In this episode, we sit down with Jessica Willis, the founder and CEO of Pocketnest, to learn more about her entrepreneurial journey in the financial literacy space. Jessica shares valuable insights on the most common financial mistakes young people make and offers practical advice on how to avoid them. She also offers her experience and tips on capital raising, an essential aspect of building a successful startup. Jessica also talks about the financial challenges as a parent on both sides of the spectrum, and discusses the sweet spot between parenting and money. She emphasizes the importance of finding your community and building a good culture around your cap table. Join us as we dive into the world of financial literacy and entrepreneurship with Jessica Willis.
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Jessica Willis: Founder And CEO Of Pocketnest
Welcome, Founder and CEO of Pocketnest, Jessica Willis. Thank you for joining.
I’m happy to be here, David.
A lot of entrepreneurs talk about that light bulb moment when they first get the idea of a startup. Did that happen to you, or was it something that happened gradually over time?
It was a little bit of both. That might be part of my nature, which is a little bit of a Midwest conservative. It took me a few years to leave my super stable, safe, and high-paying job with 3 kids and 3 mouths to feed, and a husband. I had the moment of, “Why doesn’t this exist?” I did a lot of diligence to make sure I wasn’t missing something for that first year. I had the idea and was watching what robo-advisors did and, to me, they were pretty siloed on the investment side. They brilliantly figured out how to bring investment to the masses, but I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t something similar addressing estate planning, income tax planning, saving for kids’ college, and all the things that keep us up at night.
I found a lot of FinTechs doing those things siloed, but the piece that I saw missing was why isn’t there something that knows everything about somebody that can give advice into all those different segments? There was a moment of, “Why doesn’t this exist?” after a few years of talking to everybody who would sit down and talk with me to understand that there was a niche or a need for what we were doing, so a little bit of both.
As an entrepreneur, I’d probably have ten ideas a day. Sometimes a simple Google search is like, “Somebody’s already doing that.” It does make sense. You don’t have to test the waters with both feet. You can test it with a toe and get more confidence as you get more information. Since you’re in the financial literacy space, what are the most common financial mistakes young people make, and how can they avoid those mistakes?
There are a couple. I’m going to classify them by age groups. When you say young people, the first mistake all humans make is we don’t start saving early enough. Anytime I talk to someone in college or graduating college, the moment you get that first job, you’re going to get a bigger paycheck than you’ve ever received in your life, and it’s going to feel like an obscene amount of money at the time. It’s better to start building the habit of socking some of that away then versus playing catch-up later. Phase one of life, graduating college, that’s the first mistake. Get into the habit of maxing out your 401(k), not only to get to the match but even as much as you possibly can, and then start socking away and building that habit of saving.
The second stage of life is parenthood. When individuals start having children, we feel like there are a million things we need to do for estate planning, how to teach your children good financial habits, how much life insurance you need, and how you start saving for college for them while paying down your own student debt. There are all these things. It’s one of those life-changing events when the finance stuff hits the fan.
The mistake that I see over and over is that we become paralyzed and don’t do anything. “I don’t know how to talk to my kids about money, so I’m going to wait until I can figure out how to do it perfectly. I don’t know how much we need in insurance, so I’m not going to deal with it right now.” I see it in the markets too. People are not feeling like they know exactly how to start investing in the capital markets, so they step back and wait. As you mentioned, getting your toes wet. I love to encourage people to get their toes wet and start.
The wealthiest I’ve ever felt in my whole life is when you do get that first job. You’re like, “OMG. $26,000 a year, what am I going to do with it?”
You look back as a more grown adult and realize how little you had. That’s why it’s so much easier to push yourself to save then.
You also think, “If I can only make this, I would never have to worry about money again.” When you get there, you’re like, “No. Forget about having kids, mortgages, and all of that fun stuff.”
That goalpost keeps changing.
I’ve heard that it’s hard to be a parent financially when you don’t have a lot of money because you always have to say no to your child for things, but also when you have a lot of money, you also have to force yourself to say no, not because it’s easy to give things. On both sides of the spectrum, it can be difficult.
I’ve seen a lot of that. I’ve been an advisor, wealth manager, and CFP for twenty years. I have dealt with a lot of different people on this socioeconomic spectrum. There is a sweet spot for parenting and money. I’ve seen when individuals don’t say no because they have so much that leads to all sorts of problems for children and third generation, specifically. On the other end of the spectrum, we always want to give our kids what we didn’t have. I do think there’s a sweet spot in the middle.
I was speaking with a friend who’s a Goldman Sachs wealth management advisor. I said, “What do high net worth people worry about the most when it comes to their money?” He’s like, “How do I not have my kids turn out to be jerks?” It’s fascinating to hear that.
I could not agree more.
What’s been the toughest part of your entrepreneurial journey thus far?
After taking the leap because that was the first thing that was tough, I would classify it as we don’t know what we don’t know. The advice around that is don’t be afraid to acknowledge that you don’t know what you don’t know because there is a universe out there that’s dying to help you. I’ve seen founders love to help other founders. People who have gone through building and exiting a startup are willing to help advisors.
It’s recognizing that there’s this fine line between nobody has ever built Pocketnest before, so nobody knows exactly what the right thing to do is, but you also don’t want to spin your wheels constantly. There are people out there who have figured out and have valuable advice on how to raise capital, hire a CTO, build a team, and all these things. It’s getting that balance right between recognizing you don’t know what you don’t know and seeking help, but at the end of the day, you still know what’s best for your own company. That can be challenging.
I agree. There’s that saying, “Fake it until you make it,” but if you fake it, nobody knows you need help. If nobody knows you need help, then you’re not going to get that help. I’ve found the entrepreneurial community, especially as you mentioned, the people that have exited companies, while they can buy what they want, they miss being part of that energy and excitement. They want to help and want to pass the advice and all the potholes you can avoid. They’re so willing to help which I’ve found in this amazing community.
That’s the first advice I give to startup founders when they say like, “What do I do?” It’s not building a deck or getting investment. It’s finding your community. You have to find your community and define that however you want. You have to have a community in the startup ecosystem locally and nationally. For us, it’s the Midwest. Find that community to support you because you cannot do this on an island. It’s impossible.
On that note, congratulations on your funding round. It hasgotten a lot tougher than it was before. There are a lot of startups that are struggling to raise money. What advice would you give in terms of raising money?
There is so much. Thinking back to the paralysis thing, just start if you haven’t done a fundraiser before, but also be very methodical about it. There’s some formula to raising capital. Call me and I’ll talk you through that a little bit more, but it’s not just going out and start asking people for money. That certainly isn’t it. Get a little bit methodical about how much you want to raise and who are you targeting. Do the preliminary work, and when you’re ready, go. I do worry about macroeconomic trends over the next twelve months. We’ve gotten ourselves into a position and raised enough for 24 months runway.
I recommend that we all try to build that runway for whatever’s coming down in the next 12 to 24 months. Have fun with it. One more thing is we look at raising capital as, “I have to raise capital.” It’s a full-time job, but like anything in life, you’ve got to have fun with it. If you’re not enjoying having the conversation with the investor you are talking to, you’re probably not going to be fit. Bless them and release and move on to someone who gets what you’re doing and find those people to support you.
I say this all the time. People talk about culture as it relates to employees and everything. I also think it’s important to have a good culture of your cap table. Surround yourselves with people that you want to work with. A lot of investors want ROI on their investment, but they also want to come along for the journey and all the benefits with that. Being in the Midwest, did you have to go to the coast, or were you able to find capital in your neighborhood?
Yes, everywhere. You talked about cap table culture. We have a healthy cap table culture. Every one of our investors I talk to with some frequency, even if it’s like the attaboy text here and there of them saying, “I loved your newsletter. Keep going,” there is not a single investor on our cap table that I don’t adore. I can call them at any moment with any questions. That’s important.
Before we were looking at, “Where do we raise from?” we were looking for, “I don’t want to work with jerks. How do we find the right people who we want to work with?” We got capital from all over. There’s a lot going on in the Detroit startup ecosystem. There’s some capital from there. Also, from the Midwest. We’ve got investors from New York, California, and Boston.
You find your people wherever they are. It’s interesting that over the last couple of years, we’ve had COVID, which has eliminated the need to fly out to the coast to have a fifteen-minute meeting with an investor to meet them so that they know you for your next round. That’s ridiculous. I love that we’ve been able to meet and find the yays and the nays pretty quickly and efficiently over Zoom calls. It’s been wonderful.
Capital has been democratized in the last several years. It used to be all venture capital. Now, you have family offices, corporations, individuals, and angel investors. It’s not easier to get, but it’s not monopolized, which is pretty cool.
You get to find your fit a little bit more. We’ve got a mutual connection through a credit union that’s an investor. Before we started, we chatted about how great they are. Again, you have to look for your culture fit.
Unlike venture capital, as we mentioned with our mutual investors and credit unions, they become partners as well. It’s a double win. Not only are you getting capital to grow, but you’re also getting a partner, which is great. I always like to end with a question about you personally. It’s always different depending on the person. For you, what personality traits are you most proud of that you think are unique to you and have shown throughout this process?
I chatted about it with my husband and a couple of close friends along the way, but it’s what I call, ” Okay, and.” I’m a rule follower. I want to know what the rules are my whole life like, “Tell me the rules. Great, I’ll follow those,” but I always feel like there’s this like, “Okay, and,” that goes along with it. This is the way things are usually done. Something that I’ve always been able to do is like, “I understand that, but, or, and how do we make it work in this world?”
I’m a single founder. I didn’t have that technical cofounder. I’ve been in wealth management. I took one coding bootcamp that was horrendous for me, and it’s not a fit. I knew I was not going to build the platform. I kept hearing in those early days when I had the idea, “You need to find that technical cofounder.” My response was always like, “Okay, and I don’t have that technical cofounder right now. I’m not going to sit on my hands for the next few years until I find that person. How do we go despite that?”
“The statistic shows that only 2% of capital goes to female founders.” “Okay, and how do we keep going despite that?” I don’t know technically what that’s called, but that’s something that has always helped push me along. I understand how things need to be done, but how can we also morph that into something that works for everybody? It doesn’t have to be it works or it doesn’t work. There’s something in the middle of those two things.
“There’s the well-paved path that everyone takes, but what about this one on the right that’s less paved? I’m not the first person in history that started a successful company without a technical cofounder. There has to be a way.”
In the earliest days, we had an opportunity for a huge customer that didn’t end up panning out, but it was a huge opportunity. I remember calling an attorney. It’s not the attorney I’m working with now. He was trying to mentor a little bit, and he is like, “No, you can’t do it.” I remember being like, “I’m not going to walk away from this deal. How do we do that while doing this?” I must have talked to him for five calls back and forth over a few days. Finally, I realized, “You’re not going to be the attorney that’s going to help get us all the way there.” We found a way around it, and the deal didn’t end up panning out, but you can’t walk away from opportunity.
I could not agree more. I always say have yes attorneys. If no is clear, can we find a way for a yes? That’s what I’m looking for. It’s going to take work.
You have to ask the question with the how. You can’t say like, “Can we do this?” It’s, “How can we do this?”
That’s a great answer. Jessica, this has been great. Hopefully, everyone has learned a little bit about you and your journey. If anyone has questions, please feel free to LinkedIn, Jessica Willis. She is part of a family of similar investors that we have. I’m going to be rooting her on, but thank you for joining me.
David, thank you. It’s so nice to meet you. I appreciate it.
Jessica Willis, Founder & CEO, PocketNest – Jessica has spent nearly 20 years of her career in the investment and finance industries and has obtained the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and Certified Private Wealth Advisor (CPWA) designations. Jessica has an MBA from Loyola University Chicago, Quinlan School of Business and a B.S. from University of Michigan. Jessica has a passion for serving individuals, getting messy financial plans in order and a love of smart fintech tools that improve efficiency and accessibility. Offline, Jessica loves spending time with her three children and husband, Tom.
If people can live comfortably on basic income alone, the market and the entire world would be much better. Josh Jones is a champion of this belief, stressing how the US government should focus more on increasing wages instead of distributing vouchers. Joining David Metz, the Co-Founder of Gondola Ventures discusses how to make money through investments by sharing lessons as an early player in the crypto industry and bitcoin. He reflects on holding back on his bitcoin despite the market trends going a different way and losing millions due to theft in 2017. Josh also talks about his business ventures in the airline industry, why putting money into sports teams is reserved for the uber-rich, and the fundamentals of Kelly Criterion to increase the likelihood of winning bets.
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Josh Jones: Co-Founder of Gondola Ventures and Venture Capital Strategist
We have early crypto and startup investor, Josh Jones here. Welcome, Josh.
I appreciate you being here. This format is pretty simple. I’m going to ask you a few questions so those reading can get a feel for you and hopefully, a sense of your experiences, and maybe they can learn something from that. Let’s get started. You’ve had a wild ride in crypto. From making a fortune to having million stolen, I’m sure you could do a movie on it, but can you give the audience a quick summary of that ride and if anything, things that you’ve learned from it? It would be amazing
I got into crypto in ’97. It was eleven years before Bitcoin came out. My first company was a web hosting company called DreamHost and right after we launched, we got all these signups and I was excited. It turned out that two weeks later, I started getting chargebacks for almost all of our credit card orders. I didn’t even know what chargebacks were before that but it was all stolen identities and it was all fraudulent. Our merchant account provider started to threaten that they would take away our account because this was ’97. They had no sense that we were the victims here.
These are not our customers complaining and charging back because we’re a shady business. These are not customers. Their information was stolen. They sign up with our service to send spam or fishing, and then the original customer found out the bill. I was worried about us not being able to accept credit cards online. How would we take payment? I was thinking if we could take checks in the mail, but that is a lot of friction and sucky. Also, checks can bounce and checks can be fraudulent even. I was like we should, at least, take $100 bills in the mail. I would take cash in the mail if people want to send it. There are no fees. I know it’s legit. They can’t take it back from me.
I was then like, “What if there was digital cash? All the convenience of credit cards plus all the features of cash. There’s no middleman. There are no chargebacks. There are no fees. Once you have it, you know you have it and it could be anonymous or whatever. That’s the main thing.” My cofounder and I spent 1 day or 2 trying to think of how you could do that as a protocol. We couldn’t solve the double spending problem as they call it.
I was like, “It’d be cool if we could email someone. Attach a PDF and attach $20.” I was like, “How do we stop that person from then forwarding that $20.cash file to 50 other people? Who would have it? We’d have to have a centralized authority that kept track.” All I came up with was, “The US Treasury should do this. They should be able to log in and they should stop printing cash.” They should say, “You can log in to our site with your Social Security Number and then send it to someone else based on their Social Security Number.” This is my thing.
A few years later, PayPal came out and I was like, “We could have done it ourselves and had everyone do it with their email address.” I was always kicking myself for missing out on being close to PayPal a couple of years earlier. When I heard about Bitcoin in 2010, it was this flashback. I was like, “Is that the thing I tried to do many years ago? How did they do it?” I started looking into it and I was like, “Everyone keeps a copy of every transaction ever,” and that’s how you know if I’m the person who’s supposed to get the $20 or if these other twenty forwards are legit.
I went down the rabbit hole. It took me about two years because I was only interested in a payment solution. It wasn’t until 2012 that I was like, “Maybe I should just buy some.” If this thing takes off and there’s a fixed supply and I’m one of the few people into it right now who already had some money because everyone else I felt involved was a teenager. They were trying to make money with Bitcoin.
They were charging people 10% fees to buy Bitcoin and I was like, “That’s not the point. The point is no fees.” I ended up buying a bunch in 2012 and holding it for a long time. It was crazy seeing it. I ended up selling my company in 2013 and I remember the day I sold my shares after working on it for seventeen years. It was worth about half of the price of the Bitcoin I bought the year before.
I used to work on Wall Street and they used to say the difference between professional traders and amateur traders is amateurs hang onto their winners too short and hang on to their losers too long. It’s always a fear thing. When you make a little money, you’re like, “I want to lock in the profit.” When you start losing money, you’re like, “I don’t want to accept this loss.” Once you see yourself with a decent amount of money, how do you convince yourself not to turn that into something tangible and spend it because that’s what’s motivating you? I want to turn this into cash so I could go on vacation and buy that crazy stuff.
I had the idea and I wish I’d done it. Everyone has regrets. No one time is perfect. You could always go back and be like, “I should have mortgaged my house, borrowed all the money I could for my friends, put it all in the day I heard about Bitcoin and I should have held it all until November 15th, 2021. I should have sold it on this day, bought it back on this day, and sold it on this day.” That’s what you naturally do when you go back and look at the chart.
You are like, “I missed out on $3 billion here,” or something like that but that’s fate. Don’t fall down that trap. At the time that I finally decided to buy something, I was like, “I think that this thing has a decent chance, 25% to 30% chance of maybe in 50 years being the world’s money.” I had the epiphany of Star Trek or Star Wars or whatever. They’ve always got credits. It’s never dollars, euros, British pounds and yen.
When you think about it, it’s assumed that we would get to that, but I don’t see anyone working on that like I see flying cars, space travel, and robots. I don’t see anyone being like, “How do we get our universal credits?” I was like, “Maybe Bitcoin is out. We invented the thing that in 2100 is going to be our world universe money.” I was like, “If that’s the case and there’s only $21 million of it, I feel like there is a 30% chance in 50 years this thing will be worth 1,000 times what it was right then.”
That was always my thing. I was like, “There’s a 50-year bet I ended up buying 30,000 Bitcoin.” I wanted to hold at least 21,000 of it forever. I thought that would be cool to have 0.01% of all. If I needed to sell some, okay, but I would keep 21,000 forever. I thought that maybe in ten years, it would go to $1,000. I started buying it when it was at $4 or so. I was like, “This is probably good.” It went to $1,000 in 18 months instead of 10 years. It was weird because, I was like, “I was right about the $1,000, but it hasn’t been adopted at all.” A little bit of it was like, “Mission accomplished,” but on the other hand it was like, “Not mission accomplished at all.” I didn’t know.
I was like, “Maybe it’ll get adopted.” It was weird because it wasn’t following at all. Usually, it’s like, “These users are using Facebook. I’m glad I was a seed investor in Facebook.” In this case, it was like, “No one’s using it in the sense that I thought would be useful for actual money transactions, and yet it’s already nine years ahead of where I thought it would be on the price side.”
That’s the thing that made it harder for me to be like, “I would’ve never sold any if it was like, ‘We got $1 million transactions getting added every day.’” It was hard to see the disconnect between, “Why is the price so high,” but then it was like, “It’s still early and it will get adoption, but then maybe the price will be $10,000 instead of $1,000. I pulled $1,000 out of my ass.” Back to your original question, I still had a fair amount of net worth from the company I sold.
It wasn’t like if you had $1,000 to your name and you randomly had 1,000 Bitcoin, and then it went to $10,000 a Bitcoin, you’ve got to sell 30%. Don’t regret that you didn’t hold it to $20,000. It’s portfolio and risk management. It helped me that I already had a fair amount, but when it got to 90% of my net worth, you’re a little like, “I know it goes up and down. I think it’s going to last, but there’s still no basis for this value.”
None of the stuff that I thought would make it worth something has happened, and yet, it’s worth more than I ever thought. It was hard. 2017 is where I sold a bunch because it was an insane technical decision to not raise the block size. This whole argument, I felt like the whole project, and still, it has been taken over by idiots.
Bitcoin cash forked off, which was like, “This is what we should be doing. Why do we want high fees? Why do we want to make it unusable?” It’s so stupid and I didn’t understand at the time. It doesn’t seem to matter like it’s just a collectible. If it never gets used, it does not matter. I thought at some point being used for commerce or transactions will be required to maintain this value, but now I understand that like, “Nope.”
How often were you having this discussion in your head? Will you wake up in the morning and be like, “This is crazy, but maybe it’s not,” that kind of mental exercise? Did you also have a group of other crypto and bounce ideas and be like, “Is this going higher? Is this crazy? Am I alone in this world?” Did you have a group or was it mostly in an internal discussion that you were having?
It is pretty much daily. That’s the thing that sucks about it too. I’m like, “For the last many years now, Bitcoin never stops trading. It’s 24/7 so you don’t even get like, “I’ll wait until Monday and see what happens.” In the middle of the night on Sunday, it drops 40% or something and you’re like, “Great.” It consumes a lot of your mental cycles annoyingly. It’s hard to tune it out.
I’d considered doing a ten-year time lock on it all. It’s like putting it in a wallet and you can programmatically not allow a transaction to happen for N amount of time. I could have forced myself to hold it for a decade at least, 30 years, or whatever. It could have been my thing but I was like, “I don’t need to do that. I can control myself.”
That’s what Allen Iverson and his financial advisor did. They put $30 million in a trust that he couldn’t access until a certain period of time, but there are ways around that. Someone will lend you money off of that.
That’s the thing. You could show them the thing and be like, “Let me just borrow against it. No problem.” There’s no way to lock it away. I had friends who were into crypto and we talk about it all the time or whatever. It’s not an official peer group or something. In 2017, I was like, “Now, it’s gotten crazy high, especially with no usage and the fees are through the roof, so there won’t even be usage.”
The politics around Bitcoin core development is now so toxic. They’ll never raise the blocks high, it seems. I had this compromise of, “I’ll sell some Bitcoin,” which will hedge against everything. I’ll keep a little Bitcoin. I’ll buy a bunch of Bitcoin cash, which is now my new long-term bet. If crypto ever gets used, maybe it will be Bitcoin cash and it was at a very cheap price. I’ll find a way to hedge everything.
I still have some Bitcoin cash, but so far, the jury’s still out. That was a bad trade in terms of Bitcoin cash. It’s not because now I understand that crypto may never get used and also, that might be okay. I was always thinking. The big questions were like, “Will it ever get used and does it matter?” I think the answer is no and no.
When you had some of your Bitcoins stolen, was that before or after 2017?
It was after.
What was that less painful because you had sold some? Did you lose faith in where you were storing it? Was it only a mental error on your part?
We would probably need to have my lawyer. I’m still in some legal stuff related to this. We shouldn’t go too deep into it or if we did, I’d have to get my lawyer to approve it getting released. I can say it was a very bad day and it would’ve been worse if I had all. If hadn’t sold any, it would have been so bad.
I haven’t looked it up, but are there any figures for how much crypto has been stolen in dollars? Does that exist anywhere? Is there a number?
I don’t know about the total number, but it’s in the billions. It depends on what you mean because it’s like at the time it was stolen or what it’s worth now or whatever. There’s the Mt. Gox hack where they stole probably 750,000 Bitcoins or something like that. It was over the years though. I don’t know what the average value was when it was stolen, but now, all that money would be very big. There was the Bitfinex hack. Did you see how a few years later, they recovered it and arrested the guy and his girlfriend or whatever who are somehow probably responsible for it? It was $4 billion worth right now that they recovered. That’s got to be the biggest recovery of stolen cash ever.
Does it get returned to the owner?
They’re going to have to exchange also. It was 30% of all the value in that exchange was stolen. I guess there’ll be a whole process of paying it back to people based on what their balances were at the time of the theft. It’ll probably take five years to process. There is a blog that’s called Web 3 Is Going Great. Have you seen that?
She’s got a pretty good tally going. It’s Web3IsGoingGreat.com. She has $11.282 billion there at the bottom. That’s her tally of the thing she’s posted about since she started blogging, which is only a couple of years. I don’t think she even has the Mt. Gox or that other one maybe. She’s got the scams. She’s got a value for each one. That’s pretty good but counting now, it’s probably $30 billion. It puts it in perspective. It’s like, “How much Elon overpaid for Twitter?”
It’s like taking a 180. I’ve read that you champion basic income. I’d love to know how you got to that philosophy and also if you think it will ever happen.
It was like Bitcoin. I got to it thinking it up myself and then with UBI, I found out afterwards someone else thought of this hundreds of years ago. I was thinking about how Republicans have some things right but they are wrong about other stuff. The Democrats have some things right and are wrong about other stuff, in my opinion. I am like, “Why isn’t there a party that has everything right?” Most people even agree and no one has a problem with saying that governments are inefficient. That’s not a very controversial view. I feel like it’s more than 50% of people who would say that a government bureaucrat or the DMV is crappy or something like that. I feel like that’s pretty safe.
In a nutshell, I feel like that is one of the conservative points of view. Most people will agree that sometimes people need help. Let’s not let someone die or we don’t need to be total law of the jungle anymore. We have survival of the fittest. It’s cool but it’s been thousands of years and we don’t need to be like cavemen. It’s weird though because I felt like there was this disconnect between why does the government have to do this stuff? Everyone needs help so the solution that’s come out of most of the things is if somebody doesn’t have enough education, then we’ll make sure that there’s a free school. If someone doesn’t have enough healthcare, we’ll make sure there’s free healthcare.
If someone can’t afford a house, we’ll make sure there’s free housing or if someone doesn’t have enough food, we’ll make sure there’s free food. I was like, “The government doesn’t have to do it though. The government’s bad at doing stuff.” Just because you think that everyone should be able to get this, it doesn’t mean that you have to provide it. First, they could have vouchers. They have food stamps. They should be giving people everything like food stamps, school vouchers, housing vouchers, and healthcare vouchers and then let the free market do it.
I was like, “They could have a universal voucher,” because some people might not need as much food, but they might need more schooling. They could have a universal voucher that’s good for housing, school, and healthcare and then I was like, “We have one of those that are called the dollar.” I was like, “They could give people money and then they could use it on whatever they want.” I was like, “You could just give it to everyone because then people wouldn’t complain about it not being fair.” Also, who would vote against that, because everyone gets free money?
Do you vote for money? Who cares if everyone else is getting it? You’re getting $10,000 a year. Of all the things you can vote for, very few of them are going to affect you day to day, but, “I would like to get $10,000 a year the rest of my life for free, yes or no?” I thought that would pass in most elections but it turns out people are insane about it, where they’re like, “I don’t think everyone should get this.” I was like, “Don’t worry about it. You’re going to get it. Why are you so mean to everybody else?”
They’re like, “How is this going to get paid for?” It’s going to cause inflation and there’s going to be higher taxes. It’s too good to be true. I’ve learned that those are the big two things. The argument that everyone shouldn’t get it is less. That’s a smaller minority but the question of like, “How is it paid for?” is more the barrier to getting it passed in general. I’ll ramble on here. I was always like, “This will be cool and it’s the perfect thing government should do, but it’ll take 100 years before we could afford it because we’ll need so much automation, this and that and whatever.”
Thanks to COVID, I come to a new realization. I was like, “You can do it now. You just print the money. It’s fine. You don’t need to balance the budget.” They don’t balance the budget anyway. It’s more efficient use than what the government already does, and it doesn’t even cause inflation. There’s inflation now and some people are saying, “It’s because we printed all that money.” I would say inflation only comes when the people getting money and spending money is voting on what they want. It’s a vote that gets the price up.
It’s someone’s putting the money there and they’re saying, “I love Applebee’s or whatever.” It only makes prices go up when there’s more money. If the supply cannot adjust, all of a sudden people are like, “Everyone’s buying Applebee’s gift cards.” The price of Applebee’s gift cards will start to go up unless Applebee says, “We’ll ship as many gift cards as people will buy. Don’t worry about it. We’re going to keep that 30% discount or whatever. Sell them gift cards. We can print gift cards.“ Those gift cards are not going to inflate.
If it’s Bitcoin or asset things like the gold or NBA teams or something, where you can’t add more supply, if there is more demand, then the price goes up. If it’s for video games, Netflix, the price doesn’t go up because for Netflix, they can make as many streams as they need. The price goes up when there are supply chain disruptions because of COVID or wars in Ukraine and energy prices now because you can’t make more energy fast enough to meet the demand.
Printing more money might cause things like crypto to go up in value where the supply can’t go up but it doesn’t cause real important inflation. It’s more like the supply chain, energy constraints, taxes, and things like that. I think you could make the perfect government. There are no taxes even. We print the money we need and we give it to the people. Everyone gets $40,000 a year and then we print an extra 20% to run the military.
The other argument would be demotivating. For me, if I sit on my couch for more than five minutes, I’d go crazy. I’m sure you’re the same. What’s your pushback on that argument?
I have a few. First of all, all the arguments come down to what would you do. “I would go back to school. I would finally get to be a dress designer or whatever.” Other people are going to sit on their couches, do drugs, and watch Netflix or whatever. It’s funny because I’ve never met someone who’s like, “I would sit on my couch, do drugs, and watch Netflix,” but everyone thinks everyone else would do that. It was that same thing of, “I would take the $10,000. I would use it wisely, but other people would waste it.”
You’re the perfect business for this because I try and use the model of you trying to decide what other people want is inefficient. That’s the whole problem with why the government’s inefficient. A little bit of it’s not their money. Maybe not as much direct feedback on they lose their job if they don’t do well. There’s that thing but also, it’s centralized planning. They’re trying to decide where to allocate resources for millions of people without being those people.
You can see it in the gift card market. It’s the example I use. The discount on gift cards on a secondary market is a measure of how badly people misjudged other people’s desires. “I got you an Applebee’s gift card. I thought you loved Applebee’s.” Now you’re like, “I’m going to sell my Applebee’s gift card for $0.50 on the dollar.
“My aunt doesn’t know me. I don’t like Applebee’s.”
Amazon will sell it at a 3% discount because they have everything. It’s cash. There’s going to be something on there that you can use. You see that it’s a good quantitative measure of how much waste there is when people decide for other people what to do with their money. That’s a good measure of everyone is not going to quit working.
Also, like we were talking before we started, I’m fine with a ton of people not working. I don’t think the UBI is going to be $1 million a year. It’s enough to have healthcare, education, food and housing. The main things you need and be fine and not worry about not being a slave to, “I have to go to work at this crappy job because otherwise, I am homeless or I can’t pay for my medicine.”
The problem with the whole dollar or the way you vote is if you have no money, then you are forced into bad choices. Not bad choices, but you have no choice so you make these bad decisions like payday loans. The people using payday loans are not stupid. They don’t have money right now and that’s their only option. Now, if they had a safe amount of money no matter what, nobody would pay 40% weekly interest.
At the very least, it simplifies things. It’s the flat tax or whatever. The only people that make money there is the HR block. The more complicated, the trickier it gets.
People want to do stuff and if they don’t want to do stuff, why do you care? It keeps them off the street at least, or whatever. You’re worried they’ll be at home and watching Netflix. Why do you care if that’s what makes them happy? I don’t think the economy’s going to grind to a halt.” COVID happened so abruptly. I was like, “It’s like we’re doing a worldwide, US-wide UBI. No one’s working and everyone’s getting free money.”
A lot of people use that to say, “This proves UBI will never work. Look how much wages have gone up and look how it’s so hard to get workers for these crappy jobs and stuff.” I’m like, “Maybe that’s how it should be. Things will be more expensive, but everyone has free money and we’ll have to automate all the crappy jobs and everyone will be happier.”
The argument is, is it inevitable that we’re heading down that path? Automation means that every ten years that go by, there are fewer jobs and this is going to be a problem one way or the other. When do you address it?
That was Andrew Yang’s take on it. I was a max donor to him as soon as I heard about it and everything, which was too bad. I came to realize I was like, “UBI, that’s all that matters.” With politicians and politics, it’s always the person. It’s not their platform. I even asked them. I was like, “Are your people more like, ‘UBI, I’m in?’” or are they like, “Asian-American guy, a lot of cool stuff and whatever.” It’s more about me. The platform gets some people there, but no one’s going to vote for him if he’s this weirdo.
I call it the American Idol prospect. If you ever watch American Idol back in the day, the best singer never won. It’s the most likable person. I read years ago that one of the most telling stats when it comes to the presidential election is like, “Whom do you want to have a beer with?” That is a bigger indicator than, “Whom do you trust with your money?” or anything like that.
Who has a track record of good policies, the budget, and careful discussion and building consensus among them? It’s a popularity contest. I thought that was weird because I’m like, “I don’t think we’re in danger of there being no jobs. Although maybe with this new AI art and stuff, I’m starting to be like, “Maybe it’s going to be here sooner than we thought.” I think UBI fixes it. It does handle that.
I am doing another 180. Have you ever heard of the quote, “If you want to become a millionaire, start with $1 billion and buy an airline?” You’ve briefly got involved with the airline industry. Is that true or is it not true or TBD?
TBD, but I did put that quote in my pitch deck. We were buying the airline. In April 2020, the regional airline of Alaska, Ravn, went bankrupt due to COVID. Because of my involvement in a startup in LA, I had an incubator for startups based on my alumni from my college, Harvey Mudd. Long story, we ended up and I’m the main guy winning the bankruptcy auction in this airline. Tom and Rob, my CEO and President, I’m the chairman of the board, moved to Anchorage the next day and started getting it back up from LA and Maui.
They moved right up to Anchorage and have been running it for a few years. It has been a lot different from my original business which was web hosting and Software as a Service. Luckily, I bought some crypto and didn’t sell it too early. I’ve done other investments and random little projects. I made some money on other things, but this is a whole different can of worms where it is very competitive.
In the software space or in the startup space, you have your competitors, but we only hope this whole industry gets huge. If I’m Uber and you’re Lyft, let’s hope we’re both IPO. In the airline space, it is very much more of a fixed-pie mentality. It’s like war games, partnering, boxing out, and delaying, and your other airlines or your competitors. Every passenger we get is one passenger they don’t get. There is induced demand and prices get cheaper and more direct flights between routes. Between locations happen, it does grow the pie but that doesn’t feel like the default mindset of the industry. It is a 100-year-plus industry versus a few months old industry. That was in the general sense.
If you have endless money during the railroad wars, the Vanderbilt. Let’s say you would lower the prices to nothing because they had endless cash and their competition couldn’t keep up. They’d go out of business. They’d acquire and they’d raise the prices. You saw that early on with the ride-sharing. From what it costs now with Uber and Lyft to what it did years ago, it’s night and day. Keep it low. Win the market. Capture as much market as you possibly can, and once you have that, then you can start working on profitability. Does that mentality exist or it’s too mature of an industry now?
The problem is that it’s a mature industry, which is very weird. There are a lot of capital costs, physical stuff, and regulation on it. Everything is so slow. We’ll be like, “Let’s get a new airplane.” We won’t have a new airplane ready to fly for, the best case, 6 months or worst case 18 months or something like that. There’s the process of owning it, adding this and finding one, getting the deal done, getting the right pilot to train, and adding one of the same kind even. You can’t be like, “This new opportunity came out so we need to jump on it.” It’s hard to jump on things. Everything is like a big battleship. It’s an aircraft carrier in terms of getting to things like placing orders for airplanes four years out.
Is it hard for you then to maintain your enthusiasm? “I’m excited now.” You’re like, “This can get done in nine months.” You’re like, “Nine months?” Fortune has been made and lost in the last several months especially in crypto.
The good thing is that the saving grace of it all is that it’s so big. We’re like, “1757 will make $30 million a year,” or something like that. You’re like, “I can wait nine months to add $30 million a year.” That keeps you enthusiastic a little bit. The other thing that makes it hard is that I’m not that enamored with it for its own sake. I’m not a pilot or an airplane buff or anything but there are a lot of rich people who are. It is like a billionaire will buy an airline and then be like, “I lost money for five years. I give up or maybe I won’t give up. I can keep doing this forever.”
Historically, it’s almost like a government subsidy thing because of these people who want to get into it so they overpay and lose money. It distorts the market like trash collection, sewer maintenance, or something like that. The less sexy the industry, the more profitable it typically is because there’s less demand for getting into it. Nobody wants to do it except for the money. That’s another aspect that comes in and makes it a difficult industry, in general, but it can make money.
The other thing is that the airlines historically always screw up on things that go well, maybe because you can’t be nimble. They add a bunch of routes and planes and try and expand. By the time that goes live, there’s a little bit of a recession or something happening at the time. Everyone does it at once, so there’s a glut. The prices crash through. It’s very volatile with airline prices spiking up and then crashing down. As a consumer, you can see that where you’re like, “I can go to Hawaii right now for $52.” Later you’re like, “It’s $2,500 to go to Hawaii. This doesn’t make any sense.”
Also, with oil prices going up. Do you view airlines as a commodity now? It’s all about price. Airlines are pioneers and innovators when it comes to rewards and loyalty. How much does that factor in or do that only factor into the 1%? For everyone else, it’s about price.
There’s the big United, Delta, and American levels where they’ve got their elite statuses. They’ve got their huge network flying everywhere. They’ve got business travelers, business accounts, fancy lounges, and that world of the big $5 billion a year plus type airlines where rewards are big. People start to become loyal to go on United or whatever. They have a credit card. It gives them that and everyone else is just about price. What happens is two things.
Some people and some things, it’s, “Okay” or if it’s corporate travel or whatever, then they’re like, “I don’t even pay for it myself. I don’t care.” I have miles because of my card. Price would be a caveat. I think everyone has the do not fly list of, “I will never fly on Frontier,” or something like that. I had 1 experience or 2, and now they’re struck off the list. “I’ll do the cheapest one that’s not Frontier, Spirit, or American.”
Seeing that, a few months ago when there were a lot of delays and stuff, there were a lot of people of that notion that were born. “This has been the third time with X airline. I will never fly with them again.”
That does happen. You can win them back slowly. You give them a few years and change a lot of stuff. Everyone’s like, “They’ve been good. Give them one more chance.” If there’s any other choice of where they’re flying and it’s only a $10 difference, they will be like, “I’m not flying with that airline again.”
I agree but if they’re in a pinch and they need to get to Orlando this weekend and they’re 30% cheaper.
They’ll do that but it is funny how loyalty did come out of airline stuff. You could do a loyalty program in any business, but it’s something about travel and airline stuff. It’s expensive and it’s some mystical thing. It’s everyone’s dream of like, “When I retire, when I have my summer break, or when I’m rich, all I’m going to do is travel.” It’s not like, “All I’m going to do is eat at Applebee’s. I can’t wait to become an elite Applebee’s member and get all that free Applebee’s the rest of my life.” There is not as much loyalty because you don’t care that much about the experience of most products and services. You’re not like, “I’m a Best Buy guy. I am so loyal to Best Buy.”
Those are things. With Applebee’s, you are buying food. With Best Buy, you’re buying electronics. For me, with what money I have, I always believe in spending on experiences and not things. Those airlines, that’s where it’s getting to you. It’s getting to memory from experiences and things that enrich you. That’s why it probably has that emotional grab on us.
Hotels fit in that. People are pretty loyal. They get their points and they’re like, “We can stay at this fancy hotel and we can fly first class. We get an upgrade.” It’s like, “It’s just money. You can convert it.” If you do it in your head, it’s points and money, but there is something. The whole math is interesting too, because of the fact that this stuff is used or lost for the business.
They’re these super luxurious things, but they might not have sold all their first-class seats on this direct flight from LA to New York or LA to Paris tonight. A last-minute first-class international flight will be a pretty good deal with points with miles because if you’re going to pay cash, it’s $12,000. They’ll be like, “It doesn’t cost us that and we’re about to lose it so here you go. Here’s your great bonus perk for being loyal.”
Especially a hotel room, if they don’t use the room, that’s nothing. With a flight, you’re burning fuel. You have to sell those seats. On the entrepreneurial front, I’ve asked this a couple of times. If you were to go back in time and talk to your 22-year-old self, but your 22-year-old self doesn’t know it’s you from the future. You’re like, “What is this old man telling me?” You have to give them advice that will have an impact on their life knowing what you know, but also know if they will follow the advice. A lot of times, when you’re young, you don’t realize how important that advice is. With those caveats, what advice would you give them? If you give them one piece.
You could do something tricky and it’d be like, “Sell Bitcoin at $65,000.” I’d be like, “Bitcoin? What’s he talking about?” When Bitcoin came out, he’ll be like, “That weird guy said this Bitcoin thing. I should buy some and sell it for $65,000,” or something like that. “Bitcoin will hit $65,000 and that’s when you should sell it. He’d be like, “Thanks, weird guy.” Let’s see if I remember that, but maybe I would tell them, “Go work at Google first instead of doing your own company because you would’ve been 1 of the first 3 employees.”
Knock on the garage door and say, “Don’t pay me. I only want equity.”
I’ve done pretty well so I don’t have too many little specific things. I have 3 or 4 bad events that I wished never happened and warn about that. An epiphany I had is when I heard about the Kelly criterion. You might know about this if you were an investment banker before.
What is the Kelly criterion?
It’s how much to bet or invest in something where you know essentially what the chances are of success and you know how much you would make if it worked out. It’s good for a sports bet or something like that but you don’t know the odds but you feel like you do. It’s just the right number too. It’s a percent of your bankroll that you should place on this bet that would maximize your final future value and also prevent ruin. You’ll never go bankrupt following the Kelly criterion because you’ll always only do a percent of your bankroll. You never bet on everything.
What is that percentage?
It’s a pretty simple formula. It’s the chance it works out minus the chance it fails. The chance it fails is divided by if it’s going to be more than double.
First, it’s the reward. If it’s a high reward, you get it.
If there’s a 60% chance of doubling your money, you should put 20% of your money into it because a 60% chance of doubling your money minus a 40% chance of losing all your money equals a 20% chance. If it’s a 60% chance of tripling your money, 40% of your money goes into it because it’s 60% minus 40% divided by two because you’re tripling your money. It hurts the risk.
You’ve been able to backdate it and say, “If I took this and applied it.”
I would’ve put even more into Bitcoin based on my mental model. To hedge little, you could do half Kelly, which gives you 75% of the upside and half of the downside. It’s a better risk-reward ratio. You will get a little bit less reward, but you have less volatility on the way. Half Kelly is a more common way to go. It’s also interesting in startup investing in general. In that case where the thing is like Bitcoin, I think there’ll be 1,000 times.
That destroys the risk side, and all you do is look at the reward. There’s this very outsized reward that could fail. You have to think about what’s the percent chance it’ll succeed and that’s how much of your bankroll you should put in. If you think there’s a 10% chance of this thing making 1 million times your money, you should put 10% of your money in. If you think there’s a 20% chance of it making 1 million times your money, you should put 20% of your money in.
Those are the lottery tickets. I’m spending $1 to make $10 million. The reward is amazing, but I am completely fine if I wake up in the morning and the numbers don’t hit. I lost my dollar.
Another epiphany of mine is doing those sorts of asymmetric bets. First of all, they’re usually the things with the highest expected return. Lottery tickets don’t usually, although the Powerball right now is a positive expected return at $1.5 billion or whatever. Typically, asymmetric bets have the highest expected return because there’s a very low chance of it happening. Most people don’t want to do it, but when it does happen, it’s so big. That’s the one good thing about that but then what you’ve got to do is allocate the right amount to it because even if it’s a great bet, there’s still a 95% chance you’re going to lose everything.
You don’t want to put half your money into it, even though it’s a great bet theory. The Kelly criterion fixes that for you and tells you to put 5% of your money in. The other nice thing about doing asymmetric bets is you don’t have to worry about downside protection, which is all like insurance, lawyers, trust, following up, and like, “How do I negotiate this so that the banks don’t or whatever?” because you’re all worried about downside prediction. You don’t have to think about buying the protect your iPhone plan or whatever because you’ve already written it off.
It de-stresses a little bit.
It’s better to do 101% crazy moonshot and 1% of your money into 100 different crazy moon shots. You’ll make more money. You’ll be more interesting. People will be like, “I can’t believe you bought an airline or you bought Bitcoin.” You suddenly become exponentially smarter. You don’t talk about the other 98%. You were an idiot. There’s nothing you have to stress about because you’re like, “I can’t control this anyway.” You’re putting half your money into something that you’re like, “I think there’s a 30% chance this is going to make 40%.” You’re like, “If it goes down 20%, it’s right on the cusp. I got to watch this like a hawk.”
The last question’s a fun one. You can either own an NBA team or a major newspaper like The New York Times or Wall Street Journal or something.
NBA team, 1,000 times. I like basketball. During COVID, I had an opportunity to buy a percentage of the Miami Heat. They were selling 15%. Apparently, the guy who owns it owns Carnival Cruise Lines and he was in a tight spot. They have the Forbes valuation. Forbes puts out their list which is what it usually will sell for. In this case, it was a minority stake. I learned all this from this potential transaction. We ended up not winning the bid. We sold it to some friend or something.
You were interested.
I said, “Yeah.” Minimum ownership is 1% but it was one of those things where I was like, “Airline is another thing. An NBA team where it’s these billionaires who buy them and they’re not good businesses. They’re doing it for the collectability and the fun so you can’t compete too well unless you are a bajillionaire.
What does that get you like? If you’re a 1% owner now, on a random Tuesday, you come and show up to a game. What are you entitled to?
I asked that. I was like, “Would I even be counted as an owner at 1%?” and he was, “You’d get the owner suite. You’re the owner of the perks.” You get to go free and go to the owner’s suite and you’re one of the owners. Especially, in that case, he owned it all and his son had a 5%. In this new group, whoever came in with the 15% would probably add 6 or 7 people to that. Now, instead of the guy and his son, there are also these six other people that are owners of the Heat. They’re tiny owners, but they are owners of the Heat. It was crazy because it was at a billion valuation.
Miami’s not a terrible town and the Heat are not a bad basketball team. It was like, “You could buy 1% for $10 million.” I was like, “Okay, I’m in.” This is the one where instead of an airline, this is something I would do as a stupid thing even if it weren’t going to make money, but I was looking at it. They think of them as real estate. They go up 5% a year. Heat is one of the ones that make a little bit of money and would distribute about $34 million a year. You’re getting 3% and it was at half. What I figured is like, “He’s the guy who started the Heat and he’s getting older. He is selling 15% now.”
I’m like, “If he sells in the next few years, you’re not going to get the 5%. It’s worth $2 billion. You got it for one, and it will go up 5% a year. If sometime in the next few years he sells the whole thing, that’ll be at the $3 billion price. You get that capital appreciation plus a 3% annual dividend plus you’re an owner of the Heat. An NBA owner who can go to the games.
That’s a win-win.
I was like, “I’m in.” I had to think about it for a day. I was like, “This is an idiotic thing,” but I was like, “This is great.” We didn’t win so we didn’t get it. The one thing I did learn from it is that I hadn’t realized when I thought we might be getting it, all of a sudden, I was watching the Heat. It’s like you have a $10 million sports bet that rolls over every day. It’s like Bitcoin again.
I finally get it. I’m like, “Why do these rich people buy a sports team? It’s such a stupid whatever,” but I got a taste of that for 1 day or 2 and I was like, “I see now.” You’re like, “If the Heat won the NBA finals, I’d make $30 million,” or something like that. It’s like you’ve put this huge sports bet on forever. I could see why it’s a hobby of billionaires.
Do you know how close you were to winning? Did you just miss it?
I don’t know. There was a broker guy who’d reached out to my account and said, “You might be interested.” I was like, “Yeah,” and then he was like, “Okay, we got it,” and then later he was like, “They chose this other group.” We were paying the same price. It was a group that had like ex-Heat players in it. We were just randos.
Josh, this has been a ton of fun. I’ve talked to a lot of people and usually, they’re very industry-specific. You have brought crypto to airlines to professional sports. It is an interesting life and you’re still young. I can’t wait to see what the next twenty years are like. I appreciate you taking the time to chat.
Josh Jones is a successful tech entrepreneur, having built dozens of companies, from software start-ups to international airlines. He is best known for innovation, creativity and commitment to successful business and community outcomes.
In 1996, Josh founded DreamHost – a Los Angeles-based web hosting company that has grown to employ over 250 people. He also founded HMC INQ, a venture fund that supports, cultivates, and finances start-ups created by Harvey Mudd College alums. Most recently he assembled top executives in the airline sector to successfully relaunch Ravn Alaska (and coming soon, Northern Pacific Airways), the largest regional air carrier in Alaska. The bulk of Josh’s fortune is attributable to his investment in Bitcoin back in 2010. He invests into startup businesses and partnerships out of his family office, Kill Capital.
Josh’s entrepreneurial vision and strategic partnerships have positioned Gondola Ventures to be a leading force in advancing urban aerial and point of interest (POI) gondola systems in North America. This vision has led to securing financial interest and agreements for both aerial transit and POI systems planned to be built and operational over the next several years – including iconic large-scale projects in Los Angeles and Ontario as well as the Mighty Argo system in Colorado.
The healthcare industry typically falls short of providing a quality patient-centric experience. Unfortunately, this pushes many people to consult Dr. Google instead of actually seeing a physician. David Metz discusses possible solutions to this alarming situation with Dr. Brianna Rhue, Co-Founder of Dr. Contact Lens, TechifEYE And Myopia Patrol. She talks about equipping medical providers with the necessary technological skills to make healthcare services more accessible to the public. She also explains how to take care of healthcare professionals properly so they can spend enough time with patients without putting their financial well-being at stake.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Brianna Rhue: Co-Founder Of Dr. Contact Lens, TechifEYE And Myopia Patrol
In this episode, we have Optometrist and CEO, Brianna Rhue. Welcome, Brianna.
Thanks for having me.
Thanks for coming. The format is pretty simple. I’m going to ask you six questions so those that are at home can get a better sense of you and the journey that you’ve been on. Does that sound good?
I’m looking forward to it.
You are both an entrepreneur and an optometrist. What do you think came first, your love for entrepreneurialism or optometry?
It’s the love for entrepreneurialism. My father was a small business owner. I always loved the business side of everything, but I also wanted for a long time since second grade to be a doctor. I also didn’t want to do surgery or be in a hospital setting and wanted to be my own boss, so optometry has merged the two. Launching a company outside of a need that I saw in my own practice has now escalated my entrepreneurial journey. That’s what merged the two together.
What was your dad’s business?
He was a furniture salesman. He had a shop where he built it and then he had a store where he sold it. I’m handy on one end and can sell on the other end. I’ve learned a lot by osmosis from him, not understanding what he was teaching me. I have always known that I was a salesman, even as a doctor. We’re all salesmen. It’s a bad word in a lot of circles, especially in mine. It’s interesting because we get to be a doctor on one side where the patient is a patient, and then we have a consumer side to our business. Now we get to focus on both of those. It’s interesting in my circle how people look at it.
Did you work for your dad’s store?
Of course, I did. I’m seeing him work with his hands a lot. The leadership skills where he couldn’t let go or hold people accountable and had to be in the weeds of his business. I’ve been able to take that and work on my business instead of in my business. That’s an interesting skill.
Which part did your dad like best and which part did you like best? Did he like the building of the furniture or the selling of the furniture?
He liked the winning and dealing.
It’s because you get that high when you close a deal and sell a piece of furniture. It’s like, “This is amazing.”
One funny story about him is every Saturday he was there at the store and learned a lot about money as a tool, not as something that you hoard or hold onto. It’s there to utilize it. Even in my own business here, because I deal a lot with children and parents, and high-level services of care where I have to sell the service. He taught me the one-leger or two-leger story.
On Saturdays, if one person would come in, “Do you have to go?” He’s like, “No, it’s just a one-leger,” meaning that they’re going to be able to get out of the sale. If he has a couple walked in, he is like, “I got to go. I got a two-leger,” because he knew that he can close it that much easier. I’ve been able to implement that strategy within my own practice. It’s one of the best things I’ve learned from him as far as sales skills. Even when my husband and I walk into like a furniture store, it’s so funny, I was like, “Here we are, this two-leger couple.” His perspective is fun.
In terms of when patients come in, how often do they have already been on Google? They think they know what they’re saying. They’ve done their research and are like, “I need this. I think it’s that.” It’s like, “Why are you here?” My wife is a doctor. She’s a dermatologist. She always says, “They see Dr. Google before they see me.” They’re like, “I think it’s this.” She’s like, “Then why are you here? I went to school for many years.” Do you get the same thing?
Yeah. It is just becoming patient-centric and getting back to communication and listening. They think that they’re the only ones with the problem. They think we’re concerned with what we have now. It has especially been ingrained in our DNA now to present that. Patients find us with their vision plan or their insurance covers that, and then they find us through Google having good reviews, and then they come in.
I understand where the patient is coming from. It does get frustrating as a doctor when people come in here, “This is the best eye exam I’ve ever had. Can I have a copy of my prescription to go elsewhere?” You’re like, “That was fun.” There’s a life cycle here. As the doctor, you take care of your staff, which has been more difficult than ever. The staff takes excellent care of your patients. In turn, the patient takes care of you. If we keep cutting this doctor-patient relationship out, everybody on that path loses. We have to make the patients understand that little cycle and where they live.
Do you think reviews are good, bad or indifferent? People can use it as a weapon. It could be good for the business. There are certainly unfair reviews. I’m sure you’ve seen the full spectrum. Where do you fall out on it?
I wish it was like Uber where you could rate the patient, but it’s not. You have the HIPAA police and all of this other stuff. I implemented reviews around 2009, so it’s very early. Why I did it was to honestly hold my staff accountable. They didn’t know who was walking in and out. You don’t know if that person got cut off on their way here or what they’re dealing with on a personal level. It’s not a personal attack I would say on reviews. It’s a way for you to see the holes in your business and improve, and be like a duck. Let it roll off. Everybody has their say in everything. I always laugh at the South Park episode of the Yelper review. It’s just that. It’s good, bad and indifferent.
That’s a great attitude. How much did graduating and starting your business during the recession impact you?
I graduated from high school in 2000. There was that whole Y2K, everything is going to collapse, and then in 2009, it’s also the same thing. Honestly, I didn’t know what a recession looked like because I was able to find a good job and build it up. Again, you can only control what you can control. The news and all the chatter and all of this, if you get back to love, communication, taking care of people and each other, then that’s the other dialogue.
You have to be careful with what you put in your brain and head, and what you focus on. I’m a true believer in, “I can’t control what’s happening in the world, but I can control what’s happening in my people, my brain, my circle, and move that forward.” I’m a positive junkie at one point and that’s the only place that you can live.
I agree, especially in your field, you are solving a problem. It’s not a luxury. As long as you provide a good product and service, the rest will take care of itself. It feels like healthcare professionals have less and less time to spend with patients, and they need to see more and more to make up the difference and be squeezed. Do you see a future where healthcare workers can spend enough time with patients and still not suffer financially or this is where the future is going? It’s becoming like mills, get them in quickly and get them out because the margins are getting tighter and tighter. Do you feel that? Do you see that? What do you see are potential solutions to that?
It’s coming down to a couple of things here. One is we are being squeezed. I haven’t gotten a raise from a vision plan in over twenty years. When a patient sits in my chair again and says, “This is the best eye exam I’ve ever had. Can I have my prescription to go online and order or go to one of these other websites?” Essentially, the patients are hurting themselves. I don’t like to live on the defense, “Please order from me. I’m a small business. I have mouths to feed.” I hate that model. That’s where Dr. Contact Lens was born.
What we have to do is we have to implement technology to get our staff to do better things. We have to train them better so I can spend the time face-to-face and not typing into a computer. The EMRs or electronic medical records have to get smarter. They have to start talking to each other because of all the paperwork that we have to do.
The doctor is a pawn in all of this. If we can’t get this doctor-patient relationship back front and center, and everybody wants to cut it out, “Get your eye exam online.” There’s more to vision than just refraction. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve diagnosed tumors, diabetes, hypertension or something serious going on with the visual system. Your vision makes up 60% of your brain. If you give that away to someone that doesn’t care and gets it cheaper, it doesn’t help you.
Also, we are seeing this big push into specialization, which also isn’t good either because now it’s all about the masses and taking care of that. I totally understand. I’m a small business owner first that happens to be a doctor. I’m not a doctor that happens to be a small business owner. There have to be some more teachings on all of this. I’m married to a neuro-ophthalmologist and seeing how much they have to pump through is not fun. It’s exhausting and wearing. We’re not truly taking care of the physician. You got to flip it a little bit on who is being taken care of in order to take care of other people. We have to do a better job there.
I live in New York and there are a ton of private practices that don’t take insurance. Do you see that trend continuing?
It seems like it’s more and more if you live in an area that can do that.
It’s brainwashing. You pay this exponential amount for insurance and are brainwashed to think, “I’m going to only go to what my insurance was,” but yet you’re going to spend $1,000 on a phone, you’re not going to spend $100 on an eye exam. It’s all about priorities and what you think is important. One thing too, dentists have done a good job like every six months. Your teeth are freaking replaceable. Your vision is not. You get two eyes, maybe one. Everyone comes in with the same frame that’s fit poorly. That’s your face. That’s what you put forward to everyone looking at you. Make sure your glasses are clean and fit properly. That’s what you put on first thing in the morning. That’s how you should feel.
I go twice a year, but I have a dirty little secret. I am so bad. I have daily disposables, but sometimes I wear them for a couple of months without taking them out.
Do you change your underwear daily, David?
Trust me, everyone said, “Are you crazy?” I’m maybe just lazy. I don’t know, but I’m terrible.
They’re like dirty underwear.
That’s probably the most powerful thing that someone said because now I’m like, “I want to take these out.” If you weren’t in medicine, what would you be doing other than furniture sales?
I would be somewhere in the healthcare environment. That’s where I’ve been able now to develop a tech company within the eyecare space. It has been fun. I would have been still maybe in a larger corporation climbing that corporate ladder of some nature somewhere. Maybe pharmaceutical sales or something in the healthcare space.
I love the tech journey. It has been fun. Women-owned tech, seeing a problem, building it, and having to sell it to my colleagues has been interesting as well. Now, I’ve flipped the script on what I do on a daily basis.
From a tech perspective, it can be overwhelming and complicated because it’s evolving all the time. I always think it’s funny they teach Computer Science in college for four years, but after four years it has evolved into something else. It’s moving so quickly. The disruption happens on a yearly basis. Many years ago, it would happen every thousand years. It is so quick now. You are being exposed to that world. Has it been eye-opening?
To say the least, yes. It has been fun. My saying here is the disruptors, being optometrists in my scenario, can become the disruptees that were just lazy. When it comes to change and comfort, they can’t coexist. The only constant in the universe is change. You got to keep up. That’s what we’re on this path to do. As soon as you get comfortable, you and I both know that it’s a very dangerous place to live.
You have to keep learning, growing, doing demos, and trying stuff. I’ve been burned probably like yourself on early adoption, but I’ve also gotten way more wins than I have losses. It’s important that you keep innovating for yourself. As soon as you graduate from optometry school, that’s where your learning starts. It’s not where it stops. It’s the same thing for Computer Science. You have to keep adding. Starting this company in 2016 and being ripe when the pandemic hit to take off was invigorating. It gives you a chance to consciously work on your business. You got to take time to do that.
You’re selling to colleagues, but you’re solving problems that you’re facing yourself. How many times during a week that you’re like, “This needs to be solved?” You’re like, “Let’s do one thing at a time really well,” because you have that entrepreneurial spirit. Is it hard to keep that tame being like, “Let’s focus on that. We’ll solve that one later.”
I do wear both hats. There’s that visionary hat that you have to have on where you can spend things into what you already have. That’s what we’ve been able to do with Dr. Contact Lens. What’s interesting is when I’m selling to my colleagues, seeing all the leaky buckets that each of these practices has, we’re all stuck making a pretty decent wage where it could be double if you invested five minutes a day. It’s hard now selling to my colleagues because at some points I feel like I care more about their businesses than they do, just like we talked about reviews. They’ll post on these forms and they’re like, “I got this bad review.” You have 40 other good ones that you got in the last two weeks.
Don’t live in the negative, respond to it, and move forward. Use it as a growth lesson. It goes back to being patient-centric. It’s our healthcare. As a patient, you own it. It’s your life. We’re getting smarter at wanting to own that information and being able for everything to communicate. That’s where the healthcare system has let people down. It’s because they want to keep them sick. They want to keep them coming back. We have to empower the patient. That starts with the patient empowering the doctor too, so they can keep investing.
Can you reply to reviews? You can say, “I’m sorry you had a bad visit,” and is that good practice to always reply?
Yes. It’s also good practice to respond to the good too.
Good or bad, what’s the strangest interaction you’ve had with the patient?
Besides being sued?
I mean patients fall asleep, etc.
I’m in the dark all day. People get a little weird in the dark. It’s interesting, the comments that you get. One person is like, “You don’t have to dilate me. All I have to do is look at you, doctor.” “We’re going to use the stronger drops this time.” People get a little weird sometimes. You have to have the comebacks and be ready for it. They’re in an uncomfortable and vulnerable spot. When you’re in that spot like when people get on airplanes, they get a little strange. You have to be confident in what you’re doing and providing. We’re all here to be on this journey together, weird or not.
The last question is completely outside of the main topic. If you could get a buy one, get one free of anything, what would you get?
A trip around the world.
Do you like to travel?
Where’s the best place you’ve ever been?
It’s been Hawaii, Portugal, and all of it. I love the beach and mountains or the combination of everything. I would love to go to Thailand.
If you can have a beach house or a mountain house with skiing and hiking, what would you pick?
We’re going to combine both of them. That’s what Hawaii is for.
Fair enough, but no skiing in Hawaii.
No, that’s why I would need two houses.
Yes, that’s the goal. Brianna, I appreciate you taking the time to chat. Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Brianna Rhue earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Arizona before earning her Doctorate of Optometry at Nova Southeastern University. She completed her residency at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami and is a partner at West Broward Eyecare in South Florida.
Dr. Rhue is passionate about health care technology, myopia management, specialty contact lens fits and practice management. She enjoys sharing her love for technology and myopia management through speaking engagements to help optometrists understand business, technology and new areas of care to help all parties involved.
Dr. Rhue is the immediate past president of the Broward County Optometric Association. She is the co-founder of Dr. Contact Lens, TechifEYE and Myopia Patrol. Outside the office, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons, playing tennis, standing on her head in yoga and traveling.
Just when apps like Uber/Lyft started taking off and no one really had any idea what it was, one man saw an opportunity and made the most out of it. Harry Campbell is the owner/founder of The Rideshare Guy. In his chat with David Metz, Harry shares how he went from aerospace engineer to starting a blog to help rideshare drivers navigate their new gigs. He started sharing his experience as a driver himself and found out what great help this information was to other workers in the space. And as the industry grew, so did his platform. Listen to learn more about Harry’s experiences and get his insights on what opportunities are opening up in the space next.
Thanks for having me, David. It’s fun to have the tables turned on me for once.
Full disclosure, I was on Harry’s podcast. Now, he’s on mine. We’re excited to turn the tables. Harry, it’s pretty simple. There are five questions I’m going to ask you so that the audience hopefully can get a better idea of who you are, learn about your experiences, and get to know you better.
I’m ready. Let’s do it.
Question number one, you went from aerospace engineer to Uber and Lyft driver to professional podcast blogger. Can you tell the audience a little bit about that journey? It’s a fascinating one.
It’s a bit of a circuitous path but my formal training or my last career was the opposite of what I do now. I was an aerospace engineer for Boeing. I got my degree in Aerospace Engineering from UC San Diego here in California. I started working in the aerospace industry as a structural analyst, making sure the planes stayed in the air and didn’t break. That was my job.
I always had a bit of an entrepreneurial side. I liked this concept of working online. If you type in, “Make money online,” you could imagine the types of results you’re going to get. It’s a little bit scary there but at the same time, I started a few personal finance blogs. I was meeting people who were legitimately making money online and it opened my eyes.
I was like, “With a lot of things in life, there’s a good side and a bad side.” I was meeting a lot of people on the good side, so I was looking for the right opportunity. In 2014, I was still working as an engineer. I started driving for Uber and Lyft on the side to try and check it out. My wife was in med school at the time, so I had a bit of free time on my hands. We were in Newport Beach, California in Orange County.
How long have Uber and Lyft existed at this point?
They have been around for a few years but they were just starting to launch in the rest of Tier 1 and Tier 2 markets. Orange County is outside of LA, for example. They have been live in LA and they started rolling out UberX. It was still early. More of the hip people knew about Uber at that time. If you were cool, you knew about Uber. If you were like me, you probably didn’t or a friend was telling you. Your grandma, your mom, and your dad haven’t heard about it yet. That was the timing.
I realized, “It’s not rocket science being an Uber and Lyft driver but it is a little tougher than it seems.” You’re out there and you don’t have a coworker that you can turn to. There’s no training. The companies were in such a high-growth mode. There were literally no resources for drivers and they weren’t honestly giving much customer support to drivers. That’s still one of the complaints. Customer support is very challenging in general. You could imagine if you don’t prioritize it.
There were all of these opportunities for me to go out there and start blogging about what it was like to be a driver. That’s what I did. I started my podcast first because I thought to myself, “If people are in the car all the time, they’re going to want to listen to a podcast.” It turned out that was wrong. The podcast is still popular but it’s our least popular medium.
The YouTube channel is by far our most popular. The blog is probably second and then the podcast is third. I started creating a ton of content now as I used to be an engineer. There were a lot of detailed spreadsheets and analyses. I was like, “Here’s how I could make more, Uber versus Lyft. Here are my optimization rates, routes, and all this type of stuff.”
I had a little bit of experience blogging and got lucky with the timing. Fast-forward eight years later, hopefully, I like to think that we’re one of the biggest players when it comes to content in the gig workspace because we have expanded beyond Rideshare. For the past few years, it has been all last-mile delivery. That has been some of our most popular content and where we make most of our revenue.
When you had those spreadsheets, what were the trends that emerged? You’re like, “I found this loophole if I drive from 9:00 AM to 11:00 AM. Lyft versus Uber.” What were some of the things that popped out?
The loophole is in the transportation or logistics business largely. People only make money when there’s someone or something in the car and your wheels are moving. If you understand that concept, that’s the utilization piece where you want to be as high as possible. You’re never going to make much if you’re sitting there and waiting for a passenger to come outside. It was all about, “How do we increase the time where I’m waiting for my next ride?”
One way of doing that is you drive for both Uber and Lyft or you drive during times that are busy. How do I get passengers downstairs faster? Uber sends passengers a notification one minute out. If I’m going up to an apartment building and I know those typically take longer, I would text them 2 to 3 minutes ahead of time and say, “I’m almost there. Come on down.” It’s small things like that. From experience, if you understand when and how you get paid, you try to optimize a lot of that. That’s what a lot of the spreadsheets and what I was most interested in at the start.
Would you rather have five rides in an hour or have one ride that lasts an hour? In that case, what would be more profitable?
Generally, one ride that lasts an hour will make you more money because there’s so much in between and downtime. Even in that example, if you go to pick up one passenger, you have to wait for the request. Maybe it takes 1, 2, or 5 minutes. You have to then drive to the passenger and this is all unpaid time. You have to wait for the passenger to come outside, unpaid time, then they’re in the car, and you get to drive them to their destination.
The big caveat though is that a lot of times now, Uber and Lyft incentivize drivers with what are called Trip-Based Bonuses. In a city like Los Angeles or Chicago, about 30% of your pay is trip-based bonuses. If you do 100 trips, you will get a $200 or a $300 bonus. That’s one reason why. If you’re on a trip-based bonus, you want to do as many short rides as possible so that you can get your bonus quicker.
How often was the algorithm wrong? If I call an Uber or a Lyft and I want to go from A to B, they priced me $15 but they miscalculated the traffic, there was a road closed, or what was supposed to be a 5-minute ride turned into a 15-minute ride. It wasn’t as efficient and profitable. Does that happen often? Do you see the algorithms getting better?
A majority of the time, the algorithms, the behind-the-scenes pricing, and things like that are pretty spot on but if you think about the fact that Uber is doing millions of trips a day, even 0.01% of millions of trips a day, there are going to be a lot of issues and things that can potentially go wrong. That’s one thing that we work with a lot of drivers. It’s understanding how pricing normally works. Do a quick spot check because most likely, it will be fine but there are times and situations.
This was some of the type of content we were doing, especially before Uber dialed in a lot of these things. Early on, we discovered that when Uber started quoting passengers an upfront fair. For example, they would say, “Your fair is going to be $15.” As a driver, you could take a longer route. Google Maps might suggest three routes if it’s the same amount of time.
If they’re all about the same amount of time, you could take the longer route and make more money in that situation. Uber would make slightly less. The passenger would pay the same no matter what but as long as it was 1 of the 3 suggested Google Maps routes, if you knew what you were doing, you would want to take the longest route.
That makes a lot of sense. Since the Rideshare industry has had explosive growth over the years, where do you see the next opportunity for evolution in the space? What are you seeing?
What we have seen over the past couple of years is that last-mile delivery has exploded. When I think of Rideshare, I think of transporting people. That’s becoming a pretty mature industry. There’s always room for innovation but if you’ve taken a taxi in the past and taken an Uber anytime, you’ve seen that Uber disrupted taxis. In the last-mile delivery space, I don’t know if there’s a similar opportunity but a lot of the trends that we’re seeing are that people want more things faster.
There are all these different verticals. There was a lot of talk during the pandemic about food and grocery delivery but we’re seeing anything and everything delivered. There’s marijuana delivery in California and alcohol delivery. Construction materials want to be delivered. A lot of these opportunities are similar but it revolves around getting more stuff faster and more efficiently to people.
Is there an opportunity for a driver? I don’t know if it existed when you drove. If you’re an Uber or Lyft driver, can you drop somebody off, do Uber Eats, and pick up food because you’re in the neighborhood? Is that way too much to juggle as a driver?
This is something that Uber has been touting a lot. It’s the benefits of the fact that they’ve got Uber for rides, Uber Eats, and all these synergies. Personally, that sounds a lot better on paper, a PDF, or a PowerPoint than it does in real life. We hosted a conference here in LA in March 2022 called Curbivore. We had an actual exec from Uber. I was monitoring the panel and we had an actual courier on stage who used to do rides. During the pandemic, she switched to Eats. She had a funny comment that was like, “I don’t want stinky food in the back of my car and then I have to pick up a passenger.”
A lot of drivers resonate with something simple like that because passengers will rate you lower if this car smells terrible. There are opportunities to leverage both rides and Eats. For example, we tell drivers, “At the end of the day if you happen to be in an area near your home and you don’t want to get along a 10, 20, or 30-mile ride, switch to Eats because you’re not going to go more than 3 to 4 miles because people aren’t ordering food from very far away.”
It’s funny because being New York, it still has a strong yellow cab culture. Probably 50/50 Rideshare and yellow cab. I like to support it. There’s still something romantic about walking out in the street but I would have thought that the yellow cab industry would have taken more pride because the quality, compared to Uber and Lyft in terms of taking care of your car, is night and day.
New York City is the biggest transportation market in the world. There are 115,000 Uber and Lyft vehicles in the city and about 13,000 to 14,000 taxis. There was a lot of pent-up demand there that wasn’t being served before Uber and Lyft. To be fair to taxis, they have been doing this for a while, maybe 100 years. There are some things that they figured out. The street hail is a good example. It has been a while since I’ve been there but I’m going.
If you walk out of a building and you try to call an Uber and Lyft, and they’re on the wrong street or going the wrong way, that might be a 5, 10, or 15-minute detour versus a taxi that might be right there. There are still some inherent advantages to the street hail model. That’s the big missed opportunity for taxis. As I remember early on, they were trying to get regulators to make Uber and Lyft become more like them. They should have taken the best of what they did and become more like Uber and Lyft. If you could street hail and book in an app, now you’ve got the best of both worlds.
I use Curb and they allow you. If I’m going to wait for the car, I use Uber or Lyft. If I’m going to walk out in the middle of the street, I’m going with a yellow cab. For me, it’s two very different mindsets. Dealing with people, being a driver and in that moment of service to another, what’s the one thing you learned about people that you didn’t know before you became a driver?
One thing is that people can be very open and honest in the backseat of a car. There’s something intimate about getting into someone else’s car in a good way where certain people will open up. It’s like, “This driver is nice to me. I had a bad night. I need a therapist, a friend, or whatever it might be.” One of the things I’ve always liked about working in customer service or jobs like that is that you see things from a different perspective. You see how someone treats the waitstaff. It’s more of a true show of their character than how they treat a colleague at work.
That’s one of the reasons why I’ve always liked working and being on the receiving end of sometimes unpleasant encounters. It tries to keep me balanced. The thing that I was surprised by was that people will get into the car with a stranger. There’s something about Uber and Lyft where you see their picture and their rating as a driver, and it’s like, “I’m going to open up to this person. They needed a friend.” I’ve had some good, fun, and interesting conversations in an Uber that I haven’t got in other areas of my life.
Years ago, there was a show. It was on HBO. It’s called Taxicab Confessions.
They might have originated the model for sure. There are a lot of things that taxis did right that they figured out.
On that note, what’s the wildest thing that happened when you were a driver?
I’ve had some pretty wild things happen. I used to focus on the party hours, Friday and Saturday nights, holidays, and things like that because that’s when you can make the most amount of money. Depending on how PG or R-rated you want to keep this show, I’ve got stories for you. The wildest thing is honestly a lot of people trying to pack into the car and drinking or making out. I’ve had a couple in my car that probably should have waited to get home to do what they were trying to do and things like that.
It’s usually of the semi-sexual or semi-intoxicated like being pretty crazy and wild and sticking their head out. I had one guy. I remember that they did a little fire drill where they all ran out of the car. They thought it would be funny and it was that type of joke. When we were stopped at a light, they all got out, ran into a different seat, and didn’t tell me, “What’s going on here?” It’s drunk shenanigans like that, which might be expected if you’re driving on Friday and Saturday nights in Newport Beach, California.
Did you ever have to kick somebody out and say, “You’re out?”
I never had a truly bad experience. I had some experiences where I felt uncomfortable or where I didn’t like. Imagine me. I’m 6’3. I’m 200 pounds. I feel pretty safe in most situations. You can imagine other drivers that are smaller or female drivers. They have to put up with a lot of crap. I have never personally had a truly bad experience but I also would say that one of the reasons why I started my blog is that a lot of situations can be prevented.
We wrote an article called Being the Captain of Your Own Ship. You have to understand when you’re in customer service, you’re serving a customer but at the same time, you can’t let them be the boss of you. You’re still the boss of them, especially in an intimate environment like a car. It’s identifying, “Is this person someone who I even want to let into my car?”
If they’re intoxicated and puking on the side of the road, you probably don’t want to let them into your car. It’s identifying things like that, especially early on, it was a lot tougher to find passengers. Give them clear and concise directions but if they can’t figure it out, that’s a bad sign. When they get into the car and if they start messing with things, you’d say, “I would appreciate this,” or if you want them to put their seatbelt on.
It’s not about being confrontational like, “You have to put your seatbelt on.” It’s more about making a joke, “I’m a crazy driver. You probably want to put your seatbelt on so you don’t get thrown all over the place.” It’s lightening the mood. That’s what you learn if you’re doing a good job at customer service. I’m sure there are some fancy books and training materials around Ritz-Carlton levels of service but for a lot of drivers like me, we figured it out on our own.
It’s tougher now. Drivers have to deal with, “Can you please wear your mask?”
Masking is a perfect example. That’s challenging for drivers because there’s such variation from region to region. I’m here in LA and I probably haven’t worn a mask in 3 or 4 months, then I went to Mexico City and everyone is wearing masks. I’m forgetting a mask. If you fly a Mexican Airline to Mexico, you have to wear a mask but if you fly an American Airline, you don’t. It’s tough for some of these employees. It’s why it’s nice. If you’re doing these services yourself, you then have some empathy. It’s like, “Uber might send me a message if customers are complaining that I’m not wearing a mask, and then other passengers don’t want to wear one.” It’s tough to balance all that.
On a good note, what’s the largest tip you’ve ever gotten being a driver?
I don’t think I ever hit triple digits because I remember that was always something if drivers got a $100 tip but there were lots of $5 tips. A lot of people used to tip me cash too, which I always thought was interesting. You would get a little cash tip here and there even though they’re booking the ride on Uber. I got a few $20s here and there.
I got a $50 tip once. Someone handed me $50 or maybe tipped it in the app but I don’t think I ever got much higher than that. A lot of my driving strategies too were to drive during the busiest times and places. I was going for a high surge. They were already paying a lot for the ride. If you pay $150 for a ride that normally costs $50, you’re probably not going to tip much if anything beyond that, which is fair.
Is that an awesome feeling when you’re driving away and then you get the alert that the person tipped you?
That’s a good example. Uber has added some cool features over the years. In a lot of digital transactions, sometimes it’s hard to thank people or still have that connection. In food delivery, it’s faceless. You place the order, and then someone goes and picks it up. They drop it off on your door, and they don’t even stick around because of COVID. This has changed. I get it but I’m not in love with that because it makes it seem like a faceless transaction even on Uber. When you do leave a tip, it does notify the driver that you got a tip and then you can thank the customer for the tip. It’s not super obtrusive or anything but it’s nice as a driver. It’s like, “That guy or that lady left me a tip. Let me thank them quickly.”
Those are the fringe benefits. There’s that two-minute action, which is pretty cool. Here’s the last question. Would you rather take a ride to the bottom of the ocean or a ride to the moon?
That’s a good question because I used to be an aerospace engineer. I’ve always had an affinity for the air and space. I did one internship one summer at JPL, which is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in NASA. I would probably have to go to space. I did apply once to be a NASA astronaut mainly so I could get the rejection letter, which I still have somewhere in my closet. I would have to pick a ride to the moon.
That makes complete sense. Harry, I appreciate you taking the time to chat. To anyone that wants to reach out to Harry, you can find him on LinkedIn. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Harry is the owner and founder of The Rideshare Guy. He used to be a full-time engineer but in 2015 he quit his day job to run the blog full-time! He and his team write about what it’s really like to be a driver for Uber, Lyft and lots of other gig services. His goal is to educate drivers and help them earn more money by working smarter, not harder.
CEOs who take the reins of running a company from the founder know that the transition can be challenging. It takes a lot of patience on both sides and alignment. Shelli Taylor, the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, knows this to be true. In this episode, she joins David Metz to tell us her experience, along with her thoughts and dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. Shelli then shares her thoughts about the movie industry, the challenges it’s facing, and how they are creating great experiences in their theater. What is more, she lets us in on the importance of adversity to successful people and leadership.
I’m excited to have you. The format is pretty simple. I’m going to ask you six questions. Those who are reading can get a sense of you and hopefully learn from your experiences. Question number one, you took over as CEO of Alamo Drafthouse and Cinema from the founder of the company. Taking the reins from a founder versus another outside CEO, do you think that’s an easier or tougher situation to be in?
It’s tougher. For founders, they want someone to come in and take over the day-to-day and the pieces of the business they no longer want to run, but they don’t want to give up their baby. Watching someone come and take over their baby is difficult. It’s a special relationship that takes a lot of patience on both sides.
As a Founder and CEO, I can see that. I often wonder about this. Do you think there’s a difference between an entrepreneur and a CEO? Do you think it’s a different DNA makeup? I always joke. I am more of an entrepreneur than a CEO. I don’t necessarily wake up in the morning, “How do I increase margins by 1%?” I’m much more, “How do I disrupt in scale?” Do you think there’s a difference between the two?
I hope there are more commonalities, but the difference comes in at the stage of the business. Most founders are excited at the beginning, the stages where it’s all about creativity and what could be. Usually, they’re looking for a CEO who should have some of that in their DNA because it’s a miss if you don’t. They are thinking like, “We’ve got this great idea. How do you scale it without losing its soul and start making that long-term sustainability, whether through profit or the ability to expand?” There are some differences, but there should be some similarities. It’s a miss when there’s not.
Do you consider yourself a bit of an entrepreneur?
Yes. I’m always dreaming up and could kick myself for not chasing one of my first early ideas because I still think it would’ve been amazing. I’ve taken the safe path, and I’ve always been great for someone who has a great vision that I can sink my teeth into and help them.
Are you always having new ideas in your head that you have to tamper down and be like, “I’m focused on this, but it would be so cool to do this?”
Yes. My goal is to finish this role. There are goals that we’ve put out there that we want to attain. I am going to take that leap and do my own thing. I’ve got a couple of ideas that are brewing. In the second half of my life, I’m going to be an entrepreneur.
What was that original idea that could have been huge?
Here it is. It sounds simple. For the men out there, you may or may not relate to this, but bras, I don’t care what they say, still don’t fit. People’s bodies are not perfect. They’re not symmetrical. There are all sorts of things that go on. Even in the early days, I was like, “If you could get a photograph and they could customize a bra in a scalable way to your exact body, how amazing would that be?” They’ve gotten closer in some aspects, but the right or left half fits, and the other half doesn’t. There’s always something wrong except for that 1% of perfect bodies. Technology is finally there. There’s something here in getting the perfect fit. Half the world’s women, and 100% want a better bra. It’s a big market.
Would you envision it as when you get fitted for suit measurements? Have you ever done Warby Parker, where they fit you for the glasses? Do you envision something like that?
Probably something in between. There’s technology now where you can go in front of a camera, and it can take a full-scale measurement of your body and shape. You can use that technology for the fitting. You don’t have to have a person. Yes, you can do the Warby Parker, where you start to see the results, but more importantly, it’s getting that measurement down. It’s the ability to say, “I want more lift. I want more of this.” Technology is finally there. The materials for bras and the actual textile part are finally there.
Have you experienced the perfect bra yet?
No. That’s why I still believe in this idea. Back in 1994, I got it in my diary when this came. I wish I had done it. Technology wasn’t there. Now’s the time. No one can go out and take that idea. If you’re working on it, please call me. I’d love to help.
Question number two, the movie industry has faced challenges with companies like Netflix disrupting the status quo. How does the movie industry turn the table and become the one that is disrupting? Do you think there’s an opportunity for that? If there is, what do you see?
I find this such an interesting question because everybody is at extremes, “The movie industry is dead. Streaming is it.” Over the last few weeks, we saw the correction of Netflix. Netflix is not dead. It’s not going away. That, too, is extreme. The question is and will always be, “How do we continue to produce the type of content people want?” Like your show, “How do I do digestible quick hits versus hour-and-a-half commitments?” If you think about content, it’s the same. How do we have this range of content broaden our genres and the way we think about it? Quite frankly, we should have even more vehicles in how we want to consume it.
More vehicles help us cut down noise and find what we want. Is it going to be disrupted? I don’t know that it’s disrupted as much as it evolves and starts to figure out and stop the binary conversations, but how do we all serve a need? For us, it’s about creating great experiences, super clean theaters, super friendly people, and projection sound seats that blow you away. That’s what we’re going to continue to double down against, making your night out fantastic.
It’s like when I go to the grocery store, I can order it through Amazon or many different ways to get my groceries, but there’s an experience when I go to the grocery store. There’s the smell. There’s sound. I get inspired by it. I love movies. I probably go to the movies 4 to 5 times a month. It’s that experience. If I’m going to do a date night, I want to do something different. Sitting on that couch and watching TV is not special. Leaving and sitting and experiencing something is. To be honest, if I’m not in the theater, I’m going to be on my phone or my laptop, and I’m not going to fully enjoy it. The movie theater forces me to get off it. For that, I value that a lot.
If you haven’t seen everything everywhere all at once, it’s a mouthful. It’s a must-see. This is not a spoiler alert, but when you go see that movie and have special hotdogs with hotdog fingers, you can’t do that at home. You’re not even going to know to think about that. We can create these magical moments you do not understand until you’re in the moment. Nothing better than getting off your couch and getting outside.
Question number three, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve met more people who have achieved extreme success. I’ve noticed with many of them that they’ve experienced a ton of adversity in their life, particularly early in their life. How important do you think having experienced some type of adversity is important to successful people and in leadership?
We all have adversity. If we don’t, it seems impossible. The question is, what do you do with that adversity? Adversity along the way teaches you those life lessons. Usually, you don’t learn it at the moment. It’s afterward with hindsight. I can’t imagine having gone through bankruptcy, the challenges of COVID and the pandemic without having had some personal hardships with finances, personal experiences, and professional experiences with health and things like that. The skills we needed during these last couple of years and the interpersonal stamina came from earlier experiences.
Especially when you’re young, it could be small things. It feels like the end of the world. Think high school or whatever, like, “My life’s over.” If you could look back on your younger self, this is nothing, but you survived it, and you’re fine. This is the worst-case scenario, and I’m okay with it. It strengthens you.
It will pass. That’s the lesson you don’t learn until you’ve been through it a few times. It’s like, “I’ll get through this and be here tomorrow.”
You never know that adversity could spawn a new opportunity you would’ve never had if it wasn’t for that adversity. At Prizeout, the company I’m CEO of, we often say people have either one or a combination of three things. We call it IQ, which is Intelligence, EQ, which is Emotional Intelligence, and BQ, which is Business Intelligence. If you could have 2 of those 3, IQ, BQ, or EQ, what would you choose?
It’s EQ and BQ.
I am in the same boat. I’d be curious if you went out on the street and asked the common person that. IQ probably would be one of them. I don’t think people realize that going back to your younger years and stuff like schooling is not everything. Mark Twain said, “I never let school get in the way of my education.” There is so much to learn about people in the world and how things operate. That’s important. Question number five, since taking over as CEO, what is the craziest thing that’s happened in one of your theaters? It’s like taking a pet to a theater, which is okay to say on this show. What is one of the craziest things that have happened in your theaters?
There were a lot of crazy things before I arrived. We haven’t been open that long since I’ve been in position. People are on good behavior. The funniest thing is that a gentleman on the East Coast in one of our New York locations decided to rent a private theater and propose to his girlfriend. He cut his own PSA. If you know our theaters, we do the whole no texting and talking before the show. We do a lot of fun around that and try to make it light, but the rule is real. We will kick you out. He did this whole PSA for her and used a lot of curse words. I can’t sing it, but I can send it to you. It’s one of the catchiest darn songs. Everybody in the company was dancing around for about a week going, “We got to hire this guy because he is brilliant.”
It’s more the energy that our guests bring and the creativity. The movies come to us, we add in our self and character and bring the movie up a launch, and then our guests come and take it to that next level. It’s all three combined that make the movies amazing. It’s no one individual or group that owns it. It takes all of us.
Did she say yes?
Yes. Thank God. It was so sweet.
Did he post it on social? Did that go viral?
I’m going to have to look because it’s internally viral. I don’t know if it went to social, but I’ll look. If it does, I’ll send it to you.
That’s probably gold for you as well. “Can we use this? This is pretty amazing.”
We’ve done that. If you haven’t seen one of our PSAs, we had a guest call us and cuss us out for kicking her out. We turn that into our next PSA. It’s frequently played in our movie theaters like, “Don’t text.” We love it. I’ll send it to you. We’re like, “We told you we have rules. They’re for you and everybody. If you don’t like them, that’s okay. There are other theaters that don’t have rules. Go to them.”
When I go to a movie, I want to enjoy and not hear conversations or phones going off. I respect that. Question six, if you could get a ticket to any show or event in history, what would you want a ticket to?
Probably one of the earlier concerts of Elvis Presley that ended in a riot. People don’t understand his story and that he was changing society and how we think about human relations and race and all of that in his own way. I would love to have been at one of those shows. It was sex and exciting songs and all of that, but it was so much bigger.
How do you know that about Elvis? Were there riots that happened at the concert?
There was a protest and an outbreak in the police. I know because I am a fan. I am excited. There was a movie about Elvis coming out on June 24th, 2022. It explores more of his personal ethos and how he showed up in this world, not just as a performer but as a human. He wasn’t perfect, but his story is pretty damn good. It’s inspirational.
Who’s playing Elvis in the movie?
His name is Austin. I should know his last name. He’s new. He’s a singer, first and foremost. He sings all the songs. He is fantastic.
Is it coming out in theaters?
It’s coming to theaters only. It is a big-screen experience. To hear his voice boom, you want to be in a crowded room because you’re going to feel like you were at some of those earlier concerts and in some of his experiences.
That’s exciting. That’s all, Shelli. Hopefully, it wasn’t too tough.
It’s super fun. I will love to stay in contact as human to human if you don’t mind.
We do business with you guys already. We’re about $40 billion in money flow. We put merchants in front of the money. Think of it like you’re on Coinbase, and you sold your Dogecoin for $500, and you can withdraw that. You can withdraw it to gift cards or to brands. Those brands acquire those customers. We’re in front of crypto and gaming and banks and payroll. We want an RFP to do jury duty payments in Indiana. All these people have money, and they’re like, “How do I want to withdraw that money?” You can pick PayPal ACH. We take brands, put their gift cards in front of them, and say, “Withdraw your money to this.” We do Alamo, AMC, Fandango, Regal, and all of them. We work with you, which is pretty cool.
Thank you. I’m thinking the next half of my life looking for people to have as my advisors.
Especially deals I know all about. We are looking at a deal, like a breakup fee. If only you had known that two months ago or whatever. I will email you. I’m a big texter and not a big email.
I’m good with text.
I will shoot you my number if you have any questions and if it’s okay if I have questions. Are you based in Texas?
We’re in Austin. Where are you based?
I’m going to be out there. I’ll take you to a movie, you and your family.
That’s amazing. You’re on the South Street Seaport, the theater.
Is that 28 Liberty?
I noticed the Financial District.
Do you like New York?
I love New York. In fact, my son’s going to Syracuse in 2023. I teased until some friends told me I couldn’t do this. I was like, “I’m going to take an apartment for a year, so I can be closer to him.” They’re like, “That’s not cool. Don’t follow your child.” I’m like, “At some point, I’m going to take an apartment in New York because I love it.”
Syracuse is 4 to 5 hours away from New York. You’re not too close. Trust me. I don’t think that’s weird at all. That’s an appropriate amount of distance. What’s he studying at Syracuse?
Here’s what he won’t do. He’s going into Aerospace Engineering. He is smart, and he can do it. It’s not beyond belief. It is so not in his soul. He doesn’t know that yet because he’s had too many teachers who have seen him in action and are like, “This is what you should do.” He loves physics and math. I’m like, “You do, and you are good at it, but you’re way too social. You’re a peacemaker.” I don’t know what he’ll do, but I truly, in my heart, say don’t believe it. I’m like, “Go do your thing. Learn. If you’re not an engineer, no one’s going to be unhappy.”
That’s what college is for. When I was going in my freshman year in college, what I thought I wanted to do was as opposed to what I ended up doing. Night and day, he always has chances to change his major and try different courses and everything like that.
You have to make sure they know that because there’s so much pressure on what success looks like. It’s easy to let yourself get pigeonholed.
Which is strange and is something that burdens younger people these days that I don’t think I have experienced. There’s this notion that if you make this one mistake, it’s going to derail this path to success. That’s so not true. I don’t know where that comes from, but it’s prevalent with young people. That’s why anxiety and everything else are through the roof.
It’s called standardized testing. There’s only one way to be successful.
When I was in high school, if someone got 1,500 on their SATs, it was 3 people in Long Island, which is 6 million people. Now all the parents have hacked it. That is the starting now. Clearly, these tests should be thrown out because it doesn’t show good gauge. You can hire tutors. You figure it out. You gain the system. It was night and day when I was taking the test. This went pretty well.
Thank you. This is a total honor and pleasure. I look forward to seeing you. I will let you know if it works for you and your family when we’re in New York. I’d love to take you to the movies. It would be fun.
We could see the Elvis movie.
It’s opening weekend when we’re going to be there. I’m truly a fan, partly because of my grandparents. It feels true to his story. It’s glamorized.
Have you seen the movie?
I’ve seen about 30 minutes of it. I got back from a conference at CinemaCon, but we got to go in and have some private studio time. That’s one of the things we got to see a part of. I was like, “That’s good.” Glamorized, but there’s truth in it. It’s not too over the top. Some of them are too nice, and you’re like, “That’s not exactly right.”
Where does it start? Does it start in childhood? Does it start when he is famous?
I didn’t see the beginning. We saw the middle. My guess is it bounces back and forth because we saw some childhood and revival gospel singing and church experiences. You then see the middle. We didn’t see anything at the end. I’m curious how they’ll treat that. We saw some of the progression. It was a pretty good cut for 30 minutes, but probably more than we needed. I was like, “I want to see the movie. I don’t want too much ahead.”
I’m excited to see it. Thank you so much, Shelli. I appreciate it. In the meantime, I’ll shoot you that email with my phone number. Feel free to text me with anything.
Shelli Taylor is currently the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, leading the iconic national theater chain. Her career journey in leading small to large businesses through rapid expansion has spanned brands such as Starbucks Coffee and Disney; diverse geography inside the US and Greater China; varied industries including experiential retail, software development, and fitness; with a diversity of roles in operations, real estate, human resources, brand, and executive management. The connector throughout her career: the love of serving people, and scaling businesses while retaining brand soul.
Shelli is an active for-profit independent board member. But her favorite positions are on non-profits, Habitat for Humanity, and Homebase furthering affordable homeownership for first-time homeowners.
There is a massive difference between working for a traditional media agency versus working with a new media startup. When Nick Miaritis made the jump from his 10-year career at Saatchi to join VaynerMedia, so many things were surprising to him. Thankfully almost all of those surprises have been absolutely friendly to creativity and career growth. Nick thrived in this founder-led startup environment and soon found himself up the ranks as the company’s executive vice president. In this episode, he shares with us some details of his work at VaynerMedia, particularly their work around Super Bowl commercials. He also shares his predictions on how the media industry is going with all these buzzwords like Web3 and the metaverse. Join in and get a load of Nick’s refreshing insights plus a bit of behind-the-scenes of his TikTok alter-ego, The Omelette King.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Nick Miaritis: EVP At VaynerMedia And Co-Founder Of Fleetwit
We got the Executive Vice President of VaynerMedia, Nick Miaritis here. Nick, thanks for joining.
It’s great to be with you.
This is a pretty simple format. I’m going to ask you six questions so everyone reading can get a better sense of you and hopefully learn some things about you and your experiences. Does that sound good?
Super cool. Let’s do it.
Question number one, you went from Saatchi. You were there for ten-plus years to VaynerMedia. What was the biggest surprise for you going from a traditional media agency to Vayner?
I grew up as an entrepreneur’s kid in Long Island where my family owned and operated three village inn restaurant hotels in North Shore in Stony Brook. I grew up in an entrepreneurial environment. When my parents exited that business, I got the gig at Saatchi which was the first real job I ever had in life. I was thrown into Corporate America having no clue what that was, but it was so many people, processes, bureaucracy, and good stuff like creativity losing out of every office everywhere. It was the best learning experience of all time on how to generate ideas and how to work collaboratively with people so different than the restaurant business, but its bigness and scale over time.
We were in 88 markets. If you wanted to make a change or operationalize that change, it took years. It took 200 meetings and had to be factored into every 90-day window and how things were being reported for Wall Street, M&A deals, and all of those types of things. In many ways, it was awesome, but there were things about it that I didn’t love. After twelve years of that life is the biggest single change when you go to an independently-owned communication shop like the one Gary created several years ago. We’re now 1,600 plus at VaynerX. The people are so at the center of everything because the entrepreneur has put humanity in how we treat each other, how we care for each other, and how we build the culture above everything else.
The P&L, driving for every 90 days, keeping this client because they pay the bills to keep the lights on, things that we would do in the publicly traded sphere are wildly different. At first, I was like, “Is this real?” We are going to talk about this and not that. You don’t want to review this or that. It was an awesome change all up for me because when you can do what in many ways is the right thing, that’s not always about the dollar and cent.
The culture especially in an industry like ours, in which the industry is made up of people on Zoom and in rooms thinking of ideas, there is no fear. You don’t have to do things for the wrong reasons, and therefore the company accelerates almost much faster than any other company could in the space, which is why as an independent shop, now is one of the biggest on the planet.
We have been growing so quickly. It liberates you to grow faster when you don’t have to focus on so many of those things. The funny part about it is that a lot of those things that we had to focus on, who has this around, how money was made, counting the money, and global expansion are all happening here, but we are not focused on that in the same way. That, for one, was wildly different. The second thing is having an awesome entrepreneur at the top of all of it who is in the dirt on being a practitioner of all things in the communications field, but especially social media.
First for him, Web1, Web2, and now Web3. Being a practitioner has been awesome as well. I got to a point in my old world where I was doing a lot of airplane rides, big meetings, and PowerPoint decks. Here, it’s like, “How many TikToks did we make? How many tweets did I write? What did I learn? How hands-on keyboard are we with media?” Physically making the stuff again was wildly different from many of the years I spent within Saatchi purposes. That is so much fun. It is so different from what most people who are senior in the ad business end up doing. It’s more making fewer meetings that are profound and super fun.
How many people are at Vayner when you joined?
I have to think we were in the 700 to 800. I feel like maybe a little less at that point. In the past few years, we have expanded to have many hundreds of people in our APAC office. In 25 plus markets through COVID grew without much square footage physically, but we are able to operate the business remotely in 25-plus markets.
We opened up Mexico City this 2022. Our London office has been growing a ton. In LA, we rebooted and have a lot of new business, a lot of new faces there, and our team is growing fast. VaynerX all up. We are 1,600 plus people now, but it’s cool though. There are still people here who have their number because they were 1 of the first 50 or 100. There’s still the essence and the core of what it was on day one. It’s still going through the company even as we grow, which is pretty rad.
Did it feel like at that time that you were joining a startup?
In many ways, yes. You and I have done a few things together now. I would say that my favorite part of startup life is that everything is possible. That’s been a remarkable thing these past years. If you can dream it, you can do it, and then why not us? That energy is contagious, and it’s a reason why people come here and then they stay for a long time on top of how we all treat each other and strive to treat each other each day.
It’s funny. It’s not a day one startup whereas some of those problems are hard problems like, “How are we going to get through the next week?” They are next-level problems, but we still solve them the way that a startup would. There’s less formality and less rigidity around the process. Things that bigger companies would start doing that are very rigid around the process, we strive to break so that we don’t become that thing, which doesn’t resemble startup life. We are more in that camp still, even though several years later, here we are.
When does a startup cease to be a startup? Do you feel like having your company still be founder-led is important?
Absolutely, and that it’s because of his energy, tenacity, values, and principles. If anybody’s out there, read Gary Vee’s book, Twelve and a Half which came out this 2022. It’s a good consolidated version of the principles behind much of what VaynerMedia is as well because we are founder-led. His speed and agility as an entrepreneur are in every part of our business. I was listening to something that Zac is talking about moving fast and breaking stuff. They have gotten rid of the broken stuff. It’s moving fast and making sustainable growth or something. There’s a new line that they are all saying on Facebook.
We are in that space where it’s like moving fast but building with integrity, kindness, and compassion. There’s a definite brand of how we are as a startup. It would be interesting if someone walked in right now who’d been here several years ago and they would be like, “We are doing pretty much the same thing that we talked about.”
We have gone back because of the emergence of things like TikTok, the maker mentality, and having so many creators now who are at home shooting, editing, getting their own lighting, props, and wardrobe, and making the things that the consumer sees, also has brought us back to what Gary and the team did so extraordinarily well several years ago.
It was like, “We are not going to outsource all of this production.” We are not going to outsource it to a studio we are going to pay $3 million to go make these things. We are hiring hundreds of people who make this stuff every single day.” That at its core is the most Vayner of principles and beliefs. If it hadn’t been for TikTok, I don’t think we’d be doing that the same way.
You’ve almost democratized from the world you came from.
The world I came from was like a top-down ego and radical subjectivity on, “This color green is the right one.” When the person across me is like, “That’s not the right color green,” I’d be like, “Look at all the ads that I have done. I’m good at advertising based on all of these trophies. We should go with green, Jeff.”
Here, we call out the world of being right. In our world, because we have a media creative strategy, all the pieces go together as one thing, which we didn’t have back in my Saatchi days. It was just a creative shop. We go from needing to be right with the color green. “Let me try and convince Dave to find what’s right because we can use the internet with media creative strategy and production to do things at a low enough cost to learn and gather insight about what works.
It’s almost like how engineers do it when they are designing products to then scale that. It’s a build on that first question. That was the biggest creative change for me when I was in the “Be Right” business. Now, I only want to find the right because I realize that as a “Be right” person, it’s audacity, ego, and most of the time, I’m wrong. It’s crazy. That’s something every entrepreneur and every creative person has to deal with. It’s like, “I don’t know. You are a great songwriter. Do you think you got a hit song on you? Put it out. Let’s see what the world thinks before it’s declaring this is a hit. You don’t know.”
That’s why it’s democratized because if you think it’s right, create it, put it out there, and let the free market decide.
That’s what’s cool about our company. A lot of people who don’t have “Creative” in their title have a ton of ideas that get made. They perform well that in an old ad industry world, no one would ever accept that based on the ego of, “That project manager can’t make a TikTok. They are not a creative person.” Sally is pretty good and her stuff outperforms everybody else’s, so let’s do more like Sally’s.
Question number two, you’ve seen several evolutions in advertising since entering the industry. What do you think the next few years looks like? You got TikTok, NFTs, and the metaverse. If you had to make a bet on where you are going to get the most bang for your buck, what are you seeing?
I’m most obsessed as is our company with consumer attention now and where it’s going. What’s funny about life is if you had told me years ago I’d be even reacting to a statement about three letters, NFT, I’d be like, “What’s that?” My first answer is, “I don’t know what I don’t know. I just know in our company studies where the consumer’s attention is going, which is why we have been historically early when Vine comes out or early when TikTok starts to hit. We study where our consumers are shifting towards and try and get there with our brands so that we can find the arbitrage on the underpriced nature of that attention relative to things that may be more expensive because those aren’t that good of a deal anymore.
Things that will continue to proliferate in a big way. One is the TikTok notification of what we had called social media. The product of TikTok vertical video that I don’t need to know anything about Dave the human. I’m being served it because TikTok selects things from strangers whom I don’t need to know about because they know so much about what my tastes are. They are going to keep serving me things that I’m going to like, almost like a TV guide that knows what you want to watch before you even need to start scrolling through the TV guide.
That as a product, the TikTok application is going to happen to everything in what we had called social media. That makes social media feel way more like television in many ways. If you play it out over the course of five years, as that attention keeps going to this device and people go from 2 to 4 hours a day, not looking at the screen up here as much, you could ask interesting questions like, “Does this thing go up to that screen? Do TikTok and the TikTok application, that style of content get to the screen in the living room? What other platforms react and follow what TikTok is doing?”
Already you have the precursor of that, which is Instagram Reels and Facebook Reels. I heard that 20% of all Instagram attention now is in Reels. I expect that to grow to 50%, maybe even more. They may even from a product dev standpoint push people into Reels because they know that that’s where the attention is being consumed on TikTok. The one that’s got me very excited and I’m studying every single day and will play out in a two-year window easily is YouTube Shorts. That’s a fascinating one and most marketers are like, “What is YouTube Shorts? I think I may have heard of that.”
That’s basically what they saw happen at TikTok. Their version of Reels is called YouTube Shorts. It’s good and fascinating because with all the adoption of these technologies, once the first gen is out there, they seem to go fast with the first 2 billion downloads. It’s always faster than it was the generation prior. All things Web3, inclusive of decentralized fill-in-the-blank plus NFT and metaverse, are the buzzwords of the moment.
The consumer won’t get there as fast as the brand marketers, engineers, and tech companies which is natural. I have seen a frothiness and buzz in that world that feels a lot like social media did several years ago. I would say that if you see mass adoption of VR like Oculus continues to grow, the technology gets better over the next several years, where they are able to miniaturize that technology will be telling how much consumer adoption there will be.
The real thing that’s going to explode more in the next few years is everything related to augmented reality. That’s a big term and it’s hard for us because it’s still so new to so many to understand the practical use case of what we are going to be doing with that first as humans and then as marketers. I believe that the overlay on top of the physical world is going to go way faster than the metaverse part of it, VR will.
That’s my gut feeling on it because there are so many companies snapping one of them, if you watch what they are out after the Snap Summit is like they have made so many strides in AR technology, training people on how to use these lenses. Fun use cases for marketers right now that you’ll see a constant five years from now on for every marketer and anyone who works in retail.
The ability to not just shot the look on a website or social media, but be able to have Dave try on a shirt while sitting there through Snapchat and their phone and get the actual look on your body is going to become the most normal thing for human beings to do. People using their phones like we all got trained like COVID in many ways saved the QR code. Now, because of what happened with restaurants, everyone understands how to point their phone at something and get some piece of content on their phone just by that mechanic.
Companies like Snap, Google, and Apple will use the native camera in their operating system, which is fast and slick to slide over to point at something, to be able to buy something, get information, a recipe, or whatever it is. Any and all objects will be able to be content in the augmented reality world, which is a wild thought if you are a marketer. It’s like the next level. Now, you don’t need a billboard necessarily, physically only. Everything can be a billboard in the augmented sense of the world.
If you could only buy one stock and it’s either a TikTok or LinkedIn, what would you buy?
ByteDance and Microsoft.
Pretend they are separate.
Let’s not do stock. The first thing would be about the fundamentals of these companies. If I had to bet on what would return better in what period in the next several years, I would tell you TikTok.
Is it close?
Not yet. It’s like zebras and giraffes. It’s not a comparison. Given the sheer enormity globally of TikTok, its orders of magnitude differ in terms of usage, adoption, and revenue potential. Things that are already starting to happen now and global the world over in a way that few companies are.
The only reason I ask is that TikTok is social by nature and there’s a cool factor. As we know, cool is fleeting. There’s a next generation that’s going to think TikTok is like Facebook, and they are not going to want to be on it. LinkedIn is a utility. No one thinks LinkedIn is cool. Utilities tend to last longer than cool things.
LinkedIn is fantastic. I hope LinkedIn is around as long as consumers find it relevant. I will be all about it in doing things both personally and professionally. The reason I said TikTok so quickly is that it’s hard to wrap your head around to appreciate the scale factor, and then to your point, go with a different example of Facebook, which you would probably be able to argue, “Younger people don’t find Facebook blue to be that cool anymore, this and this. It’s past its prime. People aren’t sharing as much.”
At the same time, for the 55-plus crowd on Facebook, it is art. They’re in it, sharing stuff, debating, and helping each other. My grandmother is on Facebook in a way that I was at Georgetown in 2004. Cool doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not useful. The cool factor changes to whom is it useful. Sometimes like all things in society, the young drive everything. You lose the young instead but not really because there are tons of older people on the planet and other people who may adopt and find new use cases for it.
For those that don’t know Nick, he’s also known as the omelet king. Look him up. When you first started out with the omelet videos like going from Instagram and then going on TikTok and seeing it explode, how impactful was it? I remember you said, “I had 1 million views.” I was like, “What? How is it even possible?”
This is funny. This is like another Vayner story that’s pretty profound for me. Several years ago, I had texted Gary, our Founder, and CEO, “TikTok, what should we be doing?” He texted, “All in.” A few years ago, it was hard to convince anyone, any logo or brand that they should be on this thing called Musical.ly which now became TikTok, ranked with issues, privacy, and the whole Trump administration banning this thing. I remember that whole thing.
Back to the first question you asked me, that practitioner mindset clicked in, and I was like, “If I can’t get Starbucks to be on TikTok, I best as well learned it myself.” This is totally randomly been flipping eggs, who knows why, and omelets with my brother because we grew up in the restaurant business. It was the best job you could have in a restaurant because it’s pretty easy.
You get to stand back there and throw a bunch of things in and then flip it. Breakfast is the worst meal to cook for. It’s like the best job of the worst meal to cook for. Long story short, we did a video, posted it on Facebook, and did a bunch more. We had a little bit of momentum going there. That text happened with Gary on TikTok, and I was like, “I’m going to start posting on TikTok.” I started posting a few. Nothing much is happening, but you had started to see with some other friends and him going on the platform hard that like, “The organic reach is could be off the chart.”
Cut to the holiday season, I get dressed up as Santa as a chef with a Santa apron and a Santa hat. I do a flip to do a 360 spin while the eggs are up in the air. I come down. The eggs just fall to the side and hit the ground. I made a pack with my wife that no matter what, we always have to eat the eggs even when they fall. We had a sheet underneath it. I’m like, “Do I post this thing? No. I don’t want to post bloopers. That’s not what I’m about. I’m the omelet king.”
I post it and I look back at my phone and it’s going nuts in a way I have never seen a phone go nuts because I had notifications on TikTok. The end of the story is it was about a week later, I had 13 million views on this video and I was like, “This is going to be real.” We all have to learn this and this is going to usher in a whole different type of content style creator versus polished Instagram influencers and static images the way that we had done it the past few years.
I posted 3 or 4 TikToks organically a day for the better part of those first 2 or 3 years and continuously hit marks like 21 million views, this and that. I saw the power of it firsthand and then even weird stuff happened like Snap Spotlight came out. It’s like their version of Reels or TikTok. Stuff started blowing up on that. If you go to the Snap website, you will see the omelet king egg flip on the homepage of the Snap website on a desktop or mobile device, unless they have changed it. I haven’t looked.
I’m featured in their ads. I get featured in TikTok ads. The funny thing was that a French culinary magazine called up, “We want to speak to the omelet king.” You can google that. I did a serious interview with a serious culinary magazine about flipping eggs and how I cooked them. It’s like sacrilege to French chefs which was hysterical. A good lesson there is like you sometimes got to do stuff and see what happens, and in doing stuff, you learn a lot.
A mistake created a huge opportunity that took off.
We have someone who said, “You are the first eggfluencer.” That’s accurate, but it’s happening again. Facebook Reels now for anybody who’s out there is looking for practical application from a talk like this. Facebook Reels will be wildly underpriced, underutilized, and won’t seem like the thing. Everyone focuses on Instagram Reels only like YouTube Shorts.
Facebook Reels, start making 3 or 4 of them and get them out. No paid media against it, but it’s a place and it’s a product that is going to explode there because of that scaled audience that they have on that platform, but most people aren’t talking about it too much right now. Most people don’t even know Facebook has Reels at this point.
Next question. You’ve made many Super Bowl commercials in your lifetime. What is your all-time favorite commercial that’s ever been done?
You can’t pick a favorite on Super Bowl ads. I would say that the memories attached to making them are the real prize thing about the Super Bowl because, for anybody who’s not made Super Bowl ads before, you could imagine that it’s the most pressure-induced environment that you could put yourself in the field of advertising because every second costs something like $300,000.
The meters are running when you are buying advertising and I happen to have done a lot of 60-second and 90-second Super Bowl ads, programs, and things like that. It’s a lot of dough. You usually nowhere come November and you are like, “We had August, September, or October to come up with ideas.” November hits like, “We don’t like any of those ideas.” Usually, going through the holiday ideating and then having to find people to help you produce the $20 million Super Bowl program and hope that people like it.
It’s weird because I learned this comparison point which is funny. The audience is usually around 110 million people and that’s the equivalent. They are all watching these things. Everyone’s glued to the camera. It’s like glued to the TV. It’s the equivalent of the opening weekend of the biggest Marvel movie. That’s how many people will see it.
It’s a crazy thing to think about pleasing an audience of 110 million in an ad which from a comedy standpoint just think it through like what you find funny, and what I find funny is super challenging. Things that I think about this all lead up to what my favorite thing would be. The weird one for me would be, because of the memories, the first Super Bowl ad that we did at Vayner.
This was when we jumped the Nut Mobile with Charlie Sheen and A-Rod eating the kale chip. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s my favorite spot, but the collective energy of our company doing something back to what we talked about being a startup and an entrepreneurial-led thing, we did things to make that ad that with all the might of what I had done in my past life, we couldn’t have figured out. We produced it ourselves through our own production company. We wrote it and sold it in before even having the business on a screen grab on an iPhone that I showed a client in Chicago. The memory of how it was made was so, from a probability standpoint, low of it happening and being decent.
Because of that, it made it so much fun to make because we were problem-solving in a way that was like, “I don’t know. Can we do that? Figure it out. Can we jump in that mobile? I don’t know. We are going to have to find the right CGI people because the Nut Mobile is going to break once we get it up on the ramp.”
That one for me was special because the company hadn’t done that yet, and that was one of the things that from an ambition standpoint, we wanted to focus on because we love the audience of Super Bowl. One hundred ten million people are glued to a TV and paying attention all at once. It’s like relatively underpriced when you think about the scale. Cut to now, years later, we have done more Super Bowl ads collectively that more than any other agency on the planet.
That’s why I answered that way. It unlocked something for us. I’m so excited each year now because the team here is so awesome that a lot of what we went through there, you could look back and laugh like, “Did we do that? Did we not know how to do this thing?” It was fun but it was also crazy. Now, it’s fun. It’s a little crazy but it’s good and the level of the work has gotten better consistently each year.
Best celebrity you ever work with on a Super Bowl commercial?
I would go with David Harbour from Stranger Things who did our Tide ad commercials. We did seven different ads where everything is a Tide ad because people’s clothes were clean. It’s back in like 2018. The reason why was that he was fantastic to work with. He’s the most chill and coolest person you could have ever hung out with, and we got to know each other. He was into it.
The funny part that I always remember in the first minutes of doing takes when cameras are rolling, he had never done commercial work before. The nuance of when you shoot a film versus shooting a commercial is that every second counts. We have to work to get every scene truncated so that we know what we got so it can edit together for that 30 or 60-second or even 15-second thing.
In the first five takes, he was like, “What the F is this? You all do this like this? I can’t do this. I’m an actor. I thought we were going to have like a huge blow-up on the set,” then he was like, “I get it. I understand why,” and he was such the consummate professional and so fun to hang out with. At the time, Stranger Things was the thing in the culture.
It was cool to see him at that moment because he brought to it this gravity because of what he was going through culturally that made the ad, 1 plus 1 equals 50. That casting was funny that it came from our chief creative officer’s daughter. I forget who the lead was. It was supposed to be Kevin Bacon, but he was filming up in Boston and had a mustache or something, some detective show or it was supposed to be Jeff Goldblum.
Jeff Goldblum peaced out in the last minute and our CCOs daughter was like, “David Harbour.” Everyone was like, “David Harbour. What? Who is that? I don’t know that name. He’s not famous enough.” Perfect casting. That’s why all of us ancient people in the ad agency is supposed to know what’s cool. Literally, a twelve-year-old daughter was like, “David Harbour is the best.” Drop you down a couple of pegs. Don’t get you ahead of yourself. Harbour is a cool factor.
Two more questions. Growing up in the restaurant business, how important was it in the success that you had later in life?
Every day of my life, I’m reminded of some lessons, insights, and something that I witnessed from my dad, my grandfather, and that entire team of people that worked with them because of the patterns once recognized. They are so easy to pull back to like, “When I was six.” My tenure in the restaurant business started when I was six when I was the Easter bunny. I was dressed up. I had a basket of toys and I went around.
Back then, people gave enormous tips. I cleared $126 my first day working, and I was like, “I’m good with school. I want to do more Easter bunny stuff.” What I always take away from that experience is that the restaurant business is hard. It’s labor. Your family grew up doing actual and manual labor as their vocation and mind.
It trains you a certain way that when you are sitting in a conference room in a chair like this, which is super cerebral sometimes, and not as many hands in the dirt type thing is that it gave me a gear, which some people unless you’ve worked in retail, worked as a waiter, or something like that, don’t see around or can model. In the restaurant business, I have always respected what people put into that job so much in a weird way because I never worked anywhere else prior to the Saatchi experience. I only knew what it was like to do an all-in restaurant.
The second thing that’s related to that is that the restaurant business is all about how you treat human beings. I grew up with my grandfather and my dad being like, “People aren’t coming here for a steak. They are coming here because they want to feel good. They have decided to have Christmas Eve with you. This is the most important day of their family’s year, and they want to be with you. What are you giving to them?” it’s not what are we getting in terms of the money we get, because we did so many covers this night.
That notion of giving to get that my grandfather and my dad put me from the time I was five years old is true in every single walk of life and every single professional environment as well, but most of us see it the other way. It’s like, “What’s Dave given me? I’m not giving him anything. What am I going to get? What’s in it for me?” That’s been a real thing that is impossible to forget and awesome. I carry it with me forever.
What’s the one thing about the restaurant business that most people don’t know? We all go to restaurants, but what’s happening behind the scenes?
The hilarity of the restaurant business happens in the kitchen. There were pluses that there were some minuses probably too, of growing up in the restaurant business. The comedy, intensity, and profanity are in the kitchen. You’ve seen it on some of these cooking TV shows like reality shows in restaurants, but it’s like a real culture in there. The front of the house is a nice ambiance, people are polite, and all this. You walk into the kitchen and it is mayhem, especially when we would serve 1,500 covers on Thanksgiving.
There are three seatings where people are coming in and you are trying to get people in and have a great time, but the chefs and everyone in the kitchen are in the mayhem. You’re like, “This is controlled chaos but somehow it produces this beautiful ambiance and this amazing food from this chaos.” Most people who haven’t been in the kitchen would be like, “My food is like coming from that type of energy?” It’s the rest. That’s pretty much universal. If you walk into any kitchen anywhere, it sounds like chaos with profanity.
Last question, the most important question., who would win in a fight, Han Solo or Indiana Jones?
This one’s easy. If you take it literally, Han Solo wins because of the advanced weaponry.
It’s a gun versus a gun. Who draws first?
He’s got a thing that shoots lasers. He’s so far ahead of Indiana Jones and his six-shooter and whip. Before he even gets off the Millennium Falcon, they are going to be like, “What are we doing? We are fighting?” He’s like, “Okay.” He peeks out the bottom and tags him with one of those laser guns that he’s got. He doesn’t stand a chance. The technology is too far ahead for Indiana Jones. Indiana Jones is fantastic, but for his time. There’s no way he can compete against a fully-armed Han Solo and a Chewy maybe who’s behind him because you know that Chewy is not going to be far behind. Whose Indiana got? Nothing.
He’s got Short Round.
He’s got Short Round. He’s got Marcus Brody. He’s lost in his own museum.
He’s got Sean Connery.
He’s got Sean Connery. He’s an old man. He got a Wookiee behind him. Sean Connery would be lining out.
Fair. Nick, I appreciate you taking the time to chat.
Nick Miaritis is EVP, at VaynerMedia, based out of the New York office. He joined the agency in 2018 and is tasked with leading brand partnerships, accelerating growth, and helping build and deploy new agency capabilities. Nick is passionate about creating truly end-to-end, integrated agency models – with media, creative, strategy, analytics, and production working together to transform our partner’s brands & businesses.
Prior to joining Vayner, Nick spent 12 years at Saatchi & Saatchi, where he worked around the globe with many of the agency’s brand partners and led teams that created some of the most recognized campaigns in the industry including the Cannes Grande Prix winning “It’s a Tide Ad” Super Bowl program and Miller High Life’s “One Second Ad.”
Nick is passionate about technology and finding new ways to tell stories on the platforms where consumer attention is shifting towards. He is also a bit of a trivia geek and is the co-founder of the popular trivia app, FleetWit, Adviser to payments platform Prizeout, and Adviser to Pro Sports League, Athletes Unlimited.