In a raucous and racy talk, Bob Parsons told the audience yesterday at Inc. and CNBC's Iconic 2015 tour in Washington D.C. colorful stories about the times in his life that taught him valuable lessons. Here are a few of his favorite tales and what he learned from them:
Don't try this at school
When Parsons was in fifth grade, his father sent him off to a traditional Catholic school in Baltimore, where the teachers were nuns who wore full habits.
“If I was in school today, I woulda been pumped full of Ritalin," Parons said. "Back then i was just a pain in the sisters’ ass.”
Parsons said he'd actually failed 5th grade, but he took a crazy chance and hopped in line with the kids who had passed, tricking his parents and dodging the report that said he'd flunked. He said he kept it a secret from his parents the whole summer - "the longest summer of my life" he recalls- and kept expecting the school to call, or his mom or dad to find out. But lucky for him, his teacher Sister Brenda decided to change her mind and promote him to 6th grade.
"That is how I went into the 6th grade with 4th grade skills," Parson told the laughing crowd.
Parsons' lesson: "Sometimes when you take a chance, it pays off."
That First Day on Hill 190
Parsons continued to struggle in school, and his grades got even worse his senior year, after he "discovered girls, alcohol, and the Beatles," he chuckled. With few prospects, he enrolled in the Marine Corps with some buddies.
Seven months after boot camp, he found himself in Vietnam as part of Delta Company, First Batallion, 26th Marines. They were stationed in an old French fort on a place known as Hill 190.
"I went and sat on one of these old French walls that looked out on this valley and it was beautiful," he said. "There, I had the only anxiety attack I’ve ever had in my life."
He was part of a crew of replacements - his predecessors had been shot and wounded in an ambush. His squad's longest-serving veteran had been there a mere two months.
His hands got clammy, he had trouble breathing. He could only think: I'm going to die here.
"When you confront your own mortality, it's not a trivial thing," he said. But on that wall he made a decision: Come what may, each day he would simply do the best job possible and try to survive until mail call the next morning: "It was like a great weight was lifted off my chest."
Parsons' lesson: "If you can accept the worst thing that’s going to happen and live with it, you become very functional. Matter of fact, you become superman or superwoman…When it comes to succeeding, the thing that will get in your way is your own doubts. So accept the worst, and go on."
Making The Grade
After a month as a rifleman, Parsons hit a mine's tripwire while out on patrol and got wounded. After his stint in the hospital, the Marine Corps reassigned him to the relative safety of the Intelligence division.
"Either they spotted potential or the system wasn’t that good," he said with a smile.
When he got home, he enrolled at the University of Baltimore--the school accepted veterans without requiring the ACT standardized test or a high school transcript. (Good, because his was awful.) He majored in accounting, he said, because it was the first major listed in the book.
It turned out he had a natural aptitude for math. That, combined with the discipline he learned from the marine corps, helped him graduate from the school Magna Cum Laude.
Parsons' Lesson: "The Marine Corps taught me that when you have a responsibility, you do it, and you do it the best as you can. When you give your word, that means something."
The Parsons School of Advertising
After graduation, Parson got a job as an in-house accountant for a company in Redwood City, one of the suburbs of the Silicon Valley. There, during a visit to the company's office near the Stanford campus, he bought a book on the BASIC programming language and started dabbling.
He became a full-on computer hobbyist, tinkering with machines and developing his own software. By 1984, he had developed a piece of personal accounting software, not unlike Quicken. It was called Money Counts.
But the software struggled in the marketplace. The first year, he lost $15,000 of savings. The next year, he lost $25,000, he said. Few people had heard of his accounting software. More than anything he just wanted to make the product viable. "I wasn't worried about making money, I just wanted to have this thing work." Flipping through magazines like PC Mag and Byte, he dreamed of a day when his company's ads would appear beside those of giants like IBM and Compaq.
Finally, he made the marketing equivalent of a hail mary pass. He spent $5,000 to buy a front-page ad that ran on the cover of a regional computer publication. In it, he advertised his software for the bottom-basement price of $12, with no restrictions on copying or anything else. Sure enough it worked.
"We more than doubled our money on that ad." So Parson took that ad to bigger and bigger publications, and watched his sales volume grow. "That was the year I discovered how to market."
Revenue eventually grew to over $100 million, he said, and he and his wife sold the company to Intuit for $64 million.
Big ads, low prices, and audacious claims would be part of the Parson playbook for years to come.
Parsons' lesson: "Little ads don't work. BIG ads work!"
Facing Down Failure
Parson's biggest success, of course, is GoDaddy, the domain registration business he founded in 1997. But four years into the business, he almost quit. He had lost all but $6 million. Few people had heard of GoDaddy. And many of his dotcom boom competitors were flush with funding and outspending him on ads large and small.
In 2001, with the business's future in jeopardy, he decided to take a vacation to Hawaii and decide whether he should just give up and shut the thing down, and hold onto his $6 million.
His epiphany happened at the hotel's valet stand. The man parking cars was Parson's age. But unlike Parson, who was miserable, "this guy was happy as a lark!"
"I said I'm going to go back, and strap myself with the mast, and if the company goes down, I'll go down with it. And if that happens fine. I'll park cars. Actually I wanted to be a stick man at the Craps table. I think that's a hell of a good job."
Lo and behold - the economy crashed in 2001, his competitors had no money, and suddenly his low prices looked great to cost-conscious consumers.
"Since I was the only company that had been paying his bills, I suddenly had friends I didn't know I had," Parson said.
"We became profitable. And we've never missed a month since
Parsons' lesson: Net worth isn't the same thing as satisfaction. "Find something you love," Parson told the crowd by way of closing. "When you love something, it tells you all its secrets."