Today is my 43rd birthday. As I think about the last year, my good friend and CEO coach, Kirk Dando, comes to mind. On page 141 of his excellent book Predictive Leadership, Kirk writes:
Remember, the road to heaven does go through hell... and it's worth it. You can decide it if will be a day trip or a daily trip.
A year ago, my 42nd birthday started out with a kick in the gut - it felt like hell.
Bazaarvoice had just lost the Department of Justice case, and we had to begin the process of either beginning to appeal the judge's ruling or helping to find a buyer for and then divesting PowerReviews. To say this was a nightmare come true is an understatement.
Standing in front of all of PowerReviews' employees alongside Andy Chen, the co-founder and CEO of PowerReviews, on May 24, 2012 - the day we announced the acquisition - is a day in San Francisco that I'll never forget. We were finally coming together to bring all of our solutions to our combined set of clients, helping drive more efficiency and effectiveness for consumers, brands, and retailers alike - a real three-way win. I've loved retail since the time I was a child, growing up and working in my parent's stores. This was the culmination of a dream. To build a company that was widely known as one of the best companies to work for in Austin, go from inception to IPO in just six years, have a huge impact on the transparency of commerce globally, ... and then have this happen was very humbling, to say the least. I felt enraged, embarrassed, and depressed. The government had failed to give credibility to our 100 clients that testified. Wasn't this case supposed to protect them? No one that I knew thought we would lose this case and Bazaarvoice had spent over $25 million to fight it. It was the worst thing that has ever happened in my career. In business and life you'll get some good breaks and some bad breaks. This was the worst case of a bad break I had ever experienced.
Crap. Wasn't 42 supposed to be the answer to life, the universe, and everything?! My childhood hero, Douglas Adams, said so, and maybe he was right. In all seriousness, I thought my 42nd year would be my best. After reading the brilliantly funny The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series as a child, I had anticipated turning 42-years old for a long time. The setup for a terrific 42 had been building, as my previous two years on Earth were transitional.
At age 41, Debra and I had made the decision to formally capitalize Hurt Family Investments and for me to not formalize Hurt+Harbach by doing our first fund close with LPs (read my listening to your soul post for more on that). It was one of the hardest decisions I had ever made, and Debra and our Rabbi greatly helped me through it. But looking back at age 41 on my 42nd birthday, I was proud of myself for making the decision, especially with such public scrutiny and expectations. It had been a kick in the gut - a self-inflicted wound - but one that I had healed quickly (with help from those closest to me).
And I had already gone through a tough transition just shortly before - at age 40.
At age 40, when I stepped down as CEO of Bazaarvoice, it was very difficult (if you have never founded a company before, this is hard to understand but leaving the management post for the company that you founded is very hard). But life shouldhave bliss shortly after ... or so I thought. After all, I had achieved my dream! And at that time, I never imagined that the Department of Justice (DOJ) inquiry would turn into an actual case (most lawyers that I knew didn't think it would) - and I certainly didn't think we would actually lose the case if it ever did go to court! We were even able to do a successful follow-on offering at a share price of $15.40 (a discount of only around 1%) with the market - some of the smartest public fund managers - knowing that the DOJ had inquired about our acquisition of PowerReviews (you must disclose any material information to the market when you are a public company).
To work further back in time and give you more context, I had set a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) for my life when I was 25... and I had actually achieved it. While I was earning my MBA, I wrote down the most audacious life goal I had ever set - "one day I'll found a high-tech company, take it public, and achieve this by the time I turn 40". I told my wife, my parents, and just a few friends. When we started our IPO roadshow for Bazaarvoice, I knew that I wouldn't achieve a small part of that goal - the "by 40" part - by a few days.
We kicked off the IPO roadshow in NYC on a Friday morning (February 10, 2012) and the day after I returned to Austin for the weekend, where Debra hosted my 40th birthday party at Malverde (I turned 40 on February 14, 2012), and then we quickly hit the road again. After the typical exhausting (but exhilarating!) multicity pitch process, Bazaarvoice went public 10 days later on February 24. Due to the demand of the funds that we had met on the roadshow, we were able to price our IPO at $12 per share, which was 20% above the max end of the $8 to $10 per share range we had set on the Prospectus. The IPO window had just opened up again and this was viewed as quite an achievement at that time. The Wall Street Journal named us one of the top-five IPOs of 2012.
It was a dream come true, or in this case the biggest career BHAG that I could check off. Standing on that podium to open NASDAQ alongside my wife, Debra, my co-founder, Brant Barton, and the rest of the team was an amazing achievement and I took it all in. We had done it - as a team! The people at Bazaarvoice were the most extraordinary I've ever worked with. I'll never forget NASDAQ hosting a live video-feed in our Austin HQ on the morning of the day we went public (we were the first company NASDAQ ever did this with). All of our offices around the globe were tuned in as well. We all got to see the orders as they came in and the initial market opening price of over $14 per share. There was electricity in the air - this team really was going to change the world, one authentic conversation at a time (our mission statement). We were just getting started...
After stepping down from Bazaarvoice management (but remaining active on the Board of Directors as our Vice Chairman), I went to work part-time at Austin Ventures to learn the business. Although their culture wasn't right for me, I learned a lot. There is no doubt that some of the smartest people in the business work there. It was the first time I was "behind the curtain" to understand how VCs made decisions. I soaked it up and learned as fast as I could.
Outside of Austin Ventures, Debra and I immediately began making angel investments. But instead of risking a lot of money, we risked a small amount. We were new at this, after all. Instead, I would leverage my time to constantly help the companies. I joined Edgecase (formerly named Compare Metrics) in early 2013 as their Chairman of the Board. I could write a lot about our financial strategy as angel investors in this post, but I'll save that for another time (for now, if you are curious, we roughly follow this strategy - but we intuited our strategy from watching others that got into angel investing before us, not by reading Jerry Neumann... although I think he is brilliant and a very talented blogger).
Outside of the looming DOJ case (unfortunately, the DOJ made it an official case several months after I stepped down as CEO), there was a lot of pressure that surrounded me. Almost anytime I would see someone I hadn't seen for some time they would ask, "so when are you starting the next company?" Like an actor that plays a role over and over again, I had been typecast and was expected by society to fit into that "mold". There is no doubt that I'm a natural born entrepreneur - I've been wired that way since I was a kid - and I don't blame anyone for asking me this question. But going back to that "wasn't this supposed to be bliss?" part, it really weighed on me. I started to second-guess myself. Why am I not stepping back "into the arena" (a nod to Theodore Roosevelt's powerful speech in 1910)?
This may not be something you have experienced so let me explain it a bit in aseparate Lucky7 post about big life transitions as I believe it deserves separate treatment.
But after getting through that transition and successfully changing my song on the record of life, I've been absolutely loving my 42nd year. I wake up every day energized to help the now 34 companies in our portfolio. To learn more about why, you could read my post "What I love about angel investing".
42 didn't disappoint - I successfully stuck with the new song and started to love the music. We built Hurt Family Investments into a successful portfolio, we campaigned for an incredible mayor for our city (and he won!), I helped student entrepreneurs as a part-time EIR at U.T. Austin's McCombs Business School (watch my entrepreneur interviews here - I learned a lot from these great entrepreneurs too) and also at The Wharton School, I went on many bucket-list trips with friends and family, I attended TED Global (it never disappoints), I was a better father and husband, and I evenchanged my diet and health for the better (easier said than done). 42 was truly a year of personal growth and big impact.
And on the Bazaarvoice front, while I was 42 I saw the company I founded and loved (and will always love) lose the DOJ case only to emerge in tact with the strong culture it has had from its inception. Gene Austin and his team are doing a great job and the culture of the company feels very strong indeed. Many of the great people (cultural standard bearers) we hired during my time as CEO are still there today. To say that Bazaarvoice's reaction to this loss and the PowerReviews divestiture that followed is inspiring is an understatement - the DOJ loss was the biggest test for Bazaarvoice to date. The soul of Bazaarvoice survived in tact, and the heart beats strong.
42 was the most transformational year of my life. Mr. Adams, you were right (again).
I would love to hear about the most transformational year of your life in the comments below and get a frank dialogue going about this.