrepreneurship
During your undergrad years at the University of Pennsylvania, you went on to start your own company – First Flavor Inc. Can you describe this journey into entrepreneurship, for me?
I caught the entrepreneurship bug at a pretty early age and largely from my dad. My dad is an environmental/chemical engineer by training, and this transferred over to home-life. He would just fixate on something he and my mom wanted around the house and pretty much go build it. It was kind of like growing up with Macgyver.
For instance, he and my mom are both great cooks, so he built a gas-powered tandoor from a random assortment of components. It was pretty empowering to see him have an idea that he knew was good and bring it into the world, just like that. We’d also watch the news together and talk about what was happening, what was wrong in the world. Growing up, we learned that the world is far from perfect, no one has a monopoly on the good ideas and that even you can make that change. You can come up with ideas that are significant and you can make that idea a reality. This helped me build confidence early in life and empowered me to know that I could make a difference with my ideas.
In undergrad, I was always submitting business plans with friends and things like that. We even created a partnership with a restaurant on campus to start a hookah bar after dinner hours. In my junior year, I came up with a truly random idea, inspired by Willy Wonka of all people. The kernal of the idea was basically a wouldn’t it be cool if you could recreate some of the experiences in Willy Wonka, particularly the edible wallpaper (‘the schnozzberries taste like schnozzberries’). It seemed like an insane idea, but as I socialized it with friends, others also thought it was interesting, though we had no idea for what purpose. After I raised some funding from some notable alums, one of which came on as the CEO, we decided that marketing would be a more pertinent application. For example, when Gatorade comes up a new flavor, we could translate that flavor into an individually packaged edible film (like a listerine strip), which they could use for cost-effective and fun sampling of the product’s flavor. The company eventually folded, but we did get some great campaigns and I learned a TON.
What has helped you achieve the level professional success you have today?
I’m not sure what level of professional success I have, but I was very lucky to have an amazing network of cousins that supported me. I’m the youngest of my cousins and thankfully, we’re supportive of each other, rather than competitive (other than board games, which gets ugly). Whether that was helping me in the college application process or investing in my company, they were ready to help and guide me, especially my older brother. He sort of let me have a voice by treating me as an equal, but at the same time he went out of his way to help me in any way he possibly could. He still is one of the kindest, most generous people I know.
In 2006, you were named one of Businessweek’s Top 25 Entrepreneurs Under 25. Since then, you’ve been involved in quite a few different startups. If you could go back, what’s the one piece of advice (career, entrepreneurial, or personal) you would have told your 25 year old self?
I think I’d give myself two pieces of advice.
First, you need to learn to believe in yourself, but still have the self-awareness to drop your ego. Removing your pride from the equation liberates you. It frees you to trade in ideas solely on their merit and not cling to wrong ideas for bad reasons.
I think this is what true self-confidence is, and I think society largely misunderstands it. A lot of people will discount their own ideas right off the bat because people often think that if something was such a good idea, then why hasn’t someone/some company already done it. That would be self-deprecation, and it hinders your ability to recognize your god-given talents or your hard-won perspective. Alternatively, I’ve found that some people will have an idea and latch on to it, because it was their idea. They won’t be open enough to ask for feedback and learn from other’s perspective. They’re basically playing the game with a self-inflicted disadvantage.
Secondly, it’s crucial to constantly think about how you think and attempt to understand your intuitive reactions. If you find something interesting, ask yourself, “Why? What about this interests me?” and then track that back to root causes. We’re all built with an amazing set of analytical tools and we simply have to be willing to go inside our own heads to utilize it. Though society largely teaches us from a young age that we’re all unique, I think one of the interesting things that the internet is showing us, is how alike we think. Try doing a google search for the randomest question you can think of and probably see that you’ve probably got a lot of like minded souls, with the same questions or ideas. So long-story short, trust your instinct by taking the time to question it.
You recently left Google to become the CEO and co-founder of Swaggable. Have any thoughts on leadership or management to share?
First off, I consider myself a newbie on these topics, so I’m hardly qualified to give an answer here but happy to share my notes so far. So far, from what I’ve learned through trial and error, really great managers take a very personalized approach. It’s not about making someone conform into what you want them to be, but rather noticing their innate special qualities, helping them take those strengths to the next level. Everyone has different motivators and unique reactions. Some people like a very direct to approach, while others need a more nurturing approach. You have to pay special attention to the personalities and the characteristics of the people you manage, and set individualized goals and KPI’s that will enable – not hinder – them. Ultimately, your goal is to help them realize their full potential and spark their inner drive because you want to be pulling them up rather than pushing them along.
In 2010, you were chosen to attend the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship as a delegate from the U.S. Can you what you learned or gained from the summit?
There were two main takeaways for me on this whole experience. The first is how important it is take chances and just open a few doors for yourself every week. In this case, I saw an email about submitting applications to attend the summit one day (probably on Muppies actually), and I applied on a whim. It took ten minutes. I forgot about it completely until a couple of months later, I got an unexpected call from the state department.
There were also a few political and socioeconomic lesson from this summit. It was right after Obama’s Cairo trip and his effort to reach out to the Muslim world, so the program presented a lot of interesting researching, including the fact that the Muslim world generally has the youngest population highest unemployment rate in the world. Depending on your perspective, this either presents a tremendous opportunity or a looming threat. The fastest way anyone knows how to create jobs for these young, capable people is entrepreneurship, thus the reason for the summit. The private sector and not governments is of course going to be the driver here and as as Muslims really need to be the bridge. In this moment of history, I think this might be our community’s most important challenge.
What is one of your current personal or professional development goals, and what are you doing on a daily/regular basis to achieve this?
Professionally, my goal right now is to get Swaggable launched and achieve product-market fit. There just physically are not enough hours in a day, and you’ve got to decide between things that are all really important. It’s not just speed that matters, at this time in a startup’s life-cycle, finding direction is really the more important thing. You have to be mindful of the direction you’re going, undeterred by minor setbacks but open enough to understand when you might be banging your head against a wall.
Who would you say have been your greatest personal or professional mentors, how did you meet and develop relationships with them, and how have they helped you in the process?
Again, I’ve been truly blessed to have so many generous people who have offered me advice and help along the way. One of my favorites though is a good friend of mine, who is actually younger than me. When I was in college, I helped him, then a high school student, get a grasp on the college application process. We kept in touch, became life-long friends, and he actually brought me into AdMob. I still rely on him for great business advice, as we’re both running our own startups now. It really solidified for me the fact that, everyone has something to teach you.
How have you benefited from your Muppies membership?
It’s reassuring to see smart Muslims folks in different positions and the willingness of members to support each other and lend a hand. The ability to see and be apart of this growth and development is exciting.
Connect with Adnan through his LinkedIn profile.
Each month, Muppies features one of our members to share about their professional development story and the insights they’ve gained along the way. This interview was originally conducted in November of 2014. Opinions are of the member and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Muppies, Inc.”