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Daniel M. Roitman, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Stroll, is responsible for the broad corporate vision, the Company’s intense commitment to analytics and optimization, and overall execution. Dan founded Stroll in 2000 while a senior in college and has led the firm from startup to its present status as of one of the leading internet retailers of educational products.
Stroll is a next generation education e-commerce platform company that deploys sophisticated marketing analytics and advanced e-commerce techniques to drive triple-digit growth for the products it owns or licenses. Their flagship product, the Pimsleur Approach, is one of the leading audio-based language learning systems, second in the market to Rosetta Stone. What started as a dorm room business at the University of Maryland in 2000 has become a successful e-commerce enterprise that has grown at an annual compound rate of 73% since 2002 and grew revenue over 100% just last year By 2020, Stroll aims to exceed $1 billion in revenue through organic and inorganic growth.
MO: Can you talk about your journey from opening a start up from your dorm room at the University of Maryland to becoming one of the leading internet retailers of lifestyle information products? What really worked from the beginning and what mistakes did you make along the way?
Dan: One of my first mistakes resulted in the false-start of a product launch. While still in college, I partnered with a Swedish manufacturer to market a student study-aid to colleges in the US. Before we had a chance to get off the ground, the manufacturer unexpectedly pulled out of the US market. I had failed to ensure that my partner was committed to the marketplace and was left with no product to sell. After researching the marketing, I discovered the Pimsleur Approach and decided to move forward in marketing another product. Once we got rolling, I realized we had a great thing going. With a winning product and a strong consumer engagement and direct response strategy, we saw results quickly. Over the next decade, we have focused on taking those initial results, optimizing them, and maximizing them to chart the growth of our business. From the beginning, we used data and analytics to monitor our progress and measure what works. That commitment to tracking our performance and taking an analytical approach to e-commerce has been one of the keys to our success, helping us to become one of the fastest growing internet retailers in the country.
MO: Where does your entrepreneurial spirit come from? Who or what served as early influences or inspirations?
Dan: By the time I started my senior year of college at the University of Maryland, I realized that to become as successful as I wanted to be, I’d have to drive the bus. I didn’t want to count on anyone else to control my career. Instead, I wanted to start something of my own, build a team of people who shared my desire to succeed and move into an industry that utilized my analytical skills and fulfilled my passion for education and self-improvement. I knew that I wanted to focus on direct marketing, so I started by finding e-commerce sites that I admired. I would stay up late at night in my dorm room and scour the internet for information on direct marketing and internet retailing. I called those marketers whose sites interested me and asked simply: ‘How do you do it?” By picking up the phone, I made some of the most important contacts of my career. They served as my early influencers and inspirations. They took me under their wing and introduced me to some of the industry’s most talented and influential professionals and schooled me in the core tactics of advertising, analytics and optimization.
MO: How have you successfully taken an all-but-forgotten, yet highly effective language learning tool (the Pimsleur Approach) and transformed it into the second best selling product in its category?
Dan: I discovered the Pimsleur Approach, a product that I felt had true potential in the marketplace. It was little known, but highly-effective and showed some signs of demand. I started anonymously as a reseller and then soon directly approached the product’s owner, publishing powerhouse Simon & Schuster, and negotiated an agreement to become a preferred reseller. By embracing the core elements of a successful direct marketing strategy, and applying them across channels, I built an e-commerce platform deeply rooted in analytics. I built a small team and we pinpointed a tightly targeted market. Over the past decade, our team has expanded and we have studied, tested, tweaked, and analyzed strategies to market the Pimsleur Approach to American consumers. We monitor the return on every advertising dollar spent and have broadly systematized the operation of every aspect of the business. Our approach is service-oriented, targeted, and optimized. The result is a product that has become second in its market, while Stroll is among Simon and Schuster’s largest partners as a result of its licensing arrangement. The product has exploded in the marketplace and we plan to apply our know-how to accelerate the sales of other consumer education products.
MO: What is hyper-growth and how can it be achieved?
Dan: I believe hyper-growth is best defined as triple-digit revenue growth over a short period of time, and the key to achieving it is optimization. At Stroll, our fundamental commitment is to constant optimization, or the ability to continually make small incremental improvements that compound over time. A billionaire I recently met has an elegant name for it, “inches.” They add up. We structured every area of the company and developed standard operating procedures for each task from human resources to our call center, marketing, accounting, and IT. For instance, we have built sophisticated financial models that allow us to accurately predict cash flows a year out in time. This type of process allows us to grow more in one month than most companies do in one year. The small improvements we’ve made over time have led to tremendous self-funded growth while managing risk. My advice, if you want a growth business, is to concentrate on optimization and surround yourself with high-energy, analytical people who share your desire to get big quickly.
MO: How have you managed to reduce your company to five key core values and how has that impacted the culture at Stroll?
Dan: At Stroll, we are obsessive about the people we attract, and their ability to think strategically and tough it out when things get difficult. The key factor in achieving triple-digit growth all melts down into one definable difference — the quality, passion, knowledge, and shared values of our team. Before we hired too many people, I sat down with my team and we started by reducing our company to five key core values, guiding principles that every employee knows and can put into action. Simply put, they are: strategy mindedness, mental toughness, ownership thinking, results orientation, and being the best. We felt these values truly embodied the essence of our company, our employees, and what we are trying to achieve. By embracing them, our team has become cohesive with high potential and fuel for growth. That has proven true given that our compounded annual growth rate since 2002 is over 70%. These five core values now serve as our organizational compass, a way to chart our future and share our corporate vision among ourselves. We address them in team meetings, we use them to measure performance and motivate. We even have them displayed on the walls of our office, as a reminder of what we’re working toward, who we are, and how each employee can succeed.
MO: What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for Stoll in 2012?
Dan: I am most excited about building our team of talented professionals and continuing on our current growth trajectory. Our culture continually challenges employees to optimize operations, management and marketing in order to improve ROI. We have built a team of all-star professionals and nearly doubled its size last year, continuing to pursue new talent in 2012 and beyond. We are committed to endless improvement and our growth continues at breakneck speed, with revenues expected to more than double this year. Our team has spent a significant amount of time on identifying future opportunities areas within the education space where we can make a difference. We aim to replicate our success with the Pimsleur Approach by applying other products to our e-commerce engine. This initiative will allow us to become a $1 billion+ e-commerce platform by 2020.