I hit the jackpot with Code School

jackpot at code school

We all want to hit a jackpot in our lives, and though some of us do, many of us don’t. Fortunately in my life I have hit the jackpot a few times, and the most recent was with Code School.
If you are not familiar with Code School, I will give you some quick background. If you know what Code School is, skip this paragraph. Code School is an online education platform that teaches developers cutting edge technologies in the most efficient and effective way. They started back in 2011 (I think) and have created development courses on Ruby on Rails, JavaScript, Node.js, iOS and more.

Back to the story :P

Back in early 2012 at Barcamp I met this nerd (I say it in a good way, I am a nerd too) named Gregg Pollack. He is the founder of Envy Labs, a software development company, and also the founder of Code School. Over the next few months, I bugged him about doing work for Code School and by May I was consulting for the company.

That consulting later turned into a full-time gig with Code School. Funny enough, I was the first hire at Code School. This is partially true since the company was spun off of the Envy Labs brand, and I was the first employee of the company. It is somewhat untrue because there were 4 – 6 people who were working full time on the business, but they technically worked for Envy Labs. Either way, I will keep saying I was the first employee, and I was the first business and marketing hire.

During my nearly two years at Code School, we had some incredible growth. Not only revenue-wise, but also as a team we learned and grew together. When I started at the company, we had about $80k in monthly recurring revenue (MRR). By the time I left, we had nearly $400k in MRR. So pretty friggin impressive growth in just less than two years.

With all of this growth and additional work, the leadership team had decided they wanted to make some sort of financial event, either get VC money or sell the company. The leadership team succeeded at this in January when they sold the company for $36 million to Pluralsight.

code school and pluralsight acquisition

Now you may think that I hit the jackpot because of this financial exit. I mean come on; I was the first hire, stayed at the company for more than a year and a half and was a vital part of the company’s growth. Not to brag, but I created most of the marketing campaigns and marketing strategies the company still uses today. I also created all that growth with an ad budget of only $5k a month.

If you think my jackpot was from the acquisition, you are just wrong. I never got equity in the company; I was the only person who worked at the company for more than a year who did not get equity. Gregg did not appreciate the fact I owned Fuelzee (my other startup), and he didn’t want to give me equity. Despite many other people on the team, even leadership, having side projects (startups) that were revenue generating. Either way, I never got equity in Code School. It was part of the reason I left and the reason I didn’t get anything when the company was acquired.

At the end of the day, I may sound bitter about this, but I am not. I totally hit the jackpot with Code School.

Like literally, I fucking totally hit the jackpot.

When I started at Code School, no one in the tech community knew who I was.

No one.

Even though, I had been on the news 15 or so times for being a tech and social media expert. No one who worked in the tech or startup community was aware of my existence, nor did they watch the local news. Once I joined Code School, I got massive exposure to Gregg’s network and the tech community. It was tremendous and has helped me lots over the past 4 or so years.

What Code School also did was teach me how to work with developers. Before Code School, I did not have the chance to work closely with developers. I worked with a lot of freelancers, but not a professional team. At Code School, I learned Agile, Scrum, project management, better communication skills and all the terminology and tools developers use. This has made it possible for me to run my development team at Fuelzee and other companies. I know how to speak to developers and what makes them tick. Shit, I know what Ruby on Rails is; do you know what Ruby on Rails is compared to Node.js?

Probably not, but because of Code School I picked up this education.

Code School taught me so much, and not only about technology, marketing, and business. It also taught me analytics, which is what I am known for today. Code School also gave me many freedoms; I was able to do all sorts of crazy campaigns. Which of course helped drive the company’s growth. Because of these opportunities, I was able to build an extensive portfolio of successful marketing strategies and campaigns that got noticed by other bigger companies.

Now for the shitty part.

About 1.5 years in, I was a little fed up with how I was not allowed to have equity and how the CFO was limiting my capabilities. The CFO and I did not get along; I thought he was an idiot (which he is) and he thought I was an asshole (which I am).

His way of punishing me was by scrutinizing my marketing and ROI numbers into oblivion (which he knew nothing about) and by limiting my marketing spend. His actions hurt the company and my relationship with the company.

Funny enough, the moment I left, the advertising spend had nearly a 10x lift within 90 days. I was super stoked for my replacement and the company because it was a long time coming.

During this same time, there was a bunch of companies trying recruit me, which was incredibly awkward. Many of them offered me substantial raises and significant benefits over Code School.

At this point, Gregg (founder of Code School) and I had started another venture together called Starter Studio, which made it even harder for me to leave Code School. Even with this new venture and Gregg’s friendship, I could not get over how I was not allowed to have equity.

Every other recruiting company was offering the standard equity with four year vesting, where I got to keep some of my equity after one year. Code School wouldn’t give me any, even though I had been there longer than a year.

One day I got an email from Nemo Chu of KISSmetrics asking me if I knew any good marketers he could hire. I kind of chuckled and thought well I am available. I mean, I wasn’t happy at Code School anymore, and KISSmetrics is the leader in digital marketing. Nemo is a legend in my eyes, and I was stoked to be even talking to him. Nemo proposed I do some interviews, which I obliged, and later decided to turn down a job offer to join his customer success team.

I knew the role was a step back from what I was doing at Code School, so it just wasn’t a good fit.

Bummed and with my head down, I stayed at Code School for another two months, when out of nowhere Nemo called me back up with a new exciting opportunity. He explained they were looking for a new Director of Marketing. I was floored that he thought I could fill this position at KISSmetrics. I mean c’mon, it is KISSmetrics.

He later set me up an interview with Neil Patel, co-founder of Crazy Egg and KISSmetrics, who is one of the gods in digital marketing. Neil liked my performance at Code School and we got along. He introduced me to Hiten Shah, co-founder of Crazy Egg and KISSmetrics, also a legend in digital marketing. Crazy enough, Hiten interviewed me with Lars Lofgren, and they both gave me the thumbs up to interview with the CEO, Will Hodgman.

After a call with Will, I was soon sent an offer letter to join the KISSmetrics team as their new Director of Marketing. The deal was so sweet! I could stay in Orlando and run the remote marketing team at KISSmetrics. I would then fly to San Francisco once a month for a week to do our board meetings. Seriously the sweetest deal ever, not to mention a big salary bump and I got equity!

I turned in my notice at Code School, and it shook the earth. Gregg was extremely disappointed, but this was an opportunity of a lifetime. I couldn’t say no to this offer, my wife made this very clear.

Thank you, Meredith :*)
kissmetrics team photo from 2015
While at KISSmetrics I learned so much more than I knew was possible. During my visits to SF, I met some of the smartest developers, marketers, VCs and entrepreneurs. I got the chance to work directly with Nemo Chu, Neil Patel, and Hiten Shah, who are my idols.

My jackpot was the education I took away from Code School, and the opportunity it gave me to land a job at KISSmetrics. If it were not for Code School, I probably never would’ve worked at KISSmetrics.

Shit, I wouldn’t know half the awesome things I know today. I can proudly say I am one of the best marketers in the country and have proven it by creating massive growth at Code School, KISSmetrics, Fuelzee and multiple other companies.

During my time at Code School and KISSmetrics, I was able to build a solid education that has prepared me to create my ventures.

man holding bag of code schools moneyWhen I think about it now, even if I owned 1% of Code School when it sold, I may have received a check for like $200k. Then a bunch of shares in Pluralsight (they acquired Code School) and with their 2016 IPO I would get another $200K – $500K. This would give me a payday of maybe $750k.

I know this seems like a lot of money, but in the world of tech this is just chump change.

Even if I had 5% in Code School, I could have collected about $5m.

Now I am not saying that is not a lot of money; for most people that is a fuck ton of money.

I know how the big deals work, I know how dilution works, I get it. For me it isn’t about the quick payout, it is about sticking to what you believe in and doing what is best for you and your family.

holding umbrellaSimply put, $5m is just not a lot of money to me. My goal in life is to be a billionaire, not a $5 millionaire. You picking up what I am laying down?

The jackpot I got is the opportunity to take all those lessons and connections and apply them to my businesses where I can reap the rewards.

When one of my companies grows up, I would like to think it will be acquired for a lot of money ($1b+), and I will have kept much of my equity. I have goals to build a billion-dollar enterprise and many of the things I will do to get there I learned while at Code School and KISSmetrics.

My personal goals make the $750k – $5m payday look tiny.

I will always be grateful to Gregg and the team at Code School for giving me this jackpot. I don’t have any bitterness towards them; in fact I am super stoked for all of them. I am even more thrilled that they reached their goal, and all got the payday; it was what they wanted.

Thank you, Code School, Gregg, the team, and even the CFO, who made my life miserable.

You all helped make me who I am today and for that I will always be grateful.

I never fail at making resolutions

Most of you made some sort of resolution this New Year’s Eve. Some of us have not admitted to them yet, but you know there is something you have thought about making better in your life for 2015. We don’t admit to these resolutions because we don’t want to fail. This is pretty typical, no one wants to be a failure or give their friends ammunition to tease them.

I am in this resolution boat almost every month. When you look up the definition of a ‘resolution’, it has nothing to do with New Year’s or some damn ball falling from the sky. All it really means is you have made a significant decision. However, we now use New Year’s Eve to make a resolution to do something better for ourselves. But why are you not setting resolutions all the time? And why are you worried about failing at your resolutions?

I am an a ‘A to B’ type of person. You know, the person who just wants to get shit done:). Usually, I make firm decisions quickly (a.k.a. resolutions) and try to get from that decision to a solution or failure as soon as possible. My tolerance for failure is pretty high. I could rattle on for days about all the business ideas and decisions I have had that failed. Losing family time, money, happiness, and relationships.

This all adds up to a lot of failure for some folks, but for me it adds up to how I make resolutions.

Failure is all about perspective and prioritization. When you are an ADD entrepreneur like me, you become superb at prioritization. One thing I have not prioritized recently is my health.

When I look at my busy schedule and family life it can be hard to make my health a priority. This has been the case since my second son Matthew was born. I set career and family as my top priorities, allowing health and fitness fall to the wayside.

Before I had a family, I was an athlete. I ran 50 miles a week and cycled another 100 miles, at my peak. I was single, partied hard, worked hard and worked out harder. Running was my escape. I put on my headphones after work every day and ran for more than 2 hours. That was back when I had time to be selfish and could keep my weight at 175 -180. It didn’t matter what I ate; I could burn off 1,400 calories in one run.

skinny dan mcgaw


Since then (2012) I have put on over 65 lbs.

fat dan mcgaw

I come in at a cool 245 on the scale and couldn’t run a mile if I wanted. This is the heaviest I have ever been. Fixing my weight has been a topic my wife, and I have talked about multiple times. Luckily, my bombshell 115 lb. wife doesn’t mind my weight. We both agree fitness and health are important, but our priorities have prevented me from making a resolution to do something about it.

But this year is different, and coincidentally New Year’s just happened.

A few weeks ago an opportunity dropped in my lap so I could make a resolution to lose weight. My best friend Neil told me that our buddy’s gym, American Combat Club, needed some business and marketing help. This MMA gym has fighting, kickboxing, and fitness classes. I had been to their MetCon class about ten times and it kicked my ass, so much so that I stopped going because it did not fit my priorities or schedule. I frigging loved the workout; it was only 30 minutes, but I could not commit due to other priorities (other resolutions).

Now, my gym owning buddies, Vinnie and Mitch are amazing fighters and could kick my ass in about 2 seconds. They are some of the nicest, most patient people I know. The visual experience of the gym is not the best, but the customer experience they provide is exceptional.

When I finally met with the AAC guys to learn about their needs, I saw a unique opportunity. Here are two founders who have run a gym for eight years, have a loyal following, but don’t know how to make it a success.

They were also about to set out on one of the biggest investments of the company’s lifetime. AAC will be moving from the east side of Orlando (Semoran and Colonial area) to a space downtown that is twice the size. Their decision for this move makes sense, location is everything, and their current location is not the easiest to get to. On top of that, there is no direct competition downtown.

When I looked at the business model I got really excited, it is a subscription model with multiple pricing tiers. Kind of like all the technology companies I have worked for and currently consulting. To toot my own horn, I kick ass at subscription models but have only had a chance to work on digital subscriptions. This is a chance for me to use my skills for a real world service! The subscription model was exciting; the founders kicked ass and they needed support.

Ok, back to the resolution stuff.

What is the best way to get back in shape? You go to the gym and workout!

Well, I have a gym membership to Planet Fitness and pay them $20 a month. I never go though, haven’t in 7 months. Excuses of course are to blame, but it has more to do with my priorities on time. Going to Planet Fitness sucks because of its location and I can’t do intense workouts there. They have rules that prevent me from going hard.

These things add up to me just not going to the gym. By becoming an investor and partner in a gym, I get to kill two birds with one stone.

First, I get to use my skills to help some awesome founders grow their business and prove that I can be successful with any subscription model, online or offline.

Second, which is probably the most interesting to me. I don’t have an excuse to not be at the gym. By investing time and money into a gym I will need to be there to track its success. To ensure I can provide the most value, I will be working from the gym at least three days a week.

My biggest problem with going to the gym has always been efficiency of time. If I drive 10 minutes each way to the gym, I lose 20 minutes a day. When I do workout it takes me a long time to cool off, upwards of 2 hours. I don’t lose the whole two hours, but being sweaty prevents you from putting on nice clothes and attending meetings. These are my two biggest complaints about my current gym experience.

With the AAC gym I do not have those excuses. I am driving to the gym, as my office is at the gym. When the new downtown space opens, I will be moving my company’s offices to a space next to the gym. I can’t use the excuse that the drive wastes time. With my office being next to the gym I can easily walk downstairs and do my workout at any time of the day, early or late. Since the gym has dedicated showers, I can take a shower before or after cooling off. I can even store clothes, shower supplies and whatever else I need in my office.

Simply put, I have no excuse to not take advantage of the gym.

Even with these positive attributes, there are also some big negatives. By getting involved with the gym, I will need to invest time and money. This means less time spent on my other businesses and family.

With this comes a new resolution I need to make. Do I prioritize my health by investing in the gym or do I skip the gym and focus on continuing to grow my current business??

I am choosing to make my resolution to become healthy. Being healthy brings quality of life and isn’t that why we earn mo
ney in the first place? Even funnier, if you ask an entrepreneur why they want to start a company, it is usually because they want money from the business to improve their quality of life.

For me, I already have successful companies and the money is not a concern. My health, right now is a concern and with my new obligation to the gym, I don’t have a way to get out of becoming healthy.

This, my friends is how to commit to your resolutions. The moment you make your resolutions ingrained with your life, the more likely you are to succeed.

What is going to be the obligation you create to ensure you never fail a resolution again?

The Curse of Entrepreneurship

I know, most of you are going to be like WTF?

But let me explain myself before you get your panties in a wedgie, ok.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane on how I became an entrepreneur, and then we will get to how it can be a curse.

TLDR, skip to the summary.

Ahhh, the good old days. You know, the days when you lived in your parent’s house, ate their food and didn’t have any real bills. When I was a kid we were not that well off, my mom was on welfare from the time I was zero till I was like 9. Things were tight, we lived in the ghetto and my mom was not very active in my life. I am thankful for this now because I learned so much, but as a kid it simply meant I needed to keep myself occupied with my boundless energy. If you have been around me, you know how exciting and full of energy I can be :P

Well, when you have to occupy yourself and have no money, it means you need to figure out how to make something out of nothing. I remember the first things I always tried doing was building things, kind of like boys should. I also had to take things a little farther and wanted to build my first empire when I was 9 (1994).

I received a package in the mail about some boy band group and that they needed a street team. I was like “hells to the yeah I am in!” I got signed up and involved, tried to promote this boy band, but was met with the harsh reality that people in the ghetto don’t like boy bands. It probably took about a week, and I quit because it was easy to get distracted back then. At this point in my life I didn’t see this glimmer of entrepreneurship coming out, I just wanted to do something and be in charge of my destiny.

A few years later my mom got her act together and moved us out of Pittsburgh and to Youngstown, Ohio. Like really mom, you could have chosen a better place to move, but I understand that is where our family is from, and she could lean on our family to help her.

This was a game changer for me; I was now surrounded by white people, middle-class white people! I was still some white ghetto kid who did not fit in. Oh, the troubles of not fitting in.

With that aside, I ended up making a few friends in a few years, and when I was 14, my good friend Doug took me to my first rave. You might be asking yourself “What the hell was a 14-year-old doing at a rave?” My friends new the promoter and snuck me in and my mother didn’t really care, as long as I was not dead. The rave was called Focus, and the event was great, except for only 50 people showed when they needed 1000 to break even. The promoters lost their ass on the event, and these were friends, so I felt kind of bad. However, I fell in love with the party, the people and the community I had never been a part of.

At this point in my life I was pretty impressionable, I mean come-on, I was 14. Even though I was young and new, people were just nice and helped me, made friends with me and took me under their wing. All in 12 hours of being at this rave I had made 10 or so new friends who wanted to hang out and take me to another rave. This was awesome for a kid who has never fit into his surroundings, so I latched on!

The next day I got home from the rave, mildly hungover but started searching the web (1998) trying to learn everything I could about the rave business. Man there was a lot of cool stuff I found, not to mention how raves and drugs go hand in hand. All I could focus on was how did these events make money, who was in charge and how could I become one of the people in charge.

Within two weeks, I decided I was going to open up a record label for this new music I fell in love with. Back then, I was getting into house and trance and figured I should do what I love. I came up with the name Shattered Records and started telling my friend to find me all the best DJ’s. I looked all over the web, put out listings on forums and bulletin boards and the CD’s started flooding in. I had DJ’s all over the country sending me CD’s trying to get bookings or get a record deal. It was crazy, I was 14 and put this info out there and within a month or so I was already getting traction, or so I thought.

When you have no clue what you are doing and things start moving forward anyways, you need to go learn what to do, so I bought some books and read for weeks. I learned so much about the music industry and all the mechanics, from signing an artist, to how royalties and residuals work. There was one gleening thing though; record labels are banks that loan money to artists and then collect it back with interest.

“Shit, I am 14 and have no money.” I said to myself. What was I going to do now, I had no money to give these DJ’s, but the CD’s kept rolling in. I was three months into my first business Shattered Records, and it was already doomed for failure. I was crushed.

Then it hit me, I can work my way up to being a record label. All I needed was a way to make money and then that money could fund my record label. But how was a 14-year-old going to make money, I could only make $6 an hour at a restaurant, which I was already doing, and this didn’t make me enough money. I had to find something else!

I kept reading the books and studied the music industry and rave industry to see what may be out there. I read a lot about these managers who protected the artist from record labels and booking agents which managed the booking for the manager and artist. Neither were something you needed money to do; I was offering a service in which I was paid if I was successful. I changed the company name to Shattered Records Management and started signing artists to my management for a 15% stake in their earnings.

At the time, I was just communicating with folks via email or the phone. I never admitted my age and told these people I was new, and they only needed to pay me if it worked. Funny enough, I knew no one in the business and now had artists willing to let me do their bookings. Friggin crazy I tell you.

Once again, I turned to the internet to help me and used those same forums to find answers. Kind of neat how forums were the first social network, but no one thinks of it that way.

On these forums, I started promoting the DJ’s I was working with and sending people digital versions of their mixtapes. Back then (1998/9) people did not do bookings this way. It was still a relationship business, and you had to know someone. Our competition did everything in person, over the phone and some email. They worked directly with promoters or club owners to get the artist booked.

We accidentally did it differently, and it worked pretty well. I am proud to say this, at 14 I got really lucky with starting a business because I did not know how it was always done in the industry. On the bulletin boards and forums we communicated directly with the people who attended the raves and parties. If you could get them interested in an artist, they would then tell the promoter or club owner to book the artist.

At the time, I did not realize what I was doing, but somehow it worked. The artists I managed started getting requests for bookings. Promoters would call me and ask who a DJ was and their availability. The DJ’s would get bookings from across the country and wonder how someone there has heard their music, all I could say was the internet.

Over the next three years, things took off. We were the first online booking agency and started doing sub-bookings for bigger agencies. At the height of things, we had 160 DJ’s on our roster and we were throwing our own events. It was a great time in my life.

When I was 19, I wanted to take things to a new level and started investing the money we were making into other events. Investments started small with $250 and then grew larger. At one point, we invested a whole bunch of money, way too much money in an event called Solstice. Partially because the promoters had a big following and the event was on my birthday, and I could have main stage at midnight.
As expected, the event had some hurdles, but we never expected to lose our asses on the event.

A few major things went bad for us, and I will explain.

First, another competing event was announced on the same night across the state. This hurt ticket sales, but not enough to shut it down.

Next we had a massive rain storm which ruined our parking lot. At Camp of America, we had planned to use their football field and some other grassy area to park over 200 cars. With all the rain, these fields were flooded, and there was no way to get a car on them. Everyone had to park 2 miles away in a small town and then be bussed in by two rented greyhound busses. HUGE expense we could not afford.

Then the final blows came in. The promoter we invested in was so loved by the community because they had a huge flaw. They gave all their friends tickets to their events at no charge. Not just normal tickets, but VIP tickets that should have been sold at $300 a piece. Around 200 of those tickets went out for free, and we lost so much money on those it was stupid.

At the end of the night (8am June 22nd 2003) we did not have enough money to cover our bills. As a person who signed off on most of the bigger deals, my company was the one left holding the bag. Within seven days, I had decided I had no other choice but to sell off all of our contracts for future booking to get rid of the debt. We in essence sold the assets of the company, but I like to say we exited :)

I did leave the company with a good amount of money left over, but I still had to close the company down.

This was an important life lesson for me. I started my own business, all by myself and made it pretty far. No one taught me what I was doing, I just figured it out and did it. Just like when I was 9, I wanted to build something.

Since then I have started five businesses, which 3 have failed in some form or another. All of them I started with something I knew little about and just went out to solve the problem. This is what we do as entrepreneurs, we go build stuff that solves a problem.

In Summary

Being an entrepreneur is tough, there is a lot of ups and down. As an entrepreneur who has started six businesses, which 66% of them ended in failure, I have seen the good and bad.

Entrepreneurs are not normal people, especially the good ones. Even the entrepreneurs I know are all weird in some way and not many of them are my favorite people to hang out with. Overall I don’t like people too much, but that is because I grew up in front of a computer. Either way, there are some I like and a lot more I don’t like. I think this has to do with the fact we are strong personalities and sometimes things just don’t mesh well.

Back to the point! Entrepreneurs think differently, and when it is so engrained in your life, it can be controlling.

At times, I am cursed for being an entrepreneur because everything to me is a business idea. I just can’t think of anything other than starting businesses. Every problem in the world is something I can fix, I just need enough time and enough money. I will keep testing until I fix it and make it better than anything else anyone might create. This is how an entrepreneur thinks.

See this the where being an entrepreneur becomes a curse. I think I can do anything! Just give me enough time and money, and I can accomplish it. At the end of the day, this may sound great to you, but man does it get annoying.

I stay up late at night drilling into a problem with no light at the end of the tunnel. Over the years of doing this, I have learned to prioritize my entrepreneurial conquests. Unfortunately, I still am in love with trying to fix things, even things I have no business fixing. Kind of like how I am trying to disrupt the convenience store business with Fuelzee, but I have never worked in the c-store industry.

I have at least 4 or 5 businesses I could start right now. I don’t do it because I have control, but I know if my current company Fuelzee was to fail I would immediately pick up one of the other ideas and start running.

Getting a job might be a good idea and you might tell me that. Where would that get me though? I wouldn’t be solving the problem or have control of my destiny.

Having a regular job where I work from 9-5 would be amazing. I have always wanted that and have tried to do it. It only takes a few months, and then I start to get frustrated at the pace of things and then get distracted.

Being an entrepreneur has made me spend less time with my family and I only have a few friends. This is how being an entrepreneur has cursed me. Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely place.

Am I saying I hate being an entrepreneur? No, I love what I do for a living. I still yearn to slow down and maybe work less, but that is just not how I am wired. Being an entrepreneur is just who I am and thankfully I love it.

What about you, have you been cursed by being an entrepreneur?

(Orlando Sentinel) Lose your bank branch? Blame mobile, online growth

Dan McGaw rarely sets foot in a bank branch, but he may be more in sync with his accounts than his grandparents ever were. Armed with remote deposit and online bill paying, the 29-year-old Orlando entrepreneur sees little need for the teller line.

“I only go to the bank when I need to take out cash, which is almost never,” he said. “I don’t have a checkbook; I use mobile apps or websites for more than 90 percent of my banking.”

As the popularity of mobile and online banking grows, more bank branches in Central Florida and elsewhere are starting to vanish.

Since 2009, Central Florida’s branch total has fallen 6 percent, for a net loss of nearly 60 branches, as closings have far offset openings, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which regulates banks.

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