Going Against the Flow: Jessica Tenuta, Cofounder of Packback

Jessica is the cofounder and head of design of Packback. Packback is the first company to offer on-demand one-day eTextbook rentals for $5 or less per day, allowing college students to rent and pay for their books only when they actually need to read. Packback launched publicly in March of 2014, after appearing on the national ABC hit TV show Shark Tank where they signed a deal with Mark Cuban. Packback recently closed out $1.5M in seed funding from Mark Cuban and some of Chicago's most notable investors. Today, Packback helps over 135,000 students nationally save on their college textbooks.

Jessica also has unique experience working in design in venture capital, as an one of two Design Fellows at Lightbank and a Brand Designer Listen Ventures. During her time in venture capital she worked with more than a dozen brands, including Fooda, Raise, Snapsheet, Factor 75 and Signal (formerly BrightTag). Through her experience as a design co-founder of a start-up and a designer for numerous portfolio companies in two venture capital firms, she has seen first-hand how design can accelerate an early-stage company's growth by creating an emotionally powerful, engaging brand experience.

Jessica Tenuta (Photo Credit: Jeffrey Lewis Bennett)

Q: What does entrepreneurship mean to you, and what underlying characteristics do you see in successful entrepreneurs?

JT: Entrepreneurship is proof that one person can identify something they want to change in the world...and actually make that change happen. Whether addressing big or small problems, entrepreneurs get to rewrite reality. That's incredibly empowering, but it requires a very unique balance of skills that are often times at odds with one another; confidence balanced with humility, independence balanced with the ability to learn from others, big vision balanced with the ability to execute details, and strength balanced with flexibility.

But I think the number one most critical characteristic an entrepreneur must have is empathy. It allows you to understand and relate to your customers, hone your product and your messages, understand what someone else wants before crafting a pitch to them. It turns complicated business problems into simple human decisions.

Q: What are you most proud of in your professional career? If you could do something over in your life, what would it be?

JT: I'm most proud that we have been able to create unique opportunities and empower other young entrepreneurs to start their own businesses as students through the Packback Brand Ambassador Program. Our Ambassadors learn first-hand how to run a start-up by running a team at their school, while getting access to one-on-one mentorship, Q&A sessions with Packback's investors, business plan reviews and more.

My founders and I started a professional business fraternity together in our freshman year, and so much of what we learned through that experience we still use to this day in our business. We wanted to create an opportunity like what we had in starting our fraternity, for students to learn and apply real business skills outside of the classroom and gain the confidence they need to push themselves beyond what they ever thought they could accomplish as students.

If I could do something over again, I would spend less time worrying about the places where I felt insufficient. I spent so much time worrying about what I didn't know, waiting until my skills were "good enough" before diving in and learning by doing. Now, I try to take a "lean" approach my own personal development; I use every new challenge we encounter at Packback as an opportunity to learn something new. Instead of chasing perfection (which in life-and in starting a business-inevitably leads to failure), I work towards constant and consistent improvement.

Q: Tell us about an instance where you had to go against the flow to realize your goal.

JT: We were juniors in college at Illinois State University when my cofounders (Mike Shannon, Kasey Gandham, and Nick Currier) and I started Packback, and set out to partner with some of the nations' largest textbook publishers to change the $8 Billion textbook industry forever. It took a bit of naivete and a heck of a lot of passion to take on an enormous industry as college students and believe we could be successful.

Many companies have attempted to disrupt the textbook space. We had to go against the flow to believe that we, as juniors in college with no pre-existing connections to the publishing world, could be successful in this business where others had not. But what we lacked in experience we made up for in resourcefulness, tenacity, passion for the problem and an eagerness to learn from other entrepreneurs who have gone before us.

Q: I know you and your husband are both founders of Packback. What is it like to work with your spouse?

JT: For us, working with one another is the best thing we've ever done. Professionally, we have very complementary skill sets and ways of approaching problems that let us work incredibly well together. Kasey is truly visionary, and has an amazing capacity for surfacing new opportunities and paths to explore. I am a problem solver; I love to break down the vision into what problems we are really trying to solve and ideate resourceful solutions.

Working together allows us to be both fully invested in growing our business and growing together, instead of separately. The start-up life is demanding and requires your full passion, but working together allows us to share that burden with someone who not only understands the demands of working at a start-up, but is equally committed to the success of the business. To me, it makes so much sense; your spouse is your best friend, the person you chose to spend your life with, your most trusted collaborator. Who better to start a business with?

Q: LinkedIn style - If you were to give advice to your 22 year old self, what would it be?

JT: Well, for me 22 was just one year ago! We are learning so much every day, that I'm sure every year I'll have a new piece of advice that I wish I could pass on to my college-age self. But right now, I would tell my 22 year old self to use fear as a compass to uncover opportunities.

I was painfully shy in High School and my early years in college. In my junior year of college, I forced myself to go to a weekend-long networking event that I was completely terrified of, and when the weekend came to a close I had grown so much in the span of just a few days. After that, I knew that I could use my fears to my advantage. When I feel that fear again, I know I've stumbled on an opportunity for growth.

In personal growth, or in starting a business, risk is directly equal to reward. The more terrifying a challenge feels, the more likely it is to be an amazing opportunity. If an idea feels safe and proven, the path might be predictable...but so is the cap on your reward. Think big, embrace the fear, and dive in...because when you come out the other side, you'll be so glad you did.

Follow Jessica Tenuta at @jessicatenuta, and check out the other interviews in Going Against the Flow series at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charu-sharma/ or thestartupsutra.com.