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“I have a servant’s heart.”
Such words are fitting coming from someone who wanted to open up their own restaurant since the 6th grade. Nick Bruno knew he wanted to be a business owner, but he can’t put a finger on why exactly he chose one in the hospitality industry.
“There was a banquet at my elementary school and we had to write down a goal for the future,” he said. “Most of my family members were blue collar workers and work was the ethic as far as they were concerned. But I had one uncle who owned a liquor store and I thought he had it down, so I wrote down that I wanted to open my own restaurant.”
So he put in the work and spent nearly two decades focused on that goal. By his late-twenties, Bruno was managing the waitstaff at The City Club of Washington, serving the likes of Senators and Congressmen on a daily basis. He was asked to serve drinks at The Gold Cup, a ritzy annual affair which is essentially the D.C. area’s Kentucky Derby.
“I got there with my car full of alcohol, ready to serve, and nothing was ready,” he said. “The caterers didn’t even have the tents set up, let alone any food ready to serve.”
Members started arriving – and they weren’t too pleased.
“One member freaked the fuck out,” Bruno said candidly. “He started cussing out people. Apparently, he was trying to recruit a salesman for his company and it was not off to a good start.”
Being the professional, and people pleaser that he is, Bruno responded rationally and took on the responsibility of helping the caterers set up.
Some would call this a going the extra mile moment, but with Bruno’s career trajectory setting him up for a role as a maitre d', such an act of service was just part of the job.
“The salesman had watched the entire interaction and was impressed with how I handled the situation,” Bruno said. “He’d only take the job if I was given a position as his customer service rep. Suddenly, I had a job offer on the spot and I didn’t even know what the business was.”
What was enticing enough to encourage Bruno to put his restaurateur dream on the backburner and start an entirely new career in his 30s?
“There was an energy about the situation,” he recalled. “It was tough to switch my goals and aspirations so quickly. I can’t put it into words, but I just got so excited at the prospect of going onto something different and new.”
By today’s standards, 28 could be considered an older age to completely change gears on a career. Bruno knew nothing about the business of providing copy services for legal teams, but he did see how the restaurant industry prepared him for the transition.
“I’m someone who likes to serve and that fit perfectly with this new industry,” he said. “It was like being in the weeds with five tables at the same time. I was able to quickly identify what needed to be done and knew how to rely on others to get it done.”
Bruno believes that the restaurant industry will teach you everything you need to know about how the real world and the business world work.
Success after success proved him right; he quickly went from a top sales rep into a sales management role in which he’d help open up other shops around Washington, D.C.
Well, with the exception of one setback that was a little more serious than getting a patron’s dinner order wrong.
“I landed this new project and my new managing partner wanted to take me to dinner to celebrate,” he said. “My production staff said everything was under control and that the project would be ready to go by the next morning’s deadline. I had a little too much to drink, and when I woke up, I was informed that we missed the deadline.”
Few can blame someone for toasting to success, but the celebration was premature. The client was furious enough to send a letter out swearing to never use their services again. Bruno said it was gut wrenching to let his team and clients down.
“It was the worst feeling in the world and I was embarrassed to go into the office,” he admitted. “I hid under my desk and walked around with my tail between my legs. I had no other choice but to own it, apologize, and face it.”
Although the mistake was costly, the experience instilled in Bruno a sense of humility and compassion for his own staff years later.
“I think it’s a cop out to berate your staff for their mistakes,” he said. “I don’t chop off fingers. I empower them and they hold themselves accountable. Empowerment leads to self-policing amongst the staff; we all try to learn from our mistakes.”
Eventually, Bruno figured out that he could go into business for himself. He knew the cost structure, the machines, and the clientele. He believed he was smart enough to start his own copy company.
And so he did, in Washington, D.C., on Monday, September 10th, 2001.
“It really put things in perspective for me,” he said, as he recalled his second day of business when a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon. “It relaxed me a bit; if I failed, then that was okay. I forecast $15,000 in revenue for that month and maybe made $3,000.”
Despite the turmoil and uncertainty, business eventually turned around and he made one-million-dollars in revenue during his first year heading Barrister Digital Solutions.
One of the ways he harnessed success was by responsibly navigating changes in the industry. In the 1990s, copy services were priceless, particularly in legal contexts in which physical documents were essential. The millennium saw the rise of e-mail and the advent of e-Discovery which enabled litigators and other legal officials to seek out documents electronically.
“This new technology made our industry the Wild West,” he said. “It’s crazy to think that companies could charge thousands of dollars just to process a single gigabyte of data when today it’s a routine service that’s basically offered for pennies.”
Many of his competitors saw the transition to tech and invested in upgrading IT, purchasing software, and designing e-Discovery resources to sell to their clients. Because Bruno was self-funding BDS, he couldn’t follow suit.
Interestingly, these competitors also moved away from hard copy printing, even though they still remained a necessity for legal proceedings.
Bruno stayed the course, scooping up the market share and maintaining a valuable service that his clients still rely on.
“We had to be creative by hosting data and using third-party partners to accomplish our goals,” he said. “We had to figure out how to move with the market. Each year, we grew in revenue by the millions and eventually hit around the $8-million mark in 2008.”
Then, the stock market crashed, business dried up, and revenue plummeted.
“Law firms were going out of business, which was unheard of,” he said. “We haven’t seen $8m since 2008. It was our biggest year ever and it took years to get back to the $4-million mark, then the pandemic hit.”
The federal government shutdown, though Bruno was able to stay afloat by piggybacking on the operation exemption that law firms used. BDS had to cut half of their staff and work their way through yet another economically catastrophic event.
They’re finally stabilizing and currently tracking $3.5m in revenue.
“This is a lifestyle business for me.”
Nick Bruno is not shy, nor embarrassed, to admit that BDS is not the multi-million dollar business that it could be. He’s fielded offers to expand the business and to sell the business, but chooses to stay the course. Some entrepreneurs may equate revenue decline with death, but Bruno never saw it that way.
“Too much ambition and aggressive growth can cause death, too,” he said. “I like what I do. I’ve been semi-retired for the last fifteen years. That might zap my ambition or risk tolerance, but I’m okay with that. We’ve maintained this company for 21 years which is a feat in itself. I’m very pleased and wouldn’t change a thing.”
Bruno’s success is undeniable, but if an entrepreneur wants to steal a page from his playbook, Bruno suggests reading Atlas Shrugged, instead.
“I study objectivism and Ayn Rand’s books helped change the way I think and value my own life,” he said. “It is a philosophy that considers what your highest values and potential in life should be. Rational self-interest isn’t being selfish like lying and cheating but making your life the highest value. Imagine every transaction being a win-win, without a need for either party making a sacrifice.”
He believes that, instead of trying to serve the greater good, individuals have the potential to make exponential impacts just by achieving their own goals. For instance, starting a business was an act of selflessness and its success has helped employees put their kids through college. Bruno delves deeper into the philosophy and insists that entrepreneurs take a break from strict business-focused activities and use their time for introspection and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
“Expand your mind and be more thoughtful about the values and goals in your life,” he said. “Unless you understand yourself at a core level, you’re acting on emotion or simply for the next win. When you get serious about yourself, you can flourish and reach your full potential.”
Nick Bruno may not run a seven-figure business and he may not be the posterboy for aggressive expansion. But any Self-Made Man will tell you that money is simply a number, not a watermark for success. Success has many definitions and each entrepreneur must choose their own.
And if you want to get a glimpse of Bruno’s success, just pay a visit to Baby Blues BBQ – the restaurant he owns in California and the boyhood dream that he turned into a reality.
To the entrepreneurs of yesterday, I would say that you’ve got to have more than an interest in what you’re doing. You need to understand the guts of what you’re getting yourself into so you can know the ins and outs, and build relationships. I don’t know what to tell the entrepreneurs of today, because there’s so much more than they can get their hands on. Nowadays, you can create an app at home on your own. I think, in any generation and in any industry, all entrepreneurs should learn to use their minds, harness what they have available to them, and continue learning about their work.
To think that you know more than you do. We listen to our clients when we pivot. I’ve always operated like a server, not a visionary. How can I help my clients with their challenges? I’m not here to change how they do business; I’m here to fulfill their needs as someone on their team. When e-Discovery hit, a lot of our competitors pivoted to develop their own software and sell proptech. Then, many went under because of the costs. We hung around the hoop, not trying to be sexy or take advantage of technology – or our clients. You could say that’s short sighted and I get it. I’m ambitious, but when you use your own money, you tend to spend more conservatively. I had the opportunity to do it, but sometimes risk outweighs reward.
“You need to adjust and take a hard look at the situation. You can’t sugarcoat it, or wish it away, or complain – you’ve got to deal with it. It’s a hard thing to do. Even though these events are excuses for failure, you can’t use them as excuses. You’ve got to put the excuses aside and understand the task at hand now to be successful. Think critically. Sit, take stock, and be creative. Emotion delays action. Be thoughtful, logical, and take the hard steps.”
For more on Nick Bruno visit the official Barrister Digital Solutions website!
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