CovalentCareers CEO Matt Geller, OD and CFO Brett Kestenbaum, DPT shared their experience with starting their own business and what advice they may offer to those interested in doing the same.
The two began their respective journeys in healthcare; during optometry school, Dr. Geller founded OptometryStudents.com, went on to found NewGradOptometry.com following graduation, and finally founded CovalentCareers alongside Dr. Kestenbaum (who was working as full-time PT at the time). Through working together, they brought career development opportunities through education, mentorship, and jobs to the eyecare, physical therapy, and occupational therapy spaces. “Entrepreneurship is something we would both recommend. It’s a journey, it’s a lifestyle, and it’s a lot of fun,” Kestenbaum says.
Where do you start?
Taking the dive and starting a business isn’t nearly as simple as the two make it seem, so where does the drive to succeed in something so unknown come from? For Dr. Geller, it started with having “a vision of what I wanted my life to look like down the road. The path I was on, I just didn’t see the scale or the chance to reach what I wanted to reach.” Rather than focusing on a fear of failure, he was driven forward by his goal. “But fear does keep you moving!” Kestenbaum adds with a laugh.
It's important to keep your focus forward but by doing so, others may not see the fear behind you. If the company is growing, the blood, sweat, and tears behind the scenes aren’t posted to social media or flown on flags. “Sleeping on Matt’s floor, sleeping under desks at the office so you can rent out your bedroom and pay rent; people don’t see those things. They just see the success.”
Are you ready to invest your growth? Check out Matt and Brett's reading list at the end of this article!
Bearing through the “grunt work” is not something most folks with the title of “doctor” consider when they leave school. Post-graduation, Kestenbaum used his time as a per diem PT to create his own schedule and earn as much as he could. “I worked six days a week, seven days a week, ten days a week to accumulate that money” because he knew that he could take what he earned and invest it into entrepreneurship and his future. As those savings shrank, he spent more of his time on his business, and steadily learned how to build CovalentCareers into what it is today, but that also meant that he had to step away from the clinic and focus his efforts on CovalentCareers full time. You have to go for it!
Quick tips for starting up
- Find that passion, develop that passion, and do whatever it takes to get there
- Find good people to be around; those that are like-minded, there to support you, and drive you forward
How do you balance doubt and criticism?
When there is a chorus of critical voices and naysayers shouting just as loudly as your supporters, it can be difficult to cut through the noise. Learning how to separate haters from legitimate criticism can be difficult. Kestenbaum refers to a concept presented in Principles by Ray Dalio in moments like these: believability. “If it’s someone who has experience doing exactly what you’re doing, someone who says ‘look, you’re going at this the wrong way,’ then you listen closely." By weighing advice by a believability factor, you’re able to reflect on incoming advice appropriately.
How do you stay true to your mission statement?
As companies grow and change, maintaining a commitment to the same mission and the same end goal can get lost in the weeds. Dr. Geller believes that “deep down we always knew what it was that we were chasing.” Sometimes articulating that brand and mission is boiled down through specific branding exercises that can take anywhere from hours to days, but working through those in a vacuum isn’t always the most effective. User feedback is essential in crafting the business as well, and taking the time to design solutions for the user can help to inform high-level decisions.
If you want to hear more about building and maintaining your company's mission statement, check out this interview with Dr. Geller!
Slowly navigating brand exercises and perfecting your product combined with consistency over time will mold a company’s voice. By building momentum in a specific direction, the company will snowball into something even larger. For CovalentCareers, the mission that drives the company’s action is supporting the new graduate. CovalentCareers is uniquely equipped to continue in its mission because both Drs. Geller and Kestenbaum have experienced the struggles that come with graduating in their respective fields and strive to make their company the solution for the next generation.
How do you find your inspiration?
Being the champion of the new graduate is one of the core values of CovalentCareers, but this can’t be everyone’s mission! Starting a business isn’t something that everyone can do, and maintaining your passion for your business is a must. Though both founders strive to help new graduate healthcare professionals, they also genuinely enjoy operating their business. Dr. Geller draws a great deal of inspiration from his own creative endeavors and feels motivated by creating film and video that allow him to tap into his creative processes.
“Success is contingent on going after the next great thing and committing to that win, not celebrating the show, finding a booth that has champagne, and taking our shoes off,”
Inspiration can only drive so far. Especially in the early stages of business, there may be dreadful failures to overcome. When asked about staying motivated through these more difficult moments, Dr. Geller said that he “likes that feeling [of struggling] more than winning.” Meeting challenge and feeling demotivated are both a key part of the growth stage. The two compare these moments to exercising regularly and building muscle: if the strain is not there, you likely aren’t growing.
Dr. Kestenbaum recommends another piece by Og Mandino, The Greatest Salesman in the World, as a testament to a persistent work ethic. Success is contingent on going after the next great thing and committing to that win, not “celebrating the show, finding a booth that has champagne, and taking our shoes off,” even if that would be the easy route.
Read. A lot. And keep learning
While mentors are fantastic resources and putting in your own time and dedication is essential, reading is one more way to gather as much knowledge as you can. “Read all the time. Seek new knowledge. Seek knowledge outside of the things you’re best at.” The more knowledge you can accumulate over time, the more equipped you’ll be to handle any circumstance that comes across your plate.
Consider this: as a healthcare professional, all patients present differently. Going out of your way to learn and expand your knowledge base will prepare you for effectively helping a wider range of patients. Borrow ideas from everywhere! Don’t be ashamed of “borrowing” ideas from those that came before you. Those who came before and share that experience are sharing it so that others can learn from them. It doesn’t make you any less of an entrepreneur.
Matt and Brett put together a massive library of recommendations perfect for the new entrepreneur! Check out their list at the end of this article!
Can you succeed as an introverted entrepreneur?
Each person’s experience is completely unique. The knowledge you gained, your learning experience, your mentors, your upbringing, it’s all uniquely you. Embracing that and sharing it with others is what entrepreneurship is all about, or as Dr. Kestenbaum says: “you have to bring the art of you to the world.”
Not everyone is or needs to be a booming extrovert to be successful. Dr. Geller admits to being an “introvert by heart,” but he works to mask that with extroversion. This isn’t the only option though. If you do find it difficult to become that extrovert, you can find the right people for your team to support you! Surround yourself with those that can compliment your own strengths and fill in gaps where you need it.
Obviously, this isn’t possible from the ground level, and during growth phases, you may not be able to expand your team. Eventually, there is a balance that falls into place. “There are two ways to go about anything: do it yourself or find someone who can do it,” says Kestenbaum. As an entrepreneur, it will always be necessary for you to wear many hats. In order for your vision to succeed, you have to be willing to put in the time and dedication, even (or especially) when that time is uncomfortable.
Quick tips for the introvert entrepreneur
You still feel the pains of growth—nobody liked your post, nobody shared your link—but you’re able to put yourself out there. “You have to be sure that fear does not cause inaction.”
Practice at home
For big speeches or other moments that you do have to go up in front of a crowd, prepare ahead of time. Practice with your family, with your friends, or try recording yourself with your phone. Working past those nerves is a massive first step.
It’s all practice in the end
If you do get up on stage or have a big meeting and you freeze up, keep in mind that it’s still another experience that you can build upon. “Everyone has the will to win; not everyone has the will to prepare.”
The value of a small win
Dr. Geller began his journey with OptometryStudents.com, and he had the opportunity to make the mistakes and gain the knowledge he needed from that to propel CovalentCareers and NewGradOptometry forward even more quickly. In his pursuit of what has morphed into CovalentCareers, he has learned the value of small wins.
This doesn’t necessarily mean starting small and growing to larger and larger businesses or larger and larger focuses. Small wins for a new healthcare student, for example, could be as simple as going to a club meeting! Maybe that meeting will inspire you to start your own club or go on a mission trip. Each of these tiny moments can create a massive avalanche of success if you keep the momentum going.
If you could give someone one piece of advice, what would it be?
“I would say: find good co-founders,” he says, placing his hand on Kestenbaum’s shoulder.
“Take action! This is something that Matt told me. Just do anything!”
Both are available to answer questions and help up-and-coming professionals via email and social media!