Every once in a while, I get to meet someone who just knocks me over. Someone doing something inspiring and risky and ambitious and epic. Someone who’s doing something incredible.
And last night, I met three ladies who are traveling America in an RV, doing good deeds and inspiring others to chase big dreams. I couldn’t help but be bowled over by the Girls Gone Moto. They started talking about their stories — how they embraced the fear, how they found a dream to chase — and I started thinking of my own story.
See, I remember when I was leaving San Antonio and headed to Biloxi to start Stry. I remember how terrified I was. I remember thinking that there were a million steps ahead of me. I remember thinking, What if it all works? What if it succeeds? What if it turns into a real business? What if I hire employees? What if people start depending on me? What then?
I’d never done any of that, and it all seemed overwhelming. The thought of success seemed overwhelming. So I let the fear in a little bit, and then the questions started changing. I stopped thinking about all the baby steps ahead of me, and started thinking, Well, what if I can’t do this? What if I shouldn’t?
But I know now: There’s a part of the brain that loves to sabotage dreams. It’s the naysayer within your subconscious. And I know now: Sometimes, you have to embrace that fear and blow right past it.
I did, and I can’t begin to describe the sensation of knocking fear back on its ass. It’s an amazing feeling.
And no, the fear doesn’t ever just go away. But once you’ve conquered it once, you’ll always know that you can conquer it again.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the kinds of people I’d like to hire for Stry. I’ve been asking myself, Who’s going to join me on this startup adventure? Where am I going to find reporters willing to chase stories and travel and venture forth into a world where the only structure is the one we define for ourselves?
And lately, I’ve been thinking that I’ve got to find some treetop flyers.
See, back in Vietnam, the American military trained pilots to fly low-altitude, high-risk flights. But when those pilots returned from war, there wasn’t much need for someone with such a skill set.
They were outlaw pilots, and they were much in demand.
I’ve used a lot of words for the type of reporters I’ll need for Stry. I’ve referred to them as hobo journalists, as backpack journalists, as reporter vagabonds.
But what I’m really looking for are treetop flyers: Reporters with skills that no one else really values, reporters who aren’t afraid to fly a bit too close to the ground, reporters willing to go at it without a safety net, reporters for whom adventure is just something that happens when they show up at the office. Working for Stry isn’t going to be a glamorous job. It’s going to be a lot of work, and it’s going to require a hefty amount of improvisation. My reporters at Stry are going to have to deal with stress, strain and general chaos without spontaneously wigging out.
I need reporters willing to go to the Biloxis of the world, willing to dig where others aren’t digging, willing to crash and burn and get back out there the very next day to do it all over again. I’m looking for a new kind of a reporter.
Up front, I should say: I am not a great networker. Not yet. This goes back a long way, but the short version is: Sometime around the 6th grade, I realized that I was terrifyingly shy. Calling a friend to ask, “Hey, you wanna play basketball up at school?” was a Herculean ordeal. I remember riding the bus to school and hoping that it’d be late. It wasn’t that I wanted to miss class; I was more afraid of standing around before school with my own friends and trying to contribute to the conversation.
I was really, really shy, and people who know me now find it tough to believe that Dan Oshinsky — the guy who won’t shut up, the guy who won’t use four words where forty will do — was once quiet.
I eventually grew out of my shyness. I learned how to talk to people on the phone. I learned how to shake somebody’s hand and look them in the eye. I learned how to hide my awkwardness in awkward situations.
And the networking skills are coming along. But I’m discovering here at Missouri that the young j-schoolers on campus aren’t master networkers yet. In fact, some of them are rather worried about their networking skills.
They’re convinced that networking is some special skill that some people have and some people don’t. And they’re worried that they don’t have it.
That’s just not true. Everyone can be a great networker. Here’s the problem: Nobody’s ever given these students permission to be great networkers. And they’ve been waiting for permission.
So here’s what I know, guys. It’s four simple steps. Here’s your permission:
1. Show up.
Yes, this is a ‘duh’ kind of thing to say. But here at Mizzou, there are infinite networking opportunities: Meetups, speeches, brown bag lunches, even office hours. The first step is showing up.
The dirty secret is, most students don’t take advantage of opportunities like these. And they’re missing out.
Casey: Technically, I have a plan.
Dan: What’s the plan?
Casey: It’s Napoleon’s plan.
Dan: Who’s Napoleon?
Casey: A 19th century French emperor.
Dan: You’re cracking wise with me now?
Casey: He had a two-part plan.
Dan: What was it?
Casey: First we show up, then we see what happens.
Dan: That was his plan?
Dan: Against the Russian army?
Dan: First we show up, then we see what happens.
Dan: Almost hard to believe he lost.
And yeah, it didn’t work for Napoleon. But he was trying to defeat the Russians.
You’re just trying to make some new contacts in the journalism world.
So show up.
2. Get business cards. Get numbers. Hustle. If you’re at a busy event — say, a conference — you might get a lot of cards. So on the back of a card, write down something about the person. Something you want to remember about him/her, something you want to follow up on.
And if you’re not comfortable with business cards, use a cool mobile tool like Bump to exchange contact information.
3. Follow up. Buy them coffee. Lunch. No one turns down free food. I’m not kidding. If a student emails me and asks if they can buy me coffee, I will say yes. If they offer to buy me lunch, I will say yes. I will cancel important meetings and say yes. I have a journalism degree, and people with journalism degrees will do almost anything for free food.
Want access to smart, powerful people? Ask to buy them coffee. Ask to buy them lunch.
4. Keep following up. Send your contacts links. Friend them on Facebook and like their posts from time to time. Tweet at them every few weeks. It doesn’t have to be often. A little thing every so often is just enough to keep you top of mind.
Modern relationships are built one click at a time.
This isn’t a new experience for me. I’m not sure I believe that certain generations are defined by certain songwriters — Do my parents belong to Dylan? To John and Paul and George and Ringo? To Jimi? To Janis? To the Stones? — but I know that certain moments demand a voice. There are weeks when the right song hits me at the right time. I’ve lost months to Joe Purdy’s woes, to Steve Poltz’s quirks, to James McMurtry’s tales of Texas.
A lesser songwriter would lose his audience with stories like those. Not Snider’s crowds. They come for the stories.
That’s why I came.
But lately, I’ve been listening to Snider’s records. And I’m finding that Snider’s got the voice that speaks to what I’m going through now with Stry.
It’s been 15 months since I left my job to start Stry. Things keep changing. I keep learning.
But what has stayed constant is this: I am always on the verge of being completely, totally screwed. Stry is not making money. It does not have any other employees. The only thing keeping the Great and Good and Honorable Dream That Is Stry alive is me.
Mine is not the story of business success — not yet. So this moment demands a songwriter who’s been out there, trying, struggling, failing, laughing, scratching at the edges of success. Someone who’s taken risks. Someone who’s been both the next big thing and the has-been. Someone who’s been out there long enough to have perspective on how life goes, especially when it goes places you never wanted it to go.
Snider’s the songwriter who can explain all those stages: The empowerment, the discovery, the struggle, the success — and the failure. Oh, the failure.
Start here. I am sitting in my cubicle in San Antonio, thinking about something more, thinking about changing the world — couldn’t be that hard, right? — and there’s Todd Snider, singing:
You can’t talk to me like that boss
I don’t care who you are
If you don’t want to have to hang your own dry wall
Don’t push me too far
Life ain’t easy getting through
Everybody’s gonna make things tough on you
But I can tell you right now
If you dig what you do
They will never get you down
And that’s keeping me going for a while.
And then Stry’s getting off the ground. I’m thinking a bit too ambitious. I’m thinking that selling this thing is going to be easier than I’d previously thought. I’m getting a bit greedy. And Snider’s singing:
Everybody wants the most they can possibly get
For the least they could possibly do
I’m back in D.C. Selling it isn’t easy at all. I’m clueless. I’m learning. I’m trying. I’m failing. I’m floundering. I’m trying to find myself. And Snider’s singing:
Sometimes you rise above it
Sometimes you sink below
Somewhere in between believing in heaven
And facing the devil you know
I start to find a way forward. I settle down a little bit. Maybe I start to settle for something a bit less than changing the world. I start to find myself. I start to wonder whether I’m ever going to get moving again. I start to doubt myself. And Snider sings:
A little out of place
A little out of tune
Sorta lost in space
Racing the moon
Climbing the walls
Of this hurricane
I can’t complain
Then the complication comes back around. More failing. More setbacks. More struggling. And Snider’s singing:
Some of this trouble just finds me
No matter where I turn
How do you know when it’s too late to learn?
And now it’s the present day. I’m thinking about the fact that a year ago today — Oct. 3, 2010 — at about this very hour, I was pulling into my driveway in D.C., my whole year ahead of me. No plan, no idea of the road before me. Just a dream and a website. And Snider’s singing:
Lookin’ back on where I was
One year ago today
Laughing at the shape I’m in now
And Mr. Snider: I know you’re right. I am looking back, and I cannot help but laugh. Oh, how little I knew then.
How little I know now.
I know haven’t gotten that far in the entrepreneurial process. No, I don’t know what lies ahead.
But I suspect that when I get there, I’ll find there’s a Todd Snider song that explains it perfectly.