What does it take to succeed?
this post was inspired by Bijan Sabet’s Who Took a Chance on You? and is a contribution to Startup Edition.
If you’re reading this post, it’s likely someone took a chance on you. If you got a “lucky break” somewhere along the way, someone took a chance on you. And if good things tend to happen when you’re around, I’ll bet they often started when someone took a chance on you. You have to be good, and lucky – this part is about the lucky.
Sacramento, CA – July 1996. For some reason I thought it was sensible to pack up everything I owned, follow a girlfriend across the country, learn HTML in 24 hours, and apply for a job as a “webmaster” using a newfangled thing called an online classified ad in the Sacramento Bee to apply for a job making web sites for a guy who ran two McDonald’s restaurants in Davis, CA. (Yes, that’s right – I was one of the few people making web sites in 1996 who had “McDonald’s” on my W-2 because he hadn’t changed his business license yet for his new business.)
Yet that one choice (thanks, Dan Lintz) to hire a novice “web master” who then learned graphics, programming (ColdFusion FTW), client services and team management in what constituted my first real “startup” substantively changed my career. Dan took a chance on me because I was persuasive, because I bluffed my way into knowing the things that I eventually learned and excelled and because I was willing to put myself out there and do what it took to win customers.
Leap, and then Look
What did working for the McDonald’s of web design teach me about taking a chance on people?
First, that people aren’t necessarily what they seem at first glance, and that first impressions are important. I believe Dan gave me a shot because I took the leap of believing that I could do the job of “webmaster” (whatever that was) and then found the parts of the job where I excelled and the parts of the job where I needed help. What I didn’t know, I learned along the way. Two months into the job, our programmer quit. Dan handed me a CD of O’Reilly Website that included something called “ColdFusion” and said something to the effect of “this looks like it can send emails. Can you learn this? Without the first chance, I wouldn’t have been able to warrant others – and to give that chance to them.
The second thing that working for Dan taught me about working for a startup is that the only constant is change. We learned what we were doing as we were doing it. That didn’t mean that we learned everything at once, but that we optimized for a “good enough” experience. At the time, I think we did that because we didn’t know better. I now believe that an “up and stumbling” approach to most problems when everything else about a project is unknown makes sense and conserves resources to think about new challenges you don’t know yet.
The third and most important thing I learned during my stint as a webmaster for a business that began its life as a McDonalds is that the people are the very most important part of the business. Dan took a chance on me because he believed in me as a person and thought I could do what his business needed to succeed. Did he know exactly what he would need and thought I was the best person for the job? Maybe – but he gave me a chance to prove it to him and I’m glad he did.
Growing up I knew I always wanted to be in the military and be an entrepreneur.
From 17-33 I was either in the military or in the defense industry. In 2009 at the age of 33 I realized 3 things: First, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not going to last forever and with it the employment opportunities I then I had and Second, being gone 48 out of the 52 weeks of the years was not good for the family. Third I wanted to be part of the knowledge based economy.
Greg for me it was a series of individuals who helped me get my foot in the door in Tech Startups.
Ryan Kuder who got his then firm Koombea to design my first site 3GPower2 (portable iPhone charger) on the cheap.
Jason Del Rey then at Inc who responded to my tweet in late 2009 and then told my story in the magazine in April 2010. http://www.inc.com/magazine/20100401/war-zone-start-up.html
Gabriella Draney of Tech Wildcatters who saw me present at Dallas StartupWeekend what became Hello I’m (LinkedIn +Twitter for Veterans looking for jobs ) in 2010 and gave me a crack at the Spring 2011 Tech Wildcatter Class
Stew YoungBlood, David Cohen, Fred Wilson, Brad Feld and Joanne Wilson for giving me advice through their blog comments, tweets and emails. In addition they all personally arranged intro to folks who later gave me interviews for positions at various startups.
Lastly, Brian Curliss at MailLift for giving veteran a shot at my first real non- founder startup job.