Start-up king John Roa is blazing a digital trail in Chicago—and doing it his own way.
From math whiz to hacker to CEO, John Roa and his company, ÄKTA, have helped make Chicago a hub of innovative digital design.
As a kid, John Roa was a math whiz who worshipped technology. Today he’s founder and CEO of ÄKTA, a digital design firm that’s a darling of the city’s tech community.
Design? What happened? Roa, 31, isn’t quite sure. “I come at things from directions I’m not sure are totally natural to most people,” he says, sitting in his River North office wearing a fitted Zara blazer, dark jeans, and caramel oxfords, sans socks.
When pressed, he’ll credit the transformation to a few things: Making a bunch of mistakes. Travel adventures, including sliding down an active volcano on a piece of wood. Starting a video-game marketing firm that opened his mind to the importance of design. Whatever the reasons, design has put Roa and ÄKTA on the map. In June, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce gave Roa the James Tyree Emerging Business Leadership Award. In August, ÄKTA made its debut at number 414 on Inc. magazine’s list of the country’s 500 fastest growing companies.
These days, Roa is reworking Digital Hope—a nonprofit he cofounded to crowdsource funding for micro nonprofits in developing countries—and amping up its technology; he aims to relaunch in early 2015.
Roa grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, the son of a Chrysler executive and a stay-at-home mom. A model son, he pulled straight As until he discovered the joys of hacking. He and his friends wrote a program that let them access their friends’ parents’ desktops. They shut it down before it could do any damage.
Around the same time Roa started his first business, an in-home computer repair service so successful that he needed to incorporate. The experience gave him a lust for business. In 2002, Roa and two friends launched Wired Labs, a marketing firm for video games. “I went from not understanding design to saying, ‘Wow, I’m not sure anything else matters,’” he says. While building Wired Labs, he finished a business degree at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo while commuting to and from Los Angeles.
William Morris Endeavor bought Wired Labs in 2007. After a year of globe-trotting—including that slide down Cerro Negro volcano in Nicaragua—Roa relocated to Chicago, and in 2010 he launched ÄKTA, which will gross about $10 million this year.
With his career in full blossom, Roa can relax a little. He’s invested in The Betty, a bar in West Loop, and plays competitive poker in Las Vegas. Says Roa, “I’ll do anything—almost anything—once.”