Steve Gumm | Launching a Business on 9/11, Bouncing Back from Bankruptcy and What’s Working Now in Lead Generation

John Corcoran  4:48  

and it’s tough sometimes. It can be a tough transition. You know, that’s what the book emeth is all about is about going from being someone who’s good at your craft to going and getting clients and customers and stuff like that. So do you remember in those early days how you went from being the guy whose foreman or painting to getting your first customers?

Steve Gumm  5:12  

Man, we did? Well, the customers were actually pretty easy. You know, I think that marketing helped because we knew what was what was out there. And I was a firm believer that two young college guys who, you know, fairly clean cut the areas that we were marketing to, or on purpose, luxury, senior site at home areas, right, because it was you could camp out for a week on a house. And so it was pretty easy for us to get work, actually. And people would leave keys and on vacation, you know, why we did our work. So that wasn’t the big problem. The big problem was, was scaling that to your point, you know, managing people, hiring, training, insurance, you know, soon as you get in the weeds, all that it didn’t take us long to realize that we were spending the majority of our time, you know, managing people as opposed to doing the work. And to be frank, we weren’t very good at it. You know, I mean, I can remember a point where we had, gosh, I’ll get the math wrong, but it was like seven guys working for us. And we were making more money on our own. You know, it was because all the costs, and then of course, we weren’t actually working, so it was less efficient. So it took a long time to kind of figure that out. And you know, there’s people that are super talented at that, you know, this is not really much dick, I still to this day, don’t like it, but it’s essential if you’re going to scale a business. I mean, you know, you guys know that. What he will talk Jeremy about a lot is just offloading the stuff that is kind of in the way of actually scaling the business.

John Corcoran  6:45  

Right? Right, then that can be a real challenge for many. And that’s why a lot of scaling engineers struggle with hiring, taking these things off these plates, that nightmare scenario that you just explained, like going from making less when you employ seven people than you did when you employed no one. It’s kind of crazy. So you, you end up going from that into a mailing business. Right, a mailer business, explain what that was.

Steve Gumm  7:13  

Yeah, man. So I had been, you know, I’m like an entrepreneur, right? I mean, the ideas are always brewing. And when you’re young without kids, especially, I mean, I was just like, Man, what, what are we going to do what we do? And so, you know, I went ahead and decided to launch a direct mail business, competing with, you know, coupon mailers and stuff like that. And, you know, I was joking with you earlier, John, like, the idea was, we would get this thing really big and we got to about 250,000 houses in the Chicagoland area. It was a, it was a good business, but the margins are very low in the Direct Mail Print game. And then we went over to Jimmy John’s, and then that free advertising for ourselves, which is funny, but one of my clients, at the time reached out was like, Hey, can you guys get me? I think it was logo pens or something. And I was like, oh, look into it. Never before, started dabbling around, found the industries, you know how that’s wholesale. And soon as I figured out what that whole world was, like, in the margins in that business, man, we were like, okay, let’s tail this direct mail and go all in. And that’s where, you know, we started a company called 18 Stories and grew that well into the mid seven figures. For years, and we had some amazing clients. We caught that all microbrewery wave when it took off. Gosh, I’m dating myself now but you know, four or five. And so we were producing headwear. We started a hat business called hat head, which was crazy. And we did really well, it was a lot of fun.

John Corcoran  8:44  

And now you started this business in September 2001. Shortly before 911 tell us that story.

Steve Gumm  8:54  

Yeah, man is crazy. Like I remember telling you I remember vividly, you know, launching our first direct mail campaign, and we started to advertise it and reach out to local businesses. But at the time for us, it was a lot of money. And it was a direct mailer. I remember we had it bulk mail us stuff in it. And we sent that out, got back to the office like, Hey, what’s up, and I’ll never forget, like my mom called, like, you turn on the TV. And it literally launched that direct mail campaign on September 11. And the rest is history. I mean, it was a terrible, terrible time. Crazy. 

John Corcoran  9:29  

He was very offended. They are probably something I think a lot of times after that happens. They think like you’re doing it and even though you didn’t know. Yeah.

Steve Gumm  9:37  

Yeah, it was bonkers. I think we were too young and too naive to really even, you know, think too much about it. You know, like, Okay, this is gonna be a little bit of a harder road than we thought. Yeah. And it was but again, we weren’t. You know, when you’re young with no real obligations, it’s much easier to weather that storm, you know, no matter what it is. Yeah. So I don’t really remember feeling The pinch financially or anything, during that time, I knew we weren’t going to be taking off as fast as you know, I intended but you know, it was just much slower going because of what was happening, you know, in the country and economically, but we still kind of just muscled it through man. And we grew that thing into a really nice business.

John Corcoran  10:19  

Now, you said with the painting business, one of the challenges was supervising hiring, training, all that kind of stuff. How did you overcome or compensate for those challenges with this business?

Steve Gumm  10:34  

You know, I really never did for us to, like, I was never really good at it. My business partner, fortunately, was smarter than me, you know, he’s a chemical engineer by trade, really, really bright guy. And we balanced each other out, you know, and even then, when I had to manage or, or bring people new into it, my attention span and my ability to do that. I’m just not, it’s not my strong suit, you know, and we made a lot of mistakes. Definitely, with regard to compensation, the way we’re structuring sales, compensation for our sales teams was really poorly done in retrospect, you know, what if you make those mistakes and blow them away?

John Corcoran  11:16  

Do you remember what that did? Remember what the challenges were? Do you remember? Like, did you overcompensate the sales team or undercompensate them? Were they not motivated? What was the

Steve Gumm  11:27  

what was right at the time, like, so the internet was, was really starting to take off at the time, and the whole concept of inbound marketing was a big thing. And being a content guy, I loved it. And so what was happening is we were paying our sales teams as if they were hunters, you know, out there bringing it in. And, and what we were actually doing is, we were bringing it in, usually it was me or you know, something digital, and then we were just like, Hey, take care of John, you know, here’s the account, and we were paying them way too much, you know, to actually have that relationship. And so once you kind of let that out of the box, it’s very hard to to reel it back in, you know, right. I can remember having a meeting this day where I was like, you need to rethink this. And of course, you know, when you’re an employee, you think that your boss is super rich, and they’re balling. They don’t understand the economics of it. And so it became a challenge that we honestly never really solved. I mean, we just always overpaid. Fortunately for us, it was enough to go around.

John Corcoran  12:27  

Yeah. So at some point in this period of time, we’re talking 2000 678 sometime along there. You decide to go all-in on real estate. Now. Tell me exactly what you did: buying apartment buildings or buying single family residence? What do you buy? Because this time here it’s actually Oh, 809. I graduated from law school in 2007. And then, oh, 809 I’m working for a real estate law firm that has a bunch of estate investors. And for much of my time, at that time, I was actually advising people that had real estate that was totally underwater, like the way underwater. So we can reminisce,

Steve Gumm  13:07  

oh, man, so my brother in law, I love him through his days, it’s great, guys. I don’t want to, you know, throw him under the bus here. But yeah, he was in construction, you know, remodeling, stuff like that. And he had a great concept, actually, on paper was brilliant, right, we’re gonna build developments and appraisal, which the proximity to Chicago, for those of you that don’t know, the geography out here, a lot of people at that time were actually moving to appraisal, because they could still work in the city, but they had the taxes and the living expenses are exponentially less in Indiana. So anyway, I was doing very well for myself at the time. And basically, you know, I was backing everything. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I know, I felt like a badass, you know, tell people like, I’m in real estate, and we’re developing this whole community. And, you know, I was like, you know, I felt like the man, I can remember going to these things, you know, what an idiot in retrospect, but so, you know, as soon as the storm hit, when things hit, you got to keep in mind, like we were building a legitimate community with $350,000 houses. And I think when the shit hits the fan, we were sitting on like, 14 of these houses that were up at that

John Corcoran  14:21  

sale budget lot and they were built already and they were ready to sell or they were built.

Steve Gumm  14:27  

Yep. And we had several others that were halfway up. Okay. And dude, we paid for those mortgages, taxes, everything for we tried to pull that thing together for over two years. Wow. 

John Corcoran 14:42  

Like so, it’s just every month is just a cause. It’s just a slog of trying to sell them. Okay.

Steve Gumm  14:49  

We couldn’t, like you said, like we would sell them and you know, let’s say that during the good times, we would sell a property for 340. Right? We would be willing to get rid of that for like a buck. 70 of the time, like whatever we had to do to lose cash, it was insane. And so long story short, yeah, I mean, I ended up going bankrupt through all that. And it was definitely a wake up call, you know definitely, an ego shot but I think something that I don’t know, I don’t know if I would change it. I definitely wouldn’t want to go through it again. But I don’t know, in a weird way it turned me into a better person.

John Corcoran  15:28  

Yeah. Did you? Um, so what was it like every month? You’re just kind of like, hey, like, we’re just going to cover this and hopefully it’s going to turn around.

Steve Gumm  15:39  

Exactly. Yeah. Yeah, month after month. And so, you know, I literally was just watching you, you know, we’re not sure, especially when you’re young age is very, you know, relative, like when you turn 30 you think you’re old age and 40 year old. So back then. I mean, it was like, man, it felt like I had worked a lifetime. And it’s funny, because before I did that real estate development, I literally was going to do that development, and then open up a sandwich shop in Huntington Beach, California. Just call it a day, you know, and it didn’t quite go that way. You know, but the

John Corcoran  16:15  

What’s it with you in the sandwich shops? It seems like that. I don’t know. If you

Steve Gumm  16:19  

saw it? Oh, yes. Funny. I don’t know. I actually went out to Huntington Beach. I looked at locations. I mean, I was dead set. And then you wake up one day, and it was all gone and then saw and I mean, it took me. I definitely, you know, I’m just being fully honest with you, you know, I had a good pity party for I would call it two years, man where I was really feeling sorry for myself, you know, eventually, just like, you know, I can’t do this anymore. I gotta get back on the horse and do something. But that shot to both the finances ego, you know, the business that I had to sell? Yeah, man, I was. So you

John Corcoran  16:59  

had it. You had to sell 18 Stories at some point along the way, as well. And you did that? Did you do that? Because you were going to lose it in the bankruptcy. Did you do it? Because you needed to liquidate and come up with money to liquidate?

Steve Gumm  17:13  

Yeah, and I don’t know if I was even thinking clearly. You know, we had another business that was tied into it called hat head, which was a hardware manufacturing company. It was my favorite one. That was our baby. I loved it, man. It was so much fun. And we lump that into it. Just loosen up cash. I mean, he you know, in retrospect, I know a lot more now about the process, you know, but at the time, it was literally desperation. You know, I was thinking Claire was sleeping. It was bad.

John Corcoran  17:44  

And if you could do it differently, if you went back and you know, the beginning of that two year process, what would you have done differently?

Steve Gumm  17:55  

Well, I mean, before it went bad, right, I would not have gone into something that I wasn’t passionate about. A new very little about. Yeah, you know, the real estate game was sexy to me. And it looked good on paper. I thought I’d make a lot of money. But I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know I was doing nothing. You know, yeah, I was just the money guy at the time. I would have never done that. And that was a good lesson. Yeah, secondarily, you know, the peers. I was in the entrepreneurs organization at the time. Yeah. Yeah, those guys quite literally saved my life. Probably. You know? Yeah, man, I can’t say enough about those guys. It was a tough time. But surrounding yourself with those kinds of people, you know, and giving that advice, because I was a very proud person. You know, if you’re familiar with Yo, the forum’s were like, You’re, you’re a tight group of like, eight guys, girls, whatever. They didn’t even know. Because I’d go to our meetings. And I was like, you know, gone off killing it. Oh, but, and then one day, I just broke down. And then, you know, they had so much valuable information for me, you know, both legally, financially, that it just, it was like, man, okay, I can do this. Let’s just go through this process to come out the other side and then rebuild. And that’s what I did.

John Corcoran  19:14  

Yeah. What was that, like coming clean to the rest of the group? This forum?

Steve Gumm  19:19  

Man, it was, it was. I mean, we still joke about it to this day, because I’m good friends with those guys. But it was just like a meltdown. Like a child. I mean, literally, like, you know, probably like anybody that’s hiding something or is burdened by something, and you don’t know who to talk to and find you just like, man, I can’t, I can’t do it anymore. It was very difficult, but just completely relieving. You know? Yeah, it’s just like, man. Okay, here I am. This is what it is. It felt good. And I think a lot of people don’t have that kind of network. Unfortunately to lean on and reach out to And it’s very, very helpful to do.

John Corcoran  20:03  

Yeah. So after you hit rock bottom and you declare bankruptcy, first of all, you were married at the time.

Steve Gumm  20:11  

Yeah, they’re young kids. Oh, yeah. Wow. Everybody was super tiny. Yeah, that’s a crazy guy.

John Corcoran 20:19  

Was your wife working through this time?

Steve Gumm  20:22  

Um, she went back to work, you know? And, yes, she went back to work. I started, do I mean, I even went back and painted a few houses, really. You definitely grow, like I told you, I shut it down. So after I did bankruptcy, I knew I needed to detach. And so I did, you know, I took about a year and a half off. And then just was doing odd jobs. You know, I went back and was painting houses for just a couple months. But you know, I was just trying to get active again, I told you, before the interview here, I went to a flip phone. And this is, you know,

John Corcoran  21:02  

like, 2012, or something like that. So

Steve Gumm  21:08  

what is he doing with a flip phone, but I didn’t want to be bothered, I didn’t want any distractions. And so I just kind of, you know, gave myself the space to just figure it out, you know, and then, you know, for me, fortunately, because of 18 Stories, that’s what led me into consulting work. Because a lot of those clients, I reached back out, I was the ideas guy in such a short period of consulting work. And then since then, it’s just been kind of, in a good way, you know, ebbing and flowing, trying to find my lane. And very grateful for that.

John Corcoran  21:41  

Yeah, with this, you know, it’s always hard to sell a business when you need to sell a business is better to sell it when you don’t need to, in retrospect, on the business, how, you know, is there anything that you would have done differently? As far as how you sold the business? When you sold the business? I realized your back, it seems like your back was kind of against the wall. So you didn’t have too many options at that point?

Steve Gumm  22:03  

No, I mean, I would have, you know, if you have time, and you’re planning something like that, it’s a little bit different. You know, for us, it was a scramble of desperation. And the type of business that was the structure of a sale is a little unique, right, because we weren’t carrying contracts except for the on the headwear side of the business. So on the bulk of the revenue, we had relationships with agencies, it was amazing, right? But the risk to a buyer was okay, if Steve and the team go away, are they still going to work with us? Right? Yeah. And so it’s really stacked in a situation where they give very little money upfront, which, you know, was minimal, and then you basically get a percentage of the sales over, I think it was like a three or four year period, just to kind of give them that, that assurance that, you know, the business, the revenue numbers that they were buying, yeah, would not, you know, disappear. So enter now and I’ll be here, they could have probably offered us. I mean, I just, I don’t know, it’s, I look back and think I just wanted to clean up everything to restart, you know. So I was not in like dealmaker mode, where I was, I mean, I was like, let’s just get rid of this, get the cast that we can get, you know, we’ll make whoever hole and let’s move on.

John Corcoran  23:24  

Yeah, yeah. And so then tell me about, you know, Gummio and how that kind of came to fruition.

Steve Gumm  23:37  

Yeah, so that was just kind of like an evolution of it all, you know, it started off heavily on the consulting side. And if you’re done consulting work, you realize very quickly that, hey, it’s great work, because you could go in and tell people what to do and leave, but I was one where it would bother me when they wouldn’t execute after the fact. And so then we started, you know, dabbling in the execution side of it, creating content for our clients, actually executing on some outbound campaigns, direct mail, email, obviously, LinkedIn. And so you know, as that evolved, you know, things kept moving because I knew it was a problem. Like, it was an issue for me, even in my businesses, where I was a pretty good sales guy. He had a team, but we never really had like an engine that was just running because everyone, even my sales guys, were doing way too much. You know, administrative work, whether it was putting proposals together, dealing with clients or whatever. So you figure out real quick companies that do want to scale and grow. Very rarely do they have an engine that is consistently, you know, driving new leads, and putting people in conversations on a daily basis, you know, and so that’s really where it comes to kind of slides in there and supports those sales organizations so that, you know, the sales teams are more inclined to be in valuable conversations, as opposed to doing a lot of that fun and busy work that is required to bring those prices You know, into a conversation.

John Corcoran  25:02  

And so we’re recording this in September of 2020, is about six months into the whole global pandemic. What is working now? And in light of the changes that have happened in the world?

Steve Gumm  25:17  

for me or for clients? I mean, I guess both? Sure, yeah. So it’s been interesting, it’s been good, like, for me as a business has been great, because I don’t want to take advantage of the pandemic, right. But a lot of companies are scaling back their resources. So it’s easier. And actually, economics makes sense to hire a team like mine, as opposed to going and trying to go through the hiring process and do it in-house. So that I’ve been very fortunate in terms of the actual execution of it and driving new business. You know, for a lot of the clients, it’s really good, because it’s consistent, but I will say, what is working now for the companies that I’m fortunate to be working with, is building those, the foundation now for when things do kind of open up. So what I mean by that is what we’re doing for them, they’re getting those short term wins, which is great, because we’re able to keep them very, very consistent. But I remind them all the time, and you guys are very familiar with all of this John, like on LinkedIn or email, when you get into a conversation, right, and even if someone says, No, John, not right now, but reach out in a month, or we’re restructure whatever it is, you have no choice, right there is organization to basically ignore that, and rinse, repeat and try to chase it down in two years, or keep that relationship and that dialogue going. So that when they do find their spot, or the company loosens up, you have this, this foundation of relationships built is extremely, extremely valuable. You know, I’ve seen that happen during good times. And I think right now that companies that understand, you know, as hard as it is, it may not necessarily be about the close right now, as much as it is about building those strong relationships. And when you get the closes, and you get the business, everyone celebrates awesome, right, we want those wins. But let’s not take our eye off of the reality that this is a time where human beings are human beings. And I think, you know, when you’re reaching out to do it in a much more authentic way that says, How can I help you not in a stealthy way, you know, how can I help you? I want to close a deal. Like, really? How can I help you? And if that means I can help you by selling you something, or you’re in a position to to grow, or whatever, whatever market you’re in, you want to scale faster, and you have bet that you can actually do that. Awesome. If that means, you know, you just want bouncing ideas off for free for 30 minutes. You know, I do it now. And I recommend my clients like to invest in those relationships now because man isn’t needed.

John Corcoran  28:01  

It’s a harder explanation to clients, isn’t it? Right? Especially if the clients are looking for sales now?

Steve Gumm  28:07  

Well, what’s fortunate for me is like, when if it’s a new client, like no matter what, like, the pace that I move them at is, is better anyway, you know, I’m saying like, so they’re gonna see that uptick, just because we move things along so much faster than they were doing on their own. So like, I have the benefit of knowing that they’re going to see wins. Yeah. But I do, like I told you earlier, like, I’m probably a terrible salesman right now, because I’m just I’m very, very honest with my clients and prospects, you know, and I paint the darkest picture that I can, just because that’s the relationship works well that, you know, for me to be able to over deliver. So when I’m talking to prospects or customers, I let them know, look, whether using me or not, you know, be very aware of the people that you’re touching, how you’re touching them, the value that you’re providing. And, look, make sure you’re building a foundation for the future, you know, whether the future means a month, three months, 12 months, like Don’t get so gung ho on we need to close a deal today, that you take your eye off of this opportunity, where real decision makers are accessible right now, you know, and they need help. Yeah. So I think the companies that realize that are going to, not only are they gonna get short term wins, but I think they’re going to win in a major way.

John Corcoran  29:32  

That’s good advice. So we’re almost out of time. But I want to wrap things up with the question I always ask which is Steve, let’s pretend we’re at an awards banquet lunch like the Oscars and the Emmys. you’re receiving an award for lifetime achievement for everything you’ve done up until this point. And what we all want to know is, in addition to family and friends, of course, who do we think who are the business partners, who are the brothers in law, who are the mentors, the coaches are the people that you acknowledge

Steve Gumm  29:57  

as you are for me, you know, See that dad was a huge influence in my life. So you would be number one, you know, my mom and dad, they’re great people. So they’d be number one too without naming names, you know, the entire crew over there entrepreneurs organization, I can never say enough about my particular team over there. Like I said, they quite literally saved my life, and I will forever be indebted to those guys. You know, and I think, you know, I would also think that the the people that, you know, taught me the hard lessons, you know, that kind of shit on me when when I was down, and because it does, it creates a level of empathy that I think has turned me into a much better human being, you know, both now and in my future, so, yeah, no regrets. crazy ride, but I think everybody’s part of it, dude.

John Corcoran  30:48  

Steve, wherefore, oh sorry, go ahead.

Steve Gumm  30:50  

without Rise25. I owe it all to Rise25.

John Corcoran  30:55  

I don’t know about that, but it’s been great collaborating with you. Uh, Is that the website? Where’s the website? Where can people go to learn more about you?

Steve Gumm  31:04 That’s the easiest place. I’m fortunate to have kind of an odd name. So if you search for me on LinkedIn, Facebook, I’m pretty easy to find. Cool. All right. Thanks so much, Steve.

Outro  31:14  

Thank you for listening to the Smart Business Revolution Podcast with John Corcoran. Find out more at And while you’re there, sign up for our email list and join the revolution. And be listening for the next episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast.