The Power of Trust with Ilene Miller and Lisa Friedlander
After countless cumbersome searches for organized activities and camp programs for their children, Ilene Miller and Lisa Friedlander, both attorneys, decided to set aside the legal docs and dive into a business designed to drive convenience, efficiency, and ease when it comes to connecting kids with fun activities. Thus Activity Rocket was born -- a clearinghouse of local camps and activities for kids with wide-ranging interests. Five years later, I caught up with Ilene and Lisa to hear their story, celebrate Activity Rocket’s recent acquisition by Thrively, and learn about what makes them continue to thrive as business partners and friends.
Parachute: Thank you so much for being with us today and congratulations on the recent acquisition!
Ilene: Thank you! And thank you for including us!
Parachute: So let’s dive right in. What drew you to found Activity Rocket in the first place?
Ilene: Honestly, Activity Rocket was born because Lisa and I were finding that it was extremely time consuming to find activities for our children that maximized what they love and also fit our schedules. We found it frustrating that you could make dinner reservations through any number of apps, but there was no convenience associated with scheduling activities for children. So the genesis was really about convenience.
We were working parents with 5 kids between us of toddler and preschool age at the time, and there was no central location for finding and comparing different activities. If you’ve ever jumped from site to site comparing camps or music lessons or any other kid activities, you know you can quickly lose patience not to mention a ton of time. So convenience was the real driver.
Parachute: What made you decide to take the plunge rather than just hoping someone else would come along and fill that market need?
Ilene: Great question. Lisa and I were both practicing law and were ready for something new. We had confidence in our analytical and critical problem-solving skills, and we knew our respective strengths were complementary. We were both extremely curious about what the entrepreneurial journey could bring, and we decided to dive in. I felt like the the ups and downs of growing the business would feed my voracious curiosity, and it absolutely has!
Parachute: So tell us about those ups and downs. What were some of the highlights and hurdles?
Ilene: Oh there have been so many of both! The single most consistent highlight has been my relationship with Lisa. We have pushed each other and supported each other and truly been partners from day one. We naturally fell into our roles: Lisa heading legal and sales, and I drove marketing and technology. We got input from each other as we went along, but we trusted each other implicitly to make good decisions within our areas of responsibility. We were efficient and focused, and we managed to steer clear of the petty arguments that you so commonly hear about between co-founders.
Parachute: Wow. That is definitely something to be celebrate! At Parachute we know a lot about the arguments and stumbling blocks that tend to crop up within executive teams, especially when there isn’t the trust and communication that it sounds like you and Lisa had. But everyone has hurdles, so what were yours?
Ilene: Without a doubt: technology, technology, technology. There are a lot of things that you can wing or learn as you go, but tech is not one of them. You can certainly teach yourself tech, but it’s really challenging to learn it at a pace that allows your company to keep growing. As a result, technology becomes a pricey outlay, and it’s tough to experiment with. In other areas, you can afford to test different ideas or products or approaches and if you fail, you fail. With tech, it’s too expensive to test and fail, so a lot of energy, time, and money goes into getting it right the first time.
Parachute: In lots of ways, business partnerships can feel like a marriage, making trust a key ingredient for success. What did you do to create a strong company culture?
Ilene: We worked hard to create a workplace where everyone felt valued. We were a scrappy company so we didn’t pursue a lot of cost-intensive approaches. Instead, we really focused on having a culture of gratitude. We said thank you all the time; we let the team know what their contributions enabled; and we shared successes across the team.
Lisa: Ilene and I were friends before we started Activity Rocket. We trusted each other’s skill set, commitment, integrity, and values 100%. We hear all the time how unusual it is for co-founders to have such an incredible relationship and to have survived this long together. We tell our staff and those that we deal with that we want open and honest feedback. So I think the real key to our successful company culture was the foundation of trust and honest communication.
Parachute: You’ve shared what led you to take the plunge, what advice would you give on those days when it feels like taking the plunge wasn’t the right call?
Ilene: Great question. You have to be prepared for those moments because they will come. Ultimately, you have to believe so strongly in something that you can tune out the people (including yourself sometimes) who are saying it won’t work.
Lisa: I agree. There were so many days when we looked at each other and said “are we done?” Others in our industry have come and gone, and so often we questioned whether we were committed and resilient, or just plain stubborn. But every time we came close to actually winding down, something would happen that would give us a sign or bump us to the next level and we just kept going. I also read so many articles about wildly successful companies that were literally on the brink of failure before hitting it big. So my advice would be to listen to yourself and look for those signs that indicate success is still on its way.
Parachute: One of the things we’ve been thinking about here at Parachute is how deceiving the concept of “loving your job” can be. People who are unhappy in their careers tend to hear others saying “I LOVE my job” and embark on a unrealistic search for perfection. What were the imperfect things about Activity Rocket that you accepted and maybe even learned to enjoy or appreciate?
Ilene: I’d point to two things that helped me keep everything in perspective. First, I launched Activity Rocket and (for personal reasons) a rare brain tumor foundation simultaneously. So I always had something that was mine and something different to turn to. I also was able to immediately apply what I saw Lisa doing for Activity Rocket to the foundation so I felt the growth in my own skills and capabilities everyday, and it gave me room to play.
Second, I built a strong sense of self-awareness. I had this unfounded theory that I was less well-equipped to tackle the for-profit, business space. It was harder to be brave in the commercial space. But I quickly found that there was no secret formula, or rocket science frankly, to business; it requires the same thought, resilience, drive, and creativity that other outlets require. Realizing that was definitely rewarding and kept me going even on the tough days.
Parachute: What’s one piece of advice that you would give other entrepreneurs or individuals who want to both succeed and love their career?
Ilene: Be true to yourself; tune out the people who aren’t supportive, but also be practical about how far, how wide, and how deep you can go. And how far, how wide, how deep you want to go.
Parachute: What are you most excited about next?
Ilene: Great question. So many things! It’s interesting because, as an entrepreneur, you have this baby that you grow and nurture, and for us, we got to a place where we knew there were opportunities that we could not realize for our baby on our own. Thrively will allow us to realize those opportunities because we know have the technology, the resources, the experience and the expertise on our team to advance our mission even further.
Lisa: Totally agree. Thrively feeds directly into my passion for education and helping our kids grow and thrive. I absolutely love what we are doing for teachers, parents, and kids and we are super excited to bring the world of personalized learning to personalized enrichment and fun – helping parents make different decisions for their kids – decisions not based just on convenience and logistics (although these are important too) – but decisions based on what the child’s strengths and interests are. All it takes is being exposed to the right program or person or activity at the right time to fundamentally alter the course of a person’s life.
Parachute: Congratulations again, ladies! It all sounds extremely rewarding and exciting, and we’ll look forward to seeing all the great work Activity Rocket and Thrively will do together. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us.
Ilene: Thank you again for having us!