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My Story…So Far
I am a Michigan native who calls himself an “elder millennial”. I grew up in, what in my head, was a pretty average place with a pretty average experience. I am SURE that is not fact, but in my head there was nothing remarkable or exceptional about my experience.
As a kid, I was curious about how things worked. I LOVED taking my alarm clocks apart to see how they worked, and I’m pretty sure I never got one back together. I had the privilege of having some wonderful parents who got me involved in everything from sports, to music, to clubs, you name it.
I had a natural aptitude for math. My mom, a teacher, would give me pad of math problems to do while my older brother was doing his homework. When I entered high school, I entered a program called Systems Engineering. This program was truly unique, and allowed students to learn about pneumatics, hydraulics, electronics, robotics, and machining (check out the food prep machine we made).
Somehow (read: Detroit connections) I landed an internship in the Chrysler Design Studio followed by another at their R&D center in Palo Alto. As an over-educated engineer (BSE/MSE Michigan) it seemed like my career in engineering was set in stone.
The thing is, I never wanted to pursue a true engineering career (perhaps that’s why “technical people” still think I’m non-technical). I found engineering easy, a great way of thinking, and something I enjoyed, but I never saw it as something I would pursue as a career.
So, when I got an opportunity to work for Niagara Bottling, now the largest private label bottler in the western hemisphere, I took it. Niagara was a manufacturing company in need of quick thinkers, and the environment they presented was in need of motivated fast movers. Unbeknownst to me, I was part of the “young lions” Niagara was hiring that would provide the engine to explode the company to the next level.
Upon arriving at Niagara, I found myself in a hyper growth entrepreneurial company. Niagara was expanding fast, and decided it would be a good idea to put a 24 year old in charge of constructing state of the art plastics and bottling facilities around the US.
Over the next 7 years, I had the privilege of working with some great people. Key, however, was my exposure to Niagara’s founder “Mr. P” (Watch an interview with him. He truly has an amazing story.) I’m not sure what Mr. P taught me, but he gave me the confidence and agency to go test, try, and fly. What followed was a whirl wind where I traveled more than I care to remember, popping up more facilities than I can remember.
At some point I got the idea that I should go to business school at UC Irvine and started to play with different ideas around that time. At UCI, most classes had some sort of group project component, and I started using those opportunities to hone a business plan. At some point, my friends confronted me and suggested that we enter one of the business ideas in a business plan competition.
As I was in the plastics and bottling industry, the company that emerged was StackTek (at the time Stacked Wines), a single serve wine packaging company. We didn’t win the competition, but a mild amount of success (best concept paper!) gave us the confidence to move it forward. After graduation, my two co-founders joined on full time, and I quit my job and took the plunge never to look back shortly after.
A decision I second guess to this day.
Stack was nuts. We were a TRUE startup. No idea what we were doing, but doing it at 1,000 miles per hour. It was so much fun and so much work at the same time. After selling the first product out of the trunks of our cars we started to have some success and decided we needed to raise cash.
The second decision I regret.
Long story short, we brought on investors, and ended up raising A LOT of money. I was spending a ton of time in the manufacturing facility, and honestly was basically pulling my hair out. We were a fully vertically integrated business, and most people had never worked in a production environment. At some point, the new board members asked my to bring in a new CEO. While I didn’t like it, I capitulated. A day after that decision, the company shook.
The new CEO wasn’t doing what the board members thought was right, and came to me to fire him. I asked for an alternative plan, and when one was never presented decided it was in the best interest of the company to keep on course. Long stiry short, I ended up being sued by my board for signing a contract to employee the new CEO that they put on my desk. After a bitter 2 year battle, things closed out with little effect, but it left me scarred. I had enough, and decided to walk away from the company I had started. It was the lowest I have ever felt.
I immediately had ideas on new things to start, only this time I had no interest in physical manufacturing. After having to deal with the food and beverage distribution system, I saw an opportunity to use software to improve the selling process. I set up shop in a small co-working spot (which will come back later), and started plugging away. Over the next 2 years, I began building and learning again. We raised cash, hired, and did our best, but unfortunately that second effort wasn’t for this world either.
What followed was another 2 years of unsuccessful starts and stutters, consulting, and grabbing cash however I could. At some point, my wife (yes, that happened) told me I needed to get a job. I hated the idea of having a “job” but I wasn’t in the position to disagree any longer. I reached out to a couple of guys I met at that co-working space, and after several conversations, ended up coming on board as CEO at Novvum, where I still am today
While I don’t think my story is special, I do think its unique. A lot of founders have an impression that raising capital is the single thing standing in their way from success. And as long as they can raise enough money they will achieve their dreams. I am living proof that that isn’t true. In my experience, the more cash I’ve raised the worse the environment I’ve found myself in, resulting in some pretty sever depression.
After a particularly rough time, I wandered into a 1 Million Cups event. What I found there was something that has changed my life. It was a community that was supportive of the journey and looking to help. It was a bunch of people who weren’t looking for anything in return for their efforts. It felt like home.
Over the last 15+ years, I’ve had the privileged of having a career in the startup world. I’ve experienced the highs of closing a major financing rounds and the lows of having to close the doors on the company I founded. Its been a wild ride, and to this day I find myself constantly learning.
My goal for this newsletter is to provide a view of the industry of startups from someone who came in wide eyed, and has come out the other side with some different perspectives after being beaten and battered.
My content will be focused on the entrepreneurial journey from my perspective. Formats may change from day to day, but hopefully it will deliver a slice of life from inside the head of an innovator. That may include personal stories or diving into financial analysis.