In episode 2 of The Brendan Egan Show, Brendan interviews serial impact entrepreneur John Shegerian, co-founder of ERI, the largest electronic recycling and hardware data destruction company in North America, about what it takes to be a successful serial entrepreneur.
In the interview, John shares tips he has learned over his 30+ years in entrepreneurship, including many lessons he learned when he founded a major dot com startup in the same year Google was founded, which he subsequently excited through an acquisition.
John has experience not only with running startups, but with marketing them, and shares many of his pearls of wisdom he has learned over the years.
To connect with John, click on the links below:
Brendan Egan: Welcome, to episode two of The Brendan Egan Show. I’m your host, Brendan Egan, and today I am absolutely thrilled to have with us a guy that I call, my business partner, he’s a serial social entrepreneur who focuses on solving global problems, through game-changing innovations, to build successful, socially responsible companies, John Shegerian. John, thanks for being with us today.
John Shegerian: It’s an honor to be on your show, Brendan. Yes, you are my partner, I’m very humbled and lucky to have you as a partner, it’s just great to be here. Thanks for inviting me so early on, from your launch, of your great new podcast show.
Brendan: Before I forget to mention, thanks to our sponsor. This episode is brought to you by the Marketing Masters with offices in Los Angeles and California. The Marketing Masters is a boutique digital marketing agency that specializes in working with small and medium-sized businesses on ROI driven marketing campaigns. For more information, visit TheMarketingMasters.com
For those who don’t know, John is my partner in The Marketing Masters, an agency that we started several years ago, we work with 250 plus clients today. John, for those who don’t know and for those who haven’t read our wonderful book that just came out, yet. Why don’t you tell our listeners, actually it’s something very relevant to our podcast, why don’t you tell them how we met?
John: We met because of your profile on Ideamensch, I read it, I was impressed I reached out, we went back and forth a little bit and the rest is history. We hired you to start running all the social media, online marketing, and web development work for ERI, our recycling, and data destruction company, you, literally, did such an amazing job there that we were off to the races, started our partnership and it’s been nothing but greatness since then. It’s been just a joy being your partner and it’s been a lot of fun too, I got to tell you.
Brendan: I’ve met a lot of people over the years and truthfully, personally, business-wise, spiritually, all the check boxes, John has been one of my top two, top three if not the number one. The way that we met, John, through an interview that I did online, absolutely, is the icing on the cake, it just goes to show how important great content is. Even, small pieces of content that you might think are meaningless, you never know who’s going to read that and what that’s going to lead to. I just love sharing that story with people.
John: It’s like some of our clients always say, “They’re only one phone call or email away from their biggest client coming through the door” so the more content, good content, you could put up, not perfect, but just good content you could get posted whether that’s in a podcast, a blog and so many other forms that Brendan can tell you more about, you’re only one phone call or email away from your business changing forever.
Brendan: I love that, that’s so true. John, let’s talk about you a little bit because you’re no stranger to businesses, you’ve been an entrepreneur for three decades now, really. Talk a little bit about your journey as an entrepreneur, what you’re working on today? Things that you’re excited about.
John: Yes. I grew up, my dad was an entrepreneur, so it was great to see him do what he did and it was very inspiring, it also makes you think the sky is the limit, that we’re in this great innovation nation so why not be an entrepreneur and that’s really sort of how I started.
Started off as a young guy, racing horses, which was a great skill set to learn in terms of raising money, taking care of people’s assets, reporting transparently to the investors, the horse owners and then, really managing both a business and people’s assets is really what entrepreneurship is.
You go out, you have an idea, a vision that can fill a void that exists in the marketplace, you believe it’s commercializable and scalable, hopefully. Then, you go out and raise money from other people, including your own, you got to manage that money. As a good fiduciary, you got to report transparently back to them and then you got to get the horse across the finish line, hopefully first.
Everything I really needed to know about entrepreneurship, in so many ways, came out of my horse racing background and years, that’s a great testimony to my dad who encouraged me to do that if that’s what I really wanted to do, I’ve taken that success forward.
Once, you get a success under your belt, no matter what age, whether you hit it big at 50 or 15 and you get some wins under your belt, if you do it right, you lean back on those wins as a confidence builder to keep you going forward when the potholes, the hurdles and the hiccups come because for all of us, they’re always coming our way, but you have to have resilience, mental toughness and some wins in your life bank to get you through some of the tougher times.
Brendan: I love that. As you know, John, I’ve been running this company for going on 12 years now, we’ve been partners for almost 10 now and some of my earliest wins were some of the biggest because once you have that feather in your cap, you have that confidence boost and you have that portfolio to rest on, it makes the next wins that much easier to come by.
John, for those that don’t know, one of your biggest wins, from a financial standpoint, was FinancialAid.com, which I know you started that in the same year that Google was founded, was one of the very early Dot-coms and you, subsequently, sold that.
Tell our listeners, a little bit about what FinancialAid.com was and what were some of the things that you did back then that, probably, still applies today that you were able to grow that company so quickly and, ultimately, exit out of that business.
John: Yes. It’s a great question, I was lucky to have really good partners, Mike and Matt O’Brien, we divided and conquered the opportunity. We got it up and running, but because we didn’t have any luck raising venture capital money, which we thought was a bad thing back then, it turned out to be one of our secret superpowers because we were forced early on to leverage ourselves, raise just some bootstrap money and it forced us to get profitable fast.
As opposed, to all the other Dot-coms that were out there then, Pets.com and Webvan and everything else, that was- had raised billions of dollars, they were all drinking champagne, flying in first class on airplanes and we were just, literally, first running out of the t-shirt shop that Mike and Matt had and that’s how I met them, they were making the t-shirts for a brewery that I owned, called the Bulldog Brewing Company.
Then, we moved it down to San Diego and, literally, subleased some of the smallest offices I’ve ever been in, but it was some of the best times I’ve ever had in my life. Mike sat at the appropriate side of the desk, Matt worked out a Fresno and I sat on the other side of the desk of Mike, which was the side you can’t even get your legs under. We, literally, opened up our laptop and, literally, have to look at each other all day when we weren’t typing.
We made it work, we just worked out of a little hovel of a sublease office, but it was some of the best memories ever had. We were forced to be profitable fast, I remember when Mike scanned the first check that we got paid off, from a banking institution, to buy our loans that we would sell off to financial institutions. He emailed it to me, I was somewhere else, I opened the email, it was a real emotional experience and then, I realized we’re onto something.
It was a very small, very humble check, in terms of the numerically speaking, I called Mike right away and he goes, “Yes, we could do this, we’re going to do this” we had our aha moment and we never looked back. I mean, we scaled it from there, got it super big, super fast by 2004, October 2004, we sold it, middle of October.
It was just a great ride, we democratize student lending online. We made a profit, which was critical, but we also made the world a better place and that was, again, taken from my homeboy experience and homeboy life that no sense doing a business that you can also have a social impact or a societal world impact with and, Financial Aid were certainly one of those types of businesses. It started well, the partnership really ran well, had just great experience with Mike, Matt and Julie O’Brien, became Mike’s wife along the way, who became our COO. We were off to the races.
ERI opportunity came up next, I had met, through Kevin Dillon, who worked for me at FinancialAid.com, was running our sales and did a brilliant job scaling FinancialAid.com, in terms of the sales, the scales and marketing skills out of college, met his high school buddy, Erin Blum, who would it started ERI, under a different name, in Vista California, which is in North County, San Diego.
When we sold FinancialAid.com, Erin came to Kevin and I, said, “Can you do the same magic trick you did with FinancialAid.com with my company?” wasn’t a magic trick, but of course he was young, he was excited about following our success, we said, “We looked into it” and we said, “Yes, that seems like a good opportunity” we worked on the deal points and we created a new venture together, the three of us, originally.
Brendan: I love that. I think a lot of people today, young entrepreneurs, Millennials, they want to make an impact in the world and they don’t realize, John, that you can make an impact and make money at the same time, there’s ways to make an impact and also, be a successful entrepreneur, there’s no shame in making money and doing what you love, but also impacting the world in a better place, at the same time.
John, one of the things that a lot of people don’t know about Financial Aid, is that you didn’t just own and founded in Financial Aid, there were some subsidiaries as well. There was RateYourCampus.com, which was a college student poling web site. There was Campus Dirt, which was one of the most relevant and visited college search engines of its time, there was Campus Clicks.
The reason I bring those up is because this is a show all about marketing, obviously, and I love that even as the internet was in its infant stages, just beginning, you were using a trick that I feel like is still used today, 20 years later, which is having these feeder branches, feeder companies and different spokes to your wheel to feed your main company, which was Financial Aid. Talk a little bit about those sites, why you founded them? And, what role they played in the success of Financial Aid and your marketing campaigns?
John: Yes. Mike and I made a decision early on. Back then, beginnings of times of the internet, 98, 99, 2000, 2001, 2002 when you have a successful Dot-com, the advertisers were just finding their way in digital advertising, would be willing to spend a lot of money to place ads on your site.
Mike and I fell, it would take away from the credibility and the seriousness of our brand, FinancialAid.com it’s a serious venture, helping people, navigate, finding capital whether it’s a scholarship, a grant, a Stafford loan, a PLUS loan, a consolidation loan, it’s a serious deal in the banking and financial industry, to start loading up our websites with other people’s advertisements, we felt distract from the mission at hand.
A group of us, Mike and Julie, had a cousin named Casey who worked for us, wonderful young guy, Julie, myself, we all came up with the concept of first, what was called RateYourCampus.com, we had students as they were filling out their loan applications, especially, kids who would– young people that lived on campus already, they would have all these different categories to rate, best beer pub on campus, how are the dorms? Who’s the great teacher? Who’s the bad teacher? and then, they’d even have areas just to riff on their own, not necessarily our questions, so they would fill in all of our information and decision tree, we would then after X amount of reviews of each campus, I believe it was, ten could have been five, long time ago now, twenty years back, unfortunately.
We would then, post that review on Campus Dirt and all of a sudden, you had this closed loop. To your point, Brendan, what would happen is we’d have all this person experiential information that parents, couldn’t get otherwise, because they were just reading shiny glossy brochures as were potential students for a campus and now, when we had a critical mass on each campus, let’s just call ten for this discussion, at least, ten reviews and different forms of feedback, we would then post it up on Campus Dirt.
Now, Campus Dirt then became, very popular, with parents and soon-to-be college students because they would, actually, get to hear the real truth behind the dorms, the food, the teachers, the sports and all the other things that were, in or around, the universities of America.
Here’s where the magic happened, we would run ads on Campus Dirt, we would take the got milk ad campaign and we came up with the same font, said “Got loans” you click on that and where you go back to our landing page for FinancialAid.com.
Brendan: I love that.
John: Same thing in FinancialAid.com we’d run ads for Rate Your Campus, Campus Dirt; all three became a closed ecosystem supporting each of those platforms which fed the main brand which the main mission was helping more students find scholarships, grants and all sorts of federally guaranteed loans, Stafford, PLUS or consolidation as the main ones to get– further their education.
The opportunity was great but we also made the most of it by making some lucky and good decisions because luck plays a part when you’re in the middle of it, because you don’t know they’re good until after the fact until you’re in the rear-view mirror until they’re working but it really worked well. Again people can use that kind of methodology and thinking process to forward their brands yet today those methodologies still work. I’m glad your board up, because not many people remember that; understand that and realize that’s really a great way to go.
Brendan: I love that ecosystem, that’s something still holds true today and something that you were way before your time and doing that, for our listeners that you forget about this but this was before the days of Facebook, MySpace, social media, there was nowhere to go for this information; really what you created is really one of the first college social sites ever to exist on the internet.
I just love that story I think it’s so cool how you created those brands not only to provide information but to feed your parent brand of financial aid. John obviously you’ve been involved in a lot of businesses over the years, right now the biggest being ERI which continues to grow every year. Over the years, with your love and passion of marketing is there a tip that you’ve learned or a trick or maybe not a trick but maybe just a philosophy that you’ve learned in terms of how you approach marketing and what has found you so much success over the years?
John: Just really understanding contextually what you’re trying to market, what could be the best path because as you and I, Brendan so much of online marketing and getting visibility is about testing, cutting what doesn’t work and then scaling what does work. Each industry has many similarities so there’s some truths that run across all industries but there’s also idiosyncratic contextual opportunities in different industries.
It’s finding some of those diamonds along the way or creating them that could then set a brand, a company apart from its competition but, I’m a huge believer in not fearing failure testing all the ideas that are available for a company, a platform, cutting what doesn’t work, not worrying about what didn’t work and scaling as fast as you can the stuff that was working.
Brendan: I knew that was going to be your answer, as my part that’s my answer as well. I absolutely love that advice of cutting what doesn’t work, never looking in the rear-view mirror and scaling with does work; just flying down the road and pouring as much as you can into the things that are working for you. John as we wrap things up here for our listeners that want to get in touch with you, I know your personal site is JohnShegerian.com, what’s the best way to connect with you?
John: People can just email me at and JohnShegerian.com or at JSS@ERIdirect.com that our recycling or John@TheMarketingMasters.com. I’m very available, accessible and believe that business is all about personalizing relationships. I love when people contact me and ask me a question or ask me how to get something done or ask me to put them in touch with you, which is even more fun or ask me about an e-waste question so I could handle their data destruction or electronic recycling needs.
I’m very reachable I’m out there on LinkedIn and also through JohnShegerian.com and ERI directs website and Marketing Masters as well.
Brendan: John is one of the most accessible people I’ve ever met, he’s one of the busiest but most accessible if I don’t hear from him for a few hours something’s not right [laughs] for our listeners that want to connect with John don’t hesitate to reach out to him, he’s also incredibly active on LinkedIn and he’s also the host of Formerly Green Is Good which is a wildly successful podcast.
He’s in the middle of relaunching The Impact podcast right now so don’t hesitate to connect with John he’s a great guy, he loves just talking with other entrepreneurs and business owners, always has great advice to share. Well, John I really do appreciate you being on, you’re one of the people that I was the most excited to interview on this show and I’m sure that you’ll be back on here many times in the future.
On behalf of myself and John Shegerian thanks everyone for listening to episode 2 of the Brendan Egan show, listen along and stay tuned for episode 3 which will be coming your way shortly.