Picture a young teenager growing up in Orlando who was so bored with school that he dropped out in 10th grade. A consistent underachiever, the self-described “self-serving brat” who had little interest in interacting with peers eventually grew up to become the CEO of a successful startup.
Now humbled by his journey, the long and winding path of Feathr CEO Aleksander Levental, has been filled with surprises, challenges and soul-searching.
“Looking back, I was a fairly nerdy kid. I taught myself to program and built my first computer at 13 years old. But I was disillusioned with school,” Levental said.
After dropping out, Levental worked for a while, received his GED and enrolled at Valencia College where he obtained his Associate of Arts degree. Shortly after, he applied to UF to study physics and math and decided to pursue his Ph.D.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I was going to get my master’s and PhD degrees in physics and work in a lab away from people,” Levental said. “But after a summer in Paris, I changed my mind. I had experienced a different part of the world and its beauty and I became jaded with spending my life working alone. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next.”
Meanwhile, a mutual friend, Aidan Augustin, was trying to develop an app to replace printed business cards. Given his experience with coding, Augustin asked Levental if he would help with the technology aspect. This was the infancy of feathr.
“In the beginning of the business, we learned a lot and made a lot of mistakes,” Levental said. “Then we did the right things, but we did them poorly. I realized that the world is not a meritocracy based on who is the smartest or who knows the most. Rather, the most complicated part of being successful is dealing with people.”
Eventually, Levental and partners decided it was time for a change of scenery. They entered a competition which invited start-up businesses to Austin, Texas, and won. They used the year away to brainstorm their decision-making on their business choices.
This resulted in focusing on what they did best—building technology that helps organizations grow their events through targeted advertising and learning more about potential attendees. They also made the choice to move back to their Gainesville roots because of decreased costs and increased resources available to them.
“During that pilot phase of the company, I came to learn a valuable lesson—when you find something that works, it works in spite of your stupidity,” Levental said. “We made the mistake of wasting time and money on trying to tell people what we thought they needed. We needed to focus on meeting our customers’ needs.”
By 2016, after returning to Gainesville, Feathr had raised $2 million in venture capital and moved into a 2,000-square-foot downtown office. Levental became CEO of the company, and Augustin became president.
Once back in Gainesville, Levental and Augustin began what is now phase three of their business—a more customer-focused approach to their product. This also dovetailed with the development of Levental’s own leadership journey.
“Some of the most important things I have learned was that I can’t fake my way through this,” Levental said. “Until I genuinely recognized the value of people—whether it be the needs of our customers or the value of our employees—then all the work we do means nothing.” It was a true wake up call for Levental who admittedly believed he knew more than others. He realized how little he knew and how much he could learn from other people.
“I realized that viewing the world through other people’s eyes allowed me to be a better leader,” Levental said. “I realized that a great employee is someone who comes to work and cares about what they do, not just necessarily the smartest or most educated. A good leader has enough humility to say I have no clue what to do, but talk to me and we can figure out a solution.”