I grew up in a family of educators in Pittsburgh, Pa. Growing up my dream was to be a great basketball player. I was known for being the first in the gym and the last to leave.
My senior year of high school I ended up leading my region in scoring and went on to play for California University of Pa. During this time I majored in education, but began developing a deeper passion for business.
While attending Cal U in Pittsburgh I lived with my two best friends that I had since middle school. Eating ramen noodles wasn’t enough so we began many entrepreneurial initiatives to bring in extra money. My best friend JT and I started selling mixtape CDs and did quite well. We would burn the CDs on our laptops and print the labels at our school print shop (free for students). Soon our demand was so high that we didn’t have the manufacturing capacity to meet market demand. So we took a $600 loan from my mother to cover 50% of the cost of a 10 disc CD burner that would spit out CDs in several minutes. My friend and I would drive around and sell these CDs on campus and around Pittsburgh. We found a nice niche in urban communities and would connect with influencers in those communities with lots of money and they would call those in their community together to purchase CDs. We would give an extra special deal to these “influencers” because they also ensured we were never harmed in their community. Often times would make $250 each over the course of an hour or two per location. Not a bad ROI for a young college kid! In no time we had my mom paid back.
I then started expanding my entrepreneurial activities and began selling glasses and watches that I would import from over seas in bulk or get from long night drives to New York. During this time I would also buy car audio equipment, rims, T-shirts, and any other deals I found that I was confident I could flip. My entrepreneurial passion grew.
I decided at this point that being an entrepreneur was what I wanted to do. I changed my major to business, redirected my energy from basketball to business and was ready to go all in.
I decided that I needed to be selfish for the greater good. I had a long term girl friend (now wife), lived with my two best friends and had family close by. They say a comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.
I longed for something bigger and knew I needed a change.
I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone, free myself from distractions and challenge myself to grow. I decided to move to Orlando, Fl.
Everyone told me that moving to Orlando was too risky and that I shouldn’t go. After all, I knew nobody in Florida and had such a great network in Pittsburgh. My parents were also still very upset with me for “redirecting my energy” from basketball and changing my major from education to business. I remember my dad telling me that nobody makes it in business, except those in large family businesses and that he had a great teaching job waiting for me when I graduated. It isn’t what I wanted.
Something deep-down inside kept attracting me to Orlando. Needless to say that decision was one of the best decisions of my life.
I settled on The University of Central Florida to finish my education and go further down my path of entrepreneurship. I surrounded myself with great coaches and got extremely involved in the Center for Entrepreneurship and Venture Lab. I had tons of ideas and began to learn the process of growing a business and what makes a venture feasible. This sounds bad to say, but I would often cut class to spend more time at the venture lab because that is where I could learn from those that walked the path I wanted to travel.
This was 2007 and the housing market had crashed. While taking a break studying for an accounting test, a fellow student and I came up with a solution. We realized that students were still paying rent, but pricing for housing had crashed. Consequently we wanted to get students into a rent to own situation. They could stop throwing away their rent payments with the option for future ownership and investors could have cashflow – everybody wins. We started a rent to own magazine to advertise lease purchase properties and began selling ads. We developed a plan for an online program as well then pitched in our schools business plan competition and won first place – $5000.
Soon after we merged with a larger Florida real estate publication and were on to thinking about our next venture. We loved to learn and work in groups, but found that there was no effective solution at the time for student groups to collaborate. We came up with a venture called GroupTable, a collaboration software created to help student groups improve communication, planning and organization. Groups could be created and managed anytime anywhere. Think Slack before slack.
At this time my co-founder had graduated and we needed a programmer. I searched throughout the campus and found a programmer that was up for the challenge. He came on board as our third co-founder.
During this time I also landed a part-time job at IZEA, a social media company that connects brands to online influencers and content creators. I wanted to work at a startup to understand how venture backed companies are ran, but never wanted to work full time so I could utilize time to grow my own ventures. My position was Director of Premium Influencer relations. I got to meet and work with many online influencers, especially many of the top digital marketers around the country like Neil Patel, Chris Brogan, Brian Clark and many more. I also worked on digital marketing campaigns for companies like SeaWorld, K-Mart, Armani Exchange, USA Networks and more. Through this experience I immersed myself deeper into internet marketing and learned SEO, Social Media, Blogging, Affiliate Marketing and much more. I knew this would help any venture I was doing now, or in the future.
Using the skills I learned throughout my journey and at IZEA, we got GroupTable off the ground and gained thousands of users. We won our schools business plan competition for the second time and $12,500. This was a big accomplishment! UCF is the largest University in the Country and this was a campus wide business plan competition. To this day I am the only student to ever win it twice!
We hired another programmer and invested in more marketing and began gaining more traction, but the venture required more resources than we had to grow. With graduation approaching, unsuccessful fundraising efforts, the need to pay bills becoming a reality and my entrepreneurship bug in full throttle I came up with a plan.
I realized my venture didn’t need funding. We needed designers, developers and marketers. The venture also needed more of my attention that working full-time somewhere else wouldn’t solve. This being the case I started a marketing agency called Brand Advance. I didn’t have money to hire the talent full time, but I knew good quality contractors from my ventures. I decided to gather requirements from potential clients, obtain estimates from my contractors and mark up the price. The plan worked great! My first year in business we did $220k in sales. We landed some exceptional clients including some economic development organizations that funded us to work with second stage businesses ($1M+ in revenue or 10+ employees). To date I’ve worked with 1,000+ second stage businesses across the country. Since starting Brand Advance the company has grown to over $3M in total sales, but more importantly to me…it has provided the flexibility and income I needed to grow my other entrepreneurial ventures. Since I started my entrepreneurial journey, I have:
In 2017 I created Orlando Entrepreneurs (www.OrlandoEntrepreneurs.org), a network, resource center and podcast with the mission to connect, cultivate and celebrate our local entrepreneurs. Our focus in on advancing our entrepreneurs, their companies and our local economy.
In 2018 I became a founding partner and the Chief Strategy Officer of the Orlando Opportunity Fund. We are a private investment firm focused on producing solid investor returns while transforming Central Florida communities through investments in commercial real estate and early stage companies.
I hope that you enjoyed my entrepreneurial journey. More to come!
Remember, when you take the initiative, surround yourself with good people, and get the ball rolling – good things happen. Doors open and lessons are learned. I hope this story inspires and motivates others to take their entrepreneurial leap. It’s worth it!
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