If Zach Klein hasn’t found the time to make it back home to Fort Wayne, Indiana much since he left a little over a decade ago, it’s understandable. After all, to say he’s been busy would be an understatement. In the time since he’s been gone, the Bishop Luers alum has graduated from Wake Forest University, moved to New York City, and created/co-created four companies – becoming one of the internet’s most original voices and a multi-millionaire in the process.
Klein, 28, helped create Vimeo, one of the web’s premiere video-sharing sites. He’s also one of the brains behind CollegeHumor and BustedTees, leading online destinations for comedy videos/articles and humorous T-shirts, respectively. Klein has ventured into the arena of the online marketplace, too, co-founding Svpply, an aggregate of products that invites users to purchase, and build a feed of, those products that are most appealing to them. Most recently, Klein was the Chief Product Officer at Boxee, developers of an innovative device that facilitates bringing video from the web to your TV, before leaving in February to start a new company.
Klein does take breaks, however, and he’s currently in the midst of one. Though still working on the aforementioned company, he’s spending the bulk of his time in the rural, wooded area of New York where he’s building his house, some 90 miles outside of the city. Living in a wood cabin that’s five miles away from cell reception, he’s content to live a Henry David Thoreau-like existence for a spell before things start back up again, as they inevitably do.
Last month, Klein used some of his free time to travel to Fort Wayne. He was the keynote speaker at the first annual Northeast Indiana Tech Fest, an event created by Northeast Indiana Graduate Retention and hosted by Sweetwater Sound, geared toward introducing area high school students to the career opportunities in northeast Indiana.
Klein could easily blend in with the students attending the event, even though he’s at least ten years their senior. His black V-neck T-shirt and skinny pants are fashionable, and his brown hair is shaggy and disheveled in a way that suggests it’s intentioned. He’s boyishly handsome, but the manner in which he speaks – confident, articulate, experienced – ensures that the illusion of him being an 18-year-old remains just that, an illusion.
His assessment of his younger self, one not much older than the students scampering about in the periphery of our interview, is frank.
“When I set out, I’m unashamed to admit that I was solely fixated on becoming wealthy,” he says. “That was my very simple idea of what a successful person was.”
Though those motives may not seem very substantive, they were enough to propel Klein to his earliest successes. Around the same time his peers were seeking out or settling into their first jobs, Klein became a millionaire.
Today, the story of how Klein satisfied those initial motivations isn’t just a tale about how a guy got rich – it’s a story full of teachable moments that he uses to help young people, like those at the Tech Fest, learn about what it takes to be successful.
“I think I’m just going to try to humanize the steps to being successful,” Klein says of his speech. “I think the hardest thing about being young and having the world at your feet is just simply not knowing precisely how to get there. So, I want to relate my story and through all of its turns and moments of luck … just so it seems a little bit more accessible for them.”
Aside from helping him live up to his idea – at the time – of what a successful person was, Klein’s wealth has facilitated his desire to travel the globe. Klein’s travels have put him in a unique position to comment on Fort Wayne. It’s a place he’s familiar with, but one that he’s now able to contextualize with the rest of the world.
“What really impresses me, I drove in from the airport last night, is just how remarkable this city is for its size, how dense its urban neighborhoods still are, which is not the case for so many cities across America, how many cultural amenities Fort Wayne has that are just completely absent from other cities of its size,” Klein says. “And this is the strangest one, just how clean and well-kept it is. Maybe it doesn’t seem that way after being here for so many years – but, truly, it’s a really clean-cut place. I like that.”
Klein’s observations of his old hometown are particularly insightful and relevant when he’s asked to comment on the areas that Fort Wayne could improve, given the city’s commitment in recent years to revitalizing the downtown area, a multi-million dollar initiative.
“What’s frustrating is that Fort Wayne, like most cities, is still heavily-reliant on automobiles and I find it frustrating that despite us having very walkable neighborhoods in the city, they’re not really promoted that way,” Klein says. “We don’t really have dense urban areas, even though, like, the Wells St. corridor and the Calhoun St. corridor are completely pedestrian friendly.
“I think that there’s a lot of fixation on the immediate downtown as where we should be improving, but that really isn’t the case in any city other than maybe Manhattan. In most cities it’s the beltway of urban neighborhoods around the very core commercial center where the most vibrant culture, arts, and residents live and I think these are what we need to be focusing on when we’re talking about improving downtown Fort Wayne.”
Improvement is important to Klein. Its importance to him stems from his commitment to adding value at every stop during his career, and that commitment developed during his years as a boy scout, where he followed the scouting rule, “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it.”
So, unsurprisingly, when he’s asked what accomplishment he’s most proud of, Klein cites one of the big ways he’s managed to improve the world around him.
“In hindsight, I think the thing that I’m most proud of having created is through all the companies that I’ve helped co-found or help build, I’ve created over a hundred jobs with pretty high average salaries, and to provide someone with a really great job that improves their lifestyle, that adequately affords their life, is really exciting for me,” Klein says.
Improvement and helping others has attained such a position of importance in Klein’s life that it has guided him to the next movement he wants to be a part of.
“I’m really interested to help towns, especially in the rustbelt, be more competitive,” Klein says. “I want them to think of themselves as competitive organizations that are competing with other cities to provide great neighborhoods for people to live.”
He continues: “We’re living in a culture now where people are completely untethered from everything. You used to have to live near the coal mine for a job or live near the docks. Now, because most of us information workers can work anywhere where there’s a broadband line, we’re more mobile than ever. We have our pick of cities, and cities need to compete for residents. We can’t solely count on just retaining the brains we have, we also have to attract talent elsewhere, and that’s a really fascinating challenge for cities.”
While Klein’s initial idea of what a successful person was may have been simple, his pursuit of that idea, and his subsequent attainment of it, enabled that idea to expand and grow. Thanks to his pursuit of it, he’s able to share stories of that pursuit with others so that they might learn from his experiences. His attainment of wealth has enabled him to travel the world and better understand what communities possess and lack relative to other communities, and then share that information with the communities he visits. His creation of companies has led to the creation of jobs, and it’s the accomplishment he’s most proud of.
Klein’s desire to improve things for himself has morphed into a desire to improve things for others, and even though that desire may seem to conflict with what produced it, it couldn’t exist without it. In that respect, even with everything he’s accomplished, Klein is still on the exact same path he was when he left Fort Wayne ten years ago.
Maybe it doesn’t matter if Klein hasn’t found the time to make it back to Fort Wayne much since he left. No matter where he goes, he’ll always be able to trace his steps back. And as our interview concludes and he turns to head back toward the auditorium where he’ll be delivering his speech, the place they’ll lead to will always be the same.
Photos & Video by Tony Frantz