Gustavo Serafini has built a dream business around work he loves. He is co-founder of Pure Audio Video, a reseller of high-end home theater equipment based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The movie buff and his co-founder and brother Marcelo create elaborate home entertainment experiences for people who love technology, movies and music. Serafini doubles as host of the Enabled Disabled Podcast, which aims to shift the narrative around disability and empower people through practical advice and stories.
Pure Audio Video, founded in 2005, has grown to about $2 million in annual sales, and currently has nine employees, putting the duo in the small cohort of entrepreneurs whose small businesses reach $1 million in annual revenue or more.
Serafini has built his business while living with a disability. He was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), a rare, non-hereditary condition which results in a shortening of the femur, for which he wears a customized prosthetic; he is also missing his right arm. (He is among several entrepreneurs who will be speaking at a free community event at the New York Public Library on entrepreneurs and disability this coming Thursday, June 28, at noon EST; I’ll be moderating.)
What has spurred Serafini through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship is a belief in “choosing yourself”—as in “This is what I want my life to be. This is the path I’m willing to take. These are the sacrifices I’m willing to make,” he explains. “If we don’t have the courage to choose ourselves, nothing is going to happen.”
Serafini adopted this mindset at an early age. “The first time I remember really going out on a limb and choosing myself was when I played basketball,” he says. “I decided to try out for the 8th grade team. I was shorter than everybody [who was trying out] and slower. Everyone was gentle and was telling me, basically, ‘Gustavo you’re not going to make it. I don’t think it’s the best idea you’ve ever had.’ My reaction was that it doesn’t matter if I make it or not. I want to test myself. I want to see what I’m capable of doing.”
He did make the team, which was undefeated. Although, as a pre-teen boy, he never asked his coach why he was chosen for the team, he intuited that the coach had two reasons: to inspire others on the team to work harder and to score points like everyone else.
“The coach changed his offensive system when I played,” he recalls. “It didn’t matter if we were up by 20 points, 30 points, 50 points—if I didn’t perform, he pulled me, right away. I was given the opportunity to make myself and him look good. If I didn’t do it, I got taken out of the game like everybody else.”
That experience was highly motivating for Serafini. “I realized for the first time that whatever limitations I thought I had were false,” he says. “The true limits were much, much further away and a lot murkier than I knew. Just to have that world expand in front of me was life changing.”
What playing on the team ultimately told him, he says, was, “I can make it in the world. I may have to work harder. But people are going to give me the opportunity to do something.”
That experience led him to serve as a coach at a basketball camp, where the head coach saw that he had a thorough understanding of the sport. “That was another beautiful experience,” he says. “I learned a lot about motivating myself, leading a team and camaraderie. All of these things led into entrepreneurship.”
Beyond that, coaching was an opportunity for personal growth. “There was always a pleasure and motivation in defying expectations,” he says. “If someone told me ‘You can’t do this, I took on that challenge of proving them wrong.'”
Serafini attended college at the University of Chicago—inspired by an English teacher who wanted him to become a writer and loved the English program there—and then went on to the George Washington University School of Law. He discovered he didn’t have a passion for law as a career—”I was profoundly allergic to it,” he says—but stuck it out. However, when it came time to apply for jobs after school, I felt the call of entrepreneurship. Asking himself, “What can I do to take control of my life and the things I’m interested in?” he concluded, “I should own my own business.”
His brother Marcelo shared a similar desire. “We loved the movie music experience,” he says. They did some research and a year and a half later, decided to start Pure Audio Video—and never looked back. They initially began marketing their service to audiophiles, then refined their business model. Beyond working with customers to plan the theaters and selling the audio and video systems, the company also does the related electrical work and cyber security. Over time, they focused their attention on serving serious audiophiles with home theaters.
“This was an exercise in patience, soul searching, figuring out who we wanted to serve and who we were for,” he says. “We realized we wanted to move into the high-end, luxury custom home market, which is really difficult to break into. The builders control a lot of that work.”
They did all of the networking they could to find their first customers, and the business began taking off in 2007. But by 2009, the country was in a recession. “We had that moment of not knowing if we were going to make it,” he recalls. “We decided we were going to go high-end or close.”
Finally, a builder they knew gave them an opportunity to bid on a job at an NFL player’s house. They won the bid, and the builder held a barbeque to celebrate the deal. “Once people knew we worked on that job and he was happy and willing to tell people, the opportunities started,” says Serafini. By taking every project to the highest level they could, they built positive word-of-mouth that helped the company grow.
“The creative stuff we do with pure audio/video is really in honor of the artists,” he says. “When you create a cinema room that exceeds the expectations of the people in the industry, that tells you you’re doing something right. Personally, I just love sitting in a great theater with friends and watching something I know is as close as possible to how the artist intended it to be. Thousands of people work on a big budget movie. How often can we appreciate those nuances and special effects? In the best case, it’s transformative.”
He and Marcelo now aim to build the company to $4 million to $6 million in annual revenue. “I definitely see the benefits of doubling or tripling in size,” he says. “But we don’t want to sacrifice the experience of working with us. We don’t want to feel corporate.”
For Serafini, a big part of the joy of building the business has been the learning process. “That idea of mastering something and spending a really long time doing it for its own sake for the pleasure of seeing what you can do is enormously motivating to me,” says Serafini. “What am I capable of if I apply myself to this?”
A little over a year ago, he started his podcast. Since then, he has become much more comfortable opening up and talking about his disability, he says. On one occasion, he worked with an elderly couple, in which the man noticed his disability and asked him, “What happened?” When Serafini told his story, the man’s wife shared their own story of losing two children. “There was a profound human connection and trust built up,” he says. “If I hadn’t been open to being vulnerable, that wouldn’t have happened.”
Serafini has found that while disability is part of his identity, everyone is shaped by many different experiences, and different ones come into play in different situations, both in his business and life outside of it.
“Disability is part of us,” he says. “Sometimes that part can dominate the rest. Sometimes it’s there in the background. It depends on where you are and what you are doing in life.”