Livrada CEO talks hard lessons learned

“I would like to write a book at some point,” said Leonard Chen, co-founder and CEO of Livrada, a digital solution to create the world’s best e-book buying, giving, and reading experience. Chen paused. “I don’t know if anyone would read it besides my mom.” Chen’s book would detail his journey leading the digital transition of a major music company (Warner Music Group) for five years, learning from the CEOs of startups RjDj and The Grommet, to helming for the past two years an initially bootstrapped startup with $1M in total funding thus far. Livrada is an iteration of Winno, a web application company Chen had co-founded in 2010 with CTO Edison Ko and Jeff Wang that failed after six months. Inspired by their friend/Wipit co-founder/CEO Richard Kang’s e-book gift card idea and a VC’s advice to sell a product, Chen, Ko, Kang, and former Virgin Mobile USA founder/president John Tantum founded Livrada in January 2012. Wang left the Livrada team in February to pursue another tech passion. Since its launch, Livrada has evolved to a business-to-business model of helping publishers and authors sell e-books via non-traditional, customized channels.

Chen confesses he doesn’t fit the stereotype of a twenty something garage tech geek. For one thing, he’s a 37-year-old husband and father of two young children who has learned hard lessons through more mistakes than right decisions.

It’s all interpersonal. Chen was surprised to discover how much time and energy he has spent managing team dynamics. “Those are the things that have kept me up at night. As I have talked to other entrepreneurs, that seems to be the case. Anytime humans have to work together, it’s difficult,” said Chen. “Obviously, we haven’t had anything crazy. We all still work together right now, but there have been hard points.”

As a leader of a company, you have to quickly realize it’s not about you anymore. The faster you get to that point, the better. “It’s about your team and it’s about each person on the team,” said Chen. “I’ve seen other companies where the founders are so concerned about themselves and their reputation. I think there’s an economy where while you focus on other people, somehow hopefully, it all comes back to you. I don’t want to claim that I’ve learned that and I exercise it fully. It’s a learning process.”

Talk about expectations early on with your co-founders and write them down. Chen emphasized the importance of discussing and writing down expectations, including work hours. “Don’t assume just because you’re good friends you’re going to work it all out. Both sides may start to get agitated and resentful if you don’t talk about it, especially if your co-founder has a different lifestyle. Talk through all your potential problems before you have them,” said Chen.

There’s never going to be a perfect time to start a company. “If you want to do it, you’re ready, and you have a decent support system, you should just do it,” said Chen, who started Livrada a few months before his second child was born – a challenge, to say the least.

It’s key that your family is fully on board. “It takes such a toll on family life,” said Chen. “We [Chen and Ko] are miserable to be around a lot. We both probably work 12, 14-hour days. When you sit down with whoever is involved in your day-to-day life, you have to really lay it out before you start. It’s going to be nuts for a few years. If I didn’t have my wife’s support, it would be 10 times harder.”

Be a steward of your team. Chen tries to imagine what each team member will be doing in 10 years. “Whether Livrada succeeds or fails, how can I get them to what they were called or made to do?” Chen ponders. “I view their time with me as my responsibility to push them along toward their life goals. I think that view of being a steward of the people who are in your care for this time – whether a month, two years, or five years – is important to your company’s overall health.”

Don’t be shy about seeking advice and help from fellow entrepreneurs. “There’s an understanding amongst entrepreneurs that the odds are stacked against you, there’s a high chance you’re going to fail, and if you can do anything to help each other, most people are more than willing,” said Chen.

Be confident. “Don’t be shy about what you’ve built. Don’t apologize for not having certain experience. Every entrepreneur who’s successful, when they first started out, they didn’t know what they were doing. Swing for the fences. We don’t know what the outcome of Livrada will be yet. Every day I come in, expect the best, and brace myself for the worst. You have one shot. You can’t have a plan B.”

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