Dru Riess – Founder & CEO, Popular Ink

Dru’s ability to visualize and execute his visions has given him much success at a younger age than most. By attacking an industry that was stagnate for decades, Dru has become a market disrupter and has set the tone for a better way to service the packaging industry.

In 2007, he signed a sweat equity deal on a napkin with a broke real estate developer. The deal was to help the developer get some money back that he lost in a printing investment. In exchange for Dru’s grit and determination, he was promised equity if he was successful. With no printing experience or business experience, Dru took on the challenge to build a printing company, but not just any printing company. The printing market he targeted was food packaging. At the time, this market was $29 billion in revenue each year in the United States. Dru’s confidence to capture a sliver of that market fueled him to give everything he had spiritually, mentally, and physically.

In 2011, he had accomplished his goal of building a stable and respected company in a huge market. In 2011, he bought out the real estate developer’s share of the business and renamed the company, Popular Ink. With eleven years of successfully building and scaling one of the youngest, but most respected flexible packaging companies in America, Dru is far from done. His vision is to have a national brand. His expectations are set at building a $100-million dollar brand by the time he is 38.

Dru firmly believes, “Good things do not happen to good people. Good people make good things happen.” He is most fulfilled when he sees his vision come together. Money is not the driving force behind what makes him tick and it is not a motivator for him to wake up in the morning. His heart is bigger than his wallet and it is more important to provide jobs and opportunities for people than to make an extra buck. “A little bit of a lot is a lot.” Dru lives by this motto. When he achieves his $100-million dollar goal, all he wants is a little bit!

“Being a millionaire at my age presents some unique challenges. Few people my age understand me and the way I think. Those that do understand me are older and worked their entire life to get where I am. My goal and my families’ goal is to stay humble and hungry for more success, and to do things the right way.”

Tell me about your early career.
I went to work for a Fortune 100 company and failed miserably. I never hit my quota as I did not believe in the product and I did not believe it was better than the competiton. I was fired for not giving the results my peers were giving.

How did the concept for Popular Ink come about?
A friend actually told me about a guy that was in a sticky situation. The guy had bought the company in 2005 and had his two friends run it into the ground. I was young, dumb, naive, ignorant, and believed I could muscle this dead/bankrupt company back to success. I had no idea what the machines did or how to start pursuing this vision, but I knew what I wanted out of life and I viewed this as my one shot.

How was the first year in business?
Miserable. Lonely. I was drowning every day. I was living a lie. I faked it until I made it and I constantly had the weight of the world on my shoulders. I could not disclose the reality of the situation to my two team members as I was the leader. I knew if I freaked out others would react and I needed the two people I had to believe in my vision. I was hungry and tired, always. I worked 48-hour days regularly. Lack of sleep, pushing my body past fatigue, and always making sure I came through on my promises to customers no matter what the price.

What was your marketing strategy?
Be faster, be more passionate, be more vibrant in the market, and price things for what I could make it for and not for the what the market would bare! I did not care if my competitors were billing $.05 per impression. If I could make it, and make a profit at $.03, I would sell it for that. My strategy was to be stealth and not let the competition know there was a new kid on the block. I was strategic of when I made it publicly-known that we had a new print company in this market. I knew if my competitors heard about me too soon, they could squash me like a bug.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Our growth was steady. The growth was organic. Word of mouth referrals were how we grew for the first ten years of the business. The growth was fast and it pushed us to the limit to respond to the demand with little capacity and little direct labor! We did the work ourselves that would take other print shops ten bodies to fulfill.

How do you define success?
I’ll define success when our bottom line grows, our top line grows, and our headcount grows. I am building this empire to make a difference and provide for others. A capitalist would say making more money with less bodies is success, but my mindset is humble and not greedy. I want to impact as many people as I can along this journey and I hold my headcount as a primary measurement to a successful year.

What is the key to success?
Being different, being unique, and being authentic. People want to help people who want to help themselves. Don’t be someone else. Do you. Do it your way and you will find the key to success is simply making people connect to your desires. Make people want to help. Give them the “Why?” Give them a motive that is not self-centered and you will have help achieving your goals.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
To be a good leader means being selfless. Put others in front of you. Don’t ask others to do something you would not do yourself. Respect people and their time and treat them as people and not employees. At our company, we have team members and not employees. Do not chase a title or a position at a company, but rather chase a result. Who cares what position you play on a team that wins championships? It’s awesome to just be a part of a championship-caliber team than to not make the playoffs!

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Good things don’t just happen to good people. Good people make good things happen.”

What are some of your favorite books?
I do not read books. I have never read a book in my life. Never! Not in high school, college, etc. I am 100% authentic and completely original. I built my business and I lead by natural instinct. Reading and eating are two things I believe waste the most amount of time in a day. People often tell me to read a book that could take me days/weeks. I imagine while they are wasting their time doing that, I am getting ahead.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I once had 40% of my business ripped out from underneath me in a day! In a moment like this, you learn a lot about yourself. Surprisingly, I did not overreact. In fact, I really did not react. I went and had a margarita and came back Monday morning with a plan. In the aftermath of this news, we had to layoff 20% of our workforce and it was the hardest day of my career. To look innocent people in the eyes who did nothing to deserve losing their jobs will change you forever. I vowed to myself and to others I would rebuild and I would rebuild in a way that this could never happen again. It was never our intent to have a customer concentration issue, but when your customers are growing at a faster rate than you are, it can naturally happen during your start-up phase. It took seven months to rebuild and I learned a lot about my character and leadership. I sacrificed personal salary, personal bonuses, etc. if that meant keeping a team member on board. I dedicated myself to grow relationships and new business faster than before. Through a dark time and an uncertain time, I kept my entrepreneurial vision in front of me and kept rowing toward it. I looked around as others on my leadership team were in a state of shock, frozen, or unsure of how to move forward. As a leader, you have to motivate and challenge your team to snap out of it and push forward. If you have ever heard the term “fight or flight”, this where it applies. What would you do? Would you run? Would you let fear take over and numb your abilities? Would you press forward and fight? I choose to fight every time and no one taught me to do that! It’s either in you or it’s not. You can’t read that into your body.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
My wife and kids. Before my wife and kids, it was my insecurities. I always reached for an insult that hurt my feelings (e.g. someone putting me down, a coach telling me I was too slow, my parents telling me I was not good enough). When I faced adversity, I would reach for those memories growing up that made me who I am. Those memories were my fuel to overcome physical pain, fatigue, mental fatigue, etc. Where there is a will, there is a way! What fuels you?

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
My advice would be to not do it. I would advise them to rethink their decision. I would actually try to discourage them. I say that because everyone likes to pump people up and give false hope. Entrepreneurship is not achieved with hope. Entrepreneurship is achieved with grit, determination, guts, and sacrifice. No hidden formula, no cheat sheets! True entrepreneurship sucks in the beginning, and 99% of people that call themselves an entrepreneur do not have what it takes. Although the 1% who reads what I am saying and says to themselves, “That’s me! I have guts. I have grit. I don’t care how hard it is! I want this!” are the ones that are cut out for entrepreneurship.

My piece of advice. “Don’t own a job, own a business!” Don’t build a company completely reliant on you. Build a company with structure, and build a company that can be scaled. Ignore the haters and ignore your competition.

“MIND YOUR BUSINESS” – If you keep your eyes and vision on your goal, you will get there a lot faster than comparing yourself to the outside world. When you get there, your vision will be completely authentic rather than copying your competitors.

Who else should we interview? Nominate someone!

Interviews are conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.

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