(Yes, I am just taking photos of nearby things with my iPhone for all these posts)
I’m well aware that at some point in the history of this blog, it’s going to be necessary that I write at length about the business I’ve spent the last 7 years building, The Come Up BMX. But I’m hesitant to do so. It’s hard to write about The Come Up without sounding boastful or prideful. Writing that sort of post demands a certain type of care. It’s hard to write about why TCU has done so well without also going into detail about what all of our competitors have done wrong. And some of those competitors are people I’m friendly with or at least people I don’t feel like openly insulting. I plan on writing that sort of blog in the near future, but I figured before I go into detail about my greatest triumphs, I should first tell you about some of my lowest lows.
What I want to talk about is one of the most common criticisms I’ve been on the receiving end of over the past 7 years, something that anyone who has experienced any sort of success has no doubt heard time and time again:
“You just got lucky”
All people derive much of their self worth from their accomplishments but for entrepreneurs this is particularly true. The entrepreneur’s goal is to make money and/or implement societal change. Even small business owners/employees who would probably never openly describe themselves entrepreneurs (think: a guy who starts a band, a club promoter, a clothing store owner, an independent videographer) judge themselves on their dollars earned, their products sold, the fans or customers they’ve served. Regardless of the metric used, every entrepreneur judges himself based on the impact he has made so far.
When someone tells me that I “just got lucky”, what they’re really saying is that I’m not smart. I don’t deserve what I’ve got. They’re saying that anyone could have done what I’ve done if they had been fortunate enough to have been handed the favorable circumstances I’ve been given.
And you know what? There’s definitely some truth to that. But I don’t feel like getting into that right now.
What the people who say stuff like “you just got lucky” don’t understand is that in order to get lucky in the first place, I had to take a lot of chances. Every time I fucked something up, I learned something. Most people have the opposite problem; they never take a chance. They plan and plan but they never really go for it. I’m lucky that I’ve always been driven to take a chance, even if my initial impulses didn’t work out.
Here are some things I tried to do with my life before I started The Come Up that I failed miserably at:
1) I wanted to be a graffiti artist. From the age of 14 to 16 I would go out with my friend Mikey 3 or 4 times a week. He was a few years older than me and when it came to crime, he was way more experienced. He’d pick me up in his shitty silver CRX and we’d drive to the local craft store and we’d shoplift til our hearts were content. Mikey’s Dad had taught him how to steal at a young age and he was a master. He’d wear these Ecko cargo pants and I swear I saw him fit 10 cans of spraypaint in them at one time. He’d load up his cargo pockets and tuck 3 cans in the his waistband by his crotch and 3 in the back. Some days we’d go in and steal dozens, maybe hundreds of paint markers. There were these menacing black balls up on the ceiling but I knew someone who worked there that told me they weren’t actually cameras. I still go into craft stores from time to time and I’m always blown away at how easy they are to steal from although I no longer allow myself to indulge.
Some days we’d drive 20 or 30 minutes to neighboring towns and hit their craft stores and Home Depot’s too. Mikey taught me the importance of being alert and watching every employee. He had been stealing shit for so long that he had this really innate ability where he could decipher what somebody’s motives were the second he saw them. He’d look at a bored teenage employee and know they weren’t a threat but he’d make eye contact with a store manager that knew what we were up to and he’d mutter “let’s get out of here” and walk out of there without stealing a thing. He was just good.
Then we’d hit up the local train yard and just go crazy. Where I grew up there was this train yard with hundreds of freight trains, the kind that graffiti artists go nuts for. You could put whatever the fuck you wanted on the side of one of those things and within 24 hours it’d be dozens, maybe even hundreds of miles away where other artists would see your pieces. I obsessively read graffiti messageboards and spent hours every night painting and drawing in my room. For the first couple years that I rode a BMX bike, I was way more concerned with doing graffiti than doing 180s.
I used the messageboards to get in contact with local legends in the Boston area scene. We met up with unbelievable artists like Aves, Spek and Kem who all came to our local train yard to paint with us. It was so inspiring watching the can control that guys who had been spraypainting things for 10 or more years had. They all seemed impressed with my stuff even though I was so young and they gave me a lot of tips and were happy to critique my pieces.
Then I got caught. A couple times. My parents were so fucking mad at me and I was mad at myself. I had met artists in their 30s online that hadn’t been pinched once. Here I was 2 years in and I had already gotten busted twice. I quit cold turkey because I realized that I had a lot of things I wanted to do in life and that I wasn’t going to be able to do any of them if I was in jail.
2) I wanted to tour with hardcore bands. I always listened to hardcore bands in high school but around the time I graduated I started going to a lot of local shows and hanging out with some bands that I had made friends with. One band in particular really liked me and they would take me to their shows to help sell shirts every weekend. This was perfect for me because years and years of reading BMX magazines had really instilled it in me that it was absolutely essential to my development as a man that I travel extensively. Even though I was only traveling a few hours away, I was doing it with my friends and having a blast.
Then they got offered a tour. It was only 10 days long but they asked me to go with them and I was thrilled. I think we only went as far as South Carolina but I didn’t care, they were places I hadn’t yet been. I was traveling, meeting a ton of interesting people (and sketchy girls) and most importantly, I was starting to feel like I was self-sufficient. Like you could just drop me off in a random city and I’d be able to get by. I’d always had jobs since I was a little kid but I still lived with my parents and had to deal with them yelling at me every day, so being out on my own was an incredible feeling. The band was clearly becoming more and more popular and they all seemed excited to bring me on all of the other tours they had lined up. I was excited. I was 19 and all I wanted was to travel all over the United States. Doing it with a bunch of my good friends sounded amazing.
Then it all got fucked up. We went out to a bar one night after a show and when we returned to the house where we were staying, the singer of the band was drunk and acting like an asshole. Our friend’s Mom was sleeping in the other room and he was being loud, so I told him to be quiet. He didn’t take it well. I was completely sober (I was 19 and still 100% Straight Edge) and I was clearly right to try and make sure he didn’t wake up the 50 year old woman sleeping in the other room. He was belligerent enough that he wanted to kick my ass, but a couple of the other guy’s held him back. There were only a few dates left on the tour but he and I didn’t talk. I should have sucked it up and apologized even though I was clearly in the right. But you know how boys are.
I went out on tour with another friend’s band that next Summer. They were all Straight Edge just like me, so I figured that I wouldn’t have to deal with any more drunken disagreements. But as soon as that tour ended, the singer Derek decided to leave the band and in the process, stole a bunch of money from the band’s bank account. The guitarist took over vocal duties but first he brutally beat the shit out of Derek and put him in the hospital. I was already planning to move to New York City but at that point I was so dissillusioned by my entire experience within the hardcore scene that I mostly gave up on going to shows, forgot about my dreams of touring and I even drank a single Coors Light just to permanently divorce myself from the Straight Edge scene.
3) I wanted to be a criminal. I don’t want to go into too much detail about this at this time but most of my attempts at becoming a real deal criminal failed miserably. I did the credit card fraud thing for a couple years but my partner got arrested and the dude who originally taught me the ropes got set up by the FBI and did a few years in prison. I never got caught but I had a bunch of close calls and the whole thing was starting to really take it’s toll on me. I was paranoid and every time I went out doing it, felt like my heart was going to explode out of my chest. So I gave up on that.
Around the time I started to play poker (I’ll cover that next) a close friend of mine got me to invest in his cocaine trafficking business that he had been building up. He had been going out to Jersey City to buy drugs, then bringing the stuff back to our house, mixing it with baby Aspirin, then driving it out of state and selling it at a huge mark up. Then he got robbed. The dudes from Jersey City came to our apartment and picked up the money (it was a lot of money) then just left and never came back. I actually didn’t lose any cash on the deal. But my friend did and he was understandably upset.
He sat around talking about what he was going to do for a few days. His first instinct was to get a gun and to go to their house and kill them, but he knew that they’d be expecting him, that he’d be outnumbered and that he’d probably get killed in the process. Then he talked about making a bomb and blowing up their house. Knowing that little kids lived there, I felt a little uncomfortable about that one and I was happy when he abandoned it. Ultimately he decided to let it go and he joined the military.
All of a sudden I was in New York City all by myself.
4) I wanted to be a poker player. Rewind a little bit to when I first moved to New York. I had moved there assuming that I was going to spend all my time riding and filming BMX while also supplementing my income by buying and selling laptops using other people’s credit cards that I bought from Russian hackers on the Internet. Fool proof plan, right?
As I described in the previous item, the fraud thing didn’t really work out. Same with the BMX thing; after about 2 weeks in New York, I threw out my back and it was months before I could ride again. I could barely walk without experiencing intense pain. I had to find something to do with my time that ideally, wouldn’t involve me leaving the house.
About a year prior I had acquired a book that Phil Hellmuth wrote about poker. The book was awful. But I had read through it a couple times in college and I had always planned on starting to play online. Given that I had absolutely nothing else to do, it seemed like as good a time as any. I deposited 250 dollars into Pokerroom.com and began spending 8 or more hours a day playing 1 or 2 tables at a time on my computer. Whenever I wasn’t playing, I was reading books (I bought dozens) and studying forum threads, doing everything I could to learn more about the game. Before long I was earning a couple of thousand dollars a month on average.
I felt like I was on top of the world. These days the idea of a person making a living playing poker online isn’t that shocking but in 2004 it was definitely a lot harder to explain to a stranger than it is today. I couldn’t believe that I had taken what I learned from those books and managed to turn it into enough money that I could get by. I wasn’t breaking the law and I was comfortable financially. I felt like I had finally made it.
I kept playing and playing. Years went by. There’s a period of my life between 2004 and 2007 where I can hardly remember a specific day. I remember the different girls and a handful of poker-based triumphs and disasters. But mostly it was a blur. I rarely left the house except to get food. After a couple years I realized I hated playing poker. I had watched a few of my friends experience overwhelming success. One guy that would frequently IM with me in my early days won a 6 figure sum at a big tournament and started playing the big limit games on Party Poker, the games that all the dudes were pro for Poker Stars would play under fake names because they were so good. It didn’t bother me to see him becoming more successful than me but it definitely made me think about wether this was really what I wanted to do with my life. He took it more seriously than I did. While I was putting in the hours to try and eek out a living, he had moved across the country and paid superior players to coach him for weeks at a time. I wasn’t sure if he had initially funded those trips with his poker winnings or with his parents’ bank account (not an option for me) but it didn’t matter.
In poker, it’s hard not to judge yourself and others by the limits that you play and the profits you’ve reaped. It’s hard to get a Vegas gambler to give you a straight answer about how much he made, but it was easy for us. We had Poker Tracker. We knew exactly how much we were earning an hour, so there was no lying to yourself. As time went by, the games got tougher and tougher as everyone figured out that there was money to be made. Soon the overall mood on messageboards seemed to indicate that only the best players were now turning a profit. Every week there was a new and more elaborate cheating scandal. I knew I wasn’t meant to keep doing this.
While still playing poker online, I had also started The Come Up and as it started to look like it could support me, I withdrew $40,000 from my Full Tilt account and deleted the software from my computer. I knew that money would have to support me until TCU became more prosperous and I knew that the future of TCU was in my hands. Nobody else’s. I had failed at becoming a professional poker player which didn’t really bother me much since everyone I knew that was doing better than me seemed just as miserable as I was. Everyone I told seemed to kind of envy me for being able to walk away. I probably could have quit to become a grocery store clerk and they would have kind of envied me, that’s how taxing poker is.
I had absolutely no clue whether TCU was going to be successful, but I knew I had to try.
5) I wanted to make a BMX zine. A lot of people don’t know this, but The Come Up only really became popular because I failed at doing something else. I started the site in 2006 as just a simple Blogspot but I didn’t take it very seriously even though as one of the only relevant BMX websites at the time, it had a decent following. One day I was in Chicago visiting my then girlfriend and we went to see this really shitty movie, The Lady In The Water. I stopped paying attention after about 10 minutes and started daydreaming. I kept thinking about how no BMX magazines spent much time covering the NYC street riders I was excited about. And then I started thinking about how I knew people that had made popular hardcore zines. I decided to start doing interviews with anyone who would let me, so that I could make my own BMX zine. I left that Chicago trip determined to at the very least, put out one high quality zine that I could be proud of.
The problem was that I was still playing poker all day, every day. I tried to sit there and research how to make a zine. I emailed people I knew that had made them and got lots of great advice. I did the actual interviews. But I couldn’t seem to bring myself to actually learn how to lay out the pages. How long could it have took me to learn enough to start laying the magazine out with the content I had created? I can’t imagine it taking longer than one day to get a basic understanding of it. I wasn’t expecting to do a professional job right away, just enough to get the job done. It’s nothing really. But at the time I was so addicted to playing poker that I found it impossible to focus on anything besides 10 tabling on Full Tilt.
So I started to put the interviews on my blog. Then I’d send the links out to anyone who I thought might post them. I think my first interview was with Blackman, who had already lost his sponsors, but Defgrip were nice enough to post it. Then I interviewed Van Homan and I got Fit and Orchid to post the link. I had no business interviewing Van Homan. I asked him about the ramps in his garage over a year after he had removed them. But I had the gall to ask, reasonably assuming he wouldn’t say no to some kid with a blog who wanted to interview him. Then I just kept repeating this process. I kept getting sites to link to me and we kept getting more traffic and in an extremely general sense, I guess the rest is history.
So what are you to take away from this? Well one possible interpertation, the kind that anyone who would be inclined to make the “you just got lucky” argument would surely agree with, is that I’m an idiot. I did stupid things. I took incredibly illogical risks. I failed at becoming a hardcore merch guy for god’s sake, a job that pretty much anyone with a pulse could have succeeded at. I stumbled ass backwards into a popular website while trying to do something else.
I’d actually be inclined to agree with the whole “idiot” conclusion. I wasn’t very smart as a kid. Surely most of my peers were smarter than me. I barely graduated high school. I did horribly in college. I had 3 thing going for me: I was obsessive, I wasn’t scared and I was determined.
I failed at being a graffiti artist but those years I spent doing graffiti heightened my appreciation for my other love, BMX. I loved the idea of going out into the city and making my mark on public property. Re-appropriating public spaces. Taking a boring grey train and turning it into something with a message. That resonated with me. I’ve always carried that with me and I love to see someone do a new trick on a handrail for the exact same reason that I used to love painting on trains.
I failed at touring with hardcore bands. I mean sure, I could have just kept hanging out and I could have easily met more bands looking to take some dude on tour. But spending all that time on the road assisting someone else’s band helped me to de-romanticize traveling. By the time I stopped touring with bands I had already been to Thailand and all over Europe (to ride) and I had already driven all over the eastern half of America enough to realize that I didn’t really care about traveling, I wanted to create something. I still love to travel, but it’s not my passion. If I get on a plane these days it’s because I have something important that I want to take care. I’m not the kind of person that likes to travel just to hang out and relax.
I failed at being a criminal but I never really wanted to be a criminal anyway, I just wanted to make enough money to not have to have a job. Once I accomplished not having a job, I realized that being unemployed wasn’t the important part, I just knew that I wanted to be unemployed because I knew that not having a job would be more conducive to me figuring out what I actually wanted to do with my life. Regardless, I learned so many things about how to manipulate people, how to talk my way out of bad situations and when to just run for the fucking hills. Ultimately and most importantly, I learned that crime wasn’t for me.
I failed at being a poker player but I learned what it was like to be self-sufficient without breaking the law. I learned the value of hard work, of just sitting there and getting the work done. A lot of people assume that online poker players have an easy life but nothing could be further from the truth. Sure you get to do your job in your underwear, but it’s up to you to put the work in. As a poker player if you put in 1 hour or if you put in 10 hours is up to you but at the end of the day, the guy who put in 10 hours is going to make all the money if everything else is equal.
And finally, I failed at making a BMX zine. But somewhere along the way I took all the things I had learned and put them all together into a legal idea that actually worked. I had been writing for years, first on my Livejournal, then on graffiti, hardcore, BMX and poker messageboards. By the time I started taking The Come Up serious as a website I had already been writing stuff online for thousands of people to read for almost 10 years. I didn’t realize it at the time but all those years speaking casually to a rather large audience on various messageboards had prepared me to write stuff that people cared about on TCU. There are many reasons that TCU has succeeded but I think one of the most important ones is that NOBODY can question my love of BMX and that I do a pretty good job articulating that.
Of course I wish I had succeeded at all the things I failed at (you could argue that I did succeed at all of them too, since they all provided me with income and/or enjoyment for some period of time), but that’s not the point. I walked away from all of them at some point or another because I knew they weren’t right for me. When I finally landed on something that made sense for me, it was like this great revelation. I was always a good writer, I’ve always been obsessed with the Internet and I had always ridden BMX. Why not just write about BMX on the Internet? Why the fuck did I waste so much time doing all that other shit? You can’t go back in time. I’ve just got to accept those things I did and keep moving forward.
Why write all this? Because I’m proud. I’m glad that even before I was smart enough to have a good idea and implement it successfully that I was brave enough to try out all my bad ideas. I learned something from each one and they all led me towards where I am now. Most people have the opposite problem. They’ve got ideas but for whatever reason they never get around to them.
It seems like I always get to hear about them when I go back to my hometown. I’ll be at the bar and an old acquaintance from high school will grab drunkenly grab me and start telling me how proud he is of me. Usually they aren’t too clear on the details but they know that I’m doing something involving those same BMX bikes I was riding around on in high school and they’ve heard that I’m doing well and they want to congratulate me. This kind of attention makes me feel kind of uncomfortable but it’s appreciated.
But then, if they’re drunk enough, they’ll start telling me about their own goals. The stuff they wanted to do before they got a boring job, a fat wife and a beer gut. The business they wanted to start, the sport they wanted to pursue, the places they wanted to travel, the life they wanted to live. They usually talk about those dreams in the past tense. If they don’t, they have usually devised some sort of purgatory for them to rest in.
Once their kid enters kindergarden they’ll finally start that business.
Once their wife finishes nursing school they’ll enroll in night classes.
Once they finish paying off their credit card debt everything will change.
This hurts me to listen to because we both know it’s not true. If they really wanted to start that business they wouldn’t be here. They’d be working the night shift at Walmart to save up money or reading business textbooks in their garage. If they really wanted to start taking classes they’d find a way to borrow the money and even if they couldn’t do that, they wouldn’t be wasting $5 a beer at 1 in the morning. If they were really going to change they wouldn’t be talking about it, they’d be doing it.
My advice to you is to just start trying. Stop waiting for the right circumstances to fall into place and make time for your ideas. If there’s book you have always wanted to write, you just need to start writing. I know you have a job and a social life but I promise that it’s worth sacrificing your social life to begin working on your idea today instead of tomorrow. During all those early years that I was playing poker and working on The Come Up I probably went out at night maybe once a week on average. Every other minute of the day I was in front of my computer working. It wasn’t healthy and it wasn’t fun but I was that dedicated. You need to be willing to forego human interaction and wordly pleasures if you are truly dedicated to succeeding.
I’d be interested in hearing about your success stories and your failures. Even if you haven’t yet found your passion, if you’ve ever failed at something and learned an important lesson leave it in the comments and maybe I’ll use it as material for a future article.