From A Desk And A Chair In The Server Room To $116 Million In Revenue – with Shawn Riegsecker

by Tim Jahn on February 18, 2011

Shawn Riegsecker is the founder of Centro, a company that makes the buying and selling of online media easy.  Last year, Shawn’s company pulled in $116 million in revenue.

But things weren’t always that good.  Shawn started the company back during the recession in 2000.  He was drowning in debt, behind on rent, and his office consisted of a desk, chair, blanket and pillow in a server room.

In this interview, Shawn shares how he started Centro during a recession and how he kept himself motivated during those trying early days.


Tim Jahn: So I want to start with just kind of giving you an overview of what Centro is because I think it can be confusing for some people, so why don’t you just give me the quick pitch and what is Centro.

Shawn Riegsecker: So Centro is a company that is both service and software. And simply we create software that automates the relationship between buyers and sellers of online media. So today the entire process in the advertising industry’s broken, it’s very archaic, it’s a lot of phone calls, a lot of fax machines, a lot of email, a lot of paper.

And so our whole goal was to bring together the buyers and the seller in a browser based environment where the system actually does most of the work and they can actually concentrate on the more strategic aspects of their job.

Tim Jahn: And then it wasn’t always called Centro, it was called — how do you pronounce this, Intégrent?

Shawn Riegsecker: Intégrent

Tim Jahn: Intégrent, so I got that?

Shawn Riegsecker: Intégrent, yeah.

Tim Jahn: Okay, so I guess that’s not that hard after all.

Shawn Riegsecker: Well it was actually a — it’s very because I wanted a name I could get behind and intagrant is the French kind of derivation of integrity. And so that was what I named it because I also wanted more of a software sounding name although everyone pronounced it integrant and indigent and ignent and it was just a bad, bad name. So in 2005 we went through exercise and re-branded it to Centro which is much easier to say.

Tim Jahn: It is. It is much easier. And then, so you started Intégrent way back during the 2000 recession —

Shawn Riegsecker: Yeah.

Tim Jahn: — and you were working at Real Media prior to that —

Shawn Riegsecker: Yeah.

Tim Jahn: — which is a company that I don’t hear much about any days, just on a side note.

Shawn Riegsecker: Well actually you know what there’s — but I want to in fact, it’s important to make this distinction. I worked for a company called Real Media. And then there was another company at the same time called, which was RealPlayer, which was a streaming media software.

Tim Jahn: Oh that is who I am thinking of. I thought Real Media was the ones behind that. They’re not?

Shawn Riegsecker: No, so Real Media was the first — Real Media, so Real Media in 2001 merged with 24/7 Media to become 24/7 Real Media, which still exists today. WPP bought the company a few years ago for about $700 million. They brought them out of the public market, so they had went public.

And, so that’s when I had started working in the ad serving business and the, more the premium buying space and then the ad network space, so it was through that, when the merger was happening I said “look this is an opportunity to go create a niche.”

Tim Jahn: And so you left and then you started Intégrent. Why start it then? I mean obviously your parents must have said you know “what are you doing? It’s the recession. Go get a job. Go, you know you want security” you know all the good old stuff. But you definitely didn’t do that. Why? What was your thinking?

Shawn Riegsecker: Yeah. Well, you know there was a couple of things. Without the recession there’s way I could have ever have started the company. There was so much competition in what we’ll call the brokerage space or the media buying space or the ad network space in the ad server. There was just so much competition. The recession and the dot com implosion literally wiped out almost the entire industry and those that were left had no money to invest.

So it’s at moments like that, and I think you can go through a lot of different, you know industries and look it, that’s the best time to take the chance because there’s — you know I started at — we incorporated October 15th 2001, so that was right after 9/11.

So not only are we in the teeth of a recession, you know we’ve just been hit. A lot of the world is sitting on their hands going I don’t know what’s going on. And I think it’s at those times when opportunity really presents itself for young, aggressive people who want to go work hard and make something. And so, yeah, so I left my job in October.

I will say I, you know when I told my father that I was quitting, I was going to start my company, I would say that my community is not a very risk taking community. And so you know he looked at me like you know like I was crazy for leaving a secure job in the middle of a recession, but thank God it all worked out, or at least up to this point.

Tim Jahn: And you mentioned you know working hard, and you know one point you’re behind on rent, your credit cards are all you know maxed out, you’ve got loans. How do you keep going and stay motivated at that point? I mean it’s a recession going on around the country. Everyone’s losing jobs. You’re just drowning in debt now. How do you even keep, you know wake up the next day and keep going?

Shawn Riegsecker: Yeah, it’s a great question. Here’s the thing, you are always faced with moments in which you say to yourself this is it, I got to wrap it up. I can’t do it. And then right at that moment something comes through.

Like there’s always that little thing that will take place in your business that will give you encouragement to go one more week. And you know for me I literally had $30,000 in debt, twenty-nine and a half percent interest. I had, that was credit cards. I had another ten thousand in unsecured personal loans from House Hold Finance and I think Citi or something like that.

And I can remember specifically a Monday and I was two months, two, three months behind on rent. Didn’t have, couldn’t figure out how I was going to survive. And I literally prayed that morning, and I said “hey God, you know listen here’s the deal, something’s got to happen this week. And you know if –” I needed five grand in order to keep afloat. And so I had applied for a House Hold Finance unsecured, this was before, this was me leading into getting all the debt, but I had applied and sure enough, I didn’t think I was going to get approved.

And not only did they send me five grand, but I think they made a mistake and sent me ten grand, and so that actually was the moment where it allowed me to forth for another two months. And, but it was just those little things. Every time you’d get, you know something little happens you’re looking to go okay, it’s a sign, I got to keep going.

Tim Jahn: That reminds me of I did an interview a while back with Brendan Mulligan of ArtistData and he said that it’s important to always celebrate the little victories. That that’s what keeps you going is — he said he — you know when he made a little victory, he and his wife would go out for a nice dinner or something and just to celebrate, like you said those little things that keep you moving.

Shawn Riegsecker: You had to, you always — you know what and even so, it’s so funny because today we’ve got almost 200 employees. And we don’t forget that though. Like that’s something which the — making sure that all the new employees understand our roots and understand how we got here and where we came from and really what was important to us then, shouldn’t be not important to us today. So, you know we celebrate the small things as much as we can, publicly, loudly.

We have a thing called Raving Fans. Internally we have a Raving Fan Cup. We give an external Raving Fan Cup to someone who supported a client, you know went above and beyond to help a client out. We’ve got an internal Raving Fan Cup where if you went above and beyond to help someone else internally. And you know they’re literally celebrated, like they literally get a big cup that sits about two feet high on their desk and we vote on that. But you got to celebrate a lot and the little things are the most important.

Tim Jahn: That’s awesome, a cup, a Raving Fans Cup. I — you said that you don’t ever forget your roots. You know for everyone that comes into the company you’re reminding them of what you guys are built on. Tell me about the — I was reading an old interview of yours from four or five years ago that you give a company manifesto to all the new employees that kind of lay out what, exactly what you’re talking, what the company’s about, what your values are, and that you know if they’re not cool with that, then maybe this isn’t the right place for them. Can you tell me about that manifesto?

Shawn Riegsecker: Yeah, so let me talk about first of all how the manifesto began and why I wrote it. I felt that I was going to have an opportunity to do something — now whether I would be successful or not I had no idea, but I knew that I was, if I was going to give it a shot I wanted to do it the right way. And what the right way meant to me — now I’ve worked for a lot of different companies. Big corporations start ups, I’ve worked for a lot of different personalities.

And frankly at every single company I would always sit around and I would look at the employees and management and I would go look everyone wants to do a good job. We all want to be happy. We want to enjoy. We want to take pride in the work we produce, yet you treat the employees so bad. You know there’s not trust. You know there’s not candor. And if you just trusted them and created a better environment, they’d work harder, produce a better product.

So my whole thing was look, if I’m going to do this, I want to do it the right way. And to me that was to take the subjectivity out of what you’re looking for. I wanted to try to create in an objective environment. So I started with this, what would the company need to look like for me to be the most productive, successful, happy employee I possibly could be? And it said to me — it really came down to the employee’s happiness and whether or not they really looked forward to coming into the office that day.

And do they look forward to taking care of a client, or do they look forward to servicing an internal teammate that they have. And I was like okay, well that’s — so we’ve got to create happiness, that’s number one. And then number two was when do people feel happy? When are the times in your life you feel happiest? And I contemplated and meditated on it a lot. And it came back, for me at least was when I’m actually growing in life. When I’m emotionally maturing, when I’m getting better at something and I feel like I’m moving forward.

And then the second is actually when I’m giving back, when I’m helping someone else, when I’m being a coach, when I’m teaching, when I’m just you know being in a very compassionate manner.

And so the manifesto started that as its roots. It was create an environment that is focused on the growth and well being of the individual. And that if you do that everything else will take care of itself on the big part. So I always say, you know we focus on each individual person and then they in turn focus on the company, I don’t have to worry about. And you know thank God it’s been you know amazing.

And I’d even just say, to be at this size at this level and to be so happy and to have such an amazing group of people that you get to be around everyday, and to see the laughter and the smiles, I mean it’s — and you know the retention, I mean it’s wonderful, the retention rate which is just the added side benefit of it all. So it’s been a pretty trippy experience but an entire fun place to be at this point.

Tim Jahn: Speaking of a good environment, you guys were listed on the 2009 Chicago’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For. And then also the 2010 Crane’s Best Places to Work For, or Best Places to Work List. Those are pretty cool accolades, I mean to be on a list of you know a 100 companies that says you’re the best place to work in Chicago and just in general. What do you think contributes to that? How did you guys end up on such a list?

Shawn Riegsecker: First of all I’m mad we’re seventeenth. We’ve got a long ways to go. No, I’m sort of kidding, although I do hope that we can continue to improve that. What do I think contributes to it? I would just say this, you have to put your employees as your first priority every single day. Their happiness is paramount to anything else out there. And now understand, I mean we’ve got high expectations, we’re very particular on who we hire.

You know we hire based on character, not necessarily skills, so you’ve got a lot of under, or kind of supporting infrastructure to the manifesto but what we look for. But if you focus on creating happiness, people enjoy coming to work, they have their friends at work, we hang out after work, and it just creates this, I think just self perpetuating environment of people that want to come here and do a great job.

Tim Jahn: I’m curious, I want to go back a sec to those early days when you were just, like you said you were celebrating the little victories to keep chugging along. What did you focus most on in those early days? Was it one thing, was it ten things, what were you focused on most?

Shawn Riegsecker: Oh God, back in those days. I — when you say those early days, I really remember the early day which I literally was in the back office. It was actually doubling as a server room and an office, where I started, one desk and a chair. And so back then I literally, I was a one person shop for the first I think nine, no it was actually about twelve months, about one year before I had my first employee.

Back then all I could think about was selling and keeping the lights on. And so that meant I was literally doing the books — I mean I was selling, I was writing the agreements, I was you know doing legal work, I was you know putting stuff in QuickBooks. When I hired my first financial controller it literally took her nine months to clean up three years of me making bad accounting entries because I had no clue what I was really doing.

Tim Jahn: Wow.

Shawn Riegsecker: And shouldn’t have been there, so I mean but the biggest thing for me back then was selling and servicing our clients, that was it. If I could sell, you know if I could sell to eat, but then make sure that every time a client touched the company, they were happy and they walked away going that was an amazing experience, that’s all that I thought about.

Tim Jahn: Where was this office? Was it a, were you renting from a different company or was this —

Shawn Riegsecker: Yeah, 212, 212 East Ontario, or 211 East Ontario Street right off of Saint Clair. It was Metro Suburbial which was a news paper route firm back in the day and still wonderful friends of mine.

Tim Jahn: Because I’m just picturing you sitting in this like closet for twelve months with no window and just calling clients and writing agreements. And I just — I don’t know how long I would last in that environment. I feel like I’d be going crazy, but you had something that kept you going there, you know?

Shawn Riegsecker: Well and the funny thing about it was also the pillow and the blanket that you had you know in the room because, you know I literally the first two years, I’m sure that I spent you know upwards of — I know that it was at least 20, probably was closer to 30 nights sleeping at the office. And it was funny, in fact I was just speaking to my ex-girlfriend who was very supportive of me at the time when I started and we’re you know great friends.

And she was saying how, we’re laughing about how, I literally would just work till I dropped, till 1:30, 2:00 in the morning. You know sleep for four or five hours get up at 6:00, 7:00 and just keep on working. And you know she would always be like “Shawn just go home and get a nights rest.” And I’m like you know that twenty minutes going to someone’s place or you know and then twenty minutes coming back, that was work time in the early days, so. You just didn’t have that luxury.

Tim Jahn: That’s determination at its best. I mean to me that speaks to your success is that you know that amount of focus and determination right there, that even twenty minutes could be used for something worth while.

Shawn Riegsecker: Yeah.

Tim Jahn: What would be your one piece of advice for a creative entrepreneur who’s, you know in their server closet and their looking at a one man team. They’re doing everything, legal, sells, development. What’s your one piece of advice for them in terms of getting out of that closet and getting up the ladder?

Shawn Riegsecker: It’s really simple, well first of all I will say this, whether people like it or not, whether people hate the profession or love the profession or look down upon it, somebody’s got to know how to sell. Okay, you’ve got to be able to convince someone of your product, your work, your service, your idea. And I think sales people most often times, and for right reasons because I think a lot of the sales people aren’t that good, get a bad reputation.

It’s an industry that looks down upon. Here we try to celebrate I mean our sales people. Believe it or not it’s like our sales team you know gets along great with the tech team which is very rare for most other companies that I’ve worked and there’s a lot of love. So I just think you just you can’t not view yourself as a sales person, if you’re a tech person, if you’re a creative guy you’ve got to get out there, that’s number one. And then number two, those first few customers have got to be raving fans.

And by the way, there’s a book called Raving Fans, read it. It’s an amazing book. But they, you don’t want satisfied customers. A satisfied customer isn’t a cheerleader of your brand and when you’re a new company, you have to build a brand an image and those first few customers are going to be golden for you. You’ve got to over, over, over service them. And if they’re not a raving fan, then you’re not doing a good enough job.

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