Before FashionPassion (Part 1 of 4) – My First Years in Business

I started my professional career at a promotional products company in 2000. My title was “webmaster” — this meant I was the one who built and maintained anything related to the web site for that company, PromoTrend.

I managed more than twenty “online company stores” that were all part of the PromoTrend web site. Here’s how it worked. PromoTrend had other companies as clients. PromoTrend set up individual sites for each company that sold branded uniforms and other employee trinkets. We also set up and managed employee rewards programs for these companies through the online stores. Clients would reward their employees with points. The employees could then trade those points in on the web site for hats, key chains, grills, electronics or anything they desired on the site.

It was a cool concept for the time, and we were selling a few thousand dollars a week through the site. But we soon realized we were making more money charging the companies to customize the online software for their unique rules and rewards programs than we were on selling the promotional products themselves. Basically, the software was more valuable than the business it was supporting.

A larger promotional product company saw how the program worked and they wanted to use the same software for their clients. So in 2002, a company bought PromoTrend and the web software. The agreement said our current staff would continue to support that software.

At that point, I was offered the same salary and the opportunity to become 33% owner of a new company for which I would build and support web sites. I accepted and became a partner at Metro Web Trends.

I was a recent college grad, and the other two owners were a husband and wife team in their late fifties/early sixties. When they quit selling promotional products and started selling websites, they were selling them a lot faster than I could build them. That’s when we decided I would design and plan the sites and we would outsource the programming to different bidders worldwide.

We worked with many different groups of programmers initially, but we quickly realized it was best to use the same group of developers. That way, we could rely on them for support and they could rely on us for sales.  In 2005, we were doing so much work with that group that it made sense for one of the owners of the programming group to move from Ukraine to Minnesota so we could work that much more efficiently together.

That owner was Vadym Skorupskyy, and he worked next to me for about six months in the BriteScreen office in Shakopee. (Note that Metro Web Trends changed names to BriteScreen Interactive after year one, I still don’t exactly understand why, but I went with it.)

Anyway, Vadym and I became really good friends once he got to MN. We hung out almost every day after work. I was basically his only friend in this foreign land. He had recently lost his father, ended his marriage and moved to a new country. It was not a surface friendship, we learned a lot about each other during those six months.

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(Vadym and I hanging out, wow were we both skinny.)

Vadym got very sick in the fall of 2005 and decided to go back to Ukraine where healthcare was worse but cheaper. There were also family reasons for his return, so we shook hands, said goodbye and thought it might be the last time we would see each other.

At the end of 2005, I suspected that it was going to be the first year where I was going to get a profit-sharing check that could make me proud. The check came, but the math that I had been doing in my head was not the same as the math in the official company books. The check was a lot smaller than I expected.

I was curious, so I downloaded a trial of QuickBooks, grabbed the password protected QuickBooks file off of the network drive and bought some software for $5 that eliminated the password problem. I learned very quickly why the math was different. Two monthly car payments and many monthly payments to CapitolOne were somehow filed under “programming expenses” in the official books.

That was a wake-up call. An interesting learning experience too. As you can imagine, I quickly realized I could no longer trust these two business partners, and I had to go in a different direction. After a lot of thinking and talking, Vadym and I decided to start a company together. He bought a one-way ticket back to Minnesota to launch a company with me.