KEARNEY — On sleepless nights, Travis Hollman doesn’t think about his successful Hollman Media company, or the prestigious Walter Scott Entrepreneurial Business Award the company won from the University of Nebraska this spring.
He ponders the 10 thorny years it took to grapple to the top.
He recalls the early days when he thought of scrapping his entrepreneurial dream and getting a conventional job.
He recalls that six short years ago, he didn’t even know what an app was.
But Hollman, a man who “barely knew how to turn on a computer” when he headed to college, never quit. President and managing member of Hollman Media, he will use the award’s $10,000 prize to create opportunities for University of Nebraska at Kearney interns who want to help develop digital technology.
Hollman, 35, compares himself to Willy Wonka. “This business is my chocolate factory. I have an all-star crew. I hope someone stays with me long enough to give back a Gob-stopper,” he said.
Hollman Media LLC, owned by Travis and his wife Angela, designs, develops and supports custom websites, mobile websites, mobile phone apps and web apps. It has been featured in the New York Times and the Omaha World Herald.
The firm created PickMyTickets.com, an online ticketing system used by UNK’s athletic department and elsewhere. It created the WeatherThreat.com online school closings network. It has created sites for Orthmann Manufacturing, Minden Machine and the U.S. Dairy Association.
But it wasn’t always that way. Their first year in business, Hollman and Angela made just $1,500 and lost $300.
He recalled that and more from his desk inside the Hollman Media building, which is the former Stone School at 2430 Cherry Ave. He and Angela purchased the 7,000-square-foot structure from the Kearney Board of Education last July. It’s 10 times as large as their original 700-square-feet office at Second Avenue and W. 25th St., but he still doesn’t have his own office. He works in a room with his 10-member staff while renovations are progressing.
“We needed more space,” Hollman said. “I thought I might be crazy to buy this, but my dad, a brick mason, talked me into it.”
A Columbus native, Hollman calls himself a “perpetual entrepreneur.” As a boy, he hung a poster on the wall listing the chores he’d do and how much each would cost. His mother, a waitress, “bought out the whole list of services.”
He bought a gumball machine and sold gumballs to his friends for a penny each until a neighbor bought the machine and all its contents for $1.“I went out of business,” Hollman said.
He learned by watching his father, a bricklayer and concrete worker who started a business and hired seven employees before he graduated from high school. “I just wanted to own a business,” Hollman said.
But he knew nothing about technology when, after graduating from Lakeview High School in Columbus in 1997, he came to the honors program at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He took his first class in web design when he spent a year at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, as part of the National Student Exchange.
“I barely knew how to turn on a computer, but I ended up being pretty good at that,” he said. He convinced his then-girlfriend Angela Emrick, a fellow UNK student from Kearney, to “teach me what I didn’t know.” That was the scrawny beginning of Hollman Media.
In 2001, he and Angela graduated from UNK. His B.S. degree was in advertising; hers was in comprehensive computer information science, with a minor in telecommunications. They married in 2002.
In their early years, the couple had between $10 and $100 in their bank account. They had five part-time jobs between them, from his at Buckle and Builders to hers at the YRTC and the late shift at McDonald’s. “She’d bring me back a cold hamburger and fries,” he said.
“Together, at the ripe age of 21, we set up shop in a rundown apartment in Kearney across from west campus. We worked all those part time jobs so that we could bootstrap our web development business ourselves and keep our heads above the water,” he said.
They didn’t borrow a dime. Determined to be his own boss, Hollman went door-to-door selling ad spots for newspapers. He offered to “do just about anything. When you’re broke, you pull yourself up by your bootstraps. I’m not very good at failure.”
He scrapped jobs together, and he never quit. “We went through a whole year when the phone doesn’t ring, when nobody knows you, when you don’t even have anything to show people, so you build something to show somebody.
“For several years, I’d wake up every day wondering, will this be the day I throw in the towel? Every day I’d want to sleep in,” he said. “But I knew once I got a steady paycheck, I’d never come back to being my own boss.” he said.
By 2004, short on cash, he got a part-time job at Builder’s. Angela took a job at UNK. In school, he had failed so rarely that his parents worried how he’d handle life’s inevitable pitfalls, “but when you wonder how you will pay the bills, you figure it out.”
In the midst of the wobbly financial tightrope, they built a house — literally — in Gibbon, with the help of Hollman’s father, who had built his own house at age 23, and they got a loan to do it.
“I never would have given us a loan,” Hollman chuckled, “but loans were so easy to get back then. We went into the bank with a 50-page proposal, and we got the loan.”
Slowly, the business grew. By 2008, he had formed an LLC, “and I began to treat it as a legitimate company.” In 2009 he hired a single employee, Cedric McPherson, who is still with the company.
“It was scary to think about hiring someone and paying out all that money in a salary. It’s not normal for an entrepreneur to hire someone. You’re not making money to pay someone else, but by 2009 I was making decent money, and I realized that everyone else has employees,” he said.
By 2010, he had developed an intern program with UNK. Nine out of the current 10 employees began as interns. “Once I realized I could find good people, I was off and running,” he said.
From that single hire five years ago, he has slowly added staff. Now he has 10 employees. Along with McPherson, they include Marc Bacon, Sergio Esquivel, Kelsi Bradley, Kelsey Morgan, Jake Korth, Rachel Schmidt and Brian Bugay.
When hiring, “I don’t look at the same people everyone else looks at. I look for a different sort of person,” he said. “My staff is like a team of good walk-on players. I’m the coach. A good coach can take good team members and make them better. I think about what (former University of Nebraska football coach) Tom Osborne said: you don’t need to find the top-rated recruits. He looked for what would work for his formula. I want people who show a lot of potential, people who I don’t have to constantly look after.”
Now with 10 employees, he has seen nearly a 60 percent increase in annual revenue.
“It was a rough first six years, but it took that long to find a formula that would work. It is different for everyone. The nice thing is, I hadn’t borrowed any money to start this business, so I could spin my wheels until something finally stuck. It also took me a long time to figure out what I was good at,” he said.
These days, Hollman’s business is shifting to mobile apps. “Our first apps got attention. I saw potential, and within a matter of months, we were busy,” Hollman said. The company works on between six and 12 projects at a time.
Hollman Media is now finalizing work on a Kearney app with the Good Samaritan Hospital, the main sponsor and contributor; and the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce, the Kearney Visitors Bureau and Heartland Bank. Targeted for an Aug. 1 release, it will detail Kearney’s attractions and “all kinds of good stuff.”
It was Hollman’s idea. “I wanted to get our name on the map,” he said, so two years ago, he took the idea to the chamber and its then-director Jan Rodehorst, got enthusiastic approval, and was off and running.
Hollman remains deeply involved with UNK. As an adjunct lecturer, he has taught a class in technology and society. Hollman Media provides speakers for campus events and hires interns. “Winning an award as prestigious as the one bearing Walter Scott’s name is a high point in anyone’s career,” Hollman said humbly.
Hollman works 40 hours a week; “I know I don’t put in the kind of hours many other entrepreneurs do,” he admitted. He is committed to his family, too. Angela received her doctorate from the University of Nebraska in May. They have two children, aged 6 and 2.
Hollman has penciled in retirement in just 18 years, at the age of 53, although the future remains hazy.
“I wonder a lot about building something great, but not staying too long. I don’t know,” he said. “All I ever wanted was a shot to make something big out of very little, knowing the odds are against me, but I was willing to accept those consequences.”