This Army Vet Went from Low-Income Childhood to Silicon Valley CEO
This article originally appeared on Task & Purpose, a digital news and culture publication dedicated to military and veterans issues.
After years of hustling, Sonny Tosco worked his way to CEO thanks to his experience in the military.
Sonny Tosco, 30, knows how to hustle. It's a skill that came in handy during his time at West Point, his six years of service as an Army operations officer, and most recently in his role as CEO of Limelight Mobile, a social platform that lets users source real-time images from anywhere in the world.
Tosco sat down with Task & Purpose to share what drives him.
His roots reach back to one of California's many low-income immigrant families. Growing up, he knew the only way he could attend a top-tier school was through a scholarship, and that knowledge drove him to perform exceptionally well. In 2002, Tosco was accepted to West Point.
"My transition from academy life to active-duty service in the Army wasn't without its challenges," Tosco said. "My first unit was a dud; cynicism and distrust ran rampant in the ranks. Because I was disillusioned, I began exploring entrepreneurship during off-duty hours."
Tosco moonlighted as a bouncer and seriously considered opening a nightclub. However, a second assignment to a significantly better unit, along with three deployments in short order, drew his attention back to military service.
A rapid series of personal tragedies, to include the loss of both his parents, a close friend, and a miscarriage with his wife, compelled Tosco to reevaluate his career and transition out of the military in 2012. The rugged adjustment, followed by a brief stint in sales, was marked by depression and stress.
"I finally hit my breaking point one night and almost took my life when I realized how little purpose I had," he said. "I made a commitment that night to only do meaningful work from that point on, and decided to bring Limelight to fruition."
Seizing every opportunity is a habit Tosco honed early in life. That hustle came in handy as he put in sweat equity to build his dream.
"I made it my goal to go to an event or meetup every night, sometimes two per night, to be able to grow out my network and tell the story of our product," said Tosco. "I would commute up to two hours for these events five, six days a week. My team of eight had to adopt that mentality early on and it became ingrained in every team member."
Today, Tosco is raising seed funding for the app, and has built something he's truly proud of. Now in its second version, Limelight App is sticky enough that a robust 35% of all users log in on a daily basis (as compared with 5% for the majority of new social platforms).
"Now that we have a beautiful app that's connecting with people, we're working to grow our user base," said Tosco. "I was fortunate to connect with Don Faul, U.S. Naval Academy '98 and former Chief Operation Officer of Pinterest, and his advice has definitely helped guide our team through uncharted waters."
Faul advised Tosco that no two products will take the same journey to find the right product and market fit. He also encouraged Tosco to leverage his military experience in leadership and systems building.
Tosco has discovered that in startups there will always be some type shortfall in terms of personnel, resources, or time. He credits Limelight's success to his West Point education in psychology and systems engineering.
"Understanding how people work and how to build great organizational structure has been key," he noted. "Tech is here to stay, and will be a future literacy. I always advise veterans to educate yourself and learn how to program."
Tosco also advised transitioning service members to link to a cause greater than themselves in order to stay motivated.
"I try to advance the veteran entrepreneur cause because I believe we have the leadership and character intangibles that are missing from many organizations," he said. "Find what drives you, what your purpose is, and as I've done with Limelight, set an example for veteran success after the military."
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