Niel Patel is a 19-year-old currently residing in Minnesota and working passionately on his team startup, Runerra. He served as the 2016-2017 FBLA National President where he focused on the message “We are the Future,” and now lives this message through his entrepreneurial work with Runerra by increasing delivery efficiency nationwide. He is currently on a leave from the University of Minnesota to work on his startup and other projects. Niel Patel spoke with current FBLA National President Eu Ro Wang to give advice on startup entrepreneurship and FBLA leadership to the FBLA members hoping to follow a similar path to success.
Tell me about what you have been up to after high school.
After finishing up the end of my FBLA career and high school, I was going to the University of Minnesota for college. My parents convinced me to stay home the last summer, and I used that time to do some digging into my interests and get a jumpstart on my college preparedness. I knew Minnesota was very much into healthcare and I wanted a job, so I figured I would become a pharmacy technician for Red Cross! Since I was going to the Carlson School of Management, I wanted to start building my business portfolio as well. Earlier that year, I connected with a State Farm agency for an FBLA sponsorship and the regional director came back to me and offered me an internship with them for the summer! Through that, I was recommended to sell insurance with a basic license and soon become the youngest insurance agent in Missouri, which was cool.
After your exciting summer, what have you been pursuing in college?
One of the biggest questions I received after I arrived at the University of Minnesota was “Why did you move to Minnesota after living your whole life in Missouri?” There were a couple reasons:
1. It sounds crazy, but I love the weather!
2. More importantly, I love the people, and wanted to be in an environment where I was encouraged to be myself. I received offers from other colleges, but Minnesota was the right place for me.
But after that, I received my property and casualty insurance license, a company called Northwestern Mutual reached out and asked me if I was interested in selling health and life insurance with them, and it was an amazing opportunity helping families find financial stability.
Since I was working on surrounding myself with the right people, many of them were entrepreneurs. We did some digging into the delivery industry and found that on average, delivery is $12 with the restaurant and consumer paying some in an inefficient system. To solve this inefficiency, we wanted to create delivery density and have more people order from an establishment at once. By asking others if they want something from somewhere you are already ordering, the cost of one delivery is driven down. This is how the startup Runerra was born, and I made a huge commitment to take a leave form school and leave Northwestern despite loving my job. I have learned a ton from the experience, and that brings me to today!
This interview is for FBLA members to get to know your story and also for FBLA members who are interested in starting their own business for guidance. What is your favorite part about working in a startup?
My favorite part would definitely have to be the learning. In other occupations you are doing repeated tasks but in a startup you are building something from scratch and place your mind in a strategic perspective to understand the marketing and development of your project. There are so many bits and pieces that come together to form one company and put one idea into the world. There have been entrepreneurs that do it all themselves, but in my case working with the team dynamic, each person is responsible and accountable for a specific department where their expertise lies to make the goal. You wake up every day and know that you are trying to do the right thing to make the world a better place through your product, and it feels good! You fail many times, but there is a beauty to that failure and you can learn so much.
What should people know before getting into entrepreneurship and what should people do to prepare if they want to be an entrepreneur or create a startup like you did?
Everyone should keep in mind that it’s hard. Just hard, and you should know you are going to fail not once, but multiple times. You should be prepared for that! Having the correct mindset and learning from failures helps you build a character as you go through that, and you will ultimately do what is right rather than what is easy. There is no elevator to success in a startup, and you will have to take the stairs one step at a time!
Are there any specific steps people should take if they want to start their own business?
Of course! Besides the character building I mentioned before, something specific people want to do is get familiar with business structures and the in-and-outs of business. This includes simple concepts like how to corporate something, get your EIN number, build websites and building out different unit economic models. A lot of this comes from networking and reaching out to people who already have the knowledge in these areas. I did not know much of it when I started, but there were many small things that I had to pick up as I went. Other necessary knowledge that comes to mind is pitching and public speaking, which FBLA encourages through competitive events and is super essential to translating your ideas and earning fundraising and accessing your market. Additionally, creativity is always essential to startups without huge budgets!
You mentioned a little bit about failures. If you are comfortable sharing, what are some of the struggles that you have personally faced and how have you overcome them?
Sure. For Runerra specifically, we had a big launch in October and tried to get a bunch of sign-ups that ended up in about 200 users at the end of the day. In a campus of about 50,000 students, we hoped to reach 10-12% of the market and went through a long period where the things we were trying were not giving us more users. That 3-week period was hard to get through, but by putting our heads together and pushing through it, we offered deals to users through the platform and by just the end of the year we had over 1,000 users!
As someone who has served as the National President, do you have any advice for the common FBLA student looking to get involved on a higher level, such as taking on more roles and leadership?
Although it may sound vague, I think the most important thing to do is explore. If there is something you are interested in, take the time, open your laptop, research it, and explore. There will always be things you don’t know, and I am still trying to develop the motivation to constantly be learning. Constant learning is key! For instance, I was interested in stocks for a long time. I contacted a friend who made a business in the field and invited him over. For 4 hours we sat down and he showed me exactly what he did, which was mind-blowing. If there is something you are interested in, just do it while you have the time!
You mentioned podcasts earlier. What kind of podcasts do you listen to?
Podcasts are great! For someone interested in entrepreneurship, Indie Hackers is amazing! They talk with companies that bootstrapped their businesses and did not have a lot of money to begin with, and I find it really interesting. Another good one is The Knowledge Project. If you are interested in keeping up with politics, NPR puts out a 45-minute podcast every Thursday to keep you in the loop politically. It’s not a podcast, but I read The Morning Brew (economics and investing subscription) every morning to get a brief business rundown of everything that is going on each day. Overall, Indie Hackers is probably my favorite, though.
Looking back from the perspective of a National President, what can members do to get more involved in FBLA if they are aspiring to take on more responsibility at the chapter, state and national level?
One of the things I did was talk to the individuals that have already done it. Amber Raub was the Missouri State FBLA President and was in my chapter, so I asked about her about her campaign and for connections to the state advisor to network. This gives you a head start through shared knowledge. Another thing is having a purpose behind your actions, such as when campaigning. I chose “We are the Future” because I believed in that motive and wanted to spread that message through my service as an officer.
Do you have any final tips or advice for FBLA members or anything you want to add?
Someone told me this just this week: Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call! Whether it is me, current national officers or not an officer at all, pick up the phone and call people. Nowadays, social media, texting and the internet are great, but there is something about having an enriching conversation with a person that is amazing. Whether you are looking for a leadership role or to start your own company, pick up the phone to share ideas and explore because working together is powerful! As always, if you have any questions feel free to reach out to me!
Thank you so much for your time, Niel!
Awesome! I love taking the time to talk to you all, thank you!