It was 20 years ago today…

Mike Gellman
Sep 11, 2018

Friends of Spire,

It’s been twenty years since Spire Digital became a company. For the sake of pomp and posterity, I figured this was a perfect opportunity to document our origin story. So…

Fresh out of the University of Florida with a major in English and a minor in napping, I moved to New York in 1995 to pursue a career in entertainment. After a small cameo on Law and Order (as a corpse) and a brief stint working for the director of the Beat It music video. I landed a job at an independent film studio called Troma.

Troma was known the world over for such monster-oriented “B” movies as The Toxic Avenger, Surf Nazis Must Die, Poultrygeist, and Cannibal: The Musical. My co-worker was a young James Gunn, who would go on to direct Guardians of the Galaxy. My boss, the legendary filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman, was a tyrant who, by example, taught me how NOT to treat employees. He also got me into the internet.

Back then, for the most part, the only people online were nerds, weirdos, and enthusiast-types. That was exactly the Troma demographic and Lloyd wanted me to reach them. I learned a little HTML, became a fixture on Usenet, and even started what would one day be called a blog. Suddenly, I was a wiz of the rudimentary web and I thought I might be able to make a business out of it.

Manhattan wasn’t exactly the easiest place to start a small business in an industry that hardly existed. So, I took out a map, closed my eyes, and pointed…at Denver. I’d heard about this cowtown in the sky and figured it was as good a place as any. I found a dank studio apartment in Poet’s Row for $200/month (times have changed, huh?). My neighbor was an ex-con named Jay, who was on parole after doing time for gunrunning (yes, gunrunning!) and learned web design in a halfway house. He became the first employee of GIG Media (GIG stood for Gellman Internet Group).

I paid Jay a pittance to cover his expenses and I ensured that he’d always have a computer, a ride, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and french fries (the hierarchy of needs). Eventually, after I cold-called half the yellow pages, GIG had some clients (tattoo parlors, beauty parlors, massage parlors – we had the Denver parlor market cornered) and enough work to hire and train Jay’s brother, Howie. He’d just been released from the Aurora Detention Center where he was locked up after his sixth drunk and disorderly conviction.

A year or so later, the brothers were pretty damn good at building websites and they wanted to be paid fairly for it (can you imagine that?!). While technically “in business”, GIG wasn’t exactly “making a profit”. Jay and Howie “didn’t care”! They said that if I couldn’t give themreal salaries, they’d get real jobs and leave me high and dry. For a number of reasons, this would mean the end of my fledgling enterprise, or so I thought.

Helpless and frazzled, I went to a networking event to see if I could drum up some new business and keep the brothers around for a while. There, I shared my sob story with a fast-talking salesman. He convinced me that, for $300, he would bring me 50 leads that were all but guaranteed to close. I gave him the money, which was just about all I had left.

A few days later, he gave me three leads. Then…I never heard from him again. It was pretty clear that I’d been had. Yup! Not long after, Howie and Jay quit. I was (poorly) doing the little work we had, while perusing the want ads. On a lark, I decided to call those three leads the grifter had given me. The first two were a waste of time, as I expected. The third was a guy at Samsonite named Jon Nordmark. He said, “I don’t have any work for you at Samsonite, but let’s get together anyway.”

Jon had never been incarcerated, but he did have a record — of selling lots of luggage!!! Still, he was ready to move beyond his salad days at Samsonite. Inspired by a small online bookstore out of Seattle, Jon had a dream of selling bags and travel-related items on the Internet. We talked for hours and hours about how to make it happen. I was reinvigorated by Jon’s energy, optimism, and entrepreneurial drive. We got together every week for the next six months.

Then, one day, he said to me, “I got the money. Can you build it?” By “the money”, he was referring to the $450,000 he raised from the Samsonite employees who would become his partners. By “it”, he was referring to what would become eBags. I said, “Sure I can!” And by that, I meant that I had absolutely no idea, but I certainly wasn’t gonna give up the opportunity to figure it out.

Moments after I cashed the biggest (by far) check I’d seen in my life, I got rolling. Paul Schrank, who had helped me dig out of my post-ex-con mire, became my partner. To start fresh, we laid GIG to rest and created a new company. After brainstorming all the words that would describe what we would do at this new company, a few stood out – “inspire”, “aspire”, and “perspire”. We’d drop the prefixes and become SpireMedia (two words as one with the first letter of each word capitalized was as cool as using “media” to describe web development back then).

We got an office in the basement of the Daniels and Fisher Warehouse #2 in an as yet ungentrified part of Lodo, where we housed a ragtag team of developers and designers. Miraculously, within five months, eBags was live and accepting orders. We were one of the only companies in the world that had successfully launched a dotcom at that scale and the word got out. Instantly, we were a success. In a matter of weeks, we had 50 employees working on huge projects for clients throughout the world. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Every great origin story needs an epilogue, right? Alright then…

SpireMedia eventually changed its name to Spire Digital. Paul Schrank quit after the dotcom bust and moved to Mexico to become a wedding videographer. eBags went on to sell more than a billion dollars in product and became the second largest luggage retailer in the world (to Walmart’s first). And just last year, in an ironic turn of events, they sold to Samsonite in a nine-figure deal. Troma’s latest releases are Chainsaw Maidens from Hell and Pot Zombies 2. I no longer watch monster movies. As for Jay and Howie, I never saw them again, but I hope they’re free, staying out of trouble, building awesome websites, and eating all the french fries they can stomach.

Till 2038 (at least),

Mike Gellman