By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
September 1, 2013
by Vivian Henoch
There are those who have dream jobs. And there are others who create them.
Entrepreneurial in spirit, brilliant in their vision, bold in their enterprise and naturally competitive (as only brothers can be), Andrew and Ryan Landau returned to Detroit just over a year ago. To build a business. Together. (As only brothers can do.)
With strong family ties to Detroit, Andrew and Ryan left what some might consider cool jobs in hot cities – Andrew from Google in Chicago, Ryan from IBM in Washington, D.C. Together they brought back a powerhouse of marketing skills and ecommerce experience along with desire: to disrupt a sleeping industry – one that hadn’t changed in decades. Together, they made a name for themselves, creating Chalkfly, a dot com designed to take off and fly.
“It’s not the value of the pencil or the pen; it’s what you can do with it.”
From blank page, to launch, all through its remarkable startup year, Chalkfly.com has flown in the face of the big box retailers – Staples and Amazon – to reinvent the experience of buying office and school supplies. Now, with more than 50,000 products online, 52 distributors nationwide, 24/7 live-customer service, a 365-day no-hassle return policy, free overnight shipping, and a philanthropic mission to give back to teachers 5% of every purchase made — Chalkfly has won friends and followers and the hearts of thousands of teachers across the country.
From a company of two, Chalkfly has taken off to a team of 15 full-time employees, with plans to grow by at least 50% by year’s end. With double-digit growth for every month since they started, Chalkfly expects over $2 million in sales in 2013. Andrew and Ryan have created the youngest, fastest growing new ecommerce company – now listed among the top 1,000 ecommerce companies in the U.S., among Internet Retailer’s Second 500.
Headquartered in the hub of Detroit’s start-up activity, downtown in the M@dison Building, Chalkfly has found its place in the city. And so, too, have the brothers Landau. Beyond their business, both Andrew and Ryan have taken on leadership roles in the community. Andrew serves as the youngest member of the Executive Board of Tamarack Camps, while Ryan is a board member of Federation’s NEXTGen and teaches a business class at the Frankel Jewish Academy.
“The business is doing well,” says Andrew, “but the bigger thing is making a difference in the community.”
On start-ups in life and family ties
Q: From Google and IBM to office supplies, as brothers in business together, what inspired you to start Chalkfly?
Ryan: Well, we’ve always been the Landau Brothers – and you have to give our parents credit for that. Our upbringing, our core family values, and the opportunities our parents have given us are all things we consider and bring to the mix of our business every day.
As many in our community know, our mother (Debbie Laudau) has been a part of Tamarack Camps for years. Our dad (Mark Landau) is an attorney who has served as a member of numerous boards including JVS. Our parents always have been our role models for community engagement.
Andrew: Ryan and I have been business partners for more than half of our lives. Back in elementary school, we started a concession catering company called Carnival Extravaganza – a business we maintained through high school serving birthday parties, bar mitzvahs and sports events.
Even though our careers took off in different directions after college, we always figured we’d move back to Detroit to start a business of our own. Working together, being close to family and being back in Detroit was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.
Ryan: Drawing from our experience with large companies – IBM and Google — we started Chalkfly with the aim to be the ‘Zappos of office supplies.’ Yes, that’s a big idea. But, when you think about the industry now, there’s nothing sexy or super cool about selling pens and paper. And that’s exactly where there’s a large and attractive niche market for us. With Chalkfly, we have the opportunity to transform a bland category into a hot brand by adding what we know about social media, marketing innovation, technology, service, rewarding customers and giving back to the community.
Q: Why Detroit, why now?
Ryan: We could have launched Chalkfly anywhere, taken it all online, but that wasn’t even in discussion. We started with a big idea. To get investors and a team in place, we knew it would never be enough to hit a single or double, we had to hit a grand slam. What better place to hit one out of the park now than in Detroit?
Being in Detroit has given us a unique opportunity to make an immediate impact in the community, to be a part of the transformation happening in the city, and that’s an opportunity we would not have anywhere else.
Andrew: One of the key tenets of Chalkfly is that we’re a family business – and that means we hold in account our commitment to giving back to the community. Philanthropy isn’t something to do later — it’s a pillar on which we founded our company. This is why we take 5% of all sales and directly give it back to teachers.
Many people who work with us are former teachers involved in community organizations. They’ve become our ambassadors, and contribute a vital perspective to the company.
Our family ties and deep connections to the community are the very things that drew us back to Detroit, but now that we’re here, we’re also working on something bigger and I think that message resonates with our employees and customers as well.
Ryan: Our message also resonated with investors. In July 2012, Chalkfly joined Bizdom which is the tech incubator for high potential startups founded and owned by Dan Gilbert. Bizdom accepts multiple companies every season to go through the program with the goal to grow and show success.
We were fortunate: In fact, Chalkfly was the first company to graduate from the Bizdom accelerator and launch through Detroit Venture Partners (DVP). With the backing of Josh Linkner, managing partner of DVP and others, DVP raised $750,000 in venture capital to fund us and take us to the next level.
On Jewish Detroit and lessons from Camp Tamarack
Q: How has being a part of the Jewish community of Detroit influenced your choices?
Ryan: There’s no question that the Jewish community has influenced and nurtured our business. Just look at all the leaders around us – Dan Gilbert, Josh Linkner, Brian Hermelin and Scott Kaufman (CEO of the Detroit Federation) have all been mentors and tremendous support to both of us. As they pass that baton down to the next generation of leaders, we want to be a part of that group.
Andrew: Our strong family ties to our community, to the city – and beyond — are driving aspects of our business. Obviously we’re brothers, we have our differences (I’m a Wolverine, and Ryan is a Spartan, for instance) but our company is like a huge family. We’re all brothers and sisters.
The way we work at Chalkfly sometimes makes me think of our days as campers, counselors and staff at Camp Tamarack.
Q: How so?
A: The thing about Tamarack is that there’s this broader sense of community. Every day you’re doing something to make a difference, and every person is part of a larger story. And because we’re in it together, we’re growing together. Imagine, the best of Google, IBM and Tamarack and creating the perfect company experience – that would be our goal for Chalkfly.
On Detroit optimism vs. pessimism
Q: In many ways Detroit is a tale of two cities. Chalkfly has done well in the worst of times. What would you tell people considering moving back to Detroit or moving here for the first time?
Andrew: Do it right now. Coming to Detroit can be the smartest move you’ll ever make.
I think attitude has everything to do with your view of the city. There’s a way to look at the glass as half empty or half full. We see it as completely full. This is a city that forever has been successful in multiple industries, so it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. I think we’re at the start of the next thing and we’re lucky to be a part of that.
Ryan: I agree: People can look at all these empty buildings and graffiti. But we look at all the signs around us that say in capital letters, OPPORTUNITY: DETROIT. The change in our city is within reach if you dare to dream it, think it, build it, create it, support it. Detroit is a long-lasting family commitment for us. We’re here for the long run.
Landau Brothers’ favorites
Restaurant: Green Dot Stables
Hangout for coffee: Great Lakes Coffee
Hangout for drinks with friends: Grand Trunk
Building in the Detroit skyline: Penobscot Building – incredible inside and out
Place to get out and play: Belle Isle – having a renaissance
Jewish Food: Bagels and lox
The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, by Gary Keller