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Fillmore High graduate returns to share insights about his success

By KIP DOYLE, Olean Times Herald

CUBA -- When Michael Lastoria graduated from Fillmore Central School in 1998, he was less known for his grades and more known as the county's best high school tennis player and as the starting point guard for Fillmore's 22-0 basketball team.

Although he may still be regarded as one of the best athletes to ever come from Fillmore, it is his accomplishments in the business world that have local educators and students seeking his advice.

At 26, Mr. Lastoria is the CEO and co-founder of a multimillion dollar advertising company called Innovation Ads. The company provides, among other services, colleges and academic institutions with a means to locate students on a performance basis. The company has drawn between 5,000 and 7,000 students to the University of Maryland system.

At Moonwink's Restaurant on Wednesday, Mr. Lastoria spoke with local educators, school administrators and new and prospective business owners associated with ACCORD Corp. about the paths available for new business owners and the keys to developing entrepreneurs in the classroom. His appearance was part of the NY REAL and BOCES-sponsored Entrepreuership Week.

Mr. Lastoria said that he was unsure of what he wanted to do after earning his bachelor's degree in economics and business from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Armed with his degree and his ambition, Mr. Lastoria moved to New York City, where he hoped to meet more people like himself and find success.

"I thought if I immersed myself in that culture, I had a better chance at being successful," he said.

Mr. Lastoria's early days in the big city were rough. He paid $1,000 a month to rent a small room with a foldout bed. He said he worked in a call center making 150 to 200 cold calls a day while being pestered by a drunken and abusive boss.

He moved on to a job with an interactive marketing company as an independent contractor. Within six weeks, Mr. Lastoria realized that the company could offer much more to its clients, and convinced some of his co-workers to leave the company and work for him. In 2002, he decided to start his own company that would sell advertising on the seats of taxi cabs.

Mr. Lastoria's initial business model was to use an interactive marketing company to fund the taxi cab advertising company. While the taxi advertising division struggled, the marketing company flourished, prompting Mr. Lastoria to dissolve the taxi advertising division.

For the next six months, Mr. Lastoria contacted every advertiser he had corresponded with regarding the taxi venture and asked them what they were looking for in an advertising firm. He applied his clients' answers to his business, which lead to continual growth.

"By 2005, our revenue started spiking, we had our niche figured out," he said. "We began looked for opportunities to grow. We can either grow organically or grow through acquisition."

Innovation Ads purchased another marketing company in 2005. In September of 2006, a majority share of Innovation Ads was sold to Seaport Capital.

The acquisition has allowed Mr. Lastoria to explore other ventures, such as the restraint business and film production. He still puts in a full work week at Innovation Ads, but plans to sell the entire company in 2 1/2 years to concentrate on the film, music, and restaurant industries.

Mr. Lastoria recommended that prospective business owners take a look at their own skill set before diving head first into their venture. He said that attributes such as a strong drive and a high energy level are necessary to keep up with the rigors of private business.

An important trait for both entreprenurers and for students is goal-oriented behavior, he said.

"Set short-term and long-term goals (while) measuring success one day at a time. What are you doing today that will let you start a business five or six days down the road?" he asked the audience.

Like himself, "many successful people are not the best students. They have their own train of thought, and are often difficult to motivate," he said. He recommended that teachers seek out the troubled students and help them to apply themselves to what interests them.

One activity that helped Mr. Lastoria develop his problem-solving skills was his involvement in Odyssey of the Mind.

"It is a great way to see which students have that (problem solving) characteristic and which ones don't," he said.

Last year, a group of Belfast students visited Mr. Lastoria at his office in New York City as part of a trip sponsored by BOCES. Mr. Lastoria challenged those students to set a goal they want to meet in one year and write it down. He told them that if any of them met that goal, he would fly them back to New York City to attend a Yankees game with him.

Some of the goals included hitting a specific grade point average or to become part of the National Honors Society.

Before speaking to the student body for a special assembly at Belfast Central School on Wednesday, Mr. Lastoria met with the nine students who reached their goal and congratulated them.

"The goal is not just financial, it's about taking an idea and putting it down onto paper and having others hold you accountable for it. It makes them feel successful, and when you do that the chances for (further) success are so much higher," he said.

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