The next entrepreneurs
28-up-and-coming business innovators who do Sacramento right
A new entrepreneurial culture is forming.
It’s a new wave of the capital’s brightest and bravest, men and woman young and old who—on the heels of a pretty gnarly recession—aren’t afraid to roll the dice or take a risk. They’re embracing big visions and turning ideas into reality. And transforming Sacramento.
Here are 28 of the city’s next entrepreneurs. They’re lending their business savvy toward bettering the community and, in some cases, the world. A few have years of expertise, others only recently reinvented themselves after a sudden job loss.
This list is by no means definitive—new businesses are popping up every day—but as you read about people who’ve stepped off the corporate ladder to follow their dreams, we hope it inspires you to reconsider your own.Mad Men
for a new age
Ryan Vanni, BKWLD
It’s been more than a decade since Ryan Vanni and a couple of friends decided to launch their dream company: a fan service site for bands seeking Web-based promotion, marketing and design. What the Sacramento native ended up with, however, was something much bigger.
Vanni, 32, isn’t just chief executive officer and co-founder of that original company BKWLD, that he started in 2001. He’s also the brains behind Ground(Ctrl). It’s the latter company, launched in 2007, that fits Vanni’s vision for a one-stop service for musicians—only it exists on a much grander scale than his 20-something self likely ever imagined.
The two companies share space in a hip downtown office—exposed brick, shiny wood floors, indie rock playing in the background—just a few blocks from the Fox & Goose Public House. Both will move into a new, larger space in Old Sacramento later this year.
Until then, Vanni said, giving a tour of his company’s current digs, things are a little cramped. The downstairs warehouse overflows with boxes filled with T-shirts and posters for some of Ground(Ctrl)’s biggest clients: Guns N’ Roses, Nicki Minaj and Linkin Park, to name just a few.
“It’s kind of crazy, I guess,” Vanni said, surveying the goods, “but it’s good to see the growth.”
Vanni and his partners founded BKWILD with a humble concept. “Our big aspiration at the time was to sell to local music artists and maybe a restaurant,” he said. “I remember saying at the time, maybe after we do a [few bands] we could do a [website] for Tapa [the World],” he said, with a laugh.
Soon after BKWLD signed its first contract, a music deal with J Records, the company’s purpose expanded. Today, BKWLD specializes in digital-based media for clients local and far-flung. The company created a social-media-driven billboard campaign in Times Square (for Corona Light’s efforts to become the most-liked light beer on Facebook), designed online banners for Google TV, and implemented an LED touchscreen–based “living mural” for the Crocker Art Museum.
“I explain it to friends of my dad’s like an advertising agency, but we’re only dealing with digital stuff—so if it’s online, or for a mobile phone or has some other [digital] aspect,” Vanni said. Think of it as Mad Men for a new age.
Ground(Ctrl) has 37 employees, including a touring staff. BKWLD also has a Seattle office, opened after one of the company’s partners decided to relocate. Despite the growth of both companies, Vanni says he’s happy keeping Sacramento as home base.
“I’m a huge proponent of balance and not working ’til midnight every night,” Vanni said. “Sacramento is conducive to that. It’s not a turn-and-burn kind of city.” (R.L.)K Street’s big hope
Bay Miry’s evolution as a Sacramento developer might not have occurred if not for a near family disaster.
About eight years ago, after graduating from UC Berkeley, a younger Bay Miry joined his family on a 10-day trip to Egypt. David Miry, Bay’s father and co-founder of D&S Development in Sacramento, became extremely ill with a rare liver ailment. One physician predicted he wouldn’t survive.
“It was a really rough time for us, especially my dad,” Miry recalled. “My dad ended up losing 35 or 40 pounds, and another doctor came in and ended up saving his life.”
His father is completely healthy now. “But that’s what kind of resulted in me staying in Sacramento and doing development here,” Miry said.
Up until that point, Miry had always envisioned himself working in the Bay Area, going on his own path. But instead, he began shadowing his father and D&S firm partner Steve Lebastchi. “And when I saw the kind of projects they were working on,” Miry explained, “I knew I wanted to stay in Sacramento and try to help be part of helping to improving our city.”
Miry, 31, is deep in the trenches of downtown Sacramento’s revitalization. He and partner Ali Youssefi of CFY Development Inc. formed 700 Block Investors and are tackling what could arguably the most vital downtown project after the possible new Kings arena: the strip of K Street Mall between Seventh and Eighth streets. Projected to begin this summer, the estimated $48 million project is right in Miry’s wheelhouse: The rehabilitation of historic landmark buildings.
You see, when Miry first joined his father in business, D&S Development was more involved with suburban shopping malls and “strip centers,” he said. But now, the focus has transitioned to more challenging “urban, downtown, mixed-use projects.”
In recent years, Miry has worked on several high-visibility, central-city projects, such as the Maydestone Apartments, 2020 H Street Lofts and the popular nightlife destination at R and 15th streets, which includes lofts and retail spots Shady Lady Saloon, Magpie Café, Burgers & Brew, and others.
“I think I’ve been lucky enough to have some kind of mentors around me,” Miry said. “Even from when I was a kid, I was around people who were very business-minded. I’m pretty grateful that I’ve been put in a position where I have older people to learn a lot from.”
And with the 700 block of K Street, Miry and Youssefi’s fathers are available as consultants.
Miry is excited about changing this block of K Street. “Not only because it will hopefully be one of the most significant projects in downtown,” he said, “but it’s also an opportunity for me to work closely with one of my good friends, Ali Youssefi. It’s an opportunity to work with someone you enjoy hanging out with socially, anyway.” (J.R.)Show women
Anita Johnson, Money Wisdom for WOMEN
When Anita Johnson went into business for herself in 1998, she intended to focus simply on bookkeeping and tax-preparation services. While helping Sacramentans straighten out their finances, she discovered a disturbing trend.
“Many women did not know what they were doing,” Johnson said. Clients sometimes arrived at tax appointments without knowing what a W-2 was, or with boxes of unopened bank statements they were afraid to examine. Many of these women were widowed or divorced and had always relied on their partners to take care of the finances.
When she began pursuing a Ph.D. in finance, Johnson discovered women’s money woes weren’t just personal, but epidemic. “Eight out of 10 women will retire and live in poverty,” Johnson said.
Johnson enumerated the stacked odds many women face: Women usually earn less than men. Women lose an average of 40 percent of their income when a marriage ends in divorce. Women often assume the bulk of child-care responsibilities, which limits professional opportunities.
Johnson resolved to educate women to take control of their finances, and by extension, their futures. In 2008, she founded a new company, Money Wisdom for Women. She currently educates women via classes, one-on-one consultations, her Money Wisdom for Women online radio show on the Atlanta-based Praise House station, and her 10-step workbook Big Girls Don’t Cry: Taking the Emotion Out of Finance.
The first step? Start where you are.
“Women are earning more money, but they aren’t tracking it,” Johnson said. “I help you start tracking what you’re spending, so you can make a financial-spending plan.”
Johnson practices what she preaches. She notes all her expenses on cards with “Anita’s Tracker” printed at the top, the same cards she gives her clients. Every Monday she “makes a date” with her finances to organize and file her receipts. Even after so many years in finance, she continually learns by educating others. She recently got inspired to pay off her mortgage faster after encouraging listeners of her radio show to make a similar plan.
“I love to educate women about finances,” she said enthusiastically. “I want to make it clear that I am not bashing men. What I am trying to do is empower women to take care of their own finances.” (B.C.)Leader of the lurkers
Geno Failla, Lurk Hard
It’s never hard for Geno Failla to find motivation in his office space, which is covered in graffiti. Motley colors of blue and purple dress cold cinderblock walls and twist into words unrecognizable. The murals inspire Failla’s clothing company Lurk Hard, which mimics street art—and the controversy that comes when skateboarding and pop culture collide.
Lurk Hard began as a school project for an ex-girlfriend; she had to come up with fashion brand for her design class. But the brand soon became an actual business, which Failla ran out of his house, first selling stickers and T-shirts.
Failla has no formal business background or training. He’ll be the first to tell you that starting a company was a slow process filled with trial and error. He began making sales on his website in 2008, and it wasn’t unusual for the 26-year-old to purchase too many shirts in uncommon or weird sizes and underproduce the more popular items.
“It was all ran out of our house. We didn’t have a direction, really, we just went for it and dove right in and started making a lot of mistakes,” Failla described the early days.
But then, things started to click. Failla’s Lurk Hard brand tapped into timeless trends in skateboarding, designs on standard baseball T-shirts and snapback hats. His love for keeping things simple is his line’s not-so-secret ingredient. But Lurk Hard also gains inspiration from the edgier side of life. Shirt designs prominently feature the Unabomber, upside-down crosses and drugs references.
“We do more edgy stuff,” Failla said. “I try to switch it up. I like simple stuff that has something that kind of pops. … I try to balance it out.”
It didn’t take long for people to notice. Failla has spotted hip-hop artists such as Lee Bannon and ASAP Ty Beats sporting Lurk Hard. And there is no shortage of the original Lurkers—that’s what people call those who wear the Lurk Hard brand—around town.
“I’m always, like, surprised when I see bums wearing [Lurk Hard]—like, I’ve seen a couple bums,” said Failla.
“To lurk” usually has a negative connotation, someone hiding in the bushes or shadows and watching others. But skateboarders, being people of the street, took the word and made it a term of endearment for one another.
Being a skateboarder himself, establishing a Lurk Hard skate team was a no brainer for Failla. Local skate shops Ground Zero and Nine16 were the first stores to carry his clothes; this quickly legitimized his brand as a skate company.
Four years later, Failla has hung up his hat as a bike shop manager and now focuses on Lurk Hard full time in downtown Sacramento. He moved from his house to a spacious warehouse, which he shares with fellow local fashion line Official Crowne of Laurel, owned by Jason Maggio. And there’s room to grow: Lurk Hard has expanded from T-shirts and stickers and now produces jackets, sweaters, accessories and a successful snapback hat line. Lurk Hard can be found in 35 stores internationally.
The line maintains a strong social-media presence, from Facebook to Instagram, and 30 percent of sales are online. The most popular shirt features an image of Lindsay Lohan in court, which has sold more than a 1,000 units so far, and their most popular hat is a snapback with the word “Lurker” emblazoned on it, selling more than 2,000 units.
“You put in a lot of work; it’s kind of a slow process,” said Failla reflecting on his success, “but it will pay off if you have a vision, even if it’s a rough vision, as long as you continue to pursue it, it won’t go unnoticed.”
Having just finished his spring 2012 line, these days Failla can be found in his downtown warehouse as early as 9 a.m. Later, catch him out filming his skate team with an iPhone.
And Failla is still surprised to see other “lurkers” around town. “I just trip when I see people I don’t know [wearing Lurk Hard], because it still doesn’t feel like it’s that big,” said Failla.
Time to get used to it. (A.N.)The future office
Jeff Louie, Capsity Offices
Jeff Louie is the entrepreneur’s entrepreneur. A self-described workaholic, he tackles multiple projects at once and does it all while helping other entrepreneurs. That’s why he prefers the title “community cultivator.”
Since graduating from UC Berkeley in 2004 (with a self-designed major blending sociology, political science and technology), he’s been involved in five start-up endeavors. Louie’s main focus for the last few years has been Capsity Offices, which along with the Urban Hive, was one of Sacramento’s first co-working spaces. It opened in 2008, allowing professionals in any field to rent office space shared with other entrepreneurs.
“Everybody should be able to have a business,” Louie said, “and eventually, you need to team up with people.”
Mirroring the quickly changing and growing co-working scene in Sacramento, Capsity has been through a few key changes since it opened: Its first location in Midtown closed. The lease on a second office location on Franklin Boulevard was taken over by a friend who opened Sacramento’s fourth co-working space in March, known as The Lab.
Currently, Louie is busy renovating a building at 2572 21st Street for a revamped Capsity office. He’s looking forward to utilizing four years of experience to provide even better service. When Capsity reopens in May, it will still be known as a more business-oriented office than some of the other co-working spaces. (The Urban Hive and Thinkhouse Collective are arts-oriented and The Lab is geared toward tech.)
Louie also wants to help foster the next generation of entrepreneurs by eventually making the Capsity space available for free for students to use.
“You want them to have access and energize the space. You want to be able to have a space where they can talk to somebody and networking is key,” said Louie. “It’s who you know. You’re more likely to get a job opportunity through someone you sort of know.”
When he’s not doing demolition work and planning for the new Capsity office, Louie works with friends as a business developer on three other projects: Asobuyo, a social game community; A Big Fisch, a Web-development company; and Brand-Aid Media, a video-production company.
“I’m always constantly asked, ‘Why don’t you go back to the Bay Area or come down to Los Angeles [to work]?’” said Louie. “I’ve found some really good people here, and I think that’s what keeps me here.” (J.M.)On the mooove
Cow Town Productions
“Those are nice shoes.”
Christina Marie glances down at her feet, then grins. “I call them cow-print couture,” she says, laughing at her heels’ black-and-white motif.
Shoes don’t typically say much about a person, right? Unless you’re Jerry Seinfeld or an astronaut or something. Yet Marie’s cow-hide kicks speak to a charming loyalty to the River City. And that’s reassuring, because her allegiance is unexpected: She’s a Hollywood girl.
But Marie’s life ambition is to build what she refers to as “Indiewood”: an 800-acre cinema, TV and digital-arts production community right here in downtown’s River District.
No one wants to see someone make it big locally, only to head off for greener pastures in Hollywood. So her high heels encourage.
“We don’t want anything to do with [Los Angeles],” she makes a point of saying, more than once.
By “we” Marie is referring to Capital Indie Collective—a little nonprofit with some big-time goals for the Sacramento arts and design community—and her film and TV company, Cow Town Productions.
Marie founded Cow Town in 2007 after some 25 years in the entertainment industry. That’s right: She started young, spending her early days on a stage or in front of a camera, first as a child actress and later as a stunt woman. She took time out in between to earn a degree at Sacramento State, and eventually returned here for good after an injury knocked her out of the stunt biz.
The mom and wife didn’t divulge much of her Hollywood résumé. But she did rep some impressive Sacto cred: “My secret claim to fame is that I was the gymnastic lady who did the halftime show for the Kings in the ’90s.” (Unfortunately, neither Google nor YouTube reveal such Mary Lou Retton moments.)
But enough of Marie in front of the camera; These days, it’s a behind-the-scenes world: businesswoman, fundraiser, mover and shaker. If she’s not in a meeting with potential Indiewood investors, she’s out and about: an art show at Verge Center for the Arts, chatting with workers at The Urban Hive, a film screening. And she likes what she sees, Sacramento, she likes it.
Yet she’s not so sure Sacramentans have the confidence it takes. The talent’s there. But something’s missing.
As Marie puts it, “I just want to see more swagger.”
Ah, yes, that Hollywood braggadocio—but with aptitude to back it up. And so, enter Indiewood’s big pitch: The green-friendly campus will be a home to artists, complete with live-work spaces and production facilities; plus galleries and rooms for forums or panels; production hangars and post-production studios, equipment rental, sound-stages and education classrooms. All the “ancillary support,” she says, you need for film, video, TV and digital-media arts. Phase one of the facility officially opens its doors this summer.
And the cool thing, Marie says, everything Indiewood needs is already here. “Sacramento citizens are not quite in tune with what we have,” she says.
So, she just wants to put it all in one place. And she has help: Township Nine, a new River District retail-residential destination; the forthcoming Powerhouse Science Center; Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission; Smythe Academy and more.
And a pair of really cool heels. (N.M.)