In our talk, Bart discusses his time in Poland, and growing up being a young immigrant in America, his education and early years in the tech scene, and about our company SUMO Heavy, and what’s next. The episode transcription follows below.
Bart’s a serial entrepreneur who has over a decade of business and tech management experience. He’s founded several companies. Prior to founding SUMO Heavy, he was a partner at Round3Media, a creative eCommerce agency. He was also the owner and managing director of Simply Help, an IT firm based in Philadelphia. Bart’s also an eCommerce thought leader who’s been published in top eCommerce and tech publications like Internet Retailer, Entrepreneur, The Next Web, eMarketer, and many others.
Bart’s story is an interesting one. In our talk, we discussed his time growing up in Poland, the challenges of being a child immigrant, his education and early years in tech, and finally with the founding of SUMO Heavy, what’s next for the company.
John Suder: Let’s dive in and start at the beginning. Where are you from and where do you currently reside?
Bart Mroz: Originally born in Poland, came here when I was 12. Right outside of Philly, currently in New York. Well, reside in New York. Currently, actually at my parents house, but that’s another story. That’s what happens when you break your leg.
John Suder: Let’s talk a little about growing up in Poland. What was that like?
Bart Mroz: Back in the day, I actually grew up in communism, which was fantastic on paper. I actually grew up in a big city, and comparably, I pretty much had a good life, or was more spoiled than most in relative terms. But communism was not fun. I still remember going to the store with a piece of paper going, “Hey, this is how much meat I can get.” Or going to your favorite story, standing for a bike for a while because there’s three bikes being delivered.
John Suder: That’s my favorite story. Waiting in line for a bike when the store … How many people were in that line?
Bart Mroz: I don’t even remember. There was a lot, because the store was getting a few bikes in.
John Suder: So, there was 20 people, 30 people. They’re all in line for this store, and the store only gets 3 bikes a month or something like that?
Bart Mroz: Yeah. It was pretty funny because I actually talked to my mom yesterday about a whole bunch of stories, which was kind of cool. She still remembers standing in for a washer and dryer for three days, back and forth just to get one. That was always interesting. This is how much candy you can get, this is how much meat you can get. It wasn’t all bad. I lived in a big city, which was great. Grew up with my grandparents half my life, or beginning of my life. So that was kind of cool.
John Suder: Let’s stick with the growing up in Poland thing for a second. Do you think that has taught you anything in living in the US? Because I know you personally and I know your work ethic. Do you think that kind of formed you, those early experiences?
Bart Mroz: Part of it, sure. I think a lot of what formed me was actually my parents and my grandparents. My parents came here to the US and had nothing. There’s a week where they had no food. They actually lived in New York for a while. My mom actually just told me a story about how she learned english, which was interesting, in itself. But they basically busted their butt just to have what they have now. My grandparents did the same thing. My grandma basically, she was like, “You don’t have your parents, so let me push you into everything.”
So I got into all kinds of different things between sports, dancing, cultural things, cooking and things like that. I get a lot of the work ethic from my parents. Maybe it’s the immigrant thing in me, but definitely I have it from my parents.
John Suder: It sure sounds like there’s a combination of things going on there. You talk about all the things that you were involved in. You have probably a more well-rounded childhood than a lot of kids your age. Plus, you also have the immigrant experience, which I think is a great combination of things that kind of define your personality.
Bart Mroz: Yeah. When I came here, I had five words of English and I got thrown into a Catholic school for two years and pretty much had an hour of Polish a day, and that was it. It was all English nonstop. So, I had to work a little harder just to get through it. Coming to here and not knowing people, and kids are not fun at that age either. 12, 13 years old, that’s a tricky thing and something new, but I just went through it. Got my shit together and just went on.
John Suder: You came here not knowing any english?
Bart Mroz: I knew five words, maybe.
John Suder: What were those five words?
Bart Mroz: I don’t remember. It was basic. In Poland, for a very long time, your second
language, you started in fifth grade, was Russian. I was going into fifth grade and they finally changed it because communism fell, we had english. Which, was a joke, it’s trying to learn another language that you’re now thrown into. I came here and I got thrown into it so in six months, I pretty much understood. I had no choice.
John Suder: Did you know or were you learning Russian?
Bart Mroz: What happens is in fifth grade, you have another language, and in Poland at the time, it was Russian. There was no if, buts about that, your second language was Russian. My parents actually do have it, but the summer of me going between fourth grade and fifth, they finally changed it. Whatever the school, or they could bring, whatever the teacher. Our school had english, the school across the street, which was another grade school, just weird how that laid out, had actually German, not english. Which, was awesome for where I lived, because we were only living a half an hour from the German border so that worked, but for me, we had english.
John Suder: You’re in America, you’re growing up, you’re 12, 13 years old, when did the entrepreneur bug hit you? It sounds to me you’re getting a lot of these traits form your parents, is that the case?
Bart Mroz: Yeah, it’s grandparents, it’s parents, it’s the hustle that you just go through. My mom, we at some point when I was young, we owned like three or four houses on one street, because we were flipping them. My grandma was always trying to save money and do whatever else, work extra stuff. I get the work ethic from my mom and my dad, but my mom definitely just hustled just to get where she needed to be.
John Suder: What was your first business?
Bart Mroz: Probably a paper route, shoveling snow, cutting grass. Actually, cutting grass was first.
John Suder: So you did common growing kid things that kids do growing up.
Bart Mroz: I got paid two bucks to cut somebody’s grass every week, which is funny because then I put those $2 in the bank. That was awesome. I used to just take those two bucks and just go to a bank and put them in, which is funny in itself.
John Suder: You didn’t spend that $2?
Bart Mroz: No, no, no.
John Suder: Were you not allowed to spend that $2?
Bart Mroz: No, you don’t spend that stuff, you put it in the bank. That’s how it was. In high school, yeah, anything between selling candy to knock off Oakley’s. Remember when Oakley’s were a thing? Yeah I used to have the catalog and used to get kids to go, oh I want these and I used to go find them at the …what’s it called? What’s the one by with the thing you go to on Friday’s?
John Suder: The flea market?
Bart Mroz: Yeah, the flea markets and just used to find the dealers that had them and used to sell them for triple the price.
John Suder: Your first hustle, selling knock off Oakley’s. That’s pretty good. Was that a successful thing, or is just …
Bart Mroz: It went on for a little bit, and the candy, candy was easy. They got involved in student organizations and you come out and sold candy for, to just raise money.
John Suder: You were a candy hustler, that’s good.
Bart Mroz: Yep.
John Suder: Moving on from there, you graduate from high school, what happens after that?
Bart Mroz: Going to college. I went to Temple. They had a program that I wanted. A business degree with technical background and it was state funded school, so it wasn’t … in state, state funded school, I stayed home. It wasn’t that expensive and I pretty much paid for school by myself. I had to work a lot. I accidentally had three jobs and full time school, my first semester in college.
John Suder: Accidentally?
Bart Mroz: Yeah. Accidentally. I worked at, all through high school, I worked at Burger King and retail and all that kind of stuff at some point. Then I worked retail and then I went to college. So I had a retail job, then I had college, then I found a job in school and then I worked at a restaurant on the weekends. Yeah, for about two months, I literally had three jobs.
John Suder: And you had to make time for studies.
Bart Mroz: And you had to make time for studies, absolutely. That was just nutty.
John Suder: You graduate from college…you graduate from Temple, what happened after that? When did you start dipping your toes into the technology business?
Bart Mroz: Actually, inside of Temple. Everybody had their internships and I just went, I don’t want to go work for a big consulting firm like everybody else was going. Having typical summer jobs. That’s where I met, one of my counselors suggested Jeff Cawthorne. Jeff had a little tiny company, called rfa|boris and they did a bunch of work for a PATH in New York for screens and stuff like that.
John Suder: Let’s take a step back, you worked for rfa|boris, they were a design firm or they were a …
Bart Mroz: They were a development and design firm, a little tiny thing that happened to have a contract with PATH.
John Suder: That’s the connection where you and I come together. You were connected with Jeff Cawthorne, I was connected with the other partner, John Wilson, that’s how you and I met. Go ahead, talk about the PATH experience.
Bart Mroz: That was my internship for three years on college and probably one of the craziest internships you could ever had. I didn’t catch coffee. I actually built a lot of the stuff with them, doing a lot of the work and stuff like that and it was a weekend of non stop work and non sleep because you had to put the system down and up by Monday morning.
John Suder: Explain what PATH is for those who don’t know.
Bart Mroz: PATH is the train that goes between Jersey, Hoboken, and New York City.
John Suder: It’s a light regional rail, which notably, travels to the World Trade Center. Were you there during 9/11 or had you already left?
Bart Mroz: No I was still doing a little bit of work for that, but I was actually had a full-time job. I know exactly where I was. I was working for a little tiny company doing remote support and … we did security, remote support, intrusion protection for credit unions and banks. I actually was going to go and I just didn’t. We were just doing work for one of the credit unions when it happened. It was close to home because the PATH station was right underneath it. That’s definitely close to home.
John Suder: You have the internship, you’re were working with rfa|boris, when did you start your own thing, or what was the next step?
Bart Mroz: I graduated, got a job with a small company, the credit union one, and then 9/11 happened so I got laid off right before holidays, which sucked. Then I got to work for a travel company, meeting, planning, and travel company for a bit. In February. That job just didn’t work for me, it just didn’t work out. I left there and tried to start something then and that was … I don’t remember what year that was.
John Suder: It was early 2000s and you were living in Philly, right?
Bart Mroz: I was still at my parents’ house, never moved out just yet. I quit that job, started a consulting firm and then I got a client that you were working at, at that point. Then they offered me a full-time job so I worked for Innovation Philadelphia for a year.
John Suder: Innovation Philadelphia, that was a pretty interesting scenario there. I was consulting, you were doing … what was your title there?
Bart Mroz: I was running all the tech. I was Director of Technology.
John Suder: That was an interesting organization, but we’d made a lot of connections and relationships there and it certainly was an interesting point in both of our lives.
Bart Mroz: You and I had met before that at PANMA.
John Suder: Through the network, right. Through PANMA, Philadelphia area, new media association, which still in existence. Back in ye olden days, early 2000s, they’d have these networking functions, you get a couple hundred people showing up. It was pretty insane back then.
Bart Mroz: We got lucky, actually a lot of our friends are still around, still are working, still have their business, which is awesome, and we’re friends so just it worked out that way. Then after that, I basically went, all right, it’s time to do my own thing. I started a consulting firm, jumped off, started doing a whole bunch of different things. Tried to do a little web development here and there. Went through all that stuff … Indy Hall happened, it’s a co-working space in Philly, probably one of the longest community driven type of so-working spaces.
John Suder: Were you involved in initial founding of that? Of Indy Hall?
Bart Mroz: I was one of the initial members, or founding members of it. Worked through that. In the middle of it, started a web development company and that kind of fizzled out at some point. We were running that for a while. Then I had at the same time, started Chefame, which was a dinner event type of thing, so it was a cooking thing at the same time. A lot of hands in a lot of things at the same time.
John Suder: The Chefame experience, that was ahead of the curve because that was a few years ago…
Bart Mroz: It’s like the original pop-up restaurant thing.
John Suder: That was what I was trying to get to, is that it was original pop-up restaurant concept. Why do you think that didn’t work out, or you think it was just too soon…
Bart Mroz: No, it would’ve worked out. My business partner, Jesse actually moved to New York. He had an amazing job offer.
John Suder: Ah okay, so Jesse Middleton? So he moved on and you were like okay, enough of that.
Bart Mroz: Yeah, it’s a little hard to run in that style. There’s four of us actually in a company, but it was hard to run it. It’s a lot of planning, a lot of work and it was, we did it for fun. We actually made a little money on it but we definitely did it for fun, while doing other things. It wasn’t a full-time gig. It’s hard to do and pull off by yourself.
John Suder: I can’t imagine doing something like that now, just the bandwidth involved to get something like that off the ground would just be alot.
Bart Mroz: A lot. It was a lot.
John Suder: Now we’re moving into the modern era. You’re doing your own thing, your web development firm went belly up, you’re looking for new projects…
Bart Mroz: It wasn’t really belly up, my partners started leaving. There was three of us as partners. One of them left middle of when we were working on some stuff. Magento came out at the same time, we’re starting to do a project on that and my other partner wanted to leave to do something different. He just wasn’t really passionate about this. At the same time, Wil Reynolds from, Think Seer, or Seer Interactive now, introduced me to my current business partner in the middle of all this, Bob Brodie. He was like, “Hey I have a kid, he wants to do some stuff,” we met up, had a great chat, and we started doing a project together. Then my partner left, so I had to start a new company and Bob became my business partner.
John Suder: You met Bob through a connection, you work on a project together – what was that first project? What was that like and can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Bart Mroz: We actually were doing a site, all Magento, through our friend Ian. Who brought a project in, they were designing it, we’re developing it. Bob jumped in and did all the development work for it and experience was interesting because Magento just came out not long ago. It was a big system, people still didn’t know about it. It was a little tough to deal with but we went through it and did it and pulled it off. The site was up, ready to go out, people were buying stuff through it. I don’t even know if that company still exists.
John Suder: The reason I asked you that, is that’s a pioneering project for Magento since it was a new platform and you guys dove in headfirst into this. What was Bob’s experience? I know at the time he was working doing consulting for another company.
Bart Mroz: He was working full-time still at a company, then he left that one and did work another company full-time but started this, because his boss was awesome at that moment. Let him do this thing, he was like “oh, let’s do it on the side,” type of thing and we just did it. At some point we just went, all right, we have enough and close more clients, let’s just do this full-time.
John Suder: So now you’ve got one client under your belt, what were your early days like? You’ve got one client, one project, what was next after that?
Bart Mroz: Finding more clients. That was tough but that’s any agency. It’s, you just keep ongoing after clients so I, through my network, just went at it and figured out through meetings and stuff like that. We started the company, and one of our first clients was Robinson Luggage, or Luggage online. Which, no longer exists, it’s a Wawa now. Yeah, that was one of our first.
John Suder: Why did you decide to focus totally on eCommerce? Was it because of Magento or was it just a serendipitous thing or how did that work?
Bart Mroz: It was all if it. Magento came out when I had my old company and we did a whole bunch of web development and e-commerce. Bob actually comes from the eCommerce world, and I wanted to focus on something, not just be like a web design company. eCommerce is such a niche, but it’s a humongous niche and there’s a lot of work that you have to get in. We decided just to go after eCommerce and it was just easier to sell. We’re like that’s the only thing we do, we don’t do any small sites, blah, blah, blah, we just literally go after eCommerce site. It’s all … I’ve never thought “I’m going to do this”, but it just happened and I jumped into it. Bob definitely comes from eCommerce and he loves this stuff.
John Suder: So it’s in his blood.
Bart Mroz: Yeah.
John Suder: The early days, you get a few years in, every company has its ups and downs. What was the biggest challenge that the company has faced in the last five years and how’d you guys turn it around?
Bart Mroz: I guess the beginning was hard. Right off the bat, we got big, huge clients, Roku, was one of our clients in the beginning. The problem was cash flow. We started hiring, our cash flow just got all over the place, trying to get clients to pay was really hard. Missing a payroll right before Christmas was one of the worst things you can ever do, and we have. I’ve done it. It sucks but we came through that. We started changing how we do business.
John Suder: Prior to that, it was billable hours. It was a wake up call to change the pricing model, correct?
Bart Mroz: It was a wake up call to figure out how to have clients pay because Net 30, it just doesn’t work. We did hourly, then we’re trying to figure stuff out. There was Net 30, we didn’t get paid. People tried to pay us three months later instead of paying when they’re supposed to. We delivered the work and it was there. I started looking for how to change it so that we can actually have a good relationship. It’s a win, win for both sides. We started with doing every two weeks. Meaning a client paid us for the next two weeks of work. We started doing that kind of stuff.
We started with hours, then we were like, “Oh it’s 40 hours for these two weeks”, and then we just went from there. What happened with that a lot times was, that clients paid us every two weeks, got a bill every two weeks, and they were eventually, just like bill me once a month. We were like okay, well this how many hours. Then we’re trying to track hours and then hours made no sense because at some point you just run out of bucket of hours and that’s just weird. You run out of bucket of hours, then you got to charge them, and then it’s a mess so eventually we came to the whole retainer world. Start pretty small.
All right, it’s a retainer, it’s due on the first of the month where we’re working and all the work is going to be determined by the client and us, and it’s going to be a win, win on both sides.
John Suder: You turned that around, you’re in the retainer model. How has growth been the last few years?
Bart Mroz: Crazy, we doubled the year. We finally hit the beautiful million mark in sales last year.
John Suder: 2015.
Bart Mroz: Yeah. We finally hit that number, over the million dollars mark, which is interesting, in itself because it’s like a badge of honor type of thing. Where, you sell that much money. We’ve been growing in double every year, which is interesting. As our team actually went smaller, our biggest team, we used to have 25 people. We’re 16 right now. I believe. Yeah, we’re about 16. Then full-timers actually changed. We have six full time people here in US.
John Suder: That started only as early as two years ago, correct?
Bart Mroz: Yeah it’s about two years ago. We started going full-time. It made sense. We were in a position where we can actually … because the retainer models let us do that where it’s just a very steady type of work and we were able to do it. What’s great about retainers, is that it’s not that you’re doing a project for hourly, you really get into clients’ world and you see every little piece of it. It’s not just like, “Oh, a project”. We have one of our biggest clients right now, we solve problems that we would never be able to touch if we were just doing a project.
John Suder: That’s a good segway to the next question that I have for you, is it seems like you’re going for a different type of client, and not just so much let’s build a website, it’s more of the full tilt consulting where you’re digging into business process, and what other kinds of things are you looking for your dream client?
Bart Mroz: Our dream clients actually, we’re terrible at building these sites. It’s weird to say, but we’re terrible at it.
John Suder: I think we should rephrase that as “We don’t prefer to build...”
Bart Mroz: True. It’s not that we’re terrible, we’re actually really fucking good at it. It’s more of as per one of our newest sites, Stadium Goods, it’s freaking amazing. We’re just really good at being consultants. Meaning we can walk in to a client and figure out what the problems they have and how we can make them better and how much efficiency we can put into them. Meaning from a business process to a technology process. Usually we start with technology people call us for. We have a problem without Magento site, or whatever that is and then once we walk in there, we look at every piece of the business and how efficient can it be. Just chip away at it. We make the team internally better, we make the client better, more revenue. We don’t only look at how much money we can bring up front, how much money we can actually save them on the back end. So, it’s both sides.
John Suder: That sounds like is that once you get a client like that and they see all the services that SUMO can provide, they tend to be a longer term client, is that correct?
Bart Mroz: Right. Having longer term client is really nice, obviously for us as employers and we having employees. It’s also nice because we can get in there and really, really work our magic on every piece of the business.
John Suder: As the CEO of the company, you’re also the lead sales guy. What’s the biggest challenge? What’s your dream client? What the biggest challenge this year and the coming year of closing new sales?
Bart Mroz: Sales.
John Suder: Obviously the financial arena is different than, it was in 2008, but money’s still tight everywhere. What are your challenges, if you want your dream client, what are the roadblocks you’re facing?
Bart Mroz: It’s because we don’t do just project work, going after projects, we can do those things, but because we do a long term consulting, it’s a longer term process to sell somebody, for us at least. Which is okay, we get called for all kinds of things all the time. It’s just sometimes it makes no sense for us to do good work for a client. Our challenges are, it’s a long term sales cycle. It’s always going to be that because it’s not, I’m not selling a widget, I’m selling a big huge consulting contract.
John Suder: If given the choice, and someone said, “In and out, project, six months” you’d probably …
Bart Mroz: We look at them because we have a few of those. It’s funny because those things turn into long term projects. We have one client right now that hasn’t launched, and that project was supposed to be six months. It’s been a year, because what happens with that thing, it’s a typical client, they’re like oh we’ve worked with other people, blah, blah, blah. We walk in and we’re like let’s build it really quickly and do all this stuff and the client wants to re-platform so they’re like “oh these guys build really quickly, we know what we’re paying for”. It never changes, it’s always the same amount, let’s add more things to it, we can afford it.
John Suder: Does SUMO get a lot of business from bad development from other firms?
Bart Mroz: Yes. It’s our bread and butter. We actually love those kind of things. I always say let’s be 1% better than the last guy. We’ve done rescue jobs, a lot of them.
John Suder: You’d say a good percentage of business and leads comes from what you would call a ‘rescue project’.
Bart Mroz: Yep, yep. Bad implementations, the site is not running well, all those kind of things. We just walk in and start chipping away. It’s not always that the development is bad, or the code is really bad, it’s just understanding e-commerce completely. A lot of companies jumped into Magento work because it was an open source, oh we can just build in technology stuff, and development world, but you have to understand the business itself. eCommerce is not easy, it’s very complex at every level. Even your small shop. You have to understand every piece of it.
John Suder: Let’s talk about complexity. How do you think it’s different than, it was even two years ago? The level of complexity has increased, what do you think, are a lot of the customers as savvy or do you find it’s the same level and they’re trying to do with less resources?
Bart Mroz: Clients are getting savvier and savvier and things are getting less complex from a technology perspective. It’s getting less complex and more complex at the same time. Rules are going to be the same. Shipping rules, or payment rules and things like that. They don’t change too much, but they’re complex enough to do that. Technology changes all the time, so it’s faster things that … but a lot more people are going towards online stores. You look at, Macy’s is closing a whole bunch of stores, Sears is in trouble, all those guys are starting to … but if you look at the online world, it’s becoming bigger and bigger and bigger. Which is great for us.
John Suder: What’s next for SUMO in the next year, five years, 10 years? What’s your 50 year plan?
Bart Mroz: Five, ten, five years. I don’t know. We’re going to grow the consulting firm. We have some side projects that we’re working on. As, it is when you get a little antsy sometimes. Definitely have some side projects that are going on in the company itself where, they’re exciting. Some of them are in e-commerce space, some of them totally not. Totally different things that we want to do. I just want to grow the company to be sustainable and have the life everybody wants in the company. That’s not really by head count either. It’s by what feels right to us at that moment.
John Suder: One thing I did not touch on is company culture. You made a good point there, is give everybody the life that they want. How is your culture different than, a typical development firm?
Bart Mroz: I think the culture comes from mostly Bob, myself and you. It’s company we always wanted to build. You always have your issues because it’s personnel, it’s people, but we definitely are at a point where we like do a lot of work but also have fun. I’m not as strict as sometimes I should be, I guess. Vacation time for us, it’s I have basic rules of get your stuff done for clients, clients come first, and then you can take time off or travel, do whatever you want. Also, making sure they’re taken care of. At the end of the day, clients pay our bills. That means they are first. We don’t look down on having site work and site projects and whatever else, but our clients come first.
John Suder: Excellent. Well, this has been a very informative interview. I hope the people out there learned a lot. I’ve known Bart a number of years and even just talking to him today, I’ve learned a few more things about him. Bart, any closing comments or pearls of wisdom you’d to give the audience?
Bart Mroz: Just do what you want to do. Do what you love.
John Suder: Not focusing on dumb shit. I was looking for Gary V. quote — come on!
Bart Mroz: I guess chase what you want to do in life. That’s how I look at it. Just go get it.
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