Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

For the Single Founder Who Can’t Code

6/3/12

This post originally appeared on TechCrunch as a guest post.

Last summer when I started working on Undrip, I was in a tough spot. I grew up doing web and graphic design so I was a pretty good front-end developer and designer. But I knew nothing about back-end web development — loops, branches, dictionaries or functions were all foreign concepts to me. I was a single founder who couldn’t code.

Against the Odds

Every week I get emails from entrepreneurs seeking my advice asking how I did it before, and how I’m doing it now. They find themselves in similar situations in that they’re looking to build a tech startup with little to no technical skills. They’re frustrated by their inability to make forward progress and they usually either give up and fail, or outsource if they have some extra cash (which usually leads to failure).

If you’re a single founder who can’t code, your chances for startup success are near zero. However, there’s still a chance.

And a chance is all you need.

diceInspire or Die

There’s only one skill in the world that can make up for your lack of design or dev skills. It’s a skill you have to learn and learn to do well: You must learn to inspire.

Your survival will hinge on your ability to inspire, persuade, and convince makers that they should join you on this adventure. It’s the only chance you have. You know you can’t do this alone. You shouldn’t do this alone. And you won’t do this alone.

Easier Said Than Done

Some non-technical entrepreneurs are so incredibly charismatic, persuasive and charming that all they need is a clean napkin and a wide smile to sell the vison and get people excited. They’re able to attract talent with no problem. If that’s you, congrats. Run with it. As long as you have creators, makers and builders on your team, you’re in the game and able to fight. Give them the equity they deserve (a lot!). Make them owners not mercenaries. Your idea is worthless without them — accept that now and nobody gets hurt.

As for the rest of us, we’ve got more convincing to do.

When I was recruiting people to help build Undrip, I could have just dazzled people with designs. For many folks, that’s all you need to help inspire. But I wanted to take things up a notch. I wanted to personally build something that potential teammates could see, feel, touch and play with. I wanted to share a fully functional product that I would muscle together with my bare hands — Chuck Norris style. So I had to learn to code.

Becoming a Builder

I spent all last summer learning how to code [0]. I practically lived on StackOverflow, Github, IRC channels, and Google… soaking it all in like a sponge and working on a real product that would force me to learn. I had a few friends who answered my dumb questions and guided me through some snags. In the end, I built the first version of Undrip almost all on my own. It was perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. At the end of last summer, I felt like I could I do anything. It was an incredible experience [1].

It was never about learning to code so that I could be a one-man army. And it certainly wasn’t about creating a large-scale, production-ready web app that millions could use. In fact, not even a dozen people could use it [2]. It was all about inspiration — putting more arrows in my quiver so that I could get out and inspire people to join me. I wanted to demonstrate that I could dig in and learn, and that Undrip was a product worth fighting for.

8539414758_8fe3517993Handshakes & Smiles

As much as networking sucks, it’s a necessary evil when you need builders. You can’t inspire people if you don’t know anybody to inspire. I’d much rather be working, designing and getting stuff done.

Throughout the summer of me learning how to code, I did everything I could to meet engineers. I would go to python meetups and other hacker gatherings. I would search directories, github and twitter lists for python engineers in the Bay Area who I could meet with in person. It was never about asking them to work with me — that’s the wrong approach. it was always about cultivating the relationship and learning from them as I was doing my best to speak their language (python/django). They felt like they were “giving back” and helping a n00b. I remember meeting Mike Malone, Kenneth Love and so many others at Coffee Shops in the Bay Area. I drove to a small town in the East Bay to meet Kenneth at a local Starbucks. I was immersing myself into their world and building as many relationships as I could. Inspiration always starts with a relationship.

Money Can’t Buy Everything

When you can’t inspire people to join you, it’s very tempting to use that cash in your piggybank to hire a contractor/freelancer. You wanna pay to play.

That rarely works.

I was a design freelancer in college. I would ask for as much money as possible, and I would try to spend as little time on it as possible. That was the name of the game. Contractors just aren’t invested in the long-term success of your product. They’re gypsies moving from one thing to the next. The lack of ownership and commitment will cost you more money, more time and more heart ache in the long run.

What happens when your freelancer is “done”? We all know products are never done. So soon you find yourself back at square one, having to pay someone to fix bugs, tweak features, etc. That hole in your pocket gets larger and larger.

For most that’s just not sustainable. Sooner or later you’re gonna need to inspire people to join you. You’re gonna need partners, owners, motivated team members. A little contract work is never bad when you’ve got people who can maintain, manage, and build the product where it leaves off.

Only One Way Out

In the end, you’ve got just one path ahead. There’s no other way around it. *You have to inspire.* You can learn to code. You can learn to design. You can learn to hustle. You can learn to do a lot of things. But all of them should be mere tactics to your end goal: inspiring others to believe in you, your vision and your product. That inspiration needs to be so strong that they leave everything they’re doing to jump on that life raft with you to start paddling.

It’s insanely hard. It’s insanely crazy. And it’s insanely rare.

But it’s possible. May the odds be ever in your favor.

—————————–
Footnotes:

[0] I started off with the Head First Programming book. I then moved on to Google’s Python Class and MIT’s OpenCourseWare class. I also used Think Python, Learn Python the Hard Way, and Dive Into Python as additional resources. Most importantly, I used friends and the interwebz to get through snags.

[1] It’s not like riding a bike where once you know it, you’re done. I have a good foundation of understanding to work from… but I still have so much more to learn. I’m confident in my ability to learn and progress though. Something special about having ideas and also being able to execute on those ideas.

[2] The entire app would crash when more than just a few people would use it. It was incredibly unstable and shaky. We’ve since had to rewrite and gut the entire thing now that we have experienced engineers — which explains why we’re still in private beta. Nonetheless, I’m still contributing and love it.

Staying The Underdog

5/21/12

At the end of last summer, my first startup was acquired by Chegg. We had around 70 employees at the time and revenue growth was strong. Our vision was to create a global brand in education and we were well on our way in doing that. Chegg gave us an offer we couldn’t refuse so we took it. That exit was a huge success for everyone involved and I’m honored to have been part of it since starting it out of my Princeton dorm room in 2006.

Because of that successful journey, I’m often invited to speak at universities, join panels at events, or judge business plan competitions. I get phone calls, emails and other requests from young entrepreneurs seeking advice. Some would argue that I’ve “made it.”

Ugh.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 22.22.59That feeling is a death kiss no matter who you are — but especially if you’re a successful entrepreneur chasing a new startup dream. It’s a dangerous feeling — complacency isn’t easy to wake up from.

It’s rare for entrepreneurs to have multiple successes. It remains insanely difficult to create something people want whether you’ve done a successful company or not. Odds will always be against you. Just ask Kevin Rose.

I think the best entrepreneurs preserve that underdog mentality no matter how successful they become. They treat their next thing like it’s their first. They keep that chip on their shoulder and work like it’s day one. They’re still willing to run through brick walls and work harder than anyone else. They remember that their poop still stinks and that nothing will come easy.

Guarding, cherishing and preserving those feelings are key. I’m still sitting at the kids table. I’m still on the outside looking in. I’m still that scrappy, young college dropout that no one will listen to.

I’m still the underdog. And this underdog won’t rest.

How I Measure Success

5/19/12

Some judge success by fortune or fame. Others judge it on the quality of relationships (friends, coworkers, family) or the positive impact one might be making in society. Success can mean different things to different people.

I’m not here to debate what success is. But let me tell you what success feels like.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 22.17.38Every morning feels like Christmas morning to me. I wake up bouncing off walls and ecstatic to unwrap the gift of the day ahead. I’m oozing with passion. I enter the #KobeSystem. I’m a hungry savage ready to be unleashed into the wild.

16 hours later…

I hop into bed. I spend a few moments reflecting on the day — the challenges, the triumphs, the lessons learned. Then I start to look ahead. The heart starts to race. It feels like Christmas Eve. I can’t wait to open the gifts of tomorrow. I wish I could just instantly be starting the next day. My mind is like a bag of popcorn in the microwave, popping and crackling with ideas, plans, and dreams. My mind stubbornly fights to outlast the battle-worn body. My mind always loses.

This is a pattern I’ve recognized over the years. My feelings of success can be directly measured by how I feel when I start and end the day. When I have that relentless drive to pursue, dream and achieve… I believe I’m on the right track. When every morning feels like Christmas and every night feels like Christmas Eve, I know I’m doing something right.

I love where I spend my time and who I spend it with. I’m happy and excited to “attack the day with a level of enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” [1]. I feel incredibly lucky and blessed.

To me, that is success.

[1] Jack Harbaugh (father of NFL coaches Jim and John Harbaugh) would tell his boys this every day growing up when dropping his sons off at school.

Finding Balance as a Startup Founder

6/15/11

I’m in Hawaii on a cruise this week. It’s a vacation with my wife’s family. I wasn’t originally planning on attending, but I’m glad I decided to go.

No laptop (but ipad). Lotsa reading and some writing. And most importantly, i’m having fun with family. I’m definitely still thinking about my startup. My mind doesn’t stop. But since phase 1 of my alpha product is near complete, this has been a fitting and refreshing break.

For some time now I’ve been doing 16-hour days of heads-down coding. Like any startup, I have a ton to get done. And I know how deadly missing one startup week can be. I was very close to not coming on this trip.

But if there’s one rule I’ve always tried to live by, it’s this: live every day like it’s your last. Enjoy the journey. Seize the day.

Dangerous Minds

I can easily see myself slipping into the mindset that if I work ridiculously hard now while I’m young — skipping out on vacations and other family/friend outings — then later in life I’ll have everything I ever wanted and more. I’ll one day be able to spend all the time with family and go on all the vacations in the world and do whatever I desired. I just have to pay the price now.

That’s a common mindset for the ambitious and motivated. It’s how we justify our lack of balance, lack of family/friend time, and general lack of completeness. We’re giving up now for the promise of tomorrow. We mask it as vision and sacrifice. We feel like martyrs for the cause.

It’s enticing. It’s reasonable. But to me it’s wrong.

For many, the promise of tomorrow never arrives. For the lucky few who achieve it, it takes much longer than anticipated. And usually, the sweet taste of success will leave us wanting more. Our commitment as a young, hungry mercenary — work insane hours now to play later — is long forgotten. We never believe we arrive. Tomorrow always stays a day away.

That’s a treacherous path.

Gone in 60 Seconds

I don’t wanna let life pass me by. I wanna be there to see my son take his first steps. I wanna be in the bleachers cheering for him the first time he scores. I wanna be side by side with my wife at parent teacher conference, hearing of his struggles and triumphs. I wanna tell him bedtime stories at night, and make him scrambled eggs in the morning.

I wanna be there. For my son. For my wife. And for all the others who matter most to us. I wanna be present.

Life will always be busy. I will always be working on something big and important. I will always be out hustling and creating. I will always have a default excuse of “I am simply too busy.” It’s my reality. It’s the path I’ve chosen.

But my most important work will never be a startup. The startups I create and the riches I acquire will not go with me to the grave or into the after life. The relationships I build will. Making myself available for those closest to me — whether a cruise in Hawaii or a walk around the block — must be a priority to me.

It’s not easy — especially when work is so fun and fulfilling. To actually leave work — physically, mentally or emotionally — requires work. A lot of it. And for me, will require years of discipline and practice. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m still trying to find the perfect formula for balance.

Beauty and the Beast

I’m terrified of an outcome on the other end of the spectrum. One that involves me at my death bed, with all the riches in the world, but with no one around me. A world of regrets — wishing I would have spent more time with my wife and kids. Wishing I would have strengthened my relationships with good friends. Wishing I would have served and helped more people. Wishing I would have found the things that bring true happiness. A world of everything, but with nothing.

I’m happy to err on the side of too much friends and family. They bring the most happiness to my life. And they are who matter most. Maybe I just don’t know enough old people, but I’ve never met an old person wishing they would’ve spent more time at work.

Be careful when you give up today’s joy for tomorrow’s unknown. The destination will be sweeter if you stop to enjoy the path.

Back to catching waves…

Burning The Boats

5/25/11

Note: Since I announced the news early last week, i’ve been inundated with messages — requests from investors, notes from supportive friends, and inquiries from folks who wanna work with me. It’s been humbling to see the response. I apologize to any who have not yet heard back from me. As you can imagine, i’ve been very busy. Now for today’s post…

The ancient Greek warriors were some of the toughest fighters of the time. It wasn’t so much their training or their weapons or their tactics. It was their unwavering commitment to win. When they would arrive on enemy shores, the first orders from their commanders would be to “burn the boats.” And they did. They torched their boats. The message was loud and clear: there was no turning back. There was no retreat. No surrender. The only way out was forward. Victory or death. No other outcome.

It’s told that when Cortes landed in Mexico in the 1500′s, he had the same thing done. The ships were burned. He made sure his crew had no way back, except as heroes.

I could have easily started building my startup as a side project, working nights and weekends. I could have saved any possible embarrassment, because no one would have known if I failed. I could have continued to learn and validate my idea. I could have started assembling the team. A great six-figure salary would have continued and I wouldn’t have put my family at such great financial risk. There would have been no pressure. There would have been no downside.

So why did I choose a different path?

Because I believe the best entrepreneurs burn the boats. I wouldn’t call myself a Founder otherwise.

When the boats are burned, you are fully committed. Your heart and mind are 100% focused. No distractions. No side-projects. No looking back. It’s all-in and all-the-time. You can’t retreat back to your day job. You’re out on the street and forced to hustle. No flight, only fight. You will win or die trying.

It’s a beautiful thing. I’ve landed on this island, my boats are burned, and I have no other choice but to make this new startup work. The savings account gets smaller and smaller every single day. The clock is ticking. It’s uncomfortable and it’s hard. But nothing will force me to move faster and perform better than the raw instinct of survival. I must deliver. There’s no such thing as a mulligan. Moving forward and #winning is the only way out. I will find a way. I always do.

Let’s build our hut and find some grub. I’m hungry.

“When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.”
- Walt Disney

The Comfort Zone Is Of The Devil

4/18/11

Before I headed to Princeton, I spent two years in Northeast Brazil as a Mormon missionary. No technology. No dating. Just knocking on doors and preaching at street corners and on buses. An evangelist in the truest sense. It was an experience i’ll cherish forever.

The Comfort Zone

Each mission has a Mission President — an older, wiser, more experienced leader to help manage this large group of 19-21 year-olds. My Mission President was a retired Colonel from the Brazilian military. Great friend and mentor.

Just one year into my mission, I was assigned to work along side the Mission President to help lead/manage the entire mission (200+ missionaries in the state of Pernambuco, Brazil). I helped lead the strategy and vision in helping convert people to our faith. It was a wonderful learning experience and I was grateful for the opportunity to serve in that capacity. There are so many parallels between running a mission and running a business, but that’s for another post.

Life as a mission leader wasn’t always easy, but it certainly wasn’t as challenging as knocking doors under the hot sun, day in and day out, like the other missionaries in the field. We worked from the air-conditioned mission office, traveled around with the Mission President speaking/training missionaries, and made sure everything in the mission was running smoothly and effectively.

It was comfortable. It was stable.

The Assignment

With a few months left in my two-year mission, my Mission President pulled me into his office. We were preparing for the arrival of a new Mission President (they rotate every three years) so I expected a conversation regarding the transition period — how i’d help the new President get acquainted with the missionaries, the geographic regions, the processes, the metrics, etc.

Instead, the conversation was quite different.

My Mission President wanted me to leave the mission office and finish my mission out in the mission field, preaching at street corners and teaching in peoples homes. He wanted me to train a new missionary (someone fresh to the mission who didn’t speak a lick of Portuguese). He said I could choose the missionary and that I could choose the area. He said that I had more to learn, and that I needed to get out of the mission office to learn it. He capped the conversation off with these words: “The comfort zone is of the devil.”

He was so right.

I’ll never forget the great experiences I had during those last few months of my mission when I was out in the field. It was hard. It was challenging. It was draining. But it pushed and stretched me in a way that i’ll forever be grateful for. It was an incredible learning experience. I needed that bucket of water thrown on me. I needed to step out of the comfortable life in the mission office.

The Conclusion

Since that time during my mission, i’ve tried to frequently ask myself this question: how can I get out of the comfort zone? How am I challenging myself? How can I force myself to grow and learn?

This world is getting more and more competitive. People are working harder and getting smarter. Troves of knowledge and information are at our finger tips. There are increased resources for productivity and efficiency. People are leveraging the latest and greatest technologies and methods to “get ahead.” It’s cut-throat. It’s sometimes brutal.

To stop expanding our skill-set is to live dangerously. The workplace is becoming too competitive to be satisfied. Constant development isn’t just to thrive, but to survive.

The teams and individuals who will win in these fast-paced, rapidly-changing times will be those who are constantly challenging themselves, constantly learning, constantly evolving, and constantly killing the comfort zone.

The comfort zone isn’t always bad. But it if it hinders, stops, or slows your personal progress, then it must be dealt with. It’s much easier said than done. But in my limited experience, it’s definitely a discipline worth pursuing. Whenever I step out of my comfort zone and attempt something extraordinary, I always grow stronger because of it.

Back to the hustle.

“A man grows most tired while standing still.” – Chinese Proverb

We’re all just storytellers

4/11/11

Last week Anne and I were invited to Princeton to speak at Ed Zchau’s class on high tech entrepreneurship. It’s always a pleasure and i’ve now done it 4-5 times. Ed is a former congressman, entrepreneur and has taught at places like HBS and GSB. He’s an amazing teacher and has so much knowledge and wisdom to share. Princeton students are lucky to have him.

I usually mingle with students afterward and share my contact info so they can follow up with me, ask questions, get advice, etc. I was surprised by the number of students who wanted to chat afterwards. And I was also surprised by the number of students who have since emailed and said how much they enjoyed the class. It was a much larger response than normal.

I wondered why.

I informally polled a few of the students, trying to better understand what they liked most about the class and why such a positive response.

The common thread: they liked my stories.

I shared more stories than normal — my defeats and my triumphs, my bumps and my bruises. I took them on a ride… weaving in and out of the people, the things and moments on my path of entrepreneurship. I talked about the time when my brothers and I went door to door, asking BYU students if we could take trash out for $0.25 a bag. Holla. I talked about how I didn’t graduate high school cap-and-gown-style, because I was too busy hustling on a website that ultimately became profitable. I told the story of when I got last place at my first business plan competition for a photo sharing site, and how it motivated me to work harder. I told the Zinch story. I told the time of when a VC said he hated my idea, but he liked me as a person (I now know how it feels to be a girl when a boy tells her she’s not very cute, but her personality is nice. No girl ever wants to hear that, and I certainly didn’t wanna hear that from the VC).

I told stories, stories and more stories. I tried to make it as real as possible, sharing my energy and passion. I love building. I love creating. I love #winning.

Great entrepreneurs know how to tell stories. Everything we do is telling some one, some form of a story. We gotta build a product that tells a persuasive story to our users. If we wanna raise capital, we gotta present a case that tells a compelling story to investors. If we wanna turn our product into a real business, at some point we gotta convince someone to pay for something, and that starts with a story. If we wanna hire the best and brightest, we gotta share a vision and story that will end “happily ever after.” And sometimes, we need to convince ourselves of the cause, telling ourselves to keep moving forward.

Entrepreneurs are story tellers. Do everything to master the skill. I know I still have a lot to learn.

Footnote: Listen to Jack Dorsey’s take on storytelling. He’s a tech CEO I really admire. Love his interviews.

Finding Meaning

3/10/11

Earlier this week I attended a BUILD event in Oakland. BUILD’s mission is to use entrepreneurship to excite and propel disengaged, low-income students through high school to college success. They asked if I would participate and be a judge. Teams of students pitched their ideas and us judges asked questions, gave feedback, shared advice, etc. I had fun mingling with the students and sharing war stories before and after the formal event. I also did a video interview for the school’s news station. It was an enjoyable experience and I hope to continue to be involved with the program.

As I reflected on my drive home over the Bay Bridge, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was living a life with enough meaning. Am I helping where I can? Am I actively looking for these types of opportunities to share my talents and knowledge?

I’m convinced that we are happiest when we are giving to others — giving our time, our knowledge, our resources, our talents, our energy, our vision. It’s fulfilling. Unfortunately, it’s much easier said than done. It doesn’t come easy. We’ll have a great experience like this but the feeling will often fade fast.

The BUILD program seems to be a sweet spot for me. It’s at the cross-hairs of what I love. I love youth and believe in the power of education. I believe in opportunity, especially for minorities or those who come from under-privileged homes. I love entrepreneurship and startups. If even just one person went away inspired, motivated, or uplifted by my thoughts or experiences… then my work was a success. That’s fulfilling.

It’s so much easier to serve when it’s something you’re truly passionate about.

We all have skills. We all have passions. We all have areas of expertise. Most of the time we won’t have to organize a thing. If we actually look, we’ll find a program or organization that’s already plugged in. The key is finding organizations that do what we love. That way it won’t be hard to find the time — we all find time to do what we love.

What are you doing to give back? Where’s the meaning in your life? Think about it.

Note: This post is as much for me as anyone else. I need to step up my game.

When a Team Refuses to Die — Part 2

2/18/11

Note: This is part 2 of a recent post called “When a Team Refuses to Die.

The point of my last post was not to tell the “Zinch Story,” but to share an abridged version of certain historical events to help convey a message: great entrepreneurs always find a way.

My post covered the time period between q4 of 2007 and q1 of 2008. Though a very important part of the Zinch story, it’s exactly that — just a part of the Zinch story. And it’s just my perspective. The beginning of the story dates back to my Princeton days in 2006. The end of the story has yet to be told.

It’s very hard to summarize a span of 6 months in a blog post. In startup world, that’s an eternity. There were so many intricate details, unique experiences, and drama-filled events that took place during that time. The story is so much more powerful than what I shared. A lot went down. Fights. Creative investor buy-outs. Rogue employees. Luck. You name it, we had it. It’s as sexy, complex and crazy as the early days of the Facebook story. Not even an epic novel or a Hollywood thriller could give “The Zinch Story” the justice it deserves.

Having said that, let’s unpack “The Storm” section of my blog post just a little bit more. That wasn’t the focus of my post so that’s why I didn’t get into much detail. But that part of the story definitely deserves additional attention, and one of my cofounders put together his perspective that I wanted to share. This was q4 of 2007. There is so much untold — so many unsung heroes.

Below is Brad Hagen‘s perspective on what went down during that time period. Hopefully this paints a better picture of how tough the times were. It was a dark, dark time for Zinch. But we were determined. We refused to die.

The Angels

We worked our butts off trying to figure things out. We weren’t charging colleges when we raised capital from the Utah Angels. Metrics started slowing down and we were burning money because we had no revenue. Users we’re growing, but not as quickly as we’d have liked. We decided to try to monetize with colleges and this was in the middle of us going to battle with the angels (vision wasn’t aligned).They weren’t on the same page as us, and we found that out quickly after the money came in the bank. The battle with them felt like the movie ‘300’ when we we’re in it. It seemed epic and it seemed as if it would define our company. At the time it did. We won, we got it the way we wanted, but not without some battle wounds. We took on debt to save ourselves and got them out of our way. We changed CEO’s. We were exhausted. We slayed the angels and got rid of some rogue employees, but this still didn’t save our cash flow problem.

The Push

All during this time we pushed Than Hancock to help monetize with colleges. In September we talked about what it would take. Could we ramp up colleges before we ran out of money? We got our first check from a college in November. Were we worried? Yes. Were we too busy with photo shoots and admiring ourselves? No. What were we doing? Battling the most important battle ever, taking down crappy employees and the Utah Angels who didn’t believe. That’s what the distraction was, and even with that, we knew money was draining.

It came to the first week of November and we realized we would not make payroll at the end of the month. We talked about a lot of things. We decided to pay the tech team and keep them all happy. We needed them. We figured out a way to pay them — I would pull another $60K out of my personal bank account to float payroll that month. That was my reality to keep this company alive — to keep it breathing. To be honest, I don’t even know if I got paid back that money. Doesn’t matter. Zinch was my life, my baby, and it was going to succeed. I wasn’t… none of us were going to let it die without a fight. We knew the concept was valid, we just needed to get it to the masses. We decided to let a team go, a team of five people that were dedicated to grassroots high school marketing. It was a team that I was working with on a daily basis, so it was tough. We still needed to talk to our sales team, who up until recently, we hadn’t really asked to make sales.

The Loyalty

But the toughest thing was talking to the sales team, most of whom I had personally brought on through friendships. Over two nights, after work, I met with each of them individually. This is where the real story is. There was four or five of them. They were all at Zinch because they believed in it. And it broke my heart to have to meet with them and most likely tell them bye. I explained the situation. I explained our plan to get out of it. And then I asked them if they would be willing to work for a month without pay. I told them they could leave but we wanted them to stay. We couldn’t pay them, but we needed them.

It was probably the first time I had tears as a grown man. It was emotional. I was real with them. It brought me to tears. I’ll never forget these talks. Every single one of them wanted to back the company. Every single one said they’d stand with us. Every single one stayed to make this happen. It’s because of them that we are where we are today. This was a humbling moment in so many ways. Those early employees not only had character that I didn’t believe people had, but they had a loyalty to our company and to us as founders. That was the power that made Zinch. Do you want to talk about never willing to quit, it was the sales team that exemplified this to me.

So that November we all busted our butts. Everyone still at the company knew our situation and bonded together to make it happen. Being open with them empowered them. We ended up getting revenue started. But that wasn’t the end. The story doesn’t end happy there. We didn’t have enough money still. We were still skeptical about making payroll for December. I’ve never pounded the streets so hard, we all were, trying to figure anything out. Trying to find someone to invest, and give us more time to ramp revenue from colleges.

Christmas Miracle

Sid and Mick were all pounding the pavement pretty hard, we were doing everything. I was flying to New York, New Jersey, trying to talk to anyone we could through introductions people gave us. Then one of our loyal sales reps came to us and said, “My dad has an extra $100K that he wants to put somewhere before the end of the year. Do you think he could invest in Zinch (paraphrasing).” I won’t forget that moment. It wasn’t that easy, but we had another opportunity. I remember going to his fathers office and pitching him. It was one of the most important sales I’ve ever made. I convinced him and then I wondered, should we take his money? Is this going to work or am I going to just waste his $100K? It was a serious moral dilemma. When I got back to the offices and saw the sales team doing work on the phones, I knew that $100K was not going to waste. There was a team ready to make it happen. An entire team that wouldn’t quit. This was what we needed to get over the hump.

We ended up getting the check the last couple days of December, something like the 30th and payroll went out the day later (a little more than half of that money). By January we had ramped revenue, colleges were jumping on board and paying good money for it. We’ve never looked back since then. And your post covers well what happened in early 2008 (March Madness, fundraising effort, etc).

The Conclusion

I know its hard to get specific in a blog post, but I felt like our reality of that time period was cheated in your post (I don’t blame you for it, not many will understand all the emotions, sweat, tears that we went through during that time. I know my words still don’t capture the reality, there is much more that we are leaving out). The never say die attitude was in the details of the events over those 3 months and it came from multiple people. Those were tough times, challenging times. But all for the better. It was an amazing experience for me. And it’s a challenge that I will never forget and hope to never have again. I’m glad we didn’t go through that alone. We needed 3 founders to get through that, I’m glad we had each other and a team that supported us. I know we all worked extremely hard to not let Zinch die. I’m sure Sid has an even different lens. But this was mine. And it probably still missed some things, but this is etched in my mind forever.

The Fear of Failure

2/10/11

I was lucky enough to make the varsity basketball team my freshman year in high school. It was a dream come true. Overnight, I got all the attention and popularity a young 15-year old can handle before the head explodes.

The Senior

I knew I wouldn’t get much playing time in the varsity games but I wasn’t afraid to be aggressive in practice. I wanted to help the team the best I could.

There was a Senior on the team who was a really good player. He played college ball and went on to play professionally overseas. Unfortunately, he was also a major jerk.

This Senior made basketball practice a living nightmare for me.

If I turned the ball over — he’d yell at me. If I missed a jumper — he’d yell at me. If I got stuffed taking the ball to the rack — he’d yell at me. He got on my case for every little mistake I made.

I quickly became just a warm body out on the court — just taking up space. I’d get the ball and look to pass immediately. I was afraid to even just dribble. I didn’t wanna get yelled at. My nickname became “not-a-factor.” Everyone knew I wasn’t gonna try anything.

I was terrified of doing anything wrong. I was afraid to fail.

The Pattern

I hear of this type of thing happening far too often. Teams. Groups. Organizations. Companies. Whatever. Doesn’t matter what the setting or industry or profession — it happens all the time.

You aggressively go out on a limb to create something remarkable. You take a risk. You attempt the impossible or unproven.

There’s just one small problem… it doesn’t pan out. It doesn’t work. It fails.

The Senior (maybe a manager, a coworker, a teammate, a boss) isn’t pleased. He gets on your case. He says things like, “How bout we just stick to what we know works” or “Let’s get more data or do more research before we try something like that again.”

You keep trying new things but the resistance grows stronger with each failed attempt. You become discouraged, disappointed, disheartened. Though not always explicit, the message becomes loud and clear: stop trying new things.

So you do. You stop attempting. You stop pushing the envelope. Boo. Boo. Boo. Triple boo.

The Environment

Any environment where creativity, innovation and calculated “risk taking” isn’t embraced is an environment from which you should run far, far away. There won’t be progress. There won’t be happiness. Just static nothingness. Paper pushing all day. Bleh.

Everyone gives lip service to letting their team try new things. The true test isn’t in how the organization responds to the idea of innovation and creativity. Rather, it’s how the organization responds to failure. Does your organization embrace failure like it does victory? Does the team feel encouraged to try, try and try again — even when previous attempts failed?

The Solution

There’s no easy solution if you’re caught in this rut of an environment. You can either quit and find a better environment or you can keep persisting. Keep going. Keep trying. Keep believing.

You may not be the oldest. You may not be the most experienced. You may not be the smartest. The one thing that you do have that most don’t: guts to try. Most people are content watching from the sidelines or bleachers. You be the Man in the Arena.

I’m reminded of this with a special bookmark I have. My father gave it to me while in high school. It’s a simple index card etched with the handwritten words, “Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid of being special.”

Embrace your failures. Let them pepper your path to greatness.

“Ships are safe at harbor, but that’s not what ships are built for.”