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


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 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 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. 

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

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.

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!

Shark Tank is Fake

Is Shark Tank entertaining? Absolutely. Does it demonstrate the reality of raising venture capital? Absolutely not.Shark Pic

I’m part of a founding team that’s raised approximately $23 million dollars in venture capital to date and when I have conversations with many people that haven’t taken part in raising venture capital, Shark Tank usually makes it’s way into our conversation. I get it. Prior to Stitch Labs I had no idea about how venture capital worked, but on a late summer day in 2011, I learned very quickly when my business partner and I got bounced from our first pitch meeting. Getting our first no was the beginning of a learning process we never expected.  

A few truths about raising venture capital make their way into Shark Tank and maybe saying it’s fake isn’t totally fair. The show is meant to entertain people and it does that well. It may be more fair to say It’s an extremely exaggerated and compressed version of what actually happens.

The process of raising venture capital is much longer than a five minute pitch to a group of VCs/TV personalities. The process can take months to accomplish and if the entrepreneur is fortunate enough to get the first yes, the pitch is just the beginning. Many times it takes numerous meetings and pitches to multiple people in the firm. And even before the opportunity arises to pitch, the entrepreneur needs to find the VC that’s the right fit. There are thousands of venture capitalists out there with large amounts of cash to spend, but typically only a few align with the stage, business needs and goals of both companies.

We were so new to the process when we started, we didn’t do a great job of finding the right fit vs. looking for someone to help fund our venture. Also, because we didn’t have a huge network in Silicon Valley we were originally willing talk to anyone interested in our business. Those two circumstances led to early frustrations, many no thank you calls and us wondering what direction we should go.

After a few months of trying to find capital, we found, through our own personal network, what would later become our first venture capital partners, True Ventures. The key take away here is that we found them through our personal network. We had a warm introduction to them from someone that knew us, them and both our businesses well enough to believe it would be a good fit. Looking back, we might have worked harder to leverage personal relationships and people with an intimate connection to us rather than a shotgun approach we originally tried. Even though many of our first meetings came through warm introductions, very few were from people that knew us and our business more personally. Lesson learned.

From the first introduction to True, through the time we had money in the bank, everything felt right. They are an outstanding early-stage investor with deep expertise in helping very early companies become successful. They’ve funded companies like Fitbit, Automattic (WordPress) and littleBits. We had several meetings with multiple people in their organization. Through each meeting we felt more confident they were the right firm for us. Once they felt the same way, we decided to enter into what has now become a four-year relationship.

Interestingly enough, four years isn’t very long in the grand scheme. We both planned on this partnership being long term. If you’re not ready to commit to a venture capitalist for many years, it’s not the right fit. They are going to be with you and helping you grow for many years to come. I would say this is one of the biggest gaps in what people see or don’t see on Shark Tank. The process of selecting a VC and having them bet on you is more than a five minute process. Just because you’ve seen someone on TV, doesn’t mean you’re going to want to spend the next ten years of your life going through ups and downs with them. The decision must be made very carefully on both sides of the relationship. Also, I’m sure there is more going on behind the scenes of Shark Tank from a vetting perspective. We just don’t see the “boring stuff.”

This is only a short snippet of what raising venture capital is all about. I’m only scratching the surface of the topic and sharing very little about the huge respect I have for our venture partners. They’ve been amazing. More to come in future posts.

In the past five years I’ve gotten an education in so many new subjects, I have material for a lifetime. I’d be happy to answer any questions I can about our experience to date. Feel free to leave me a comment and I’ll give you the low down about the differences in the real venture capital game vs. what you see when Mark Cuban goes under the lights on Friday nights. 🙂

Physical Pain – Is It Worth It?

In July of 2002, I stepped into a squat rack for my final strength test before my senior football season at WMU. When I got to the bottom of the squat and began coming back up, I felt a pinch in the middle of my back. Nearly 14 years later, three back specialists, multiple MRIs and x-rays, two chiropractors, and two physical therapists, the pain still exists. Does that suck? Absolutely. Is that part of the deal with athletics? Unfortunately for some, including me, it is. Does it give me an excuse for why I’m terrible at golf? Definitely. 🙂imgres

Prior to that injury, I’d spent thousands of hours in the weight room. I worked hard to keep good form most of the time and when I got hurt that day, I figured it was temporary, like so many other injuries I sustained in my athletic career. I was fortunate enough to never have an injury knock me out of the game for good and the back injury was no different. I was able to play my entire senior season, even though I was only playing in games (not practicing much) by the end of that year.

Injuries are part of the games we play. When I connect with former athletes, it’s a rarity not to get into a conversation about an injury they sustained while playing. Many of them didn’t have issues until they got older. Nevertheless, the injuries linger and seem to catch us all eventually.

I was fortunate to earn an athletic scholarship to college, but I often joke with people that didn’t play in college, when they finish paying their student loans, athletes start paying for our education with our bodies.

People regularly ask me a couple questions:

  1. Was it worth it?
  2. Will I let my son play football?

For the first question, the answer is simple. It was absolutely worth it. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without football. It amplified my sense of discipline, teamwork and work ethic driving me today. When “regular” students were opening a beer at 1:30 in the afternoon or finishing their final class of the day around 2 P.M. I was leaving for practice every day or waking up at 5:00 A.M. for morning workouts in the dead of winter. There was no calling in sick. There was no sleeping in. There were no days off.

Did I have some privileges afforded to me that non-athletes didn’t have? For sure. Being on the football team had its benefits, many of which I’ll write about on my blog. But it was a lot of work; and while I still endure the back pain I sustained while playing, I benefit from the experience and lessons football taught me.

The second question isn’t so simple. My son is a different person than me. He’ll see the world through his own eyes. What was right for me may not be right for him. If he’s the type of person that lives to compete and play, it’s worth the conversation, but there’s no definitive answer at this point. He’s only a year old.

One of the many things I’m fond of about my parents is they didn’t force me to play sports. They did force me to be involved and sports happened to be what I loved to do. As my son gets older, we’ll see what he has an affinity for. One thing I do know, just as my parents pushed me to be the best I could be, I’ll push him as well. No sitting around for that young man.

Back pain is something I will continue to work on and hopefully be able to keep in check. A couple weeks ago I couldn’t get out of bed Monday or Tuesday morning, but like all those cold winter mornings when I was waking up at 5:00 am to go run myself into the ground, I had to figure it out and find a way to get up. There really is no other choice.

Grow Up, But Not Too Much.

I have a tendency to be too serious. It’s not always easy for me to relax and just lay around. When I take time to reflect why, it’s likely because keeping busy and being productive is what has helped me be somewhat successful to date. I’ve also always lived with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. This may be because of where I came from, but it could also be some deep-rooted insecurity making me want to outwork everyone or prove everyone wrong. I don’t even know who “everyone” is. Weird, huh?

A few weeks ago, after I put out a blog post, my wife told me to lighten up. She said the posts don’t always need to be so serious and I should make sure I show the side of me that still knows how to have fun. She’s probably right. Don’t tell her I said that. Sometimes I get so caught up in providing a life lesson, I don’t share the side of me that’s still a kid at heart.

Much of the fun-loving person I can be says completely inappropriate things I don’t necessarily need to share in writing, but the part I do love to share is my affinity of putting together a good costume. Fortunately for me, my wife has the same affinity. And no, for those of you that just had your mind wander to a freaky place, I’m really talking about costumes.

Since I was in college, I’ve always been down for a good costume party. Be it for Halloween, a Christmas party, or one of the greatest spectacles in the world, Bay to Breakers in San Francisco, people could count on me to show up ready to roll. Yes, I have looked and behaved like a total maniac at times, but I don’t care. It’s worth it.

So the point of this post is pretty simple. I grew up having fun being a kid and playing sports. Competitive athletics (not beer leagues) ended with my last football game in college against Central Michigan University. Just because I don’t get to be a kid anymore or play kid games on a daily basis, doesn’t mean I don’t get to have fun. So the next time there’s a costume party and you don’t feel like dressing up, remember, it’s not everyday you can still be a kid, so don’t squander the opportunity.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Buddy the Elf Circa 2007
Dress Like Your Favorite Reindeer – Holiday Party 2013
Hamburglers – Bay to Breakers
Three's Company
Three’s Company – Halloween 2013
B2B 2011
Bay to Breakers – 2011 (The cop didn’t think my fake mustard was nearly as funny as I did)
Ace Ventura, Snowflake and Ray Finkle – 2015 (Bringing James into the mix)
Grandma Got Run Over
Grandma Got Run Over – Holiday Party 2012

It Ain’t Over…You Know the Rest.

The irony of Yogi Berra passing away nearly a month before Michigan lost the way they did to Michigan State is almost poetic. The dust has settled now, more games have gone by, but the wounds are still deep.

yogi-berra1One of the greatest baseball players of all time had a way with words and they were never truer than they were on a cool night in mid-October, 2015.

“It Ain’t Over, Til It’s Over” ~ Yogi Berra

I love college football more than I can convey in a blog post. I love the time of year. I love College Gameday on ESPN. I love the build up to the big games. I love how it’s on from early morning until late at night every single Saturday. There’s not much I don’t love about college football, less the fact I still have a hard time getting out of bed due to a back injury I sustained while playing it. I can go on for days.

The game teaches us about life in hidden ways, but also in blatant, cold ways. It was like getting hit with a brick when Michigan had the game “won” with 10 seconds left on the clock. All they needed to do was get a routine play off and the game was theirs, but it exploded like the Hindenburg. Suddenly, MSU had a convoy of players in a sea of white running the other way toward the end zone. Everyone watching the event live, or viewing the highlight later, couldn’t believe what they saw. I’ve been around football my entire life and seen a lot of craziness, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything quite like what happened that night. MSU won the game as the clock struck 0:00. Then, it was over, for real.

With 10 seconds to go, my wife, who graduated from MSU and bleeds green, was already in the kitchen cleaning up, disgusted at the performance of her beloved Spartans. She had given up on the game. My brother-in-law (a Michigan die-hard fan) and sister-in-law were getting ready to head back to their place for the night and I, holding onto my son in front of the TV, have to admit, even thought it was over. Then, lightning in a bottle.

Many people have been armchair quarterbacks and second-guessed the decision of the Great Jim Harbaugh not to run another play and possibly get a first down. I’ve seen several of the pundits’ comments; many have never put on a pair of shoulder pads. The fact is that the game wasn’t lost on the final play. It’s just the play everyone will remember for years to come. People have forgotten the punter had an 80-yard punt earlier in the game and gave MSU a long field most of the night. Sure, he made a mistake, but without him, MSU may have been ahead. Who knows? Connor Cook threw for over 300 yards against the best pass defense in the country. It’s a good thing they had a long field all night.

People on Twitter bashing the young man for “losing the game” have major issues and likely don’t know much about what it takes to strap on a helmet. Sure, you never want to leave your destiny in the hands of a kicker or punter, but there’s more to the game than the final play.

Stating the lesson here would be too obvious. Yogi already took care of that. I’ve had many conversations throughout the week and can still hardly believe what happened. The word WOW is representative and the one I’ve seen and heard most. The end of that game is just another example of why I, and so many other people in this country, love college football. It’s more than a game; it’s a reflection of life. Thanks for the reminder, Yogi!

Master Your Role and Opportunities Will Follow

As standout athletes come up through the ranks, from little league through college, and possibly the pros, it’s not difficult to see how entitled behavior can form. Many times we were the recipients of a free pass whereas a non-athlete may not have been so fortunate. We may have gotten the benefit of the doubt on an assignment that was subpar or had a police officer look the other way when they realized they pulled over the star of the football team after he was going 80 in a 55. None of these things ever happened to me, I was perfect. See what I did there? 🙂

If you’re not aware, I’ll share a secret. When sports end, what will make you successful in life and your career is the same thing that made you successful on the athletic field: hard work, talent and making the right decision when it counts. Talent may actually be a distant third. Employers will not care that you played athletics. Don’t go into a new job or position with the idea it will be easy or you will be promoted in two years because that’s how it “should work.” I’ve seen really talented people get caught up in focusing so much on getting where they want to be, they forgot to focus on where they were. Then, two years went by and they ended up frustrated because they didn’t get the promotion or the responsibility they believe they deserved. Don’t get me wrong, being ambitious is something I absolutely recommend. But unless you become a master at your craft, no one will care about your potential or where you think you should be. You’re not “special” any more.

During my senior year at Western, after I realized I wasn’t going to be playing football any longer, I was getting ready to start my new job and career. I had an internship the previous summer for Philip Morris U.S.A. and was fortunate enough to have been offered a full-time position once my final year of school was over. From the time I finished my internship until the time I started the following year, the manager that offered me the position retired. A brand new manager had taken over, so I decided to go meet her and say hello to the team before my start date. When I arrived at the office, the new manager only had a few moments to meet me in passing. I came to find out later, she wasn’t very impressed. As a new manager, she wanted to build her own team, not be stuck with the previous manager’s hire, and quite possibly, a big dumb football player. This is similar to a regime change in college athletics. People want to select their own players. It’s no different in the business world. Luckily my new manager didn’t decide to retract my offer and I went to work shortly thereafter, right after graduation.

I approached the business world and this new role the exact same way I lunch-pail-and-thermosapproached athletics. I busted my ass, learned everything I could about the industry, sought help from people better than me and never, ever showed up late or unprepared for anything. I worked hard to gain the trust of not only my new manager and company, but my customers. Both knew they could count on me to follow though if I told them I was going to get something done. It was that behavior, and because I didn’t focus on being promoted more than becoming a master at my current role, I was able to earn a promotion in about two years.

Not only did I work hard, but I also made the right decision to relocate when the opportunity to get promoted arose. Side note: When you tell the people interviewing you you’re willing to relocate anywhere, you will definitely be considered for more opportunities than if you’re not willing to relocate, but you better be willing to stand behind your word. I was willing and ended up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I’m not knocking Sioux Falls. I loved it there. I’m just saying, not everyone can take their promotion and move to downtown Chicago or San Francisco. It doesn’t work that way. Sometimes you have to take a detour to reach your ultimate goal.  

One of my pet peeves as a manager is how some high potential employees focus so much on the fact someone told them they would be promoted in (insert time frame here), they never focused on becoming the best they could be at their current role. Then, frustration begins to set in and they either leave or get dismissed from the company. The potential, and time, has been wasted.

My main advice of this post for those athletes, and non-athletes for that matter, striving to be successful after they leave the field or classroom for the final time is: bust your ass in your current role. Learn as much as you can. Lean on smart people and be smart enough yourself to pounce on opportunities when they present themselves, because they will, if you’ve done what you need to do. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my college football coach always said, “If you do something well enough for long enough, it doesn’t matter where you are, people will find you.”

ps~ The aforementioned boss of mine from Philip Morris that could have done without me when she met me, she’s one of my favorite people in the world to this day. I can’t guarantee it, but I think she would say something similar about me. 

Where You’re From Matters and Production Counts

THE REGION. If I’m going to write about my experiences, there’s no better place to start than where I grew up. For those unfamiliar, the Region is the Northwest corner of Indiana, just South of Chicago. It’s a place very well described The Regionby one word: grit, both literally and figuratively. Literally because it’s a region of the country with a history of significant steel production; figuratively because it’s deeply instilled in the people from there. Because of that, I was very proud when we, in our company, decided to have the term grit included in one of our core values. It’s a value that can take you a long way in life; and something we look for in every person we hire.

Example conversation from the Region link above: Arlington Heights, IL kid to a Region kid (Hammond, IN) at Indiana University

Arlington Heights Kid: Where you from?

Hammond Kid: Chicago

Arlington Heights Kid: Oh yeah me too, where near Chicago?

Hammond Kid: The Region

Arlington Heights Kid: What? Wait, that’s in Indiana, you can’t say you’re from Chicago.

Hammond Kid: Look motherfucker, if the Chicago Tribune says I’m from Chicago, I’m from Chicago!

Mine is a tale of two cities in the Region. I spent the first thirteen years of my life in Hammond, Indiana, an urban suburb of Chicago, where many people I grew up around were tied directly to the mills or the trades associated. Hammond was a microcosm of the country. There were haves and have nots, White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian people, along with every religion imaginable. I loved growing up in Hammond. It was there where my sports obsession began. Being so close to Chicago and growing up during the time of the ’85 Bears, Ditka, and the Jordan era, what sports-infatuated kid wouldn’t have loved it?

When I was midway through my eighth grade school year, my parents decided to move South about 25 miles to Lowell, Indiana. It was still a part of the Region, but couldn’t have been more different than Hammond. Everyone was just like me. There were White, middle class nuclear families in a town where people generally left their doors unlocked. The house we bought was on 10 acres of land. There was a farm across the street and I had to ride a bus to school. Needless to say this was a bit of a shock to a kid that had only ever been on a bus for field trips because I could walk to school my whole life. Interestingly enough, although it couldn’t have been more different, I loved Lowell too. The people there were very welcoming to a kid from Hammond some may not have been too sure about. It certainly didn’t hurt being a decent three-sport athlete in a town that loved to root on their Red Devils. I like to say I was raised in Hammond, grew up in Lowell, but am from the Region.

I’m so fond of where I’m from that when people ask me, I wear it as a badge of honor, “A place called the Region, near Chicago” is where I typically start. By living in both Hammond and Lowell, I was fortunate to learn about different types of people from a variety of social classes and backgrounds. That childhood experience accelerated my ability to adapt in both my collegiate and professional career with a sense of toughness, tolerance and understanding I couldn’t possibly have gotten by only living in only one place or the other. I have to thank my parents for that one. They were  unaware at the time, but both places had a significant impact on me.

Enough about me. The point of this post is where you’re from plays an important role in the person you become. Next to your parents, it may be the single largest influence on who you are and what you’re made of. But at some point, you’re on your own and have to produce. Whether the place you’re from is desirable or not is irrelevant. Whether you grew up with people that looked different than you, or the same, doesn’t really matter any longer. That goes for whether you played sports or not, if you went to Harvard or not. Your background matters to an extent and it may help you land an interview for your first job, but in the end your production counts.

My college football coach said something all the time that sticks with me to this day. He said, “No matter where you are, if you do something well enough for long enough, people will find you.” You have to continually produce. How else can we explain someone from West Texas earning a scholarship to Ohio State and never seeing the field; or someone from Nowheresville, Idaho showing up on campus at Oregon as a walk-on and earning a scholarship? People care about production. Of course there may be politics involved at some level and many people love to make excuses and use the phrase, “they play favorites.” One of my coaches had the best reply to that statement. He’d say, “Damn right I play favorites. My favorites are the best players.”

In sports, corporate America and startups, background matters somewhat. But give me someone that’s smart, went to a local State school and is willing to bust their ass, try new things, fail, learn and try again, and I’ll hire them all day over someone who’s entitled from the “right side of the tracks” and not willing to work hard.

My two business partners and I are all from blue collar families from the Midwest and went to State schools (Michigan and Western Michigan). We’ve seen a lot of people come and go in the startup game over the last five years. It’s a tough game and we’re certainly not guaranteed to be “successful” yet, but I sometimes wonder: Would I have seen some of the other startups come and go so quickly if they had more people from the Region, with a little more grit?