Everyone knows the old cliché that all great start-ups begin in someone’s garage. My story is a bit different as it all began in my parent’s basement. The year was 2001 and I had just got kicked out of my first year at the University of Windsor for having poor grades (yes, kicked out) and I was devastated.
I’ve always been a smart kid and I skated by in high school without ever really trying. University was very different as they gave you so much more freedom… you didn’t even have to go to class! Of course being a know it all 18 year old I took advantage of this and to make a long story short, the university gave me my pink slip after my second semester.
After receiving the dreadful letter from the grim reaper (the dean of the University), I simply moped around the house wallowing in my own misery. I didn’t even want to eat, which is rare for an Italian guy, because all I wanted to do was feel sorry for myself. “How could have I been so stupid”, is what kept ringing in my ears over and over again.
Then on one thankful day, while I was laying on my parent’s couch feeling sorry for myself, my mother came downstairs and sat next to me. I was expecting a scolding, which I deserved because my parents had paid for my school and I had just let it sink down the drain, but instead my mother spoke words to me that I’ll never forgot. “Ben, you f*$#!$ up but it’s not the end of the world. You have two choices, you can keep crying about it or you can get up and try again”. Ok, she might not have sworn, but it’s what I needed to hear to get myself motivated again! So I went back to college for a year (required to get back into University), scored a 3.6 out of 4 grade point average and then went back to University where I completed my Honours in Business Administration degree in 2005.
The proverbial light bulb went off in my head during a conversation that I was having with a friend about his computer in my first week of college in 2002 (this was a typical occurrence because if you know anything about computers, everyone that doesn’t thinks you’re an expert). “If this guy needs computer help, wouldn’t there be others?” My epiphany was correct and so with the help of my brother Rob Puzzuoli, the actual computer genius, Intermania Computers was born in my parents basement (again not the garage but close enough). Business picked up quickly and within the first year, we were doing over $500,000 in sales while we were both still in school!
By the year 2003, margins on computers were getting slim, and so we decided to move into computer software. After partnering with our other genius best friend, Brian R. Bondy, we started writing our software, it was called Vision Backup and we incorporated under VisionWorks Solutions Inc. Vision Backup was a local backup and restore application created for small and medium sized businesses. We mainly sold it through our web site with the help of resellers and Google pay per click ads.
We soon ran into a problem with our backup software not being able to backup open and locked files, and after trying to license an open file driver (a piece of software that would give Vision Backup access to open files), we realized we couldn’t afford it due to steep licensing costs. So like most entrepreneurs, we underestimated the timeline and decided to build our own as we saw an opportunity to fill a gap. After a few failed test runs, File Access Manager, FAM for short, was born. It was our answer to being able to backup locked files, and without knowing it at the time, was one of the key pieces of technology that would eventually help us sell our company.
At its peak, FAM was licensed by over 30 separate backup companies and had a staggering 100,000+ installations worldwide. At the same time of us introducing FAM, another shift in the market was happening and we knew we wanted a part of it. It was the infancy of cloud backup, which at the time was called remote or offsite backup, because the term “cloud” wasn’t even yet born. By 2005 we had branched off our Vision Backup code to create a new product called ROBOBAK.
ROBOBAK was a cloud based backup and recovery solution designed for Managed Service Providers (MSPs) that wanted to start their own cloud backup offering by installing our software in their own data centres. At its peak, ROBOBAK was installed on over 100 MSP’s which then distributed the backup agent to thousands of their own customers.
Having very little prior experience in really any aspect of running a business, we made each and every mistake possible. In hindsight, I’m so glad we did because it truly was the best way to learn, with the lessons still helping me today in both my professional and family life. We were up against hundreds of bigger competitors but still were able to capture part of the market by really caring about our customers and providing awesome support. Going the extra mile for our customers and how we treated them was the key to us growing and retaining our customers (especially in the beginning when the software was buggy). We would do everything from hand holding customer’s hands during installations to providing 24/7 support to all customers. We truly differentiated ourselves with great customer service because that is all we could afford in the beginning and it just stuck and became who we were!
After a lot of ups and downs (and a few sideways) we sold our company to a Toronto Ontario based cloud backup provider in 2011 (who I then worked for as their Director of Sales & Marketing for over 5 years). We had done this before we all turned 30. It was a huge feat and an amazing accomplishment that I’m still very proud of to this day.
When people ask me today what the most important thing that I learned after this amazing 10 year adventure, I would have to say that contrary to school, where they teach you that failing is a bad thing, I firmly believe that failing is actually a great thing. I say fail and fail often (as long as you get back up), because if you’re always scared to fail, you’ll never take a chance at building something great!