FedEx, Microsoft, Dell and Facebook are some of the most successful companies and recognizable brands in the country, if not the world. One thing all of them have in common, in addition to their meteoric success and industry changing innovations, is they all started in college dormitories.
On the campus of Rollins College in 1994, a young freshman and would-be entrepreneur, Matthew Certo, was wondering why his school didn’t have a website like other colleges and universities. The Internet was the new undiscovered territory and he always had an interest in computers – or as he put it, “a disposition towards technology” – so he decided to ask.
With the help of his father, Samuel C. Certo, PhD, the Steinmetz Professor of Management at the Roy E. Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins College, Matt pitched his web design idea to the administrative decision makers. He then scrambled to learn how to actually make the product he was contracted to produce. In his mind it was a great summer job that sure beat busing tables or washing dishes.
“At that time, everyone in the industry was basically self-taught; actually at that time, there was no ‘industry.’ I went to the library and got books and there were some sources online to teach myself HTML,” Matt recalled.
From Project to Passion to Profession
“As I was bringing the first project to completion, I began thinking about other people who might need the skills I was developing and I started getting really excited about the possibilities. Mostly by word of mouth, I picked up more clients. There were times I had more passion for this new enterprise than for what was going on in the classroom. Mind you, I did finish; both of my parents were academics and I never considered dropping out. It was just fun.”
Certo continued, “As I was wrapping up my collegiate career, my dad and I were talking a lot about my future. I felt I was in a groove and I wanted to see where web design would go. Also I felt like I was doing something helpful for the customers I was working for. I found that every day was different, every client had different challenges.”
Soon the requests for Certo’s services were becoming greater than he could fulfill and his awareness of the marketability of his talents began to congeal. To keep up with the demand, he began to look for likeminded people who enjoyed the design, production and programming side and formed WebSolvers. He realized however that discussing the colors used on a website wasn’t nearly as engaging to him as conferring with business owners about what their overall marketing strategy was and how digital media fit into that scheme. “That is what stimulates my interest – solving the problem, producing the answers, talking about the larger picture,” Certo said.
Hey, I’m Only 22
A few articles appeared on Certo’s enterprise in the Rollins’ newsletter, and then the Orlando Sentinel did a story and his star began to rise. But running a business versus doing contract work for a college were two totally different animals.
“The biggest surprise for me, at that time, was that just because you printed out an invoice and mailed it to a customer stating it was to be paid in 30 days, didn’t mean they were going to pay you,” he recalled. “When you are in your early 20s that is not what you expect!”
Then Certo mentioned how, after hiring his first employee, he used his QuickBooks payroll program to write paychecks. Two weeks later, a guy with a dark suit, white shirt and tie knocks on his door. “I’m with the IRS and you haven’t paid your payroll taxes,” the agent said, while Certo stared blankly, thinking, “I didn’t know I had to do that!” He went on to say, “I’ve never missed that since, but at the time it was a rude awakening.”
On the other hand, Certo said that being young and even inexperienced in business worked to his advantage in the professional world. “I was given a chance because I was young; business people were gracious and wanted to help me succeed.” Also, Certo realized there was a generation gap and older people saw in his youth the ability to navigate in unfamiliar waters of the digital world.
That experience also helps him stay ahead of a progress curve, where skills have a shelf life measured in months, not years. “I was in a conversation with a peer,” he said, “and we were discussing how younger people want to do practically everything on a smart phone. People my age and up still want a computer and a keyboard, but not the next generation of users.”
I Wish I Knew Then…
Probably the most important piece of data that Certo wishes he had understood when he got started was that markets go through their peaks and valleys. He explained, “The dot com bubble, 9-11, the Enron financial crisis, the Great Recession, these were not things, as a young entrepreneur, I anticipated. In the late 90s things were just flying. I learned you can’t be naively optimistic in any set of circumstances, because everything can change.”
He also discovered that ongoing success came from continual inquiry into difference makers and change agents. “I like to read and learn from men like Lew Gerstner, who turned IBM around, or Michael Dell and how he started his company, or Southwest Airlines on developing a corporate culture. In business you are bound to hit your head, like my early encounter with the IRS. The more you can learn from others’ experience, the less you have to learn from experience yourself. The more I hit my head, the more I want to learn.”
Certo and WebSolvers have been in a constant state of evolution to strengthen their position in a highly competitive market. He focuses on understanding what his customers want and need. “Bill Gates always said, ‘My customers write my software.’ The better we can understand and deliver solutions to our customers, the better partners we become. Also, by staying abreast of the latest technology and tools, we can help our clients navigate to real solutions that match their needs,” he explained.
Full Circle and Beyond
When Certo began, he went to ad agencies to offer them a service that they could add to their portfolio when developing a strategy with their clients. “Frankly, they didn’t understand it and many still don’t. Now, you fast forward 20 years and we are at the center of what any company should be doing. Most CEOs and marketers are thinking digitally, and how to develop a one-on-one interaction. Things have come full circle.
“There is a saying that a professor taught me, ‘You don’t have to be faster than a bear, you just have to be faster than the other guy the bear is chasing.’ Most of our clients don’t need to be bleeding edge. Instead they should be in the sweet spot. Five years ago when Twitter first came out, most didn’t need to be on it, but today you have to be there. It is our job to follow these trends and ensure our clients are ready when their customers are ready.
“We redefined our purpose as ‘finding and winning new customers.’ Clients come to us for a website or for help with social media, but what they want is to find and win new customers. Marketing is simply helping businesses grow. Peter Drucker said, ‘The purpose of a business is to create a customer;’ all of the tools we put at a client’s disposal are intended to lead to that end.
“The media has driven the perception that millions can be made on the Internet,” Certo continued. “Ultimately it is the product that sells, not the medium that is used to market that product. Social media is all about one person telling another person about a great product; the rest follows. In the final analysis, it is the product that creates the customer.”