Perfect Timing—an entrepreneur’s story

16 Feb 2023. Craig Cohen with Bob Kaplan

I planned to be a dentist, but I got a D in college biology—I could not tell the difference between a male and female fruit fly. Instead, I majored in finance, with a minor in computer science. Graduating with no career in mind, I took a job, a series of jobs, really, that had nothing in common, except I always worked my tail off.

I also always had Steve Ross' example in mind. Later of Warner Brothers and Paramount, he married into a family that owned a specialized limo company: they took people to funerals. Steve got it into his head to use those black limos to chauffeur people around at night. One thing led to another, and next he went into the parking business, parking the limos. The way he saw openings and jumped into them inspired me no end.

It didn't take long for me to follow his example. It was my third job after college. I went to work for a store called Blades during the heyday of roller blades. At that time I was rollerblading all over New York City, day and night. I had been a big ice hockey player in college; that was part of the attraction. The store sold tons of rollerblades and on the weekend, rented tons more. It was insane. I started out in sales, became a manager and I sold too: 70-plus hours a week. But rollerblades at the time was a three-season sport—it still snowed a lot in those days—and I saw the opportunity to expand into winter sports. Snowboarding, for example, which had just come on the scene. But the owner said no. He also said no to making me a minor partner. He thought highly of me; I could have given it time but no way was I going to wait around. The owner wasn't bold enough for my taste.

But right out of college I became a commercial real estate broker. My job was to walk through office buildings in midtown Manhattan and take notes on the tenants on each floor and even flirt with the receptionist to learn as much as I could. The next day, I had to be in our office at 6:00 a.m. sharp—if I was late, my boss would rip me a new one. I was so tired I'd fall asleep standing against the wall. But when I handed in my detailed note cards, he was shocked by how much information I had gleaned. "Craig," he told me, "You could have a bright future here but it doesn't seem like your heart is in it," and it wasn't.

I moved to Washington for a position that fell through on the very day I was supposed to start. The stock market crashed that day, which came to be called Black Monday. But no problem: I hustled a gig for the Northern Virginia Chapter of the March of Dimes that included the U.S. capitol—fund-raising events staged there (I owned my own tux). In addition to putting on the Walk-A-Thon, we'd "arrest" congressmen and senators and they had to go call their friends for the "bail." It was a ton of work but I was happy. The job was exciting, and I had a beautiful girlfriend that I had dated in college. She was none other than Jennifer Connelly, previously Ford's top teen model. She had moved to DC with me.
I missed New York, decided to move back, and was able to find a job at an annual report

design firm, the number-one company of its kind at the time. What they did was amazing to me: integrating photography and the financials using personal computers. Also, Adobe had just come out with its many typefaces that allowed for a great deal of creativity in responding to client needs. I took every chance to use a computer. I computerized the production schedule, for example. That was not my job. I was a production assistant who did a lot of legwork. But I left the company because the partners wouldn't let me get into sales. I wanted to canvass the heads of companies in New York City, people I grew up with. My immediate boss was pissed that I was "leaving her." She was she trying to "e-hem" with me. A saving grace: the CFO wrote me this glowing letter of recommendation.

On my lunch break I went over to my grandmother's place and told her the latest.
"Is it time, Craig, to stop jumping from job to job?"

"Probably. Do you have something in mind?"

"Teaching. You'd make a great teacher."

That sounded right—I always liked to show people things. I jumped right on it. Right away I applied to graduate school. Then, Master's degree in hand, I found a job at a public school, a magnet school where I taught reading, English, math, and computers to sixth to eighth graders. Then I moved to a private school where I taught high school math. I was also the tennis coach. For a class of athletes who were top students, I used sports examples—batting averages, win-loss percentages, etc. I was also asked to teach students how to use a computer—crappy old PCs. The ones that didn't work we took apart. That was great.

As a favor my mother asked me to teach a friend how to use a computer. I was up for it but after just two sessions, the woman declared, "Laptops are useless! I don't need any more help but my mother does."

That tutoring job, in contrast to the first one, took off like a rocket. In no time this woman, my first client's mother, had me there three days a week, not just to instruct her but to help her use the computer to organize her social life. She was a socialite. She hosted thirty or forty people for dinner, eight or ten at a table. I put her guest list on a spreadsheet, which made it easy for her to work out the seating arrangement. She became a big fan of mine. She must have introduced me to 150 people. Word spread like wildfire. I would bump into one of my clients on the sidewalk and she would introduce me to the friend she was with, and that friend would tell her friends about me.

That was the start, and I was fired up. Oh my God was I fired up. Maybe the best part was I got to be like Steve Ross: here's an opportunity, I'll jump on it. But it was crazy, I mean crazy. I got so many calls I needed a separate cell phone—the just-out Motorola StarTac, by the way—and it had to have a huge battery. But what really made it crazy: I was still teaching school. I would get calls during class that I would return at recess. There I was on the roof playground walking Mrs. Y through something, while keeping an eye on the kids. "Please open the printer folder," I said. "Use the right-mouse button to bring up a drop-down menu. Choose Winfax. Then close up the window. Now go back and print—it will now send the document as a fax." 

Five minutes later: "Everything is now faxing." 

"Okay, now change Winfax back to Hewlett Packard printer."

At the end of the school year I left my teaching job. Well, I was still a teacher but now it was housewives. The classroom was their apartments, and their apartments were in the horseshoe, as we called it: the streets surrounding Central Park—the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side and Central Park South.

The timing was perfect. I was ready and the market was ready for me. Everyone wanted a computer, and no one knew how to use it. Not only that: Windows 1995 came out and that was huge because it made email easy. As did Instant-Messaging, which AOL brought out at that time. That meant that people could talk to each other via computer. In its own way, it was a revolution in people's daily lives, and I was an agent of that change.

I would go over to Mrs. P's and show her how to instant-message Mrs. H. Later in the day, I'd end up at Mrs. H's to show her how to instant-message Mrs. P back. I said to myself, you're a tech valet. To this day I get asked to do things like go to the Apple store and help someone pick out a laptop or an iPad. Or get their printer to print. Or their computer unfrozen. You name it, and I just loved it. I loved my clients. I loved teaching my clients. Teaching is learning, and I loved that part too. All of it I scooped up like ice cream.

I'd always had a passion for computers. In college, my tutor suggested I buy a computer. My parents weren't so sure but I convinced them. Computer in hand, I taught myself the entire manual for WordPerfect (the predecessor to Word). I have this ability to laser-focus. Did the same thing with the manual for Lotus of 1, 2, 3 (an early spreadsheet). I was their computer guy, informally, at whatever company I had worked at—from the March of Dimes to the annual report design firm to Blades. At the annual report firm, for example, I was not hired to be the computer guy. The company already had a computer guy but when he wasn't there, I was the guy. I'm a manual guy—I like to work with my hands. Growing up, my friends and I used to make airplanes with screws, not glue.

I had found my niche, and The New Yorker magazine found me. "Brave New World: A Wired Guy Makes House Calls" the article was titled. I was described as "a pleasant-looking young man in a dark-blue suit, rapidly making his way up Madison Avenue. Every now and then, his belt would ring or vibrate—he had a cell phone, a pager and email receiver strapped to it, and he would pause to field the call or the message." As the writer and I walked down the street, the writer was amazed: it seemed like I knew everyone. "Are you going to run for mayor?" someone on the street said. It was very funny. By the way, the "email receiver" was an early BlackBerry still in the shape of a pager. That's what it looked like, a little black pager.

What I like best is introducing people to new tools, tech tools, that make their life easier. The Blackberry—wearable email! There had never been anything like it before. I talked that up to anyone who would listen. "Here, let me show you," I'd say, taking my Blackberry off its belt holder. When iPads came on the market, my clients didn't see any need for one. I showed them shopping apps—Amazon, of course, and also, luxury shopping apps. You need a reason to use stuff. You give somebody a baseball bat but what do they do with it? Beat somebody over the head? My society person was a bridge player, one of the top amateur bridge players in the world. I taught her and her friends how to play bridge online.

It was like I had died and gone to heaven but my life wasn't exactly balanced. I was 30 at this point and married. My first child was born on a Friday afternoon, and I was at a client's apartment the next morning at 8:00 a.m. She sent me home: "Go be with your newborn daughter and your wife."

Obviously I couldn't do it all myself. I had worked with a fellow at a previous job and I asked him if he wanted to come in and help set up customers. He said yes. He and I were busy all day long.

He'd cover somebody here, I would cover somebody there, and then he decided to go out on his own.

One thing led to another. Teaching people how to use a computer turned into buying the apparatus for them (for people who didn't already have one or wanted a different brand). For this offshoot of my company's services, I needed an office; my grandfather's old-time secretary had just retired, and he let me use her desk. Then the shipments of computers started coming in. Not only were there large desktops and towers but also CRT monitors, the huge ones with the tube in them. Sometimes I would have 20 boxes stacked up in columns.

My grandfather was very supportive and very helpful, but he wasn't happy about all the boxes. My uncle, who also worked there, was a wiseass, only making it worse. One time he pushed the boxes into my grandfather's office and surrounded his huge old wooden desk. I got an intercom call from my grandfather, informing me that he had to go to the bathroom. I said, "Uhhh, okay, then go." He replied, "Come in here." I went in and cleared a path so that he could escape. The office was a mad-cap place.

My grandfather was also upset with me for having two phone lines. "It's a waste of money," he said. 
"But I need two phone lines," I explained. "Because if I'm on a call, I don't want someone else calling me to get a busy signal."
"I see," he said. "It's like having a receptionist." 

I bought so many computers that I became Dell's number one small business dealer in the Northeast. it was fantastic, fantastic because I was literally working out of a 200 square-foot space. I was very excited.

Out of my computer business popped an opportunity—satellite TV. One of my clients wanted to be able to watch the football games on Saturday and Sunday that were not yet available on cable TV. That meant Direct TV, and Direct TV meant a satellite dish. I thought, you want me to do what—put a satellite dish on a Park Avenue building and run a wire to your apartment? How am I going to do that? But I kept my mouth shut and went and got it done. That meant getting permission from the building's board. I, the "TV guy," would show up in an Italian suit to convince the building's board to pay to wire the building, so that everyone would have access. Some boards balked at the cost, which was probably no more than someone's monthly wine bill. We ended up with 80-90 apartment buildings on the "horseshoe" with satellite service.

TV—video that is—got us into audio. That meant our customers needed a convenient way to operate both their TV and their stereo. Conveniently, a new company called Control 4, out of Utah, was born at that time. With a single handheld remote, our customers could operate both systems. To this day, that's what you'll find in our customers' homes.

Once again, one thing led to another. Direct TV got us into phone systems, both residential and commercial. How so? Direct TV requires a phone line. No one on the staff knew how to make a phone jack, so we hired Erol to do that. Installing phone systems meant stringing wires throughout an apartment—often slicing the walls open—and installing a central "switch," where the phone lines coming into the apartment connected to the phones lines flowing throughout the apartment. It all gets sewn back up and you'd never know the walls had undergone surgery.

It's an unwritten rule in New York City that aesthetics come first. That means many meetings with the interior designer and the architect. We look to install "invisible speakers." We try to hide Wi-Fi transmitters and cable boxes. At work, the printer sits close to the computer but not in our clients' homes. In the closet they go, out of sight.

The project of a lifetime started with a call from New York City's Office of Emergency Management. This was 2000. Rudy Giuliani was mayor, and he was having a "bunker" built at 7 World Trade Center. They needed a private communication network built and they approached us because we were satellite specialists in the New York area. My guys thought I was out of my mind. Maybe, but no way we were going to turn down the opportunity. I am never satisfied with anyone saying, "No, it can't be done," even when I have no idea how to get it done.

But it was complete stress. We had three months to get it done; normally it would have taken eight to ten months. And it was on top of my other work. And, remember, this was the Giuliani administration. They would call me Friday night at 10: "When's this project going to get done, Cohen?"

The landlord of 7 World Trade Center wanted to charge something like $50,000 a month in rent to put the satellites on that building's roof, a crazy number at the time. The city asked us to come up with a plan to put the dishes on a public building to avoid paying rent. It's the arc-shaped municipal building, you see it right where you come off the Brooklyn Bridge.

But that remote location meant sending the video feeds, one for each satellite, from the east side of Manhattan to the west side. It wasn't easy. To do that we converted the video feed at the municipal building into computer language and converted it back to video on the other end, where the bunker was. I'm not an engineer but I always knew we would figure it out, and we did. Admittedly, the whole thing was overwhelming but then again if I'm not overwhelmed, something's not right with my life and I go looking for trouble.

That project led to two other city projects—wiring City Hall and Gracie Mansion (the mayor's official home). That wasn't easy either, retrofitting big, old, quirky buildings. But there is nothing like a tough challenge to make me feel fully alive. Because we were non-union, we had to do the work on Saturday and Sunday. Gracie Mansion is an 1800s crazy-shaped building; wiring it was tough. So was City Hall. The wires had to come down the ductwork. To get that done we had to hold one of our guys by his legs and lower him down the duct! That was the only way to drop the wire from one floor to the next. I held my breath. When our guy reemerged from the duct, we were all high-fiving. Can-do, will-do in action.

But not everything goes well, not by a long shot. That's especially true when you take on one-of-a-kind jobs or even those which are highly customized. We have had failures when something happens outside the realm of our 360-degree view. We just had a flood that knocked us out for two months. We have had speaker holes cut in brick and the speaker company changes speaker size in the middle of the project without warning. Also, when the TV companies change the standard TV sizes mid-stream. As for self-inflicted failures, we try to avoid those by over-wiring and losing money by checking and rechecking projects to see where a general contractor is about to unknowingly screw us.

Every client is different, but they all want the same thing—fast service. I could go home and just pass out after dealing with people who expect things at the speed of light. Seriously, I am hyperresponsive; it's hardwired in me.

But it's not just me, far from it, and it hasn't been since the very early days. Willie and Erol have been with me for more than twenty years. Willie I hired because Direct TV needed a phone jack and he had worked in a phone store. Errol had worked with satellite dishes. Doran, who used to install shades in Jamaica, I hired the day he became a U.S. citizen. For our office staff, I try to pick the nicest people, the most honest and hardest-working, and we train them to do their job. They're terrific with clients. Sandy is a prime example.

I have been asked what it was like to move from doing everything myself to managing fifteen to twenty people. Actually, it came very naturally to me. At Blades, I had run a store with two dozen workers while I was selling all day, and that's nothing compared to handling a classroom full of eight-year-olds.

I am still full of ideas, bubbling over with possibilities like a fountain. I am still like Steve Ross, always ready to jump on opportunities. We are looking to go big into cybersecurity for small firms. I have thought about creating a group of freelancers to help make phenomenal PowerPoint presentations. I could go on.

Through it all, there have been many ups and downs, great wins and great losses. But if I have learned one thing, it's not to get too excited and not to get too upset. As Alan Webb, a prominent tennis coach, would say, "You have to stay level." Easier said than done though.