Athletes Will Break Your Heart.

Be smart. That’s a line athletes hear from coaches over and over again. Coaches don’t say it because they think athletes are dumb. They say it because they’re older, and in many cases, wiser. Don’t get me wrong. Some coaches are idiots. But many of them understand the temptation for an athlete to do something stupid and want to do everything they can to make sure players stay out of trouble and eligible. Whatever their motivation, amateur coaches depend on players staying in the game.  

Once an athlete crosses into professional status, they’re on their own. Many pro athletes have too much money and time on their hands, but they’re also adults. Sure, some of them weren’t raised correctly and have no understanding of consequences, but we as a society don’t tend to feel as badly for them when they make a mistake. Maybe I’m speaking for myself, but when a pro messes up, I actually hope they get burned. ARodFor example, I’m pretty confident I wouldn’t lose any sleep if A-Rod woke up tomorrow without a dime to his name. He’s a disgrace.

I almost wrote this blog last year just after J.T. Barrett was arrested for drunk driving. I remember waking up, hearing the news and thinking to myself, how could he do that to his teammates? He’s one of the best players in the country and everyone is watching him. What was he thinking? The Buckeyes didn’t have a game the week it happened yet all the analysts on Gameday could talk about was J.T.’s arrest. It was awful to watch and fortunately no one was hurt in the process, but it was another mark on athletes in general and an Ohio State program that has a coach with a history of players getting into trouble.

I do have to take a step back and remember everyone makes mistakes. This is not a holier than thou post. I wasn’t an angel in college and many of my teammates weren’t either. We had our share of run-ins with authority and many of the instances could have been much worse than they were. Luckily, nothing “major” ever happened.

Unfortunately, when something major does happen it’s too late to take it back. After an amazing story a couple weeks ago about my Broncos and a surprise from Sly Stallone, another story broke on Saturday about two young men on the WMU football team under arrest for armed robbery. Let me write that again….ARMED ROBBERY! This was the story of two 18-year-old young men breaking into a home and robbing an innocent victim at gunpoint. This wasn’t story about a fight getting out of hand or a story about a player drinking too much. This was a story about multiple felony counts wrapped into one.  

When I heard the news, I almost couldn’t believe it. Again, I was thinking to myself, what went wrong here? How could these two young men have made a decision like this to go into a person’s home with a gun and rob her? Why do they have a gun in the first place? I don’t know their background. I have no idea what their socioeconomic status is. We could debate the details for days. What I do know is they were given the opportunity to go to school on a full scholarship, earn a college degree and play a game they loved. They took an amazing opportunity and flushed it in just a few moments on Friday night. Sure, the courts say innocent until proven guilty, but all signs point to guilty in this particular instance. I don’t believe I’m jumping to conclusions here.   

Every freshman enters their first camp and has the opportunity to start fresh. I can say this specifically about WMU because I went there and know the people in charge of both athletics and academics. Sure, not every student-athlete is a great student, but every student-athlete on scholarship is offered the same resources as the next. This was their shot to make a way for themselves and they decided to go out after camp broke and rob someone at gunpoint. These two young men went from preparing for the biggest football season of their lives to facing LIFE in prison. A bigger turn of events I couldn’t imagine.

I don’t feel particularly bad for them because they made a choice. They know right from wrong. They messed up and deserve to face the consequences of their actions. I’m heartbroken. I’m sad they threw away an opportunity many others would do anything for. I’m sad they let their teammates, fans and families down. I’m sad two very talented young men didn’t listen to their coaches and do the right thing. I’m sad a young woman had to be put through the terrible ordeal of having her life threatened in her own home. I’m just sad. I hope all involved can learn from this terrible incident and move forward in a positive way.

While at Western, our Coach, Gary Darnell, had many sayings. Some of them stuck and some didn’t. But one that stuck very well was, “Short-term decisions lead to long-term consequences.” If there were ever a situation where the saying was more spot on, I haven’t seen it yet. Those two young men made a very short term decision and the consequences are going to be dire.  

I’ll be at the opener this weekend when the Broncos take on Northwestern and I’ll be cheering for the team as I always do. I’ll have my two-year-old with me at a game for the first time. As he grows up, I’ll be sure to tell him what so many coaches and my father always told me, be smart.

 

    

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Time Flies

It’s already August of 2016. We’re one month away from what I consider the greatest time of year, football season. I look forward to opening weekend of college football like a six year old looks forward to Christmas morning. What I’m struggling with this year, more than years past, is I can hardly believe how long it’s been since I was preparing for the season as a player.

Don’t get me wrong, preparing for a season, specifically two-a-days is something I don’t miss for a second. Practice and summer heat were terrible, but a necessary evil. It’s the excitement of the games and hanging out with teammates I miss. I see former teammates a couple times each year at games and I keep up with what they’re doing on Facebook, but it’s a far cry from spending about 40 hours a week with someone for five years. I see their successes and hear about some failures and can’t help but think back to a time when beating the Chumps from Central was all that mattered.

Just last week, a former teammate of mine (Greg Jennings) retired from the NFL after an

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amazing 10-year pro-bowl career. 10 years went by in a flash and it’s hard to overstate what an accomplishment it was, especially since the average NFL career is only 3.3 years. Greg was a special talent. He joined the team when I was in my fourth season, but once they lifted his redshirt and he was competing against live bullets in his second year, we all knew he was a superstar. Congratulations to Greg on an outstanding career. He is an example of what a pro should be both on and off the field.

This season, when the Broncos take the field, I’ll be watching young men that were toddlers when I was playing. Now, I have a toddler of my own and another baby on the way, it’s hard to remember what life was like when football and getting to class was all I had to worry about. Today, when I watch athletes from all sports, I can visibly see they’re younger than I am. It’s an odd experience for someone that grew up idolizing college and pro athletes and thinking about how much older they all looked. If someone is a pro athlete and older than I am now, they’re considered ancient! Most athletes don’t even make it into their 30s while playing.

Life has a funny way of happening without us noticing. This year I’m entering my late 30’s. I can almost remember my parents at this age yet I don’t feel like I’m getting older, other than some back pain. Days come and they go. We get into routines and don’t always take time to step back and reflect on what’s going on around us or enjoy the here and now (I’m projecting, but I have a feeling it’s more than just me this is happening to). Because of this, I’m going to do my best during the most wonderful time of the year to stop and take a look around, enjoy the birth of my second baby, and watch a little football with a child’s enthusiasm. I’m also going to remember every stage of life is great, I just need to live in the moment a bit more and try to make the game of life slow down, just like I did with football when I was on the field.

Deep Sea Fishing is Like a Startup

A couple weeks ago I went fishing in the ocean for the first time. I grew up fishing on lakes in the Midwest so fishing in the ocean was an extremely different experience for me. My brother-in-law, father-in-law and I chartered a boat for five hours just off the coast of Cape Cod and that’s where the similarities began.

We had a finite amount of time to do something we hadn’t done before and we needed to figure it out fast. The good news was we had help and went out with a gentleman by the name of Captain Ron. He was the Captain of a fishing boat called the Stray Cat and was glad to show us the way.

It may sound odd to compare fishing to a start up and I had no idea it would be similar, but as I was out on the water, it started to feel strangely familiar to me. Here’s what happened.

Iterate and Fail Fast

When we initially made our way out of the harbor, Captain Ron had us get started immediately. He quickly showed us how to troll and jig the lines in order to attract the type of fish we were looking for. We were on the hunt for striped bass and, just as with lake fishing, there’s a method to attracting them while trolling. Once he showed us, we were on our own. He was driving the boat and didn’t have time to hold our hands. He was just there for direction.

Within about 5-10 minutes, Captain Ron had seen enough at the original location we started and was ready to move. Just like a startup, we tested, gathered data quickly and found what we were doing wasn’t going to work and we needed to try something else.

I’ve never given up on a fishing spot that quickly, so it was great how Captain Ron helped expedite the process. This was lesson number one and it was exactly how a successful startup moves. Test quickly, gather data, and if it doesn’t work, move on fast.

Landing the First Fish
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After Captain Ron had us quickly try several more locations to no avail, we took off to a location he felt confident we’d find our target. He was right. We found a sandbar a couple miles off the coast and began trolling without moving much due to high winds. Within a few minutes of being near the sandbar, we started slamming striped bass.

Captain Ron had his first mate help us change all our bait over to the same lures. We began catching a fish every couple minutes for about an hour and a half. Sure, many of them were too small, but it was awesome!

Finding that school of fish off the sandbar felt just like finding the first group of customers we found at our startup. We had put in a lot of work and it was starting to pay off. Not all of them were keepers, but just having the validation was a great feeling and it was fun as hell to bring them in the boat.

After we trolled for a couple hours, we moved to a spot where Captain Ron knew we’d catch Sea Bass. He was spot on. We hovered over a shipwreck and caught keeper after keeper. There’s not a chance we could have ever found a location like that without an experienced guide. Forgive the pun, but it was truly like shooting fish in a barrel. We continued to catch over a dozen Sea Bass as we finished our time on the charter.

Experience Makes a Difference

The biggest lesson of the day was how important Captain Ron was to the operation. We couldn’t have possibly had as successful of a day without his guidance. Yes, we could have figured it out over a long period of time, but like a startup, we didn’t have much time. Having him with us crushed the learning curve. I liken him to a venture capitalist or an outstanding advisor. We have several of both at Stitch Labs and they have helped us greatly accelerate our learning there, too.

When we started the day, we were all new to the process and on the clock. We had to test, learn and move on quickly in order to accomplish our goal in five hours. Captain Ron was the linchpin. Because of his help, we were able to have a feast of fish the following evening.

I thought a lot about Captain Ron, his experience and even his age. I thought about how those things can sometimes be viewed in Silicon Valley and beyond. The Valley is an interesting place. At times there are biases toward people having been in the game for “too long” or toward people who are “older.” I personally think those biases are bunk. It’s about finding the right people for the right job. Age has nothing to do with it and the right experience can be a great equalizer no matter what a person’s age may be, young or “old.”

Captain Ron has been fishing with people in the Cape for over 30 years. His experience is invaluable. He was the right guy for the job at the right time. I strive to always work with and hire people that are outstanding at what they do. He was one of those people.

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If you’re ever in the Cape, I highly recommend looking him up in Hyannis. He’ll make your day a success! Thanks, Captain Ron.

I Hate Golf!

It’s that time of year again. It’s the time of year when everyone gets back out on the course and starts to tear it up. They tear it up because they’re really good at golf, or they’re like me and literally tear up the course.slide-01

The title of this post is misleading because I don’t really hate golf. I love it. I just suck at it, therefore, I hate it. I hate to lose. I hate to waste money and I hate it when I have a few great holes going and all of the sudden chunk a shot 20 feet. It’s the most frustrating game on Earth.

I literally don’t understand how I can suck so bad at this game. The ball doesn’t even move. When I was younger, if someone threw a fastball anywhere near the plate, I could turn it around with my eyes closed no matter how hard they threw it. I could also hit it anywhere I wanted. The golf ball is just sitting there. It doesn’t make sense. Sure, I didn’t pick up a golf club until I graduated high school, but it’s been nearly 20 years now. I’ve had lessons, I’ve practiced, I watch golf all the time and I still can hardly break 100….on a good day. I just don’t get it.

Beyond the fact that I’m not good, I have a few other issues with golf. First, there are people with zero athletic ability that can go out and crush a golf course. I’m not saying athletic ability is a must in order to do something, but I know people that couldn’t have played any other sport if their life depended on it, yet they step on the course and look like Tiger, while I look like a seven year old just learning the game. I’ll be honest, even though I consider myself a humble person, that hurts my ego a bit. I played sports at a pretty high level. Being terrible at a sport stings.

Another major issue I have with the game is how openly people cheat. Sure, none of us are professionals and everyone can use a foot-fluff from time to time (that’s cheating too, by the way), but not counting strokes is ridiculous. For example, I golf with my buddy (I’ll leave his name out to protect his cheating ways) and he has a rule. You can’t go over double par. This means if you’re on a par three hole and shoot a 10, you only write down a six on the scorecard. What the hell? If you do this a couple times during a round, you could shave off about a dozen strokes. Then, when you talk to someone after the round you say: “I did ok today. I shot a 94.” That’s a lie, but everyone seems to accept it and pat you on the back for a job well done. Who are you trying to impress? If you suck, wear it as a badge of honor. I have a huge badge.

I went golfing a couple weeks ago and shot a 46 on the front nine. I was feeling pretty good about myself as it was my first time out for the year. Then, the wheels came off on the back. They actually did more than come off. They exploded off the car, shot down a hill and wiped out a village of women and children in the process. I shot a 68 on the back. That’s right, a 68. There, I said it. Sure, pros shoot 68 on 18 holes, but I’m not a pro. I’m not even a hack. I’m embarrassing.

Why am I writing about this? I’m writing about this because after the lights go out on the game we grew up playing, in my case football, we can still play golf, and it’s magnificent. It’s both mentally and physically challenging. There are beautiful courses all over the world. While it’s frustrating, it’s also one of the best games on Earth. You can play it forever. You can play by yourself, in small groups or at huge outings.

Next month is our annual alumni golf outing at Western.  It’s been a few years since I’ve been able to go and I couldn’t be more excited to see the old boys, talk about how great we used to be and hack up a Michigan course. If we were all getting together to strap on the pads, I’m pretty sure I’d pass. My back couldn’t take it. But with golf, we can get together forever. Am I going to be the ringer on my foursome? I doubt it. The good news is everyone else is pretty much a hack too and golf is typically the last thing we’re worried about when we get together. Here’s to many years of misery on the course.

Education Regret

Education Regret

I had the great fortune of sitting down with my college head football coach, Gary Darnell, and his lovely wife Mrs. Darnell (Sandra) this month while I was on a business trip to Austin, Texas. He’s no longer actively coaching, but is still heavily involved with college football as the Associate Executive Director of the AFCA

Coach and Mrs. D

Seeing them brought back great memories. We sat at their beautiful Austin loft, talked about the past and I gave them a rundown of several of the guys I stay in close touch with. It was obvious Coach was proud to hear about former players doing well.

Coach Darnell is one of those old school guys that takes it to heart when he assumes the responsibility of helping shape a young man’s life; and while we didn’t spend a ton of time with him on X’s and O’s while in college (because we spent most of our time with the strength coaches, trainers and position coaches), he was definitely engaged with the players on the team. He made that pretty clear when I got into a little off-the-field trouble my freshman year…hey, even good guys get into a trouble from time to time. 🙂

While talking to Coach and his better half about where my life has taken me, I mentioned my decision to go back to grad school and why I did it. Much of why I went back had to do with my desire to learn. This was a desire I didn’t have too much of during my undergrad at Western. While there, my educational goals were simple: do well in my classes so I could get good grades, stay eligible and get a great job after college. I was very successful at achieving those goals. The problem was I should have been in school to get an education and learn. Don’t get me wrong. I learned plenty at Western, but it was a byproduct of reaching my main goals. When I described this to Coach Darnell, I heard him chuckle a bit, like he knew what I was talking about, but he didn’t elaborate.

Later in the evening, after we finished some amazing Austin barbecue, I brought up the this blog and how I try to reach athletes everywhere and help them understand how the lights are going to go out someday. It was then Coach Darnell elaborated further on his earlier chuckle.

Coach had an uncanny way of coming up with sayings from time to time that stuck with me. My favorite to this point in my life had been, “It’s better to be five minutes early than one second late.” He wasn’t a fan of people being late. I’m not either. When people are late for meetings, calls or events, it’s a blatant disrespect for other people’s time…I digress. Then, he unleashed a new one I’m sure I’ll remember forever. He said, “Jake, I don’t have a lot of regrets in life, but I do have one big one. My regret is I left school with a degree, and not an education.” I didn’t even have to ask him what he meant. I knew exactly how he felt. I asked him if I could use the quote in a blog and he said, “absolutely.”

Coach Darnell has gotten a long way in life and has been extremely successful. It’s interesting to hear a man having been on some of the biggest collegiate stages in the country make the statement he did, but I wasn’t too surprised. It just helped reinforce what I already believe. Many athletes, while good students, don’t have a grasp of what the real opportunity is while in college.

I’m sure his sentiment isn’t isolated to athletes. Much of college is lost on young people due to lack of context about it’s application in the real world.  But I’m also sure it hits home with many of us that focused so much on the sport we played. Looking back now, I sometimes feel a college education should come later in life, after more experience. We spend so much money, time and energy before many of us realize how important an education really is. The good news is, we can always go back; and I couldn’t be more happy I did.

Thanks again, Coach D.

Corporate or Startup?

Corporate or Startup?

It’s been just over five years since I left my corporate job and started Stitch Labs with two this way, that wayamazing business partners. Prior to starting a company with two other people, an untested product and zero brand recognition or revenue, I spent the first 10 years of my career (internships included) at large multinational corporations with tens of thousands of employees and iconic brands anyone would recognize. The two paths I’ve taken couldn’t possibly be more different and when I speak with students about what they “should do,” the answer is anything but simple.

Because I could write on this topic for days I’m going to do my best to stick to a few high level thoughts and keep it concise. I’d be happy to answer specifics if you have a comment or question).

Let me start by saying, I’ve loved both paths. Both Corporate and Startups have their ups and downs, but life is too short to complain about what you do, so either enjoy it and work hard or go do something else. I hear some people say they can’t just up and do something else because they have too many commitments. That’s fine, but do me a favor. Shut up and figure out a way to start enjoying what you’re doing. No one wants to be around someone complaining about his or her job all the time.

I’ll boil the idea of Corporate vs. Startup down to three main ideas. (There are a million more, but these are the three that stand out most to me).

  • Resources
  • Impact
  • Structure

Resources:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the most brutal way possible, it’s that there are truly limited resources at a startup. I find it humorous when people at a company with thousands of people tell me they’re resource constrained. They’re not totally wrong. Every business has its limits. But until you have an entire company with three people working an ungodly number of hours for no pay and zero revenue coming in the door, it’s hard to really understand what resource constraints are.

Think about it. At a large company, there’s major pressure to hit numbers and get tasks done, but it’s likely someone else came up the number for an employee to hit, provided tools to work toward the number, and once the number is hit or missed, there are other people to go back and decide what’s next. At a startup, you have to decide what number to hit on your own, build the tools and processes to try to hit the number and then figure out what to do if the number isn’t hit. That is if you’re still in business. Remember, there’s zero revenue at the beginning.

Not everyone has to go to a start up with three people though. We’re around 85 people at our company now and we’re still a startup. We’re still resource constrained, but not nearly as badly as we used to be. So with that in mind, I tell people to consider their tolerance for resource constraints as they decide what type of company they want to join. Understanding tolerance for getting a lot done with very little will go a long way in helping decide which route to take.

Impact:

Impact is the one I hear most often when recruiting people to our startup. People regularly say one of the main reasons they want to work at a startup is because they want to have a major impact. It’s true. People can have a major impact at a startup, but they can have an impact at a large company as well. It’s just likely going to take longer at the large company. Depending on the size of the startup, a person can come in on Monday and have a major impact by Tuesday. It’s an amazing thing to watch and I’ve seen in several times.

At the large company, there’s more bureaucratic red tape to cut through and many processes a person has to learn or change in order to move the needle. It’s definitely possible though. Like anything else, it takes hard work and figuring out how to impact change quickly. Don’t let the size of the company determine if you can have impact or not. 

Structure

Structure somewhat ties back to resources, but it’s a biggie and can stand alone. Large businesses have structure and process. At a startup, the structure and process needs to be built. I remember the first time we were going to hire multiple people at once. Everyone looked around and wondered what process we should use to keep everyone on the same page with candidates. There wasn’t a process so we had to come up with a plan, build it and execute it. Not only did we have to build a process to hire people, we had to actually find people to hire and continue to do all our “normal” jobs in the process. There wasn’t an HR team to lean on or tools in place to make sure we called a candidate back, sent them a rejection letter or to communicate if the candidate was convicted felon or not…details, details.

At a large company, structure is in place the day you walk in the door. There’s an HR department. There are training manuals. There are managers, hopefully with management training, and there’s a career path. Infrastructure is important.

Something that’s really stood out to me at the startups I’ve seen is a vacuum of management talent. A management void can end up leading to frustrated employees, bad decisions and even worse, lawsuits. This is one of the reasons I’m particularly happy I went into Corporate before a Startup. I’m not a perfect manager by any means, but having been trained at a great company early in my career really helped me think through some of the decisions I wouldn’t have even considered had I not gone through a structured management-training program. It’s also a big reason I’m a proponent of the management training we’re doing at Stitch Labs. Great managers help make a great company.

Those are a few of the key points I like to share with people asking me about the differences in Corporate America vs. Startups. Again, it’s not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination, so feel free to ask any questions you have and I’ll get back to you. It’s likely I’ll write more about this topic in the future.

 

Football Got Me to the Super Bowl

I finally made it to the Super Bowl, but not the way I’d imagined I would when I was a little boy. This time I was there on business, but make no mistake, football was the reason I got there. 

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Pre-game party – Super Bowl 50

Intuit invited me to the Super Bowl as their guest in their corporate suite. They’re the developer of QuickBooks and a great partner of ours. They didn’t invite me because I’m a great guy…although I’d like to think that was part of it. They invited me because they value our business relationship and we have a product that really fits together well with theirs. Not only that, but we have a great company. The people in our company make us very easy to work with and I was lucky enough to be the person representing Stitch Labs at the big game. If they had 80 tickets for me, I would have taken everyone in our company, but they didn’t, so I had to take one for the team. 🙂

So how did football get me to the Super Bowl? It’s pretty simple really. Aside from my parents, nothing had a larger impact on me as an adult than the great game of football. I played several sports growing up, but football was the sport I put everything into and is the reason I still struggle to get out of bed today.

The sport of football played a major role in shaping my competitive spirit, drive to win, ability to work with all different types of people and my ability to keep coming back when I’ve had a bad day. Without it, I’m not the person I am today. The sport is a true representation of life and it’s something I’m proud to talk about when people are interested.

Football, while I didn’t realize it at the time, was the beginning of my professional career and prepared me for life after the lights went out on the playing field. Athletics has a way of doing that without us knowing. It instills a sense of discipline and drive not everyone in this world has. Sure, people can acquire discipline, drive and competitiveness by doing something other than sports, but football did it for me.  

As I walked into the Levi Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday, I couldn’t help but think about

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Brad Smith (Intuit CEO) and me – Super Bowl 50

all the people I’ve worked with over the years. I thought about my family, my teammates, coaches, co-workers and our employees. I thought about how thankful I was to everyone that helped me get there, and how much I wanted to share the experience with them. It sounds gushy, I know, but the Super Bowl was a major bucket list item for me and a dream come true to attend.

The Super Bowl itself was amazing and everything I’d hoped it would be. Watching a true champion like Peyton Manning ride off into the sunset with a Super Bowl trophy was awesome. I have the utmost respect for how he handles himself on and off the field and for what he’s accomplished in his career. I was pulling for him.

While I can’t compare myself to Peyton Manning athletically, one thing is for certain, the lights are about to go out for him, just like they have and will for every other athlete that’s stepped on a field. That said, there’s no question he’s got a bright future ahead and a ton of opportunity to build on his past successes. Football helped make him the man he is too.

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Peyton Manning after his second Super Bowl win. – Super Bowl 50

Peyton and I do have one thing in common. In the game of life, the Super Bowl was just another stop on a long journey for both of us and there’s plenty more to accomplish. Go Broncos!