Gustavo Serafini built a dream business around the work he loves. He is the co-founder of Pure Audio Video, a high-end home theater equipment distributor based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The movie buff and his co-founder and brother Marcelo create sophisticated home entertainment for people who love technology, movies and music. Serafini doubles as the host of the Enabled Disabled Podcast, which aims to change 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 built his business while living with a disability. He was born with Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency (PFFD), a rare, non-inherited disease that results in a shortening of the femur, for which he wears a custom prosthesis; he is also missing his right arm. (He’s among several entrepreneurs who will be speaking at a free public event at the New York Public Library about entrepreneurs and disability this Thursday, June 28, at noon EST; I’ll be moderating.)
What has driven Serafini through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship is a belief in “choosing myself”—as in, “This is what I want my life to be. That’s the path I’m willing to take. Those are the sacrifices I’m willing to make,” he explains. “If we don’t have the courage to choose ourselves, nothing will 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 was playing basketball,” he says. “I decided to try for 8th class team. I was shorter than everyone else [who was trying out] and slower. Everyone was gentle and told me, basically, “Gustavo, you won’t make it. I don’t think this is the best idea you’ve ever had. My reaction was that it didn’t matter if I made it or not. I want to test myself. I want to see what I can do.”
He made the team that was undefeated. Although, as a pre-teen boy, he never asked his coach why he was selected for the team, he intuitively sensed that the coach had two reasons: to inspire others on the team to work harder and to earn points like everyone else .
“The coach changed his offensive system when I was playing,” he recalled. “It didn’t matter if we were leading by 20 points, 30 points, 50 points – if I wasn’t performing, he pulled me right away. I was given the opportunity to make him and I look good. If I didn’t, I was out of the game like everyone else.”
This experience was highly motivating for Serafini. “I realized for the first time that whatever limitations I thought I had were false,” he says. “The real frontiers were much, much further and much darker than I had imagined. Just having 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 more. But people will give me the opportunity to do something.
This experience led him to serve as a coach at a basketball camp, where the head coach saw that he had a deep understanding of the sport. “It was another beautiful experience,” he says. “I learned a lot about motivation, leading a team and camaraderie. All of these things led to entrepreneurship.”
In addition, coaching was an opportunity for personal growth. “There’s always been pleasure and motivation in defying expectations,” he says. “If someone told me, ‘You can’t do that,’ I took it up as a challenge to prove them wrong.”
Serafini attended college at the University of Chicago—inspired by an English teacher who wanted him to become a writer and liked the English program there—and then went to law school at George Washington University. He found he had no passion for law as a career—“I was profoundly allergic to it,” he says—but gave it up. However, when it came time to apply for a job after school, he felt the call to entrepreneurship. Asking himself, “What can I do to take control of my life and the things I care about?” he concluded, “I need to own my own business.”
His brother Marcelo shared a similar desire. “We loved the musical experience of the film,” 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 started offering their service to audiophiles, then refined their business model. In addition to working with clients to plan theaters and sell audio and video systems, the company also handles related electrical work and cyber security. Over time, they focused on serving serious audiophiles with home theater systems.
“It’s been an exercise in patience, soul-searching, understanding who we want to serve and who we’re for,” he says. “We realized we wanted to move into the high-end luxury housing market, which is really hard to break into. Builders control much of this work.
They did their best to network to find their first customers, and business took off in 2007. But by 2009, the country was in recession. “We had this moment where we didn’t know if we were going to make it,” he recalls. “We’ve decided we’re going to go high or close.”
Finally, a builder they know gave them the opportunity to bid on an NFL player’s house. They won the bidding and the builder had a barbecue to celebrate the deal. “Once people knew we were working on this work and he was happy and willing to tell people, the opportunities started,” says Serafini. By taking each project to the highest level possible, they built positive word of mouth that helped the company grow.
“The creative things we do with pure audio/video really honor the artists,” he says. “When you create a cinema hall that exceeds the expectations of people in the industry, that tells you that you are doing something right. Personally, I just love sitting in a great theater with friends and watching something that I know is as close as possible to how the artist intended it. Thousands of people work on a big budget movie. How often can we appreciate these nuances and special effects? At its best, it is transformative.”
Now he and Marcelo aim to build the company to $4 million to $6 million in annual revenue. “I can definitely see the benefits of doubling or tripling the 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, much of the joy of building the business is the learning process. “That idea of mastering something and spending a lot of time doing it just for yourself for the pleasure of seeing what you can do is extremely motivating to me,” says Serafini. “What am I capable of if I commit 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. He once worked with an elderly couple where the man noticed his disability and asked, “What happened?” When Serafini told his story, the man’s wife shared their own story of losing two children. “There was a deep human connection and trust built,” he says. “If I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable, this 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 in life outside of it.
“Disabilities are part of us,” he says. “Sometimes that part can dominate the others. Sometimes it’s there in the background. It depends on where you are and what you do in life.”