Developing digital solutions that engage users while charting the future of healthcare, finance, and other specialized industries
Chris Cera is CEO of Arcweb Technologies, a Philadelphia-based digital design and development firm that creates custom technology solutions for organizations in specialized industries such as healthcare, financial services, e-commerce, and transportation. The company’s service capabilities encompass digital strategy, web and mobile applications, managed services, software engineering, user experience design, and more. Clients have included Penn Medicine, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, CapitalOne, and dozens of others.
JEFF MACK: You’ve started multiple companies over the years. Can you share some takeaways about growing sustainably and expanding into new markets?
CHRIS CERA: At my last company, Vuzit, we did the typical early stage tech startup of the modern day, where you’ve got a three-person team, they go to an accelerator, and then they raise some money, then they raise some more money, and then hopefully it’s a smashing success. At my first company, we did not have that smashing success. Instead, we raised money pre-revenue. I had 12 investors. We only gave out one board seat, but we still had 12 people that were shareholders whom we thought were important and deserve to know what’s going on with the company and how we’re good stewards of their investment dollars.
There was a management challenge there of having so many people. I wouldn’t say that I was jaded by the venture side of things—I actually think there’s a really place for investors in high-growth companies that take outside money; there’s absolutely a place for that. With Vuzit, I felt like I had done all the stuff that all the blogs sort of tell you that you are supposed to do. I joined the accelerator, I was a coder, I quit my job, and I’m now building this business. And guess what? It really didn’t work out.
With Arcweb, I wanted to start over. What does “start over” actually mean? I feel like I started a business, and I didn’t really know why I wanted to start a business. It is because I want the freedom? I don’t want to have a boss? I want money? I don’t really know why, but it sounds great, and all these other people are doing it, so I’m going to do it. In going through that process, I learned that I’m really not motivated by money. It’s not really about the money. When you have customers, you don’t work for yourself. Period. “Working for yourself” almost doesn’t exist unless you have a certain type of business where you’re really never beholden to customers, and that’s super rare. I just felt like, “Well, now I’m broke. I’m in my 30s, I’m in debt, I’ve sold everything, and now I want to build. Well, if I was going to do this again, what would I do?” I was like, “Everybody talks about bootstrapping services—they bootstrap the service business—I want to do something I can bootstrap.” I should be able to bootstrap a services business, and then if I’m successful, then I can build that product company, and hopefully I can self-fund it, and use my own money, and not have to have 12 people arguing about what this pre-revenue company should have done and why it doesn’t have revenue.
For me, it was more like, “all right, I can still have the freedom to make my own decisions and build a business in a way that is more organic and I can be much more in control of the growth.” And yeah, I’m never going to get a 10X return on it—no venture capitalist will be interested; it’s not investable—and I feel like those are the wrong reasons to start a company. Why did I want those things to begin with? It was really getting back to understanding what I really want out of life and saying, “well, yeah, this is actually perfect for me.”
I would say so far it has been. You asked me about market expansions and I still have it in my mind that we’re going to expand markets and we’re going to actually launch a product. I’m just not focused on it right now, but it’s absolutely in the long-term plan.
In the services business, your cash flow is typically within 30 or 45 days, assuming most of your customers pay, so you really only have to fund a certain amount of time depending upon how big your payroll and how many contractors you’re trying to feed. I would say I gracefully maneuvered the various peaks and valleys over the years to eventually get to where we are now.
Q. You’ve mentored numerous young leaders since starting your own businesses. What motivates you to pay it forward?
A. I don’t even like calling it “paying it forward” because then it sounds like I’ve got a motive. In my last business I was very involved in Philly Startup Leaders. I was probably spending, let’s say, 80-plus hours a week on Vuzit, and I was probably spending 15–20 hours a week, and some weeks, on Philly Startup Leaders, trying to organize events, get that going. Part of that was meeting people and just learning from other like-minded people. I remember one of the people involved in my company had said, “Why are you wasting all your time with this group?”—really drilling into me about the time I was spending—and if I fast-forward ten years, and all of the customers that I have today, all of that started ten years ago in the relationships that I was building in Philly Startup Leaders, and it was all focused on peer mentorship and helping people: How do I help someone, and how can you help me? If you want to look at that as “pay it forward,” I had no idea I was paying it forward then, but I would say I got 10X-plus return on that time.
That’s a way of saying, “Well, you should pay it forward because it’s a good strategy,” but that’s really not why I do it. I like helping people. I probably take or three meetings a month with people who I don’t know, who literally just say, “Can you help me?” And I say, “Absolutely I can help you.” That’s one of the ways I pay it forward. I am mentoring three young 20–22-year-olds right now that are all in a similar spot in their career, where they’re trying to get into tech and are trying to figure out how to get in, so I’m trying to help them. None of them have traditional education. They didn’t go to Drexel like me, so it’s harder, so I’m trying to help them.
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