Where desire, calculated risk and sacrifice meet. GTK #25: Justin Kaufenberg

[display_podcast]Justin Kaufenberg

Justin Kaufenberg’s entrepreneurial blood has been flowing since the days when his family would gather for the monthly “make dad rich” meetings.

“By the time I was 18 years old and off to college — the idea of ever going working for someone else was just a non option — it was really a foregone conclusion at that point that I was going to do something for myself,” he asserts.

While in college at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire studying economics,  Justin met designer/developer Carson Kipfer and the duo quickly setup shop and launched Third North Creative (Third Floor North Wing in Murray Hall).  The custom web development business was growing during the first two years, as was the desire to “own and iterate on a single product.”

“Third North was the stepping stone…we spun TST Media out with Mike Lewis from Travelocity.com and Greg Blasko. The four of us went heads down for two years…26 months without a paycheck.”

At the same time, moving from western Wisconsin back to Justin’s Minnesota roots in 2005 to setup shop in NE Minneapolis was a key strategic move for the startup.

“The benefits were immediate,” he notes, “just being immersed in this tech culture really began to push this business in the right direction. Our first software hire (Luke Ludwig) who we met at the RubyMN group is still with us today.”

But it isn’t all as sexy as it sounds — you’ll hear Kaufenberg explain life during those initial years when he had taken out a second mortgage on his house in Wisconsin, maxed out the credit cards, and ate canned chili for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  While the average person might ask “why”, all  this calculated entrepreneur saw was simple logic:

“You have this unique window of opportunity as a young individual to do something while your (future) family is not depending on you and you have this window of time where the relative cost of failure is reasonable, all things considered. Looking back, I always tell [aspiring entrepreneurs] the single most important thing they can do is to keep their personal overhead low and their personal financial situation in such a place that it gives them the time to truly see what their business is made of.”

By 2008, TST Media had a fully-developed product (NGIN),  grown from four to ten employees and went to the markets to raise its first round of investment capital.  “It didn’t work as planned, which was very humbling,” Justin recalls while describing the “re-grouping” that did lead to a successful $1m raise in 2009 led by Twin Cities Angels.

“To a degree, the worst is behind us, but we still perform at top capacity every day.”

With around 40 on payroll, TST is ready to continue stoking the growth trajectory through another funding round/ acquisition streak.  “We’re very excited about what’s next,” he says, “It’s not about lunch money anymore, the stakes are higher everyday. Our employees, partners (myself included) now have families and are paying mortgages and depend on this company. That’s makes us proud.”

What a class act.