Robert Burko always remembers his days as a camp counsellor.
The successful young entrepreneur says the lessons he learned at Green Acres Day Camp in Markham, Ont., helped him grow his company out of his parents’ basement to an award-winning business with staff around the world in less than 10 years.
“A lot of my communications skills, a lot of my leadership skills, I learned in that camp setting,” he says. “If you can manage 30 children in a cabin, you can manage 30 adults in a job.”
The Toronto–native runs an e-mail marketing company called Elite Email. It helps clients create and target their mailing lists to maximize views.
“We can show you a map of the world and show you where people opened your e-mail,” he says, adding that they can even narrow it down to the best times of days and days of the week to send out an e-mail.
Burko recently won the business-of-the-year award in the under-30 category at the Toronto Board of Trade Business Excellence Awards.
“It’s great to be recognized in my own city,” he says. “All that hard work and all those late nights and early mornings, it validates it in a sense.”
Burko says he has always been drawn to technology, and although he was too young to take part in the Internet boom, he watched what succeeded and what failed and used that information to find his niche.
“I have the entrepreneurial spirit in my bones,” he says, explaining his father, who started his own business, inspired him. “Ever since I was young, I knew I wanted to pave my own path instead of following someone else’s path.”
Burko describes himself as a leader and a motivator, explaining that he views his work ethic, drive and passion to succeed as contagious, and credits his parents’ advice to always work hard.
Additionally, he says he remembers looking up to many successful people in the Jewish community and hearing that they began with very little, but studied hard and worked until they succeeded. Their stories inspired him to follow suit.
As a self-described workaholic, he says he jumps between two modes: work or fun.
“There’s no middle ground,” he says.
It hasn’t always been easy sailing for the company. Burko recounts spending months and even years building the company, and he remembers feeling that success was far out of his reach.
However, he pressed on, thanks to the positive attitudes of his family and friends, responding to their encouragement by pushing harder.
“They were so supportive around me that I was able to feed off that positivity,” he says. “It was the quickest way to get me out of the rut.”
He recalls the excitement of, for the first time, signing up a customer who wasn’t a family member or friend.
Since then, he’s served thousands more, located in more places than he can name on a map, he says. Additionally, he has hired staff in Canada, the United States, China, India and Finland.
He says it is due to the borderless nature of his business that he could expand internationally so successfully.
“All [our staff] needs is an Internet connection,” he says. “When I hire for jobs, I can find the best talent possible. It doesn’t matter where you’re located.”
Apart from his business, Burko co-founded Step by Step Africa, a charity aimed to fight HIV and AIDS in African countries. The organization focuses on women who have HIV or AIDS, and it aims to prevent the illness from being passed on to their children.
Burko says he’s heard that about 10 children have been protected thanks to the program.
“I feel great about it and I’m so happy to help,” he says. “We’ve changed lives.”
He says he enjoys participating in the charity and watching those around him step up the plate to help.
Despite all his success in business, he says his greatest achievement in life is his family. He married his wife, Michelle, three years ago, and they have been together for 13 years in total.
“[The company] could not have been here without her,” he says, explaining that she doesn’t work at Elite Email anymore, but was actively involved in every part of the business throughout its early stages.
As Burko reached each bit of success, he has aimed higher. He says that each time the company reaches a new milestone or wins another award, he takes a short break to celebrate before quickly moving onto the next target.
“We’re at an all-time high, and I think in the future, things will get even bigger,” he says, adding that he hopes to put Canada on the map as a leader in e-mail marketing.
For those young entrepreneurs looking to follow in Burko’s footsteps, he says the best piece of advice he could give is to always be optimistic.
“You’re going to run into problems,” he says, “but as long as you stick with it, stay positive and work hard, good things will come.”