I hate to shave aka the story of how I quit my job

beard Image courtesy of apdk on flickr under cc license

Today was my last day working full-time for someone else’s large corporation, so I thought now would be an appropriate time to tell my story of the past 18 months.

A little background

When I was a kid, I started a variety of ventures that all went lots of nowhere, but I still really loved the idea of organizing people for a common goal and leading them to success that changes their lives. I started a company in the second grade by saving months of allowance and assigning positions and responsibility to a dozen other students. Unfortunately, we never figured out how to make money and I quickly ran out of cash. In the 6th grade, I tried selling Blowpops on the school bus at very competitive rates but was shut down when the driver informed me that selling things on the bus was not allowed.

In what could be a long story, my work experience during college led me to believe that corporate life was for me. One day in the winter of 2009, I was getting ready for work in front of the mirror. It came time to shave, which is something I hate to do. After staring into the mirror for a few minutes, I decided that I needed to make some changes in my life, if for no other reason than so I could put myself in a position to remove shaving from the appearance requirements where I worked.

My 27th year

Over the course of the next six months, I went on a mission of self-discovery. I realized that I was drawn to startups in a very material way, so I started learning. I put up this blog to share some of my deeper thoughts about life and the things I was learning. Most importantly, I immersed myself in ways that I never thought possible. Suddenly I didn’t want to play video games anymore and I was arguing with my wife to cancel the cable TV package. I stopped attending K-State sporting events and started taking vacation time to go on trips to further my side projects. I dove into things that were way over my head, spending lots of time on things like Mashtun, which is now dead. I didn’t get as much accomplished as I should have, but I learned what I did wrong. As they say, my bad judgement has turned to experience.

About two months ago, I realized that things were not going to end well with Mashtun, so I doubled down on simplifying my life. I started getting out of the house more and talking to other people more. I found some problems in the process we went through while trying to sell our house and started rolling some ideas around in my head. Luckily, my agent didn’t like several things about the process as well, and she encouraged me to take my ideas a little bit further. Finally, after talking about it one geek night 7 weeks ago, I got the encouragement I needed to start thinking about it as a business.

What has happened in the last 7 weeks is what people refer to when they say someone is lucky. In the past year, I have increasingly tried to put myself out there and contribute to my local community, my region, and those that ask me for help. It is easy for me to do things for other people because I think it is my responsibility as an engineer to give back, knowing that we all stand on the shoulders of our predecessors.

While I dove into this new project, other things started to fall into place. I found a market that fits my personality very well. My car, which had been up for sale since last September, finally sold for a fair price. Then in a matter of a few nights, some of the big, high-level strategy pieces of this new project started to fall into place. I decided then that I needed to quit my job and pursue this full-time, lest I look back later on in life and feel regret for not trying. Despite the fact that I would have to live off of savings, I was convinced it was the right decision.

A few days ago, karma gave me a big high five in the form of a very fair offer for our house, which had been listed for sale since March. Now, assuming everything goes through well, we will have a positive monthly budget, and I will have even fewer things to worry about besides building a business that helps people live better lives.

While I appreciated my time at Grundfos, the constant pull between exciting side projects and day job that required shaving was a big source of stress in my life. At times it contributed to some serious mood swings because I wear my heart on my sleeve. It was difficult for my friends to deal with, and very tough on Brandi. I wish I could have made it easier and been more like myself. Now I have replaced that stress with pressure. Instead of being anxious and strained all the time, I am focused and ready to perform.

Looking forward

ShownHome is still a big risk, but it is the right thing for me, at the right time. At the age of 27, I made tons of mistakes, I learned how being biased towards action pays dividends, and I put myself in the position to build the future I want. There are still lots of holes, and I have so much more to learn, but I am ready to go. Being 27 was about discovery, expanding my network and my mind, and putting myself in a position to take bigger risks. My 28th year will be about taking action, making some mistakes, learning the hard way, having some success, and doing what I love on my way to becoming a whole person.

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A meeting with my future

About a month ago, I ventured down to Austin to SXSW for the first time. Chris McCann told me it was spring break for entrepreneurs. Steven Chau told me I really should go, and he hasn’t been wrong about these kinds of things very often. So I looked into the prices for a pass to the Interactive sessions, and they were obnoxious. Chris assured me that the best way to go was *without* a pass so I could spend all of my time networking and talking to people at the parties. If I was disciplined and persistent, I figured I might even be able to swing a few meetings from some of the crowd that would be in town. So I thought about it some more, and asked my friends from other towns if they were attending, and it turned out most were. But the cost of a place was so high, I wasn’t really ready to commit. I went through my list of people that I want to meet face to face to see if any of them were coming, and it turned out Mark Suster was coming. That sealed it for me; I had to go too.

The backstory here is that I first found Mark’s blog well over a year ago when I was spending lots of time reading about my ADHD and what it meant to me. I started reading his blog regularly and after a while I started to notice that what he was writing seemed to be exactly how I thought about something, and when it was a topic with which I was unfamiliar, his writing still made complete sense. In March of 2010, he wrote an article about Twitter that made things really click for me. I immediately activated my twitter account and started @replying him pretty regularly. From that point on, I was usually asking questions in the comments of his blog, challenging his assertions on twitter, and for the most part trying to find any way I could to dig into his brain without being obnoxious. And for the most part, I guess it worked.

So I told Mark that I wanted to meetup while in Austin and he agreed to do it. He warned me that I would have to stay in touch with him. It felt weird to have someone tell me to pester them, but as an ADHD person, I knew that he meant he would be busy but he didn’t want to forget about me. Once I got into town, I pinged him to see if he wanted to grab lunch, and he did. Honestly, I couldn’t freaking believe I was actually going to sit down and talk to someone whose thought process I could understand so clearly and yet had so much life experience. I was truly ready to learn. We met up for some Texas BBQ, which wasn’t bad in my book, with two guys from a company he had invested in. We didn’t get to talk much directly, but I got my first cool experience of the trip when he invited me to some exclusive party that evening. Score one for the little guy from Kansas! I walked with them towards the convention center, where Jason Calacanis saw Mark on the street and came over to chat. I was really just like a fly on the wall, trying to keep up and process as much as I could about media and advertising and other things that I generally don’t know very much about. Mark said we should try to get together later for some one on one time, which I thought was generous, and we went our separate ways.

Now, that evening at the party, there were plenty of VIP’s, but I really enjoyed meeting lots of polished and aggressive entrepreneurs. Sure, it was cool when I was sitting next to Dave McClure and opening a bottle of beer on the edge of a table for him when he didn’t have a bottle opener. He didn’t say thank you so I thought of course he wouldn’t last 10 minutes in the Midwest. But it was an interesting atmosphere and dynamic to find that the most interesting people to me were mostly people that you wouldn’t know. I would also like to point out that it helps when I am feeling introverted to run into someone I know loosely that is a known extrovert. It makes it so much easier to get going and start more conversations later. Thanks Trevor.

At this point, I started running into people I know from other cities that I primarily met last year at the SO Summit, and it felt great to see people that I think really get it. I personally don’t get enough exposure to that here in KC, but I am trying. Over the next day, I combined a little bit of Twitter stalking with lots of accidental bump-ins on the street to keep up with his schedule, which was naturally very busy. The nice thing about the Twitter stalking was finding that there were usually a couple interesting people also chasing Mark. So even though I didn’t grab his attention at one particular time, I could usually fill it with a side conversation with someone that I could learn from. I tried to get him to come over to the Silicon Prairie News party, but it was now Sunday night and there were other things going on. I would have to wait until Monday, which was my last full day in Austin.

On Monday, I was feeling especially introverted. I didn’t want to go out. My friend Robin invited me to a small lunch thing and I still didn’t really want to go, so I decided to walk a few blocks and think about it, where I naturally ran into Mark. We made plans to catch up after an immediate commitment he had, and that I would pester him to make sure he didn’t forget. He was starting to sound pretty hoarse, and he was a popular person on the street, so I went to find a quiet and obscure place after catching up with Robin. I did my obligatory pestering, and after a while he sent back a message saying he had been roped into lunch. I was starting to feel a little unsure it was going to happen. Score minus one for the little guy from Kansas. Then I got a voicemail from him saying we would definitely do it soon, and he would ping me. The truth here is that if you get someone with ADHD to stop and say this is important and we will do it and I will let you know when, then it is probably going to happen. So I went back to the apartment I had rented, read some news, and was ready to take a nap to freshen up. As I was setting my phone down, in came the message. “Free?” At this point, I figure I was probably 14 blocks from him, so I grabbed my bag, and I started running through downtown Austin to catch him before someone else had the chance. Success.

The conversation that happened over the next 75 minutes was nothing short of pure bliss. I won’t waste your time with the specifics, but it was all advice that I would give myself, and in the end, that is really what I thought was unique about him. I am glad I was right, and of course I am glad he took the time for me. I still can’t believe some of the weird parallels between us, and it really felt like I could be talking to my future self. Perhaps if I play my cards right, I will get there. And that was the story of my first SXSW. I planted seeds long ago, and when an opportunity arose to meet with my future, I took it.

Time to start recruiting

Try as you will, you can’t escape the startup roller-coaster.  September was an awesome month, bringing new connections to other entrepreneurs and some positive and negative feedback about the business from brewers.  It started in Bloomington, IN where I was blown away by the amazing people in the startup community, hit a speed bump when I got into a car accident in Denver, and then concluded with a paradigm shifting experience right here in KC.  However, right around the corner, October was preparing to test my dedication to Mashtun.  I had a trip for my day job that left me feeling more underwhelmed than ever about my future in the company followed by news no founder wants to hear.  My co-founder and friend of many years has decided to part ways with Mashtun before we take the next step.  It left me with lots of mixed emotions.  I am glad that I know him well enough and that we are both strong enough people that he wouldn’t lead me on knowing he won’t be able to ramp up as I continue to dedicate more and more of my life to the future of this venture.  However, I am obviously upset that I am losing a top quality individual and someone that knows how to beat me in a debate.  I think it is valuable to have someone that can disarm you, especially when you like to debate and argue like me.
 
That said, I have done a little bit of soul searching and decided that I still want to do this.  I still believe in the mission.  It is an important challenge and has many high obstacles, but there are many rewards if we are able to find a way to liberate craft beer consumers and grant them the freedom to choose their products without restriction.  I have taken to describing myself as 75% hustler and 25% hacker (100% crazy), and I am prepared to take up some slack in the hacking department to try and build the product.  However, I have a very acute appreciation for the fact that I will run into severe time constraints and need someone else before long.  To that end, I am beginning my search for a new technical co-founder now so that I have plenty of time to get to know them and vice versa.  I don’t want to be in the position later where I don’t know someone well enough but I am forced to take someone because of the situation.
So, if you know someone that might be interested in joining up, I would appreciate the introduction.  I strongly believe in finding good balance in all teams, so I am listing some things about myself that you might not know.

  • ADHD
  • I am the 75% guy.  I need people that are better at following things through.
  • I am vision builder and tend to be abstract, but my engineering discipline taught me how to handle details.
  • I encourage alternate opinions, but I argue hard for my position when I feel enough information has been presented to make a conclusion.
  • I hate passive aggressive people.
  • I love beer (duh?)
  • I am passionate about building the right culture.
  • If I don’t know enough about a subject, I will research it until I can speak and act with confidence.
  • I am intense.  I wear my heart on my sleeve.
  • This is an evenings and weekend gig for me at the moment.
  • I am an open person.  If you ask me a question, chances are I will answer it.  I don’t believe in half-truths or white lies.

In a perfect world, I would prefer to spend a little bit of time chatting with people.  At some point, I might ask them to make some small contributions or demonstrations of their ability, and I would expect that they would ask the same of me.  Over the course of the next several months, this will hopefully present the person to work with next.

SO Summit Thoughts

Just over a week ago, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend the first Startup Organizers Summit in Kansas City.  It was fortunate because my travel budget is completely destroyed and I didn’t have to travel to make it.  Also, as Steven Chau likes to say, we have only talked about organizing the KC Startup Community so far.  We haven’t done much.  By contrast, the summit attendees were largely people that had already done plenty for their respective communities.

A place to call home

It has been years since I felt so fulfilled by simply being a part of a community.  This gathering made me feel like I belong.  Despite the fact that we are still getting some of our efforts for the KC community spun up, it was clear that these were my kind of people.  By Saturday morning, I was wishing that there was enough time to spend an hour talking to every single person in attendance.  Obviously, there was not enough time to do talk to everyone, but I made lots of meaningful connections, especially with people that can act as resources for us in the future.  The future in KC is looking brighter and brighter by the day.

What we learned

When you feel like you are trying to build something impossible, it is good to know that there are others that have been successful doing something similar.  In my conversations with other organizers, it was apparent that we are not on this road by ourselves.  From Madrid to the Midwest, there are people volunteering their time to improve the outlook for the next entrepreneur.  We plan to keep up with this support network and ask for help when it becomes necessary.

I also spent a significant amount of time talking to the various curators for StartupDigest University Editions.  We have a pretty good vision for how to direct KC through the next phase of growth, but we will obviously need help from our regional universities at some point.  Matylda, Ryan, and Zach were all tremendously helpful.  They clearly understand some of the reasons they are able to engage their engineering students so well.  They will be great resources for us in the future.

What’s next?

The hallmark of any good conference is the action that comes from it and SO Summit scores high marks in this department.  I am pleased to announce that we agreed to start the KC edition of StartupDigest during the conference.  The first edition will be published in the coming weeks.  You can sign up to receive it here.

However, StartupDigest focuses on doing one thing well, and that is telling you what events are taking place that are relevant to startups.  However, KC is in need of much more.  When I was just getting started with Mashtun, I found it nearly impossible to find good local resources that met my needs.  I spent three weeks reading everything I could find in KC.  After all of that work, I found just one really useful group.  We need to make it easier to connect with our community and for people starting their very first company to find resources that are relevant to them.  It is my goal that the next set of entrepreneurs in our area will have a much easier time finding someone to talk to.  We will be announcing some things in this area soon.

Many thanks

Before I go, I want to say thanks to everyone that organized the event, and especially Adam Coomes and Steven Chau for inviting me.  Thanks to everyone that was so welcoming.  It created an amazing atmosphere that has left me with feelings of withdrawal (I miss the people I met).  Thanks to everyone that traveled from around the world to come together, share, and grow the startup communities that we all care for so dearly.  We plan to put your knowledge to good use for the benefit of KC startups.

Is this crap normal?

I read a really good post by Paul Graham tonight when I should have been working on Mashtun.  Essentially, I realized that in the past two weeks, I have been rushing through my morning showers really quickly instead of taking a minute to wake-up and let my mind wander.  So to remedy this, I decided to take an 8:30 pm shower and see what happened.  What would be top of mind?  Would it be the current stresses of my day job?  Would it be the crazy amount of work left to make my start-up resemble something other than a joke?  The answer surprised me.

The thing that turned out to be top of mind for me was an intense self-doubt.  I am a pretty confident dude, but I don’t let ego get in the way of honest self-assessment.  I knew starting a business would be a tough task.  Hell, the failure rate should be enough to scare sane people away.  But I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of utter inequity.  I was prepared for what would easily be the most difficult thing I had purposefully chosen to put myself through, but not the inescapable feeling that I was wasting my own time, and even worse, wasting that of my business partner, my friends, and my family.  What followed was a simultaneously welcome and dreaded stream of conscience.

Is there even a reasonable scenario where this can work?  Is this not the dumbest thing I have ever tried?  It is definitely the most likely to fail.  Is following the customer development principles a good idea for us?  God, having a mentor would help with this feeling so much right now, wouldn’t it?  Maybe.  I should call my old mentor from UPS, Al Espinosa, and ask him why he saw fit to spend all that time giving me timely advice that made me successful in my pursuits there.  I wonder if KC will be able to help me find someone that can answer questions for me in this new chapter of my life.  At least I am not scared.  But it seems silly to keep going if I am so sure this is never going to work.  I mean, what is stopping someone else from doing what we are doing?  Honestly, we don’t have any “specifiable differences” as I like to call them.  If we make good progress, we will eventually develop some, but we don’t have direct domain expertise.  We don’t have money.  We don’t have much to make me feel better.

That is what is top of mind.  I still believe in what we are doing with Mashtun, and I think that we have as good a chance of success as any other first time entrepreneur.  We don’t have any MBA’s or MIT graduates.  We don’t have any former Paypal employees or rockstar developers, and thankfully, we don’t need any at this point.  We are going to have to be a bread and butter internet company in order to be successful, but it doesn’t make me feel any better knowing that.  The only thing I can think to do is to remember this feeling, keep working on my problem presentation, get ready for customer contacts, and move forward.  Feeling like crap definitely isn’t going to accomplish anything.  Still, I can’t help but wonder, is this crap normal?

Entrepreneurs – Are they born or made?

After a little bit of an online debate, Mark Suster and Vivek Wadhwa got together at Standford to carry on discussing Nature vs Nurture in person.  I tend to agree with many of the things Mark and Vivek talk about, but in this case I think the discussion exposed an interesting subtopic. Perhaps they would have gotten to it given enough time to debate, but absent that opportunity, I will try to do it justice here.

For starters, I should say that I fundamentally agree with what seemed like the middle ground of this argument and one of Vivek’s main points.  Assume that you believe entrepreneurs can be taught, but you believe there is a threshold of intelligence required to learn the necessary skills to be successful.  This seems reasonable, but why?  Where does the required broad aptitude come from?  I would argue that the desire for knowledge, the ability to obtain and understand it, and the skills to apply it are prerequisites to successful entrepreneurship.  I am not qualified to argue if these are innate or learned characteristics, but I believe they underscore the larger discussion.

The desire for knowledge

When I wake up in the morning, I have a burning desire to learn more about the subjects I am currently studying.  Obtaining knowledge is a fulfilling activity for me, especially because I see so many opportunities to learn (note the name of this blog).  If you don’t burn to learn, it is hard to expect that you will find enough of the knowledge necessary to succeed in entrepreneurial endeavors.  This complements the oft quoted entrepreneur quality of hustle.  Once you have learned, if you can’t hustle, you can’t succeed.  However, all of the hustle in the world won’t help a person that hasn’t spent enough time learning.

Obtaining and understanding knowledge

Wanting to learn is one thing, but finding the right subjects and being able to understand them is another.  A successful entrepreneur needs to be able to understand topics that cover the core competencies of business administration, some specific market, and the problems of customers in that market.  The process of obtaining information can vary from social discovery to formal education.  Consider that for many students in higher education, this is only half the battle.  Students may struggle to establish a sufficient foundation for their newly discovered knowledge and thus aren’t able to fully understand its implications.  In other words, for a desire for  knowledge to prove fruitful, the relevant topics must be found, consumed, and understood.

Ability to apply knowledge

Thinking back to high school, there was always at least one person in an advanced class that was out of place.  They would listen to the lecture and take notes dutifully, but once they tried to solve progressively more challenging or nuanced problems individually, they were stuck.  These students could typically be found asking others to share how they achieved a proper solution.  If you gave these students the pattern and explained it clearly, they could apply it to that same problem type flawlessly.  But once things changed, they weren’t able to visualize the solution.  To them, applying knowledge was like using a hammer, nail, and wood when asked to connect the pieces of wood.  For the successful entrepreneur, applying knowledge is like using a hammer, nail, and wood to build a house.

The entrepreneurs journey is partly a set of patterns and the successful traveler must be able to wield their knowledge as tools.  As new situations and experiences present themselves, the entrepreneur must use their knowledge in abstract ways.

So, whether you believe entrepreneurs are born or taught, my bet is that you can trace it back to what you believe about the above three characteristics.

Edits:

I caught a little flak for not saying which side of the fence I fall on, so here you go.  For me, it is sort of like math.  I can’t begin to count the number of times in my life that peers have told me they just can’t do math.  Since a pretty young age, I have been teaching others how to approach math so they could better teach themselves.  While I only had a dozen or so subjects, I never failed to improve the math grades of someone I worked with, especially after they moved on to later math courses/applications.  However, there is a surprising part of the population that thinks math understanding is innate.  It isn’t.  And neither is entrepreneurship.