Lately, more and more people have started to espouse the view that the American dream is dead. Income inequality, inflation, and rising debt, they claim, herald the beginning of a new American epoch—the fight over whatever’s left. However, not everyone agrees. Especially not Tomas Gorny, who himself is as good an example of the American dream in action as there ever was. His rise from a childhood in Communist-dominated Poland to the boardrooms of multiple successful technology businesses is living proof that one still can build themselves a success story here in America. Here is Gorny’s story and what other young, would-be entrepreneurs can learn from it.
From the Ground Up
Tomas Gorny’s story begins in the late 1970s in Poland, where he grew up. While there, he had a front-row seat as the economic stagnation in the Soviet satellite began the country’s inexorable slide into recession. As a teenager, Gorny left Poland with family and moved to Germany. In Germany, he attended business school. However, he would never graduate. Instead, he seized an opportunity to move to Los Angeles despite knowing very little English and having virtually no money to sustain him.
There, Gorny did what many recent immigrants did at the time—whatever it took to survive. In his case, that meant eking out a meager living working as a valet attendant during the evenings and as a carpet cleaner on weekends. But his struggles wouldn’t last long. He joined a technology startup in the web hosting industry, called Internet Communications. As they were an early-stage business, they couldn’t afford to pay Gorny, so he signed on in exchange for a stake in the business. It was a stake that would grow to 20% before long.
Thanks to the late ’90s dot-com bubble, Gorny wouldn’t have to wait long for his stake to become valuable. It happened when a rival firm called Interliant purchased Internet Communications—turning Gorny into a millionaire at the age of 22.
Had It, Lost It
Like many of his contemporaries, Gorny tried to parlay his payout into an ever-larger fortune. Unfortunately, he did so by investing in some of the startups attempting to capitalize on the growth of the early Internet. Then, as the twin blows of the dot-com crash and 9/11 cratered markets all around the world, Gorny found himself almost back at square one. He had very little money in the bank and a car in his name—and not much else.
It was a period that taught Gorny his first painful lesson in entrepreneurship. He remarked to Business Insider about that time, “I set my goals around my net worth[,] and that was a mistake. Everything suddenly collapsed,” It was a mistake he resolved never to make again. And before long, he set out to prove it.
Starting Over, a Little Wiser
Not willing to accept defeat, it wasn’t long before Gorny used his experience working for Internet Communications to found a new venture, IPOWER, in 2001. It was one of the first web hosting firms to focus on helping -businesses launch websites without needing a costly design firm to do the work. A little over a decade and a merger with a competitor called Endurance International later, Gorny would complete his comeback with a sale of his company to Warburg Pincus and Goldman Sachs for nearly a billion dollars.
His fortune more than restored, Gorny decided to apply the lesson he’d learned from his previous market-driven wipeout by investing his regained resources in himself. That included co-founding business communications firm Nextiva, where he serves as CEO to this day. He also launched an SMB incubator called UnitedWeb and a website security firm called SiteLock, the latter of which he exited when it sold to private equity firm ABRY Partners in 2018.
Lessons From the Edge of Financial Collapse
In the end, Tomas Gorny insists that he’s learned a variety of important lessons during his rise, fall, and recovery over the past several decades. The first was to invest in himself rather than gambling on others. But he also learned that building successful companies has to revolve around delivering value to customers. He says that entrepreneurs should never launch startups with an exit plan in mind, or they’ll only work hard enough to try and reach it. He also cautions entrepreneurs not to see being underestimated as a slight but rather as an opportunity to shock the competition.
Through it all, Gorny aptly demonstrated that it’s still possible to work one’s way up from the bottom—even after falling from lofty heights. And if that isn’t proof positive that the American dream is still alive and well, nothing is. So, for entrepreneurs who think that the golden age of the startup has come and gone—take hope—and take Tomas Gorny’s advice on how to achieve your version of the American Dream as an entrepreneur.