I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the Coronavirus outbreak is affecting everyone’s outlook on our future and economy, and it’s caused me to reflect even more on the principles that gave me perspective during economic downturns of the past. We’re living in unprecedented times, and for professionals who entered the workforce during the boom within the last decade, it can be particularly scary. It’s clear that we’re in an economic crisis, and for some of you, this will be your first time seeing it from the inside. I started my career during the Dotcom crash of 2000 and was deep into developing start up companies when the next crisis hit in 2008. Though these crises took a toll on the economy and the American psyche, we persisted, survived and even flourished beyond them. Having lived through several downturns, I thought it’d be helpful to share how the practice of long term visualization has been an essential tool for developing my personal perseverance and grit over the years.
Prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, tech companies were experiencing growth unlike anything the market has witnessed before. Wages, stocks and ownership have grown, and in most major metropolitan markets around the nation, real estate values hit all-time highs. Abundance was all around, especially in Seattle, where the job market has been hot, and construction seems nonstop. But as you can also see from the chart below, the growth of the last decade for all of the US market was also unprecedented.
The Importance of Perspective
In times like these, I think it’s important to step back and gain perspective. I thought it might be helpful to share my personal story having lived through two economic roller coasters: the 2001 Dotcom bubble, and the 2008 housing crisis. From personal experience, I can tell you that living through an economic cycle changes you. It builds resilience, it puts things in perspective. For me, it further instilled the value of being frugal and to never live beyond my means. It also taught me there is really zero job security anywhere so you better enjoy what you do.
I am sure many of you have fears about what could happen. Will I have a job? Will my family be okay? What if my kids don’t go to school until fall? What if unemployment reaches 25%? When you turn on the TV and talk to friends, it seems all we think about is COVID-19. In the moment, it can be overwhelming. I can find some peace in looking back on what I’ve learned from living through a similarly scary and uncertain moment in time. For those of you who have lived through times like this, I encourage you to talk to your teams about your own story. For those of you who haven’t, I hope my story provides perspective and keeps your mindset optimistic about the future through this challenging time. This, too, shall pass.March 2000 — Dotcom Market Crash
It was March 2000, and the Dotcom market just crashed. I was 24 years old, working at a small startup, and my employer decided to stop paying me commissions even though I was still closing deals. I told him he owed me money, but he wouldn’t pay what he owed. I needed that money to live, so I quit. I tried to get unemployment, but they wouldn’t give it to me because I quit my job. I then tried to get my employer to pay unemployment. He wouldn’t, so I fought him in court, but this process took 6 months.
At 24, I was receiving entry-level wages ($35K a year), and I had no nest egg. Even with the job, I could barely pay rent, and all of a sudden, I had zero income. I also still had $17k in student loans to pay. For the first time in my life, I started racking up thousands of dollars in credit card debt to survive. I also just broke up with a serious girlfriend I had been dating for 4 years. It was a low point mentally, emotionally, and financially, and things got so bad all I ate was canned chili and ramen. Desperate and in need of money, I was too proud to move back to my dad’s house. I couldn’t sleep and would have night sweats and panic. I let my fears control me, I felt like the world was punishing me, and I was all alone. The future seemed really bleak.
“This moment is as it is because the entire universe is as it is. When you struggle against this moment, you’re actually struggling against the entire universe.” — Deepak Chopra
Towards the end of my unemployment, I was unhealthy and miserable, so I decided to work on the only thing I could control: my health. I finally got serious about my physical well being. The first week I started working out, my stress level decreased, and I slept better at night. It was at this time that I started thinking past my hellish situation and started visualizing my future.
Finally, 6 months later, after several rounds of interviews, I secured a job at Microsoft through the help of an outside recruiter. This gentleman took the time and spent hours helping me to rewrite my resume. To this day I share his format with others. I also won my battle with my former employer, and received 6 months of unemployment paid out all at once. Within 4 months, I was debt-free again. That was 2002. This period was one of the most challenging in my life, but it taught me a crucial lesson about grit. A lesson I value now more than ever.
Overcoming Barriers Through Visualization
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become.” — Buddha
Every day, I think about where I want to be at 60 years old. I ask myself, “have I done everything I wanted to do in my life”? I’ve found this visualization makes the hurdles of daily life feel small. To this day, I work out every week. This is not only an essential physical time for me but also a sacred “think time.” It is time for me to visualize where I want to be. I think about how my efforts and goals can make life better for my family and kids. I visualize the goals I want to achieve, and the actions I want to take to make them happen. It’s important to think actively, and critically about the moves you are going to make each day to work towards your vision.
The Housing Crisis of 2008
Fast forward to the national financial and housing crisis of 2008. People were literally abandoning their homes by leaving their keys in the front door and walking away. Yes, people we’re literally leaving keys in their front door and ditching their homes. It was a scary time. Unemployment was at 12%, and I just left Konnects, a startup I previously co-founded. I had no income for the second time in my career, and this time I had a daughter on the way. Finding a job was my focus as my wife was working, and I wanted to contribute to our family.
OfferUp was conceived during this time. A time of crisis. It started with a personal pain point; I wanted to sell unused goods in my home to make room for my soon to be daughter’s nursery. I wanted to get value in the form of cash and give value to those who needed my used goods. I also recall during this time talking to many small business owners who were desperate to get customers into their business.
One thing that was clear to me was that if we could leverage the power of the smartphone, we could unlock local value. Value that’s locked up all around us in people’s garages, in local businesses, in retail stores, and so on. I thought the opportunity was gigantic, and existing desktop players only served a fraction of the potential market. With the smartphone, we could create an app that made local transactions as frictionless as possible.
Staying #Scrappy In Uncertain Times
Having already lived through the Dotcom bubble, I wasn’t as terrified, but on edge nonetheless. It was no longer just myself that I had to consider. I was now married with a daughter on the way. We lived a frugal life (lessons from the past), so we knew we could get by on one income. But we took zero vacations and steak dinner wasn’t an option. Luckily my wife was supportive during this time, although we definitely had our moments when we questioned how long we could keep doing this.
To get OfferUp off the ground, my co-founder and I raised $100k from a single investor who took the risk on us and made every single dollar count. That $100k lasted us 12 months. We were able to make every dollar count by making daily decisions to be cost-effective. We worked at home, we didn’t pay for office space, we didn’t have expensive equipment, and we didn’t pay ourselves. We did use it from time to time for food. I remember telling Arean (OfferUp’s cofounder), I am going to spend $500 on groceries for my family this month. Sometimes, we would have meetings at our favorite local coffee shop or the public library. At the library, they specifically had a policy of no business meetings there, so we would make up neighborhood association names like “Misty Pines” just so we could utilize their meeting rooms. We liked that space because they had a massive room with a big whiteboard for drawing, and best of all, it was FREE. When I wasn’t coding, I was networking. I networked my butt off to find engineers and investors who were willing to take the risk on a startup with almost no capital and no traction. Since we couldn’t pay them much, I created a formula whereby they would get paid in partial cash and stock in OfferUp for each hour worked. We found a few engineers who were willing to take the risk and, as a result, launched the OfferUp website and iOS app in our first year.
One thing I was sure about was that my most valuable currency that first year was my time and how I chose to spend it. Like all of us right now, I spent a lot of time at home sitting behind my computer. I spent days and nights designing the first OfferUp website and app. However, I did it for a year straight (which I wouldn’t recommend). I would sketch out designs constantly and pester my wife and friends to give me their feedback. To keep going, I told myself, “I won’t let them out-execute me,” so we hustled and focused all my time on the work. While we had a few part-time mobile developers, I coded the entire frontend of the website myself.
I worked every waking hour I could. Many days I wouldn’t even shower. My wife would come home, and I would tell her to leave me alone so I could code. I would try to make it a priority to spend time with her late in the evenings and more on the weekends. But I was all in.
Our persistence paid off, and slowly but surely, we got more capital and started hiring. However, we rarely had more than 4 months of capital in the bank. It was hand-to-mouth for over a year and a half before we raised our Series A funding. Since then, life has gotten more comfortable in many ways but more challenging in others. We’ve definitely had many massive obstacles we’ve had to overcome along the way, as all businesses do.
Today, my job and associated stresses have changed dramatically since the days of coding in my pajamas. I can’t have that dedication to a single task now, even if I wanted to. Especially with two kids now, finding three hours of home uninterrupted at-home time is unheard of. Many of you are juggling the same family pressures and priorities.
Visualizing Our Country’s Future
So during this time, my encouragement is to be intentional about how you spend your time and treat every day like an opportunity to take steps towards your goals. Get into a daily routine. Brush your teeth, comb your hair, go for a walk. Write down what you want to accomplish each day and focus on it.
The Coronavirus outbreak is a history-shaping event. In my view, it will be one that cuts very deep into our economy even if we happen to start heading back to the office in the next few months. The U.S. has an annual GDP of $21 trillion. At the moment, the largest economy on earth has come almost to a screeching halt. Nearly all commerce has stopped in its tracks.
While OfferUp has our own business challenges, they are not to the scale of what other companies in a wide range of industries are going through. I’ve spent hours on the phone these past weeks with close friends who are CEOs of major companies and with small business owners who use and rely on OfferUp. Sentiment from everyone is the same, things are going to get tough. The housing crisis saw 12% unemployment. I expect to see over 25% unemployment from this pandemic and its fallout. Scary to think about in the short term, but again the world is in a constant state of change.
We have spent the last eight years at OfferUp building a new kind of marketplace, where neighbors can buy and sell the things they have and need to each other. This community-based marketplace has become a critical commerce option for millions of Americans. Today’s unprecedented disruption of our traditional systems (shipping, supply chains, and traditional retail) and typical behavior patterns (grocery shopping and running errands) has shown the need for innovative commerce options in times of uncertainty.
With the world holding its breath, I feel fortunate our business is thriving, but also a deep sense of responsibility to do more, to grow faster. Once again, I am feeling that same sense of urgency and drive that I experienced when we started OfferUp. Today, like every day, I’m visualizing my future and the future of the OfferUp community. Through the work that we are doing now, I see OfferUp continuing to be a place that provides value and opportunity for local commerce. I see our employees continuing to work hard and develop tools and services that make it easier for our community to connect and prosper. And I see our country persevering past another crisis, and learning lessons like before. We are building America’s marketplace, a marketplace for everyone, in good times, and in bad.
These are just a few of the visualizations I think about for our community and our country. I’m confident there will be many more to come as we drive forward together and overcome the challenges of this pandemic. Be kind to yourselves, your families, and coworkers. Stay connected. Stay supported. Be a friend to your neighbors.
Here’s a few books I recommend that help me with visualization:
Elon Musk, Jack Welch —
Richard Branson book —
Ray Dalio —
Jim Collins —