He 'Grew Up in Bars' and Was Drinking By Age 10 — But Entrepreneurs Changed His Life. Now a Business Owner Himself, He's Paying It Forward. Ken Cox, president of data privacy company Custom Private Cloud Hostirian and owner of boxing school BOX STL, is committed to lifting others up.
Ken Cox, president of data privacy company Custom Private Cloud Hostirian and owner of boxing school BOX STL, recalls a "rough" childhood. His mother was experiencing homelessness up until he was born, at which point cousins banded together to rent her an apartment above a bar, where she worked — "So from there, I literally grew up in bars," he says.
Ultimately, Cox's mother married a man with four children of his own, and the family moved to the suburbs of Missouri. By the age of 10, Cox was drinking regularly before going to school, and by 13, he was getting into trouble, which landed him in a "tough love" program until he was 18.
Cox credits the guidance and counseling he received during his time in the program with making him "a much healthier person from 12 to 22." Today, he successfully balances his roles as president, entrepreneur, husband and father; host of the Clicks and Bricks podcast, which explores the realities of owning a business; and author of the forthcoming book 13 Ways to Survive in Business and Life.
But it wasn't until later, reflecting on that tumultuous period of his life, that Cox realized who truly helped open his eyes to the many possibilities awaiting him: small business owners.
"That's where I found my mentorship as a young child," Cox explains. "They gave me opportunities that I didn't have anywhere else. I got to see a different side of life [other] than either work at a factory or be a criminal. Those were the only two options that I could see from where I was."
Finding his passion for web hosting and privacy policies
Cox considered a career in TV and radio broadcasting after a mentor in school introduced him to the field — "For the first time in my life, I felt like everything was clicking in the right spot," Cox says — but he was hit by an 18-wheeler just before graduation and could no longer hold a camera.
So Cox pivoted to the music industry, where he worked as a stage manager and enjoyed the "chaos" and quick pace. But with that industry came frequent exposure to drugs and alcohol; that wasn't sustainable.
Cox did odd jobs for a period of time — until his stepdad got him a position at a computer store. That role would change the trajectory of Cox's career: He excelled there, eventually becoming 10% owner and running the operation.
By 1999, Cox had started working with telecommunications and IT broker Primary Network and "absolutely fell in love" with web hosting. "I was helping small business owners build their websites for the first time," he recalls, "and I got to deal with a different kind of customer, a different problem, every single day of my life: from the local T-shirt shop to projects with Sprint, AOL and Peabody Energy. I got to build the data center for Peabody Energy, literally help design and build it."
Primary Network maintained an ISP brokerage business and split all the hosting off to Hostirian, both of which are under holding company River City Internet Group. Today, Cox is the president of Hostirian and, among other things, he's committed to bringing transparency to discussions around privacy policies.
"Some of these privacy policies are good, some of them are bad," Cox explains. "Some of them you're giving up all of your rights, some of them you're giving up none of your rights. Some of them are so non-transparent that you really don't know what's going to happen to your data. And I thought that all of these things were scary, and I kept trying to figure out a way to communicate good, bad privacy policies with somebody."
To that end, Cox created the PPGS, a trademark-pending A-F rubric to evaluate those privacy policies; extensions for Chrome and Microsoft are currently in development. Hostirian has also developed an AI bot called Katz — in reference to the Katz versus U.S. case regarding reasonable expectations of privacy — which has been fed privacy policies from across the internet for the past several months.
"I'm not making any claims today," Cox says, "but it appears to me that there's a substantial amount of privacy policies that were just copied, pasted and changed the names of the companies. That appears to be the case at an alarming rate. So then, I also wonder if that's the take that American startups are taking on privacy policies: Are they actually following those policies, or is it just copy and paste? And I think we don't know yet."
Becoming an entrepreneur — and helping kids in the process
But Cox's journey wasn't without some challenges along the way. In 2016, his predecessor was battling throat cancer; the company lost several big-ticket clients including its largest, Peabody Energy, when it filed for bankruptcy; and Cox himself, who was "drinking all day, every day" and had gained nearly 100 pounds, was in the initial stages of liver failure.
The company was on the brink of collapse, but its co-founder and largest shareholder Brian Matthews was willing to fund its closure or its revival to stave off bankruptcy — and Cox, who was under the care of a doctor and healing his liver, opted to "make a run towards saving this company that we created."
"[It took] a lot of renegotiation, but we were able to swing about a $4 million annual deficit out of that," Cox says. "Most of the vendors are reasonably happy, and we did not file bankruptcy. So we made it through that, and I'm happy to say that just five years later, we've done all that and we have a positive EBITDA. Our EBITDA is growing even though we did lower our revenue. We've produced revenue to get rid of long-term leases and some spaces. But now we're to the point where the bleeding has stopped, the vendors are paid, everybody's good, and we have the funds to move forward."
But part of Cox's healing would bring him full circle, back to the power of entrepreneurship.
Cox turned to boxing to overcome his drinking, attending a heavy bag class at a nearby gym and even bringing along his 8-year-old daughter — but he could tell the business wouldn't last: Although the trainers were amazing, Cox recalls its dirty bathrooms and poor onboarding.
So Cox purchased the business, continued getting fitter and stronger, created a youth program and even competed for Golden Gloves at the age of 44, making it to the championship round. Then Covid struck and an extended six-month shutdown in St. Louis made the business "not recoverable."
But Cox wasn't deterred — he went on to open a new gym outside of that territory and even started a youth competition team, which became the largest one in the Ozark district within two years.
"[There's a lot of] diversity in the community in which we opened this gym," Cox says. "We have a mosque right down the street; we have a Hindu temple right down the street. I have kids from all these different cultures in my gym every day, and they teach me so much about where they come from.
"A lot of these kids are refugees," he continues, "so it's a really beautiful thing for me to be there for them in a way that I had so many small business owners be there for me, even though I didn't know what they were doing for me at the time."