By Tina Irgang
Antonio Rico is one of many entrepreneurial success stories in Frederick, MD’s economic upswing. Citizen Frederick, the men’s clothing store and barbershop Rico co-owns with his husband, Nolan Kulbiski, has been open for less than a year. Nevertheless, it has already won the top prize of $20,000 in Microsoft’s Small Business Contest. Here, Rico shares how his parents’ work ethic and the economic potential he found in small-town Maryland helped him succeed.
What’s the concept behind Citizen Frederick?
Rico: I had moved up to Frederick and had to commute over into DC or Baltimore to find any [clothing] that was current or contemporary. That was how it really kicked off – I said, if I’m feeling this way, there have to be other guys in the same situation. I had wanted to start my own business for a while, so I looked at the pros and the cons and thought this might be a really good business idea. I jumped in both feet first and the store has now become this really great, well-curated men’s store. We’re very community-driven, … so people are encouraged to come and stop in and say hi. We catch up, talk about what’s going on in our lives.
What’s it like working so closely with your spouse every day? How do you keep the balance?
Rico: There definitely have to be boundaries and limits. In any other job, if you tell somebody to do something, it gets done. But when it’s your spouse, it becomes, ‘Don’t tell me to do this because you didn’t take out the trash yesterday. Stop nagging me about payroll because you forgot to get me a birthday present.’ You sort of have to walk the line a little bit, so boundaries and expectations have to be set. You can’t make it about the business all the time. You have to establish that at such and such a time, the phone and computer go away, [or] the talk can’t be about the business while we’re having dinner. If both of you have a day off, let’s get everything done beforehand so we can enjoy the day off completely and fully.
What gets you up in the morning?
Rico: The potential in our business. Especially now, with this Microsoft small-business grant that we got, I’m starting to evolve out of this small-town merchant mentality. I’m realizing that I’ve got a store, a brand, that has the potential of being a world-class brand. I’ve got to start thinking on that level. … I’m now receiving orders from around the country and in some cases from other countries, [so] I want to carry the ball further down the field.
Who or what has been your greatest inspiration?
Rico: My parents – my mom in particular has been my biggest inspiration. My mom immigrated to the United States when she was 15, and she was a single mother prior to meeting my father. Both her and my dad, they busted their butt, they put in the hours. My mom would work at a balloon factory in the evening so she could watch us during the day, and my dad would work during the day. There was always a side job too. My sister and I, we would jump in and help them clean gyms – that’s just what we did. My mom used to say, ‘If you want to eat from the pot, you’ve got to put something in the pot, too.’ Eventually, my parents started their own business, and I grew up with the business. I took a word-processing class in junior high. My dad bought me a computer so I could start writing letters to clients. I grew up with that and thought, my parents gave me all the tools that I needed so that I would have a better life, and if mom and dad could do this, why couldn’t I put some skin in the game and also make it happen?
What do you consider the best decision you’ve ever made?
Rico: The best decision I’ve ever made was moving to Maryland and moving to Frederick. I could have stayed in DC and had all the amenities nearby, but I wouldn’t have been able to start my own business or buy a house. I wouldn’t have been able to go to school. Because of Maryland, I’m now part of the middle class. I was a non-traditional student. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I started going to school at the community college out here, and Maryland has made my life a thousand times better. Because of Maryland, I’ve been lucky to have what I hope is going to be a very successful business.
About The Human Element:
The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email email@example.com.