Don’t Analyze the Root, Just Take the Fruit
When a couple of guys create a successful mobile platform like TapIt, build it up to being acquired for $23 million and exit
within the span of a few years, it makes you want to figure out what the hell their secret magic sauce is. Not surprisingly, the true story behind their success doesn’t involve any magic at all, just personal recipes and consistency. Luckily for us, co-founders Justin Barr and Giancarlo Maniaci were kind enough to fill us in on their personal and professional journeys as entrepreneurs.
Upon our arrival to conduct the interview—back when they were still at TapIt—we were given a quick tour, which included a look at the break room that was, to me, mind blowing. It was messy and reminiscent of a rebellious teenager’s room, albeit a very fortunate teenager’s room. With an HDTV at the focal point, the room contained several video game systems, musical instruments, amplifiers and a variety of pedals lying around. ‘Now this is corporate culture,’ I thought.
I had to grab a guitar, play some music and start messing around with the pedals. I imagined what it’d be like to have this for a break room. One would wonder how any work gets done there with so much dynamic entertainment available at any given time, but there’s no doubting the success of TapIt after being acquired for $23 million by tech giant Phunware this past January.
After just one look at Justin Barr’s face, you could see the contrast between the fun environment of the employees’ break room and the seriousness involved in creating a successful company. They seemed disconnected from the entertainment aspect and were more in the “work hard” mindset. As the masterminds behind TapIt, it was clear that they were in a different place mentally.
From the very beginning of the interview, they wanted to emphasize the importance of work ethic in their lives. Although their stories had different flavors, they both shared similar perspectives and personal backgrounds that led them to become who they are today. When asked about their entrepreneurial journey’s beginning and how it shaped the rest of their lives, Maniaci was quick to point to work ethic as one of the most important values that pushed him through his ventures. He described some of the ways his father had ingrained this important habit into his mind.
At the age of 12, Maniaci was already constantly expected to do hard work around the house by his father. To stretch that work ethic across Maniaci’s immediate social life, Maniaci explained: “My friends would hate to come over, because my dad would always put them to work.” Every summer, his father would bring out “the big boat” and make them deep clean it with toothbrushes. Good work ethic and entrepreneurship were characteristics that Maniaci’s family lived and breathed.
“My older brothers are both entrepreneurs, my dad is an entrepreneur, self-made, and with us, the way we were raised is…none of us [had] trust funds, none of us [had] a golden key, but we were all taught two things early on: one thing is work ethic, and second is the ability to stand on your own two feet.”
None of his brothers ever worked for his father’s company and neither did he. This was all a part of their father’s way of fostering their entrepreneurial spirit and making sure they recognized the value of creating their own futures instead of accepting hook-ups from friends and family. Maniaci has a slightly different philosophy from his own father that he wishes to raise his children with; he proclaims his plan to “give them enough to do something, but not too much to do nothing.”
Justin Barr, Maniaci’s former partner in crime at TapIt, also started working at the age of 12. In his case, it started out with picking strawberries, and he got what he called a “promotion” to washing dishes in a restaurant at age 13. He grew up with a single mother who had to take care of everything herself. In order to persevere through this struggle, she was usually working “three to four jobs at any given time” in order to support her family. Barr describes this as an observational experience that he says “rubbed off” on him.
This work ethic is something that would become an essential catalyst to their success. Maniaci described the beginning of TapIt as “working 36 hours a day.” To stress the idea of having impeccable discipline and work ethic, they referenced a recent car ride with Barr’s son, to whom Maniaci said “It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re smarter than the next guy. You just gotta be willing to work harder than him.”
Maniaci and Barr briefly described how their collaborative relationship worked. Maniaci saw himself as a “peaks and valleys kind of guy,” saying “my highs are very high and my lows are super low.” Maniaci explained that Barr was complementary to his attitude as Barr was more “flat”, suggesting he has the ability to remain more stable during the peaks and valleys rather than being taken by the emotional ride.
Maniaci admitted: “Justin’s lack of EQ is what helped balance me out.” The two explained the role of fear in their ventures. While Maniaci seemed to have almost no fear at all regarding the success or failure of his companies, Justin Barr admitted to having some fear. He explained that it was “not a gripping fear that paralyzed” him, but rather a fear that co-existed with his consistent “motivation to make things work,” and he did not entertain the idea of failure enough to be overtaken by fear’s power.
The Little Wins
Milestones are the things you hear about in the news; they’re the goals that we all aspire to accomplish in our efforts to succeed. However, Maniaci and Barr offer their own perspectives on milestones. They believe that “It’s not about the milestones, it’s the little wins that are really exciting…you know…the progress. The little wins are what keep the momentum going and that puts energy into our sales and that was important for the entire thing. It’s more like the journey was more enjoyable than the end destination.”
We asked them if they still experience those feelings now that they’ve been bought out and are working more executive hours; they gave us a conservative and respectful answer explaining that “there’s a little less satisfaction in building something that’s not your own anymore…it’s still exciting and it’s still fun, but there’s gonna be a little less satisfaction in building a house that’s no longer yours. But, the other thing is that it’s less fear inducing, and less stressful. It’s as though we’ve passed on our headaches to someone else. I mean…we still worry about things to a certain capacity, but it’s not as much as if it were your own baby.”
The burdens that come with being an entrepreneur can play a large role in the flow of close relationships. Maniaci explained that he’s been fortunate in the sense that his wife would interact with his mother as well as his brother’s wife, who have already seen first hand the payoff that long-term ridiculous hours can produce (Maniaci’s brother retired at 35).
As much as that was helpful, he admits “Don’t get me wrong, there were still the times where I got the ‘you’re never f***ing here’ and ‘even when you are here you’re still not here, you’re on your phone’ and you know…but at the end of the day she still sees me excited and that makes her excited, because she sees the growth and the potential that we have. But, it’s only worth it under certain circumstances, like for me number one is…you gotta be passionate about it… and it could be broad. Like for us, we’re passionate about Internet, but it has to be something that’s fun so that what you’re doing isn’t just work. The second thing is [that] it has to be able to make money, and third [is] to build something that’s exitable…You’re building something that you know is going to be a puzzle piece and that puzzle piece should be able to fit into someone else’s puzzle. So, I want to build something that is going to fit in with a lot of people, so I feel confident that there’s an exit strategy there for me.”
When asked about the origins of their venture and inception of the idea for TapIt, they gave us a quick rundown of what led them up to this point. They started out with the realization that “there was a ton of money in the online space.” Their first company was actually a diet company that sold diet pills, pamphlets, DVD’s, etc. They took it to market and utilized their marketing skills to escalate their sales. Before they knew it, they realized they’d sold over 10,000 packages in one month online.
The issue was that they were dumping a lot of money into the company in order to make it happen. As they began to doubt the potential for making money with their diet company, Barr had the “lightbulb idea” to sell the ad space. Maniaci explains “We sold the advertising space, and from there, our first month out we made about half a million bucks.” After confirming the potential for making money in the advertising sales market, they decided they wanted to create something meaningful.
However, they were clueless about how to do that, so they hired a consultant who dealt with advertising expertise. During their meeting, Maniaci thought to himself: “What about the age-old concept that those who can’t do, teach?” After “grilling the consultant”, trying to get to the bottom of why it is that he’s teaching instead of “doing” if he knows so much, the consultant responded “I do have my own business… it’s a mobile company.” Something about that stuck with Maniaci and he couldn’t sleep.
The next day he came to Barr and said “This is what we’re doing Justin, we’re doing a mobile company.” They explained that once they knew that their goal was to build a mobile ad platform, that’s exactly what they did. Maniaci clarified that the difference between the diet company and the mobile ad company was the “laser focus” that they exercised during the development of TapIt.
We wanted to know how Maniaci and Barr measured their success. Maniaci jokingly replied “I measure mine with a yardstick” as he laughed, unsure of how to answer the question. Barr had this to say: “I, for one, have not achieved the level of success that I hope to achieve. I mean, I have a healthy and happy family, and we live comfortably, so I’m…somewhere… I’ll admit I’ve achieved some level of success, but will continue striving to reach greater heights.”
Immediately afterwards, Maniaci gave us his perspective: “I don’t wanna sound cliché, but I mean, first of all there’s always a dollar number that I have in my head that, to me, really says success…where you never have to worry about anything ever again…but beyond that, what I think is important is to be able to say ‘hey, you’re well liked, you’re appreciated, you’ve got a great family, people look up to you, you’re able to help people,’ and I mean I really think the material things should not define you. Justin sent me a picture message the other day that had a paragraph from James Altucher where he says ‘Every night when I have a bunch of anxieties, instead of counting sheep, I count the things I am grateful for and try to go to 100’ and I think that’s very important. I don’t think success should be defined by your networth…But, it’d be nice to have that number!” Barr followed up by saying “I just want to continue to make an impact on people. I’d like to look back one day and know that I’ve affected people in positive ways.”
As a final word of advice, Barr had this to say to potential entrepreneurs: “Get out there and do it… do not let fear grip you. Just take that step forward and don’t let your papers of ideas and business plans sit there and never actually take action.” Maniaci wrapped up the interview in agreement with Barr saying “Don’t analyze the root, just take the fruit.”
As for now, both have decided to take some time off for themselves and their families.
In a more recent correspondence, Barr explained: “When you decide to try and build a successful company, it’s easy for you to neglect other parts of your life, so I have been spending more time with family, exercising, traveling, catching up with old friends, etc.”
The future is undetermined for these two successful entrepreneurs, but based on their personalities, we expect to see them involved in something big again soon.