How Visionaries Get Tunnel Vision

When I started this blog, I had this idea that I would regularly share my random fleeting thoughts about what inspired me to start my own business. When you’re a business owner with a dream to build something, much of your life even outside of work leaves you connected in many ways to your work. The desire and passion that drove me to build something is central to my makeup So, I’m back, at least for the moment, and I’ve found myself at a crossroads that I never thought I would need to navigate.

I’m often asked about my motives for leaving the car business to become a vendor. This comes up frequently on calls with new or prospective clients. But the truth is, there isn’t enough time during a presentation to really flesh out the entire reason behind what drives me. It ends up coming out something like, “…had great success in retail leveraging digital before anyone else… revolutionized digital at my store… asked to speak on the conference circuit… soon everyone was calling me asking for help… writing was on the wall… knew I could do it better, so I did.” And sure, all of that is true. But the real story started with the dark before the dawn, the chaos that led to creation.

No, I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night and journal out some crazy dream I had like Jerry Maguire. I struggled. I suffered. I battled depression. I thought there was something wrong with me for the longest time. I hated working. I just always thought I should be doing something better, more important — not that I was too good for menial work, but just that there was something I was supposed to be doing and whatever I was doing at the time, wasn’t it! I got fired — a lot! Eventually, I figured out that I had some personality and could eke out a fairly consistent living selling things. So when I accidentally started a family at 19, I dropped out of college and started selling Kirby vacuums door-to-door.

I worked for B.W. Anderson and Associates in Melbourne, Florida, which was a “Factory Distributor” for Kirby vacuums. I became a part of the team that would eventually sell the most Kirby vacuums in a month in the entire world (over 1,000 units sold). I was good. And by “good,” I mean I was there for six full months. That might sound funny, but the Navy Seals have 1/10th the attrition rate that exists for door-to-door salesmen. I answered a blind ad in the paper that guaranteed $300/week and found myself at some kind of looney rally where people where dancing and jumping up and down and clapping and chanting. Granted, it looked like crazy nonsense, but I was hooked. Not because I wanted to dance and clap like a loon, but because I met Brian Anderson. He was 26… and he was a millionaire. He was exciting with an energy unlike any I had ever seen. He was charismatic.

This guy had a dream and he was building it. I learned quickly and I could get in any door — this is actually the hardest part of selling a product door-to-door. Even in the late 90’s people weren’t in the habit of letting strangers in their house when you knocked on their door. I was good — damn good. So Brian took a special interest in me. We’d bomb around in his brand new Porsche 911 turbo or his LX470 and he’d take me to lunch and teach me about self improvement. He’d tell me to read. He’d give me books to read and he would hammer home getting outside your comfort zone. In many ways, Brian was my first real mentor.

Now, it turned out that Brian was a horrible scam artist. About a year after I left, the place closed down. Turns out he bankrupted a finance company that provided sub prime financing for these Kirby vacuums by way of a credit card. Brian figured out a way to get past the 3 day right of recision that lead to every customer defaulting on their payments but requiring the finance company to still pay him. After a few months (maybe 18 or so) of 1,000 Kirbys sold at $2,499 – all on credit cards that would never be paid back – the party was over. But I took a lot of good away from that experience. Most importantly, it was the first time I realized that anyone can build something if they believe strongly enough and they are willing to put in the work that comes before.

Fast forward to 2004. After many sales jobs at many car dealers in Florida and more importantly, after getting slammed by four back to back hurricanes and living without electricity for a month, I packed up the kids and headed back home to Massachusetts to sell cars at Marlboro Nissan. The dealer principal, Jeff Batta, was a long time friend of my father’s. Jeff kinda owed him one and so he took me in and put up with me for a long time. Long enough to get about $30,000 in the hole with my draw. A draw is typically a weekly or bi-weekly advance that most commissioned sales people live on while waiting for their commissions to process. Company gives you $300/week and when your commissions clear they take back what they gave you against your payable commissions. So if you make less commission than you took in draw, you go in the hole. Life was becoming my own personal version of Groundhog Day Hell. It seemed like there was no end in sight.

Then one day, I talked to Steve Fisk, the “internet guy” before there really were “internet guys.” He had a map with pins on it that showed everywhere in the country he had sold a car. It was pretty cool. Then he showed me something I would never forget. He told me to Google “miserable failure.” I did this and the first result was the official autobiography of George W. Bush on whitehouse.gov. I was bewildered.

How could this be?” I thought.

Mind you this was before SEO really existed as an acronym. Steve didn’t know all the ins and outs of how it worked, but he knew enough to point me in the direction to find out more. I was hooked. I learned about link bombs and tricks of the trade at the time. I was enamored with the idea that I could “control the information” that I knew would be powerful in the developing web to come. Moreover, I knew that this was a way to sell more cars and that my timing was such that it could lead to game changing success.

One day, Steve quit. There was no internet guy. And his buddy, Jim McCall, relied on the few leads that came in via the dealer’s website at the time. So Jeff and Dan Hedin (the GSM at the time) gave me the opportunity to become the internet guy. I knew I could only sell so many cars myself and quite frankly, I didn’t really want to sell cars anymore and this was a way for me to seize an opportunity that could facilitate that (win-win before I even knew what win-win was or had read The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People). So I went to Jeff and said, “Listen, I can be really great at this and I can help everyone sell more cars than I would ever be able to sell on my own, so why don’t you pay me to do this?” Jeff smiled and said I needed to keep selling.

Of course, I didn’t listen.

I told Jim McCall that I respected him and in no way thought I was in a position to tell him what to do, but that if he listened to me he would go from selling 15 cars/month to selling 30+ cars. We partnered up and the next month, Jimmy sold 33 cars.

So I went back to Jeff and said, “Hey! See! I can really do this! Give me a budget and pay me to do just this and before long I’ll have everyone selling 30 cars/month!” Jeff just smiled again and said it was a fluke and that I still needed to sell cars. Naturally, I still didn’t listen. So the next month I found another salesperson we called “Squirrel (Todd Weinberg).” Now Squirrel was aptly named. He still reminds me of the squirrel from the kids movie, Ice Age. But Squirrel was ambitious and he certainly wanted to sell more than his usual 12-15 cars/month. So I told Squirrel that if he listened to me he would sell 30 cars next month. Sure enough, he sold 37 and a half cars. I went back to Jeff, and he gave me $425/week and I didn’t have to sell cars anymore.

This grew and grew until eventually nearly every salesperson in the store was selling 20+ cars/month on a very consistent basis. Mind you, at the time, Marlboro Nissan was a 15,000 sq. ft. store with a one-car showroom that was not particularly close to any major metro. Eventually, we became the 3rd highest volume Nissan dealer in New England. Like all dealers we wanted more. So I got a budget and Jeff forced me to hire some kid named Zach Billings to take pictures of the cars we listed online. While I was resistant to being forced to hire someone I hadn’t vetted, it became apparent very quickly that there was potential there and I found myself now in the role of mentor. A month later, Zach convinced me to hire, Andrew Martin, a crony of Zach’s from his previous job at Best Buy.

I hired Zach in June of 2009, Andrew in July of that same year, and one month later we hit a record August in leads and sales and drove over 30,000 unique visits to Marlboro Nissan’s website. The next month, AutoSuccess decided to do a feature article on our achievements and put me on the cover of their magazine, choosing our story for their December issue.

To go back for a moment, within a year of taking over the internet gig, I had paid back my $30,000 draw. I was 31 years old and making about $110,000/year mentoring two young kids and I begin to see this dream coming together. At first, I thought I might do some kind of consulting, but when I considered how weak the products and services that were out there serving car dealers, I knew we could do it better. In 2010, we started managing the digital marketing for some of Marlboro Nissan’s sister stores and before long dealers from all over the country were asking us to help them, too. So we did! And Jeff even gave us his blessing to do it!

In December of 2009 we took on our first client, McCluskey Chevrolet. They are still with us today, nearly seven years later.

In 2012, we realized that we had to make a choice. If we were really going to build this thing called Wikimotive, we were going to have to jump in the deep end and learn to start swimming. In September of 2012, I cashed in my 401K, and Zach, Andrew and I started working out of my basement for zero pay, for what would be the next six months. In February of 2013, Zach and Andrew got their first paychecks. In November, we moved out of my basement into a one-room office at 18 Bradford Street, where we still reside today (we’ve since expanded to the entire building).

Now, it’s important to understand that, from the very beginning, I wanted to do more than just build a great digital marketing company. I wanted to build something that was very different. I wanted to create a place where people were passionately excited to go every day. I wanted to share my dream with everyone who was going to be instrumental in making it reality — to create a culture that would inherently foster true unparalleled excellence. Something I left out earlier was what I learned from the reading that Brian pushed me to do. I found out that I really love to give back. More than that, I love to build up people. I am really driven to unlock the potential that exists in all of us. And one of the most deeply held beliefs I picked up on the way was that if I stopped worrying about where I was in life and stopped focusing on what I wanted or what I needed financially to get it and just focused on helping the people around me get what they wanted — that’s it — if I could help enough other people get what they wanted, then I would have more than I ever dreamed of. This is what gets me up in the morning. It’s what really drives me. I love it!

Today we have 16 full time employees and I have to say they are all truly excellent. I mean rockstar performance excellent. Some of them are so excellent I can’t even believe they are real humans. I always knew I needed to surround myself with people better than me, I just never realized how great and amazing and talented those people could really be. Truly, when I pause to think about it, I’m in awe.

Last week we were honored by a competing company, Launch Digital Marketing/Dealer Inspire with an award for excellence. They hit the scene about 18 months before we did and it was awesome to see a similar company with similar goals and ideals giving us a glimpse of what our future looks like. But it reminded me of two crucial things I had lost sight of: the dream and the culture. After we moved into our offices, I became so focused on the day to day tasks of building the company that I forgot to share the dream. I forgot to keep building my people. Not just the ones right around me, but the ones in the other rooms that I don’t see as often. That I need to move around. That I need to talk to them and know them — really know them. To learn about their dreams and their goals and their hopes and fears. To actually make them part of this family I am trying to share my dream with. That all ends today. Today, I’m breaking out of the tunnel my vision has lead me into.

I hope my team enjoys reading this and I hope they will ask me questions about this. But it’s okay if they don’t because I’m coming. We’re going to get reacquainted and no one will ever think of me as the big, scary, unapproachable boss guy in the corner office ever again!

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