When I Grow Up: Excell Lewis, Founder of XL Academics, Part II
In part I of our interview with Excell, he took us through a little bit of his life growing up, and some of the lessons he learned during college. From wanting to be an architect to being academically dismissed from Northern Illinois University, we get a candid look into the challenegs he overcame to become a successful business owner. In part II of our interview, we learn how he built his business and the keys to success that he learned along the way! We would like to thank Excell for his time and honest. We hope his interview challenges you to never give up on your dreams!
BNW: Tell us a little bit about your company.
EL: I have two companies, one is for profit. Excel Academics is a title S corporation and we build platforms for high schools and colleges around mentorship. The non-profit I started in 2009 from a speaker that I secured to launch my for profit company. I said I love the aspect of connecting students with professionals, but corporations are not going to give [money] to a for profit, so I have got to do something a little different. So to make it enticing for corporations to give we started the non-profit and we have expanded a little bit since then to be actively pursuing grants that provide training programs under the non-profit, which is XLA Foundation.
BNW: Looking back to when you first started the company, what do you think the biggest challenge you had to overcome to get it to where it is today is?
EL: Everything! I am actually writing a book now and the first chapter is entitled, “appreciate the struggle.” When I started my business I knew nothing about the practice of doing business. What I knew well was education. Everything else was a learning lesson. Strategically I had a lot to learn in terms of building the infrastructure for the business to see it succeed. From a technology standpoint, I was challenged in terms of understanding the code and hiring the right individuals to make the technology work. We burned a lot of money making sure we were partnered with the right companies and weren’t being taken advantage of in terms of the technology.
BNW: Looking back now on your time in college, are there any skills you acquired while in school, whether undergraduate or graduate school, that you find yourself using now that you are surprised about?
EL: It was interesting for me to learn that the power of networking would be so important. The relationships that I built back in college are paying off now and many of those relationships didn’t start to pay off until now. I guess a component of it is surprising, but the power of networks, I would have to say that.
BNW: On days when it seems like everything is going wrong, what is the motivating factor that keeps you pursuing this?
EL: Well, that happened yesterday.
BNW: Everything went wrong yesterday?
EL: Absolutely. Everything that could’ve gone wrong yesterday went wrong.
BNW: So how are you up today, happy, smiling and still pushing forward?
EL: If going into it I understand where you know you can take the business and if I understand where I know this business can go. It is those days that are very important. I know those are running lessons. I don’t like to view them as bad days. I do have some opportune stricken days, but those opportunities make us stronger.
BNW: What is your favorite part of the process so far?
EL: My favorite part is seeing the evolution and being able to work with talented individuals and see them grow. I looked about a week ago and I said, my god, I have a strategic partnership with Northern Illinois University and through that partnership, we pay a pretty hefty stipend for the student and then the school picks up all of their tuition. Through the relationship with Excel Academics, we have put about 6 graduate students through school already.
BNW: That’s amazing.
EL: We have another five that are on the payroll now. So, to really see them succeed and go on to reach their goals has been phenomenal.
BNW: Do you have mentors?
EL: Yes, I have had a number of individuals that have helped me. In terms of mentors, I look for individuals that have taken their companies or the companies that they work for to those higher heights. A true mentor is an individual that has been there and can provide you a blueprint for how to get there. I can list off about 5 of them that have been extremely impactful in my life.
BNW: Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years?
EL: In 5 years, I want to be IPO ready.
BNW: Are you on track to be IPO ready in 5 years?
EL: We are approaching our first round of seed. So we should be, this year is a very defining year for us. Last year really set the stage for us. We reached a threshold for us that really surprised me when I looked at the numbers. So I think we are positioned nicely for it and I think that we have the advisors in place, some of them have taken their companies IPO, so we have that blueprint to tap into to make that happen.
BNW: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started out on your journey to entrepreneurship?
EL: I knew nothing about angel groups, I knew very little about leveraging connections and leveraging dollars. What I would have done differently is not used so much of my own money. I would have leveraged resources and I would have really taken time to flush out my business plan and gotten it vetted by professionals, by my group of mentors and advisors before I even started the practice of doing business. That would have saved me a lot of time and money, so just being strategic.
BNW: If there is a young person reading this, and says, hey I want to get involved in that space, I want to be an entrepreneur, I want to work in the field of mentorship. What are some tangible things or resources they can tap into on their university campuses?
EL: There are small business development centers across the country and a number of them do a great job in helping entrepreneurs who have that vision to start a company, putting them on the right track to doing so. Business departments, interestingly enough, investors circle around or investment groups or VC groups circle around educational institutions because they are looking for the newest and freshest ideas as well. So partnering yourself with your business department, with your instructors within that business department, because if they are not investors themselves or belong to investment groups themselves, they can put you in contact with those individuals that can get you at least thinking about what your dream is and what your passion is and trying to actualize that. So, small business development centers, business centers within institutes, 4 year and 2 year institutions, as well as SCORE. I think score is a nice support system for assisting individuals and flushing out their ideas and starting with the creation of their business plans.