REPEAT is a special interview series underwritten by CliftonLarsonAllen where we take a deep dive inside the minds of Minnesota’s rare repeat technology entrepreneurs. Repeat means to start a tech company, exit said company, and return start another one.
Brothers Rob Weber and Ryan Weber have been in the tech business since high school days, but it wasn’t until college that things took off. Through some ups and downs, their biggest success to date would become known as NativeX (originally Freeze.com & W3i), which was sold to Mobvista for $25min 2016. Along the way they also invested in 25+ other tech companies as angels, and most recently, returned with a new venture called Great North Labs, which is a combination of tech fund + startup school.
Rob & Ryan are among our guests of honor at the upcoming Founders Respect and Recognition event on April 5th.
Were you born and raised in Minnesota?
Ryan: Yes, we are identical twins who were born in Robbinsdale, Minnesota 1980. Soon after birth, we moved around between Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Iowa for the first few years of life before coming back to Maple Grove, Minnesota when were were six.
Were your parents together growing up?
Rob: Our parents got divorced when we were six, which brought us back to Minnesota to where our grandparents were living. Both were great parents but we were all better off after the divorce as the relationship was not working between them. Our mother is really strong willed, and her parents helped care for us after the divorce so that she could get back on her two feet.
Our biological father was also very loving and supportive of us. Both our parents grew up with even less than we did but the prevailing attitude was that ‘you can do anything’ from everyone in our family, paired with great work ethic.
What did your parents do for a living?
Rob: Our biological father worked in the insurance industry as well as a variety of manufacturing companies as a safety engineer, and later in a paper mill; mom earned her MBA while raising us and working different clerical and marketing type jobs.
How was money around the family?
Ryan: We didn’t have much money, but we had great family support. We got on an airplane for the first time at age 18 with tickets that we bought. We also shared a room until we were 18 as well.
Was anyone in your family entrepreneurial or self employed?
Ryan: Not really…our parents were in the first generation to graduate college and this led to both succeeding in finding solid white collar jobs. Our step dad, before we met him, had tried to start an auto body shop but because of road construction and access issues, had to shut that down before it ever really got up and running.
What were your first jobs, business experience, or ways of making money?
Babysitting…we were the oldest of all our cousins so that came naturally. Lawnmowing ensued. We would walk the creek at the local golf course and collect + reselling golf balls. We bought and sold sportscards too. McDonalds was our first legit job, followed by Fleet Farm and even WalMart….
What was your first exposure to, or experience with technology growing up?
Rob: once our mom had remarried for the first time when we were about 9 or ten years old and our step dad was into technology, he was a programmer and he always had at least one working computer. When we were in the 11th grade, we bought our first computer with money made from working at McDonalds (we also shared an old beatup car that seemed to suck up the rest of our savings).
Ryan: I remember just wanting something that could get us on the Internet, and we found it in a PC that sported a 200 MHZ Cyrix processor along with a blazing fast 33.6K modem. I I don’t even remember what model it was. And then we started making websites…we always wanted to make a buck and the first domain/website was a site for sports card collectors in 11th grade called cards-inc.com.
How did that go for you?
Ryan: From that point on, we were always creating and launching new websites and doing SEO with varying degrees of success and failure. It wasn’t until we witnessed one of our associates sell their site for a million dollars that we decided to start making a serious go at things.
So, in the summer of 1998 (as fresh Osseo Sr. High School graduates) we started our own directory called freestuffcenter.com, which peaked that fall with 23k daily visitors and about $20k/month run rate, but it started to take a toll on us while studying and balancing the business over the years. By the time we were juniors in college we were making tens of thousands per month at age 18.
Where did you go to college and what did you study?
Ryan: We went to college early, postsecondary, during our junior year North Hennepin Community College, in 1996 after they had just upgraded to broadband. We then switched to St. Cloud State as our older brother Aaron was already there and it was close to home. Ultimately I studied computer science and Rob focused on entrepreneurial studies.
How did you pay for college?
The post secondary was paid for as we were still in high school, but St. Cloud State was paid for my our mom. Although we had been earning enough to do it ourselves, having her cover it was the only way we were able to invest in our business at the time.
What happened next?
Ryan: Between 1998 and 2000 is when we made most of our money and even decided to open an office in St. Cloud to continue building up. But we were very reliant on partners and referral traffic to get things to that point…but when the bubble burst, we lost about 80% of revenues in under 18 months. We had a lot of overhead and expenses by then but had to shut it down…we had about $300k saved up in the end, and flipped that into what became Freeze.com with our brother Aaron as a third partner.
It sounds you made a lot of money and lost a lot of money pretty early on?
Rob: Yeah…it was really difficult for us, when we were about 20 years old we had gone from the top to bottom of things. Basically six years of building was going to zero with layoffs, and we were feeling it in every way. I had developed insomnia, gained weight and even enrolled in therapy.
What made you want to keep going with Freeze.com – later known as W3i and NativeX?
Ryan: We had made some great relationships with older and experience mentors which helped a lot during those tough times. We also had eachother! And I guess we weren’t willing to wave the white flag, so instead we rolled up what we had left and charged on in a new direction….