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Interview with Jeff Iannaccone of Towel Burner

Interview with Jeff Iannaccone of Towel Burner

Posted on 9/16/2014. Interview by Howie Rhee and Marie-Angela Della Pia

Tell us about yourself

I'm a fighter pilot in the USAF and recently finished up my Weekend EMBA at Fuqua.  While teaching young guys and gals how to fly the F-15E, having our first child, and attending school at Duke, I co-founded Towel Burner with my friend and colleague, Jake Anderson.

Tell us about your time at Duke, what were you involved in?

My time at Duke was incredibly rewarding.  The best program that I became involved with was the Duke Startup Challenge... no I'm not just saying that.  The competition got me to wake up and realize what an adrenaline rush starting your own company can be.  I'm obsessed... thanks DSC.

What's your major/program and when will you be graduating?  Tell us something about your educational experience at Duke.

I finished up my Weekend EMBA in Dec of '13.  I'm not sure how many people discover they're entrepreneurs during the middle of their MBA, but I sure did.  No, I'm not one of those guys that has a story about how they started their first business at 8 years old.  It took me writing one business plan, getting completely shut down by the DSC judges (last year's DSC), and getting back up on my feet with a second business plan to realize that I have this in my blood.

Tell us about your idea.

We print advertisements on gym towels and hand them out to gyms for free.  I love this business because it's a unique answer that appeals to today's marketing strategy.  Through a simple gym towel, we provide our advertisers with a backstage pass to a highly valuable demographic's coveted experience... their gym time.  The most important part of our ad channel is that we're not interrupting our viewers' experience.  Instead, we're integrating with it. With this simple high value add, the gym towel, we plan to open a lucrative distribution channel and create more win-win scenarios.

How did you come up with your idea?  When did you come up with it?

Jake and I both had the honor of serving downrange in Afghanistan.  We also had the honor of working out with pink gym towels in Afghanistan.  That's right, the gyms at Bagram Air Base dyed their towels pink in an effort to prevent people from stealing them.  Those towels ain't cheap! Fitness club owners have the same issue back home.  We decided to help them out with their gym towel expense by giving them free towels that have ads printed on them.  Sidebar:  instead of printing ads, Jake just wanted to dye them pink.  I had to explain that we wouldn't be able to make any money by doing this.

How did you meet your team members?

Jake and I met instructing young pilots how to fly the F-15 at SJAFB in Goldsboro, NC.  Let's just say that you get to see some interesting things when you're teaching someone how to employ a fighter type aircraft.  You really learn to trust your fellow instructors.  Our experience has formed the bedrock for Towel Burner and will pay dividends as we grow... just hired our first employee a couple of weeks ago!

How has the Duke Start-Up Challenge been helpful to you?

It has provided a ton of help in so many ways: critical feedback, exposure, mentor-ship, networking, the list goes on.  I would say that the biggest help was an introduction to a potential investor.

The Duke Start-Up Challenge provides a lot of feedback from over 100 judges.  Can you talk about that experience of reviewing the feedback?

I've participated in the DSC twice.  My first entry had plenty of flaws.  It was an idea that I came up with a couple of weeks prior to submission.  You guessed it, most of the judges figured this out miles away and this was a good thing.  I needed the critical feedback that they provided.  Their recommendations were spot on and Towel Burner would not be here if this feedback was toned down or not provided in the first place.  The one piece of feedback that really changed the game for me was:  "Stop what you're doing and read The Lean Startup."

What advice do you have for Duke students that are thinking of starting a company?

Read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and launch!  Don't sit behind your computer drawing up the perfect plan; go to market and get your hands dirty.  You will find out what it means to love your work.  Things will never be the same.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Thanks to the people that organize and put on the DSC.  You truly are making a difference in Duke students' lives.  Also, thanks to everyone that has supported Towel Burner.  You know who you are.


Join us for the Grand Finale with Max Hodak ’12 for the 15th Annual Duke Start-Up Challenge on Friday, September 19th, 2014 at 8:00pm ET at Fuqua’s Geneen Auditorium. RSVP on SquadUp

Not able to attend in person?  Watch the livestream on Duke’s YouTube channel

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