Startups – Seth Flowerman '08, MBA '09: A precocious knack for startups
By Jeffrey Gangemi, MBA '09
Seth Flowerman is used to proving that, when it comes to being successful in business, age doesn't much matter. Just 22, he received his undergraduate degree in Applied Economics and Management (AEM) from Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences last May, and he's often surrounded by classmates at the Johnson School who are five, six, and seven years his senior.
Since he was a sophomore in high school at the Pingry School in New Jersey, Flowerman has often had to explain himself. Around that time, a family friend connected him with Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial services firm in London, to help him land a summer internship. And though Flowerman, who was 16 at the time, thought landing the job was as simple as picking up the phone, his future boss took some convincing. "I called my boss on the phone, and said 'hi, it's Seth. I'll be interning with you this summer,' and he said 'I think you mean you hope that you'll be interning with me.' We had two hour-long conversations before he gave me the job," says Flowerman.
Those conversations began an internship experience, and a relationship with Ken Rideout, the brash boss who had challenged the overconfident sixteen-year-old that day, that would color Flowerman's business and entrepreneurial career. In the internship, Flowerman gained some exposure to financial services and bond trading, an industry and function that he thought he might pursue at college. And in Rideout, a native of rough-and-tumble South Boston, former Olympic boxer and Detroit RedWings hockey player who worked in a state prison to pay his way through college — now a credit derivatives trader on Wall Street — Flowerman found a mentor and role model. "He won't take no for an answer and doesn't see limitations. He believes anything is possible," says Flower-man of Rideout.
So when Flowerman told Rideout that he wanted to start a company to provide the same kinds of internship experiences that he had just had in London, Rideout was on board in a heartbeat. He gave Flowerman a business plan he'd written and told him to get to work on writing his own. Flowerman came back to the States for his junior year of high school excited about his idea. He wrote the business plan for the business he'd eventually call Career Explorations and perfected it over the course of the year. Later in the year, the plan won $1,000 in a national contest at St. Michael's College in Vermont. "It really validated my idea," says Flowerman.
Five years later, the company Flowerman started to pair high-school students with tailored four-week summer internships in New York and Boston, has sales of around $1 million a year. For a price tag of between $6,000-8,000, Career Explorations provides housing, food, and a mentor for the students, along with a series of programs designed to help them get high-level exposure to one area of career interest that excites them.
In its first year, Flowerman's company hosted 15 students, followed by 42 in year two, 65 in year three, and 105 in its fourth year. This summer, the company expects to have between 150-200 students, and a staff of 25, including Flowerman's older brother, who was his first employee and runs the New York operation. In all, it took about $25,000 to start the company, and Flowerman paid it all back and had the company cash-flow positive in year one, an achievement for any start-up, let alone one led by a 16-year-old.
Flowerman says the company's success depends on the quality of the students it attracts, since 75 percent of internship providers in any given year re-up with the company for the following summer. "Our application process is like applying to college. It includes about 30 online pages, with letters of recommendation and two essays and is designed to find the best students," says Flowerman. "When we're matching somebody with a mentor, that mentor is giving four weeks of their time for free to take somebody on; that's why we only want students that are serious and motivated," he adds. "If we have a low repeat rate, that's a big concern for me."
- Seth Flowerman '08, MBA '09
Career Explorations has placed students in companies like Bill Blass, Putnam Lovell, and Cody Diemar, where the CE intern was the only non-MBA the company had ever hosted. If the company names aren't the biggest in their business, that's by design. "It's not the biggest names, but rather the fact that students will be able to do a lot of meaningful work in the company" that makes it an attractive internship location, says Flowerman.
Many interns have been so happy with their experience that they've turned to Flowerman for still-more intensive college services, including test prep. In true entrepreneurial fashion, Flowerman spotted the opportunity, and with the help of Rideout, founded test prep and educational consulting firm Vertex Academic Services.
From the start, the company struggled to gain traction in the competitive New York City market. "The first 15 months was one of the most challenging, miserable experiences of my life. There are all different ways to generate leads, but we were spending tens of thousands on advertising, and no one was signing up. The business is very referral-driven, but you gotta get to that tipping point,"
Flowerman says. But tinkering with the pricing structure has helped the service catch on. Now, the eighteen-month-old company is on track to have $300,000 in sales this year. It has 15 employees, ranging in age from 25 to 50, all of whom have advanced degrees.
Though Flowerman says his companies have a lot more growth potential — around $10-15 million in the case of Career Explorations — his aspirations are bigger than that. He says he'd ultimately like to run a venture-backed company. Though his entrepreneurial credentials get more legitimate by the year, he's at business school to get the kind of business experience — specifically a job with a top consulting firm — that won't require a lengthy explanation when he's pitching VC's in the future. "I'm constantly trying to convince recruiters that running my own businesses is a legitimate form of work experience," says Flowerman. When he finally lands that brand-name job, Seth Flowerman hopes he won't have to explain himself anymore. But there's still a good chance he'll be the youngest guy on his team.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of the Johnson School's student newspaper, Cornell Business. Adapted and used with permission.
A top student entrepreneur
In November, the Entrepreneurs' Organization awarded Seth Flowerman third place and the Social Impact Award in the 2008 Global Student Entrepreneur Awards for Career Explorations, LLC. This award adds to Flowerman's growing list of accolades, including the Junior Achievement International Student Entrepreneur of the Year (2004), one of the top three Kaplan Most Promising Campus CEO's (2007), and BusinessWeek's 25 Entrepreneurs under 25 (2008). He has also been featured in Forbes, The Boston Globe, and Yahoo! Finance.
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