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Good Company: At Spire Digital, Michael Gellman Plays a Game of Disruption

Digital media mogul answers the age-old question, "What makes a great boss?"


Published:

WEBSITE: WWW.SPIREDIGITAL.COM

WHAT HE’S listening to: "Freakonomics" and "disgraceland" podcasts


For Michael Gellman, business is 
about the buzz — that sense of excitement bouncing from pod to pod in Spire 
Digital’s funky-modern Lincoln Street digs. “I want people to come in here and feel like they just had four cups of coffee or Red Bull,” says Gellman, whose digital product development firm turned 20 
this year.

The company that put ebags.com on the map and was developing iPhone apps before anyone had an iPhone is currently involved in putting touchscreens in golf carts, applying geospatial analytics to the outdoor rec space and using artificial intelligence (AI) to disrupt the court-reporting industry. In keeping with Gellman’s doing-well-while-doing-good philosophy, Spire (derived from the words inspire, aspire and perspire, sans prefixes) is developing Achroma, a blockchain-based lending marketplace that aims to remove biases inherent in the finance industry.

“Business is a zero-sum game,” Gellman says, “but there’s lots of room for winners.”

ColoradoBiz: WHAT'S BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN THE LAST 20 YEARS?

Michael Gellman: When I started, I had no idea how to deal with an economic downturn. Four years after being more successful than I had ever imagined, I had to go through the dot.com downturn and spend two years figuring out how to run a business and how to find money to pay the bills. When things changed during the subprime mortgage crisis, I had to learn how to really weather storms. But beyond that, we work in a people business. When you work in a people business, it’s not something tangible you’re dealing with. You have to roll with the punches. I like to say that my greatest skill is attracting great talent, people who are considerably smarter than me. But I’ve also lost some. And understanding that when you lose somebody who’s good, you’re ultimately going to find somebody who’s good.

CB: SO WHAT MAKES A GREAT BOSS? 

MG: Empathy. Understanding. Realizing these people are giving you a big part of their lives, usually more time than they’re giving to their families. And this is a very important part of who they are. Understand that. Think about not just today or tomorrow, think about them in 10 or 20 years and how you’re impacting what their life is going to be. I’m really big in training, big in helping people to become a better version of themselves. I have this philosophy that when people work at Spire, I know most of them aren’t going to stay with me forever. But when they do leave, I hope they’ll be considerably better than they were when they got to Spire. So things like education, mentorship, support, helping them with bonding, giving them room to grow and improve and have time to be with others, that’s really important. And the intangibles. Everybody loves to give back to society. So if you can help them do that, great. We’re involved with Pledge One Percent Colorado, and we pledge a lot more of our profits to charity. We allow our team to decide who we give it to, and we allow them to come up with ideas for group giving and days they can spend out doing good and volunteering for organizations they care about.

CB: THE DIGITAL WORLD IS CONSTANTLY CHANGING. WHAT STRATEGIES DOES SPIRE USE TO ADAPT? 

MG: If we aren’t learning every single day, and we aren’t trying something new every single day, we’re not doing our job. I’m proud to say we’ve always been on the cutting edge — it’s part of our culture and it’s part of what we do for a living. We were one of 10 companies in America building dot.coms when we started. We had a relationship with AT&T that allowed us to build apps for the iPhone before anybody even saw it. This continues with new technology. With Achroma, we’re using blockchain. We’re working with a company in the court-reporting space and using AI with some of the smartest AI people in the country. If you read a book on what we do, in the time it took to publish that book, all the information is out of date. I’m talking to these entrepreneurs fresh out of MIT or who just dropped out of Harvard and listening to what they think is cool or new. I just read a whole study on quantum computing. It’s like, this stuff is so cutting edge, most people won’t hear about it for years. But if we start thinking about it now, we’re prepared. And when people want it, we’ll be able to do it.

CB: IS THAT ENERGIZING FOR YOU, OR IS IT DISCONCERTING? 

MG: For me, it’s completely energizing. My personality, I’m certainly afflicted with considerable attention deficit disorder, so the fact that everything is changing, that we didn’t have a blockchain practice a year and a half ago, and now it’s a decent part of our business, that’s crazy. And that’s really, really exciting. The fact that I’ve been reading about AI, but all of sudden, everybody knows about AI, and we’re ready to do that, it’s so cool. It’s just exciting to see the future happen. Is it unsettling? Maybe, for some. But those are the people who come to us.

CB: THEY WANT YOU TO TAKE CARE OF IT FOR THEM?

MG: Exactly. We play a game here of disruption. You have two sides. One, are the disruptors. The Ubers of the world, the Warby Parkers. They’re taking an industry that’s never been changed, and they say, ‘I’m going to change that and make lots of money and use all this new technology and create this new paradigm.’ They come to us and have us build that application. The other side, are these old-world companies who are afraid that what happened to the newspaper industry is going to happen to them. So they’re fighting the disruptors. They’re the disruptees. They come to us and they say, ‘Give us some new ideas, build us some new products to make us fresh and new.’ It’s what we do for a living: We play two sides in the game of disruption.

CB: LOOKING BACK OVER THE LAST 20 YEARS, WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU'D KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED THAT YOU DIDN'T? 

MG: Be as good a person as you can be, because that really comes back to you. Try to take care of as many people as you possibly can. And be a great boss. Be a great member of the community and just support everything that you can. I think for me, that’s my secret to success. The more that I focused on that, the better I did. Along with that, don’t have an ego. There’s really no reason to. Positivity is what’s made this company so great. And focus on the long-term. Sometimes, you’re going to have to invest in things that are going to take years. Sometimes, you’re going to have to give up money in the short-term because it’s the right thing to do. But that comes back to you. And if you’re patient, everything works out. CB

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Lisa Ryckman

Lisa Ryckman is ColoradoBiz's managing editor. Contact her at lryckman@cobizmag.com.

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