Outlook

Twin Powers : Young, high-energy twins lead family-oriented business, keep strong ties to SCSU

Monday, April 4, 2005

Ryan and Rob Weber

Across town from their alma mater, 25-year-old twins Ryan and Rob Weber have quietly built a leading online promotion company in the nation from an idea “hatched in our dorm room.”

In just five years – at a time when most dot-com companies were falling through the ice – the Webers’ Freeze.com has swelled to $45 million in total sales over the last 24 months. Last June Donald Trump’s Entrepreneur magazine ranked it the 31st fastest-growing new business in the U.S.

It’s a dizzying success story that starts with Rob and Ryan’s purchase of their first computer at age 15 with earnings from McDonald’s. They turned that investment into an online sports card business, a sports fan web site, a consulting business for web advertisers, and web advertising sales to direct marketers. Five years ago, joined by brother Aaron, 26, they morphed into the “free stuff” business, offering free screensavers and other enhancements in exchange for information they sell to direct marketers.

They’ve weathered a couple of bad breaks – like unscrupulous partners – in their online journey. But on their way up, the Webers also attracted the attention, support and respect of influential outsiders.

The twins were just 19 when they met and wowed Young Sohn, president of Agilent Technologies’ Semiconductor Products Group, San Jose, Calif., now chairman of the Freeze.com board of directors. “I deal with a lot of very successful scientists and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley,” said Sohn, who invested in the fledgling Freeze.com. “I saw that these young men were very mature. They understood the sacrifice and compromise that has to come with any success, and they weren’t afraid to ask for advice.”

“It was also clear to me they were a lot smarter than me in web-based marketing,” said Sohn, whose own foresight has taken him to the top of the mercurial international technology field.

“They’re positioned as the most talented young entrepreneurs in Minnesota,” said Brian Schoenborn, an SCSU graduate, former Alumni Association president, and the Webers’ attorney.
“I believe in these guys. They’re great partners and friends who happen to have created one of the most highly visited web sites in the world.”

The Weber brothers embody the key elements of entrepreneurial success: incredible passion and talent, willingness to take risks, superior networking skills, and tremendous vision. “They have the agility, drive and maturity it takes,” said Sohn.

Their expansive Waite Park office building, filled with gray cubicles, is a free and friendly place. It’s a flexible, fun atmosphere devoid of time clocks and top-down management. “We’re the exact opposite of micromanagers,” said Rob. “We hire people with self-motivated, entrepreneurial personalities, and we expect them to develop.”

The businessmen also prefer to work where the action is – out in the cubicles. “We tried working in separate offices at first,” said Rob, “but we work better trading creative ideas and brainstorming. It’s almost like a hobby for us.”

Their no-boundaries work style fits their reputation. “They’re very easy to work with and very down to earth,” said mentor Sohn.

The three brothers are a study in distinct personalities: Robert, president and co-founder, still working on his SCSU degree in entrepreneurship, exudes enthusiasm. His words spill out quickly as he talks about his focus on marketing and sales. Ryan, who earned his SCSU degree in computer science, is technology-oriented and more of a still-waters-run-deep kind of guy.

Aaron is the serious older brother who lured the twins to SCSU while he was there studying computers. He’s the detail guy they call focused and reliable. The Webers’ mother, Deb Childers, is Freeze.com’s marketing director, and many of the images among the vast array of screensavers offered on their web site were shot by their dad, a career safety engineer and hobby photographer.

The twins are married to SCSU graduates, Rob to Jessica LaChance, ‘02; and Ryan to Melissa Anderson, ’02.

Just as others have reached out to them, the Webers are mentoring enthusiastic new talent, especially promising SCSU techies. They’ve set up a venture company to provide seed money for the next generation and beyond, Schoenborn said.

The Webers have incredibly strong ties to SCSU and credit the mentoring and education they got for their success. Fifteen of their current employees are SCSU graduates, fellow computer enthusiasts who represent a variety of disciplines. Not surprisingly, 64 percent of the company’s SCSU graduates are computer science or business computer information systems (BCIS) graduates. But the rest majored in anthropology, English, finance, foreign languages, management, marketing, mass communications, network modeling and simulation, and photo engineering.

Patrick Carlson, an SCSU grad with a double major in anthropology and political science, said he didn’t have a plan of action as a student, but he was always proficient with a computer. Freeze.com was just taking off when he “fell into” the business. He hasn’t regretted it. His anthropology studies have been good training for the constantly evolving culture of Freeze.com, Carlson also pointed out.

2003 MBA graduate Akash Sen chose to join the Webers as their human resources manager. “Here there’s never an end to creating opportunity, seeing that each person has a chance to excel,” he said.

“A lot of people at St. Cloud State have helped us,” said Rob. Now they’re giving back, sharing their entrepreneurial spirit and so much more with students through ongoing projects and jobs.

The Weber brothers take immense pride in seeing others share in their success. “We’re grateful for where we’re at,” Ryan said. It’s especially sweet for them to have sponsored the winner of this year’s Harold Anderson Entrepreneur of the Year Award. In 2000, the Weber twins were the Minnesota Entrepreneurs of the Year, and were runners-up for the 2000 North American Collegiate Entrepreneur Award.

Through their continuing involvement with students, Freeze.com has helped develop a tremendous talent pool for their growing business. Students who share that spark of creativity and passion in turn have been given opportunities to explore career paths. Freeze.com has hired 32 SCSU students or graduates since 2000.

“SCSU was a launching pad for their business,” Schoenborn said. “That’s what St. Cloud State is all about – to give students an opportunity to succeed.”

“When we started out,” said Rob, “it was how can we make enough money to pay for our tuition, to do something that could be a building block for a career.”

They’re still building. “We’re always looking at the next goal out there,” said Aaron. “It’s really just the first chapter.”

“They’re developing business relationships all over the world – and quietly building a leading technology sector right here in St. Cloud,” Schoenborn said. “And the exciting thing is, they’re just getting started.”

Chilling Assets

Freeze.com, LLC, is an Internet promotions company providing direct marketing customers with computer screensavers and other online promotional products. Much of the company’s success is due to the free animated and 3D screensavers available through its web sites, Freeze.com, ScreenSaver.com and Wallpapers.com, as well as advertising on thousands of sites throughout the Internet.

  • 85 million registered users
  • 7.5-plus billion impressions per month
  • $12 million in revenue in 2003, $23 million in 2004, $45 million since starting in 2000
  • The Freeze.com domain alone – not including the 100-plus domains the company maintains – currently pushes about as much traffic as Target.com and BestBuy.com
  • Freeze.com’s current online storage is equal to 9 1/2 years of audio without having to hear the same song twice (and the space will be tripled this year)
  • The week ended July 8, Freeze.com ranked second largest web media advertiser based on Nielsen/Netratings
  • The per-day volume of users across the Freeze.com network on average, 1.5 million, is approximately equal to the population of North Dakota and South Dakota combined

- Marsha Shoemaker

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