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Q&A: Houston entrepreneur discusses big exits, startup advice, and his new book

Blinds.com founder Jay Steinfeld has released his new book this week. Photos courtesy of Jay Steinfeld

Jay Steinfeld is a household name — at least within Houston's growing innovation ecosystem. Steinfeld founded Blinds.com and, along with his team, grew it to a $100 million company before exiting to Home Depot in 2014. Over the past few years, Steinfeld has had time to reflect on that empire he created and recount his lessons learned in a new book.

Lead From The Core published this week, and Steinfeld took some time to answer some questions about the new book for InnovationMap. He also shares some insight into the acquisition process and advice for fellow entrepreneurs.

InnovationMap: You founded Blinds.com and exited the company to Home Depot — this is lauded as one of Houston’s big exits. What did this acquisition mean to you as a Houstonian?

Jay Steinfeld: Blinds.com ended up being far greater than what I ever believed was possible. I had no vision as to what it could become. I had no vision as to even what the internet was at the time I started. I knew nothing when I started — I didn't even know you could sell things online. So it's kind of a shock in one way, because we just started as an experiment and not to get rich or to build something massive. It was a marketing experiment and that was all, it was, we had no business plan. We didn't know what the total addressable market was. I didn't even know what a TAM was at the time. It was just an incremental step to improve my drapery shop. So now that we have developed that into by far the number one online retailer of blinds in the world and acquired by Home Depot, it's just so satisfying and so gratifying to know that all the little things that we did with all the people who were so, so much a part of it — like Daniel Cotlar, Tom Cabanski, Larry Hack, Steve Riddell, Marilyn Franks, all these people who, I mean, no one knew who we were. We were nobodies, but we were able to do something and become better than what even we believed was possible.

And that's actually the greatest thing for me — that so many people elevated themselves and either were a part of the success and felt like they were consequential in developing something that was consequential. They were a significant part of that, but they evolved along with it. And are either now still with the company prospering flourishing or they're now with other companies doing the same thing. Omair with Cart.com — starting as an accounts payable cost accountant and working his way up. And now, you know, the story there. It's amazing. So I think the fact that we were able to build these teams and do something of consequence and have people feel really good. It's not about how much money we made, but how much we really impacted ourselves and how we helped each other. And that was the key. We, we brought humanity into the workforce and show that having a culture of people first really does work. And it's not just a bunch of talk.

IM: I think when you look at some kind of growing and successful innovation ecosystems, they start with a couple companies that made it big, created a legacy and a group of successful entrepreneurs that then inspire others. Do you see Blinds.com kind of within the Houston innovation ecosystem?

JS: But I never, at the time, believed that was the case because we were within ourselves and didn't really see a responsibility or anything other than to what our own mission was. Looking back now and seeing how many people have succeeded and how other companies have used our success and even been able to get funded and to bring attention to Houston as a place where big exits can happen. That's a good feeling, but at the time I didn't really reflect on that.

IM: Your book came out this week — what did you want to accomplish with Lead From The Core?

JS: The book was originally written so that the people at Blinds.com would know what got us to where we were and would use it as the foundation for continuing what that success was all about. As I began teaching and expanding my influence throughout the community nationally, I realized that there were many entrepreneurs who could learn from the same success, the techniques, the strategies, "The Four Es" that were really the, the secret sauce of the company, the reason we were able to beat Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowe's, and why we got so much money as a result of it. I then expanded even more because people were saying, you know, I don't necessarily want to start a business, but I want, I've got an entrepreneurial bug and I want it to apply to my career. And for those people who feel stagnant and wanting to grow, these principles apply not just to a business, but to life into career trajectories. And that's been particularly satisfying because it was always about helping people become better than what they believed possible, not about the mission of Blinds.com itself. That was the mission, helping people. And now that people are re it's resonating outside the business world to any type of career, that's pretty cool. And now I realize that the audience is much broader than what my original intention was.

IM: What’s the biggest thing you want readers to take away from the book?

JS: I think if he can do it, I can do it. I think that's really it. It's not as hard as people think. I mean, it is tedious and you have to stay immensely focused, but it's a simple process. If you don't get so static in your thinking, and you're more expansive and open to possibilities — possibilities of you changing of you improving, and you're improving everybody around you — and that if you have the time and a little bit of money, then you can incrementally improve enough and fast enough that you can build something of significance too.

IM: What did you wish you had known before starting the process? 

JS: I actually wish I hadn't known any of this beforehand, or I might not have started. It's it is intensely grueling. It's not just the writing process, which in itself is hard — and the editing process, the rewrites, and the different types of editors that we've been involved with publisher — it's just the business of a book. It's it's everything. It's getting a publisher, getting editors, determining artwork for the cover and for the interior artwork, the publicity for the book who narrates it the whole process of audiobooks and rights. It's like starting a company. If you knew how hard it was going to be, you've might not have started it from the first place. So, but that's one of the things that was great about and be starting a business. I had no idea what I was doing, and I knew as much about writing a book, as I knew about starting a business. And that gave me an advantage because I didn't have bad habits. I didn't have a predetermined understanding as to what had to be in order for this to work. I would just meander through experimenting, being curious, asking for a lot of help, helping having people express themselves so I could get diverse opinions — like I did making business decisions. And that's what I want people to get from the book — that they can make these little decisions. And if it doesn't work, you stop. If it does work, you do a lot more of it. And that's what I did with the book. It's been fun. It's exactly what my "Four Es" are — experimenting, evolving, expressing, and enjoying myself.

IM: That's so meta that working on the book was like the process of what you're writing about in the book. Could you see yourself doing it again?

JS: Yeah, I've got two other book ideas — one will be a lot easier because it's not about me. It's harder to write about yourself, but writing about something else will be a lot easier. And now that I know the process, it will be so much easier. The first time is always harder. Going back to what you said about "it's kind of meta," if your core values are something, then that means that's what you do. So it shouldn't be surprising to anybody that I am experimenting and evolving and expressing and enjoying, because those are absolutely true, authentic core values for me. And therefore that means that's how I behave all the time. That's what I do every day. Not as a goal or an aspirational idea — if people can understand what is absolutely true to them and not just who they want to be, I think they'll be able to do almost anything they want.

IM: You’re involved with several companies and even have taught at Rice University. What drove you to get involved in this endeavors?

JS: Well, I'm either on board or advisory board members of five different companies, and it's a diversified group because some are in the pre-A stage and one's a public board. When I was about to step away from blinds.com, the idea was how do I keep having an active role in helping companies, but not be so active that I'm up to my eyeballs every day with the primary responsibility. I've got two in Austin, one in Chicago, one here, and then the other one's in Tampa.

The first thing I wanted to do knowing that I was going to be leaving Blinds.com was to start teaching in Houston, and this was while I was writing the book. So, it gave me an opportunity to bounce off ideas in the classes while writing and seeing what would be good to put into the book. It was like comedians going to small markets first and testing their material. That was fun, and I found that the things that I was teaching them was outside the normal courses that they were taking. I was providing that more personal introspective view while they were learning all the true skills, like evaluating markets, discounted cash flow and things like that. And that was very exciting for me to be involved there, especially with such a prestigious school like Rice. Al Donto was the one who I teach with, and he's been a great mentor and a great facilitator of that process.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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OpenStax, founded out of Rice University, has continued its growth, adding new partners and textbooks. Photo via openstax.org

If everyone that attended a college or university were polled, they’d all likely agree that one of the worst parts of the experience was the rising costs of textbooks.

In an effort to combat the hefty price tag of assigned texts, OpenStax, a nonprofit education startup out of Rice University, which is on a mission to increase educational access for all, seeks to democratize high-quality education by offering free, peer-reviewed, openly licensed textbooks for students and knowledge seekers across the globe.

This month, OpenStax will add to its 57 open education resources, or OER, titles with a full version of John McMurry's popular pre-med textbook, Organic Chemistry, under an open license to honor his late son, Peter, who passed away in 2019 after losing his battle with cystic fibrosis.

“The author, John McMurry, granted us the ability to publish the 10th edition openly,” Anthony Palmiotto, director of higher education at OpenStax, tells InnovationMap. “So, the most widely used organic chemistry textbook went from being one of the most expensive undergraduate texts on the market (almost $100), to a free and open text, making this a watershed moment for OER.”

This school year, OpenStax is adding 16 academic institutions onto its platform, including Georgia State University, Southwest Texas Junior College, Texas A&M University-Commerce, University of San Diego, and more. It's the largest batch of new schools OpenStax has onboarded in a year, Palmiotto says in a news release.

Founded to increase access

Richard Baraniuk, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University, founded OpenStax. Photo via rice.edu

OpenStax founder and director Richard Baraniuk, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University, started the OER publisher in 1999 to remove financial barriers and make educational resources more widely available. Much like increasing access to McMurry’s Organic Chemistry, the goal is to continue to support both learners and educators by providing easily accessible and well-developed materials.

“Our mission is to support all learners in their educational pursuits by providing access to high-quality education,” Palmiotto says. “Richard Baraniuk founded it initially as a way for faculty and others to get their material and their knowledge in the form of textbooks and other learning materials to students.

“And then born out of that, we started this robust textbook development and course material development program where we put out the highest-quality materials we can in a way that fits the way courses are taught. Meaning convenience and scope and sequence and other needs that instructors must use textbooks. So really the access was really the start of it, increasing that and lowering barriers to education, and then a lot flowed from that.”

OpenStax’s library of OER titles, which are published under a Creative Commons Attribution license, are free and easily accessible on the go and usable on any device in multiple formats, including digital and PDF.

Funded by philanthropic supporters, OpenStax normally works to openly access five or six books per year, working mostly on introductory courses. Most recently, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board funded the publisher to do a series of nursing books, eight in total.

“Before the nursing books, we were doing business books,” Palmiotto says. “Murry’s book builds out our science offerings, so we're thinking about the different areas that students take that can be barriers for them to move up in education and succeed. From there, we’ll continue to think about how a free textbook can help students through that process.”

Tapping into tech

Currently, OpenStax has over 7.5 million users in the formal education space, primarily in higher education introductory courses, as well as grades K–12. Photo via openstax.org

In addition to nursing, OpenStax is working towards releasing books in data science and computer science, including programming, workplace software and, eventually, artificial intelligence.

“AI is a big deal to us,” says Palmiotto. “We're thinking about it a lot, and in the books themselves, we're incorporating as best we can how AI plays into Data Science, Computer Science and Python Programming those. We’re thinking about how AI could be used and will impact programming, for example. But the AI landscape is changing as we go, and that's another reason we don't just put out the books, we maintain them.

“So, we can continually update them. Once we publish, six months later, we can publish updates or additions to reflect what's happening in courses or in professions or in the workforce to reflect how AI is being used as new software is released and so on.”

As OpenStax continues to build on its OER title database, they are using multiple methods of outreach to reach as many people as possible. Currently, they have over 7.5 million users in the formal education space, primarily in higher education introductory courses, as well as grades K–12.

“Over 140 countries are using our material,” says Palmiotto. “We're not as easily able to track how many students have used our material in all those other countries. But that's not the point, we want to put it out there. We know it's being used. We want to help as much as possible. But it is being used in all those countries and in different ways. Some people are translating it. Some people are using it in English. Some people are breaking it up. It just depends on what they need.”

Evolving the industry

OpenStax repeatedly receives feedback from users worldwide that appreciate the openness and availability of their books. Photo via openstax.org

As much as OpenStax is a disrupter to conventional textbook publishers, they would rather work in partnership with publishers like Murry’s former house Cengage rather than outright replacing them.

“What we've tried to do with those publishers is actually partner with them and say, we know that textbook prices were too high,” says Palmiotto. “Some of them partnered with us, Cengage, Riley, some of the other publishers, like Macmillan, incorporate our textbooks into their platforms so that instructors and students have that flexibility even with those publishers.

“Not every publisher wants to do that. That's their choice. But what we've tried to do is say ‘let's make an ecosystem.’ That's what we call it and let them participate in this movement that open education has become.”

With their textbooks on an open forum, it might seem that OpenStax texts would be susceptible to hacking or other unauthorized changes. But, according to Palmiotto, there’s a safeguard to that.

“We keep the standard version,” he says. “That's why a lot of people keep using it because they know that the version that we provide will be the most up-to-date version. But it is openly licensed. So, if we see that a school wants to teach the course in a slightly different way or if they want to recombine two different books to make a different course, take biology and make human biology, or take philosophy and make ethics or something, they can do that.

“But we still retain the standardized version that we redistribute and make sure that that's the high-quality one that people can look to. So nobody is getting back to our version and changing it, but they do have the opportunity to change their own.”

After more than a decade in the space, OpenStax repeatedly receives feedback from users worldwide that appreciate the openness and availability of their books.

“We have some great stories of different learners from all over the world that are non-traditional students facing barriers,” says Palmiotto. “And having a free textbook and not having to choose between food and their book or courseware makes a huge difference in their lives. If they have this flexibility in what they have to purchase, most people appreciate that choice.”

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