How I See The World

4/28/11

These last few weeks i’ve been tweeting random, sometimes cheesy “Mick-isms.” I really liked this one about planning. Here’s one about dreaming (continued). Another about confidence, and one about work-ethic. And to acknowledge my own cheesyness, I tweeted this.

It made me wonder if I could somehow summarize how I see the world, in just one post. So i’ll attempt to do that here. Bring on the cheese. :) Hopefully it sheds some light on my values, my personality, and my vision. I’m sure I missed a lot… but this is a good start.

Family

Taking care of my family and making sure they are happy is the most important thing to me. Everything else will always be secondary. I’m constantly reminding myself of this as it’s easy to slip into the grind of insane startup hours and forget what actually matters most in life. “No success in the world can compensate for failure in the home.” I’m lucky. Super lucky.

Dreaming

I dream big. There’s no other way to dream. Life is too short to constantly be playing it safe and bunting to get on first. I live life to hit home runs. I’m convinced God wants us all to be swinging for the fences. “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.” 1 Corinthians 9:24

Victory

I wanna win. I demand it. And I expect it. This confidence is probably my biggest weakness. It’s also my biggest strength. I hate losing more than I love winning. I’m a killer competitor. I’m relentless. I will always find a way to win.

Defeat

I’m not afraid to fail. It happens sometimes. I lose. I fail. As hard as it is to accept, i’ve come to appreciate it. It gets me one step closer to victory. It’s hard to savor the sweet taste of success unless you’ve felt the bitter, sour taste of defeat. But don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing I hate more than not coming in 1st.

Learning

I love to learn. If we’re not learning, we’re not progressing. And that is deadly. It’s one of the purposes of life. I really enjoy reading and understanding new trends, technologies and skills. And I love to surround myself with people who are interesting and smart, so I can constantly be learning. :)

Underdog

I don’t mind when people doubt me or my ideas. Haters gonna hate. I use it as fuel to work harder. Proving people wrong has been the story of my life. I operate best as an underdog. I’ll sneak up and surprise when no one expects it. I’m a silent assassin.

Integrity

One’s honor and integrity is the essence of one’s soul. These are characteristics I hold in highest regard, and can only be earned over time. I do my best to be honest, moral, and ethical in everything I do. Hopefully anyone who has worked with me would agree.

Personality

I come across as a layed-back guy. If you were to peak inside my brain, you’d see a different story. I’m always thinking. Always processing. Always working. Always calculating my next move. Life is a chess game, and I try to stay 10 moves ahead. My mind often overheats. The intensity and passion keeps me awake at night.

Vision

I’m a builder, a creator. I hope to continue to build startups for a very long time. Startups are my passion. But eventually and perhaps in parallel, my ultimate vision is to be in a position that I can serve and share with others. My parents have been great examples of being charitable and generous with their resources. They weren’t rich, but they were always willing to give and share what they had. And I see people like Bill and Melinda Gates and what they’re doing to make the world a better place — I can’t help but be inspired. I wanna do that someday, in my own small world. Having an abundance of resources or knowledge is a heavy burden to bear, we’re expected to do good with it.

Happiness

I like to have fun. It’s easy to obsess over reaching the end goal, and not enjoy the journey. I do my best to enjoy every step of the way. Life is too short to not smile every single day and be happy. I believe that we are on this earth to grow, learn, and find happiness. I try to surround myself with people who are happy, and who make me happy. And when storms come — they always do — we adapt and roll with the punches together.

The Conclusion

Whether you see the world the way I see it or not is irrelevant. The beauty of life is that we’re constantly meeting and intersecting with new and interesting people, celebrating their uniqueness, learning from their experiences, and sharing moments that might change our life. Life would be too boring any other way.

If you feel a desire to connect with me, ping me. I always enjoy meeting new people.

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.

True Hustlers Know How to Adapt

3/29/11

Early into my first (and only) year at Princeton, I was a little hustler. I did freelance web design, graphic design and photography. Clubs and organizations would pay me to do all sorts of stuff – make their website, make posters, photograph their event. I was all over the place doing whatever I could to make a few bucks.

All the freelance stuff just wasn’t that scalable or interesting. I knew I needed to think bigger. I had a wacky idea of creating a photo-sharing web app that would enable Princeton parents to buy photos of their children. So if you were in a musical, your parents could buy pictures of you in that musical, etc. Anyone could contribute pictures and anyone could browse pictures. What parent wouldn’t wanna see/buy pictures of their children away at college? Seemed to make sense.

I quickly got the site up and running. To get it kickstarted, I needed to seed the site with photos. So I wanted to get out and take pictures at all the big sports games, musical performances and any other on-campus event. And I really needed a way to gain access to the exclusive eating clubs (huge mansions) — where they would often throw lavish parties and “themed” events. The best photo opportunities would be at these huge parties. I didn’t wanna have to pay to get into any of these events. So I needed some sort of “pass.” I needed access to the hottest events on campus.

I didn’t expect this to be a problem. Seemed simple. I talked to the Dean of this and the Dean of that, filled out all the paper work, did the full rigamarole. It was an excruciating process but all signs were promising.

In the end, it didn’t work out. I was denied. It was a huge punch in the gut. My new website was banking on this. I had to get these pictures to get the site going.

I wasn’t gonna let that stop me.

I decided to create my own press “pass.” I quickly designed it in photoshop, printed it on hard paper (thanks Kinkos), attached it to a lanyard, and wore it around my neck proudly. It was my “press pass into everything.” And it was “valid until graduation.”

And it worked.

With my home-made press pass, I got into anything I wanted — sports games, plays, dance performances, concerts, and last but certainly not least, the extravagant eating club parties. The bouncers at the front doors were always so confused at my pass. They had never seen anything like it before. I would confidently assure them that yes, I had access and they needed to let me in. The freshman hustler always got in the door.

If there’s one thing i’ve learned as an entrepreneur, it’s to expect the unexpected. Things rarely go as planned. We will be knocked down with surprises, time and time again. Our ability to roll with the punches and play with the cards we’re dealt with is critical. We gotta be adaptable, resourceful, nimble and relentless. Great entrepreneurs are like heat-seeking missiles, willing to adjust accordingly until locked-in on target.

These surprises and hiccups are part of what make startup life so great. Every day is a new adventure, a new challenge, a new wrinkle to the equation. Never a dull moment. It’s thrilling!

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” – Darwin

Happy Birthday Zinch

3/16/11

We launched Zinch.com on March 12, 2007 — four years ago last Saturday. We attended (and had a booth) that same year in Austin at the NACAC National Conference — the biggest annual event in college admissions. That year in Austin was our big coming out event.

I’ll never forget what we heard there from the incumbent companies. Paraphrasing: “We see this every year. Startups come and make a big splash at NACAC, and then next year they’re nowhere to be seen. Deadpool. This will be your first and last NACAC. Good luck.”

I love doubters. Success is the most effective silencer. Below are a few highlights of where we stand today.

Bizness

The business continues to grow. We work with more than 900 colleges and universities — big schools, small schools, public, private, top tier schools like Yale, Stanford, and Princeton. We continue to provide immense value to our clients. Admissions and recruitment is going increasingly “social”; students have been yearning for a more humanized college admissions process. Zinch is at the forefront; we pioneered this category and we continue to blaze the path.

We have more than 3 million user profiles. We have a China-specific version of our website, Zinch.cn, along with a handful of other micro-sites that are rapidly growing. We have great partners. We’ve built a product platform that allows us to aggressively expand to other countries and more verticals within education (transfer recruitment, graduate school recruitment, etc).

Team

We now have offices in three locations (San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Beijing) and sales reps all over the world. People are the most important component to any enterprise. Zinch is only where it is today because of the amazing people who are on the team. Fun fact: Four Harvard Business School alum are on the team — including our CEO.

Media Love

We continue to get great media attention. We were recently highlighted in a White House Press Release. A wave of press will be coming soon with the launch of our new book, Getting In! The Zinch Guide to College Admissions & Financial Aid in the Digital Age. We’ve been on the NBC Today Show and ABC News. We’ve been in print media like the US News, New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Examiner. We’ve been highlighted in education-specific publications like Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle of Higher Education. We’ve been in collegiate newspapers all over America like Yale Daily News, Daily Pennsylvanian, and The Phoenix. Zinch has a great story and a great product. This is just the beginning of Zinch in the media.

Winning

Early in the Zinch history, we cleaned up at business plan competitions. We won student competitions at BYU, Princeton and Utah. Bam bam bam. More recently we won a Webby Award, a Stoel Rives Innovation Award, and a uv50 award. We were also selected as a Red Herring Top 100 North American Tech Startup. Kinduva big deal. We have a great product and i’m sure we will continue to be recognized for it.

Cheerleaders

We have a team of great investors, advisors and mentors. A few weeks ago I wrote a popular yet controversial post about how I don’t like how certain investors treat their portfolio companies. We are fortunate that this is not a problem at Zinch. I really enjoy working with our investors/advisors. They are smart, thoughtful and extremely helpful. Our VC backer is New World Ventures, out of Chicago. Chris Girgenti and Adam Koopersmith have been a pleasure to work with. A few of our angel investors include Mike Levinthal, Chris Michel, Aydin Senkut, Rich Ferguson, Levi King, Josh James, Morgan Lynch, Tom Ngo and Larry Rosenberger among others. Our advisors have also been fantastic. They include Will Harbin, Stan Chudnovsky, and Aurelie Guerrieri. This paragraph is packed with some of the smartest people I know. We are lucky to have these folks involved.

Conclusion

There are no signs of this business slowing down. In fact, growth seems to be accelerating. Zinch is in a great position to become the next big juggernaut in education — with the likes of Washington Post Company or College Board. I’ve never been more optimistic about the company and its future. We have a great CEO at the helm along with a team full of talented people.

The thing I love most about Zinch is that we have lasting social impact — we’re helping students achieve their higher education goals as well as helping them pay for it. We’re doing good and doing well. We’re making a real difference in students’ lives — we hear stories every day.

It is so humbling and fulfilling to see how far this company has come. I couldn’t be more proud. I’m lucky and fortunate to have been even but a small part of it. I look forward to the many years ahead. This company is here to stay. You’ll be seeing us at many more NACACs. :)

Happy Birthday Zinch. You’re growing up.

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 Investors Treat Us Like Toys

3/2/11

Update: Dan Primack, Senior Editor at Fortune Magazine, approached me and asked if they could put this post on their website. It’s now on Fortune’s website. Very cool.

I spent a few days at Launch Conference last week and had a great time. Great conference for entrepreneurs and investors. Good description of the event here.

I met some entrepreneurs doing really interesting things. Their passion and energy is contagious. They are underdogs. And I love underdogs.

The conference was also filled with early-stage investors and VCs. I interacted with a few personally but mainly I listened and observed as they participated on panels and as they gave feedback to the presenting startups.

The Investor

I don’t appreciate the way some investors talk about the startups in their portfolio. I’ll sometimes hear, “Yea, i’m in on that deal.” The words themselves aren’t that bad… but it’s the way they say it. They convey an attitude of not really caring. It’s just a “deal.” It’s like they’re playing a game of monopoly or doing some fantasy baseball trade or playing a game of Poker and us entrepreneurs are just the Skittles they’re playing with.

I get it. It’s often their job to invest in a bunch of companies. I understand. Spray and pray. Yadda yadda yadda. But it’s no excuse for not caring.

The Entrepreneur

We put our entire life and livelihood at risk for the startup. We have no alternative. No portfolio to lean on. It must work. All day every day, we are consumed in building value in the enterprise. We forgo great jobs, great schools, and great opportunities to be building a startup — a startup that will most likely fail. But we continue.

Some of us are post-economic (we’ve sold a company), but most of us aren’t. We’ve got no track record. Little money in the bank. Just hustle in our veins and a dream that won’t die.

I’ve had my share of battle wounds. I’ve gone through tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I’ve slept on couches and bunked up with friends. I’ve begged family members for loans… as humiliating as that is. I’ve gone through a nasty foreclosure. Yes, you heard that right: i’ve lost a home. Do you know how hard and embarrassing that is? My credit is a complete disaster and will take years to recover. This hasn’t been easy.

Yet to so many investors, we’re just a “deal.” Just a drop in the bucket. Just a Skittle on the poker table. And while these investors are worried about what country club they’re gonna join next or what imported car they’ll get their wife for V-day, we entrepreneurs are busting our butts and sacrificing everything trying to get the company off the ground.

The Exception

Not all investors are like that. Many investors are former entrepreneurs and they still remember what it’s like. They know what we’re going through. They understand how wet the pillow gets at night when times get tough. They understand what it’s like to come home and tell your loved one, “honey… i don’t know how we’re gonna pay rent this month.” They remember.

Many investors aren’t former entrepreneurs. But you’ll know what kind of investor they are by how they talk about their startups and founders. You’ll know by how they express concern and empathy for them, their family, their situation. If they are truly founder-friendly, they’ll care. You’ll hear it and you’ll feel it.

The Conclusion

If you’re an investor, care. Really care. Don’t forget the blood, sweat and tears that we shed every day to make this happen. To you we’re just one investment. To us, this is everything.

If you’re an entrepreneur, don’t take money from investors who treat you like a pawn. You aren’t a toy for them to play with. This means the world to you — literally. They need to respect and appreciate that.

Note: We’re lucky to have great investors at Zinch.

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.

When a Team Refuses To Die

2/16/11

Update: Part 2 now posted — a cofounder’s perspective.

We started working on Zinch in Fall-ish of 2006 and we launched in early 2007. Early momentum was strong. Admissions officers and students from all over America were jumping on board. We were winning awards and being covered in media everywhere. Things were great. People started to take notice and investors were lining up at the door. We were the belle of the ball. We capitalized on the situation and raised several hundred thousand dollars [1].

We grew the team to a dozen or so folks and started aggressively growing. We were on top of the world.

The Storm

The Honeymoon came to a screeching halt.

We were so caught up in the photo shoots and magazine covers that we didn’t even realize what was happening: our cash was quickly running out. By late 2007, we only had a few months of life left [2]. And to make matters worse, site usage softened; metrics were trending downward.

We tried to quickly raise additional capital from the current investors. Given everything going on (and how great a valuation we got on the previous round), they wanted a down-round. We obviously didn’t like that so we went externally to fundraise. Same result — folks wanted a down-round. This would have diluted founder/employee ownership significantly. We weren’t gonna do that to ourselves and to our team. So we had no choice but to leverage ourselves even further — maxing out more credit cards and taking on high-interest loans [3].

To cut costs, we had to fire almost everyone in the company, including two of my best friends. I will never forget that conversation. It was the hardest thing i’ve ever had to do in my life. It was a terrible, dark time in this company’s history. And it all happened around the holidays — quite the Christmas present to people we truly valued and appreciated. We simply had no choice.

Our company was in a death spiral.

The Introspection

By early 2008, we had some big decisions to make. We were hundreds of thousands in debt. We had fired almost everyone except the core team. Morale was the lowest of lows.

The easy decision would have been to quit. Call it good. Close down shop. Chalk it up as a great learning experience and move on.

Or… we could refuse to lose. We could refuse to die. We could turn the company around and keep the dream alive.

We chose the latter.

We knew that to keep the company alive, we needed capital. We weren’t in a position to turn on revenue (Though Than Hancock was doing a killer job at signing up colleges) so the money had to come from investors. The only way to pull this off without doing a down-round would be to demonstrate positive growth on the key metrics.

We didn’t have a lot of time to waste. Fundraising and site growth had to happen in parallel or we would be dead.

Odds were against us. The chances of this working out were slim to none. But if anyone was gonna do it, it was our team of entrepreneurs who simply refused to go away. We were scrappy sons of b’s and we were gonna make this work.

Part 1 of the Plan: Pound the Pavement

We had heard of this thing called the v100 [4]. It’s an annual recognition given from vSpring Capital (VC Firm in SLC) to the best tech entrepreneurs in Utah (or with ties to Utah). We figured this list would be a great place to start knocking doors.

We put together an email that told our story. It was persuasive and compelling. We poured our heart and soul into it.

We sent it to as many people on this list whose email we could find. Some responded. Some didn’t. We immediately started connecting, setting up lunches, meetings and pitches. The end goal was of course to build our network and ultimately find investors who believed in us…

Part 2 of the Plan: March Madness

In parallel, we thought long and hard about how to demonstrate success on the product. Key metrics needed to go up. How could we inject the site with energy and growth.

There were many long hours and sleepless nights just white boarding a lot of ideas. Ultimately, we landed on one solid idea: a scholarship contest similar to the NCAA Basketball tournament. We called it March Madness — The $20k Sweet Diggity Dawg Scholarship Contest. Though it certainly evolved and morphed, Brad Hagen should be given credit for the original idea.

The way it worked is that 64 people would compete in a bracket-style competition. So with each round, people would go head to head against another person. The person who received the most votes would move further into the bracket. Each round was 5-7 days. This would happen until there was one person left standing. We started this in the middle of February and ended it early April.

The little money we had left we were gambling on a scholarship contest. $20,000 dollars. Scary. Crazy. Perhaps again reckless and irresponsible. We were hella ballsy. We basically went all-in.

Luckily, it worked out great. Traffic surged and took down our servers on multiple occasions. We got a ton of buzz and PR. Many of these students became hometown heroes, getting stories in their local media and being rallied around by their community. March Madness was a huge success.

Things were starting to fall into place for us. Did we catch our big break?

The Bait

Our plan was executed to perfection. We had placed the lines out in the water with the v100 networking. And we sweetened the bait with the success of March Madness — demonstrating positive growth. It culminated with us getting major props on NBC’s Today Show. People jumped all over the deal. We brought in a handful of great investors at a great valuation.

Mike Levinthal (formerly of Mayfield Fund) lead the round which also included the likes of Josh James (Omniture), Tom Ngo (NextPage), and Morgan Lynch (LogoWorks) [5].

Mike immediately proved his value and started connecting us with companies, people and partners. He became a very active part of the Zinch story and still serves on our Board. He knew we had talent — mostly raw talent. He believed in us and he helped guide us.

Mike’s greatest contribution was connecting us with Anne Dwane, who has now been our CEO for more than two years (and is fantastic). Mike also helped lead us to great investors like Chris Michel and New World (our VC backers).

The rest is history. Zinch’s world has completely opened up since then.

The Conclusion

Though we’ll always have challenges, Zinch is a very strong company today. A global team making a global impact. Whatever and whenever it may be, Zinch will have a very successful outcome. In many ways it already has. We provide an incredibly valuable service to millions of students and hundreds of universities. We provide livelihood for more than 60 people.

None of this would have happened had it not been for a group of entrepreneurs who simply refused to lose. Sid Krommenhoek. Brad Hagen. Cache Merrill. Than Hancock. Al Wild. Drew Hales. Surya Prakash. Lance Hydrick. Dave Blake. And many others from the early-ish days [6].

It’s a story of hustle, perseverance, determination and luck. At a time when our backs were completely against the wall and nearly dead, the team executed flawlessly. The margin for error was zero. We had to perform to perfection. We did.

We stared death in the face. And we refused to let it take us. Great entrepreneurs simply find a way. There always is a way.

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Footnotes

[1] Shout out to Utah Angels. Though we disagreed on so many levels, I’ve got nothing but respect for John Richards, Ben Peterson and Warren Osbourne.

[2] This was so incredibly reckless and irresponsible of me and the other founders to let happen. I was a terrible and inexperienced 22-year old CEO. As obvious as it sounds, this is exactly how businesses die: they run out of money.

[3] Shout out to Rich Ferguson and Levi King for keeping us alive and believing when no one else did.

[4] In a fun twist of irony, I was voted to be on 2010’s v100 list. It’s an honor. Funny how things come full-circle.

[5] Through that time of heavy networking we were fortunate to meet some other great entrepreneurs and mentors. They include Bill Aho, Brad Baldwin, Jeremy Hanks, Chris Lee, Brock Blake, Paul Allen, Bryce Roberts, Kevin Santiago, Anthony Soohoo, Greg Peterson, Cydni Tetro and David McGinn.

[6] Ryan Caldwell, Josh Westover, Jeremy Johnson, Andy Baxter, David Parkinson, Mason Chen, Melissa Robison, Brandon Boulter, Ikwo Ibiam, Sarah Blanton, Joe Pututau, Taylor Seibold, Ted Williams and so many others.

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.”

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