SPARTA — Sparta High School students contemplating their future may want to take note: there are no limits to what you can accomplish with a good idea, a lot of hard work and a good friend by your side.
Sparta graduates Mike Germano and Chris Petescia know this well. Their startup company, Carrot Creative, is one of Inc. magazine’s 500 fastest-growing companies in America, experiencing over 1000 percent growth over the last three years.
It also won the Shorty Award for the 2013 Social Media Agency of the Year in the medium-size companies category. Not bad for an eight-year-old company started in a Sparta basement.
Germano and Petescia first met after Petescia’s family moved to Sparta from Connecticut in the summer of his freshman year. “I didn’t know anyone when we moved to Sparta, “ recalls Petescia, “I basically spent my whole summer in front of the computer.” Not on social networks, which were just beginning in those days, but delving deep into the computer itself, learning how things worked.
When fall rolled around, Petescia found himself in a lot of classes with Germano. “Mike was the popular, obnoxious kid; I was the shy, quiet kid,” says Petescia. But the two found they had much in common, particularly a desire to create, and they quickly became close friends.
The boys’ creativity wouldn’t wait for graduation to find an outlet. While still in high school, they started a Web site called ItTakesALittleMoreToBeASpartan.com.
“We started out offering free music downloads along with school stories, student pictures, and things like that,” says Germano.
Pushing the envelope, they developed a Sparta High School version of the reality show "Survivor," in which teachers’ faces were Photoshopped onto background scenes from the show and students could vote a teacher off each week. Naturally this game was not without controversy among Sparta’s staff.
However, in an indication of how different things were in those early days of the Internet, rather than insisting on the site being shut down, school officials only asked that teachers be able to opt out of the game. “Some teachers were upset by it,” says Germano, “But others saw the creativity. What it really was, was a campaign, an exercise in brand-building.”
Germano and Petescia immersed themselves in what was quickly becoming a sweeping tide of social media Web sites. As the phenomenon developed, so did the boys, even as they headed off to separate universities after graduating from Sparta in 2001, Germano to Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and Petescia to Rochester Institute of Technology. Their friendship continued, however, and the idea for Carrot Creative was born. Always thinking one step ahead, they arranged their internships so that both could intern at Carrot, each serving as advisor to the other.
As with most small businesses, the first few years were challenging, and the company made no money, although it continued to grow. They networked among their parents’ friends and local small businesses. But the market was changing and Germano and Petescia noticed it.
“Big brands are always looking for a way to get their names known,” says Petescia, “But the means were changing from broadcasting a message, to having a two-way conversation with consumers.”
Oddly enough, one of Carrot’s first major coups was the Dave Matthews Band. As fans of the band, they had started a message board for them that grew to nearly 50,000 users. The band noticed this and soon became a client. From there, things started to snowball.
Now their client list reads like a Fortune 500 roster: Rolex, Target, eBay, Major League Baseball, Disney, Ford... and it keeps growing.
Now, with 50 employees, offices in Brooklyn, Dallas and Boston (with Los Angeles and London expected next year) and write-ups in the Wall St. Journal and Bloomberg, the partners look back on their time in Sparta as integral to their success. “It’s hard to imagine how all of this would have happened without Sparta,” says Germano.
The pair expressed particular appreciation for Sparta teachers who recognized and helped cultivate their talent, such as Donna Smith (Business), Andrew Lowery (English) and George Domareki (Art), and of course their parents, who still reside in Sparta.
Their success has even been a surprise to them. “I never expected that something I was so passionate about could turn into a career,” says Petescia.
Their advice to current students who are prospective entrepreneurs? "
Respect authority when they're trying to teach you something, but don't let them get in the way of you pursuing your passion,” says Germano. “If you're doing something that other people don't understand, it's usually a good sign that you are heading in the right direction."