Jason raised both angel round and a VC round early on, but eventually, the company turned out to be a good, solid, profitable business, but not the kind of rocket VCs like to fund. Read how he negotiated with them to gain control of the venture.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were your born, raised, and in what kind of background?
Jason Robbins: I was born in Brooklyn and did most of my studies at Syracuse in the New York area. I worked at Manhattan. I went to Columbia for my MBA. I’ve been around the country and the world a lot but most of my stuff has been in the New York area. Most recently, I picked up and moved from New York to Florida. I have been living in Florida with my entire family since August.
Sramana Mitra: Talk about where you did your education and what kind of work you did as part of your education.
Jason Robbins: When I was younger, I had a number of different businesses. My father owned his own business. I guess you can call him an entrepreneur. Today’s entrepreneurs seem to be making apps and seem to be very focused on the Internet. He had his own small business for sure. I learned a lot because that was part of the dinner table conversation all the time – lessons about him and his partners, lessons about selling and the challenge of purchasing managers and running the operations. In high school, I used to sell watches and sunglasses – anything I can find and do mark-up on. I also had a car washing business. Those are the kinds of things I was doing.
I really enjoyed Architecture and Art, so I figured if I’m pretty good in business, maybe I don’t need to go to school for business and try to be an Architect instead. The ultimate is to create these amazing spaces that people could live in. It’s very tangible. I really wanted to do that. I went to Syracuse which had a very renowned program. They really try to get their program to much fewer students. It’s a five-year program. After six months, I ended up feeling the pressure of their trying to weed out people. I left Architecture and got into business. I had to make up a lot of credit over the next three and a half years to be able to graduate on time.
I figured I would then start in real estate because it was the closest thing to Architecture. I always thought that real estate has a great long-term ability to pass on wealth to generations. I got out of college in 1990. The market for real estate was really bad. I guess one of the long-term lessons I’ve learned is the cyclicality of business. If I had stayed in real estate and gotten in when it was down and not have been afraid, I could have stayed in that alone and been very successful.
Then I wound up getting an interview at Goldman Sachs where I got a job in their oil and green trading area. This is their commodities arm. I was working at a pretty prestigious firm in a very profitable area. I was living in New York and working 12 hours a day. I did all that for a while. After two years, I decided that I didn’t want to stay on Wall Street. It wasn’t for me. There was a lot of moving paper and nothing really tangible. I didn’t like the atmosphere. It was a lot of testosterone.
I then applied to Columbia Business School with an intent to study Operations because at Goldman, I was not doing the glamorous trading. I was doing the behind-the-scenes operations. I had a really tough job. I had to confirm 400 trade transactions a day, which was maddening. We were trading oil, and oil can be traded for $20.10 or $20.11. Just being one penny off was $5,000. Being 10 cents off was $50,000. One little mistake I made could have been more than my entire salary for the year and I had 400 chances to make those mistakes every day. With that pressure, I became friends with the programmers at the back end.