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.
Hey, I just relaunched my website on Feb 25th, 2017, so you’re seeing this story as I write it because this is a new page with new content. It’s now 12:35 am in China where I live, so I’m going to have to come finish this on Monday. If you want the rest of the story, you’ll have to check in then.
Below are some working notes…copied from the MWI website (you’re really getting a behind the scenes look as I create the content here :). But there’s still a lot of drama to include, like the parts where I get fat, don’t pay myself for four years, get rejected by the Harvard Business School MBA program, hit rock bottom, and then end up running a multi-million dollar global marketing agency and ultra marathons in Hong Kong. The best is yet to come.
By this point we were 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. Sure, we’ve got quite a few listed on the website right now, but they’re all tightly related and many are merely subsets of another. That wasn’t the case at this time. We thought we were an ad agency, branding agency, web development firm, and web design firm all wrapped up into one awesome digital agency. In reality we lacked focus and people didn’t know what we were.
SEO was still a new thing at this point. We had started doing it for ourselves, and we had a client come along and ask if we could do it for them. Since we were still doing anything anyone would hire us to do at this point, we agreed, and that was a great stroke of luck, since online marketing has become what MWI is all about today. This is also the point at which our business became less about “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.” Since then we’ve become much more customer-focused, recognizing that the more we can align our objectives with those of our clients, the better things work out for everyone. Except our clients’ competitors.
By this point we had decided we were very good at two things; SEO and web design, and we cut everything else. That is, we would still do the other work if it made sense, but we didn’t advertise it. We still don’t advertise that we do systems integration and programming work, even though we do quite a bit of it. Our focus remains on online marketing, and we only take on ancillary services to better meet the needs of our online marketing clients.
In 2013 we almost went out of business. I had a partnership that fell through and I had lost focus on MWI. But as they say, it’s darkest just before the dawn. The challenges motivated me to find my partner, Corey Blake, and together we rebooted MWI. I began writing for Forbes and other publications and between 2013 and 2014 Corey and I grew MWI by over 1,000%.