After graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 2005, Dru Riess was waiting tables, eager to find a way to make something of himself. In 2007, when his good friend Ray Salinas moved to Texas for love, Riess followed, and he found that the stepdad of the girl Salinas moved to Texas for owned a dying printing business.
"This printing machine was literally in a barn," says Riess, located in the small town of McKinney, Texas, north of Dallas. "It was disgusting. There were mice. There were snakes."
Where he could have seen junk in the old printing press, Riess saw opportunity. The machine may not have looked like much, but Riess had done some Googling and realized it had potential. At the time, the flexible package industry was doing almost $30 billion in sales.
Riess, then 24, was determined to build a business. He virtually lived in the barn, cold-calling old customers and maxing out his credit cards.
"The company [had] just completely died. I was pretty much the spark, the heartbeat," he recalls. Finally, Riess got his first customer, the health-care conglomerate Abbott Laboratories.
To learn about the industry as quickly as possible, Riess traveled to China, posing as a potential customer. "I went over there doing espionage and learning what it was I needed to build," he says. "I learned the science of printing, I saw factories running the way they should, I learned about film structures, how they were made, what resins are used, safety."
In particular, Riess learned that it took Chinese companies between eight and nine weeks to deliver a finished product to the U.S. Because he was operating out of Texas, he could deliver products in two weeks.
In May 2008, he brought Ray Salinas on as a partner. At the time, Salinas was 25. The two friends-turned-entrepreneurs were just featured on CNBC's reality television show, "Blue Collar Millionaires."
They balance each other well. "I got the street smarts," says Riess. "Ray's book smart. So any obstacle we come across, one of us can think of a way out of it."
"We knew nothing about printing when we stepped foot into that barn," says Salinas. "It was like, man, we are going to do this entrepreneur thing."
DOING THAT 'ENTREPRENEUR THING'
To find customers, in 2008, Riess and Salinas went on a five-day, 3,500 mile road trip in a rented purple Chevy Cobalt. "We crashed on friends' floors because we didn't have any money," says Reiss, now 33.
They got in front of every purchasing manager, business owner and decision maker they could manage. Their pitch was direct: "'This is who we are, please just give us one shot,'" recalls Salinas.
They did get a shot, and they didn't blow it. "All of a sudden, this once dying printing company was revived," says Salinas, who is now 35. "It was actually doing well and on it's way to being in the black."
Growth was quick. "We went from about a million to $1.2 to $2.2 to $3.7 to $5.7, $8.1, $12.1 and so on and so on and so on. It seemed like the company just continued to double and double and double," says Riess.
In 2011, Riess and Salinas bought the printing press and old company outright from the former owner. They renamed it Popular Ink. They have expanded to nine various printing machines in a new 70,000-square-foot space.
In 2016, Popular Ink did $25 million in sales. In the next four years, the business owners expect to be doing more than $100 million each year. They have 51 full-time employees.
WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO MAKE IT
In May 2015, when Riess and Salinas were in Salt Lake City, Utah, they pulled up to a stop light alongside a driver sitting in a Polaris Slingshot. They both looked at each other and decided they needed to have the futuristic car. The vehicles weren't allowed in Texas, but two months later, the governor declared them street legal.
"I sent him to the dealership and said, 'Tell them you want two!'" says Salinas. They knew, at that moment, they had made it.
Another moment that felt rewarding was spending $120,000 renovating his town-home, says Salinas.
"Growing up, if my parents wanted to buy something, they had to save up for it," says Salinas. "So let's say they wanted to remodel the bathrooms and the kitchen. That took place over a long period of time, and they completed the projects as they could afford to do it."
Though the privileges are many, becoming a millionaire has been back-breaking work.
"I firmly believe that not anybody can be a millionaire. You gotta really, really want it," says Riess.
"And there are a lot of people that, especially in this generation, just expect things to be given to them," he says. "You've got to put everything aside, people doubting you, people looking at you saying, you know, 'That's not a good idea,' and just ... grind through that. Push through it.
"If you believe in yourself," he concludes, "then you might have a sliver of a chance to become a millionaire."