– Joe Gagliese, CEO of Viral Nation and The BRIDGE Entrepreneur in Residence, U of T Scarborough Management
Since 2014, Gagliese has taken the agency world by storm and executed some of the most impactful marketing campaigns in recent memory. He was only 24 when he started to build Viral Nation, which has become one of the most powerful full-service marketing agencies globally and was ranked as Canada’s 4th fastest growing company in 2020.
In less than half a decade, Gagliese has managed to scale his business by a remarkable 300–400% year over year, with zero outside investment. Leveraging innovative marketing tactics and ideals, an unmatched eye for detail, and the ability to predict future trends, Gagliese and his team work tirelessly to bridge the gap between brands and culture, partnering with companies such as Disney, Aston Martin, Lowes, Energizer, Twitch, Ubisoft, Tencent, Scotiabank, Viewsonic, and Match.com, to name a few. A contributing factor to Viral Nation’s success with big-name brands has been the development of its own proprietary software, Influsoft—a leading analytics platform for influencer marketing.
Having carved out a major space in the marketing industry with Viral Nation, Gagliese is energized about lending his expertise to help inspire and mentor young entrepreneurs at the University of Toronto. His role will support select Management courses, including guest lectures (Winter 2021) in Marketing Management: MGMB01 and Entrepreneurship: MGSB22. Going forward, Gagliese will work directly with students in the New Venture Program to help guide their business development, in addition to headlining speaking engagements such as during U of T Entrepreneurship Week.
We recently sat down with Gagliese to reflect upon his experience and the path forward at UTSC.
Department of Management: Joe, we couldn’t be more excited to welcome you aboard! What brought you to the Department of Management, and how does it feel being named Entrepreneur in Residence?
Joe Gagliese: I’m very excited. What I hope to bring is a dynamic that will help provide clarity and grounding to young entrepreneurs. In my own journey, there’s a lot of stuff I wish I could have done better, or engaged in more. Looking back, when I applied to universities after high school, my first choice was the University of Toronto. I got accepted and I chose U of T over the six other offers that I had, including a scholarship. At the time I was also playing high-level hockey, so I was trying to balance everything, and I ended up transferring out of the program. Now that I’ve been invited to re-engage with the University of Toronto, I am so enamored by my conversations with The BRIDGE and all of the support for entrepreneurial students at U of T. That all clicked, and it feels like the right fit for me.
M: Let’s get to know a little more about you. Where did you grow up, and from what age did you begin to identify as an entrepreneur?
G: I grew up just north of Brampton, in a place called Inglewood, where I started my first business in grade six by selling recycled paintballs. Back then, I was part of a paintball team, and at the end of the night I would use a snow shovel to collect the paintballs that didn’t break when they hit the net at the back of the arena. I’d take them home in recycling bins, and I built an assembly line with my grandparents where we would literally sort through the broken paintballs and non-broken ones by hand. Then I would sell the paintballs back at school. That was my first “big” venture, really! I went from selling DVDs out of the back of my truck in high school to starting a pet business that got into pet stores around Ontario, then I started a liquidation company. I’ve been an entrepreneur ever since I can remember.
M: How did that early experience ladder up to launching Viral Nation and where you are today?
G: As an entrepreneur, you go through these ebbs and flows where you think that the level or the size of the opportunity seems big, until you achieve it. For me, it’s been this perpetual thing, starting from the paintballs and thinking, “How can I sell this for 30 bucks?” Then how I can make 300 bucks, or a couple of thousand, then—wow—tens of thousands. Then you make a million. Then hundreds of millions. I’ve been cultivating this mindset since age 12. Your level of anticipation and eagerness towards a deal changes when you grow as an entrepreneur. So my focus is on continuing to grow, and figuring out new ways to innovate and get to the next level without going backwards.
M: When you reflect on all you’ve accomplished, what have been your greatest milestones and proudest moments along the way?
G: I’ll never forget the first office I leased on my own. That business was the liquidation company, and the office was located in a random industrial area. Up until then, I was working out of my dad’s office, or trying to couch surf as an entrepreneur and hold my ground. So when I got my first office, it was like, now I’m really working towards something that’s mine. Another big moment was when I realized, around age 25, that I had created an asset worth over a million dollars. Technically I’d become a millionaire, and I got the sensation that maybe there’s only a handful of people in North America who had done it by that age. Then we started to get companies—people we admired— wanting to acquire our business, which was so flattering. Fast forward to today, and there’s a big stable of people who rely on me. It’s a really interesting feeling, and it can be stressful, because keeping everyone happy is a hard task in life. At Viral Nation, we have more than 150 employees and they’re all over the world. That’s pretty special, knowing I play a role in their daily lives. And of course, the relationship with my business partner, Mat, has been going strong since our first or second year of university together. Building that partnership has to be one of my greatest achievements in business, for sure.
M: You’re incredibly young, Joe. What’s been your method for success?
G: You know what, I’m 29 years old, but I’ll be honest with you—I feel like I’m 108. I've always been kind of “an old soul.” Sure, there have been times when you’re in multimillion-dollar meetings with these big conglomerates and they’re looking at you like, you’re the same age as my son, and here I am about to sign off on the deal. There was some ageism—that kind of went along with this process—but I’ve always felt confident that I was born with a certain skill set. And I’ve leveraged that skill set in a big way: my relationship-building skills, my sales abilities, my organizational skills. So when it comes to building a company, I don’t even think about the age factor, honestly. I just approach all of my endeavours at 175%, and I’ve happened to beat some people, even double my age, to the punch.
M: How has your perspective on entrepreneurship and marketing changed compared to when you started Viral Nation?
G: I’d say I’m more of an entrepreneur than a marketer. The best marketing companies in the world help you solve your business challenges, so marketing and me went together like two peas in a pod. But it’s the entrepreneur in me that drives everything I do. Fortunately, I’ve had the discipline to utilize my financial wherewithal in the right way, and I’m always trying to learn new things. Once you get to a certain level, and you propel past some of the challenges you faced, it’s like you’re at the top of the mountain: you’re looking around, and you see the bigger mountains, you see how real deals are getting done, you see who holds the keys to these different kingdoms, then you start to understand what those relationships are able to do. There’s an evolution to entrepreneurship that’s about achievement beyond business success. It’s about learning how to grow as a person, right?
M: So from your POV, what makes a great entrepreneur?
G: Great entrepreneurs are scrappy. I think the biggest challenge today is that entrepreneurs aren’t necessarily doing it the old-school way. They’re not going out there and selling like animals. When I started Viral Nation, I’d spend until 12 o’clock at night scheduling emails to CMOs of different brands to help grow my business. An interesting fact about me is that no venture I’ve had to date, including Viral Nation, has ever had any investment or any debt at all: zero, the entire way through. I’m living proof that you can build a company of this magnitude without a single investor. Today, I see a lot of the entrepreneurial mindset going towards idea, How do I raise money? How do I get it funded, as opposed to focusing on the business itself, and getting it there yourself. I see great entrepreneurs coming up with ideas and not taking the steps necessary to go after them. Bringing in the right capital at the right time can be extraordinarily important, but that’s not the only way to derive success.
M: Drawing on your experience, what would be your main message for our marketing students today?
G: I believe that marketing might be the Holy Grail for young people to go farther, faster than any other profession. And I’ll tell you why: over the past five to 10 years, there’s been a diametric shift in how people do everything, especially Millennials and Gen Z. Picture how we buy cars, for example. Personally, I would never buy a car without watching a YouTube review (or maybe 15!) to help inform my decision. When we’re designing our house, we’re looking for inspiration on Instagram. When we’re sitting at home with our spouse and our kids, we’re watching Netflix. When we’re taking a break at work, we’re on Twitter. When we’re trading stocks, we’re looking at Reddit. This entire world of marketing—that massive global sphere—is just so big. Most people don’t understand the depths to which it goes. So I think these young marketing graduates from U of T are stepping into a situation where they might actually know more than some executives at big companies. If marketing students can invest in understanding the new and fundamental ways that social and digital work and how people engage, it creates this speed zone for someone with a business degree from U of T to enter an organization and become a major-league asset. If you truly understand the social and digital world and the nuances of how people behave within it, then now might be the best time to get into marketing.
M: You’ve signalled that you are passionate about supporting mental health. Can you elaborate on that?
G: I have been dealing with mental health issues, anxiety in particular, for a long time. And I don’t mean it in the sense that it’s something I hide behind. When I get flustered, or I get into a situation where there’s tension, my body reacts and I get kind of sick. It’s something I’ve dealt with very aggressively for the last 10 years, and in the past two years I feel like I finally achieved power over it. So I want to be an advocate who can help people see that good outcomes are possible, at any level. When I was younger, I would have loved that exposure to someone who has dealt with mental health issues, because back then I felt like I was the only person on the planet. At times it can trigger embarrassment, so I want to be able to help the people who truly need support. I also think it’s important to motivate people who are afraid to get into the driver's seat of their life.
M: You’ve also expressed concerns for others who might not benefit from the same level of access or privilege as you did early in your career.
G: If it weren’t for my parents supporting me in my entrepreneurial pursuits, then I might not be where I am today. I really didn’t understand the true magnitude of how lucky I was to have that level of support from my family—it’s a luxury that made me more aggressive than some other entrepreneurs maybe could be. It comes down to situational awareness, and it goes beyond monetary support. You need people believing in you, right?
M: As our incoming Entrepreneur in Residence, why are you taking this next step in your career?
G: Whatever happens over the next five to 10 years, one of my most important objectives is to keep engaged with young entrepreneurs and help steer them and support them in any way I can. I’ve been working with universities for about four years, and I’ve grown through that. My U of T residency is the optimal next step. When I think about planning my future, the chase for millions isn’t the strongest motivator. It’s more about being involved in a way that makes a difference to people. I know it sounds cliché, but I’m determined to actually do that.