August 2011

What the hell is SkullCandy?

That was the overwhelming response I got from my friends in college. I had a beat up card board box sitting in the corner of my bedroom with 25 “skull crushers” and a square, black banner from SkullCandy.

“What are you going to do with them?” my friend asked as he was pointing to the box of headphones. “Give them away” I said. “I’m going to have the performers throw them into the crowd at the Halloween Party.”

My friend continued with the questions, “Really? Where did they come from?” I said, “The Consumer Electronics Show. This guy Rick started a headphone company. I couldn’t leave his booth. He had the sickest headphones with ridiculous designs and backpacks with built in speakers. Every design was so interesting and unique. I thought it would be awesome to give these away at the Halloween Party so I called them up and asked if they wanted to sponsor the party. They said yes.”

I’m pretty sure this was one of the first events they ever sponsored. The event was great and I sent them pictures as proof.

(above: picture of Collie Buddz in front of the SkullCandy banner at my Halloween event)

(above: picture of the DJ spinning in front of the SkullCandy banner at my Halloween event)


This was all a result of my 2003 trip to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the same year SkullCandy was founded. I met Rick Alden, John Lisichich, Brad Williams and a few other folks from SkullCandy while I was walking the exhibition hall. I don’t know the exact figures or size of the show off the top of my head, but suffice it to say, you could spend weeks walking the exhibition hall of that show and still not see every booth. And you would want to. As a tech junkie of gadgets and gizmos you could stay busy for hours looking at all the toys, but for some reason I couldn’t leave the SkullCandy booth once I stumbled upon it.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one either.

Fast forward to today. The company is now a publicly traded company and no matter where you go you’ll find SkullCandy product.

When I think about that box sitting in my room I often wonder about what they did so differently or what they did that made them so successful. After all, they were just selling headphones and in a business sense being in consumer electronics is typically a pretty hard business.

But the more I think about it, the more I realized their success came from great marketing and hustle. Rick and his team enthusiastically spoke to almost everyone that walked through their booth and they had a product they were proud to stand behind. It was a product they were excited about and a product mostly everyone else was excited about. It’s pretty easy to see how they would of had success getting their “skull crushers” into stores and moving them off the shelves. And now they are a global brand with product in almost every store.

It’s really exciting to see a small underdog grow up to be a leader in a space and its equally as gratifying to have have been a small part of the ride. I hope I see more success stories like this and hopefully one day I’ll have the opportunity to build a company like Rick did.

Now they are on to much bigger and better events than my tiny Halloween Party.

 (above: “Identity” concert I went to in Camden NJ on 8/19/2011 – DJ avicii is on stage)

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The University of Nothing – The Bylaws

I’ve said several times on this blog that the education system is broken and is in desperate need of change. I now think we are finally starting to see the emergence of a new era in education reform. One led by the private sector.

The issue I still struggle with is how to balance the intersection, or lack thereof, between cutting edge methods of education with societal expectations of having to graduate from an accredited university.

Specifically, what is the difference between a Harvard business professor teaching a Harvard class, in Harvard, vs. someone like a Fred Wilson teaching a business class in his firm’s office? What is the difference between a computer science professor teaching JavaScript in a university building vs. a computer science entrepreneur teaching JavaScript in some office space in NYC?

To me, the answer simply boils down to a piece of paper. A degree. Being able to say you graduated from a prestigious program or accredited university which is still very highly regarded within our society. My friend calls this a “luxury good.”

Furthermore, what does it really mean to have “accreditation in the United States?”  According to the US Department of Education:

The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.

Well I think its clear that the “levels of quality” are definitely not acceptable. Just go watch the movie Waiting for Superman.

And how exactly does a University even achieve this “accreditation?”

Accrediting agencies, which are private educational associations of regional or national scope, develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations to assess whether or not those criteria are met. Institutions and/or programs that request an agency’s evaluation and that meet an agency’s criteria are then “accredited” by that agency.

So I’ve always wondered, “what if there was a way to leverage the best technologies and platforms for education while still maintaining an element of prestige or recognition outside of the broken, very expensive university systems?”

And now I think I know the solution: New Accreditation Agencies and Guidelines.

Here is how it would work:

  1. There would be new, self governed accreditation agencies, with new guidelines, that are not subject to government oversight.
  2. These agencies would be comprised of successful, influential individuals who have rich domain expertise (e.g. venture capital, finance, online ad tech, biology, etc).
  3. The agency itself would be its own university or academic institution.
  4. These agency individuals would oversee: a) the appointment of other “teachers” b) the fundraising initiatives of the “investment pool” (described later) c) public outreach and communications about the agency itself via personal blogs, op-eds on third party publications, etc.
  5. These agency individuals would teach: a) design curriculums, b) teach and broadcast classes using the latest education platforms (e.g. SkillShare, YouTube), c) make introductions as needed on behalf of their students
  6. These individuals would invest: using the “investment pool,” these individuals would allocate money to students that have demonstrated the ability to succeed as a jobs creator, otherwise known as entrepreneurs via their class projects (described later).
  7. The investment pool would be comprised of capital raised from non-profits, endowments, donations and there would be no contingencies tied to the money.
  8. At the end of the curriculum, the students would be given a degree that is widely recognized by the participating members of the agency (e.g. the influential VCs, financiers, executives, etc). Instead of graduating in hopes of getting a job, these students would be graduating with an extensive network of active working people with a possibility of getting money from the “investment pool” to fund a business.
  9. Student tuition is not required.
  10. Tests are not used to assess students. Projects, prototypes, and inventions are.

Although fairly abstract and not fully vetted, I think the final result would be getting a bunch of smart people together, with money to help fund those smart people’s ideas, while providing the students with an umbrella of recognition, and a network of business contacts that could rival an accredited or prestigious university. All the while the students would be learning in the most efficient ways possible.

The best part is, the only people that would care to be involved in such a program would be those looking to build real businesses which in turn will drive innovation, new jobs, and real growth.

The Productivity Paradox

When I was building Spinback as an independent company I would often work 16 hour days. These days were packed with meetings, work, planning, the whole 9 yards. I would come home at 1 am, 2 am, sometimes 3 or 4am. And you might think that after a long productive day the first thing I’d want to do would be to jump into bed and catch some much-needed z’s. Clearly a logical, sound thought. Work hard, go home, sleep. I definitely wanted to go to sleep to recharge and gear up for the next day, but that never turned out to be the case. I found that it was very hard for my mind to turn off and get the rest that I so desperately needed. But even with the lack of sleep, I still somehow had just as much energy the next day as I did the previous day.

In other scenarios and past jobs, I would often work 8 hour days. On many days work for me was slow so naturally I’d have a lot of time on my hands. You might think that having free time would imply that you could use that time to be creative. At the very least, you might think that by the time I got home, I’d have enough energy to start a new project, go to the gym or simply, do something productive. But it turned out that the less I did during the day the more mentally and physically exhausted I was. My brain was like mush. I felt useless.

I couldn’t explain it. It still doesn’t fully make sense to me, but after having this conversation with friends who are running their own businesses or who are really enjoying their work, it’s clear that I am not alone. They all experience this productivity paradox and they too recognize this weird imbalance of productivity and energy.

There is probably a number of reasons why this happens but when I try to make sense out of it I just recall this one quote from and old-time favorite – Shawshank Redemption (clip below):

You either gotta get busy living, or get busy dying.

I’m going to go with the “living” part of that quote. I might not get as much sleep but I think that’s ok. Hope you’ll do the same.

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