Daniel Koffler, BS is President of New Frontiers (www.nfil.net), an executive functioning coaching organization. NF provides academic, social, transitional and career supports to clients with a range of abilities and interests, allowing them to maximize their potential and become the most successful, independent, self-advocating members of society they can be.
Originally working in his family’s special education business, Daniel founded New Frontiers in 2012, in response to a recurring pattern of young people of different abilities transitioning to post-high-school life experiences without being fully prepared. Clients range from elementary-school-aged to seasoned adults looking to push themselves to be the most optimized version of themselves and increase their independence.
Daniel is a member of the Young Presidents Organization and holds a BS in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing from George Washington University. He is married with three children, including a set of twins.
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Table of Contents
Thank you for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers. They want to know you, some of the background story to bring some context to your interview.
Daniel Koffler: Born and raised in New York (grew up on Long Island, took a brief sabbatical to attend college in DC (where I met my now wife), then returned to live in NYC. Happily married 10 years and have 3 amazing children. Love traveling (the more obscure, the better), fitness and food fanatic (the two become more at odds the older I get!), and voracious reader (probably average a book a month, strictly nonfiction).
I’ve always worked in education (with one sad attempt at going a different direction, which I’ll touch on). My mother is a trained speech pathologist, and she started a school (with my father’s help) in the mid-80s for developmentally disabled preschoolers. That experience led to my father changing careers (from selling insurance to education entrepreneurship) and building a decades-long successful career building, establishing, and operating various for-profit private schools in and around the NYC metro region.
I was always raised to understand that my father’s business was HIS business–not a family business, not a ticket to avoid carving my path. I took that message and ran with it, taking all the necessary steps to establish my own business–a Belgian waffle franchise. I went to franchisee meetings, got a job in a hole-in-the-wall place that would likely mimic the food cart I had in mind as my first location, worked street fairs on weekends…and was promptly fired 4 days in. Turns out a college degree doesn’t make up for a lack of drive and ambition (spoiler alert–nothing does). This happened right around the time my father was opening his largest and most ambitious project to date, which was a real ‘all hands on deck situation.
Since I didn’t have anything else going on, I took the opportunity to learn at his foot, with an independent twist (he had many schools to manage, so I was sort of left to find places I could help/not get in the way–which led to numerous comeuppance opportunities).
I ended up sitting in various seats over several years, and even establishing a bit of a side business within the business (the school, which we have since sold but still exists under new management, is housed in a large former bank. The main banking hall functions as the school’s auditorium. I was able to re-brand the space as a high-end event venue for us on off-hours. We hosted everything–corporate and personal events, movie and television filming, conferences, holiday parties, you name it). I had ZERO experience in the industry. I just used what I thought was common sense to figure out who were the right vendors, the right centers of influence, the right marketing channels…and to my surprise, it ended up working! Sadly, the business was not transferrable (it was physically part of the school, and the way everything operated, it needed to be under the same management), so when we sold the school, that went with it.
(The combination of that project, alongside my responsibilities helping to market/, operate the school, gave me a bifurcated set of incredibly relevant experiences for what became New Frontiers)
After that school was sold, I transitioned myself to a different group of schools that we also owned–these focused on individuals with special needs of varying degrees/circumstances. As time went on, we had students approaching graduation who, despite much success and progress during their K-12 careers (in part due to supports that were provided by the schools), were still finding themselves in a situation where they were unprepared to fully and independently transition to college (and/or the next appropriate setting). I decided the best route would be to sort out a methodology that allowed us to support these young men and women through their transition to and through post-secondary life (including academic, social, residential, and general life skills)–not tied to the school in question, but available to anyone attending any school (so that the supports could follow them, rather than limiting their optionality/self-determination).
That has grown into a business that works with individuals across the lifespan, and the globe! Not without some bumps in the road, to be sure.
You are a successful entrepreneur, so we’d like your viewpoint, do you believe entrepreneurs are born or made? Explain.
Daniel Koffler: It certainly helps to have some exposure to running a business before starting one. Could be a person who was raised in an entrepreneurial household, or they worked at a start-up before starting their own. Maybe they sold lemonade or mowed lawns (or perhaps for a modern twist, sold sneakers or traded NFT’s) as a kid!
Whatever the case, personal and/or professional experiences are generally what shape the motivation to take a shot at either improving an existing process or solving a lingering problem in a given market (which are, to me, largely (though not exclusively) the essence of what drives people to entrepreneurship).
Which is a long-winded way of saying entrepreneurs are made (or, rather, forged in the fires of LIFE).
If you were asked to describe yourself as an entrepreneur in a few words, what would you say?
Daniel Koffler: I value freedom (to make mistakes, of how my time is spent) above all else. It’s an incredible privilege, but can be overwhelming and lonely.
To me, that’s the deal I have made with myself–some days (or weeks) I simply do not have time for myself and things that I enjoy because there’s just too much work to do. FWIW, I also view that as an opportunity, and one I don’t take for granted (entrepreneurship is and should not be boring!).
On the other hand, seeing the fruits of that labor is unquantifiably worth the effort. In the absolute worst case, I am ALWAYS learning something (what NOT to do as often as what to do).
Tell us about what your company does and how did it change over the years?
Daniel Koffler: My firm is called New Frontiers (www.nfil.net). In simple terms, we provide individualized (and in some cases, group settings) executive functioning/academic coaching and transition support across the lifespan, and also provide professional development to teachers/professors/support staff as well as non-academic employers.
Our foundations were born in helping coach and guide students through the transitions to/through/from post-secondary life, and those elements still influence the work we do beyond that population (though this group is still a very meaningful component) of our client base. We embarked on this journey in a (so far successful!) attempt to solve what we view as a problem affecting society at large (but certain pockets in particular):
The transition to adulthood is for many people the most significant shift in expectations, required skills, and self-advocacy up to that point in time—and from that moment on, the reality of that shift (that life is a constant stream of new (and potentially confusing/usually not well explained) experiences and challenges) becomes THE reality. SOCIETY AT LARGE DOESN’T DO MUCH TO PREPARE US FOR WHAT’S TO COME (and leaves particular groups of people in a significantly disadvantaged position as a result).
Our work revolves around helping individuals develop foundational and specific-to-the-individual skills and strategies necessary to navigate the vagaries of life (be they focused on academic, career, or day-to-day success—as they define success), and is delivered via a coaching model, through the lens of executive functioning skills development. The work is applied to all shapes and sizes of unconventional learners and individuals. We deliver our supports in-person and virtually, as preferred by our clients.
As alluded to earlier, our foundations were focused on individuals with learning and/or mental health challenges and supporting their transition to/through their post-secondary station. We’ve grown in breadth (the types/ages/locations of individuals we work with) and depth (the sorts of issues we work with them on and the modalities by which we work with them) for both necessary and opportunistic reasons.
Thank you for all that. Now for the main focus of this interview. With close to 11.000 new businesses registered daily in the US, what must an entrepreneur assume when starting a business?
Daniel Koffler: I think you should assume NOTHING! What would a fledgling entrepreneur base their assumptions on? I guess if anything, assume that Mike Tyson’s universal truism (everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth) is going to rear its head at multiple inconvenient moments throughout this journey.
That’s not to say planning is a fool’s errand–far from it.
Just assume that best-laid plans won’t always come to fruition, and an entrepreneur’s first (and always) job is to be prepared to make adjustments (or, as it were, roll with the punches).
Did you make any wrong assumptions before starting a business that you ended up paying dearly for?
Daniel Koffler: Luckily it was before this business, but yes, I made THE cardinal error/sin in not doing my due diligence on who I was partnering with a previous endeavor–and I may never stop paying for it (psychologically at least)!
“You took the money”. That’s what people told me. It comes with strings. Those strings are generally attached to your freedom (if you recall my earlier POV, the entire reason to do this sort of thing, in my humble opinion, is to have that freedom). There can be alignment–there are many success stories that laud that precise outcome. That doesn’t mean you assume that will be the outcome just because someone tells you they like your idea. You don’t know their motivations, and odds are it isn’t to see you realize your dream while they go along for the ride quietly.
I always say the most important decision you ever make is who you choose to spend the rest of your life with. That applies to personal and professional lives. I’ve probably said this more frequently since I learned the hard way what the consequences of not taking this sort of thing deadly seriously can be.
It’s one of those life lessons that you can’t TRULY appreciate until you are on the other side. That said, you can use your imagination (or take my word!) that some lessons (hint: THIS IS ONE OF THEM) don’t NEED to be learned the hard way.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what advice would you give yourself and why? Explain
Daniel Koffler: Be better capitalized, and don’t be so afraid to cede some control.
There are more or less two models to fund a new business–bootstrap it, or raise outside money. I chose to bootstrap, because a) I didn’t have any money and b) I was scarred from my only experience taking outside capital. To me (and frankly, I still lean this way), there’s no price you can put on freedom (sensing a recurring theme here?), but again, that perspective was fueled by my only experience on the other side (albeit a negative one).
So at the time, it was the ONLY option.
As I’ve grown and survived and learned and seen more ( in terms of types of business, of the world, of PEOPLE), I’ve been blown away by what scale can be achieved when the right idea is partnered with the right capital with the right experience. It’s changed my perspective as to what is possible, and how it doesn’t have to come at the low low price of ones’ soul to achieve.
One of the additional consequences of trying to raise money further down the road is that the emotional attachment one develops from building something from scratch will often prevent them from accepting what the market valuation is for a piece of the business, so you need to think about this through before getting in too deep when the price of shifting your perspective can be much higher.
I’d be much more focused on collaborating with the right partners (and very clearly defined roles) from the start if I were to do things over today.
What is the worst advice you received regarding running a business and what lesson would you like others to learn from your experience?
Daniel Koffler: Basically, go fast and break things.
In the early days of my journey through entrepreneurship, I was surrounded by people who — with best intentions — wanted to see me grow as fast as possible. To me, their recommendations sounded like a formula that would lead to disregard for firm foundations, or worse, cutting corners that I’d live to regret. The way it was presented to me, though, was that because I was concerned about letting my (and others’) ambition get ahead of our ability, I was, being fearful of change, or accountability, or pressure, or (insert related concept).
So I throttled back on the back-to-back-to-back-to-back biz dev work that was my particular value add to the organization, and began to research different opportunities and consider different approaches — both to appease those who had ideas (whom I wanted to feel heard) and to genuinely explore what might be an untapped approach (justified in my head by reminding myself just because it’s not my idea doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea) — even though I was pretty confident (we didn’t do a terrific job of tracking KPI’s back then) that the grinding work I was doing was our best-case opportunity for spreading the gospel and developing meaningful relationships (which, in our industry, is how you get your foot in the door).
What ended up happening, though, is that by taking our eye off the ball, we lost focus on what was working. It ended up taking years — years full of rotating staff, stagnant growth, and no shortage of recriminations — to identify, isolate and remedy the misstep. With a lot of hard work and a hearty portion of luck, we’ve been able to “walk and chew gum”, or in our case, explore experimental opportunities (detailed refinement of digital marketing efforts that put us directly in front of potential customers, as well as potential referral sources) without taking our foot off the gas of what had been our bread and butter (old fashion biz dev, or as we refer to it, “outreach”).
The lesson, for me at least, is reflected in the time-tested adage “Crawl Before You Walk”.
Especially these days, it’s very easy to get caught up in the race to “Unicorn” status, and it’s rather difficult to drown out all the noise even if you want to, what with social media and re-targeting and all the very impressive and clever techniques that people use to stay in front of potential customers and competitors alike (full disclosure, I employ these strategies, amongst others, and think they are brilliant!), tugging on our ego by reminding us how well everyone else is doing, and setting the trap to make sure they continue to succeed by motivating their competition (YOU!) to try to catch up or surpass them, without appreciating what went into their overnight star turn.
Allow me to elaborate with a sports metaphor (one of my favorite modes of communication). Steph Curry didn’t get where he is by picking up a basketball and taking off-balance shots from half-court. He worked on his craft, from dozens of angles, for thousands of hours, and perfected the fundamentals, before he moved on to take more risks and more dazzling ways to demonstrate his talent — and in doing so, he still never got away from the fundamentals! The same thing applies here. It’s great to expand your horizons and stretch your potential, but if you try to skip steps or cut corners, the foundation will eventually crumble.
Think of it as a 21st Century entrepreneurship equivalent of The Tortoise and the Hare!
In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business? What hasn’t changed?
Daniel Koffler: Except for responsibilities that simply can’t be done remotely, working 5 days a week in a pre-2020 traditional office setting, complete with the commute and other indignities that come with it, is a dying concept. Please understand that. You may see some relics holding on, averse to change. I’ll say to you what I’ve said to them: if you don’t like change, you are going to dislike irrelevance.
I happen to think it’s long overdue (I always resented sitting in an office when there was nothing to do simply to prove I had the stamina to do so…and I never worked in investment banking (all due respect to my friends who did–great training for many things, but on this concept, the powers be missed the ball)).
Full disclosure, this view is shaped by my own experience. My team has gone fully remote (and I think we are all better for it). Granted, we were forced to do so, so it wasn’t exactly a choice, but we leaned into it. People have a better quality of life, a few hours of reclaimed time, and with the right systems and processes in place, can do even more/higher quality work.
Concerning what hasn’t changed, I will say it only really works if you trust your colleagues. If you need to micromanage your people…well, they are probably not the right people. This is a universal truth but one that is emphasized in a post-pandemic world.
Another thing to be mindful of is that it’s not simply about pay, or perks, or the typical drivers to acquire talent. Engagement matters. A LOT. Again, it did before the pandemic, but if a year working and living in an untraditional manner taught the general population anything, it’s that time is finite, and yes you have to pay the bills, but you won’t do/be a part of something that has meaning beyond a paycheck. If you can’t create that environment for your people and organization, you may find yourself at best at a disadvantage, and at worst out of business.
What is a common myth about entrepreneurship that aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be business owners believe in? What advice would you give them?
Daniel Koffler: For the most part, we only hear the success stories. It’s an oft-repeated reality that roughly 80% of new businesses do not make it to their 5th anniversary. In baseball, batting. 300 is a hall of fame career. Batting .200 means you might be selling insurance next season (disclaimer, nothing wrong with selling insurance…unless you want to be playing professional baseball).
I am sure nobody goes into business intending, or even expecting, to fail. The numbers tell us that unfortunately, it’s pretty common. Sure, it’s critical to have faith in your idea and the execution of your (best-laid) plan(s). It’s equally (if not more) important to go into a new endeavor with confidence in YOURSELF and recognize that unless you are selling a cold fusion reactor or a time machine, you are looking to improve on an existing model–and what separates your product/service from a competitors’ is YOU.
You may have to pivot. You may have to start over. In either case, you’ll have to communicate honestly and clearly to the people who put their faith in you and inspire them to stay on the path with you. That’s a critical leadership skill, and if practiced correctly, it will leave one of the most important assets–your name–intact or even more valuable than before. With that, you will be given a 2nd (or beyond if necessary) chance to show them, and the world, YOU ARE WHO THEY THOUGHT YOU WERE (Denny Green reference)
What traits, qualities, and assumptions do you believe are most important to have before starting a business?
Daniel Koffler: Interestingly, I think experience (generally life variety or industry-specific) is not even in the top 3–and I think it’s critical!
Curiosity. Patience. Self-Advocacy. Willingness to listen. ABILITY TO HEAR.
These things can be learned, but it gets exponentially more difficult with each day that passes. Some people have them in spades (disclaimer–I do not, and it haunts me). I’ve met people who are brand new to an industry and have a better grasp on what changes a market might tolerate than a 20-year veteran–because they are untainted by it.
These are the same people who listen patiently while I tell them what little I know about a subject, and the next time I see them, make reference to something I said in the middle of my ramblings–a telltale sign that they were listening, and absorbing, just in case I said something worth remembering! Self-deprecation aside, it’s the intangibles. You either have them or you don’t.
To be sure one can be very successful without or despite them, for sure, but I wouldn’t recommend it (from a quality of life POV).
How can aspiring leaders prepare themselves for the future challenges of entrepreneurship? Are there any books, websites, or even movies to learn from?
Daniel Koffler: There are quite a few, but two that stand out:
Traction, by Gino Wickman. The book “offers a system that focuses on improving operations in key areas of an organization to improve growth, as well as easy-to-use tools that provide insight, and help leaders make quick decisions”, guided by foundational aspects such as core values. It was recommended to me by a former business coach (and a few other people), and I’ve become a real evangelist of following the processes laid out. It’s made a huge positive difference in how we work both ON and IN the business. Super easy read too, can’t recommend it enough.
How I Built This, by Guy Raz. Guy has been a successful podcaster for years now, and he started this project in 2016 I believe. The book is essentially a collection of vignettes pulled from longer interviews he did with a wide range of entrepreneurs, using their stories and experiences to walk you through many (if not all) of the components of ‘The Heroes Journey’ (as it pertains to entrepreneurship). While the stories are interesting, I found the lessons to be very relevant and tangible, and from time to time have the opportunity to apply them to my leadership challenges!
You have shared quite a bit of your wisdom and our readers thank you for your generosity but would also love to know: If you could choose any job other than being an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Daniel Koffler: Professional Athlete. (full disclosure, I have ZERO of the tools/attributes required to do this
Thank you so much for your time, I believe I speak for all of our readers when I say that this has been incredibly insightful. We do have one more question: If you could add anyone to Mount Rushmore, but not a politician, who would it be; why?
Daniel Koffler: Does it have to be a real person?
If yes, Warren Buffet. First off, he’s the greatest his field has ever seen. He did it on his terms, and never let external events pressure him to make a rash decision (in fact, he seems to take full advantage of those situations!). He also is chock full of incredibly simple and accessible facts of life that most people would agree with–but since it comes from him, some people (I am one of them) listen to it!
If not, Sonny (Chaz Palminteri) from A Bronx Tale. The guy had cool confidence that came from a life full of learning lessons the hard way–and was very liberal with dispensing his knowledge. The violence and darkness aside, his legacy is full of truisms that are universal if put in the right context.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Daniel Koffler for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Daniel Koffler or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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