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Life After Bing

David Bolotsky ‘85: Founder/CEO UncommonGoods

In our - Life After Bing - series, we bring you quick interviews with alumni who are leaders in their fields, trail-blazers. Find out how these alums got to be where they are now, and how Binghamton shaped their lives.

Our featured alumnus is David Bolotsky '85, founder and CEO of UncommonGoods, an online and catalog retailer based in Brooklyn. After earning his degree, David obtained a job on Wall Street. A few years later, he realized he needed to follow his passion, and took a different path.

1. When did you realize you wanted to go into entrepreneurship?

I realized I wanted to be an entrepreneur when I was a child. I started collecting baseball cards as a kid and selling them to other kids. I started a lawn mowing business at 16 -- "Dynamow. Then when I came to Binghamton, I ran the University record store, Slipped Disc, located next to the bowling alley in the basement of the student union. I got the bug then.

Having paid for college myself, and coming out with debt, I decided to postpone the entrepreneurship impulse - for what ended up being 14 years. I kept telling myself, “I'll just do my corporate job for one more year.” Then the company I was working for on Wall Street, Goldman Sachs, was about to go public, and I had a decision to make. I would have to stay for four years to collect the benefits of the IPO stock grant, or I could start a new venture.

2. Do you feel like Binghamton University prepared you for the workforce?

I would say yes, but I would also take issue with that question. I don’t think it was the University’s job to prepare me; I think it was the University’s job to provide me with opportunities to prepare myself. I think you have to go out and make it for yourself.

Binghamton provided great opportunities for me to take advantage of. The record store, for example, helped me learn about business, leadership and management. Binghamton offered management classes, and I was able to get a minor in business and learn basic accounting, which in turn was very helpful for me in obtaining my job on Wall Street. The social experiences I had prepared me, too. I was shy, so living with others in a dorm, as well as participating in classes as a teaching assistant, helped build my social skills. An internship at the Ross Park Zoo and my time on the cross-country team also contributed to my development.

All of those things prepared me for the real world. I learned the value of hard work and persistence, and was fortunate to have a number of terrific, mind-expanding professors.

3. What was the most impactful class you took at Binghamton University?

I had a professor, Elliot Kamlet in accounting, who had a fair amount of real-world experience, so he made a super-dry subject both interesting and engaging. Some of my other favorites were English and political science. I really enjoyed English Professor Martin Bidney, who gave us interpretations of essays and encouraged us to listen to others’ views with an open mind.

4. Who would you say had the greatest influence on your career - teacher, colleague, boss, family member - and what did you learn from that person?

Probably my parents, both of them. They taught me that I’m a human being with values before I’m a worker or manager. They taught me to be true to my values, regardless of what others thought and did. They encouraged me to have a positive impact in whatever I did. They also taught me to question authority, which got me into trouble with some of my high school teachers who didn’t appreciate some of my feedback.

My folks didn’t push me into business (my mom worked with the elderly and my dad worked for the United Nations), but they did shape my values and taught me the importance of believing in myself and never giving up.

5. What are common mistakes that students make, or candidates make, that might make it difficult to obtain a job they are interviewing for?

Blasting out resumes with a “shotgun” approach, instead of being focused. If someone applies to UncommonGoods without a cover letter on why they think they’re qualified, that is something that’s going to hold them back in the application process.

It is a lot more work to personalize each application, and a lot of employers don’t give you a response, but if you want a special response, make your application stand out. Maybe submit a cover letter online and submit it again, and send a hard copy as well in an oversized envelope. Do some research on who the hiring manager is, or see what they’re doing as a business and what they’re looking for. For my first job out of college, I went to the company’s office a day before the interview and asked for research reports that the hiring manager had written, so I could better understand her work (this was before the Internet).

Figure out a way to demonstrate that you really want the job, that you’ll run through walls to do whatever it takes. That’s what’s really important.

6. What is the biggest piece of advice you have for students interested in this field?

I don’t have just one piece of advice, I have a lot of advice. If you’re starting a business, consider keeping your personal and business costs as low as possible. Try not to be dependent on outside funding, but if you are going for it, go to other places before you go to friends and family. I say that because it’s really nice to have a safe haven if you want to talk to your family about business, and if your parents are investors it removes that safe place for you. Think really long and hard before jumping in. And I would advise them to really stick to it and be determined, create a support network, do a lot of informational interviews in related fields, go into something where you don’t have just passion but expertise. And finally, make sure you enjoy it; life is short.

7. Are there mistakes you’ve made during your career, and if so, what lessons have you learned from them?

My philosophy is that there is no such thing as a mistake. There are decisions that I make that, armed with the experience I have following that decision, I would not make again. But calling that a mistake denies the wisdom I gain from that experience, if that makes sense.

Having said that, there are decisions (you can call them mistakes) that I make on an everyday basis that I would make differently based on my experience. One of the biggest issues I’ve had has been being overly critical of others, as opposed to giving them the benefit of the doubt. It is something I keep working on. It’s like that Japanese proverb, “Fall down seven times, get up eight times.” The key is each time you fall down, try to get at the root cause, so you can learn from the experience.

I’m trying to be a better leader, better manager, and it’s important to recognize that you don’t have all the answers, and that you're a lifetime student.