From an early age, I was always interested in creating opportunities, thinking outside the box, making money, learning new skills and connecting with people. From operating lemonade and ice cream stands outside to running the family garage sale since age 9, I’ve always enjoyed building new things – I simply found the process innovating intriguing. When I was 14 and my friends started getting minimum-wage jobs at McDonald’s and the local amusement park, I thought my time was work more than $5/hour. I had recently cut a neighbor’s lawn while they were on vacation for $20. It took me 45 minutes. I did the math and quickly realized the hourly rate was a heck of a lot better than McDonalds. Over that weekend, I created and printed over 200 flyers and hung them on every door in my neighborhood. Fine Lawn Care was born. Over the next four years, I grew the business to over 30 lawns, had two friends working for me (I played two varsity sports and often didn’t have time to cut the lawns) and without cutting a single lawn, was making more money each week than most of my friends were making in 2-3 weeks at their jobs. I ended up selling the business to a competitor before leaving for college, and the rest was history.
I started MyNetwork LLC because during my senior year of college, I saw so many of my peers in college struggling with basic networking and professional relationship management skills. Many simply had no clue how to write a cold email, when to follow up, what to say, how to ask for help or advice, etc. – and these were smart people! I saw opportunities slip through enough fingertips that I decided there had to be a better way. I knew a bit about how CRM systems helped salespeople manage customer relationships, which sparked the idea for a system that would help individuals better manage and maintain their professional relationships… the idea for MyNetwork was born.
I had a job offer lined up at Goldman Sachs, and turning that down was too hard coming straight out of school – so MyNetwork got pushed to the back burner temporarily. About a year in, my eventual co-founder Drew Riley helped reignite the spark and we both began moonlighting on the company. Nine months later, I had enough proof of concept, interest from investors and clients, and drive to make the leap – and I did. Making that leap of faith was perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I haven’t looked back since.
What entrepreneur has most inspired you?
Great question. I hate to take the easy way out here, but at this point in my life, I think I’d have to say Elon Musk. He has simply transcended traditional entrepreneurship and has taken his craft to a level not seen in decades. How? Rather than looking for “business opportunities”, Elon has focused his incredible talents on the areas he deems most important to the survival and progress of the human race. He knows at that increased carbon emissions present potentially catastrophic consequences for the earth, and that ⅓ of the world’s emissions are from transportation, so what does he do? Starts Tesla. He knows at some point we’ll run at of fossil fuels altogether, so what does he do? Starts SolarCity. He knows that at some point we’ll need to colonize other celestial bodies, so what does he do? Starts SpaceX. Simply incredible. I draw a tremendous amount of inspiration from Elon’s ability to look to help humans and the planet first, building profitable businesses simply being a natural consequence of those goals.
What is the biggest obstacle you have overcome thus far in business?
We partnered with a technology firm to build our first product (MyNetwork). At the time, the decision seemed like a no brainer – the firm had big-name clients including Disney, The Cake Boss, Burt’s Bees and more, and on top of that, the owner was our largest investor. Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons, even after we poured over $350,000, more than a year of time, and countless operating expenses, the firm failed to deliver the product even remotely close to spec. We were nearly out of money, and without a highly functioning, stable product, we were unable to sell into schools or effectively grow our user base. We were dead in the water – hardly a heartbeat left.
With the support of every other investor we had, we initiated litigation against the firm (and ironically, against our largest investor). We knew that, given the current state of the product, raising additional funds would be a shot in the dark. So at the same time, we pivoted to a new, similarly-focused but fundamentally different application – Valor Connect. This shift enabled us to raise another round of fundraising and inject some critical lifeblood into the company, recharging our spirits and shocking that heartbeat back to life.
What have you learned from failure?
The biggest thing I’ve learned from failure is that you have to expect it and, equally importantly, learn how to deal with it. Everything that can go wrong will. Literally everything. I’ve learned to adjust my expectations so that when shit hits the fan, I’m not running around like it’s the zombie apocalypse. I’m composed, I recognize what’s happening, and I get to work figuring out how to fix it. Only with that mindset can an entrepreneur truly handle the highs and lows that come with starting and growing a business.
How does your leadership style foster your company’s culture?
I am a big believer in leading by example. One of my favorite sayings is FITFO (google it). I strive to build a culture where, when we don’t have an answer, we don’t make excuses, we find solutions. I’ve seen too many people who don’t have answer and they just sit there and ask for help. We go out there (hey Google) and we find answers. In a small startup, we have to be as agile and as nimble as possible. Developing that skill-set in our team helps us adapt and progress faster than we otherwise could. In our meetings and in my interactions with my team, we’re constantly discussing not just ways to create solutions to the challenges we have, but ways to find those solutions.
What are your top 3 responsibilities as a leader?
- Motivating the team and enabling them, as best I can, to get their work done
- Fixing problems and handling situations that arise daily
- Guiding strategic direction and initiatives
What internal process do you use to guide your decision-making?
Actually I do as much as I can to use external processes to drive decision-making. In the vast majority of situations (especially in a startup), we’re not the first company to encounter the challenge. So I typically go out on the internet, and dive down the rabbit hole of Google to find out as much as I can to help me make an informed decision. I leverage the team to bring in other ideas and opinions. And perhaps most importantly, I rely on data and feedback from users and customers. Building and designing an app without external input is like painting a portrait without lights. Sure you can make brush strokes on the canvas, but you’ll never know if what you’re doing is actually working or not.
How do you define success?
Success is defined as positively impacting the lives of our users. If we’re able to help people find opportunities, new jobs, internships, make interesting connections, locate mentors, connect with prospects, increase engagement, decrease networking fears, etc. – that is success. I firmly believe that if we accomplish that, everything else will fall into place. Successful outcomes for our users will drive repeat usage, increase sharing to drive new users to the app, will drive new partnerships and business opportunities, etc.
Which book has inspired you?
Give And Take by Adam Grant
His book talks about the three types of people: givers, matchers and takers. The way he explores the nuances of these three personality traits and their implications for life and business is fascinating. After reading the book cover to cover, you can’t help but shift your perspective on how you deal with all sorts of relationships, opportunities and situations. You start to look for ways you can be a resource to others. Ingraining the giver mindset in your day to day life can have a profound impact on building social capital – much more so than looking only to help yourself or even looking to “match” the help of other people.
What do you think is the coolest technology out there, and why?
For the way Tesla is advancing the transportation industry with a technological leap we haven’t seen in over 100 years, they have to be at the top of my list. But rather than gush about something everyone already knows about, there’s another really cool piece of tech out there I’d like to highlight – the hoverboard.
The hoverboard combines wakeboarding with flight in a beautiful symphony that’s pure bliss. How it works – what is essentially a firehose is attached to the thruster on a waverunner. The other end of a hose is attached to a wakeboard. The result? All the water thrust that would propel the waverunner forward at 60+ mph is instead forced through the hose and diagonally out the back of the wakeboard – propelling the wakeboard forward with more than enough power and velocity to launch a rider out of the water into the air, allowing the rider to essentially “wakeboard on air”. Really freaking cool.