Morgan Carey isn't sure if he was born with the entrepreneurial spirit, or if it was learned from a hardscrabble childhood in Nanaimo, British Columbia, which he says included sleeping in his blind mother's guitar case while she busked for spare change.
Regardless of its origins, at age 35, Mr. Carey has built a multimillion-dollar tech startup, Real Estate Webmasters (REW), which has ambitious goals and attracted big-name investors. The father of two did it all while remaining in his hometown on Vancouver Island, where he is the one of city's largest private employers with a staff of about 170 people.
REW began in 2004 in a rented basement apartment and is now run out of three commercial buildings Mr. Carey now owns. That includes a 90-seat restaurant called Rewsters, where his staff can eat for half price. Mr. Carey, a former amateur boxer, long-distance calling plan salesman and Internet marketer, struck a deal on CBC's Dragons' Den earlier this year to sell a five per cent stake of his company to cast members Jim Treliving and Michael Wekerle for $2-million. His goal now is to grow the company to $100-million (U.S.) in annual sales within five or six year years, up from $20-million forecast for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2015. That would be double the $10-million in sales REW hit the year before. Mr. Carey also plans to expand his custom real estate websites company into other industries such as mortgages and insurance.
We spoke to Mr. Carey recently about his remarkable rise to tech industry success:
How did you get into the Internet business?
I was a single dad with a son who was also looking after my little brother and going to school and working, so I was at home a lot on the Internet because I didn't have a much of a social life. I was also a math nerd at school and love finance and the Internet and was quite entrepreneurial, so it started from there. [Eventually] I became a high-level search engine consultant. I was referred to as the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) guy. I own SEOguy.com. I got up to $500 (U.S.) an hour and I was working all of my hours everyday and couldn't scale my business. I ran into that labour problem because I had created the business around myself. Nobody wanted to work with anyone but me.
I was burning out and realized I needed to find a niche that I could re-brand and focus on. I had some real estate customers already that were happy with the service and doing well and real estate was something I was interested in personally.
How did you grow the company?
The first stage was doing exactly what I was doing already, under a new brand. It started out as SEO marketing. Realtors were asking me to find them a good designer. [Instead of outsourcing] I brought on a designer, and then programmers. I realized I wasn't going to be happy helping my clients go get some other service that isn't going to be up to my standards. The growth has been seeing what's next, staffing for it, building it up and then being able to sell it.
What was the most challenging part of starting your own business?
The biggest challenge for me was work-life balance. It still is. I was immediately successful so I didn't have any challenges from a business growth perspective. But it was finding that balance between making sure you give yourself enough time to grow as a person and growing your bank account. That was the biggest challenge because of course there is an immediate return on growing your bank account.
Why are you still in Nanaimo?
I grew up here. I went to school here. I have two children [ages 19 and 7]. I had one when I was very young. Many years ago, the answer was that I had a son and didn't want to be away from him. Because my business was on the Internet there was no reason to move. Then we bought a building, then a house, then I got married, then I bought another building. It became very difficult to leave. Plus, I love Nanaimo.
Why did you open a restaurant?
When moved into third facility, our brand new building downtown, I decided I was going to offer a cafeteria for the staff. We used to have free food in the old offices but it became unmanageable from a people perspective to try to get everyone in and out of the kitchen. I had the idea to do a cafeteria, but decided to open it up to the public to offset the costs. We ended up building a high-end restaurant downtown. Now our staff eats there at a 50 per cent discount. We also have events there. It's a popular spot and doing really well.
What do you think makes you a good entrepreneur?
I tend to have the ability to see what's coming next. There are few things that I've done that have not been successful. I used to just think I was lucky, but I have a pretty good batting average so far. Honestly, it just seems to me that I have good intuition. As a child I also had the gift of being able to make things happen.
You had a tough childhood, including some time in foster care and being on your own a lot in your teens. Do you think that experience prepared you to be an entrepreneur?
Most people have just referred to me as a natural in sales, but obviously we're a product of our genetics and our environment, so probably a little bit of both. Definitely growing up the way I grew up, you need to be able to talk your way in and out of situations.
What has influenced your entrepreneurial drive?
What drove me was all of those people when I was young that told me I wouldn't amount to anything. That was my driver early on. Now, I'm addicted to milestones. When I got to $1-million [in sales], I wanted $10-million and then $100-million. Success is addictive.
What are you goals now?
From a business plan perspective, we hope to get to $100-million in U.S. yearly revenues, which we feel will get us up to a $1-billion valuation. But Real Estate Webmasters is the tip of the iceberg. Our plans long-term are to expand. We want our product to be used next in vertical markets like mortgage and insurance. If we build it the right way, there's no limit to the amount of industries that we can work with. Personally, I see myself more as a teacher and a R&D guy, than I do a CEO. At some point we'll have an executive layer. I always want to drive the creativity and have my input on the next product. That seems to be my talent: That vision for the future.
I also wouldn't mind being a Dragon [on Dragons' Den] in a year or two. That would be one of the goals, just from an ego perspective, to change seats.