A few weeks after graduation, I can’t help but reflect back over the last two years since beginning the MBA program at UT and over the last five years since leaving LA and Hollywood behind.
This story really begins six years ago, at the beginning of 2009. Court and I were entering our third year of marriage. We’d been living in LA for five years since graduating college. I was still plugging away at my career in the movie business, working long hours at Intrepid Pictures (twelve-hour days in the office was fairly standard for the industry, not including extra hours outside the office networking and reading and analyzing scripts). Court’s mom, Linda, who was living in Albany, NY, was just diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. And, Court was starting to itch for a baby.
I asked Court to give me the year to figure out my career before starting a family. I’d already been thinking of leaving the movie business. Google had acquired YouTube at the end of 2006. Average people were generating millions of views on the channel, flipping the paradigm of video entertainment. More and more, our audience was becoming the celebrity that millions of people wanted to watch. Why idolize stars like Tom Cruise when you can become one yourself online? Thus, theatre attendance was down even for movies with actors that were typically reliable moneymakers at the box office. I called this “the YouTube affect”. And, social networks like Facebook and Twitter were amplifying this affect.
Meanwhile Hollywood had been seeing other early signs of turmoil. In 2007, the Writers Guild of America went on strike to pursue higher wages and benefits. In 2008, at the peak of the subprime bubble, Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns collapsed, signaling future distress in the financial markets and broader economy, and ushering in the Great Recession. By 2009, the independent film finance and production companies that had cropped up throughout the industry in the 2004 – 2007 era, funded by Wall Street and private wealth, were running out of money after producing failed or less-than-stellar returns from their film portfolios. This includes Intrepid Pictures, the company that I was working with at that time.
And, yet, there seemed to be so much untapped opportunity in the emerging social media and consumer technology space. Apple‘s iPhone was accelerating the use of social media – particularly the publishing of photos and videos. Having worked closely with our Co-CEOs at Intrepid, including developing their business plan for a follow-on fund and listening in on board calls with our lead investors, I became more and more interested in the venture capital business and the possibilities of investing at an early stage in a new generation of media and content businesses, or building a company in this space myself.
For context, film funds are similar to venture capital funds in that each fund has a designated timeframe in which to invest the money raised into an estimated number of ventures (in our case, films). Most ventures/films will fail or breakeven, eventually. Some may hit some profit and returns. And, if a fund is “lucky”, it’ll hit one or two unicorns that drive the majority of the success and returns for the fund by an order of magnitude. The major difference is that, as managers of the film fund, we also produced the ventures/films. When we financed a picture, we developed the screenplay, staffed the film with the best team possible, including writers to develop the story, a director to steer the creative vision, actors to bring the characters to life, and production crew to bring the picture together. Our pictures ranged between $10 million to $35 million in budget. So, it didn’t seem like much of a leap to take those same skill sets into venture capital or launching a startup.
Of course, since I was thinking of exploring a career change, everyone recommended I go back to school and get my MBA. Because, when in doubt, go back to school, right? How could experience in the movie business be applicable to any other industry? I enrolled in a Kaplan course to study for the GMAT, but didn’t take the exam. I just couldn’t wrap my head around going back to school full time and have no income for two years.
Which brings me back to the beginning. In November 2009, Linda was presumed to be in remission after rounds of chemo and radiation. No scan was done to confirm this, and so, while the rest of the family celebrated, I remained skeptical. I sat down with my boss, Trevor, the Co-CEO of Intrepid to talk about my future. And, reality set in. Given the context of the recession, the struggle to get studios to sign on to co-finance pictures alongside an independent like Intrepid, and the fact that our fund would be expiring in 2011, he would not be able to justify my promotion to our investors. I was taught early in my career to “do the job you want, so you can get the job you want.” Well, I was doing the job I wanted at Intrepid, but here I was finding out that I wasn’t going to get the job I wanted. I shared with Trevor that Court and I were thinking of starting a family, and that I wanted to have my career in order before doing that. Trevor and his wife were recently pregnant, and he intimated that he too had waited until his career was further along. But, in retrospect, there’s never a perfect time. When you’re ready to start a family, do it.
In December, we found out that Linda’s cancer was back (it was likely never gone) and more aggressive than ever. We flew back East for the holidays and spent a wonderful Christmas with her – she was surrounded by her fiancee, kids and other family members. As it should have been. I had a feeling we didn’t have much time left with Linda. Court and I decided that life is too short, and it was time to try for a kid. We wanted to make sure Linda got to meet her first grandchild.
On January 9, 2010, Court and I found out we were pregnant, marking the beginning of a five-year race to live life to the fullest.
I’ve heard it said that women become mothers as soon as they’re pregnant, but men don’t become fathers until they hold their child for the first time. This was not the case for me. Life before was based on selfish pursuit of ego. But, suddenly, I was responsible for another human being. I’d be the one that little boy or girl would look up to for protection, guidance and reassurance. And, that scared the shit out of me. I reconsidered b-school and retook the Kaplan course, while exploring other opportunities within the movie business. I wanted to make sure I was setting that baby up for the best possible life I could provide.
The week of April 19th, Linda’s oncologist gave her “months to years” to live. So, as we flew to Houston for my ten-year high school reunion, we decided to move back East to be closer to her. If she only had months left to live, we wanted to spend what time she had left with her. If she had years to live, we wanted to ensure we’d still have the ability to grow in our lives and careers. So, we decided to look for work in the New York and Boston areas, easily driving distance to Albany. Court was a sales rep, launching Sumavel DosePro for Astellas Pharmaceuticals, and they had a position available in northern New Jersey. Since she was still a contractor at the time, not yet a full time employee, she had to quit her current position with Astellas in LA in order to even interview for the position in NJ. So, she quit. She flew out to NJ, interviewed, got the gig, came back to pack, and left LA permanently on Friday, May 14 to start the job on Monday, May 17th. I stayed back, gave notice at Intrepid and coordinated the move cross country.
The movers came Saturday, May 22nd. I spent the night in our empty apartment, in a sleeping bag on the floor of what would have been our kid’s room. And, I remember thinking that life was unpredictable for the first time. I’d wanted to be in the movie business since I was a kid. It’s the only future I’d ever envisioned for myself. And, now, here I was about to leave it all behind. I had no job. We had no apartment in NJ yet. And, we had a mountain of debt to pay off from our wedding. Still, I felt energized and optimistic not knowing what the East would bring.
Arriving in NJ, I started commuting into Manhattan to network. The goal was to find my way into a VC firm or a startup in the media space. A few film-related jobs came up, but Court and I decided it was time put a stake in the ground and make the move out of movies. Finally, in late July, I was introduced to Avi Savar, Founder and CEO of Big Fuel Communications – a social media marketing agency. He’d started his career at the same talent agency as me, ICM, and then was a producer for VH1 before founding Savar Media (which later turned into Big Fuel) in 2004 to produce online content for brands such as Fox and AOL.
Avi looked at my background and said, “Looks like you could be in strategy, creative or distribution. Which would you prefer?” Having experienced the pains of being a content producer without distribution at Intrepid, I knew distribution held all the power in media. And, so I picked distribution and was tasked with building an online distribution network for all of the content we produced for our clients. One caveat, Big Fuel had just been awarded social media agency of record for all of General Motors (Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC), and they were just beginning to negotiate the terms. Avi, and Big Fuel’s COO, Mike Mcgraw, asked me to check back in around Labor Day.
My intuition told me that Big Fuel was the place I needed to be. But, Labor Day was a month away, so instead of searching for more jobs, I decided to focus on planning out a social TV startup as a backup in case Big Fuel fell through. You can read about that here.
Meanwhile, Court was having pre-term contractions. Her physician thought that her job – which involved getting in and out of the car several times a day at each doctor’s office visit and pulling her suitcase filled with samples around – was contributing. So, her physician pulled Court out of work. It was seven weeks before the due date. Court had six weeks of partially paid disability available. So, unexpectedly, we were now both not working. And, while it was a stressful time because of our debt, almost no income, and family helping to pay our rent so that we could make the move East to be closer to Linda, it was also a wonderful time. Court and I spent six weeks together at home watching that baby boy grow in her belly.
Labor Day came and went, so I checked back in with Mike the week of September 6th. He asked me to come back in for a meeting. Our conversation felt just like the first interview – like we hadn’t ever spoken before. He wanted me to speak with their new VP of Strategy, Philippe Guegan, whom I’d be reporting to. I left the meeting panicked. The job didn’t seem real anymore. Vapor. To add insult to injury, a couple days later, I still hadn’t heard from Philippe. I remember Court and I sitting at our kitchen table. Logan, our baby boy, was due next week. And, here I was, jobless. Feeling useless – like a failure, a poor example of a father. No income. Tons of debt. As I began to breakdown to Court, apologizing for following my intuition about Big Fuel and not making more material backup plans, the phone rang. It was Philippe. It was Thursday evening. He wanted me to come in Friday morning. I did, and after a brief meeting, we decided I’d start on Monday. Mike said he’d get me the contract before end of day. Sighing a breath of relief, I went home to Court, so we could celebrate.
I didn’t get the contract on Friday. As I rode the NJ Transit into the city Monday morning, September 13th, I emailed Mike asking for the contract. He responded and said that they hadn’t gotten to it yet; and, he suggested I hold off coming into work until they’d sent it. I explained that I was already on the train in, so I’d be in the office by 9am regardless. I figured showing up and working would force the issue. At this point, I wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
I got about a day and a half of work in before I got the call. It’s mid-day Tuesday, and Court calls me, saying she thinks she’s going into labor. I raced home. But, her contractions weren’t progressing. We had dinner and watched a movie. The fact that this would be our last night together as just a couple, just the two of us, without kids, was not lost on us. I woke up to Court telling me it was time to go to the hospital. She’d been laboring for a while. After a few reroutes from road construction (super fun!), we made it to the hospital. Logan was born early Wednesday morning, September 15th. It was the singular moment of my life. I was a dad.
Later that morning, I received my contract from Big Fuel. Everything was finally in order. Or, was it? That same morning, Court received an email that her disability had expired and she needed to get back to work. Lovely. After some clarification, Court’s disability was extended another eight weeks, albeit unpaid (basically, unpaid maternity leave).
The next two months were a whirlwind. Every Thursday, Court would pack Logan and Jack (our dog) into the car and drive out to Albany to be with her mom. I’d finish work on Friday night, take the hour-long train ride back to NJ, pack up and drive the two and a half hours up to Albany, getting in somewhere between 11pm – 1am. Monday mornings, I’d wake up at 5am and do the reverse, getting into the office at 10am. Court would drive back on Tuesdays.
Every week, Linda’s health deteriorated. It got to the point where we couldn’t tell what was killing her faster – the cancer or the chemo. After one particularly awful night where Linda thought she was going to die, she, Court, and Court’s sister, McKenzie, decided that it was time to stop therapy. We knew what that would mean.
At Astellas, Court was feeling pressure to come back to work early. Her boss told her, “If you really want your job, you should come back early.” So, on November 1st, only six weeks after Logan was born, and two weeks before her unpaid disability expired, Court went back to work. Court’s boss rode with her that week on doctor’s office visits. Court’s boss asked how Linda was doing. When Court intimated that she thought Linda was going to pass away that week, her boss had a moment of humanity and allowed her to take a few unpaid days off until Linda passed away.
That Sunday, November 7th, Linda passed away in a house filled with her closest loved ones. It was devastating. I remember holding Logan closely in my arms, burying my face into his, and crying – grateful, at least, that we had fulfilled our promise to give Linda a grandchild before she passed. And, yet Linda’s death was a relief. She had been in so much pain for so long. We wanted that pain to be gone. And, finally, it was.
The funeral was that Wednesday, November 10th, and Court was back at work on Monday, November 15th.
Back at my work, Big Fuel was growing at breakneck speed. I was employee number sixteen (or so, based on my own count). Within five months, we had 130+ employees to fill our contract with GM and the demand from managing all social media channels and social extensions for every Chevy, Cadillac, Buick and GMC campaign. I was leading Network Development, which involved building relationships and partnerships with anything that could be considered a distribution outlet for the content we produced for clients, including influencers, publishers and paid media networks. It was an incredible crash course in how communities behave online, what kind of content resonates with audiences, and how content gets syndicated and shared throughout the web. Everyone in the marketing and PR world was trying to figure it out. And, we were at the forefront, testing, experimenting and learning.
One of my favorite programs was working on the 2011 Chevrolet Super Bowl campaign. This was the year that Volkswagen launched it’s Super Bowl commercial “The Force” where a kid is playing Darth Vader and thinks he starts the car by using the force. Jon Steinberg, then BuzzFeed‘s President, and I had become friendly. We shared similar views around content and how brands should be participating online, and had been looking for an opportunity to work together. So, when I got the call on Saturday morning, the day before the Super Bowl, to put together a distribution plan for Chevy’s Super Bowl ads (Chevy was already way behind Volkswagen in online video views, as Volkswagen was the first brand to post their ad online days before the Super Bowl instead of after the spot had aired during the Super Bowl), I thought this was the perfect chance. BuzzFeed got their first Super Bowl campaign, and, together with the rest of the distribution plan I put together, we contributed over 2 million online views for Chevy’s Super Bowl ads in just a few days – not bad at that time, especially for a last minute ask.
Back at home, Court had come down with a case of vertigo. She had to go out on disability for another six weeks because she felt dizzy all the time – in some cases so much so that we were worried about her holding Logan. The doctor had no explanation for it. At one point the ENT thought it could be a tumor, and wouldn’t let us leave the doctor’s office until he spoke with a neurologist. They had Court get a CAT-scan, and luckily it came back all clear. So, the hypothesis became that the vertigo was stress-induced. Wouldn’t be surprising given everything we’d just been through over the last year with Linda’s passing.
The real kicker was when Astellas called Court to let her know they were letting her go while she was still out on disability. Of course, they positioned it as they were “eliminating her position”. But, the following week, they had a job posting up recruiting for that same job. Not too long after, we heard from one of Court’s former co-workers that her boss, who had been under fire for poor performance across her region, took Court’s job. See, Court had turned her territory into a top 5 sales territory in the country – up from nothing. So, it would be safe for her boss to take a step back into Court’s role and inherit a cushy territory. If that’s not enough, when our nanny found out that Court had been let go, she quit. So, now Court was left home alone, still suffering from severe dizziness, to watch our six month old, Logan.
At work, I was already up for a promotion and a raise. The situation with Court lit a fire in me. I walked into our COO, Mike Mcgraw’s office on Monday morning and made my case for the promotion. “Noted,” was Mike’s only response. I walked into Mike’s office everyday that week requesting an update. Everyday it was the same response, “We haven’t decided yet.” Thursday, came around and I asked again. “We haven’t decided yet.” So, I responded, “Mike, my wife is sick. I need to know if I should leave and take another job on Monday, or if I’m staying here.” Friday, HR let me know I got the raise. It was enough for Court to stay home with Logan, and we could still make our payments. Things would be tight, but we’d be OK. Court has been home with the kids ever since.
About a month later when I started experiencing frustration with Big Fuel, getting concerned about our long-term relationship with GM, I reached out to Jon Steinberg for advice. I had been averaging four hours of sleep, staying up all hours of the night working. I still remember 4am email sessions with Philippe. First, Jon explained that there is a law of diminishing returns putting in hours for a company. You can only put so much time into a job before you hit parity of outcomes. He then offered me a job at BuzzFeed. He explained that at this early stage of a company, there are really only two types of jobs needed: engineering and sales. Since I’m not an engineer, he offered me a sales job.
The idea of working for BuzzFeed was enticing. I got the business model. I knew where content was going. But, my ego got in the way. “I don’t do sales. I do strategy”, I thought to myself and said to Jon in so many words. I’d be better at helping drive the vision and operations side of the business. So, I thanked him but passed.
BuzzFeed was less than thirty people back then and just in the early stages of generating revenue. If I had been less young and dumb, I would have seen that sales was merely the entry point into the company. I could sell successfully and still contribute to the vision and growth of the company, and eventually take a more appealing role. “Do the job you want, so you can get the job you want.” I was shortsighted. BuzzFeed is worth over $1 billion now. I don’t know how much money I lost by making that decision. But, I don’t live in the past. Had I taken the job at BuzzFeed, I wouldn’t have ended up in Austin, which was the best thing for my family. So, it’s hard to regret the decision. I simply learn from the decisions I make and their outcomes and just try not to repeat the mistakes.
So, I started mapping out my next move. Two things were consuming most of my thoughts back then. The first was this notion that companies needed true consulting to understand and adapt to the changes being ushered in by social media. I believed that social media was changing not only the marketing and PR landscape and how brands communicate with their customers, but also the way we work, organize teams and develop products and services. Yes, customers were beginning to expect more from the brands they purchase from – transparency, purpose and experience. But, Millennials were also expecting these things from their employers. And, having come of age during the Great Recession made Millennials care less about high paying, corporate jobs, and more about flexibility and the ability to experience life outside the office as much as enjoy life and the people in the office.
Social media, post-PC devices and cloud storage were all going to enable this more flexible and highly collaborative working environment over the next several years. Today, organizations are highly fixated on this trend towards mobility – how to manage it and how to enable it. Furthermore, social media provided a customer feedback channel. Brands could solicit feedback, or just listen to online conversations about their brand/products/services, to understand what customer pain points existed in order to improve their solutions in a meaningful way. All these shifts would enable large organizations to operate more like startups: customer-centric, purpose-driven and responsive. I called this hypothesis the Reciprocity Theory, which was the basis for starting this blog in early 2011. No agencies were tackling this issue. Consulting firms were only starting to grasp this, let alone offer meaningful services to organizations to address the trend. Thus, a co-worker and I started mapping out a social business consultancy to address this unmet need.
The second thing that was consuming my thoughts back then was what I called an “elastic network”. Back in 2011, there was a lot of debate around privacy settings for social networks. Twitter was intrinsically public. Facebook was intrinsically private, but beginning to change people’s default settings to public – enraging unsuspecting users. At the same time, my friend and teammate, Michoel Ogince, got me thinking about the “check out.” Gowalla, Foursquare, SCVNGR and other apps were all about the “check in”. But, our problem was remembering to check in when we arrived somewhere. We’d often “check in” to a location as we were leaving because we wanted to remember the experience and who we were with. We were also feeling some social awkwardness around checking into locations, events, etc. with some friends, and other friends or acquaintances feeling left out. And, Michoel and I were wrestling with posting pictures of our kids on social networks given that, more and more, Facebook was becoming a platform to connect with anyone you’ve ever been in a room with – not really tight circles. Google Plus would launch later that year to try to address this issue, but the solution felt too manual and static. We started exploring a solution. My approach was to pursue both ideas – the social business consultancy and the elastic social network – and see which gained the most momentum.
Around that time, I got introduced to W2O Group – at the time just known as WCG. A friend I’d worked with at Big Fuel was just brought on full time there after freelancing for a while. She mentioned WCG had an Austin office, and she knew Court and my long-term goal was to move there. Austin represented an affordable, high quality of life for our growing family (Logan was was six months old, and we were trying for our second), while having a thriving startup community that I could get involved in. I read then, Chief Media and Technology Officer, Bob Pearson’s book Pre-Commerce and was intrigued that he was thinking along the same lines with the changes social media was bringing to organizations. We were both very focused on influencers and the 90-9-1 rule, which states that 1% of the online community are heavy contributors of content and information, 9% are intermittent contributors and 90% simply “lurk and learn” but don’t take any action with content. WCG seemed more focused on the 1%, while at Big Fuel, we were more focused on the 9%. I had developed seven channels of online distribution that my team used to plan distribution of content for clients. Bob had developed ten channels of online influence, adding in several channels I hadn’t considered. And, we were both zeroing in on this ability for brands to use social media to gather intelligence from customers and employees that could inform better solutions for the market and working environments for employees. Particularly interesting was WCG’s depth of focus on analytics to get scientific about who these influencers were, on which of the ten channels of influence were audiences engaging, and what business intelligence could be gathered from listening to those conversations.
I eventually met with Bob and ten other people at WCG. I was impressed by the collective intelligence of the group and where they were headed. In the mean time, I’d decided I didn’t want to pursue starting my own consulting firm. The profit margins were too thin. If I was going to start my own business it would be in software, where the margins were higher. But, Michoel, Rahul (another friend and co-worker) and I had hit a wall with the elastic network. We had ideas, but none of us were engineers. Three idea people and no developers does not a product make. And so, WCG became the front-runner. It seemed like a great place to put into practice many of the concepts I had been exploring. So, when they made an offer in September 2011, it was time to make the next move.
The first few months at WCG were slow. I was hired in advance of the company having projects for me to work on (which I appreciate). But, I don’t sit still easily. I spent some time trying to get to the bottom of our analytics approach and even volunteered to do some grunt work on analytics projects for Hershey’s and other clients, so I could understand the mechanics of how we collected and sliced and diced the data. I also advised a wantrepreneur that was pursuing a gift recommendation engine (think Amazon recommendations but indexing categories and merchandise across all of the web). A lofty task, but conceivably done. But, in the end, the wantrepreneur felt too proprietary about his idea to really get it off the ground and into the market.
In February 2012, I was asked to help out with our new client who was going to be building the social business practice at a Fortune 15 company. Perfect! The opportunity I had hoped for when joining WCG – to put theory into practice and drive meaningful change – and at a Fortune 15 to boot.
Of course, timing is always impeccable. Court was in her last weeks of pregnancy, and we had just made the decision to move to Austin that May. So, after initial terms got finalized with our client, I was literally drafting the first statements of work at home, as Court labored. I sent them to our business affairs team to review and send to the client, and Court and I raced off to the hospital to have our second baby boy, Austin (Yes, yes, I know. But, the naming of the kid did precede the decision to move to the city by a couple years).
Austin was born on February 16th – just seventeen months after Logan. Just two and half months later (and almost exactly two years after leaving LA), Court and the boys flew to Texas. I stayed back to work with the movers to pack up our life. Just as I did on my last night in LA, I slept on the floor of our vacant apartment in NJ and thought about the possibilities that Austin, TX would bring.
We lived in W2O’s corporate apartment for two weeks while our furniture arrived in Austin. Then, we moved into our own apartment. We started casually house-hunting, but on the day after Memorial Day we found a house we loved. The house had been on the market for only a few days, and they already had six offers. They were closing offers and picking one that day. So, we made an aggressive bid. And, we got the house. Only two months after moving to Austin, and after only six weeks in our apartment, we moved into our new house.
Then, I admit, I had a bit of a quarter-life crisis. See, at twenty-eight years old, we set some five-year goals: (1) pay off credit card debt, (2) have two kids, and (3) buy a house. But, only two years later, at the age of thirty, we’d achieved these goals. I kind of didn’t know what to do with myself. So, I set some lofty ten year goals. By the time I turn forty, we will have paid off the mortgage on the house, have zero car payments, zero credit card debt, I will have worked my way to CMO or COO of a mid-market or Fortune 500 company, and we’ll have enough money saved up to quit my job, travel with the family for a year and then start my own venture. See, having kids, I gave up on the idea of starting my own venture until we could comfortably live without my salary for a year. Three years later, I’m still working towards these goals. And, I must admit, I feel a little bit behind.
Back at work, I spent the next year embedded in my client’s organization, helping our client get the social business practice up and running. If he was the CEO, then I was the COO, managing day-to-day activities related to strategy, analytics and software development, budgeting and forecasting, and projecting workload and staffing. Everyday, we’d look at our meeting schedule and decide what we could divide and conquer, and what we needed to tag-team. What began with just my client and I sharing his desk grew to a team of thirty people by the end of the first year (2012), as we received incredible adoption across the organization for the work the social business group was delivering. It took a lot of all-nighters, early mornings and a highly engaged team to get through that year. And, I’m eternally grateful to team members like Jessica Williams Moya, Sarah Masel, John Steinmetz and Matthew Hager for being in the trenches with me.
The following year, in 2013, W2O’s staff tapered down, as my client was able to hire his own team members after we had proven the concept. That team now is off and running and valued – even through all the organizational shifts the company has been experiencing the last several years. I’m proud to have played just a small part in launching it.
Meanwhile, I had been managing W2O Group’s relationship with CEO Connection – a community of C-level executives for mid-market companies. As part of this, I would participate in CEO Boot Camps several times per year. The Boot Camps consisted of modules in leadership, stewardship, human capital and communications. W2O was the communications partner, so I facilitated the communications module. After participating in a few of these Boot Camps, I noticed that every person in the room had their MBA except for me. I thought to myself: “Here I am at the age of thirty, by far the youngest person in a room full of C-level executives. And, I want to be in their shoes one day. While I’ve made it this far without my MBA, I would never want the fact that I don’t have it to be a reason that I’m not considered for an executive role.”
So, I went home and looked up University of Texas’ Executive MBA program. The program was two years long (same as a full-time MBA program), classes were every other Friday and Saturday (plus 20-30 hours of homework and studying in between), and the cost was much less than other top tier programs I had previously looked at in California and New York. On a whim, while we were on vacation, I filled out the application. And, in February I was accepted into the program for that fall 2013.
I still wasn’t fully convinced I wanted to go through with the program, but a few things influenced me to move forward. First, my father, a chemical engineer, earned his MBA at Notre Dame. My parents grew up in Mexico City and started their careers there. When my dad received a scholarship from the Mexican government to pursue an MBA in the United States, they went. The plan had been to move back to Mexico after the program, but Conoco recruited my dad to work for them in Houston. The plan became to do that for a couple of years, then move back to Mexico. I was born that first year in Houston, and within five years, it became clear that we were there to stay. So, my parents and I have always attributed our amazing life in the U.S. to my dad’s MBA.
Second, Court pushed me to move forward. She knew the MBA was something I’d been considering for a long time and thought that I would never get it out of my head until I just did it. It was like an itch that needed to be scratched.
Third, it was now or never with the kids. Logan would be turning five the year that I would graduate. He’d start getting into weekend sports and activities, and Austin would soon follow. I wanted to be around on weekends for those moments. So, if I didn’t get through the program now, I knew I wouldn’t have the space to do it for at least another ten years. Not to mention, my GMAT score would expire five years after taking the exam. So, it would have been a lot of money and effort wasted.
And, finally, when I looked at W2O after the first year working with my social business client, and at future opportunities and challenges, nothing seemed insurmountable. Change in the media landscape would begin to slow. The trends I’d been anticipating were now coming to fruition. And, the impact of social media on business would extend beyond communications into the way we work, the way we organize teams and how we innovate on products and services, which would move beyond W2O’s typical scope of work with marketing and PR functions. This felt like the right moment to take on the MBA, and so I accepted the invitation to the program.
The following month, in April, Court and I snuck away for a weekend at a bed and breakfast. We took some long walks in the Texas countryside, reflecting on what we’d accomplished over the previous three years since leaving LA and what we envisioned for our future. For several months, Court had been feeling like our family may not be complete. She wanted to try for one more baby. I urged her to wait a year, so at least the baby would be born at the end of the program vs. during the first year of the program. But, Court is very convincing. She’s a hell of a salesperson. And, as the saying goes, “happy wife, happy life.” So, we decided to try for the third, and in June we found out we were pregnant.
I can only describe the last two years since starting the program as a flurry of activity. A blur. When you’re splitting time between family, work and school, raising two young boys, and welcoming in a new baby girl, you’re never really fully present in anything you do. As much as you want to be. As much as you try. There is always a mountain of stuff that needs to get done, hanging over your head like a raincloud, preoccupying your mind and preparing to release a shit storm on your life. To cope, I completely compartmentalized the roles I play in my life: father, husband, manager, leader, student, classmate, friend. I allocated slots of my day to each – from the time I woke up at 3 or 4am until the time I fell asleep. Of course, much as I tried to keep these roles from converging, they blurred together. Whatever the most immediate need was became the priority and received my focus.
After my first semester, we spent the entire three weeks in between classes back East with Court’s dad for the holidays. Fact: for the next several years, traveling with kids is just going to be hell. They’re out of their usual habitat and taking over someone else’s. Those were three very stressful, claustrophobic weeks.
About a week after we got back, and I started my second semester of school, our laundry machine decided to keep on running and completely flooded our little, one-story house. Luckily, I was able to snag our corporate apartment in downtown Austin for us. But, we were displaced for five weeks while workers dried the house, ripped up the floors, ordered and installed new floors and repainted the house. Court was about ready to burst. Literally. She was in her last month of pregnancy. Logan was three. Austin was about to turn two. We have two dogs. All of us were crammed into a two-bedroom apartment. We just wanted to be back home.
We moved back into our home on Tuesday, February 18th. Thursday, I stayed up late getting some work done. I had a hunch. And, just after midnight, as I was wrapping up my work, Court came in. It was time to have a baby.
On Friday, February 21, 2014, our baby girl, Madison, was born. She was beautiful. Of course, it was a week before my Economics mid-term and just two weeks before I was meant to deliver a major project for a client.
Monday morning, I was preparing to leave for work and Madison started crying. I was already stressed after spending hours studying on Sunday and getting nowhere. Now, I needed to get to work. I wasn’t taking paternity leave, so I could wrap this client project. The baby was crying. I picked her up. Court says my eyes glazed over and seemed distant. She came over and took the baby from me, and I broke down. Seriously, cracked. I can’t remember ever experiencing something like that. I imagine it’s what a woman feels when she’s experiencing postpartum. I grabbed my things and raced out of the house and just drove. I found my way to a farm road and drove for miles.
Eventually, I collected myself, went to a Starbucks and got to work (I couldn’t go to the office like this, and I didn’t want to go home). I talked it through with Court that night. The stress levels had become so high. I had traveled most of Q4 the previous year, and then spent three weeks at her dads. Then, five weeks living in the apartment after our house flooded. And, now this. I hated that I was so busy that I couldn’t make time for our little girl and be as involved with her as I’d been with our boys. And, I hated that I couldn’t go as deep as I wanted in school. I’ve always lived under the assumption that I’m not the smartest guy in the room, so I have to be the hardest working. I push myself hard to be the best. But, at that time, I didn’t feel like the best at anything. I felt mediocre at everything.
At school, the “soft” subjects like Leading People and Organizations, Corporate Strategy, Marketing and Strategic Innovation were fun because you could immediately go back to work on Monday and apply the concepts. They were right in my wheelhouse too. Other subjects like Corporate Finance, Accounting and Operations were less easy to apply in my day to day work at W2O, whereas they were a large part of my role at Intrepid Pictures five to eight years ago. And, of course, you never have enough time to go as deep as you’d like in any of the subjects, which is why I chose to do my electives in finance and new venture creation – to force myself to spend more time with these two areas of interest.
Meanwhile, at work, I still managed to progress in my agency career. We eventually hired my replacement to lead our social business account. I rolled off the business and helped start the new Strategy & Planning practice. A year ago, when my boss left the firm, I was asked to fill his role. I appreciated the opportunity and was energized to take on the challenge, but quickly realized I’d need to start from scratch and reinvent the team. That took about six months, rolling people off the team and then waiting until January of this year to really start to build the team. Along the journey, I partnered with our Chief Creative Officer, Mike Hartman, to incubate this new practice. He’s been an incredibly effective leader, and I appreciate his support and guidance, as we continue to transform W2O Group into a premiere, global, integrated communications agency. I’ve had amazing support along the way. Paul Dyer and Gary Grates who have served as mentors. Greg Matthews and Aaron Strout who have lent me their ears and served as sounding boards. On up to our Founder and CEO, Jim Weiss, who has been a visionary leader that sees organizations can no longer be rigid and static. He’s built an organization that is flat and responsive and somewhat ambiguous, empowering employees to be decision makers in the business, and to pursue and realize their own career aspirations. But, it is certainly a place for people that have a vision for themselves. Not so much a place for folks that are looking for a predictable, linear career track.
As a last hurrah for our program, my class visited Beijing, China for a week. So, Court and I planned a trip, just the two of us, to Maui the week before. My parents were kind enough to watch the kids while we were gone. Court and I hadn’t had a vacation alone like that since our honeymoon eight years ago. Having time to ourselves to reflect and reconnect, with Hawaii’s mountains and ocean as a backdrop, was revitalizing. Normally, our evenings and weekends and date nights are a scramble to offload to do’s and updates on each other. For once, it was nice just to be, and be together.
Beijing reminded me just how much I love to travel abroad. The city itself reminded me of Mexico City. Yes, it’s immensely populated with over thirty million people. But, the geographic area of the city is expansive. So, it didn’t feel as dense as I expected – certainly not as bad as walking in Manhattan at rush hour. The people were quite warm and welcoming. The Chinese pride themselves on their hospitality and will go to great lengths to ensure you’re visit is satisfactory. As a marketer, learning about and witnessing the changing consumer trends was fascinating – from poor farm populations migrating into cities filled with a growing middle class that struggles to afford housing, to a growing upper class that can afford luxury goods. Smart marketers and brands certainly have a lot of opportunity here. But, Peter Thiel does bring up a good question in his book Zero to One: how successful will China be in the twenty-first century if it is only mimicking what the West did in the twentieth century? Herein lies the opportunity for the U.S.: to continue to envision what the future looks like and use its entrepreneurial DNA and resources to make that future a reality.
So, here we are. Back in the present. Two weeks after graduation. And, it feels a bit like a long hangover.
The ceremony was bittersweet. Saying goodbye to friends you’ve made – especially those that don’t live in Austin. Shaking their hands, it’s no longer, “See ya in two weeks.” It’s “See ya when I see ya.” As is the nature with ending an era at school, you hope you’ll see these people again. Some of your closest relationships, you know you’ll keep in touch with. And, you make promises to make the effort to see each other frequently. And, in the back of your mind, you hope the activity of life won’t distract you into breaking those promises.
Back home, last weekend was our first weekend post-MBA together. It was exactly what I hoped for: totally pleasant. I finally installed the TV mount upstairs and hung the TV. We bought a couch and moved it in, so now our media room is starting to look like an actual media room. We took a family walk. We read (I have a looong list of books that have been piling up on my Amazon wish list, just waiting for school to be over). And, I started a new tradition: weekly, rotating one on one breakfast with each of the kids. Last weekend, I started it with Austin. We grabbed donuts, and then took a trip to Home Depot. Today, I’ll have breakfast one on one with Maddie. Next weekend, with Logan. Then, back to Austin. And, so on.
So, what’s next?
That’s always the question.
Over the last five years since beginning our family and reinventing careers and moving to new cities, we’ve somehow managed to fill every free moment with something – to take on more and more. We’ve feared that life is too short and, thus, fill life with, well…life. Even last summer, in the few weeks that I had off from school between electives and fall semester, we found ourselves house-hunting. And, before we knew it, we’d sold our house and bought and moved into a new one just down the street in our neighborhood – a house that our family can grow into, and our kids can grow up in.
At W2O, things are chugging along. We doubled in size and revenue in my first three years. We launched two new operating companies and a holding company to house them in that same period. We’ve expanded our services, including my practice of Strategy & Planning, and elevated our creative portfolio. The Strategy & Planning team will be a critical contributor to this ongoing transformation. And, proven leaders at the firm are being empowered to lead even more so.
So, what’s next?
The truth is: I don’t know…yet.
The Greek philosopher, Seneca, wrote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
Abraham Lincoln wrote, “I will prepare, and one day my chance will come.”
Apple CEO, Tim Cook, wrote in his commencement speech, “We rarely control the timing of opportunities, but we can control the preparation.”
So, I’m preparing.
I’m starting to hear myself think again. I’m reorienting. I’m giving time back to my family and being present when I’m with them. I’m striking things off my honey-do list. I’m not setting an alarm (Even without it, I wake up around 6:30am. Kids will do that to you. And, when you’re used to waking up at 3-4am, 6:30am sure feels like sleeping in). I’m letting go the guilt of having a personal life: I’m reconnecting with friends and making new relationships. I’m reading what I want to read. I’m writing again (clearly). I’m instilling space back in my life.
I’m seeing what needs to be invented.
I’m getting over this hangover.
So, I can get back to living.