My Unhappy Customer Wanted to Kill Me

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com

When I was in high school, I learned two important lessons about business and life.

First, if it’s too good to be true it probably is and second, know who your business partners are. Unfortunately, it was only after receiving death threats from an anonymous Russian, that I came to understand these valuable principles.

About five months earlier my friend and I were sitting in the back room of history class. As a 10th grader, the back room is prime time real estate. It’s where you can get most of your note passing, whispering, and sleeping done. We had been talking about different ways we can make money. This was a hot topic because just a few weeks earlier I was making some spare change by selling bouncy balls to my friends. I’d buy them wholesale on eBay and then sell them for $0.25 to $1.00 per ball depending on the size and color. It was my first lesson in wholesale economics and my friend took notice.


I sold these like hot cakes in high school.

The teacher continued on with the lesson and my friend leaned over, “I know a guy that sells urban clothing at wholesale prices. We should take a drive down there and see what kind of clothes we can buy. We could even resell them to our friends.” There wasn’t really much to think about. I already knew the answer. “Done” I said. “Let’s go after school.” I should of however asked, “how do you know this guy?” I would learn later that the wholesaler was involved with scams before.

Failure #1.

After a brief drive we arrived at some worn down residential home. We walked inside and immediately noticed that the interior was far from residential. It looked more like a warehouse. There were folding tables set up everywhere and the entire space was filled with piles upon piles of brand new clothes.

Jeans, shirts, shorts, blouses, skirts, you name it. It was all there. We sat down with the owner and peppered him with questions.

“Where did this stuff come from?”

“What kind of business is this?”

“Who are these other people in the warehouse?”

All of his answers seemed very legitimate and before we knew it, we were developing our business plan. We would pay someone to build us an e-commerce website, we would do the marketing, sales and advertising, and he would do our fulfillment and drop shipping right from the warehouse.

And that’s exactly what we did.

Within a month we had a fully functioning website and a full time client services representative taking and processing credit card orders. Each morning I would set up our Google and Yahoo ad campaigns and then my customer service employee, otherwise know as my mom, would handle all client email correspondences and orders throughout the day. Slowly but surely the orders came in. First New York, then California, and soon enough, we were taking orders from all over the world. Including Russia. But as the orders and sales grew, so did the complaints.

“What did you send me? I want my money back.”

“Theses clothes have been worn. Is this a joke?”

We thought it was a joke, so we took another trip down to see our wholesaler. “What is going on?” And so his responses began. “We just had some issues with our shipment company. It’s being resolved now, and we’ll be able to replace and take care of those bad orders.” He continued with more of the same and again, the answers all seemed legitimate. In hindsight, my BS detector should have been ringing a whole lot louder, but what did I know? I was just some bouncy ball businessman.

We went through a few more rounds of bad orders and even worse complaints until we got the very descriptive email that said people were going to come after us. And so with a hit on my back and a dysfunctional business, we shut down the operation and returned whatever funds we could to the very unhappy customers.

I learned two very important lessons that day.

  1. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
  2. Know who your business partners are.

The wholesaler was eventually arrested, and I eventually bought more bouncy balls.

How To Prepare for Disasters. Emergency Healthcare and Rescue Tips.

I just finished up my National Ski Patrol refresher over the weekend. This is the 12th year I’ll be volunteering as a patroller at Mount Snow Vermont. For those of you that don’t know what ski patrol is or what we do, you can think of it as an EMT on skis or in my case a snowboard that is primarily responsible for the immediate response, rescue, stabilization, and transport of a patient off of the mountain and to a primary care resource such as a doctor or hospital.

Hurricane Sandy has made everyone aware of the importance of good preparedness and immediate rescue in emergency situations. With that in mind, I wanted to share a few tips that you could use in times of an emergency.

Hands-Only CPR. In times of an emergency or a disaster, it is likely that people around you may go into shock. This could happen for a number of reasons but the result is that a person may experience low blood pressure, a rapid heartbeat, or poor diffusion which means organ’s aren’t getting the appropriate blood and oxygen levels. These issues can lead to death. One serious cause of shock might be due to hypothermia. With many people still out of heat, coupled with another storm coming, it’s entirely possible that you come across someone in need of CPR.

We watched this video (below) at our refresher and it is a great lesson on hands-only CPR. You can do this without being certified in emergency healthcare and it could make all the difference in a life or death situation. As for the video itself, please disregard the emergency number in the video as this was created for the British Heart Association.


Have a Plan: In Ski Patrol, we train and plan for a variety of scenarios that are both likely and unlikely to occur. The likely scenarios are things like broken legs or head injuries. The unlikely scenarios are things like an entire chairlift collapsing. In either case, we have a plan and set of tools we can use to handle any situation.

In times of an emergency, it is important to stay organized and have a plan. Hurricane Sandy caught everyone off guard and many were ill-prepared. In 2001 my family was also caught off guard when an F2 tornado hit our house in New Jersey.

Just like the fire-escape route in your office building, your family should have a defined plan of action in the event of an emergency.

Have the Tools: I think we all now understand the importance of preparation so some things to consider include: food and water supplies, clothing for extreme weather conditions, medical supplies like bandages and medicine, tools like knives and shovels, and gas and fuel.

Below is an actual list of items that a Sandy victim is in need of. Might you need these things too in case of another emergency?

  • – work gloves to pick up your sewage soaked stuff
  • – black garbage bags to put them in….
  • – swiss army/leatherman type multi tools
  • – hand sanitizer
  • – plastic grocery bags for use over spackle bucket as toilet. baby wipes and diapers also
  • – paper towels / toilet paper/ zip lock bags all sizes
  • – plastic tarps to lay your good stuff on so it stays off of the wet porch and street while you pack it in your car…
  • – rope to tie down your roof and your hatch back so you can fit more stuff per trip.
  • – rubber boots for cleanup volunteers and the older people wandering the street in their slippers because they will not leave their homes….
  • – propane as people are using their gas grills to keep warm…
  • – flashlights/batteries/head lamps
  • – metal water/paint buckets to boil water on the grill to make cup of soup/canned ready to eat meals (think chef boyardee) especially with pull tops!/tea/hot cocoa/instant coffee also flip top canned fruit!
  • – certified red plastic gas cans… as people are bringing poland spring jugs to the gas station and being turned away .. 2- 1/2 gallon or smaller…. we would love 5 gallon ones too but they are very heavy to carry when full especially if you have to walk a great distance…….. trust me I know!
  • – our “pipe dreams” are for generators and hand trucks but we will work on the small stuff for now…
  • – I know there are more items but these are what WE needed when we were there… clothing and food being brought by local scout troops etc but the above things the stores down there are out of!

So there you have it. Having a basic understanding of life saving skills like CPR, having a plan, and having the right tools can make all the difference in another disastrous situation.

Value of Engineering to the Entrepreneur

This post originally appeared on Badger Engineers.

My company Spinback was recently acquired by Buddy Media, the largest Facebook Management Company in the world. It’s clear that my four years studying in the Wisconsin College of Engineering has played a role in that acquisition.

At the core, I’d argue that an engineering, math, or science related degree is the single best degree or use of four years in an undergraduate program, especially a program at UW – Madison. In my years in the COE, I obtained a certain skill set that has helped me succeed during and after school, and in the various businesses I was involved with including Spinback. I’m not talking about skills like designing a circuit or solving for a system of equations. I’m talking about the cliché skills we always hear about but disregard as obvious and too abstract for our own benefit.

The skills I’m talking about are teamwork, problem solving, hard work and creativity. In every single class and project that I worked on while at school, each one of these skills was required.  I remember spending many hours with my friends like Steve Weisman (ECE ’08) and David Nosbusch (ECE ’08) poring over class notes and textbooks (and also starting two businesses together while at school). No matter what the content and material, the routine was the same. We studied together, relentlessly discussed the problems together, and used creativity to help solve a solution when we couldn’t find one. In the COE, this is what we were all taught to do. In the real world, these are the skills that have helped me succeed and they are also the same skills that have given me confidence to venture out as an entrepreneur.

Before we were acquired, we were the typical startup. We had raised very little money and had a billion and one things to do. We had to build a product, sell the product to clients, create marketing materials, manage finances, create processes and business workflows, deal with attorneys, and on and on. The reality is I never learned about any one particular topic in school that was applicable to our business. Its not like I took a class called “how to prioritize features” or “how to get a terms sheet from a VC.” I did however learn how to think in a certain way. An analytical thought process that allowed me to break down each component of our business and understand how each component affected the other.  And this is what engineering is all about. It’s about understanding how things work, in order to identify a problem and ultimately solve for that problem.

At Spinback, the problem we were solving was how to help online retailers leverage social media to drive and track new sales. In a short period of time, our solutions called EasyShare and EasyTrack helped us secure over 15 clients in less than two months. We were able to sign up some of the largest online retailers in the world, convince investors to give us money to scale our business, and secure our position as a thought leader in the social commerce space. As a result, we were lucky and fortunate enough to be acquired by one of the fastest growing technology companies of all time.

Looking back, I can recall one very late night in our Union Square office. As we were trying to solidify a sales and marketing strategy one of my partners said, “this is one giant equation that we are solving.”  In that moment I thought about the four years at UW-Engineering and said, “Yes, yes it is.”

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Dogpatch Labs NYC – The Spinback Home

Now that the dust has settled a bit and the acquisition is done, I wanted to talk a little bit about Dogpatch Labs NYC and the role they played in Spinback.

1. Collaboration

For the past few months the Spinback team has been working out of a union square loft in NYC hosted by Polaris Ventures. We have been working alongside 15 – 20 other impressive and humbling startups all of which are building truly unique businesses. Every day, we had the opportunity to walk around to other startups and engage in conversation on a variety of topics that affected our business. We were able to get real time feedback on specific topics from unique perspectives. For example, a custom commerce startup gave us feedback on our EasyShare design and sharing process. A real-time group messaging platform gave us insights to different marketing tactics.

2. Networking

In addition, many companies were often meeting with angel investors, advisors, clients, and other high level folks. Often times, these meetings would spill out on to the Dogpatch floor and we would also end up speaking with these guests. These folks would dive right in and start asking us questions like “what are you working on” or “who are your working with?” Questions that ultimately led to more introductions and more business relationships. Furthermore, many of the folks in Dogpatch Labs have previously worked at other startups and large corporations so it would be a fairly regular occurrence for a fellow dogpatcher to say, “hey, do you want to meet so and so at company x?”

3. Education

Lastly, Dogpatch Labs would host many lectures, seminars, keynotes and workshops for people in the startup and technology community. It was commonplace to have 40 people listening to a speaker at the front of the office while we were writing code and making client phone calls in the back of the room. This aspect of Dogpatch Labs transformed the space from an office to a next generation classroom.

At the end of the day, Dogpatch Labs is perhaps one of the most important entities in the NYC startup community. Their ability to provide opportunities around collaboration, networking and education makes them the ideal home for early stage companies.

Big thanks to Peter FlintMatt Meeker, and the rest of the Dogpatch family for letting Spinback call Dogpatch Labs our home for the past few months. Also, big thanks to the rest of the dogpatchers for keeping us humble and hungry in the pursuit of building a great business.

(partial) Spinback Team @ Dogpatch:

(left to right: Andy, Corey, Dan)

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My Company Spinback Is Being Acquired

As the news says, today my partners and I over at Spinback are pleased to announce that we’ve been acquired by Buddy Media, the Facebook management system of choice for eight out of the ten top global advertisers.

When we started Spinback the goal was to build the most cutting edge technology that would facilitate conversations and sharing of products. More importantly, we wanted this technology to also track how word of mouth marketing affects new sales and new customer acquisition.

Now as a part of Buddy Media, we will have  all the tools and infrastructure necessary to accelerate our collective mission which is ultimately about leveraging this new social web in new and interesting ways for leading companies around the world.

We are really excited to begin the next chapter and I’ll leave the rest of the details to Buddy Media.

On to the next one…

UPDATE – Here are a few press releases:

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Not Being Able To Help

The situation in Japan is really horrible but perhaps an even worse situation is that rescue workers and aids are afraid to help those within a 12 mile radius of the nuclear power plant.

Aid agencies are reluctant to get too close to the plant. Shelters set up in the greater Fukushima area for “radiation refugees” have little food, in part because nobody wants to deliver to an area that might be contaminated. And with little or no gasoline available, not everyone who wants to leave can get out.

The catch 22 is that all rescue workers and first responders are trained to check for scene safety before engaging in any rescue operation. So what do you do when an entire region is contaminated with radiation? This is the issue many are struggling with and as a result, many more are most likely facing dire circumstances.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans I remember getting an email from someone on my ski patrol because they were looking for volunteers to head down and help with emergency rescue efforts. I was literally packing a bag before I got into a big argument with my parents. The short version is I lost that argument and I didn’t go to New Orleans. I did however get to chat with one of those patrollers about his experience in New Orleans. A few years later I also heard his stories from Haiti and its amazing to see what some people are willing to do to help others.

But now I see the situation in Japan. People want to help but they are afraid to. I guess even the bravest and most willing people have their limits but it also makes me think about the people who could and should be contributing to causes within their reach. The situation in Japan makes me think about all those that can be helped and should be helped.

So I guess my point of this post is, if you are able to help or improve someone else’s life you should absolutely do so. If people are willing to put their lives at risk, it shouldn’t be so hard for you to do a simple task of kindness.

“Not every day is going to offer us a chance to save someone’s life but every day offers us an opportunity to affect one” – Mark Bezos

Video below – this is one of the best short talks I’ve seen in a while. Take 4 minutes out of your day and watch.

A Focus Group of 1

A classic red cruiser: the Schwinn Phantom. Th...
Image via Wikipedia

As we continue to build our business at spinback we continue to engage in a number of very interesting conversations on the topic of product recommendations and sharing. Jared Spiegel, a friend of mine and someone who is currently participating in the Brooklyn Law Incubation Program (BLIP), made the following point that I thought really highlights the core of why product sharing is so valuable. His point is this:

Suppose you are interested in purchasing a new bike. The single most important thing that you are looking for is durability and reliability. That is, you don’t care about looks, design, or wheel style – what you do care about is the frequency of repair. As a reasonable and sensible person, you consult Consumer Reports and learn that the bike with the best repair record is clearly a Schwinn. No other bike even comes close. Naturally, you decide that the next day you are going to buy a Schwinn bicycle.

Suppose that the night before you are going to make your purchase, you are at dinner with a few friends where you announce your intention to buy a new bike. One of your friends at the table says “I just bought a Trek bicycle last week and I love it! It’s much better than my rusted, beat-up Schwinn. In fact, I’ve never been so happy with a bike in my life!”

Let’s suppose that the ranking you read on Consumer Reports was based on a sample of 1,000 bike owners. Your friend’s preference for his Trek bike (and distaste for his old Schwinn) has increased the size of the sample to 1,001. It has added one negative case to your statistical bank. Logically, this should not affect your decision. But a large body of research indicates that such occurrences, because of their personal character and connection between the purchaser and the source of the information, assume far more importance than their logical, statistical status would imply. All other things being equal, most people are more deeply influenced by one clear, personal example than by an abundance of statistical data.

So even if there is a large data set that crunches consumer reviews looking for the very best product, it really only takes a focus group of one and a personal connection to influence someone’s buying decision.

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Moving on from Lotame to SpinBack

As of today, I’ll be leaving the Lotame family to pursue a new endeavor called Spinback.com.

Like all hard decisions, this one was not easy but here’s the story:

When I first started Lotame I was in the midst of building a business called TheCampusAtlas.com with three of my engineering buddies from school. But through a coincidental encounter at Mount Snow I met Andy Monfried who was also in the midst of starting a new business called Lotame. At the time I wasn’t quite sure what to do. We had already launched on 5 schools and had about 10 more on deck. So the question was, do I pick up the dice on Campus Atlas and join Andy’s new business? Or do I ride out the true startup wave with my friends and see where the Campus Atlas could go? Well, after living with and interning for Andy for those 2 months in the summer of my junior year the answer was pretty clear.

When I finished the Lotame internship, I ended up working remotely from Madison while finishing up school and as soon as school was done, and as soon as I was able to actually work, I was in the Lotame office cranking out phone calls, emails and all other sorts of tasks. During my time there, we went from a little office in Maryland with just a few folks and $0 in revenue, to almost 70 employees with offices in Maryland, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, London and quite a few dollars in revenue. I helped create new partnerships, new strategies, and new products, but most importantly, I created new relationships with great people. People that I consider family and people who I would do anything for.

And in all my time at Lotame this was the most important thing I learned from Andy. That no matter what happens in life or on any journey you take, the most important part is the people you are with.

But like any journey, there are crossroads and I am presently at one of those crossroads. I now have the opportunity to start a new business with two friends from school in a space that is just beginning to really innovate: the e-commerce sector. So as of today, I’ll be officially teaming up with two of my Badger friends on a new journey that involves technology, retailers, word of mouth marketing, and crazy amounts of hard work.

One of the things that has been evident my entire life is that purchases are never made in a vacuum. Whenever we look to buy something, whether it is a TV, a plane ticket, a new movie, or even a meal at dinner, we almost always ask trusted friends or family for advice. We ask for their opinion. Better yet, we sometimes get contacted out of the blue by our friends with new recommendations and suggestions. In my opinion, this method of product discovery or information acquisition is the single most important way we learn about new things or new products. And now with new communication mediums like Facebook and Twitter, the velocity by which this information can be shared is exponentially greater. At spinback, our mission will be to help retailers leverage the power of this medium in a trustworthy, efficient and innovative way.

So that’s what I’ll be doing in this next chapter of my life. At the same time, I’ll be rooting for everyone at Lotame. Thanks Andy.

On to the next one…

Happiness Comes From Helping Others

March 6, 2009 Morning Calm Weekly - IMCOM-K - ...
Image by US Army Korea – IMCOM via Flickr

Mark Suster wrote a great post yesterday called “Life is 10% How You Make It and 90% How you Take It” and it’s definitely worth a read for anyone doing the entrepreneurial thing.

He talks about how “happiness has to be a state of mind” and how “you need to constantly remind yourself to be happy whatever your life’s circumstances.”

I was thinking about this a lot over the past two days. The idea of “happiness” and what it really takes to be “happy” – a sort of corollary to Mark’s post. And I couldn’t help think about one of my most serious rescue incidents on Ski Patrol.

It was my first year “cut loose” on mount snow’s ski patrol, which meant I was able to go out on codes (which are reports of an injury or incident) and provide emergency medical care to guests. I didn’t have to shadow any of the seasoned ski patrollers. I had passed my certifications, was approved by senior patrollers to respond to codes, and was now ready to handle situations on my own.

It was Saturday. Sunny, blue skies, with a temp of about 35 degrees. I was wearing my new, fresh, red ski patrol jacket with a white cross on the back, had all my medical equipment in a pack strapped around my waist, and was sporting my new Burton snowboard. I decided to take a run down the front side of the mountain on the “Standard” trail (this ski trail runs directly under one of the main ski lifts). About half way down the trail and towards the top of the ski lift, I approached a group of people huddling around what seemed to be a small person laying on the ground. I quickly sped up on my snowboard and as I got closer, I could see that there was a person in a blue jacket performing CPR on a young boy who was about 12 years old. There were about 10 other people huddling around the boy and meanwhile, there were hundreds of people passing above us from the chairlift, with their eyes now peeled on the ski patroller and the boy on the ground.

The person in the blue jacket quickly identified himself as a doctor (ironically enough, many doctors are never fully trained as first responders and never get experience with emergency situations. This doctor was one of them). Witnesses told me the boy tried jumping off of a log unsuccessfully, fell back, and hit his head on the log. He was not wearing a helmet, became unconscious and stopped breathing.

Within seconds of my arrival, the boy began breathing again but was still unconscious. I performed a quick assessment, took his vitals and stabilized his neck. I radioed in (as a code 3 – the most serious of codes) for additional personnel and equipment, specifically needing a backboard, neck collars, oxygen, and suction (in case the boy started to throw up while still unconscious). I requested a helicopter to transport him to a hospital and within minutes, a helicopter was put in the air en route to the mount snow airport.

About 1 minute after I called for extra hands and equipment, 3 more patrollers were on the scene helping me package, stabilize and transport the boy off the hill. We put him in a sled and I quickly snowboarded him down the mountain and into the doctor’s office. As soon as we got him off the mountain, we put him in an ambulance that was already waiting for us, shut the doors, and watched the ambulance take off to meet the helicopter for transport.

The boy’s fate was now out of my control. I had no idea what was going to happen to him and didn’t know if my actions helped or hurt his chances of survival. That night was tough for me and I can’t imagine how tough it must have been for his parents.

The next day, I returned to the mountain to patrol and at about 1:00pm I got a phone call at the summit rescue building.

It was the doctor who treated the boy on his way out with the ambulance. He said that the boy had suffered major head trauma and that his fate could have gone either way, but as a result of my actions and that of my team, the boy was going to be ok.

I realized at that moment that true happiness comes from helping others. The bigger impact you make on someone else’s life, the happier you will be, and the happier they will be.

Win, win.

Oreos are Good, Especially The Audience Layer

Photo of an Oreo cookie on a white table.
Image via Wikipedia

Doug Weaver wrote a great piece today titled The New Oreo, Part 3: The Audience Layer.

“Anyone mildly plugged into digital advertising in 2010 can’t possibly ignore the noise and energy around audience buying.

There are many people in our industry who can go a lot deeper on this topic than I…”

I’ll attempt to take it a bit “deeper” but will do so around his 4 premises.

  1. It’s a Different Marketplace: “Audience buying is happening, and it is going to happen more”, but today, the market is not transparent. There are many companies out there that can sell your data for a price (and if not tied to media its probably much less), but what value are you getting other than a new, arguably small revenue stream? Are you learning about data strategies for your own organization? Are you learning about audience data collection, segmentation and optimization? If you’re going to invest time and effort in a new partnership, understand how the “data” company can make you smarter and affect your business in a meaningful way. One that adds long term value. Remember what ad networks did to your business?
  2. Create a Trading Desk: “Segregating and centralizing the audience selling activity inside your organization is a good idea. Keep your ‘page sellers’ focused on selling the value of placement. Let your specialists manage the relationships and requests from DSPs and interact with your optimizers.” I would take this one step further..in the opposite direction. Publisher that can take the lead and sell audiences on top of their placement should see increased CPM rates and differentiation from their competitors. If this is where the market is heading, might as well start understanding it now.
  3. Demand See-Through Tags: If a company is tagging your site, you should not only understand who pays the freight, but you should have some visibility into the actual shipment. Simply put, you are entitled for more insights other than just a paycheck.
  4. If You’re a Data Enabler, Get Paid for It: Publishers should absolutely get paid for their data, but they should work to optimize the use of that data by looking at and leveraging the individual behaviors as well as applying that data towards multiple revenue streams. Companies that can offer revenue streams for media and data, using the same data source, can help the publisher over the long haul in establishing a meaningful, multifaceted business.

(Disclosure: The post can also be found at Lotame Learnings. Lotame is my current employer)

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