Good to Great: Humble Beginnings to Millionaire for PrintRunner CEO, Mike Zaya

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At 16, Mike Zaya was on a rocket. He had been an intern at a financial planning firm and decided that being a financial planner was going to be his path. By 18, he had the education and all the necessary licenses, and became a junior partner. With a six-figure salary on the horizon, all looked to be perfectly set. Until something happened.

As a financial planner, Mike realized he didn’t like the work as much as he thought he would. It was no longer satisfying. Then one day, he found himself thinking about business ideas. He set some qualifications that a business would have to meet for him to do it. After narrowing it down, he chose inkjet printer cartridges because he thought it would do well online. Then he quit his job.

Despite the shock and pressure from his working-class parents to not change his job, he felt certain that he wanted to try a new path. The key word was try. He didn’t have the first clue about running a business or a website. The website didn’t even have a shopping cart when they got their first order, so they gave it away for free. But slowly, the business grew—from one order a month, to one order a week, to one order a day, to multiple orders a day.

Eight years later, at the ripe young age of 24, Mike Zaya sold 123Inkjets for $17 million dollars.

You’d think the story ends there. But it doesn’t. Bored with retirement, Mike jumped back into business, this time, taking the helm of PrintRunner and landing it on Inc.’s 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies.

To what does he attribute his success? Failing quickly, retrying and literally never giving up.

What’s that quality that pushed you from the path that you had—a secure job—to then going into business, the more risky route? Was it that you saw that you weren’t going to be fulfilled in that role, in that profession?

Mike: Exactly, I was for sure going be rich as a financial planner. I had an opportunity to be the financial planner to five banks. The base salary was more money than I’ve ever seen. Over time you have to enjoy what you do. I wanted to do something I was truly passionate about. I always wanted to do business, but I was always told, do this, do that. Once I did do this, do that, it wasn’t for me and I knew it was my life. So I just broke away. I’d rather do it and if it doesn’t work I could live with myself, but if I don’t do it I can’t live with myself.

What was it like in those early years?

Mike: From 1997 to 2005, I worked day and night. Like the first two years—the first year I took out zero money. I was as poor as you could possibly be. I used to work to the point where I wouldn’t go home for three, four days. It became my life. The one hard part about business is you have to make a lot of self-sacrifices. While my friends were going out to party or go on dates, I was working.

I was trying to make my dream come true and I decided to put in the work early on rather than put in the work the rest of my life.

Did you hit many obstacles?

Mike: My road to success was paved with failures. When I first started, I didn’t even have a website. I went to swap meets just to raise enough money to sell inkjets and raise enough money to buy more inkjets. Then I created a flyer, passed out flyers on cars then created a website. The website took months to develop. I did it myself with a cousin, working as long as I could possibly work on it.

After that when I saved enough money, I hired my first employee. And then from there I moved my business from my mom’s spare bedroom into a very small office suite, and that was my clubhouse.

What were some of the key strategies that you had or the philosophies you developed as you grew your business?

Mike: I really understood my niche. The number one thing I attribute to the success of the website was listening to the customer. At first, I used to call every customer and thank them and ask them how I could improve. So the strategy developed to continuously expand our product line, go into new product lines that our customers are requesting, create very easy navigation for the website and—at the time I did something very revolutionary back then—I offered a one-year guarantee on ink jet cartridges.

So after 8 years of having 123Injets, you sold it for $17 million. Was that your original plan to sell the business?

Mike: No, I wanted to keep it and keep growing it. By then I had over 250 employees. I was not even 25 years old and it was very stressful. You also have to know as a business owner when something is over your head. When the company became very large, multiple divisions, a lot of department heads, a lot of employees, I knew I wasn’t suited for that yet. My experience didn’t catch up with my success. That’s when I bowed out and I listened to my body.

Should selling a business be the goal of every good businessperson?

Mike: I don’t think so. I think you should sell when you’re not happy doing what you’re doing. If you’re getting up in the morning and you’re having a difficult time waking up, then you should think about selling the company. That’s a personal thing that every business owner one day needs to address for themselves. It takes soul searching to answer that question for yourself.

Looking back, what did you learn from the experience of selling and then starting a new business?

Mike: I learned about myself. I learned about what I could endure. I learned about my discipline. I learned to respect myself a lot and not to doubt myself and really to believe in myself. I was proud.

By the way, selling my company was one of the saddest days of my life, not the happiest. I wanted to be in that company. I cried the day I left. I couldn’t drive in that part of town for six months.

What are the qualities of a successful entrepreneur?

Mike: I think self-motivation is the number one thing any CEO or any entrepreneur must have. Everyone’s going to fail—everybody—and you’re going to fail a lot when you’re starting your business just because you don’t know.

It’s what happens after you fail. Do you have the will? Do you have the ambition to push on? Because failure also hurts. Financially it hurts. It sets you back. It hurts you emotionally. I learned the best thing to do is fail quickly, meaning, you take a calculated bet. Not all bets will work. You need to know when to fold them so you don’t lose a year wasting good time over mistakes.

To what do you attribute your success? Was it choosing a particular niche (you did your research), or were you ahead of the pack, or was it just youth and inexperience, or luck?

Mike: Because I’ve had half a dozen business already and almost all of them have succeeded. The same with this business. I knew nothing about it, but I willed it to succeed. When you will something, you dream about it, you’re passionate about it. When you have extra time you read about it. It goes through your veins. Basically, I willed it so much that I saw the future as you would see a painting. From the first couple of months, I wrote down the numbers I wanted to hit and nothing stopped me till I surpassed them greatly.

That, I think, is the biggest thing. You don’t need to pick the right niche. There are so many—it’s what’s the right niche for you.

What do you think it takes to make it in this business environment?

Mike: People don’t have spare money so you have to be good. When sales are bad, you have to look deeper within and do even better. So my number one recommendation to people on the fence to either start a business or continue one is to look deep within. Do you have it in you to make your company many levels better? If you do, you need to give yourself that opportunity.

What do you think holds people back—is it the bad economy?

Mike: Fear cripples too many people. Fear cripples people from starting a business. Fear cripples people from changing what is already working, because if you’re successful, you don’t want to change so you don’t lose what you have. On the other hand, you’re afraid that you’ll look bad if you’re not successful, so you never leave your job to start the business.

Most people are in the planning stage. I haven’t met a person without a business plan. But I would say 99 percent of them are only daydreaming and one percent of them have the courage to give it a try—and see it through.

Another business owner had said, if you find yourself spending 20 hours looking into this other business while your working one job, then you have that drive that’s going to carry you through. Are there things to look for within yourself, that yes, you’re ready to take that step?

Mike: Definitely. I couldn’t agree with him more. If you’re daydreaming about it, you’re planning it, you’re researching just informally, you’re definitely ready. Being ready is one thing, but I don’t think everybody could be a business owner.

To me, it’s almost better to be ignorant to what it takes and just do it versus being in paralysis and too afraid to even try. That’s why a lot of young people succeed in business because they’re too ignorant to know what they can’t do, so they just do it.

Any other advice you would have for budding entrepreneurs?

Mike: One big piece of advice I have for entrepreneurs—I’ve seen people make this mistake all the time—are those with funding who waste the money on their own salary, on nice offices, or on things that they don’t need. I believe any new business—I don’t care how well-funded it is—needs to be bootstrapped. It needs to be guerilla-style. I like to think as though I have no money and everything I do must have an ROI. I personally don’t believe in taking a salary at first.

Who were your role models that inspired you to go into business or did you have any?

Mike: Yes, my role models can be found in all the books of great CEOs who came before me—from Steve Jobs down the line. If you go to my house, the only thing I have a collection of is hundreds and hundreds of books. Where I didn’t know something, I’d pick up a management book like Good to Great. If I wanted to know what it takes to be a CEO, I’d pick up a biography.

What was it that brought you back into business and has kept you in the game—was it drive, motivation, passion or something else?

Mike: The passion, the drive. There are artists who have their own canvas. I see business as my own canvas where I can use my own creativity, my own imagination. It’s kind of like my own world. It’s my art form. I’m a very social person, so I love to be around people. I love a major challenge. I certainly like to work hard and I see business as your art canvas. Creating a website is a very artistic thing beyond the scientific—it’s more scientific now, but there’s definitely black magic. There’s definitely art to it. I enjoy it a lot.

I really want people to get that don’t be afraid. Don’t think—nothing can stop you. If you can’t afford it, do it on the side. If you don’t know if your idea is good, try it on a very small level. Ask your customers if you don’t know what you’re doing. They know what you need to do more than you do. That’s it.