This Serial Entrepreneur Co-Founded a $3 Billion Company. Here's Where He Says Big Ideas Come From. Randall Kaplan breaks down how he builds companies and nurtures ideas.
In this ongoing series, we are sharing advice, tips and insights from real entrepreneurs who are out there doing business battle on a daily basis. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Who are you and what's your business?
I'm Randall Kaplan, a serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist, beach lover, philanthropist, photographer, and podcaster. I co-founded Akamai Technologies which today has 8,000 employees around the world, had more than $3 billion in revenues last year, and serves a quarter of the world's web traffic. I'm the founder of JUMP Investors – we invest in early-to-late stage start-ups as well as a few other asset classes. I co-founded and am the Co-CEO of Thrive Properties – we buy and manage apartments throughout the US. I co-founded and am the CEO of River City Restoration – we're restoring, building, and selling vintage Ford Broncos.
I'm the CEO of CollarCard, a promotional products company that sells patented men's collar stays. I'm also a photographer – my photography coffee table book BLISS featuring my beach drone photos from around the world went on sale a few months ago – and since then it's been the number one new release in four different categories on Amazon.
My main 70-hour a week job is I'm the founder and CEO of Sandee – we've created a Yelp for beaches for the $5 trillion a year beach tourism industry and the billion people a year who visit the beach.
Finally, later this month, I'm launching my podcast "In Search of Excellence" which is about our desire to live up to our highest potential, to overcome the obstacles we all face on our way there, and to inspire us to achieve greatness. My first guests are Sam Zell, Sharon Stone, Tim Draper, and Brad Keywell.
What inspired you to create Sandee?
In 2014 I went to Greece with my girlfriend for a romantic beach vacation. We were staying at a very nice hotel with a very good concierge, and I asked her where the closest black sand beach was. The concierge reached behind the counter and took out a paper map – the kind you used to get from AAA – unfolded it into 16 parts, took out a black Sharpie, and circled a point on the map that didn't have a street name and looked like it was in the middle of nowhere. Then she said, "I think there's a small road around here – you'll see an old abandoned barn and a roundabout, and that's where I think the turn-off is."
So we headed out in our Fiat convertible for what she said would be a two-hour drive. It was 90 degrees, and when we got to the general vicinity, there were no stores, nowhere to eat or buy water, and no cell service. And we didn't find one old abandoned barn – there were five of them in the area. None had what I would call a road – but after circling around for 20 minutes, we saw what looked like a dirt road. It had tall weeds growing on it but looked like people had driven through it before.
At that point I didn't want to go – as we drove towards it, we could see that in some cases the weeds were taller than our Fiat. And all I kept thinking about was the movie Taken and the fact nobody knew where we were or would find us if something went wrong. But my girlfriend said let's try it, and so that's exactly what we did. The dirt path was filled with a lot of potholes, which meant we were going five miles an hour. It was around a mile long, and it took us 20 minutes to get through, and as it ended, we found a small dirt parking lot which was empty. The beach was in front of us – it was gorgeous, with beautiful black sand that was surrounded by tall, sloping shale formations.
We climbed up on the shale, and as we were sitting on our towels in the blazing heat without water and looking at the beach and the incredible azure blue water – I thought about two things. First, that I'm going to marry this woman – which I did a year later. And second, there had to be a better and easier way to find information about beaches, and that I was going to try to solve that problem. Two days after we got back to the states, I started Sandee.
Seven years later, we've spent more than 100,000 hours cataloging 94 categories of information for every beach in the world – more than 50,000 beaches in 212 countries. Our goal is to allow the billion people a year who visit the beach to know everything about a beach before they visit and find their perfect beach.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs looking for funding?
The very first step when you're raising money is to create a clear, easy-to-understand PPT that takes somebody through what you're doing. We use the Grandma Standard - which means that my 102-year-old grandmother who has never used a computer and who has never read a PPT could read it from beginning to end and have a perfect understanding of what you're doing regardless of its sophistication – the problem you are solving, how you are going to solve it, how your product differs from others and is the best solution, and how you are going to make money and build a successful company. This is harder than it sounds and often takes a while to get it right – we often go through 30-40 drafts for our own companies.
Once you have that, the first place to look for capital is always your network which can be friends and family, or people you have done business with who know you well and want to back you and invest in you. Many also reach out to venture capital firms at the same time or as part of their first funding round. This is a more difficult process – venture capital firms look at many more factors, including your experience, track record, team, revenue model, and the stage of your company, just to list a few. If you don't have a track record, many venture capital firms won't invest without a minimally viable product or revenues that show people are buying what you're selling.
How should entrepreneurs prepare for a pitch?
Randall Kaplan: I'm a huge believer in not only being extremely well prepared for meetings – but to be 10x over-prepared and to study for a pitch meeting like it was a final exam. You created this awesome PPT that took you a week, and you finally get a meeting, and then you have to explain it to somebody. You have five seconds to make a good first impression. And then you have a very short amount of time to show your audience that you're the expert on what you're doing and you know it better than anybody. And finally, you need to think about every possible question you're going to need to answer, starting with the obvious ones where people will try to poke holes in what you're doing.
And after doing all of that, I always tell entrepreneurs to rehearse their pitches in the mirror, and then do rest runs with others. That means finding friends and family and people with business experience, preferably with experts in whatever you're doing, or a venture capitalist if you're lucky enough to know one.
What does the word "entrepreneur" mean to you?
An entrepreneur is somebody who thinks she can do things differently to solve a problem, who has a high degree of self-confidence and the ability and drive to absorb and overcome rejection, and who bets on themselves to pursue a new idea to start a new business.
Is there a particular quote or saying that you use as personal motivation?
My motto is and has always been "Anything Is Possible." If we set our mind to something, and work incredibly hard, and have the determination and ability to overcome obstacles and failures and make a plan to make sacrifices and achieve our goals, you can do anything. As an entrepreneur, I've been told hundreds of times throughout my life that "you can't do that," or "nobody's going to want that," or "nobody's going to respond to you" – or my favorite one, "that's impossible." It's almost never impossible – nearly every single time that people have told me these things they've been wrong. My goal isn't to be right – it's to follow my own path, believe in my ideas, and then do whatever's necessary to make them happen. That's the inspiration for and also the main lesson of my podcast "In Search of Excellence."