Welcome to our second installment of Better Know a Young Millionaire. This week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ritche Hecker, who is currently the Chief Catalyst at Traction + Scale, an incubator and investor in the digital media and direct marketing space. He is also the chairman of inSparq, a leading social commerce technology company.
Ritche has a great story that I know will resonate with young investors and upcoming entrepreneurs. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and started his first business at 15 while still in high school. He ran this company (and several others) throughout high school and college while still managing to graduate with a degree in Finance.
Let's get to better know Ritche Hecker…
The Early Days
Tell us about yourself and how you got started?
Ritche: Well, I'm Richie Hecker, and I'm an entrepreneur in New York City. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and started my first business in the early days of the web when I was 15 years old.
Honest, I got started at that age because I was bored in high school and trying my luck at day trading. I decided that I wanted to build a day trading website, so I built a free website using homestead.com and started networking. I didn't know how to network though or even what it really meant at that time. Instead, I basically trolled through AOL chat rooms. While chatting, I ended up meeting another 16 year old with a day trading website and we decided to build an online advertising company together.
Since then, I've expanded from online advertising into technology and made it my career. I'm currently the Chief Catalyst at Traction + Scale, an investment group that is an active investor in the digital media and direction marketing space. I'm also Chairman of inSparq, which is a leading social commerce technology company.
How was balancing college life and starting a business? Did you have key supporters?
Ritche: It was fun! If you ask my roommates from college how they would describe me at that time, they would share with you the following picture: “Ritche would be sitting at his desk in his bathrobe with a glass of Glenlivet 18 Scotch in one hand and a laptop in the other hand with a phone glued to his ear”.
I basically didn't go to class. I did everything I could to get extra credit for things and worked the system as best as possible. One year I only needed one credit, for example. I used college as a place to play while I was working during the day.
Risk vs. Rewards
What was the biggest risk you ever took? Do you regret it?
Ritche: I've put every dime I had on the line several times – and lost it and needed to borrow money for my business to survive. When you're an entrepreneur, you take risks. When you're young and starting with $0 in the bank, every deal is life or death for the business.
For the first part of my career just about everything I did was bootstrapped without any outside funding – it was always my money on the line. You've got to make payroll – where do you think that money comes from if your company hits a snag?
If you could make one change, what would it be?
Ritche: The big change I would have made would have been to take advice and find mentors when I was younger. I thought because I was young I needed to be arrogant and always be right. Boy was I wrong!
You should always have 1-2 mentors and 1-2 peers that you can work with to double check your thought process and keep you on track. All great athletes have coaches. All great entrepreneurs should have coaches too. It took me a decade and cost me millions to learn this lesson. You get to learn it on my dime…
What's your strategy for maintaining work/life balance?
Ritche: I'm not sure I understand this one, because when you're an entrepreneur, there really isn't any! The best suggestion I've got is to take one day off early each week as a date night, whether by yourself, with a friend, or a loved one, and shut off your phone.
Also, try to keep to one day a weekend with no work. You need to create space. If you're having trouble doing this, you can always become an Orthodox Jew, and then you can't pick up your phone all day Saturday. I was Orthodox when I started my first business and it turned out to be a big relief. I'm not anymore, and I'm finding it harder to balance.
Advice for College Students
What advice do you have for young adults or college students when it comes to entrepreneurship and money?
Ritche: Follow your passion. Once you find it, ask the question of what product or service would you pay for? Then explore that as a business.
Any other advice?
Ritche: Sure. I've found that there are three keys to running a business while in college.
- Plan a Flexible Class Schedule: It's hard to balance school and work. School is more rigid with a class schedule. Make your classes pass/fail, and also jam them on the same day so you have other days completely free. Understand that you may miss classes and exams for meetings. I missed the pass/fail date to make a hard class (Statistics) pass/fail because of a business trip and I had to take the class for a grade. It sucked, but it's part of the game.
- Don't Take School Too Seriously: In today's job market, school doesn't nearly matter as much as before. In the fast moving technology sector, education just matters if you don't have relationships. If you want to be an entrepreneur, spend more time building relationships, doing favors for people, and networking, and don't worry so much about your grades. If you have poor grades, leave your GPA off your resume! I can't remember the last time I cared about a GPA when I interviewed anyone. I want to see their hustle, their character, their intelligence. I could care less about their gradebook.
- Know Your Priorities: Which is more important – your education or your business? You are more likely to excel at whatever you make your priority. Also, clients and business partners will realize this and entire organizations change on this light. I ran a business while in school and my business was my priority. My partners were much older and overseas, and still got annoyed when I had class. I controlled the company so it didn't technically matter, but it definitely had an impact.
What I Learned from Richie Hecker
First, I want to thank Richie for stopping by and taking the time to share his insights with me. It's so awesome to be able to talk to someone who started a business while in high school and watch it transform into a million dollar venture by your mid-20s.
I think it is interesting to hear this perspective compared to Chris Huse last week. For example, Chris was all about education, while Richie is all about skills. I personally think it is important to strike a solid balance between education and real world skills. You can go too far to one extreme – being extremely educated but having no real workplace skills or experience, or vice versa – and it can be a huge de-railer for your career.
I also love how Richie highlights how it's possible to run a successful business while in college. Many successful entrepreneurs founded their companies while in school, but many people think that it's impossible to do. The tips Richie gave at the end are solid – you need to know your priorities and what you really want to get out of your education experience.
What are your thoughts on starting a business in college? Does experience or education matter more?