We’ve all heard that reality is stranger than fiction and yet it remains surprising when we’re confronted with an unbelievable story. Michael Gellman, CEO of SpireMedia, has plenty of “strange reality” stories and many were on display at the April 29, 2015 Denver Founder’s Network meet up. Gellman went from making Bloomin’ Onions at the Outback Steakhouse to blooming a highly successful digital firm.
Prior to moving to Colorado in the mid-1990s, Gellmen tried his hand in the film industry in New York, working for Troma Entertainment, an independent company known for its B-movie cult horror films. They’re responsible for The Toxic Avenger, among others. At this time the internet was in its infancy and Gellman learned how to build basic websites while working in New York. His next move was of a geographic nature, moving to Colorado where he picked up a job working at the Outback Steakhouse.
An interest in the burgeoning internet continued, however, and this was abetted by two ex-convicts who lived across the hall from Gellman’s apartment who knew how to code. So with a team of three, Gellman started his own company. In the early days, he paid his two colleagues in cigarettes and food, but everyone quickly realized that this was not a sustainable arrangement.
“Nerding Out” pays off
In 1998, answering a classified ad that guaranteed to produce fifty leads for $300, Gellman took his last $300 and received a mere three leads. Two of them proved to be worthless. The third, however, had an idea for an e-commerce site, and this turned into an extended conversation that eventually led to Gellman’s first major sale. With $450k to work with, Gellman was hired to build the website for the company that eventually became ebags.com. And thus, SpireMedia was born.
Since 1998, Gellman and SpireMedia have weathered booms and busts in the technology industry. As was common during the 1998-2002 period, SpireMedia entered a hypergrowth stage. The company went from three people to thirty almost overnight, and revenue from year one to year two increased eight-fold. Gellman proudly notes that SpireMedia was bootstrapped from day one, “No one invested in me, period.” Selling big deals was his ticket to success and he was able to do that through his ability to talk and relate to people.
And how was he able to land the ebags.com sale? According to Gellman, “I nerded out on something no one else nerded out on.” At the end of the day, his ability to talk-the-talk and passion for the project gave him the advantage.
Gellman reflected on the transition from serving burgers and beers to fronting one of the hottest digital companies in the Western United States. He ceded the fact that he had no formal technical background or management training so learning on the fly came with the territory. He also got involved with an entrepreneur group where he received a lot of advice.
Even so, roadblocks still existed. Sales were fine, but he didn’t know how to do a contract. He had no knowledge of HR, yet people still got hired. The point is that at the end of the day Gellman made it work.
Anytime you talk about internet companies in the late 1990s at some point the discussion inevitably turns to the bursting of the dot-com bubble. Although SpireMedia ultimately weathered the storm, it did not emerge unscathed. Gellman said, “the crash sucked but it was a good experience because I learned how to stick around.”
One part that really sucked? Having to fire twenty people in one day. “It was horrible because they were my friends,” Gellman recalled, “but in business it’s you or them, and it’s one of the responsibilities of being the boss.”
Surviving one bubble burst prepared Gellman for whatever may come in the future. He takes the axiom “expect the best but prepare for the worst” to heart. No matter what happens he says to make sure you have a backup plan to make sure you’re still in business.
Paying It Forward
Gellman learned a lot over the past seventeen years running SpireMedia. For instance, he encourages budding entrepreneurs to figure out what kind of entrepreneur you want to be and why. Gellman is a service entrepreneur, but there are plenty of different entrepreneurial avenues to pursue. The most important thing is to decide if entrepreneurship is something you really want to do. Know the reasons why and be passionate about it. He readily acknowledged that “when you have nothing to lose you're in a better situation than when you have a family or a mortgage.”
SpireMedia boasts a broad and diverse client portfolio, which includes startups. In this sense, Gellman pays-forward his experience to successive waves of entrepreneurs. At the same time he’s acutely aware of the perils many startups face. He’s not interested in taking advantage of startups or being the cash drain that forces the company to go belly up. That kind of honesty and integrity is priceless.
So after seventeen years, Gellman is still at the helm of SpireMedia and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. He notes that there is this pervasive idea in the startup community that you build a company only to get out, to sell or merge with another company for a profit. He says an exit strategy “isn’t something I focus on or strategize for.” The idea that getting out as the ultimate goal isn’t something he buys into. In short, if you enjoy what you’re doing there’s no need to change just for the sake of changing. “I have no desire to be a billionaire,” he said. Staying put is “a real path and it exists more than you think.”