If you’re looking for a short bio or my headshot, check out my speaker page. If you’re ready for the looooong version of my story, then read on.
To start things off, here’s a picture of me, circa 1980, when I was about five years old, playing around on the TRS-80 my father bought at Radio Shack.
Normally what follows would be the details of how this was when I started programming, and how I developed an application by age 9 that got me into Stanford, and then I went on to be a millionaire by 15, and then I changed my name to Mark Zuckerberg. But that’s not what happened. I played some games, learned how to write some basic programs in BASIC, and then I ignored computers until I had to write a biology paper on the rain forest 10 years later.
Instead of becoming a computer genius I read books, drew pictures, and wrote stories that amused my classmates and outraged my teachers, leading to my expulsion in one case (that was in 5th grade–I toned things down after that). But I’m getting ahead of things, let’s back up a bit.
My first brush with earning money came when I was four or five. My father gave me a 3-column financial ledger and labeled the first column “income,” the second “out-go,” and the third “balance.” He taught me to track every penny I earned. Then he gave me a job to do moving some bricks for a quarter, and I recorded it in the book.
After that I made money wherever I could, doing extra chores around the house, mowing neighbors’ lawns, and recycling cans and newspapers (back when there was good money in it).
When I was 10 a friend of mine and I were in love with surfwear, and we decided to start a clothing company. We got as far as coming up with a name (AquaMount, inspired by the Quiksilver logo), and we designed a logo and some t-shirts. We talked about it all the time. We never actually did anything, but it’s the first memory I have of the idea that I could start a business.
Smells Like Teen Startup
I started skateboarding when I was around 12 and everyone else was doing it, too. By the next year everyone quit, but I was addicted and couldn’t stop. The trouble with skateboarding was that it was expensive. By the time I was 16 I was skating so much I could go through a hundred dollars of boards and shoes in a month, no problem, and the minimum wage job I had at Little Caesar’s only paid $4.25 per hour, and plus I ended up getting fired from that job. What to do?
I decided I need to start a skateshop. But I couldn’t open a real shop, so instead I got a business license and a resale permit to collect sales tax, filled out applications for all the skateboard product companies, but told them I would be selling the stuff from the back of my car instead of from a retail location. Most of them turned me down, but several liked my
moxie money and agreed to sell me product in small amounts. My father gave me a $1,000 loan to get started, and I placed my first orders.
I never made a financial profit from that business, but I was able to pay my father back and get all the “free” skate product I wanted for the next few years (i.e. that’s where all my profits went). More importantly, I got an education on how to market a business, do sales, and deal with customer service issues.
You Mean Colleges Teach Business Classes?
When I turned 18 I left home and went to study art at Ricks College (now renamed BYU-Idaho). I decided to study art because…well, actually, it wasn’t much of a choice. I had no idea what else I could do. I knew how to draw, and I liked drawing, and I hated math, so I figured I’d be an artist.
Then at 19 I left on an LDS mission to Brazil, and hanging out in the Amazon jungle for two years changed my mind about a few things. Well, that, and one of my missionary buddies showing me a pamphlet for the business school at BYU in Provo, Utah. I’ll never forget the shock I had when I looked at this pamphlet for the Marriott School of Management and then looked at my buddy and said, “You mean colleges teach business classes?!”
I had no idea, I was so ignorant. I thought people just started businesses and ran them. I didn’t realize you could study business. Right then and there I decided I was going to switch my major from art to business just as soon as I got home and back to the university.
I Get Schooled
When I returned from being a missionary I was on fire. I was disciplined, organized, focused, ambitious–nothing could stop me. I was in bed at 8 pm every night and up at 4 am. I worked out every day. I ate well. I studied like I had never studied in my life. My first semester back in school I took 25 credits of classes and got all A’s except for one A-, and when I asked the professor what I could have done better he said he’d change it to an A if I wanted him to. Oh, and remember how I hated math? Now that I was going to be a business major I was a little more interested in it, so part of the reason I took so many credits my first semester was that I was taking remedial math classes–5 years worth–in order to catch up to where I needed to be. Turns out I wasn’t as stupid as I thought I was, and that I liked math a lot more than I had realized.
Everything was going great until I met a girl. I had never had a girlfriend before. My first date, ever, was when I was 22. Then suddenly here’s this girl who seems to be super into me and I had no idea how to handle things. Instead of being in bed at 8 pm I was up chatting online until 2 am. Instead of waking up at 4 am and following my rigorous schedule I was sleeping in until 10 am. Instead of taking loads of classes, loving them, and getting perfect grades, I was failing classes (three F’s that semester, to be exact). I was infatuated and I didn’t care what else happened, I just knew I had to make this girl marry me. Then she dumped me. Deep down I knew it was for the best, but I was a wreck.
Getting dumped coincided nicely with graduating from BYU-Idaho, which at the time was a 2-year school. I flew high, met a girl, crashed, got dumped, crashed further, moped around for a month, and I was outta there. That was the entirety of 1997, a very educational year for me in many ways. Now I was on to BYU-Provo, where I had my sights set on the Masters of Information Systems Management (MISM) program.
The MISM billed itself as a tech-MBA. Half the classes would be computer science/technology courses, and the other half would be MBA core classes. This was 1998, the middle of the dot-com revolution, and I knew I needed a strong tech background. I also knew the university couldn’t do it all for me, I needed real world experience.
Between 1998-1999 I worked several tech jobs. The first was at Intermountain Health Care (IHC) in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I got a job doing tech support for hospital staff. When a doctor couldn’t figure out something, he called the support line and I answered and walked him through rebooting his PC. When a nurse called and said the computer in a patient’s room was frozen, I would troubleshoot it with her, restart the system, or do whatever else was needed. I learned basic operations on legacy computer systems like AS/400 and Tandem, became an expert with Windows NT and network hardware, and most of all learned how to think fast on my feet and figure things out in a hurry.
Whenever a doctor called me it was an urgent matter, and even though I usually didn’t know what the solution was, I had to hack my way to a solution asap, without even being in front of the same screen as the doctor. There were hundreds of times a panicked or angry doctor called me with a problem and I calmly said, “No problem, we’ll have this fixed quickly for you,” while in my mind I was thinking “I don’t even know what he’s talking about, how in the world do I fix this?!” A few minutes later the problem would be fixed, the doctor sent along his merry way, and I was left sweating and panting, yet feeling euphoric because I had gone from a state of sheer panic and helplessness to figuring everything out. Knowing I can figure things out, no matter what the situation is, has been a major benefit to my career as an entrepreneur.
While I was working at IHC and taking classes at BYU I met another girl, and thank goodness for the first girl because if it weren’t for that experience, I would have certainly come on too strong and messed things up with the second girl, who later became my wife. We met on August 5th, 1998, and were married on August 6th, 1999.
The Internet? Is That Thing Still Around?
The internet (we’re not required to capitalize it anymore–hooray!) was already around when I left for my mission in Brazil–I remember my father having a subscription to Prodigy–but there were hardly any websites. I didn’t think it was very interesting in 1994. When I returned in 1996 it had progressed a lot. During 1997 while I was at BYU-Idaho I taught myself how to design websites and discovered I had something of a knack for it, perhaps due to all the art stuff I had been focused on for years.
After working for IHC I landed a job in Provo, Utah designing websites. It wasn’t that I wanted to design websites for a living, but it paid well enough while I was a student. That company fizzled out quickly, but now I had “web designer” on my resume and that helped me land my next job with a company then named MyComputer.com.
I was employee #22 or #23 at MyComputer.com. The company was well funded and growing at a rapid pace, as all dot-coms were at the time. My boss, Aaron Walser, was a talented creative director and designer, and the best manager I’ve ever had (no offense to the others, who were also great). I only worked at the company for five months, but I went in more or less clueless, and came out with an education in design that has stuck with me.
It was while working at MyComputer.com I first looked at a company and thought to myself “These guys aren’t geniuses, I could do this.” There was a hunger inside of me to do what I saw the founders doing. Looking back it has always been there. Maybe that’s why until I started my own business I was never able to hold a job longer than five months, and some much less. Every other job I had I either quit or got fired from.
In a way it was fortuitous when MyComputer.com offered me two options; quit school, work at MyComputer.com full time, and get a nice salary and 3,000 stock options–the first round the company issued, or go find another job. I turned the offer down, stayed in school, and decided to start my own business instead. MyComputer.com went on to change its name to Omniture, and a few years was bought out by Adobe for $1.8B USD. I could have bought a house or two with those stock options, but I still think I made the right decision.
Then began the following timeline:
It’s hard to explain to someone today how crazy 1999 was. Everyone thought the internet would change everything. People were raising millions of dollars for ideas scrawled on napkins. People were raising money when they didn’t even have an idea! I remember hearing about a kid who walked into a venture capitalist’s office and said “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m wicked smart and I’ll figure out something awesome,” and got funded. Everyone wanted “in” on the internet and nobody wanted to be left behind. I got sucked into that excitement. When MyComputer.com gave me the options of going full time or quitting, it wasn’t too hard of a decision. I already wanted to start my own business, and this gave me the excuse. I went home to my wife and told her I wanted to start a business, and her response was “Well, we’re college students and we have no money, so what have we got to lose?” If she had only known what was coming.
I quit MyComputer.com in December of 1999 to start a web design company called DonLoper.com (there’s a story behind that name, but you’ll have to ask me in person for the details).
The “business” was me working on a computer and a “high-speed” DSL line (256K, fools!) in our $500/month studio apartment. I thought if I threw up a website and told people I designed websites, I’d be flooded with clients trying to pay me tens of thousands of dollars, and I would have to send half of them packing because I would be too busy. Instead, there was the chirping of crickets. I built it, and they didn’t come. I struggled to find clients to pay me anything, and my wife and I lived off student loans and selling much of what we owned on eBay.
Then I got a lucky break. A sales guy called me on the phone and tried to sell me something. I wasn’t interested, but he was persistent and tried to get to know me by asking what I did for a living. I told him I was designing websites, and he said “Oh, my brother needs a new website for his business!” He gave me his brother’s name and number, I called him up, and that was my first client. I asked for $15/hr, and I got it. Considering I was getting paid $13/hr at MyComputer.com, I felt like I was doing pretty well.
My next client was a former co-worker at MyComputer.com. I decided to push the envelope a bit with him and ask for $18/hr. He bit. I was ecstatic. “I was on my way to earning millions!” I thought. I landed a third client after that, then another, and another, and each time I asked for a more. It went from $18/hr to $20/hr, then $25/hr, then $30/hr. I was convinced no college student had ever made so much per hour as I was making. While my friends were working as janitors earning $6-7/hr, I was making several times that, and in the comfort of my apartment, in my underwear, whenever I felt like working.
During this time my grades suffered. I was put on “academic warning” at one point. First it was girls, and then it was entrepreneurship. I didn’t tell my professors about the girls because I knew they’d have no pity for me on that count, but I did tell them about the business and explained why I was jumping up in the middle of class and running out the door to take phone calls. It was incredibly rude, but at the time it was rare for a student to run a business while in college and my professors seemed to think it was cool and they let me get away with missing classes and assignments, up to a point. During my college career I would fail and retake seven classes. Every class I failed I then got an A in the next time, except basic accounting–dang you income statements and balance sheets! I couldn’t remember how to create them from scratch, which was what the tests required, nor could I see the point since Quickbooks did all that for me.
I also got bored during my classes. It wasn’t the fault of my professors. I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was a kid and maybe it’s that or maybe it’s something else, but whatever the cause all I knew was that everyone was going too slow. So during class I would half listen to the professor, but under my desk I had business magazines and I was voraciously consuming every issue of Red Herring, Business 2.0, and The Industry Standard. To this day I have a hard time being patient when it comes to learning. I listen to all my audio books at 2.2x speed, and the same for podcasts. Gary Vaynerchuk gets me a lot more excited when he speaks twice as fast.
But back to business. I was making $30/hr doing freelance web design for clients when a company contacted me that I knew had deeper pockets and higher expectations than my other clients. Web development firms in Utah were charging around $125/hr at the time, and I didn’t see why I should be charging anything less if I was producing the same kind of results. I took a leap and asked for $65/hr. It felt gutsy, but I was getting more and more confident.
I was turned down flat. They even seemed offended. I had gone too far. I had flown too close to the sun, and now I was crashing and burning. What was I thinking asking for $65/hr?! This company could have kept me busy for two months at $30/hr and I would have been thrilled with that! But it was too late, the deal was gone.
Three weeks later this client called me up again. “You said you’d do the work for $65/hr, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, and I was just about to add “But I’d be happy to do it for less!” when the voice on the other end of the line said “Great! We really want to work for you and we’re happy to pay that rate.”
I couldn’t believe it! $65/hr for a college student? Sure, it might not sound that amazing to you now, what with college students becoming millionaires left and right, but this was huge for me at the time. Over the next two months I made around $6,000 per month working part time, while going to school.
Now, if you were a poor college student, what would you do with $12,000? Pay off student loans? Tuck it away in savings? Well, yes, you might do that, but I was a crazed entrepreneur. All I could think was “Gee, if I can do this well on my own, just think what I could do with employees and an office!” That money was burning a hole in my pocket and I had delusions of grandeur. Instead of doing anything wise like paying off debt or putting it in savings, or even doing anything less wise like buying a car, a nice TV, or going on an elaborate vacation, I decided to start a “real” business. I brought on two partners, moved into an office, and hired on four full time staff.
Within a month I realized I had made a big mistake. $12K seems like a lot when you’re a freelancer who’s used to living on a college student income. It doesn’t go very far when you’ve rented an office and hired four employees and brought on two partners. Somehow I thought we would start closing big deals quickly, but that’s not what happened. As a result, a few weeks after we started the “real” business we had to let three of our four employees go.
We survived those first few months by taking pay cuts, not getting paid at all, and hustling to find clients. Around 8-9 months in, I and one of my partner realized there wasn’t a real place for the third partner, who we had brought in as our CFO. But we didn’t need a CFO. It wasn’t that partner’s fault, it was mine. I hired him on for a position that didn’t exist, and at that moment there wasn’t anything else for him to do, so we negotiated buying him out, which meant we gave him the nice sofa we had bought for our office lobby. He went on to do well with real estate and today is a prominent state senator in Utah.
Then things started to go well. We started landing deals, then larger deals. We renamed the company Mindwire Interactive, and by the end of the summer of 2001, things were starting to take off. Thus it was that we found ourselves with three large deals on the table, the first of which was to be signed on the morning of September 11th.
On that morning I woke up and my wife told me “Hey, a plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.” I figured it was a small Cessna or something.
“Huh, that’s crazy,” I said, and then I went to take a shower.
When I came out of the shower the world had changed. I watched live TV and saw the gaping holes with smoke pouring out. I saw the first tower collapse, then the second. I looked on and thought “I am watching people die, right now. A lot of people.” It was beyond belief. And yet…what was I supposed to do, sit at home all day? We had an appointment. I drove to the office, but I was worried.
We called our client.
“Um, do you…still want to meet today?”
“No, no, um, no…I think we need to figure out how this is going to impact our business.”
The client was a ski resort. They thought this might hurt the tourism industry, since all planes across the country had been grounded and nobody knew what was going to happen next. That deal never came our way again.
Our second client was an airline. That deal was deader than the first.
Our third client was another ski resort. We still got that one, but it was the smallest deal of the three. 9-11 almost put us out of business, but 3,000 people had been murdered. We still had obligations and had to take care of our business, but it made our struggles and victories seem petty and meaningless. I take my business seriously, but 9-11 drove home the lesson that business is just business, and there are a lot of things in life that are more important.
2001 should have been an amazing year, but instead we only just survived. On the outside it looked like we were doing great. I was still a student and had written a business plan for Mindwire and submitted it to the business plan competition at BYU. It won first place. I entered a competition for “Entrepreneur of the Year” at BYU and got third place (Interesting sidenote: Brandt Andersen won 1st–he’s now a big time movie producer who has been involved with films like Everest, Lone Survivor, and Silence, and Brandt’s brother Derek Andersen runs the entrepreneur community Startup Grind.). We were building a brand for ourselves as a successful agency, but the success on the outside was a far cry from how things were going on the inside, a pattern of things to come.
2002 was an decent year for Mindwire, and for me personally. It was the last year I would get a paycheck for a long, long time, which make it at least relatively awesome compared to what came next, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 2002 we grew to about 10 people, and we were getting a lot of recognition in Utah and landing good clients. My partner and I jointly received the “Entrepreneur of the Year” award from the Utah chapter of the Small Business Administration. One stroke of luck this year was that we acquired the domain MWI.com, after another stroke of bad luck.
Remember how I used to call the company DonLoper.com? When I brought on employees and partners they banded together and told me the name was terrible, and that’s when we came up with Mindwire Interactive. Even back then in 2000 when we made the switch it was problematic to find an available domain name. Mindwire sounded cool (at least at the time), and I went and bought the domain name and then Kyle Follett, our creative director, went to work creating a brand around it. After several weeks of work on it, we went to launch the website and…whoops! I hadn’t bought mindwire.com, I had bought mindwires.com. To this day I have no idea how that happened. Mindwire.com was taken all along. Apparently I had made a typo, thought the domain was available, and went through the whole purchase process without noticing my error.
Mindwires.com didn’t sound cool, so we registered mindwireinteractive.com, but that was really, really long. For the next year we tried out other domains like mindwireinc.com and we tried to buy mindwire.com from the owner but he wouldn’t sell at any price, and we even offered him $500! (that was about as much as we could afford)
One day I stumbled onto MWI.com and found that while the domain had been purchased, there wasn’t an active website on the domain. I contacted the owners and asked if since they weren’t using the domain, they might be interested in selling. They told me that while they weren’t hosting a website on the domain, they were using it for email addresses, so no, they couldn’t sell it. This was just one of many inquiries I sent out for various domain names, so I went on my way and forgot about this exchange.
Several months later, the owner of MWI.com contacted me and asked if I was still interested. I said “Yes,” tentatively, because even then three-letter domains were expensive, and whereas our budget was a few hundred dollars, I was sure this guy would ask for $20,000 or more. When I asked him how much he wanted for it, he shocked me by responding, “Nah, I don’t need anything, we’ve moved all our email to a different domain, so you can just have it.”
I couldn’t believe it. That’s like giving someone a free house. I was sure there was a catch, and I kept waiting for it, but nothing ever happened. The worst thing that ever came from it was that another company named “MWI” but completely unrelated to us went out of business after running a huge scam operation charging peoples’ credit cards $80.76 and because we owned MWI.com everyone assumed we must be that company, so we got a lot of angry phone calls. Sometimes it would take a solid 5 minutes of them yelling at us before we could explain to them that they had called the wrong business. One caller thought we were lying and proceeded to call all the clients listed on our website and tell them how dishonest we were. We only found out when a client called us and said “Some crazy, angry lady called me saying you guys charged her $80.76 for something she didn’t want, but you guys don’t even take credit cards, do you? What’s this all about?”
The Avalon Digital Deal
Toward the end of 2002 my partner met a company called Avalon Digital, also based in Utah. Avalon was listed on NASDAQ, had hundreds of employees, and was gobbling up other marketing agencies, and they were interested in Mindwire. At the same time, I wasn’t getting along with my partner. It was all my fault–I was naive and had a bigger ego than I realized. I felt like he was holding us back, and at the same time I felt like he didn’t have my back. I felt like I had to take care of myself because he wasn’t going to, and I didn’t like that kind of relationship. I like being in partnerships where I’m watching out for my partner more than he’s looking out for himself, and he’s looking out for me more than I’m looking out for myself. My partner wasn’t and isn’t a bad guy, but we were mismatched in terms of personality, vision, goals, and perspective, and I had no idea how to deal with the situation.
I wanted out, and doing this deal with Avalon seemed like a great solution. They would buy Mindwire, my partner would go work for them, and I would start over on my own, owning 100% of the company, of which by this point I had given up 40% or something.
Very long story short, we did the deal, and it turned into a nightmare as soon as I signed the documents. I had personally guaranteed leases on equipment, which Avalon acquired with the all-stock (i.e. no cash) deal. The agreement was that they would take over the leases, but they didn’t. I didn’t find this out until months later when I was contacted by a collection agency asking for $15,000. At the time of the deal Mindwire was moving to new offices, and since Mindwire was liable and Avalon was acquiring Mindwire, we agreed that Avalon would pay a certain amount to me to compensate me for taking over the new office lease myself, which I planned to use as office space for my new company. But Avalon then refused to make those payments, which added another $10K in expenses for me.
As I struggled with Avalon to get them to keep their agreements, and I tried to start the new company, which was called MWI because Avalon let me keep the domain name MWI.com but not the name Mindwire so hey, I guess I’ll call the company MWI and figure out what it stands for later–Avalon was struggling with staying in business. At the time of the deal the stock they issued me was worth something around $80,000 (or was it $800,000? Bah, I can’t remember)–except I wasn’t allowed to sell it for a year.
By the time one year rolled around, Avalon Digital had entered into bankruptcy, had been delisted from the NASDAQ, and my stock was worthless. They hadn’t come through on their obligations to me, and I had to come up with $40,000 to cover the loss. In other words, I worked to build a company for two and a half years, and then I paid someone $40,000 to take it.
Despite trying to get over it, I still have some hard feelings over the matter. It’s not as easy to let go as I would like, or as anyone who hasn’t been through something like this might think. I want to let go, because it’s so far in the past and it only hurts me to hang onto it, but I don’t know how to let go.
The Avalon deal closed in January, 2003. On January 13th, 2003, MWI started. Given the trouble of explaining all this backstory to people, I just tell them I started MWI in 1999, because MWI was effectively the same company as Mindwire in spirit, if not on legal documents.
Now that I was free of my partner and had a $100,000 loan from the SBA, I was ready to do things my way and show the world that finally, I was going to turn MWI into a global force to be reckoned with. I immediately went out and hired a team, much the same way I had done when I started Mindwire. But this time things would be different, because now I knew what I was doing…right?
It turned out I hadn’t learned very much. $40,000 of that $100,000 loan disappeared with the Avalon deal that went south. Rent was expensive. And the people I hired weren’t cheap. Then there were the computers, the chairs, the desks, the high speed internet, the phone system–it all added up. As it turned out, that $100,000 was about enough to last me for a month or two, if I didn’t pay myself. If I landed a few clients perhaps I could stretch my limited cash out long enough to squeeze by until things could take off.
I wasn’t off to a very good start, but that didn’t keep me from making more mistakes. The first was getting an expensive office and hiring a bunch of expensive people I didn’t have work for. The second was attempting to do every type of work that came my way. We quickly ended up doing branding, print work, content management systems, ecommerce, and custom web integration projects. We lost our identity trying to do everything for everyone. At one point we had a list of over 20 services on our website. We thought we were an ad agency, a branding agency, a web development firm, and a web design firm all wrapped up into one awesome digital agency. In reality we lacked focus and excelled at nothing.
We scraped by and survived that first year as MWI, but barely. I was late on almost every payroll. I didn’t pay myself at all. I worked myself to death. We looked successful on the outside, but it was fake.
Our main business was web design and development. We were pretty good at it, but it was a royal pain as a business model, in large part because we were poor project managers. We lost money on almost every project. But worse than that, the biggest challenge with running a web development firm was that we didn’t know how much money we were going to make from one month to the next. One month we would land a few new projects and bring in $90,000, and the next month we wouldn’t bring in any projects and we’d collect just $20,000. When we brought in $90,000 I always assumed “Finally! Now things are taking off!” and I would hire full time staff. The next month I’d realize I had made a mistake and I would rack up the credit cards, take out a line of credit, borrow from family, and even fail to pay payroll taxes–just to make sure I could make payroll. I continued to not pay myself. In this way, I quickly started to rack up more and more debt. I was the entrepreneurial equivalent of a stock trader who always buys high and sells low.
One good thing that came out way was that this year I started playing around with search engine optimization, or SEO. SEO was still a new thing, and we had perhaps 2-3 competitors in all of Utah, and they were small players. At first, I just did SEO for MWI and it was more of a hobby than anything else–it didn’t seem like there was a lot of business to be had in it. You have to understand the internet was still kind of new, and that there are billions more people online today than there were at this time.
But then a client come along and asked if we could do SEO for them. Since we were still doing anything anyone would hire us to do at this point, we agreed. What a stroke of luck this was, because suddenly we started to have a base of consistent recurring revenue. I actually had some idea of what we were going to bring in from month to month. This is also the point at which our business became less “Need a website? Yeah, we can do that,” and more “Tell us about your business, and we’ll tell you how we can help you grow it in a way that will pay for itself.” With a longer term focus and recurring revenue from SEO, things got a little bit better, and we survived another year. But I was still always late on payroll and still not paying myself–there was never any money left over for that.
I was now approaching two years as MWI, doing things my way, with nobody else to blame, and I was up to my eyeballs in debt and barely hanging on. Of course I did blame others. I blamed Avalon Digital, I blamed bad luck, I blamed politicians, I blamed the lack of a 36-hour day. I blamed pretty much everyone but myself. I figured I just needed a lucky break, so I kept working, holding on, and spending, spending, spending.
Don’t get me wrong, we were doing great work. Everyone thought I was quite successful. Only I and my team knew the truth. I don’t know why any of them stuck with me more than a month. Some of them didn’t. But others stuck around for years, despite being excellently qualified to make more money somewhere else. When they would quit they would tell me “You’re the best boss I’ve ever had, but I have to get paid.” I think they meant I was a nice guy and they liked me, but they had no hope of me becoming a competent entrepreneur anytime soon.
And it’s not as though I was a complete idiot. I was smart enough to get rid of most of our services other than SEO and web design, the two things we were really good at and which were making money. We landed a few big name clients, we got lucky with projects here and there, but it was never sustainable. I continued to work too much, see my wife too little, and I was getting fat. And as the year ended, I still hadn’t paid myself.
2006 was, perhaps, the worst year of my life. Three years can go by quickly. Three years of 80-100 hour weeks with no paycheck in sight. Three years of paying my team late. Sometimes I had nightmares. One night I had a dream that the wife of one of my employees was screaming at me about how I never paid her husband on time. She would have been in her rights to have done it in real life.
My own wife was incredibly patient. We were living in a tiny studio apartment above a garage. Our cars sometimes didn’t work and more than once I had to call one of my team members to give me a ride to work. Hers had no air conditioning. I had to drive the nice car, otherwise what would clients think? So my thinking went.
This year we went on our first vacation since we had gotten married. It was the first time I had taken a break in almost seven years. It wasn’t anything fancy. We drove from Utah to Oregon, visited some friends, and drove back.
The debt hung over me as a crushing weight.We were personally on the hook for every dime of debt, which was ballooning out of control and nearing $500,000. With the amount of debt I was in, I could have bought a very nice house in Utah. Instead, I just had the debt and nothing to show for it. I once told my father-in-law about it and he said “Well yeah, but if you hadn’t gone into debt you wouldn’t be where you are today.” He was trying to comfort me, but all I could think was that he was absolutely right, only not at all in the way he thought.
I was a slave to the debt. I didn’t own myself. It ruled my life. I felt like I was in a prison. How could I go home and spend time with my wife when I owed so many people so much money? What would they think if they knew I was enjoying myself, even for a second? I had to stay at work as long as I could stay awake, and then some. I worked six days a week. I often slept on the floor of my office. I rarely got home before midnight. Sometimes I got home at 3 am and left at 6 am. I skipped family reunions. I skipped birthdays. I skipped weddings. It wasn’t all selfless, the state of the business was a convenient excuse for me to do whatever I wanted to do, and get out of everything else. “Oh no, sorry, I can’t make it, I’ve got to work,” was the easy way out of any obligation I didn’t want any part of. Once we even moved houses, and other people showed up to help us move while I went to work. The debt gave my selfishness legitimacy.
Not only was I hitting rock bottom with the business, but I was a wreck in every other way. I ate junk food to comfort myself, and I got zero exercise. I gained weight until I reached 240 lbs, which is about 70 lbs too much for me. I was so out of shape that when I arrived at work and walked up the single flight of stairs to our office, I couldn’t talk to anyone for five solid minutes while I recovered my breath.
I felt cursed. I felt like I could do nothing right. I was going on four years of this torture and no matter what I did it turned out wrong. I had been bailed out so many times, but every time I thought I knew what I was doing it would backfire on me. My parents asked me why I didn’t quit and go get a real job, but how could I? I had $500,000 in debt, there was no way I could pay that off with a normal job. I felt like the explorer who burned his ships to motivate his men and keep them from turning back. I had burned my ship long ago, and there was no way out except to make MWI a success. But the more I tried, the more I failed.
Thankfully I never lost my faith in God. I didn’t understand why He was putting me through all this, or allowing me to be such an idiot, but I knew He was there. Many nights at 2 am found me in our conference room, looking over the I-15 freeway at lights of the Salt Lake Valley, and then dropping to my knees and praying to God and asking Him why I was going through this. I prayed for relief, I pleaded, I asked Him to show me where I was going wrong. And then I finally had a brilliant idea.
In mid-2006 I had a stroke of genius. I would escape from the mess MWI was and use all my pain and suffering to write the most amazing application essay the admissions people at the Harvard Business School had ever seen. They would see how valuable my experience was, toiling away in the trenches of glorious entrepreneurship, and they wouldn’t be able to resist welcoming me into their MBA program. When I graduated I would have another few hundred thousand dollars in debt, but I’d probably pay all my debts off the first year with whatever amazing job I chose to accept from the many that would surely await. People would respect me. It couldn’t fail. It was The Perfect Plan. All my work had not been in vain.
I took the GMAT exam. I wrote my application essay, rewrote it, had my wife edit it, and rewrote it again, and again. I got my three references letters, I submitted my application, and then I waited.
As I waited and the end of 2006 neared, I was brimming with excitement. Sure, I was still racking up debt, getting fatter, and not getting paid, but all that was about to change. I started searching for luxury condos to live in while we were students in Boston.
As 2006 ended and 2007 began, I started to worry, just a little. Shouldn’t Harvard have flown me out for interviews already? How come I hadn’t heard anything? But then I thought that it must be because they didn’t need to go to any of that trouble, my application was enough to tell them everything they needed to know, of course. I was probably the first person in the history of HBS who would be admitted without an interview, based on the merits of my application alone. No worries.
January 16th, 2007 found me typing out a blog post, informing the world that I had secretly applied to HBS and would soon, hopefully, receive my acceptance letter. I told people about what would happen to MWI. I explained why I wanted the MBA…well, I didn’t explain that it was a way for me to escape from the failure of my life while still maintaining my ego intact, but I gave the usual reasons people give for wanting an MBA from Harvard. I ended my blog post with the words, “I should have some sort of notice from HBS within 24 hours. My fingers are crossed.”
This Rock Has No Bottom
On January 17th, 2007, I opened a letter from the Harvard Business School while sitting in my office at MWI. I read it. My hand holding the letter slowly dropped to my lap. I turned my head to look out the window. After a minute or two I read the letter again. It still said the same thing.
I had been rejected.
My first reaction was “Gee, bummer.” That lasted a second or two. My next thought was “What a relief, now I can get on with life.” My third thought was “This is a good thing. I just hit rock bottom. The only way is up!” I started to get excited. A new story was unfolding in my mind, one where I not only overcame the adversity of my business, but of being rejected by Harvard and then rising above it. But as author Mike Michalowicz says in his book Profit First, “I discovered that day that when you hit rock bottom, sometimes you get dragged along the bottom, scraping your face on every one of those rocks until you’re battered, bruised, and bloodied.” God wasn’t done with me yet. I still had a few things to learn.
The trouble with the day after I got rejected by HBS was that I was still fat, still broke, and still running a business that was half a million in debt with no recovery in sight. Something had to give.
Control. I didn’t feel like I had any. I wasn’t in control of my business. I wasn’t in control of my debt. I wasn’t in control of my health. I wasn’t sure what to do about the business or my debt, but I knew I could do something about my health. I could start going to the gym.
I told my project manager, Ben Smith, that if he would make sure I got to the gym each morning I would pay for his gym membership. He agreed, and each morning we met in Draper, Utah, and we would drive up to the 24-Hour Fitness in Sandy. We would work out there for an hour or so, and then both go to work. It was a small step, considering the mess I was in, but it was the only step I was sure was the right one.
I’ve since noticed that a funny thing happens when you start improving one area of your life. If your life has five areas, such as family, work, health, friendships, and spirituality, then if you’re at a 1 on all of them, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being perfect, then you’re comfortable. Sure, life’s a mess, but at least it’s coherent. But if you start getting your health in order, and it climbs up to a 5, then you start to get uncomfortable about your life being a 1 in every other area. You start to feel like either you need to start neglecting your health again, or start fixing those other areas. This is the place I found myself in when the next step in my progress found me.
“Do I Have to Dance?”
Mark Browning had started working for me as an office admin a year or so before all this mess. Mark and I had been friends since we were 18 and met each other because in 1994, between the two of us, we made up roughly 20% of all the skateboarders in eastern Idaho. We had lost contact when we both went on LDS missions, then reconnected unexpectedly after our missions were over, finding, much to our surprise, that in the two years since we had last seen each other we had both learned Portuguese (Mark served his mission in Philadelphia, but speaking Portuguese).
While I kept a brave face for other members of the MWI team, Mark was the one person I could vent to. Sometimes it would just be me and Mark in the office, with him sitting at the front desk in his chair, and me sitting in a lobby chair, complaining about how I had tried everything to make MWI successful and nothing ever worked. Mark was very patient and never complained about my complaining.
On one such evening, Mark said, “Josh, I know something that will help you.”
“I’ve been going to this self help course, and I know it would help you.”
“Are you serious?!”
The last thing I wanted to do was go to some weird, touchy feely self help class. It didn’t make things any better when Mark told me I would need to take three days off work and pay $500 to go to it. But I was willing to continue listening to his pitch.
“How could this course help me? What can I possibly do that I haven’t already done? I’ve tried everything!”
“I don’t know exactly how it would help you, I just know it would. It’s helped me a lot.”
Then I brought up an issue at MWI, and Mark started giving me advice, and it was good advice, and Mark told me it came from this course. Hmmm.
“Ok, ok, I’m willing to try anything. Fine. Just one question.”
“This course sounds weird…do I have to dance or anything like that? Cause I don’t dance.”
“Um, yeah, you might have to dance.”
And that’s how I got signed up for my first, and last, self help course.
The course was held in Salt Lake City, out near the airport on the west side, in a single-story building in an office park that was probably state of the art in 1980. The asphalt was old enough to have turned a light gray. The building was brown brick. As I entered the front door I found a 10-year old cubicle set up as the front desk. I was ushered down a hallway and into a large classroom. Everything looked cheap and dated. I tried to lower my expectations.
I was joined by perhaps 30 other people. It was a diverse mix in every way, except there was a distinct lack of successful people. I suppose people who are successful don’t see much point in taking time out for self help courses.
A woman in her mid-fifties entered the room and walked to the front and stood in front of the rest of us who were seated. I don’t remember everything she said. I remember she talked about doing, not trying. She didn’t quite quote Yoda, from Star Wars, with his “Do or do not do, there is no try,” but it was close. She told a story about getting raped. Whoa, wait, what?! Yeah, it was terrible. Not listening to it, per se, she was a great storyteller and it was riveting, but what happened to her was terrible. By the end of the story we all hated the guy who had done this to her, even though this was all 40 years prior.
Then she told the story again, except she told us “Now I’m going to tell you the accountable version.” In the first version, all the blame was on the rapist. In the second version, she took responsibility for her part in it. She talked about how she knew this guy was trouble, but still hung out with him. She talked about things she had done to encourage him. She wasn’t saying he wasn’t 100% responsible for her actions, only that she was also 100% responsible for her own actions, and if she had made different choices, she could have prevented the circumstances that led to the rape.
I was impressed. There are those who would say that in a rape, the rapist is 100% responsible, and the victim bears no responsibility whatsoever. I would have said this before hearing this story, no doubt about it. This not an empowering message. It tells victims they have no control. It tells victims they have no power to protect themselves from being a victim again. I began to think perhaps this self help course might have something to teach me after all.
I don’t remember the details of what else happened during those three days. 40% of it was crazy–exactly the kind of stuff I was expecting, and which I still feel were of little value. 60% of it was amazing, and changed my life.
After the first day, I had clarity on what was wrong with MWI and what I needed to do. It was so obvious what the problem was. It was me.
The course was three days and ended on Saturday evening. I won’t tell you exactly how, other than that there was a graduation ceremony, our significant others were invited to attend, and that I found myself singing “Rhinestone Cowboy” as a solo in front of my stunned wife and 100 other people, most of whom couldn’t figure out why their loved ones were doing such strange things that were totally out of character for them. For the record, I don’t normally sing solos in front of anyone, let alone with the full commitment I gave it. This was very strange behavior for me.
On Monday, I walked in to MWI, sat down in the lobby chair, and Mark asked “Well, how was it?”
“Yeah. But Mark, I’m sorry.”
“I’m going to have to let you go.”
I didn’t just let Mark go. I let all 10 of MWI’s team members go. I also got rid of the office space. I scaled MWI…down, to just me.
What I learned in the self help course during those three days was that the reason I hadn’t been paid during those four years was because of my ego. Pride. Instead of paying myself, I was paying $5,000 per month for an office. I was paying for salaries I couldn’t afford. Why? Because I didn’t want to be a failure. Because I didn’t want others to think I was a failure. As long as I had that office, and 10 employees, people thought I was a successful entrepreneur. But once I saw clearly that this was my motivation, I was able to step back and say “Well, that’s pretty stupid.”
I Get Paid
After the first three-day self help course I signed up for the follow up course, which cost a lot more money and took up a lot more time. This was money and time I didn’t have but felt compelled to come up with after the results of the first course. I also signed up for the third and final part of the course. It wasn’t an every-day thing, but it lasted three months.
Within two months, before the course was even over, everything had changed. I didn’t have the nice office with the MWI sign on it, and I couldn’t any longer tell people I had 10 full time employees, but instead of getting into debt, I was paying it off to the tune of $10,000 to $20,000 per month. And for the first time in four years I paid myself.
The Good Life
From 2007 to 2011 my life improved dramatically. I didn’t make a lot of money, but it didn’t matter much to me anymore. I made enough to get by and pay off a lot of debt. I dropped my work hours from 80-100 per week down to 20-30. I spent time with my wife.My wife and I adopted our first child, then two years later had our second biologically. I started to read books again, something I had done voraciously as a child and teen but had somehow neglected in the 10 years between the ages 23 and 33. We moved out of the studio apartment and into a townhouse, and then a full house with a yard. I also got in shape.
In April, 2007, my friend Te Koi Smith invited me to watch him in a triathlon. I was still pretty fat and out of shape at this point, but as I watched him in this triathlon it felt like fate that somehow I was going to get sucked into this sport. I had never run over a mile in my life at this point, but it felt inevitable that I was going to become a swimmer, biker, and runner. By October that year I did my first triathlon, a small one, and I was hooked. A few months later I did a half marathon. Then a half-Ironman. Then a full marathon. And I kept on going, ultimately getting into ultra-marathons on mountain trails, something I never could have conceived of doing when I was struggling to walk up 10 stairs without passing out. I lost 60 lbs. I felt great. I felt as though I had been in a sluggish dream for 10 years, and I was finally awake.
My friend Mark and I remained friends, even after he lost his job as a result of him referring me to that self help class. He knew it was the right thing for me to do, plus I had never been very good at paying him on time anyway. We skateboarded together frequently, which was easier since now I could do it for more than a few minutes.
During these years MWI was just me and a bunch of contractors. A former MWI employee had started his own company and did most of my fulfillment work. I landed deals and turned them over to him to get the work done. I resisted any temptation to get an office and full time staff again. Life was good. What else did I need?
Let’s Make a Deal
By 2011 I started getting antsy again. Sure, life was good in the most important ways, but I still had business debts to pay off, and I still had ambitions. I couldn’t imagine running an SEO firm from my basement for the rest of my life. I felt like I was supposed to do something more than this. It was at this time I became aware of an SEO firm in Utah that had a lot of cash flow and a great brand, but was reported to be very poorly managed due to a meddlesome owner who wouldn’t let his management team run the business as they saw fit. I saw it as an undervalued asset that could be turned around simply by eliminating the owner. I researched the deal, met with the management team, the owner, lawyers, and scores of investors. I put together a buyout plan, got buy in from key employees, and then…the owner wanted $25M while the 30 investors I spoke to said it wasn’t worth more than $12M, tops.
I spent part of 2011 and most of 2012 on this deal. Even thought it didn’t work out, I learned a lot from the experience, and seeing how this large company was being run so poorly, and yet was still successful, gave me the confidence to try my hand at growing MWI again. The only problem was I wasn’t sure I had learned what I needed to in order to make it work. Having failed for so many years previously to achieve any sort of real growth, I wasn’t sure how to bridge the gap.
In 2012 I returned to Brazil for the first time since I left it in 1996 at the end of my mission. My wife didn’t go with me because I wanted to go for three weeks to make sure I could visit everyone I hadn’t seen for all these years, and she didn’t want to leave our young children at home for that long. At the same time she didn’t want me to go by myself, so Mark went with me. If he hadn’t, my life might be very different today. No, Mark didn’t save me from crocodiles or street thugs. It was just something he said during our trip.
We were driving in a cheap rental car on a pot-holed road in the state of Rondonia and as usual I was venting to Mark about business challenges. Mark knew my whole history and after hearing me out turned to me and said, “Josh, I know you don’t want to hear this, but you need a partner.”
It “gonged,” as I had learned to say in the self help class, or in other words, I knew he was right, and that it was the right time. I returned from Brazil with a mission–find the right partner to help me grow MWI into what I had always dreamed it could be–one of the top global digital marketing agencies in the world.
I would spend the rest of 2012 searching, and by the time I got together with my wife’s family for Christmas, I had exhausted all my contacts and had no leads.
“Let’s Just Try This Out…”
During the Christmas break of 2012 I spent some time with my wife’s family, and I started talking with my brother in law, Corey Blake. Corey is about 12 years younger than I am and he was about 12 when I married his sister, so it hadn’t occurred to me to talk business with him before. But I was trying to launch a side hustle called Full Occupancy which would focus exclusively on the self storage industry, and I was having trouble with the sales/bizdev side of things, and knowing Corey had a bit of experience with sales from selling pest control and alarm systems during his summers, I started to pick his brain and get his advice. After getting a few tips from Corey I applied them in my business, and they worked.
Before I got any further, I want to emphasize that there was one more reason I had never spoken to Corey about my business, and that’s because I had a firm commitment to never, ever, EVER, mix family and business. The last thing I wanted was to hire someone from my family, then fire them, and have family reunions be awkward for the rest of my life. As far as I was concerned, I would never hire a family member to work for me, not ever.
With Corey our conversations it didn’t start out as work, it was just the two of us chatting casually. But as I saw the value in what Corey was telling me, I asked him if I could pay him hourly to do some light consulting for me. I found we were able to communicate and get along well, so then 5 hours per week became 10 hours per week, and then I asked Corey if he would work part time for me while he was finishing up school.
By April, 2013, I was convinced I needed to hire Corey on full time, the only problem was that Corey was already committed to go do pest control sales that summer. Also, I was committed to moving to Hong Kong in June, 2013. Oh yeah, that’s kind of a big deal, isn’t it? Let me back up a little.
In August, 2012, my wife and I decided to adopt from China. Most people adopt infants, but we felt like we should adopt an older child, a girl older than our first daughter (yeah, yeah, we know, adopting out of age order = crazy, adopting older child = difficult–we’ve done a bunch of research on it and talked to a lot of people and we know we’re crazy and it will be difficult). Soon after making this decision, I looked at the arrangement I had where I was simply doing sales and transferring the work to my friend’s company to take care of fulfillment and thought that since I could work from anywhere in the world, why not move to China? I figured it would help us learn some of the language and become familiar with the culture, food, etc., all of which would help us ease the transition of our daughter into an American home. It would also be a great experience for our other two kids and our family.
As we started looking into China, we spoke with some friends from our neighborhood who had lived all over Asia, including China, who advised us to try out Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Singapore first, since we had no prior experience in Asia, other than that my wife had lived in Japan for a few years as a teenager. That seemed like sound advice, and we narrowed things down to Hong Kong and made the decision to move there no later than mid-2013. This is how I ended up moving to Asia while Corey was doing summer sales. Another important event that coincided with all this was that I started writing for Forbes around this same time.
Getting Into Forbes
Without moving to Asia and talking business with Corey none of what has happened since 2012 would have happened, but there is one more factor that had a huge impact, and that was when the chance to write for Forbes came along.
It all started in early 2013 when I went to my friend Cheryl Conner, who runs the Utah based PR agency Snapp Conner, and asked her if she could help me get some news media logos on MWI’s website. I had seen competitors with these logos on their websites, and I felt like it added major credibility for their businesses and I wanted to do the same thing. Since I enjoyed writing, Cheryl helped me get a piece in Fast Company, and we were working on more placements when I came across some of Cheryl’s writing on Forbes. In our next meeting I asked her how she got this job, and how she was able to do it while also running her PR agency.
“Oh, it’s not a job, I don’t even get paid.”
“What? How’s that?”
“Forbes has a contributor model where they invite professionals to write for them, but unlike the staff writers who do it full time as a job, contributors get to write for Forbes, and it pays off for them in exposure.”
“Huh, that’s cool.”
“My editor is going to be in town in two weeks. I can introduce you to him if you like?”
At this point, I almost made what would have been one of the the biggest mistakes of my life. I was so overloaded running my business I almost told her thanks but no thanks, but instead I said, “Sure, that’d be awesome!”
After our meeting, I remember going home and discussing it with my wife, and talking about how busy I was, and yet writing for Forbes seemed like such a great opportunity. I didn’t know why it was a great opportunity, or how it could really benefit me or my business, but gee, it’s Forbes, right? How could I pass it up?
Two weeks later I attended an event at Weber State University in Utah, where Cheryl’s editor from Forbes, Tom Post, was speaking. After Tom’s talk and during lunch Cheryl introduced me to Tom. I assumed he had no idea who I was yet, but as we spoke he said “Cheryl showed me your article in Fast Company. I wish you had written that for us.” I was flattered. “I’ve also been reading your blog. I want you to write for Forbes. Just write the same stuff you’re writing on your blog, except now it will be on the Forbes website.”
I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t even had the chance to pitch myself. All I could get out was “Sure, sounds great!”
There’s no one reason why everything that happened next happened–it was chemistry. The combination of certain elements made things explode. If I had started writing for Forbes, but without Corey on board, or Corey had come on board, but without me writing for Forbes, perhaps something else would have happened and we would have found success, but based on the success we’ve had since 2013 it’s hard to believe it could have been better any other way.
I wish I could say I was the genius chemist who examined all the elements, figured out what would happened if I combined the right ones together in the right quantities, and then I executed my plan flawlessly and everything worked out according to my predictions, but I don’t think chemistry works out that way for anyone. I’ve never heard any story about an inventor, scientist, chemist, or entrepreneur who started something and succeeded on the first try. But I’ve heard hundreds of stories about people, like Edison or Curie, who tried and failed hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of times before finding success. In reality I’ve been richly blessed–I only had to experience failure for 14-15 years with perhaps 10 attempts before things began to work out, plus I don’t have to worry about radiation poisoning.
Call it God, or luck, or whatever you want to call it, in 2013 things came together in a wonderful way.
The $2M Blog Post
When I started writing for Forbes I didn’t know where it would lead, but I knew it was a great opportunity and that I didn’t want to mess it up. I figured I should stay far away from writing anything that seemed self promotional or tried to push MWI’s services. As a result, I focused on entrepreneurship and startups. I got nice feedback from readers, and my articles seemed to be mildly popular, but other than boosting my ego a bit there was no other tangible benefit to writing for Forbes, at least for the first few months.
However, after I had gotten my bearings I began to notice that other Forbes contributors ran digital marketing firms, just like me, but unlike me, they were writing about digital marketing for Forbes. In fact, all they wrote about was digital marketing. And while they weren’t blatantly promoting their own companies, it wasn’t hard for someone reading their articles to figure out what they did. “If they’re writing about digital marketing, and they run marketing agencies, why can’t I write about digital marketing?” I thought.
I decided to write a piece on digital marketing and see how it went. I did. Nobody at Forbes said anything. So I wrote more. Then I got lucky. MWI had lost a few deals because, in my opinion, the potential clients had made mistakes in how they went about choosing which agency to work with. I quickly wrote up a piece with the title 4 Tips For Hiring The Right SEO Firm and published it. I hope it might attract a client or two, or that I could send it to clients who were considering hiring MWI. I had no idea what would happen next.
The brilliant thing about this piece, which I can’t take credit for because I didn’t realize this until after the fact, was that it hit MWI’s potential clients at exactly the right moment in the buying cycle.
Imagine you have a company, and you need to sell more stuff, bring in more clients, get more leads, or whatever. You get the idea that SEO might be a good way to do it, but you’re not sure where to start. You begin researching SEO firms and you find hundreds out there, and some offer SEO packages for $250 per month, while others have no pricing on their websites and when you contact them they tell you they charge $10,000 per month at a minimum. You come to the realization you don’t want to hire the cheap SEO firm, but you also don’t want to pay $10,000 per month, so you go and find a handful of firms that charge between $3,000 and $7,000 per month, and you’re trying to figure out which one you want to work with, but it’s difficult. In frustration, you go to Google and type in “How to hire an SEO firm” and then one of the top results you get is this:
You think “Huh, I need tips on hiring the right SEO firm,” and then “And this is on Forbes, so it seems like I should be able to trust this.”
You click through to the article, read it, find it helpful and say “Thank goodness! This is exactly what I needed!” and then it occurs to you, “Wait a second…I’ve been struggling to figure out which SEO firm to hire, and here’s an article that tells me exactly what I need to know, and it’s written by a guy who has an SEO firm…why don’t I just hire his SEO firm?”
Apparently this is what happened to many people, because as soon as I wrote this article we began to be flooded with leads. It struck a chord with readers, and our phone began to ring off the hook, our email inbox filled up, and Corey was busy responding to everyone and began to close deals left and right.
As leads came in we would always ask people how they found us, and almost always the response would start out with “I read this post on Forbes about how to hire an SEO firm…”.
Over the next few years, we tracked at least $2M in revenue directly to this blog post. The leads have kept coming in, and the number might be $3M at this point, but I’m not 100% sure about that so I’ll say $2M.
The fact that I started writing for Forbes at the same moment I moved to Hong Kong completely changed my experience in Asia from what it otherwise would have been.
Let’s put it this way–I wasn’t the most popular guy in school. Even when I had friends I felt like a loner. I sometimes got invited to things, but I rarely went. I wasn’t into partying, I was happier staying home with my parents and watching Twin Peaks. I was invited, three separate times, to go see the Offspring play in some guy’s basement in Pasadena or LA, and I declined every time (doh!).
However, when I walked off the plane in Hong Kong and told people, hesitantly, “Yeah, so I run a digital marketing agency…and I also write for Forbes,” the response was “Oh wow, you write for Forbes?!” and the next thing I knew I was being invited to everything. Having grown out of my shy stage, and being new in Hong Kong, I felt like I had to accept every invitation. I was invited to meet with government officials, judge startup pitch events, and meet with local entrepreneurs. If there was any event I wanted to go to, all I had to do was mention Forbes and I got free access and VIP treatment. I felt like the most popular guy in town. It kind of made up for those high school years.
Hong Kong Hustle
The main goal in Asia was to find our third child, but I also had to get an MWI office up and running as part of my business investment visa in Hong Kong. If I didn’t work at it, they could kick me out.
The first year I didn’t do much on it. I was busy working with Corey on the US side of MWI and writing articles. I knew the first thing I needed to do was find someone who was good at sales, like Corey, and who could also be an entrepreneur, so I was searching and asking around, but not as intently as I could have.
When my first year was up and I had to justify to the Hong Kong government why I hadn’t hired anyone, I realized I should probably get moving on it. I hired a number of sales people, but none was the right fit. That cost me the better part of the second year. I finally found someone who seemed to have a lot of potential to do business development and be more entrepreneurial, so we hired him on and committed a lot of resources to him.
It didn’t work. After 8-9 months we let him go. There went the rest of the second year and half of the third year in Hong Kong as well.
It’d be nice if I could blame that guy, but it wasn’t his fault. That is, it was his fault that he didn’t do the job we had hired him for, but it was my fault for hiring him in the first place, and my fault for letting things drag on so long.
Part of the issue is that I am the opposite of a micro-manager to a fault. I can be suuuuper hands off to the point of neglect. This works great when I hire people who are proactive and take control of things, but it works out poorly when I hire people who need more supervision and guidance. While this guy was “running” MWI Hong Kong, I was holed up writing articles and focusing on training for an ultra-marathon on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island.
I let that guy go at the beginning of 2016. In May, 2016, I met Jason Wong.
Was it chance? Sort of, but not exactly. I was on LinkedIn searching for everyone in Hong Kong who was LDS, or Mormon. I don’t recall looking for anyone in particular, I was just curious. I stumbled onto Jason’s profile, which contained a few things of special interest to me. One was that Jason had experience growing an office of the recruitment firm he was at. Another was that he had previously worked for Vivint, a Utah-based company that uses high-pressure, door to door sales tactics to sell alarm systems. Corey had also worked for Vivint, albeit briefly. Corey had also worked for similar summer sales companies, and I had seen the value it brought to MWI to have someone who understood sales, and rejection. As I looked at Jason’s profile I thought “This is the Hong Kong version of Corey!” I had to meet him.
I contacted Jason and told him I wanted to meet him. What I didn’t realize was that he had assumed, naturally, that I was interested in his firm’s recruitment services. When he showed up he started giving me his pitch, and although it wasn’t my intent to mislead him, I recognized this as a great opportunity to see how he tried to sell me, since this was a large part of what I wanted the next person we hired at MWI Hong Kong to do.
Jason did a great job, and after his pitch I started giving him my own. I gave him the MWI history, and told him how I had been frustrated at the hiring I had done so far. I told him who we were looking for, and he listened intently, taking notes and nodding his head. Then I popped the question–”Rather than you finding me someone for this position, what would you think about applying for it yourself?”
Jason looked at me in surprise, but I could see the wheels turning in his head as he nodded and said “Yeah, um, yeah…well…” I could see he knew it could be a great fit. What impressed me more at that moment was that he said “Well, this is interesting, but let me think about it a bit. I don’t like rushing into things and I have considerations I have to think about.” I don’t like hiring desperate people, in fact, I like hiring people who resist at first, although that’s not a prerequisite for working at MWI. It just makes me want to fight for someone when they aren’t interested but I know they would be a great fit.
The next time Jason and I met we spoke for hours, then had dinner, then spoke for hours more. I believe it ended up being between 5-6 hours we were talking. Finally, he came on board with MWI as our managing director in Hong Kong.
The CMO Book
At 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday, October 28, 2014, I entered a conference room at the Hong Kong offices of Nexusguard, an online security company. We had negotiated a contract with Nexusguard for our services. I was there to get the contract signed and have a kickoff meeting to get things started.
I was introduced to various members of the marketing team, including Hope Frank, who informed me that as of the previous day, she was the company’s new CMO. She said she was interested in talking to me about my agency’s services, but no contracts would be signed that day. I walked out of that meeting wishing it had been scheduled a week before.
A few months later, my management team and I had a meeting to discuss creating client personas for our agency. I recalled the meeting with Hope and said, “CMOs can make or break deals with agencies like ours. Is there a way we understand them better and establish credibility with them?”
We decided I would write a book on the topic “What CMOs need to know about digital marketing.” As I started doing research, I realized that while I knew plenty about digital marketing, I didn’t know enough about CMOs to write the book. But I thought I knew where to learn more. A few years previously, my friend Peter Harris suggested I read Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston of Y Combinator. That was the first book by the publisher Apress in the “At Work” series. I was also in the middle of succeeding volumes Venture Capitalists at Work and CTOs at Work and knew there were several other books. I figured I would go buy “CMOs at Work,” read it, and then I’d have the knowledge I needed to do a better job on my digital marketing book for CMOs.
However, I went to Amazon to buy “CMOs at Work,” but I couldn’t find it. I found it hard to believe the book didn’t exist, so I kept searching, and that led me to the Apress website, where I verified that there was no such book. However, as I was looking over the Apress website, I stumbled onto a page inviting authors to propose and write additional titles for the “At Work” series. The thought struck me that I could write the “At Work” book on chief marketing officers and that this would be excellent preparation for writing the book on digital marketing. I sent a message to Apress, explained that I was a contributor to Forbes and other business publications and I felt I had the network and means to contact CMOs and other top marketers to be part of this book; and I secured a contract.
In hindsight, I’m thankful that the meeting with Nexusguard happened when it did. Were it not for the impression losing that deal made on me, I wouldn’t have interviewed 30 of the top marketing minds of our day, and the book Chief Marketing Officers at Work would not exist. It was published in August, 2016.
As a curious side note, I asked my publisher if they were planning on doing an Audible version of the book, and they said they weren’t. I asked if I could have the rights, and they signed them over to me. I make about $2-3 per print copy, and $10-12 per Audible copy, and the Audible copies appear to be outselling the print and Kindle copies by a wide margin. Remember that if you ever work with a publisher–get the Audible rights for yourself, if at all possible.
A Decent Proposal
As you can see, I’m not putting all this down in strictly chronological order. It’s organized, in part, by topic or event. Maybe that’s not the best way to go about it, but I’ll leave editing for later. In the meantime, I apologize for all the backing up and then going forward again.
So…in November, 2015 I was in the states on a business trip and met with a woman who had been the CMO of a $2B company. She had requested the meeting, and I wasn’t sure of the purpose until she asked, “Could you coach me?”
“Coach you about what?” I thought. Who was I to be coaching anyone? At this point I was in the middle of doing interviews for my CMO book, and I recognized that this woman had amazing experience and I wasn’t sure what she wanted to learn from me.
“I want you to help me get my writing into Forbes and other business publications.” she said.
I told her I was flattered, but I hadn’t ever considered such a thing, I didn’t know what it meant to be a coach or how to go about it, and wasn’t sure how to respond. She told me should would pay me $1,000 per month for four hours of my time. At first, I was tempted–I won’t pretend this wouldn’t have been good money for me–but I didn’t want to do this unless I had a plan, and I had no plan because the whole idea had just been proposed to me a minute earlier. I turned her down, only because I didn’t feel prepared, but it got me thinking…”If she was willing to pay me $1,000 per month for coaching, how many other people were there out there like her?”
That moment marked the beginning of the movement I would come to brand as Influencer Inc.
Although I turned down this first opportunity at coaching, I started to think more about what I had learned about thought leadership and influence, and how I could pass that on to others. But in the meantime I was still busy with MWI.
A Model For Growth
Before I ever started MWI I dreamed of it becoming a global player. As we grew, the model for what this might look like began to take shape. A few key points about managing an agency became clear to Corey, Kurtis Kildew (our COO), Jason, and others at MWI.
- Clients like quick, responsive teams.
- Small teams are more responsive than big teams.
- Most client engagements require a mix of disciplines (SEO, SEM, dev, account management, project management, design, writing, etc.).
- Managing a small team isn’t all that difficult.
Three of those points contain the word “small,” but I wanted MWI to get big. As we grew, if we created silos between disciplines, with SEO, design, and writing each having 100 people on their respective teams, how would these teams work together effectively? That’s not how MWI operated when we had 10 people. We had one of each person on the team, and it was very easy to manage projects and get great work done. Could we preserve the best aspects of small teams, while still growing? The natural conclusion we reached was “We need to divide teams,” or in essence, created two MWIs within MWI. Two teams that are self contained with everything each one needs, and with their own clients. Would the teams ever work together? Sure, they might trade here and there, the members of the teams would communicate with each other and share best practices, maybe members would jump from one team to another occasionally, but for all intents and purposes we would have two companies within a company.
At the time, we were thinking about managing 20-30 people within a single office. But then we started to think about individual offices. What if we could create a sort of franchise model? Not an actual franchise system, but something that borrowed aspects of it. What if we created a headquarters, called it MWI HQ, and then we created individual offices under MWI HQ, like MWI HK, MWI AZ, MWI TX, MWI China, etc. Each office could be run by a sort of “local CEO” who would have a vested interest in its success (a sort of equity stake), and would operate with a high degree of autonomy while following basic rules and guidelines. Each office would pay a percentage of revenue back to MWI HQ, and MWI HQ would provide a brand, global marketing, training, quality control, and other various forms of support–basically anything to help the local offices grow, because this would be the only source of MWI HQ’s growth as it would have no clients of its own.
The more we discussed this model, the more I liked it. As an entrepreneur, I appreciated the control and transparency it extended to the local CEOs. They would truly be running those offices as though they were their own companies. Each one would be a laboratory for experimentation, and each year we could bring the leadership together for a mastermind where challenges and solutions would be discussed. As a marketer I was attracted to the idea of having a global network. The larger our footprint, the more we could secure larger deals, especially international deals. As a businessman I saw the potential for fast growth–it’s not that hard to start an agency and grow it to $1M in annual revenue with 10 people. And if we could provide a blueprint for success, based on our experiences, and provide support to the local leaders, this would greatly reduce risk and speed up the process. And as the network of offices grew, it would have more value.
Last updated 28-June-2017. I’m writing as fast as I can, but if you want the rest of the story, you’ll have to check in over the next few days as I finish it.