Welcome to this new episode of bootstrapping your dream show today we will be talking with Alexandra Efimova. Alexandra is the CEO of RP group International, which she founded in 1998 and grew into a premier brand of footwear, apparel, accessories and wellness products. She’s an entrepreneur and leader with extensive experience in developing collaboration among individuals and organizations throughout the business, non-profit, governmental, and educational sectors. She holds an executive diploma from the Harvard Business School, she appeared on the Inc 5000 list. She was an EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist in 2017. And she has been featured in many publications, including Forbes, women, Bloomberg, Newsweek, NBC, Chicago, and Crain’s Detroit Business.
Well, welcome Alexandra, we are so excited to have you here.
Thank you. So such a warm welcome. It’s true pleasure to be here on your podcast for such an important topic, which is one of my most favorite topics in life is entrepreneurship.
Yeah, exactly. And we have a lot of aspiring and existing entrepreneurs in our, in our audience. And we also have career professionals who want to, you know, climb that corporate ladder. But at the end of the day, the principles for entrepreneurs and professionals, they are very similar. they overlap, you know, so let’s start there. You know, let’s talk about your journey. How did you get started in entrepreneurship?
Me starting as an entrepreneur or as a true accident. With my family, we came to the United States in 1993. I completed two years of high school in an Arbor, Michigan. And then I started my undergraduate studies, and I studied international business. In my life back in the Soviet Union and Russia. I was a dancer ballet, competitive ballroom dancing, also graduated from Hermitage Museum, art school, thinking I will be building a career, the world of arts. When we came to the United States and I started my education here, I get really interested in business classes. And growing up in the Soviet Union, we really didn’t even have the concept of entrepreneurship. So I didn’t grow up, dreaming of having my own business or even seeing anybody around me having their own business because everything was owned by the government. So I started in my undergraduate studies. And as part of my education program, during my junior year, we had to write a business plan for one of the entrepreneurship classes. And some students wrote a business class plan about starting a restaurant transportation company, a bank, and I thought, What do I know? And what do I like? I love to dance. I love the arts. I know a lot about Russia. What is Russia famous for? We’re famous for ballet, and putting men in the space among so many other things. So I thought, Well, why don’t they write a business plan on what it’s like to import some ballet shoes from Russia. And after I completed the plan, I thought, well, I am putting myself through school I’m working. But this plan that I wrote, this part of my education sounds like a pretty good plan. I mean, I put a lot of thought and work into it. So I decided to execute it. And this is exactly how I started I was 20 years old. I lived in a college apartment with a roommate. I used 1200 dollars, which was a financial aid from the state of Michigan for that semester. I use that to finance my business cards, opening a corporation in America buying the first supplies and going to the first local business trip to see customers. So this is how I started 21 years ago. Currently, we are one of the premium brands of dance vertical Russian point. We are sold in over 550 stores. We also have a very successful e-commerce business. And with official suppliers, the many tap dance companies around the world, we offer a full selection of dancing products, apparel, footwear, accessories, wellness. And we do it for all that to dance ballet tap jazz character, modern, lyrical, and many others.
Awesome. That’s an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing that. Now, one thing I noticed, which is quite interesting is that you made your hobby, something that you really liked and you was passionate for. You made it into a business, how much that had a role in actually growing this business to the extent that it has grown. Over the years?
I feel very fortunate that I found an opportunity to build a successful business is something that I’m truly passionate about. And I spend my whole life child advancing, I danced for the University of Michigan ballroom dance team. So and I really believe that the arts, fitness dance movement is good for people. Any age at a young age, girls not only learn beautiful technique, but it teaches them skills that will help them succeed in all aspects of their life. discipline, focus, teamwork, performance, confidence to be onstage, these are all the skills that they will need when they become successful career bankers or entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers, public speakers. And as exciting as it is to build a business or definitely down moments. Whatever it is, it’s unavoidable. Yeah. But when we’re passionate about what we do, which is really it just makes us I think, gives us one more reason to overcome those challenges or those low moments, because we really care for the subject. And make makes it more fun. You know, all my team members, they’re very passionate about them. They either used to be the teachers or they’re still a coach’s gadgets, or they danced as a child. And then they majored in business. And it’s like a perfect merge of two things that passion for dance and their education and marketing, for example. So it certainly made a difference for me. But at the same time, I want to warn the entrepreneurs who are as somebody who is thinking, what business to start, is that this little sense that my passion and my hobby for dance became a bit of work. And 14 years ago, I stopped dancing because I wanted to have that separation between my business and my hobbies and passions, which kind of strengthen my love for dance because now I’m really excited to wake up in the morning and go work with dancers. But then I developed some really fantastic other hobbies, young bands. So this is like a little bit of a stick with who edges positive one because it makes us really excited to work in the industry, but in a way like I lost that as a passion as a hobby because they work.
I see that’s a very good point. Actually, I’ve never heard anybody share that point of view that, you know, if you are very passionate about something, and you actually incorporate that into your business that, you know, it may feel overwhelming because you it’s your passion. And you’re dealing with that all the 24 hours, seven days a week. So yeah, I mean that I can see how that that can become a little bit. Oh, great. Now let’s talk about your early success. You said, you know, you had $500, you started the business. So I assume that was the only investment you put it in there. So almost like a bootstrap your business?
Yeah. So early success, I would say it’s a very over glamorized statement. And that’s another important thing that I want to share with aspiring entrepreneurs. What you said in my introduction, the Forbes article them, Inc, 5000, less the Harvard Business School, this came much, much, much later, together with a financial rewards that made me able to afford a beautiful apartments and phenomenal trips and luxury cars and many other great things that people associate with success in a longest, longest time of life. Before I was, while i was growing the business, it was very, very difficult. And I struggled tremendously. 1200 dollars was definitely not enough to grow the business. So I had to figure out how to be creative in every possible way. I would reinvest everything that I would make reinvested back in the business, I would have to be creative. How do I use my little funds available to get the maximum impact? And way I’m very happy about this, because it also taught me how to find ways to use our marketing money to use the time the limited resources to get the maximum effect and maximum results.
Yeah, yeah, no, that’s so true. Like that goes hand in hand with bootstrapping. And that’s why I’m quite passionate about that. Do you think now like let’s say earlier on, if you met an investor, rich investor, and they said, You know, I like your idea, I’m willing to invest a million dollars in your idea, do you think you would have been successful as you know, in this to the same extent as you have been, right now, our bootstrapping is a better way to grow a business and take it to the level that you are?
It’s a very good question. And I think it depends. Now looking back, I’m so glad that when I was 20, or 25, or even 30, somebody didn’t give me a million dollars, because I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Yeah, I feel like I earned, everything I learned and everything I know, now, I earned my own way, maybe it was slower, maybe I would have moved faster. But I feel such confidence now and understanding of every process, because I used to be the one taking those boxes and taking it to the escalation, I used to be the one going to every single sales call, every single trade show and picking up the phone to process that order. So I understand how the customer’s thing and I understand how the product design works and how their inventory management works. So now, if I do bring investments from that side, whatever the format is, I definitely make a much better choices how to invest it, I always invested as it as my own money, not as somebody else’s money, because when it’s not your own money, it is much easier to waste that. And when you’re in a situation where which I’ve been to ups would stop coming to pick up the boxes, where the phones shut off, when electricity got shut off. And when I get kicked out of my university for not paying the bills, that’s a very different mode of survival that I had to figure out how to fix the problem and how to fix the imperfect mistakes that were made.
Yeah, for sure. Yeah, that those are really true signs of you know, bootstrap entrepreneur, getting through tough times and learning from it and growing from it. So thanks a lot for sharing that as well. Now, one of the things that I like to talk about with people who have immigrated from abroad, because immigration seems to be a very hot topic these days. Do you think you had some advantages or disadvantages, having grown up in a different country, different culture, and then coming over to America to start a new business?
I have never thought and I never questioned myself, whether it’s advantage or disadvantage, because I can change it. I just got to deal with that. So I, I was too young, I think to even think about that. I’m a disadvantage. I was 15 years old when we came and I’m like, Okay, well, now I live in America, I gotta learn the language. I gotta figure out how I’m gonna do with my future things changed. My parents got divorced. So now this is my new life. And back then 26 years ago, I think we didn’t discuss so much in in a society in the media, that immigrants are in disadvantage or woman or in disadvantage. I never felt them and disadvantage, because I’m a foreigner. I speak two languages. That’s an advantage. I’m a woman. Maybe I can use my charming smile sometimes and fix certain things that may be a man can’t. I always start over like, I want to turn my what seems like disadvantage into advantage, I was 20 years old who started business. they didn’t have to be continuous in the print shop. They didn’t take me serious into in anywhere in the bank. They thought I’m like a secretary. And but guess what? No, it kind of toughens you up as a character. It teaches you how to prove where the results that you earn the seat at the table. And it’s only the results that speak louder than words. I never thought that it’s just vanish. And I don’t want anybody to who comes from foreign country. Look at it as you you had any experience in life and moving from one city to another toughens you up, but across the country is it makes it even better as a person.
Yeah, that’s an excellent advice. Now, let’s talk about getting customer. So you How did you get your first customers?
Well, let’s go back into 1998. How did we get our customers It was either knocking on the door, I was using yellow pages to make cold calls, right? There was very basic intranet, but the dialogue, there was no Google, there was no Yelp and there was no social media. So the only way we could locate customers was yellow pages. And I would open the yellow pages in the letter D. And I would make phone calls to all everybody who is in that category, whether it’s advancing supplies, advancing schools. And at that time, I spoke English only four years. So I had a very thick Russian accent, where I would have zero marketing experience. I didn’t know what a good sales call is like. So I would approach customers. And this was something like sounded like this. My name is Alexandra. I have shoes from Russian and Russian ballet skirt, and you must buy my shoes. The customers doing hang up on phone, the me that was a very diverse successful phone call. Yeah. So that’s how we started. And then also, if you think about it, so if you live in an Arbor, Michigan, the only yellow pages you have in your phone booth or delivered to your home is from an arbor area. Maybe you can get the yellow pages from Detroit. If you have phone call phone numbers from New York or California. So I would literally ask my friends who traveled to different parts of the country to rip out pages from Yellow Pages, letter D, from different parts of the country. And that’s how I would collect numbers because by mailing list was too expensive for me. So if you ever came across the yellow pages with the pages missing and the letter D, that was probably my fault.
Okay, awesome, awesome, that’s great. This conversation is so full of wisdom. And it’s, it’s really funny and, you know, informative at the same same time. So I’m laughing because you know, I’ve gone through similar things where, you know, you don’t have resources, and you just need to figure out, you know, how to how to get this information, whatever you’re looking for, and you come up with these creative ways of doing things. And sometimes it’s even embarrassing to admit that you did this. So thanks a lot for being honest and sharing that. Now, from there, how did you scale and like, when I talk about scale, scaling a business with entrepreneurs, you know, a common story I hear is, you know, there’s a spurt of growth, and then it plateaus for some time. And then, you know, you figured out something else, and then it grows a little bit and then plateaus. Did you experience that? Or was it like a sort of a steady rise in your business growth?
Yeah, so I would say in our case, it was a steady rise of with kind of sales and the percentage of growth. But one of the big things I learned as entrepreneurs, my role as a leader is to lead and to work in a strategic alliances, and there’s a couple exciting developments that our business side will be happy to share with your Yeah, if you’re ready, and to inspire, and the coach might see him to perform at the best of their potential. My role as a enterpreneur is to create systems in place, to set that will help them to do it in a very efficient way. My role is to create the vision and the mission for the organization, set clear goals and objectives, communicate priorities, and put the right people in places. So once I learn how to do that, then we started growing together as a team faster, adding new products, I look like eating new customers investing in technology and going on more sales trips, within more educational programs. So that’s what I was able to do. So now just very exciting. Recently, as you know, we started our own podcast 5678 podcast, for people in the move, that’s been kind of a great media PR opportunity for us. Then recently, we acquired the new brand in the fitness and wellness industry. So now we have RP group International, the holding company of multiple brands for dance, fitness, wellness, and media, which each brand is strong enough to live on itself and function. But then there’s a synergies between the brands and between the back office. And that’s what I always have in mind for my business. So now I’m just really high I think, I mean, I’ve never done drugs, but I think that’s feeling high is like his dream of operating the successful enterprise in folio brands.
That’s great. Well, congratulations on all the success. Now, one thing I wanted to let me see, yes, team. So you brought up a very important point about the team. So when you bootstrap your business and you’re growing, there comes a certain point, you cannot handle the business activities by yourself. So how did you recruit the team? How did you pay them? When you were, you know, struggling? To pay yourself or even be your rent?
Yeah, very good question. My very first helper was my roommate. So still two students sharing one apartment. So my roommate would help me pack boxes after classes in an exchange where I would pay a portion of her rent. So that was my very first employee. And then there was a couple of others students for armenia, actually who were my friends. So they would help me pack boxes. So that’s what was and definitely, I had to pay them before I paid myself, because they depended on me.
So now I’m very lucky, the team, I am very proud of them. It’s there’s a great commitment and passion for success and for what we do believe in the brands and synergy between the team and one of my happiest moments in the offices when I hear my colleagues, you know, laughing drawing and the whiteboards, putting ideas together. And, and all of this is happening in the balcony I am a jealous sometimes because they haven’t gone, brainstorming meetings that they’re going to brief me on later. But like this is fantastic time together as a team creating something and they can do it without me. And it’s like almost like allowing them to do it without my own oversight, which is so awesome.
Awesome. That’s great. So obviously, you have built a very good culture, you know, nourishing culture. How did you how did you do that? What what do you look for in people when you hire them? And how do you nurture them? How do you get them to a point where their autonomous and and doing things out of their own passion rather than you pushing them?
Yeah, it’s a very important question. I think all leaders, we ask ourselves, how do we do it? And how do we build a good healthy culture? and culture? It’s, it’s what people do when no one is watching? What they do they do the right thing when nobody is watching, do they do it on their own. And we will look for people with integrity, with work ethic, with an esteem and people who qualified and know what they’re hired to do. We have a full transparency, who’s responsible for what we keep them accountable. We have regular checking meetings, depending on how big the project is, or ongoing meetings. And also, people need to understand how they’re part of the work fits into overall company, projects and overall company movement. Because if they only doing, let’s say, inventory management, it could in they need, this is only as far as they see. But understanding how doing inventory management, well, how is that impacted by marketing by the sales team by the new collections with introducing by the new markets reopening, they need to understand how they can do their job better. But then also, if they do their job, great how that’s going to help the rest of the team and their colleagues to do their job even better. And as a result of it, we have more business. So then we can add in design more products, and then their job becomes even more impactful. And then we’ll win as a team. So it’s a day-to-day and it’s a small thing. So yes, we’re talking about the big strategy, small thing, are we holding the door for somebody, we’re able to be offering to help with the maybe carrying the bag, if somebody just came back from the trip where the suitcases from the trade show, it was celebrating birthdays and successes. So it’s Yes, it’s a big strategic planning of its support sort of human to human relationship. And that’s being built when we’re together. It can build a corporate culture, if everybody sits on separate Starbucks’s across the country, that’s not a corporate culture, you got to be together. And I joke that we you know, you got to be around purple walls, which is our corporate color, because that has a positive impact on us. So that’s, we live in a very remote world. But I think it’s so important that we all still get together.
Awesome, that’s quite inspiring. Now, you also mentioned you grew your business with collaboration partnerships with others, how important is that, especially earlier on when you’re trying to get new sales quickly and grow your business rapidly?
Well, it’s important to have partnerships and alliances, whether it’s organizations in the industry, whether it’s a local business clubs, maybe local universities, a mentorship group, or a peer support group of other entrepreneurs. So it’s having the network of people to reach out to them, maybe not necessarily your clients, but somebody was, who can help you whether through the network, or through ideas, or advice or connections, they’re very important.
And as you are growing your business, Do you sometimes feel that things which used to work sometimes start to break down as you’re, you know, scaling and you’re growing? Or? Or is it a linear sort of process of just scaling your your internal processes and people and being along with the business?
Yeah, it’s a great question, because the only constant in life is change. Change is hard. It’s hard. It’s against the human nature. Yeah, I think one of the things that I learned to love about my life and about life isn’t bring your is the change, whether it’s a change of scenery, when I’m going on a hiking trip, to Mont Blanc for National Geographic, or whether it’s learning and a new hobby, like kayaking, or being an entrepreneur of changing improving in the constant mode. And currently, right before our interview, I was in a conference call with system we are with a tea company that’s upgrading our backend. So all the inventory management, customer base, so technology, we completely get it out. And it’s because of change the way we process orders the way the team has to learn new things. Not to mention that cause I think like three times more than the first 9 condominium that I ever purchased. So it’s scary, but at the same time, I see what an opportunity that’s going to give us to grow faster. Yeah, the hard change for a lot of entrepreneurs is giving up control. Because entrepreneurs, we look at our business as our child, and our everything, I mean, we put our life on the line for this business and giving up control, even for highly qualified people were hired to be our managers and vice president is very challenging. So it’s, um, I think we need to learn how to embrace change, and how to be comfortable with the change because the only thing constant in life is change.
All those are really good words of wisdom right there letting go of control, as I think it’s very hard, can I put it like it’s right there at in the top few things that entrepreneurs need to learn to do. And it’s really hard as you put it, and you know, I struggle with it on many occasions and still trying to figure it out. But But yeah, it’s very, very important. Now, you have done a lot of things, right. But you must have made some mistakes along the way. So can you share a few mistakes that you that you consider, dot you really significant lessons? And what lessons, what those?
It’s a very good question, I think, mistakes are unavoidable. Right? Hopefully, we learn from our mistakes. It was definitely quite a few wrong hires that I did. And when I look back, I definitely see a lot of little signs in the beginning, either during interviews, maybe or right in the beginning that were like, no red flags that I kept avoiding, or I chose not to notice, or I brought it up to the attention. And then my team have convinced me that, you know, it’s either fixable, or we need to give a person more time. And then then that was, you know, we have to let go with the ball. But in some cases, that person costs a lot of trouble, whether it was you know, internal turbulence, whether it was around the relationship with the clients. So one of them in things that I learned is to listen to my intuition. learn from my mistakes is to listen to my intuition to do more due diligence, not to avoid warning signs and the beginning. And, and I think, if I would have been better equipped with maybe analyzing people or interviewing better that time, you know, I could have maybe avoided some of those mistakes. But you know, it is, it’s part of owning a business.
Sure, yeah. Okay. Now, let’s talk about your podcast. 5678. So what is it about it? It’s an interesting name.
So when you tell it to the answer it says, I know what it is, it’s a podcast about dance. Typically, what a teacher dance teacher will say, right before they start a class or there is a repeat, again, 5678 go. So that’s what all these dancers get up and they start dancing. So we were looking for a name that is not strictly tied into dance and ballet, but then something that would be very recognizable by people in the industry. And I just feel like we in such a phenomenal industry of dance. And there are so many lessons to learn from dance that goes beyond the dance floor or the stage that I wanted to share this phenomenal stories with extraordinary people in the world of dance with my audience. And I interview artistic director of professional dancers, Executive Directors of dance companies, as well as people like foot podiatrist, the ladies instructors into partners, or the people who used to work as chill dancers, children, but now working with different fields, executives in banks, or in a nonprofit organizations and engineering firms, to show them what they learn as dance, in dance as children, how it’s helping them to succeed in life. I love doing interviews, I hope you enjoying doing interviews as much as I do, because every time I get off the phone, I’m like, this is so cool. I know so much about this person.
Exactly. No, it’s so interesting. Just talking to people talking to, you know, sharing their successes, sharing their failures, learning from them. And yeah, it’s the best thing in the world. And I get, you know, as the as you know, we get to talk to so many accomplished, experienced people that it will be really hard to get their time otherwise, you know, but but this medium allows us to connect with them. It’s amazing. Yes. All right. This has been a very enlightening and very entertaining conversation. Thank you so much. Now, before I let you go, can you tell us how people can reach out to you and check out your products and share your passion for dance?
Yes, thank you. So I have my personal website is alexandra.com. I have Instagram world with the Alexandra. And our company’s websites are Russian point com podcast is 5678 dot com. And our fitness company is called Flexi stretcher. com. So thank you very much for inviting me to be a part of the interview. And I see a lot of Buddhas, and your background. So any Buddhists from India and Thailand and other parts of the world at home, so we share a common passion for you for peaceful and Zen life.
Exactly. Thank you so much. Thanks. Once again.
Great wishing continued success. Thank you.
Links And Mentions From This Episode:
Aleksandra’s Instagram: @worldwithaleksandra
Aleksandra’s Websites: https://www.aleksandra.com/
Aleksandra’s Podcast: https://www.5678.com/
TetraNoodle consulting services: http://innerget.com
TetraNoodle professional training: https://courses.tetranoodle.com