First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Ben Labra: Everyone is healthy and strong. We have learned how to navigate these unfortunate times by taking on new challenges and learning new skills.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Gesture
Ben Labra: I’m originally from Denver, Colorado, and I bring 20+ years of experience in management, operations, technology, and leadership. An entrepreneur at heart, I started a successful IT business at the age of 16 while working at the counter in a local KFC restaurant. Over two years, I raised enough startup capital to purchase two franchises by the age of 18. Two years later, I sold both businesses for a strong return and enrolled in college to pursue a degree in information technology and business.
After graduation, I immediately began a career in finance with Citi as a desk trader and later moved to the risk and compliance department. After 5 years with Citi, I made my way into higher education. In 2010, I joined the executive team of a large beauty, health, and wellness education firm as the Chief Admissions Officer, where I eventually managed 150+ people and held various roles in Admissions, Revenue & Marketing. I went on to attend executive education degrees at Columbia Business School, followed by WashU Law School.
After leaving corporate life, I returned to my entrepreneurial roots and founded the first LinkedIn for high school students, yondster.com. This afforded me experience in coding & software development, startup operations, and technology management. A few years later, realizing that flower & gift delivery is costly and the delivery process is extremely slow & unreliable, my co-founders and I created a less expensive, more attractive, and faster option of sending thoughtful gifts, flowers, wine, and more. Think of 1800flowers meets Doordash.
How does Gesture innovate?
Innovation is crucial. I encourage ideas and solicit feedback from every single person in the organization. We take those ideas and place them into an innovation tank, sort them, and figure out what to build next. We also make sure that we stay very scrappy as a startup. We use intellectual bartering to trade services with other companies. This helps us conserve cash to invest in other resources.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Ben Labra: The COVID-19 pandemic actually had a very positive impact on Gesture. It allowed us to push ourselves to the next level. Over the summer, we had three of the best months ever. We are just looking for any way to keep our head above water and survive these crazy and unpredictable days. We are not the most financially strong startup, but we are resourceful AF, and we make stuff happen.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Ben Labra: Making difficult choices as a founder and CEO is all part of the job. Since this is my second startup venture, I was able to gauge what sort of situations we would encounter. The lesson learned is that the founders don’t always have the right answers. You learn more when you are vulnerable and humble. People are more inclined to help you.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Gesture in the future?
Ben Labra: Stress and anxiety is for those with no spiritual foundation. I believe in God and pray daily. One must have some sort of spiritual connection regardless of what or who it is. Some people use meditation or chanting through Buddhism. Regardless of what you believe in, it’s important to have an emotional outlet.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Ben Labra: Our main competitors are companies like 1800flowers, bouqs, drizzly, and urbanstems. I believe without competition, there is no ball game. We don’t obsess with what our competitors are doing, but we pay close attention. We have one secret ingredient/strategy that we have over our competitors, but unfortunately, we cannot say here. Order a Gesture, and you will see for yourself.
Your final thoughts?
Ben Labra: I believe that nothing can be accomplished unless you surround yourself with great people. My co-founders Daniel Sosunov and Christian Casteneda, are the real ninjas. They equally share the company vision and work harder than anyone I have ever met in my life. They are real hustlers. If there was a picture in the dictionary next to the definitions hustler, intelligent, and driven, you would find their images right next to each of these words. I am truly grateful and thank God for being blessed to be partners with these amazing humans.