Stories in Entrepreneurship

Keith Verner

President of LabLearner

Keith Verner seated smiling and looking left

How did you become an entrepreneur? 

I didn’t set out to be one. I think that’s something you learn in life, you can set out to accomplish certain things, but so much of success is playing the cards that are dealt to you along that path and realizing there is a greater plan than the one you envisioned. You can interpret that however you want, religious intervention, fate/destiny, or just luck. But I bet every successful entrepreneur has stories of how things just worked out a certain way at a certain time that brought it all together. 

Looking back, I was entrepreneurial even as a child - mowing lawns, shoveling snow, I even had a little detective agency with some neighborhood kids. I recognized that you could leverage people to do more than one person could do alone: that one plus one is greater than two. 

My first “real” job was at the Hershey Medical Center. I was still too young to receive a paycheck, so I volunteered there. Because I was interested in architecture, I was assigned a job that would have been tedious for an adult. I catalogued all the signs in the Medical Center, which meant I was in every corner of the place. Imagine what you see! It was eye-opening for a 14-year-old. When I visited years later, I knew I had played a part in the physical manifestation of my work. 

I think a big part of succeeding is sticking around long enough for serendipitous moments to present themselves. Then it’s the ability to identify them so you can act on it. For my story, I was working for a successful private company in Chicago after graduating from Penn State. I was fortunate to work for a business that did a lot of things really well, Uline. I also had a manager that was a really smart, a good manager, and a genuinely good person, Jake Peters. I still look back on the things I learned there, almost on a daily basis, and ask myself, how would Uline do this? 

That may lead me to a bit of advice for young entrepreneurs…there is a lot you can learn by getting good experience for a couple or few years with a company that does things the right way before venturing off on your own. There is no need to reinvent the wheel for the operational parts of any business - learn from the mistakes of others instead of risking your own business. 

 

What is your vision for the future of your company? Of your community?

That’s a big question that can be addressed from different angles. 

In short, I’d like us to fundamentally change what people think is possible in education. There is a lot of finger pointing in education, mainly at teachers and administrators. There is a bell curve of talent in teaching, just like in any other industry. I think the teachers and administrators aren’t the real problem. The real problem is that vendors, like us, providing the curriculum content and strategies, are just setting the bar too low. I’m interested in bringing the entire bell curve up…raising the bar. 

I think the industry is poised for someone to come along and become the big brand that educators want to be a part of…we want to be that brand. We want to be the Apple of Education. 

It’s a combination of really caring about solving the issues, coupled with hard work and execution to get there. I feel like LabLearner can fill that void because the big established companies consistently show no motive for real change. The companies doing the good stuff are largely supplemental and VC backed so they’re sexy, but not really about fundamentally changing the core of an educational system. So that’s the company perspective I have and void we’d like to fill. 

But then there are your people, I have a vision of a culture and what it looks like that we’re just starting to develop - the feel for your place. I would love LabLearner to be the place where the most talented people hope they can get a job, because they’ll be pushed/challenged, the working environment is fair, and at the end of the day, you are making a huge positive impact on the future of our country through the education system. 

As far as community, you have two types of businesses, in general…those that service their local community, like a car dealership or a financial advisor, and those whose business is more national or international based but they have to be located somewhere. The first category is really motivated to do community-based projects, sometimes for self-serving reasons. We fall into that second category…if we totally saturate our local market, we would still go out of business, so that’s not our model. But at the end of the day, you live and work in this community so you want it to be the best standard of living possible. I feel it is the responsibility of business to help make a community vibrant and a happy place to live and work. We’re small enough now that we can’t make a huge impact in that sense…but I look forward to that changing with our growth and ability to make a positive impact. What those contributions will be is difficult to say. I’d like to think that our employees will largely drive those efforts, doing things that are most important to them with the help of our company. 

 

What has been the biggest challenge to creating a new venture?

I started with the company in a leveraged position. We had debt obligations and needed to double our sales to fulfill the obligations. I started by renegotiating the terms to ease some pressure and then focused on bringing in revenue. It’s taken time and hard work, but we have been able to overcome that huge challenge. 

Currently, I think the biggest for me is having the cash to do the things you know will lead to growth. So then you’re faced with do we bring on investors versus riding it out. That was very frustrating for a while. We’re now reaching a point where the profits are coming in so we can expedite the process and do the growth things we want to do without being accountable to anyone else’s bias. In hindsight, I’m glad we kept control of the business. It’s just so hard though to determine when or if you should pull the trigger on funding. You could do it and 6 months later realize you could have just held out that 6 months and self-funded. But nobody has a crystal ball so you just try to make your best guess given your metrics and feel for your industry and your position within it. But even as you grow, you’re always balancing the pros and cons of bringing in outside funding, even if you eventually decide to go public. I hope we can find a way to grow without doing that. It’s just so hard to make big picture changes that take time to develop when you're accountable on a quarterly timeframe. The kind of change we want to make, doesn’t happen overnight.

 

What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?

Patience, patience, patience. 

Things will happen. And you will have opportunities to quit, but if you’re patient, you don’t know when to quit. You “pick something up while you’re down there.” Or the Vince Lombardi quote: “It’s not how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you get up again.” 

Patience in that I think entrepreneurs have an idea of what they want to accomplish, they define what is needed to get there and then they go. But inevitably, things come up. It doesn’t happen as fast as you want. 

I think for me, patience developing the right team to get you there has also been difficult. The hardest thing for me is finding people who will share my vision and get there with me, with passion but also the skill-set to make it happen. Part of a vision isn’t just the product or service, but also the company and its culture that you are building. I feel like we’re finally reaching a point where the team is really coming together here. I’m looking forward to that developing over time.


Tell me about your biggest surprise or lesson learned as an entrepreneur.

How much of your time isn’t spent directly on your business goals. Dealing with IT related issues, or HR, or legal consulting…those things take up time and money and are necessary on the path to what you’re trying to accomplish but I get frustrated sometimes when you’re in the flow of something and now you’re dealing with an IT issue instead of what you wanted to be doing. You don’t anticipate the things that you can’t anticipate. I think, ultimately, this comes back to the patience.

And there’s a leadership lesson in this - successful people do the little things that nobody else wants to do. They work on their weaknesses. Nobody wants to practice the things that they suck at, most people want to keep doing the things that they are good at - but the leaders in any area (athletics, business) keep sludging through and working towards the end goal. It’s more a marathon than a sprint and consistency is important - every day, day after day, year after year. This race is never over.

 

What role has failure played in your story? 

I still have a lot on the line as an entrepreneur, personal risk. 

The more important part is resilience developed by the frequency of failure. I’ve had some big failures. 2008 was a year that I was struggling with employment, getting laid off, and it was the worst time to be looking for work. That compounded with a back injury and some health problems put me in a really tough place. Life kept constantly kicking me. I never want to go through that experience again, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. 

That experience of failure drives me. Because you know that as soon as you have a little taste of good again, you’re willing to do anything to keep that taste there, because you know how ugly it can get. My childhood and early adulthood were relatively easy, so up until that point my life was untarnished, but I needed the lesson to appreciate the good things. 

If you never fail, you don’t know how valuable success is. 

 

Why do you do what you do?

The why is that as a human being you have an obligation to do more than occupy space. You have a responsibility to leave more than you took. So you have to find something that allows you to do that.

7/26/2017

About Keith Verner

Keith Verner is the President of LabLearner, an innovative, research-based science curriculum that revolutionizes how K-12 schools teach STEM. LabLearner is 100% hands-on, designed by scientists and teachers, and includes a fully equipped in-school lab, spiraled curriculum, and teacher professional development. Keith is passionate about enriching the lives of students through giving them tools to design and implement their own solutions through critical thinking and problem solving. Keith is a graduate of Penn State University, Smeal College of Business. Keith and his wife have one son, who is excited to be a big brother soon.

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