How a Biography Changed My Life

Writing this post requires some vulnerability and honesty. This is about personal development and how a book changed my thinking about business, revealed some dreams I didn’t know that I had, and affected the course of my life.

In 2011, I was a little bit lost. To properly explain this, I should start in 2010.

This was the year I had been planning on for a long time. In January, I started working for a governor’s campaign in Arizona. This wasn’t just a typical staff or volunteer role on a campaign. The candidate, Dean Martin, was someone I had known for years. He was the Senator who introduced Chris’ Law, and we had stayed in touch until I started interning for him at the Arizona State Treasurer’s office. Any other internship would have been grunt work, but because I was close to Dean, my role was much more involved. I sat in on big meetings, walked the capitol with Dean as he talked politics and policy, helped with everything and anything.

In fact, we were so close that when his wife, Kerry, died in childbirth in 2009, Dean and his family asked me to be a pallbearer. I haven’t been to many funerals, but I don’t think I’ll go to many more heartbreaking than that one.

When Dean decided to run for the Governor’s office, it was a natural transition to working as his right hand and being involved from early core meetings to our statewide bus tour.

We announced his candidacy in January 2010, and I was so passionate and happy to be involved.

In May, I graduated from Arizona State University. That was a big moment. The actual classroom work was never that difficult for me. What was difficult was paying for school, working my way through it, dropping out to take transfer classes at a community college so that I could afford them, and not ever having enough time for everything. On top of that, sometimes I felt a bit of disdain from my dad, not for going to university, but maybe for believing I needed to go. He encouraged me a few times to  decide what I wanted to do and take an internship from an expert and just learn that way, and that some of the world’s most successful people never went to school. This isn’t to say that he wasn’t proud of me when I graduated, just that he thought less of it than I did.

Three weeks after I graduated, I bought a home in Tempe, Arizona. Having worked in the Treasurer’s office, I was acutely aware of the financial and housing market, and that this was the perfect time to buy for first time homebuyers. I bought the home to be an investment property, and felt confident that I was making a good decision.

At this point in 2010, to put it lightly, I was pretty pleased with myself. I had a degree, the job I always hoped for, and a home.

* * *

Fast forward a few months, renovating the house was a much bigger project than I had ever imagined, and blinded me to damage I was doing to my closest friends.  I’ll always regret that more than the financial or time costs.

The great staff position on the campaign which would have lead to a very good job in the Governor’s office collapsed when the numbers turned and the race became out of reach.

So, 2011 started at pretty much the opposite of mid-2010. I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

I think Chris’ Law blinded me to some of the realities of politics. After Chris’ Law, I had always thought that I would run for office and spend my life doing more good things like protecting children.

During the Governor’s campaign, I realized that most people in politics are out for their own gain, not for the good of the community. Every person was looking out for themselves, their own gain and their own good. (There was one person who was the exception to that rule, and so I followed him around until we became friends and now he’s a huge influence on my life and on the board of Daddy Read a Book.)

The deep realization that politics was not just people doing good for their community left a void in the plan of my life. I had always known there were corrupt and selfish people in politics, but this was a very deep recognition that being involved in politics was war, not building.

After the governor’s campaign, I was truly lost as to what I wanted to do with my life, and what career would allow me to do good, build an incredible place and provide a great product and delight customers/constituents. This is what I experienced during Chris’ Law, and what I expected to do politics.

Growing up, I was never exposed to business or entrepreneurship, so maybe it can be forgiven that I missed the very obvious indication that I should have been looking for a career in business, not politics.

This is where the biography comes in. In 2011, a few months into Yodle, I was starting to realize how much I enjoyed the business environment although it was still very new to me. I remember the late fall afternoon, as the day was winding down, the news broke that Steve Jobs had died. As a reader who enjoyed biographies and an Apple fan, I bought the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson.

Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. I blitzed through the book and enjoyed every page. Steve obviously had serious personal flaws and the way he treated people was often unacceptable.

What attracted me was his vision. The unrelenting drive to build an incredible system, to connect the world, to leave his mark on the universe.

I will never forget his words,

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

After Chris’ Law, I believed that great work meant going into politics and helping build a better community, city, state and world. I realized that working in politics was not the way to do this. Running for office is the best way I think to do this, and I think that I will do that someday.

My definition of great work was this: do good, build an incredible place and provide a great product and delight customers/constituents.

I was just looking in the wrong arena.

After reading Steve Jobs, I realized that he was doing in business what I had always wanted to do. He changed the world through his products, created a company where people worked with blood, sweat and tears, created some of the world’s most incredible products and delighted customers to the point of people waiting for eight hours in the cold to be the first to buy a new phone.

Seeing this for the first time changed my life. The business world was where I could do great work. I could do good in my community by giving back and by creating an incredible place to work. I could provide a great product and delight customers. I could actually do everything I had wanted to do in government.

I had found where I could do great work.

* * *

This great unveiling showed me a clear path.

  1. Learn & experience business. This means reading the classic books on business; working at Yodle and reflecting on the executive decisions and strategy; starting valuable things to practice creating culture and leading; and, finally, being formally educated by a top school.
  2. Do business.

So that’s what I’m doing now. Every night I go to bed tired and happy, and wake up with purpose every morning.

I’m on my way to doing great work, and that’s how a biography changed my life.


What Daddy Read a Book is Teaching Me Pt. 1

When I first had the idea to start Daddy Read a Book, I had something of a bad taste in my mouth from volunteering with other nonprofits. The other nonprofits did important work, with good staff, and usually a great story, too.

The problem was always execution. So, I decided that I would start and run Daddy Read a Book like a start-up. I would treat donors like investors and our recipients like customers, and commit myself, the board and our volunteers to doing something that is incredible and also well executed.

I’ve learned a lot in the past few months trying to do that. There’s a lot in store for Daddy Read a Book, so this is the first of a number of reflections on what I’ve learned.

Here’s some more color on the process…

Chief Everything Officer

When you are starting and leading something new, you are responsible to do it all. This is true in nonprofits, as well as business, social and school clubs, and political campaigns.

You schedule, edit, plan strategically, email, design, draft, create, and you should love it. You are the engine, tires and the driver. For you, faster means farther.

I enjoy being busy, so this is a good place for me to be. The challenge will be in a few months once Daddy Read a Book hires the first employee and I stop doing everything myself. I’ve been reading about start-up CEOs compared to larger organization CEOs, and I’m well aware that my job starts becoming more and more about empowering the people who work with me and holding them accountable to defined goals.

Lead From the Why

There’s a great TED talk from Simon Sinek, where he explains what differentiates great leaders and companies, and how they drive successful products.
He argued that there’s a pattern of communication from great leaders. He titled his codification “The Golden Circle”. Conventional leaders start with the what, move to the how, then maybe get to the why. Better leaders start with the why, then the how, then the what.

His conclusion was the people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. In some conversations, I have failed to start with why I’m doing this; why it’s important for sons and daughters to be connected with their father, why it’s important to support the education of a child.

Overall, though, I have been aware of leading from the why and I think it’s helped in some of our early successes.

Motivating a Team

The first time I told my story and my idea for Daddy Read a Book, it was in front of a room of twelve people I had never met and I was asking for their help. So, I thought I would emulate what I had learned from Simon Sinek and the Golden Circle.

We talked about how I felt connected to my dad even though we were separated, and some of them had similar stories. We talked about how important it was for kids to be connected with their dads. I can’t take credit for their incredible generosity, but I do think how I presented the story was helpful in motivating them to donate probably more than $35,000 in company time.

* * *

There’s a lot in store for Daddy Read a Book, so this is only the first of a few posts reflecting on what I’ve learned.

More to follow in the coming months as I absorb everything.


Book Review: Modern Fundamentals of Golf – Ben Hogan

This Christmas, my wife and parents gave me a great set of golf clubs. The clubs deserved a much better player, so I set out to learn to play golf.

When you’re building something, whether it’s a house, a business, a life, or, in this case, a golf game, the fundamentals are the most important part. They build foundations that will last for a lifetime.

Ben Hogan’s 1957 classic Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf is the authority from which to build the foundation for a strong, repetitive golf swing. He covers the grip, the placement of the hands, the stance, foot placement, hip pivot, plane of the swing, through the backswing, downswing and finish.

Hogan believed “any golfer with average coordination can learn to break 80.” If I ever do that, a tip of my hat will be directed towards this book.


Mark Cuban’s 12 Rules for Startups

1. Don’t start a company unless it’s an obsession and something you love.

2. If you have an exit strategy, it’s not an obsession.

3. Hire people who you think will love working there.

4. Sales Cure All. Know how your company will make money and how you will actually make sales.

5. Know your core competencies and focus on being great at them. Pay up for people in your core competencies. Get the best. Outside the core competencies, hire people that fit your culture but aren’t as expensive to pay.

6. An espresso machine? Are you kidding me? Coffee is for closers. Sodas are free. Lunch is a chance to get out of the office and talk. There are 24 hours in a day, and if people like their jobs, they will find ways to use as much of it as possible to do their jobs.

7. No offices. Open offices keep everyone in tune with what is going on and keep the energy up. If an employee is about privacy, show him or her how to use the lock on the bathroom. There is nothing private in a startup. This is also a good way to keep from hiring executives who cannot operate successfully in a startup. My biggest fear was always hiring someone who wanted to build an empire. If the person demands to fly first class or to bring over a personal secretary, run away. If an exec won’t go on sales calls, run away. They are empire builders and will pollute your company.

8. As far as technology, go with what you know. That is always the most inexpensive way. If you know Apple, use it. If you know Vista, ask yourself why, then use it. It’s a startup so there are just a few employees. Let people use what they know.

9. Keep the organization flat. If you have managers reporting to managers in a startup, you will fail. Once you get beyond startup, if you have managers reporting to managers, you will create politics.

10. Never buy swag. A sure sign of failure for a startup is when someone sends me logo-embroidered polo shirts. If your people are at shows and in public, it’s okay to buy for your own employees, but if you really think people are going to wear your branded polo when they’re out and about, you are mistaken and have no idea how to spend your money.

11. Never hire a PR firm. A public relations firm will call or email people in the publications you already read, on the shows you already watch and at the websites you already surf. Those people publish their emails. Whenever you consume any information related to your field, get the email of the person publishing it and send them a message introducing yourself and the company. Their job is to find new stuff. They will welcome hearing from the founder instead of some PR flack. Once you establish communication with that person, make yourself available to answer their questions about the industry and be a source for them. If you are smart, they will use you.

12. Make the job fun for employees. Keep a pulse on the stress levels and accomplishments of your people and reward them. My first company, MicroSolutions, when we had a record sales month, or someone did something special, I would walk around handing out $100 bills to salespeople. At and MicroSolutions, we had a company shot. The Kamikaze. We would take people to a bar every now and then and buy one or ten for everyone. At MicroSolutions, more often than not we had vendors cover the tab. Vendors always love a good party.

This article is an edited excerpt from How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It (Diversion Books, 2011) by Mark Cuban.