As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing David Alwadish, ItsEasy Founder and CEO.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, David J. Alwadish is a true innovator and entrepreneur. In 1978, during his last 6 months at Brooklyn College, Alwadish began developing a business plan to help busy people obtain motor vehicle documents without waiting in line at the DMV. ItsEasy was born and Alwadish became the youngest tenant in Rockefeller Center history. 42 years later, ItsEasy maintains its office at 10 Rockefeller and remains a valued tenant. Since its beginnings in motor vehicle transactions, Alwadish has evolved ItsEasy to help people across the country obtain passports and visas, serving more than a million travelers. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has pivoted ItsEasy and revamped the ItsEasy Passport app to allow people to renew their passports without leaving home.
In addition to building ItsEasy, Alwadish’s entrepreneurial spirit has driven him to create other successful ventures over the last 40 years. In 1983, he innovated New York City’s legendary food pushcart scene, opening the first Mexican food and frozen yogurt pushcarts — both the first of their kind in New York City. He was even able to convince one of the leaders in mobile phones to install one of their first models on his food carts — driving mobile takeout orders and providing invaluable marketing for the phone company.
Alwadish’s insatiable curiosity also drove him to innovate car radio displays. Years of work paid off with two patents from the United States Patent & Trademark Office, and he changed car radio displays forever. Alwadish is responsible for implementing the display of artist and song title on our car radios.
Alwadish is still the heart and soul of ItsEasy, answering phone calls and emails personally. He lives in Long Island with his wife and two sons.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My dad had many businesses operating at the same time. One of which was a large auto school business in upper Manhattan. In addition to teaching customers how to drive, the auto school specialized in obtaining all Dept. of Motor Vehicle documents. Instead of people going to the DMV for hours to handle their transactions they could drop off their drivers license renewal, get license plates, renew their registration, etc. and it would be taken care of for them for a fee.
Since I was a kid I used to work after school at the auto school and I knew early on that I liked the DMV document processing part of the business. Immediately upon graduating college I opened my first office in Rockefeller Center offering the same DMV services so busy executives wouldn’t have to leave work and spend hours on line.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I remember very early on during a cold winter New York day in January, during my 2nd year of business, that I had been offered my first ever high level business meeting in New Jersey with the senior executives from Liberty Travel. They set up the meeting date and time and I confirmed that I would be there for the meeting. I was beyond excited. I couldn’t stop thinking about this dream opportunity to provide passport and visa services to one of the top travel agency groups.
As soon as I got home, I proceeded straight to my wonderful basement apartment to prepare the outfit I was going to wear for this executive meeting with Liberty Travel. I pulled out the only suit I had….a bright, 4–5 year old royal blue suit, and matched it up to a white shirt and a big pink bow tie.
I put the outfit on, slipped into white socks to match my white shiny faux leather loafers and proceeded upstairs to ask my parents how they thought I looked for this important meeting. While my dad thought I looked “good” I could immediately tell by my moms facial expression that she absolutely adored her son and that I looked like a “total dork.”
It was quickly unanimous that I needed new business attire AND a handsome pair of BLACK shoes. A couple of days later it was Saturday and my mom went shopping with me to some fine stores and treated me to a new corporate outfit and shoes. I was beyond excited for my meeting.
So excited, that on the Thursday that followed I woke up early, put my new business outfit on, drove to Ramsey, NJ and proceeded to enter the Liberty Travel Corporate Offices for my meeting. I sat down in the reception room and waited until I was told by the lovely receptionist that I was there a week early and I should return the same time the following Thursday which was the correct date of the meeting.
From that day forward, I always Dressed for Success and I never got an appointment date or due date wrong. I was always on time, and, until I found girlfriends with exceptionally good taste in men’s clothes I always had professional stylists in the Men’s Clothing Dept at Bloomingdales or Saks help me dress for success.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
In the very beginning, since I was initially undercapitalized and virtually broke I had to do everything I could do myself to survive. No one knew my business existed, where it was located or even that such a unique business existed. It was the first of its kind. At the end of every day, I would run to 5th Ave and alternate between W 48th — W 52nd streets handing out flyers advertising my business. It was tiring, but I was determined to succeed.
I have read many books over the years, but clearly the one that was most helpful to me and my business was a book I stumbled on at Barnes and Noble, How To Create Your Own Publicity….And Get It For Free by Steve Berman.
I wasn’t a big reader, but that book I read cover to cover, and then again, the same day I bought it. I couldn’t put it down. That seemed to be the answer to my problems of getting the word out that my company existed. I wasted no time making phone calls to news desks following up with interesting newsworthy pitches and press releases. My media efforts immediately paid off. I learned that they wanted a good story as badly as I wanted to tell it. Story after story rolled in and the rest was history. Almost 40 years later, I still have my book.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Interesting question as at the time I didn’t realize my new business idea of providing select bureaucratic services for busy New Yorkers was part of an interesting Business Category.
When I first started my business my thoughts were clear that I had created a business not only with a specific purpose of “waiting on line” for others, but also one that filled a need in the marketplace that was not being provided.
My business had a definitive purpose that was unique and easy to understand. At that time my Vision was to hopefully cookie-cut the concept and open numerous locations nationwide that would provide an extensive menu of popular bureaucratic services.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
For me, my Number ONE Principle was to always remember and live 3 basic principles: Ingenuity, Humility & Balance. Whether instinctive and/or taught to me by my family, while growing up and to this very day, these 3 principles live and guide me each day.
Looking back, I can’t remember when I wasn’t thinking, creating, figuring, and inventing. I always made use of my natural Ingenuity to fill a void, create something new and lead with initiative. I am proud of my share of new innovative ideas, patents, and contributions in my lifetime to help make my businesses unique which would always distinguish them from the competition
Growing up it felt very natural for me to embrace my family’s lesson of Humility. Make no mistake, I am a true Taurus…..a natural born Bull. Failure for me is not an option, but humility always reminded me how hard I had to be willing to work for success. I simply do whatever is necessary to achieve a specific goal.
I never ask any employee to do a task that I wouldn’t do or haven’t already done. I will never allow any employee to refer to me as their Boss and immediately correct them to refer to me as their Employer.
I always recognize that as nice as it is when business is good, my humble side always reminds and prepares for me the times when business will suddenly have some sour moments.
Maintaining Balance, or any synonym thereof, is vital to help keep my emotions centered and stable to help keep me from overreacting in both good times and in bad times. In business, letting emotions get the best of an executive only wastes precious time needed to get a better understanding of what is actually going on and what to do next.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I would tend to think that my personal and family challenges caused by COVID-19 are very similar to most families. I have a wife and two sons (16/19yrs). My business screeched to a halt and my boys are home from school…….all of us with local “Stay at Home” orders. My wife and boys were clearly confused as to the magnitude of what is happening and a bit out of sorts not exactly sure of what to do, how to be or what is next.
Recognizing the family challenges at hand, due to the virus, I can honestly say that once we were all ordered to quarantine at home I instinctively and immediately employed my Number One Principle as outlined above. I always try to lead by example in my household and I did just that. I remained my usual tower of strength self….positive, calm, funny and I behaved as if I was home from work on a planned, extended and long overdue vacation. I am extremely handy and gifted with my hands. I showed my family how I was able to keep beyond busy around the house doing the handy projects that I love and that I have been anxious to get to for years. In all my glory, there wasn’t enough time in the day for me. Each and every day I kept busy until the wee hours of the night. Literally until I was exhausted.
My family were no longer nervous and they immediately followed my lead by pursuing passions of their own. We are happy, keeping busy, staying in shape, cooking a lot and also ordering in. We are patiently waiting until we can get back to normal.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
On March 19, 2020, I had received a directive from the Dept. of State that they would NO LONGER process any passports, until further notice, EXCEPT for a Life & Death travel emergency. They had shut down all passport operations worldwide. While the handwriting was on the wall weeks earlier that was the final straw. I knew at that moment I had to release almost all employees. That was a heartbreaking moment.
My nationwide passport and visa business came to an abrupt standstill. Over the entire weekend that immediately began the next day I employed Ingenuity, Humility and Balance to figure out what to do. I remained calm and came up with many ideas:
- I put together the minimum staff required to continue to answer the phones 24/7 to handle ALL inquiries AND to VOLUNTEER our services assisting others with LIFE & Death travel emergencies.
- I was back in the office Monday morning posting signs explaining our limited hours for urgent travel and for deliveries.
- I arranged that a different employee would open our main NY office each day Monday-Friday 9:30am-1:30pm to make sure we receive and process all shipments
- I directed my tech team over that weekend to immediately refresh our 5 Star ItsEasy Passport Renewal & Photo app
- I hired a PR Team to ensure that ALL the ItsEasy Brand was doing during the Pandemic was discussed by the media
- I immediately contacted my accountant and bank and secured PPP Stimulus to hire back my all my employees
- I tasked employees to work on adding new services and programs during this downtime to make sure the company was better poised to compete once things get back to normal
- I focused ALL media attention on our exclusive and (virus) timely 5 Star app which is noted as the easiest, safest and most affordable way to renew a passport from home.
Failure is not an option. I am trying desperately to have the value my company offers and the New Normal we represent in some way go viral. I am determined to weather out this pandemic and have the company positioned to handle the business when it returns.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I’m sure a safe statement to say is that most people are sensitive to their own needs. For me, a source of pleasure and an innate necessity is to be sensitive to and to anticipate the needs of others rather than my own.
From my 94 year old mother living alone and my sisters, to my family and friends, I instinctively check on all of them making sure they are alright, in a safe environment and have ample supplies. Part of checking in with everyone is also my need to assess their vulnerability and sense their emotions with respect to their fear or concerns of the virus.
It’s important to me that everyone dear to me stays safe and makes light of the pandemic understanding that they are fortunate that they are healthy, safe and loved. I stress to them that “this too shall pass” and to view this as a unique opportunity to get things done and/or explore new personal desires that they did not have time to do in the past.
I have sincere empathy for those who are truly alone and fearful. I wish everyone had someone, or even a pet, that kept them company and loved them.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Considering the shocking devastation the pandemic has caused I think my undivided attention has been focused on saving my business and identifying any Post-Covid opportunities that can aid in that endeavor. I feel the country is anxious to get back to normal as soon as possible. I believe that most Post-Covid opportunities will dwindle in popularity once a vaccine is discovered.
That being said, the First Post-Covid Opportunity I immediately recognized was TIME. The outbreak of this pandemic has already and will continue to afford me a unique amount of TIME to materially improve my business to better compete in the marketplace all the while my competitors were all frozen in place.
A focus on Safety as another Post-Covid Opportunity caused me to immediately improve, literally within days, our 5 Star ItsEasy Passport & Renewal app thereby pivoting our Passport Renewal business to a unique and valuable process that could be done from the safety of one’s home or office. While the travel industry has come to a standstill we have been able to embrace the concept of Safety to help gain traction for my business.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
The word Permanently makes this a difficult question because NO ONE really knows the fate of this COVID-19 Virus. I do believe that some type of “plastic transactional shields” in business are most likely here to stay, both as a safety tool and as a symbolic tool. I am confident that, if and when a true and effective vaccine is developed and distributed throughout the country/world, this brutal nightmare will be behind us and we will quietly get back to (somewhat) normal.
It’s been proven in politics that the public has a short memory. What is news today could be forgotten tomorrow. A large part of the public is ready to move past Social Distancing, Masks and Plastic Gloves. The timing and effectiveness of a true vaccine will be the deciding factor on the permanent changes in the way we behave, act or live or any potential scars the fear of a Virus leaves behind.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
As touched upon earlier, I was fortunate to secure some PPP funding to stabilize my employees for a couple of months in the hope that society begins to resume their normal routine and travel starts to pick up again.
I have been and will continue to use this valuable TIME off to enhance strategic parts of my business ie. website, 24/7/365 Customer Service Center, Consumer Offerings, etc.
My intention is to hallmark my 5 Star ItsEasy Passport Renewal app as the New Normal way to renew a passport in the safety of your home or office. Easy, Safe and Affordable.
I hired a PR firm to make sure I keep ItsEasy relevant even during this pandemic while ALL government agencies are closed for passport processing.
I continue to pray for a little luck to be able hold on while business and government passport processing is shut down.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
This has been a very tragic time in our lives and business careers. I say very carefully that it’s critical for a business owner to know exactly when it’s time to consider an exit strategy.
However, as realistic as a business owner can be I would suggest that they keep thinking and thinking “out-of-the-box” to figure out ways to keep their company solvent and to be able to pivot a bit to tailor their offering so that it better fits to what may be considered a “New Normal”! Many times “good things come to those who wait.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I was very blessed to have grown up in a home where “Life Lesson Quotes” were plentiful. It was almost as if “a new day, a new quote.” I paid close attention to my parents/grandparents’ wisdom and to my surprise, in practice, the Quotes made perfect sense.
Considering that our dialogue herein is about business decisions amid a pandemic, I can say that while my overall general and business attitude is that “Failure is Not an Option,” a favorite related “Life Lesson Quote” is “God Helps Those Who Helps Themselves.”
Throughout my entire life I always knew that if there was any chance of success I had to work very hard and not be dependent on others or the Almighty. Whenever I wanted something badly enough I always worked the hardest and did the most to achieve it and more often than not….God was there to help me!
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