By Adam Sandel
Originally published on Advocate.com May 31 2014 5:00 AM ET
It’s not unusual for tech entrepreneurs to hit it big while they’re young. And then there’s Joshua Dziabiak – who sold his first company and made his first million before his 18th birthday. Now 26, Dziabiak (pronounced “De-zib-ee-ak”) is poised to revolutionize the auto insurance industry as cofounder of his fourth company, The Zebra.
Growing up on a farm near Pittsburgh, Dziabiak was 14 years old when he first booted up a ’90s edition of Windows and began to explore the Internet on a cheap dial-up connection. “I was a nerd, whose refuge and artistry was online, designing my personal website and getting people to link to it,” he says.
When most small companies had no web presence, he began to design websites for local mom-and-pop businesses. “I would make a couple hundred bucks apiece, and they needed hosting, so I started hosting websites and it developed into a full-fledged business,” says Dziabiak.
The company became Media Catch, and Dziabiak soon had an office and 14 full-time employees – before he was old enough to drive. A Canadian executive who was on the hunt to acquire companies made the 17-year-old an offer he couldn’t refuse and, while Dziabiak can’t disclose the exact price, the deal made him a teenage millionaire.
He invested in a record company that planned to distribute music online, and although that didn’t pan out, it left him with a roster of artists who were touring small- to medium-size venues. “There was no online source for tickets except for Ticketmaster, which was much too expensive,” he says. So in 2006 he founded and launched the ticketing site ShowClix, which grew to 60 employees over seven years. The source of tickets to concerts, events, and The Tonight Show now brings in $100 million in annual revenue.
Dziabiak was soon seeking another venture, however. “As a CEO, I work best in the creation phase and I wanted to go back to a small, nimble company,” he says. On the board of Pittsburgh’s startup incubator AlphaLab, Dziabiak was impressed by a pitch from Adam Lyons, CEO of The Zebra, an online source for comparing auto insurance plans.
“I never had a passion for insurance, but I clearly saw that it’s a massive, high-profile industry, and there’s never been an unbiased way to compare different rates across platforms,” Dziabiak notes.
He stepped down as ShowClix CEO and stepped up as cofounder and COO of The Zebra. He and Lyons soon raised $4.5 million in seed funding, bringing on major investors including Simon Nixon, Mike Maples Jr., and Shark Tank star Mark Cuban.
Launched last December, with more than 200 insurance carriers represented and site traffic doubling each month, The Zebra has been getting a lot of attention within the industry. “A lot of investors are knocking on our door, but the goal is to stay focused and not get distracted,” Dziabiak says
While Dziabiak has been interviewed many times, he’s especially happy to discuss being an out gay entrepreneur, which no one has asked him about before. “I grew up in a blue-collar, rural family where being gay wasn’t talked about or supported,” he says.
At age 18 he came out to his mother on Christmas Eve. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, including starting these companies,” he recalls. “Being around my extended family with their significant others, I felt so different and that year it reached its peak. I left the room and I started breaking down.”
“I thought my mother had suspected but she hadn’t,” Dziabiak says. He came out to his father a couple of weeks later, and to his relief, “My parents never once loved or treated me any differently.”
Yet being a serial entrepreneur has presented challenges in his dating life. “When you’re young and dating people who are young, their career isn’t usually their number one priority,” he says. “The biggest conflict in my first couple of relationships was that I was too focused on my career. I go to sleep and wake up thinking of my business.”
Now he’s in a good place, relationship-wise. “I’ve been in a relationship for four years now with a great guy,” Dziabiak says. “Before our second date I explained who I am. I wanted it to be clear from the beginning.” His partner, Jordan Brown, is the pastor of a “startup” church in Austin, where they both live, currently raising funds to open Church of Open Doors, a nondenominational, LGBT-friendly church.
“We both grew up in the church, wondering how we could fit in, being gay,” Dziabiak says. “The goal is for people to experience religion without judgment, especially for being gay.”
In both his business and spiritual life, Dziabiak is proud to be part of the LGBT community. “Gay people are the most creative people I know,” he says. “Whatever they do, they’re great at it.”
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