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Start, Scale, Sell, Repeat with Josh Dziabiak of Gawk

Josh Dziabiak founded his first business before he even had a driver’s license. After multiple successful exits and stepping aside from his most recent business and their $100m annual run rate – insurance comparison site, Zebra.com – he’s back in the driver’s seat as the founder of his 5th startup – Gawq, a news aggregation app. 

A Boss at 14

At the young age of 14, back in the days of the 56k modem, Josh had just been introduced to the technology that would come to dominate his professional life – the internet. Growing up on a farm in rural Pittsburgh, Josh was hooked on connecting with people from all over the world. As the internet was still in its infancy, every business was eager to get online, but still unsure how to make that happen.  

As Josh became more proficient at designing web pages, his clients began to pile up. He was an early success. Naming his company MediaCatch, Josh had employees before he even had a driver’s license and with all these corporate websites needing web hosting services, Josh’s business venture soon began offering that service as well. His web hosting venture was so successful, Josh opted not to attend college or even finish high school; he was off and running.

Still in his youth, Josh would go on to exit that business, but quickly moved onto another, starting Showclix in 2006.

Showclix originally started as a software building company for music and theater venues or event supporters, but its main software build was a ticketing platform to rival Ticketmaster. Josh focused on this business for nearly 7 years, ultimately making his second exit even before hitting the ripe age of 30 years old, selling Showclix to a large equity firm that shared his same vision.  

The 7-Year Itch

Josh noticed a personal trend. He was starting a new business roughly every seven years. He says he would get the itch to start something new as he went from building to operating. Josh was much more interested in the building business side of things.

His next venture would be an insurance industry platform called The Zebra. He started that business in 2012 in Pittsburgh, but soon moved the business to Austin just as the area was becoming a haven for new tech startups. They started off with just the two co-founders and an engineer in an old battery factory. Josh recalls there was even a rat problem and leaking ceilings, but that didn’t deter them from raising over $100 million and scaling their company quickly. Eventually, they would move up to a new, much more agreeable place down the road from the old battery factory and would employ roughly 300 people.  

It was at this level of success that Josh started to feel the itch again. He recalls getting in an elevator with many people who worked at The Zebra and not knowing a single one. He says he felt embarrassed for not knowing his employees, like he wasn’t privy to everything that was going on. But Josh understood that this was inherent with company growth. This was when he knew his time with The Zebra was nearing its end.

When the focus shifts from the build to day to day operations, the vibe is very different, there’s not as much creativity as in the beginning. Josh had to come to terms that there was nothing wrong with having a sweet spot and wanting to move on when that phase was over

What Are You Up To Now?

True to his 7-year pattern, Josh moved on from The Zebra after about 8 years. His next and newest venture is called Gawq, a platform in the news and media sector. Josh explains that as his 5th company he was ready to do something with a social purpose, something that could impact people on a daily basis. With his interest in news and media, he began to look for a problem that he could solve. He found that in news misinformation and the difficulty of navigating information in the digital landscape. “Fake news” was becoming a mainstream issue, especially during the 2016 election, Josh recalls.  

As he dove into the problem, he thought back to his time as a marketer trying to distribute media and knew he had the opportunity to do something different. He aimed to put consumers first, using tech to equip users in a better way. Josh explains that they use crowdsourcing for reviews and ratings on content.

What Would You Tell Yourself 10 Years Ago?

Josh can think of two important lessons he’s learned over the years that he wished he knew sooner.

One is the importance of building relationships and getting yourself out there. Growing up on a farm in rural Pittsburgh, neither of his parents having attended college, Josh didn’t have much of a network. In his early days, Josh thought it was all about how much time you spent and how hard you worked that equaled success. He knows now the value of getting out there, telling your story, shaking hands, and kissing babies, as they say. In networking and hearing other people’s stories, you can learn ways to work smarter, not harder. He says when you’re naturally and genuinely curious, one thing leads to another, and you can go far, because no matter how hard you work, you can’t do everything alone.  

With networking, and hearing other people's stories, you can learn ways to work smarter, not harder. Click To Tweet

The second lesson that Josh had learned through his career is that you need to recognize the emotions that come with entrepreneurship.  Josh knows now that building a business, something that’s your baby, and then handing it off can be very emotionally taxing. It took Josh a long time to learn that it’s not just business, it’s a life pursuit.  

Where To Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about Gawq, check out gawq.com or download the app free from the IOS or Android store. If you’d like to learn more about Josh Dziabiak you can find him on LinkedIn or most other social media platforms.  

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Steve McGarry:

What’s up guys. I am here with Josh Dziabiak the co-founder of Gawq. How are you doing today, Josh?

Josh Dziabiak:

I’m doing good, Steve. Thanks for having me here.

Steve McGarry:

Yeah. Yeah. I’m excited to dive into Gawq and your previous experiences with various different companies, you’re a serial entrepreneur. And I always love talking to fellow entrepreneurs that have gone through and started through the trenches, sold businesses. I’m just I’m excited. So before we get into The Zebra and ShowClix, let’s hear your background in terms of what brought you into being an entrepreneur and how you started your first venture.

Josh Dziabiak:

Sure, absolutely. I started my first venture at the very mature age of 14 and it was really something that started as a passion for web design. I logged on to the internet for the first time when I was 14 years old, 56k modem, that sort of thing. And I had grown up on a farm a couple dozen acres North of Pittsburgh, but oftentimes felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. So logging onto the internet for the first time I just was immediately hooked, it was my escape from being in what felt like the middle of nowhere and being able to connect with people all around the world. And so I had taught myself how to design back then they were called just web pages, I was learning how to be a webmaster.

Before that, I think the term blog really became a thing. But I was learning how to design websites and I became quite good at it. And at that time, a lot of businesses wanted to be online and did not know how to get online and did not have an online presence. And so I had become quite quickly the local go-to nerdy kid on the farm that can design your website inexpensively for your business. And so I was stacking up clients left and right and before I knew it, I had my own business, so that was really the start of my entrepreneurial journey. And that ultimately transformed into a web hosting company just by function of designing all these websites I had to host them somewhere. And that’s really the part of the business that took off for me at a really young age. I did not go to college. I didn’t even really finish high school.

I just started working and I was very fortunate to have a family that supported me in the sense that, they had to go out on a limb to their young teenage son explore this creative side and start a business. And it really has paid dividends for me over the years. So being an entrepreneur and doing my own thing in that regard is all I’ve ever really known.

Steve McGarry:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Nice, nice. I love the mature age of 14. You knew at 14 what you were going to be.

Josh Dziabiak:

Right. And it’s funny, I tell the story so I had employees before I actually had a drivers license. Even still, I would have to have my employee take me to business meetings.

Steve McGarry:

Wow. Wow.

Josh Dziabiak:

It didn’t really click with me of course I would get the questions and the odd looks and stuff, but I think I started to build trust and have a little bit of notoriety with my design work. And so people didn’t really question it too much, but now I look back and I meet another 14 year old or 15 year old and I think, “Oh man, I can’t imagine what other people were thinking when they were first engaging with me at that young age.”

Steve McGarry:

So that hosting company was Media Catch, right?

Josh Dziabiak:

Right.

Steve McGarry:

That was the first initial venture you grew that and exited that company and then started another business shortly thereafter.

Josh Dziabiak:

Yes.

Steve McGarry:

What was that one?

Josh Dziabiak:

I started a company called ShowClix, which is another tech company. We build software for venues and event promoters. It was actually a by-product of a failed project that I had where I was investing in this local record label. And I made that investment more or less because I wanted to get into the entertainment industry or I thought I did, but that did not pan out. Instead though what I had done during my time working on that record label was also building a ticketing company because the artists that we were signing to the label were touring, and the only solution really for online ticket sales at that point was Ticketmaster. And so I built our own proprietary ticketing system, and that ended up being the business that worked. Because I ended up being able to package that and build a business from it. So I started ShowClix in 2006 and then spent the next six or seven years building that into something quite meaningful fortunately, and that’s what took me to the next step.

Steve McGarry:

Yeah. And I love how in this summary here we’re going through multiple exits. You’re literally building these, scaling them and exiting them, which is definitely a pretty incredible thing to do as someone who started at 14 scale, sell and then repeat essentially, which is a really beautiful thing I might say so myself. So after you have the hosting business you exit that, who did you end up selling the ShowClix venture to?

Josh Dziabiak:

I sold it to a big equity firm that was doing a roll up merging different ticketing providers or software providers in the entertainment space together. And it was called Providence Equity Group. So big group and they just seemed to share the same vision. They really I think latched onto the software, the product that we had built. We had a great customer base, a very sticky customer base, a very exciting growth story as well. But in that particular industry, it’s very heavy on bells and whistles and architecture because you need to be able to handle high volume and so forth. And so I think what stood out the most there for them was just what we had built with the product itself, and how successful we were with retaining the clients that we had.

It was a great experience too. They really held true to what they said that they wanted to do with the business, which as a founder you think about those things when you start to think about a exit. It feels like it’s your baby, so you’ve held a vision for the business for so long and you want to see it stay on that same track even after you move on.

Steve McGarry:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). And from the digging around that I was doing, you’d raised quite a bit of money for that venture before the exit.

Josh Dziabiak:

Yeah. We raised about $6 million over the course of the business. Looking back, it felt like a lot of money at the time. Looking back, I think…. We were very much out funded by some other players. There was that kind of like Silicon Valley money coming into the space. We had already created the DNA and the structure of our business in a way that we didn’t have that on the outset. We just didn’t think about raising huge lump sums of money like some of our counterparts were out West in Silicon Valley. So in some ways that put us at a disadvantage, and in other ways that really gave us an advantage as well. It ultimately saves you more space on the cap table and at times when you have a successful exit, you look back and you say, “Okay, well maybe that was the right decision.” Because it all worked out for the better, in many ways.

Steve McGarry:

Yeah. As a founder seeing your baby going into the hands of someone that you feel is going to take it to the next level is always a comforting feeling. And you can walk away to a certain extent and feel like you’ve accomplished something and then it’s onto the next one. It’s always a quick rattle shake of saying, “Yay.” And then what am I doing next?

Josh Dziabiak:

Yeah, exactly. There’s an itch there for sure as an entrepreneur. And it’s funny, I’ve seen a pattern. I’m still relatively young but it’s happened twice now where something around the seven year mark, I start to get this itch, and it happened with The Zebra as well. Because when I’d left ShowClix I started The Zebra, which is another tech company in a completely different space, the insurance industry. And that was about eight years, seven, eight years ago. Coming into last year, I started to get that edge again, where it was like, well, the company gets to a certain place and you start to see different boxes get checked off that you had. Just dreams for the business you start to see them come to life in some way, shape or form.

And then you start to feel like, “Okay, my job is done here. And I want to get my hands dirty again.” For me I like going into different spaces. I like to learn and apply what I’ve previously learned to something completely new. But there’s something real about that consistent feeling of never being fully satisfied as an entrepreneur. You’re always wanting to be creating something.

Steve McGarry:

Yeah, yeah. And the build, the process.

Josh Dziabiak:

The build. That’s right.

Steve McGarry:

It’s an itch that at a certain point you get to a certain threshold where it’s you have to operate it differently than when you were doing it early on. And there’s no right or wrong to it, I love the process of the build from zero to one. I love that it’s just super exciting and unknown time and having a balance of unknowns and certainty is always a good… Uncertainty and certainty is always a good balance to have when it comes to that. So you start The Zebra and it’s a beautiful site, by the way, I played around with it. What was it like hiring? Did you guys grow over the course… Because it’s still been around for a while. So how big did the team get?

Josh Dziabiak:

Well at The Zebra so we… I started that company in 2012 and it was, excuse me, it was started in Pittsburgh and then we basically immediately moved it here to Austin. And I remember moving here because, well, it’s a big move, big life move from Pittsburgh to Austin. But also we had gotten this office space in a… it was like an old battery factory or something like that on the East side of Austin.

Steve McGarry:

Nice.

Josh Dziabiak:

And this is just as Austin became really cool when it comes to modern tech, it has a history of great tech. But it was buzzing with new startups and a lot of eyeballs on the city, but it was still in the early days of that. What it is today East side is much more a hip place to be, but then where we were being in that all battery factory where we had problems with rats and leaks from the ceiling and stuff. I had previously been in a high rise, we had the whole floor and beautiful space in downtown Pittsburgh, amazing views.

And to go from that to the floor or the ceiling’s leaking and there’s rats running around was quite the contrast, but it was exactly what I wanted just getting back into the grind. But of course you to start small, there was just my co-founder and I and then we hired our first engineer. That business, we raised a lot of money, we raised over a hundred million dollars to scale that business over the course of the last several years. Today, we have approaching 300 full-time employees mostly here in Austin. And we circled back to the East side in a much nicer… We had 40,000 square feet in this brand new mid-rise build, literally down the block from where we started so it’s very much a full circle moment.

But growing that, it’s like what you said it’s the ups and downs. The moments of pure excitement and you get a win and then the next moment something brings you back down to earth and then you’re just in the grind again. There’s something really rewarding about that though and motivating at the same time.

Steve McGarry:

And there’s something to be said about owning that build feeling where you’re in the battery factory, there’s rats, there’s leaks, there’s all this stuff. And that’s exciting because you’re literally, it’s like alchemy, you’re creating something that didn’t exist before. And then going full circle you got to the hip part of town scaling up to 300 employees. It’s just fundamentally a different part of your brain almost that you’re using and it’s just different.

Josh Dziabiak:

I remember, it was about a year and a half ago now I was getting on the elevator to go to or from work. And I realized that everybody on the elevator was going to work at The Zebra or coming from The Zebra and I did not know any of them, and I had never really had seen them before. And that was a really strange feeling for me. One, I was embarrassed because I like to be privy to what’s going on and it felt like I was out of the loop, not paying enough attention. But it’s a function of growth. The dynamics change. You can’t stay that closely connected when you have that many people and you’re growing that quickly. It’s a great problem to have, but it does change the dynamics.

That’s just one example of just every day differences. But then you get into just how the problems you face from a business operational standpoint look entirely different, your day-to-day focus looks so different. And at some point at least for me it always… I think where I start to drift out a little bit more is whenever it starts to feel a little less creative with the sense that there’s always creativity, but you just don’t see that immediate needle movement. You don’t see the output of the work that you put in that day as quickly, or maybe there’s just more people in process that you have to go through for something to come to life. And that can be very demotivating if you let it get to you.

But those little things you start to realize for me I thrive better in that build phase that you’re talking about, and looking at a blank sheet of paper and building something to a certain degree. The businesses has done very, very well, like I said the dynamics change quite a bit, but then it gets to a point where you’re hyper-focused on maybe certain revenue metrics or other new product lines that you’re repeating what you’ve already done, but in a new line of business or something. And I think I start to drift out a little bit at that stage.

Steve McGarry:

Yeah. I think a lot of people can relate to that. And ultimately until there’s conversations like this, people think that there’s something wrong with them. They’re like, “Why am I feeling this way?” But ultimately you’re not alone out there. All the listeners that are feeling that, it’s just building the system and then once it gets to a certain size operating within that system is a totally different vibe altogether.

Josh Dziabiak:

You’re absolutely right and that’s something that I wish I would have known better because I think when you don’t realize that you’re right, you go through… There’s a huge emotional element to it where you start to question everything and you think, “Wow, gee, I just invested all this time, this huge chunk of my life.” And you always feel like you’re shaving off like 10 years of your own life building a business, and so you feel like you’ve invested so much. And then you start to when that fire dims a little bit for the day to day, you start to really go through some of those emotions. But I think that happens no matter what, but if you recognize that look maybe your sweet spot is from A to F. And then somebody else comes in or as a team grows they take over and their sweet spot and what they’re good at it’s still growth, but it’s more optimization and a different framework. It could be two completely different types of mindsets and types of people. And you’re right, a lot of people don’t realize that.

Steve McGarry:

Yeah. Well, shifting gears into what you’re into now, you’re in the trenches once again.

Josh Dziabiak:

Yes.

Steve McGarry:

You’re grinding again, and you’re in the building phase again, which is very exciting and you’re building something called Gawq. What is that?

Josh Dziabiak:

So Gawq is in a completely different space in insurance. Right now, our first product is basically a news app, a news aggregator that uses crowdsourcing for reviews and ratings of the content that consumers download or browse. So basically I’m sure you’re familiar with the problem of misinformation online, and just how difficult it be to navigate news in just a digital landscape in general. So I felt like being that this is my fifth company, I really wanted to do something that had a social purpose first and something that could potentially impact people’s lives on a daily basis. And I’ve always had an interest in news and media hence my first business was called Media Catch. And so as I saw this problem of misinformation really start to become a mainstream issue, certainly during the 2016 election there was a bug in me, I needed to explore it.

And the more that I dove into the problem and also just thinking back to my experience as a marketer and working with these algorithms and trying to distribute media, I felt like there was a real opportunity to do something new and different. And to build a brand that was really about putting consumers first in every way, shape and form, and using tech to equip users in a better way and not necessarily go at it from a pure business standpoint out of the gate.

Steve McGarry:

Yeah. Well, it’s definitely a noble pursuit. There’s definitely a huge issue right now with misinformation. So that’s really that you’re trying to take apart the echo chamber that is going on within our world right now, which is a crazy time to be alive for sure but that leads me to the final question here. You’ve done a lot of amazing things, you’ve built in all these different industries, starting all the way at 14 which is incredible. Knowing what you know now, what would you tell Josh 10 years ago?

Josh Dziabiak:

Two things come to mind. One is the importance of building relationships and getting out there. I think by function of where I grew up and the resources that I did not have, very fortunate upbringing with great parents, it wasn’t necessarily… I grew up on a farm, neither of my parents went to college. I didn’t have a huge network around me or resources around me to build a business. So when I look back I think I’ve been fortunate to do really well I’m very grateful that, but I think I undervalued the importance of just trying to get out there, tell your story, shake hands and kiss babies as they say. But those relationships when you do that and you’re a curious, naturally curious and genuinely curious, I’ve learned that one thing will easily lead to another and it’s not… I think I always used to think that, “Okay, it’s about how much time I spend in front of my computer developing or designing or writing emails or whatever it is.” To me that was hard work and hard work equals success, it’s very binary.

And I think I just always undervalued, “No, that’s part of it. That’s super important but it’s also really important to get out there.” And when I say out there, like physically or virtually even connect with people and tell your story and learn from them and be curious. Because no matter how hard you work you can’t do everything alone. So I’d say that that comes to mind and then what we were just touching on before, which is don’t… Recognize the emotions that come with entrepreneurship, put it that way. In that it’s not just business it’s a life pursuit, again, if you don’t meet other people that maybe can share their story, you can’t understand their perspective. You can find that being an entrepreneur it can be very emotionally taxing. So I think again just recognizing that is something that it took me a long time to really learn. So if I was to go back and talk to my younger self that’s probably something I would highlight, and try to push a little harder so that maybe I didn’t have to learn the hard way.

Steve McGarry:

Well said, well said. Well, those are all the questions I have for you, Josh. Where can people go and learn more about Gawq?

Josh Dziabiak:

Yeah. You can go to gawk.com, G-A-W-Q.com. Or yes, search the iOS or the Android store for Gawq, it’s a completely free app. If you are like the majority of other people and read the news, you can use Gawq. And I’m hopeful that you’ll find it useful. So go to gawq.com or on the Android or App Store.

Steve McGarry:

Excellent. And wherever you guys are listening to this on Spotify or iTunes, they will be in the show notes all the links that Josh has mentioned. But thank you so much for coming on the show Josh and sharing your story with everybody.

Josh Dziabiak:

Absolutely. Thank you for having me again.

Steve McGarry

Steve McGarry

Steve McGarry is an entrepreneur, content creator, and investor based in sunny Tampa, Florida. In 2015, while living in San Francisco, Steve sold his first fintech startup LendLayer to Max Levchin’s (founder of PayPal) consumer finance company Affirm. In the last 5 years, Steve has both built an online community that reaches 1.4 million people every month on social media and a portfolio of over a dozen web properties. Currently, he’s the co-founder of a next-generation fintech startup called GrowYourBase while managing his portfolio of online businesses.