Do you ever get Nonsexual Crushes on people? It's not a physical attraction - maybe you just love their intellect or charisma. Nonsexual crushes are the cheerful cousin to evil envy - you wish them no ill will, you just want to spend time with them and learn what they know.
I get them all the time except on entrepreneurs: Nonsexual Entrepreneur Crushes, commonly known as Jason Fried, because I love his perpetual chill.NonSexECs. My buddies have mainstream NonSexECs like Musk, Sandberg, and Bezos. Mine tend to be on founders of smaller companies who have built products that inspire me to reach a higher level with my business. And
My NonSexEC hit peak awkwardness when I texted the Peak Design (PD) founder, Peter Dering, at 2am on a Saturday: "you make me want to be a better entrepreneur." Inspired by Jack Nicholson's "you make me want to be a better man" in As Good As It Gets, the rom-com line was only slightly less awkward with my high school prom date. Like my prom date, Dering was flattered (and like my prom date, our relationship stayed purely platonic).
PD launched their camera accessory company on Kickstarter in 2011 just before I launched my anti-theft bike company on Kickstarter. My company grew steadily, but PD took off like a rocketship: $13M over 5 Kickstarters, $6M of which came from their last Kickstarter, a backpack. But calling it a backpack would be like calling the iPhone just a phone back in 2007: remember the delight you felt holding the first iPhone because it gave you magical powers that you never knew you needed and now can't live without? That's PD's backpack.
Two months after my awkward 2am text message I bought a campervan, drove from Boston to San Francisco, and found myself tailgating with Dering outside of his office. So I interrogated him: "how the hell did you pull this off?!"
He broke rules you learn from professors and business books
- You need to raise a few million dollars to start a fast-growing hardware company. PD raised $0.00 and the team retains 100% equity. They averaged 18 people during most of 2016 and ended with $23M in sales. That's $1.28M in sales per employee. The Google cash machine does $1.20M per employee.
- Only serial entrepreneurs, product designers and MBA-types can start product design companies. Dering is a civil engineer and PD is his first rodeo. Go figure.
- Outsource everything you can except for your core competency. Dering edited his first Kickstarter video on Microsoft Movie Maker, and designed his first products using Google Sketchup. He might as well have used finger puppets and Microsoft Paint. While they've started some outsourcing as their company hits scale, DIY is in the team's DNA.
- Once you find product-market fit, raise money and scale fast. Nah. "Growth is not the goal. The magic is in the camaraderie. Too many new faces too quickly puts that in peril." With an A-Team you can keep a barebones headcount and conserve precious cash needed to hold inventory.
- You need hundreds of customer interviews and consumer product testing. For his first product, the Capture Camera Clip, Dering romped across America's national parks and asked a coupla photographers, "doesn't wearing your SLR around your neck suck? Yeah? Cool!"
- Focus on a niche segment. Don't boil the ocean. After PD launched multi-million dollar camera accessory products for pro/prosumer photographers, conventional business wisdom would've stuck to that audience and product line. Instead, PD launched the Everyday Messenger and Backpack for a mainstream audience. "We made sure the bags clearly spoke to our core camera-owning audience but also said 'these bags are fantastic even if you don't own a camera.'"
It sounds like one of those Instagram stories, "we worked real hard, built this thing, and then POOF: 1 billion dollars." Now we kinda want to hate the guy and say, "That Dering, he's so smug." Except he's not smug, he's Minnesota-made humble pie who quit his job, worked as a bar-back, and slept in a bunk bed in order to follow his dream. That's why it's a NonSexEC, not envy.
So what can we learn from this first-time founder?
Well, we live in a world of not only fake news but also fake "experts". And as you try to pursue your dreams, external voices, cloaked in clickbait and credible sources, subconsciously mess with your head. This morning a famous CEO and respectable publication issued, "14 Requisites for Entrepreneurial Success." Skill #7 and #8 were coding and wireframing. I suck at both. Am I destined for failure? Should I spend the next three years becoming a mediocre coder instead of pursuing my passion?
Peter Dering, Mr. Google Sketchup, has only two superpowers: product vision and certitude. He knew his truth and blocked out all the external Silicon Valley 'wisdom' that said, "take VC and make your products Wi-Fi/Bluetooth enabled. IoT... so hot right now!" That steadfast vision attracted the Peak Design A-Team with other super powers like marketing, engineering, operations, etc. The lesson from Dering and PD is this: find your truth, block out bullshit, and build your company.
I'll leave you with the 311 song lyrics that play in my head every time I think of PD:
"You've got to trust your instinct; And let go of regret; You've got to bet on yourself now star; 'Cause that's your best bet."
And let's throw in Muhammad Ali's best quote to fire up your day:
"I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want."