Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Russo, founder and developer of SparkOffer. With an extensive background in global luxury residential real estate, Mike Russo is an accomplished real estate veteran with two decades of industry experience, with quantifiable success closing record-setting transactions on an international scale. Most recently, Russo served as director of business development and COO of Concierge Auctions, a global real estate marketplace specializing in the auction sale of luxury homes, where he personally handled over 350 property sales across 20 states and in 15 countries. During his tenure, Russo spearheaded numerous sales and technology initiatives that helped Concierge grow to more than $1 billion in historical sales in just seven years. Prior to Concierge Auctions, Russo served as the Vice President of Realogy/Cendant, one of the largest real estate franchisors. In 2009, Russo created and founded Rezora, a digital marketing platform targeted towards the real estate industry. Under Russo’s guidance, both Concierge Auctions and Rezora were included on the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Companies list, and now he has his sights are set on SparkOffer reaching that list quickly.
Thank you so much for joining us Mike! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ithink my path was predestined from a young age. Many people do not know this about me, but I taught myself to code in Basic on my Atari 800 in 4th grade. My mother went into real estate when I was about the same age, so I was exposed to the industry very young. I decided in college that I didn’t want to code, and though I don’t do any coding today, it was a great foundation for me to interact with our SparkOffer developers on how technology can meet the vision that I lay out for the product.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
One challenge that really sticks out is from when I was co-founder of Rezora in 2009. While we were part of TechStars our director told us someone had to be the CEO. Initially, my other co-founders selected me but about a month later selected the current CEO. We had five co-founders, which is too many. Second, of the five of us I was the only person that didn’t have a 10–20-year personal relationship with each other. Although much of the product vision came from me, I was an outsider in the group. My other lesson is to pick your co-founders very, very carefully. I live my life now on the “Hell Yes” decision tree. If the decision isn’t a “hell yes” then it’s an automatic no.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Failing fast and maintaining pure determination to not stop trying, no matter how bad things may seem.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”?
That I was risking everything I personally have.
Being in charge is really hard, being an entrepreneur is even harder. It’s pretty evident that you are taking financial risk, but you have to be careful of personal relationship risk too. I have five kids and when you work for yourself you rarely feel comfortable that times aren’t tough. At least that’s how I feel. I’m blessed because my wife will be honest and tell me when I’m screwing up at home. But not everyone has this. Make sure that you aren’t focusing too much on your company and not keeping one eye on the part that matters most.
Laying off people or firing people really sucks. After the 2008 crash I had to layoff my first person. When I told her, she started crying and then I started crying. We were both a mess.
It’s not a matter of if I’m getting F’ed it’s just when. I learned this lesson in Aspen and it seemed to have carried through the years. It doesn’t happen daily and you can’t live your life in fear of it, but the longer you are at it the more times you will find someone try to screw you. It’s unfortunate but it’s part of the game.
It’s more important to get the right people on the boat than to grow fast. At my last company my partners wanted to grow faster than I did, and we ended up hiring a lot of mediocre people. I was frustrated all the time because I hate mediocrity.
When you think you are bracing for a downturn, cut costs cut 2–3x harder than you think. I started cutting cost in my Aspen business expecting a market turn. I didn’t cut nearly hard enough when I had time and the hit was worse than I imagined, costing me the company.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
You need to make sure you can disconnect from technology. It’s really hard for most people, myself included, but we all need to disconnect.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many people along the way. Of course, my mom, dad and wife. But there are so many people that have touched my life to help me strive to be successful. I wouldn’t say I’ve made it there yet. One of my previous partners, Raifie Bass had cancer years ago and at one point his wife was told he wouldn’t live 24 hours. There is way more to the story but Raifie is still alive and with us today. Even at my lowest of lows and believe me there were some pretty bad ones during the Great Recesssion. I always worked hard and to this day tell people, “my kids have a roof over their head, food on the table and no one is sick or dying. Everything else is noise.”
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Personally — greater humility. Professionally — inspire people to produce great work.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
That I taught people how to be better and that I was always honest with them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be?
You never know what your idea can trigger! Motivate everyone to help feed, clothe and shelter those in need.