As entrepreneurship flourishes in upstate New York, more examples of success are popping up on the landscape. Achievement comes in many forms and is made up of many different ingredients. However, perseverance is a common theme among successful entrepreneurs. They never give up and they find a way to succeed no matter the obstacles.
Michael Rotella, an upstate New York entrepreneur, is a great example of the start-up scene and epitomizes the word “perseverance.” We thought Rotella’s story was so intriguing, we asked him to tell it in the first person. Here is his story of entrepreneurial determination and success.
Rotella tells his story
My name is Michael Rotella and I’m the founder of SyracuseGuru.com. We’re an independent media site founded in June 2011 that is the authority on the best things to do in Syracuse. We are the ultimate lifestyle guide to Central New York, covering food, concerts, arts, theatre, and more. The website has grown to be a strong, recognizable brand and one that is on a constant upward trajectory. I’ve personally invested almost three years of tireless work into Guru and we’re now in the process of monetizing the site’s growing traffic and expanding the organization.
Many people I talk to seem confused when I tell them that, yes, I personally run the entire operation. Others have reached out to me with words of encouragement and/or gratitude, saying things like, “Thanks for making Syracuse cool again.” I’ve never liked to call myself an entrepreneur but the more work I do the more I understand exactly what that word means. I’ve also learned how one goes about being an entrepreneur in Syracuse. All of this while technically being a Whitman School of Management Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises (EEE) dropout.
I could say that we don’t have substantial access to investment capital, we don’t keep our talent here, and New York state taxes aren’t exactly new-venture friendly. I could name about 10 other things that make Syracuse a horrible place to do business. But, I’d be missing a key point if I said all that. The fact is that Syracuse is the perfect place to do business. Our isolation from national trends means we, as entrepreneurs or just creative thinkers, have the ultimate environment for innovation. Organizations such as the Syracuse Technology Garden, Start Fast Venture Accelerator, and Terakeet have taught us that innovation does happen locally and often on a grand scale.
We have so many “old” or traditional industries here that allow a relatively simple concept like Guru to be truly disruptive. Do some Google searches on local event-related terms and you’ll see what I’m talking about. So what do you think CNY lacks? Do you have the talent or more important, the personal drive to fill that gap? Well, what are you waiting for? Syracuse is your personal innovation sandbox. Start playing.
With my venture, I have enjoyed a degree of luck before I even started and I credit part of my so-called success to that. I went into my venture with one of the area’s most talented graphic designers as a family member, I graduated from likely one of the best and most underrated programs at Syracuse University, I have experience with search-engine optimization, and those I previously had as friends became mentors and advisers when I stumbled upon and took action on my sudden vision. But, not all my luck has been good in the traditional sense. I have also suffered major setbacks in my constant pursuit of progress —a serious disability for one.
Beyond the normal difficulties of business, I also have to deal with the additional issues of having muscular dystrophy. This pretty much means I can’t work a normal 9 to 5 schedule, require special accommodations for office space, special equipment for my vehicle, and much more. I also have to improvise in social situations and while networking. When people first meet me there’s potential that they might be extra surprised with my achievements. “Oh, you’re the Guru?.” or similar remarks reflect this. Concern with going to pitch an ad contract and showing up on a mobility scooter is a major hurdle, make no mistake about that. “What will they think of me?” and similar sentiments do not belong in the entrepreneur’s mindset and this is something I still battle. In business and personal life, disability can be an absolute hell, but it’s being an entrepreneur and demanding that respect that has taught me how to handle the negativity. My life is an extension of the venture I started and vice versa. Letting anything come between my goals in business and what I love to do is something I find unacceptable.
Now how does someone with my unique set of gifts and often-profound issues like disability succeed at a venture? Surely, if I can do it, then 10, 20, 50, maybe even 100 other young people can decide to stay in Syracuse and single-mindedly hustle like all the other local entrepreneurs and I do. We all have our immovable hurdles, and it’s up to us to be clever enough to get around them — that’s the definition of innovation, isn’t it?
I’m not saying this is all you need, but I think I have a few things figured out. Entrepreneurship is less about specifics and more about a mindset. Each person has a different goal and passion, but some principles hold true across the spectrum.
1. Have and follow a strict vision — Syracuse Guru was a simple concept that just hit me. Within the first few days, I fleshed it out into an entire vision. Before I wrote my first article, I envisioned where I am today. Now, I envision where I will be in another three years. This is key. I always say that belief is three-quarters of success — action being the final step. Belief in your mission and product is up there, but belief in yourself is number one. Can I — by myself —create and run the best media source in Central New York from nothing? Do I believe in my own vision? I said yes.
2. Never give up — This age-old cliché is the most powerful thing you can harness. The stubbornness to stick to a vision, to see it through, and to make your life and work one in the same means more than you can imagine. This is what I do every single day. It’s what you have to do. Be stubborn and fight for the right to make your own mistakes. Don’t take too much advice. You will know if it’s actually time to throw in the towel, but a real entrepreneur does not just stop. He or she moves on but keeps this attitude in reserve for the next venture.
3. Network — Networking isn’t something you do at a sanctioned “networking event.” That notion is completely wrong. Networking is something you do every single day of the week. Networking is making friends and it’s as simple as being social on your way through life. As I said, your friends often turn into huge supporters and even mentors once you launch a venture. Networking is doing favors more than asking for them. It’s setting up constant meetings to brainstorm about how you might work together. Think of networking as a lifestyle. Something you just do. Don’t confuse real networking with clicking, “Add Connection” on LinkedIn.
I’ll add that even though I have these words of wisdom for you, almost my entire existence is based upon uncertainty. As I’ve mention above I have a disability, which has a major effect on my life. Often skewed self-perception, living-arrangement issues, struggles with my peer group, uncertainty about the future, and worst of all—fear. These things come with my situation. I am not going to be clichéd and say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger but I do believe that character is measured by how each of us grapples with our realities. You can give up or you can embrace everything good and bad and never slow down. A few years ago, I chose to demand more of myself and create my own momentum.
I often wonder where I would be without them but I know that these challenges are where Guru came from. My personal history is one of adapting amidst fear and uncertainty. So in a way, disability taught me everything I know about entrepreneurship. It’s not as simple as the “if I can do it then anyone can” narrative. What I will say is that you must intensely learn from difficulties no matter what they may be — no matter their severity. Take your biggest struggles and divert the frustration into creating a venture and building something real for yourself in Syracuse. That’s what I’ve done and it’s imbued all my efforts with a strength and drive I previously thought impossible.
Robert M. (Rob) Simpson is president and CEO of CenterState CEO. Contact him via email at: email@example.com. Kyle Blumin is a serial entrepreneur, with multiple business exits, based in upstate New York. He is passionate about driving personal and professional success through entrepreneurship. You can follow Blumin on Twitter @KyleBlumin.