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Welcome to the anniversary of my favorite red letter date in history, October 15th, 2001. The day “Centro” was incorporated and officially become a company.
I called it “Intégrent” back then. And what a dumb name that was. No one could pronounce it correctly. I chose it though because I was looking for a “tech” sounding name. I typed the word “integrity” into a French translation dictionary and the word “intégrent” came up. It sounded techie and I could get the URL. Never mind that I’m not French, had never been to France and, from everything I’d heard, probably wouldn’t like French people if I ever visited there.
But that’s how it started. And it’s been 12 years. So, first, HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Centro! If you had told me 12 years ago that I’d still have a company, that we’d have achieved the size and success that we’ve achieved, that I’d still be CEO and that I’d still be enjoying going into work each day and have the amount of passion that I do for our future, I’d have considered you crazy. And you would’ve been crazy because no one in late 2001 was saying that to me. I had a lot more people telling me why my idea and business wasn’t going to work or, inferring that I wasn’t the person to pull it off. Which is a great lesson: there will always be more people around you telling you that you can’t do something than those telling you that you can. I guess statistically, those people around you are usually right. After all, most companies don’t succeed and those who do never amount to all that much. But just because it feels like everyone around you is telling you that you can’t do something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
So, rather than a cute “happy birthday” message to everyone, I thought I’d take a moment and offer 12 lessons about business, entrepreneurship and life I’ve learned in the past 12 years. I’m not saying these are the biggest lessons… just the ones that come to my mind on this special day. I realize these may come across as hard lessons and some may even feel negative but, candidly, it’s the hardest times in life you go through that teach you the greatest lessons.
#1: There are more people around you that will tell you that you can’t do something than will tell you that you can. If you’re willing to give up everything, put it all on the line and work your butt off to achieve your goals, don’t listen to them. If you’re not willing to do that, you should probably listen to them.
Success isn’t easy. And the bigger the goals you have, the more you’re going to have to give up in life to accomplish them. As the old saying goes, “If starting a business was easy, more people would do it.” Trust me, I would’ve much preferred to go out with my friends on many weekends versus staying in and reading books on leadership, management, programming, biographies, etc. And I can’t count the number of “Sunday Fundays” I didn’t get to participate in. But I recognized there were many times when learning, work and focus took priority over having fun.
#2: Happiness and joy in life begins with your values and principles.
It’s been 12 years. And 12 years is a long time. Almost a 1/3 of my life on this planet has been spent building Centro. And I’m having the time of my life. And the reason I think I’m having the time of my life is I established the values and principles I would choose to live my life, and lead my company by, upfront. The Centro Manifesto established an ethos for us. We knew who we were. We knew what was expected of us. We knew the types of people we wanted to join our team. And we never wavered no matter how much $$ was waved in our face. We’ve built a company we can be proud of. Are we the biggest and most successful? Nope. Have we accomplished a lot? Yes. Am I proud to say I work at Centro? Heck yes I am! I’m deeply and incredibly proud of the type of company we’ve built and who we are, collectively, as a company. Oh, and someday, we probably will also be considered one of the biggest and most successful.
#3: Zip codes, pedigrees, GPAs and the school you graduated from don’t matter. Never ending intellectual curiosity, an insatiable desire to keep learning and hard work does.
I was born on a farm. Raised in Ridgeville Corners, OH (a village with population around 200). Graduated in the bottom 50% of my high school class. Graduated with a 2.49 GPA from that mental powerhouse of a university: Bowling Green State University. And was the first generation in my family to attend college. And it doesn’t matter. What mattered is that I didn’t think learning stopped once I got my degree. I knew I didn’t have the opportunities and exposure to successful people or mentors like other kids may have had. I also knew I wasn’t as naturally gifted as other kids were. But what I did know was that I was willing to commit to being a “student of the game” forever and that I was willing to work 3x as long and as hard as anyone else to achieve my goals.
#4: Life isn’t fair. Get over it.
Too many people walk around lamenting what their childhood was like. Or that they didn’t have the same opportunities as other kids. Or that they aren’t as naturally talented and gifted as other people. And my message is to get over it. The sooner you get over it, the sooner you’re on your way to a better life. You can’t change it so why let it define the rest of your life? Per Lesson #3, I wasn’t cool, didn’t have money, wasn’t smart, wasn’t athletic, wasn’t tough, wasn’t attractive and got picked on and bullied a lot. So what. Life isn’t fair. And I wouldn’t go back and change my childhood for the life of me because, although it was hard, I learned a lot and it made me who I am today (I need to add here that I was adopted into the most amazing family…I can’t express my love and admiration for my parents enough).
All I knew was that I was going to have to work 3x as long and as hard as others if I wanted to succeed. And never once did I feel sorry for myself that I was going to have to spend my life working 3x longer and harder as other people would. My choice was to either be angry and depressed that life wasn’t fair or get over it and get to work. I chose to get to work.
#5: There is no replacement for reading non-fiction books. Everything you need to know sits in a book (or available on the Kindle).
You’ve heard me say this before: if you want to be considered successful, interesting, mentally attractive and smart, you have to read – and fiction books don’t count (okay, maybe a few fiction books but only a few). Everything we need to know is sitting in a book somewhere.
A personal anecdote on reading: I spend countless days each year reading books. Some are great, many are okay, and there are some that suck. But even those that suck, I probably learned something valuable from the 10% of the book that didn’t suck. And my belief is that even if I learned one important lesson from the time I spent reading the book, it was worth it.
#6: Adversity doesn’t build character. Adversity reveals character.
We’ve often heard the quote that “adversity builds character.” My experience, however, suggests that “adversity reveals character.” I’ve been around a lot of people that are the most amazing, fantastic, nice, gracious and caring people when things are going great. But it’s when the doo-doo hits the fan and the world is crumbling around you that you will see the true character of those around you. And, unfortunately, far too often you’re not going to like what you see.
You see, I believe character is something that runs deep. And it’s almost impossible to change the character of someone. Look for signs of the person’s character in how they handle the small things and see if you like it. Because if their attitude turns sour in the small things, get ready for a tsunami of darkness when it gets real bad.
#7: Always trust your gut.
It’s weird how God built us with this sixth sense…this instinct that we can’t explain. Your gut is never wrong. Trust it. The biggest regrets I have in my life come from times that I didn’t trust and listen to my gut.
#8: Don’t put off hard and difficult conversations or decisions.
My goal is to build the strongest and most powerful organization I can. This means I need to build the strongest and most powerful teams. I define strong and powerful teams as the ability to give, and accept, critical feedback, in real-time and in front of others on the team.
But this is one of the hardest things we’ll ever do. I’ve learned most people have the inability to tell others how they truly feel because they “don’t want to hurt his or her feelings.” And God forbid if they had to say how they truly feel in front of everyone else.
Anytime I spot this, I know the team is weak and inefficient. Say what you feel. And say it in a way that lets the other person know you care about them and you care about the success of your team. Not giving someone critical feedback is robbing that person of an opportunity to grow in their life.
And when it comes to having difficult conversations, or making a difficult decision, prolonging the conversation and the decision only makes the situation worse. At the executive level at Centro, although we’re not perfect at this, I feel we’re doing well at saying exactly how we feel, exactly when we feel it and we can do it in front of others on the team.
#9: “Who” you hire is more important than “what” they’ve accomplished.
This is pretty cut and dry. Find people with great character, a desire to grow and learn, someone with humility, passion and a selfless spirit combined with great care and concern for the well-being of others and you’re going to build a great team. When you’re interviewing someone, put down the resume and focus on “who” they are, what makes them tick and what drives them in life. You’ll make much better hiring decisions.
#10: Work hard. Play hard. Just remember to always work a lot harder than you play.
Are you sensing a theme here? I’ve always believed in the work hard/play hard philosophy but I think some people use it as an excuse to show up to work 40 hours a week and then party their butt off when they’re not working. Hard work and hard play sit on either side of a scale. Just make sure the “hard work” side is a lot more weighted than the “hard play” side and you’ll most likely be successful.
#11: Money is a great amplifier.
An old man told me many years ago that money is a great amplifier. I’ve come to learn how incredibly wise this is. I’ve had many friends and acquaintances who have made fortunes in the last few years. And what is most surprising to me is how money shows up in their life. To those who are well-grounded, caring, charitable, love life and love those around them, money only enhances all of these things. But to the person who is mean-spirited, vain, angry, mean and greedy, money only makes them more so.
To my good-natured friends, they realize money doesn’t buy happiness and wealth is only a tool to help them serve the world, their families and their loved ones in greater ways. Unfortunately, it’s the opposite with my not-so-good natured colleagues.
#12: Appreciate God and your Family in the good times, because they’ll be the ones who get you through the bad times.
In building a business, no matter what level of success you achieve, you are going to go through some dark times. I believe starting, growing and running a business, especially over a long period, is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do in life. It’s not easy and you will be forced to make unpopular decisions that will affect people you love and care about. Or things like dot com crashes or Great Recessions come along, almost wipe you out and test your character, resolve and determination in every way possible.
It’s easy when times are good to take my relationship with God, or my family and me for granted. I hope I’ve learned not to. In fact, the more success I have, the more I realize how little the success has had to do with me and what a major role God has had in leading me, equipping me and helping me (honestly, there are some things that have happened through the life of Centro that defy logic…those are the times I know I’m not in charge and something greater than me is present).
At the same time, when the world is crumbling around you, and your life feels like a living hell and you’re staring into the abyss wondering what it’s going to feel like when you hit the bottom, that’s when you starkly realize that when you do, the people who will love and adore you at the bottom, as much as they love and adore you at the top, are your family. I can’t express my appreciation enough for both God and my family and I hope they know how much I appreciate them and that I don’t take my relationship with them for granted.
In conclusion, the last 12 years of life have been an absolutely insane, mad, crazy and beautiful experience. We’ve accomplished many amazing things. And we’ve always done it “our way.” We’ve stayed true to our values and principles and we’ve built a company we can all be proud of.
However, and most important, our mission is far from over. What we’ve accomplished in the past 12 years needs to pale in comparison to what we achieve in our next three years. It’s not until a supermajority of the global advertising industry is using our media management platform to manage their work lives, data and business relationships will we have achieved the mission we set out to accomplish.
I also expect there will be more rough times ahead. But I have faith that the character, resolve and determination of our people will help us greet the tough times head on, address them swiftly, conquer them and move on much better, faster and healthier than other companies. We’ve overcome a lot and we’ll continue to overcome more so in our future.
Happy Birthday Centro.