The Dealflicks Man Van
As I lay on my back staring at the ceiling of my mom’s Toyota Sienna, I wondered if I could ever get used to this. The thin mattress was nowhere near as comfortable as my bed at home, and I could hear Evan snoring like an old man. Evan and I had just driven eight hours from Los Angeles to somewhere in Arizona on our way to our first meeting in Kilgore, Texas, which was about two hours east of Dallas. We’d just passed Tucson, Arizona and we still had about twelve more hours to go.
It was the first of many nights to come building a business out of a van. Not only were we dog-tired from a long drive, but we wasted an extra hour looking for a proper place to sleep. The challenge was looking for a safe and quiet neighborhood with a road that wasn’t slanted. (Sleeping on an incline made for stiff mornings and, worse, seemed to enhance Evan’s nocturnal serenade.) After relocating a few times, we finally settled into what seemed like a quaint upper-middle class neighborhood. We based our assessment on the number of BMWs and Lexuses parked on the street. We had no choice but to make this campaign successful. But I seriously wondered whether we could pull this off for three months. What the heck had I signed up for? Sean, Zach, and the rest of the team would laugh at us so hard if we quit. We had talked big saying we could live and work out a van for three months. As I wrestled with these thoughts, exhaustion took over and at midnight I fell asleep.
We’d set the alarm for 3 AM. We got up on time and started making our way to Kilgore. Our meeting was at 4:30 PM. Although our schedule was a little tight, we were confident we could make good headway and arrive on time. It wasn’t until we started driving toward Texas that we noticed our cell phone clocks had jumped an hour ahead. “Oh shoot! [Okay, yeah, that’s not quite what he said.] We totally forgot to account for the time difference!” Evan said. This was our first big lesson during the Man Van campaigns – always account for the time zone differences when you are setting up meetings!
The error was colossal because our meeting was set up with a four-theater location chain, one of the biggest movie chains we were negotiating with at the time. Our Google Maps showed we would arrive at 5:30 PM! According to Google, not only did we have no time for food or to wash up, we were going to be at least an hour late and that was assuming no traffic!
Evan and I had no choice. It was pedal to the metal time! We absolutely needed this meeting. Determined, we drove nearly twelve hours straight and only stopped for gas, snacks, and mints (we didn’t even have time to brush our teeth). Despite our heroic effort, we were still twenty minutes late to our meeting. Once we arrived, we were hangry, sleep-deprived, and remarkably stinky. But lady luck was on our side that day. Despite our shabby appearance, the theater chain decided to move forward with Dealflicks and we were able to increase the number of our theaters by almost 10%. It was a big win for us, but what dawned on me was the difficulty of the Man Van Campaigns. This is no urban camping trip, I thought. The logistics needed to improve dramatically. And without proper sanitation and rest, this trip could become a nightmare.
After our meeting, Evan and I let out a sigh of relief. We weren’t clean but we were victorious! We were also famished. Once we chowed down on some food, we thought we could finally shower and then get some much-needed rest. After a modest celebratory meal at a small local Texas barbeque joint, Evan and I looked up the nearest 24-hour Fitness so we could finally take our much-needed and overdue showers. “What! Two hours away in Dallas?!” I said. We’d assumed our 24-Hour Fitness memberships would cover us nationwide. It was our solution to sanitation. “False advertising!”’ we cried. We’d foolishly assumed “nationwide coverage” meant gyms in every rural city and town.
After such a long day, the last thing we wanted to do was drive another two hours just to shower. When we finally arrived in Dallas, it was already 9 PM and we were too exhausted to even hit the gym. We wanted to keep our “house” clean, though, so we somehow mustered up the energy to wash up. As a reward after showering, we had to spend another forty-five minutes or so to find the right place to sleep. As I laid on my thin mattress that second night listening to Evan’s old man snore, I didn’t know what to think. This mission seemed impossible and we’d be lucky if we could survive another two weeks.
Luckily the third day was a bit easier. We didn’t sleep too far from the gym, which helped considerably, and we didn’t have any scheduled meetings. We could spend a day or two doing theater walk-ins in Dallas to pitch our product instead of driving ten plus hours through the night. What also helped was how we figured out a hack of sleeping in hotel parking lots such as Marriot, Hyatt, Hilton, etc. By sleeping in hotel parking lots, our safety was guaranteed and we often had access to free Wi-Fi from the lobby. Even better, we were virtually guaranteed even-level roads, preventing back soreness. No more tilted surfaces and spending time looking for flat surface roads. That in itself was a huge win!
What was also cool was working in hotel lobbies which were extremely comfortable, not to mention the access to free coffee and water. Slowly but surely, we learned how to forage for our resources. It seemed as if our survival instincts started to kick in and we began to get creative. Failure was not an option and the name of the game was adaptation. We got better – the fourth day was easier than the third, and the fifth day was easier still.
What was amazing was how our minds and bodies started to accept our new twisted reality. Living and working out of a van became our new way of life. After about a week, Evan and I really started to hit our stride. We became masters of the urban nomadic lifestyle. We knew where to look for the best places to sleep – hotel parking lots or, if worse came to worst, Wal-Mart parking lots. Getting access to WiFi was easy – McDonald’s, Starbucks, and hotel lobbies. No 24-hour Fitness in sight? Not a problem. We signed up for Anytime Fitness. L.A. Fitness, and later even Life Time Fitness. Now we had nationwide coverage! Food shortages and storage issues? Not a problem, even without a kitchen. A gas funnel, protein whey powder, and a bottle of water would do, and we would snack on protein shakes in case we had long stretches of drives without food. We would also stock up on fruits and vegetables such as apples and bananas that had longer shelf lives. To save money, we limited our meals to just one a day – Souplantation, Sweet Tomatoes, All-You-Can-Eat Korean BBQ, and Indian lunch buffets became our go-to meals. Basically, any brunch that was all-you-can-eat became our main diet.
A couple of months into our first Man Van campaign, Evan and I were in the best shape of our lives. Because we were going to the gym almost twice a day just to wash up, we figured we’d make it a work-out each time. Also, because we were always together, we were worried about getting each other sick so we made it a point to stay extremely healthy by exercising and eating healthy. This was extremely important because we would drive through multiple states over the course of a just a week and temperature fluctuations could be drastic. So we made a commitment to keep our immune systems spry. By the end of our first Man Van campaign, we had not only more than doubled the number of theaters we had from fifty to 120, we had reduced our body fat to 9-12%. And without TV or any social life, all our energy was focused on work and working-out. We not only survived, we thrived.
Defining Your Own Reality
I realized a valuable lesson through my Man Van endeavors. Reality is what you believe is real. To the common man, living and working out of a van is not possible. I get it. There are so many reasons that can prevent you from thinking it is realistic. Let’s start off with some of the basics – how can you sleep on a seat? Is it safe to sleep in a van? Can you get robbed? Where will you shower? How can you get internet? Can you even focus on your work? Can you put up with the snoring? The questions are endless. For many, building a business in a van isn’t a possibility even in their wildest imaginations. The real question you should ask when overcoming such a challenge is “how.” “How can you live in a van?”
Simply put, Dealflicks was able to accomplish the Man Van campaigns because we had two determined founders who believed it was a realistic possibility. Just like any challenge, at first it was difficult. There were many problems we had not anticipated such as inadequate gym access based on the geographically limited coverage our gym memberships had, which made it difficult to shower. Then there were the difficulties of time management and getting to meetings in different states across different time zones. (Sometimes we drove over 500 miles to get to meetings the next day.) And of course, there was the problem of all-important food. We had no kitchen or refrigeration, so food storage and preparation was an ongoing challenge.
But despite the early setbacks we bumped up against at the beginning of our trip, we were able to look for solutions and adapt because we had an unwavering belief that we could be successful. Instead of asking ourselves, “Can we live and work out of a van?” we asked, “How can we live and work out of a van?” Once we reconfigured our mindset, we looked for solutions. For example, we believed we could sleep in a van as long as we could fit a mattress into it (rather than contort ourselves into the seats). So we pulled out the middle seats from my mom’s Toyota Sienna and replaced them with a queen-sized mattress. We believed that we could either tether Wi-Fi from our phones or that there were enough Starbucks and McDonald’s nationwide that could provide Wi-Fi. This proved to be true as well.
We believed with just street smarts we could find the right places to sleep. We were never robbed nor were we in any situation that jeopardized our safety. Over time our habits took over and van life became as easy as riding a bike. Our minds and bodies accepted our new twisted reality. As a result, Evan and I were so accustomed to living in a van we continued to live in it for more than a year after the Man Van campaigns were over. For me personally, I became very uncomfortable in rooms. There was just too much space! It was amazing to learn that my perception of what the size of a room should be could be re-defined so easily.
This change of reality induced by the mind is not only fascinating but extremely powerful. In the summer of 1995, not too long after our family moved to Seoul, a mall not far from our house, Sampoog Department store, collapsed. The incident injured 937 people and killed 502 others. It was the deadliest modern building collapse until the 9/11 terrorist attacks in NYC, and the deadliest non-deliberate building collapse until 2013 when the Savar building collapse took place, which took 1,129 lives in Bangladesh. The Sampoog collapse received heavy international media coverage and, as a country, it seemed as if we were all holding our breaths watching live daily broadcasts as rescuers tried to save more people.
After about ten days, the rescue teams started losing hope of finding any additional survivors. Miraculously, three more survivors were discovered – eleven, thirteen and seventeen days after the building collapsed. Soon after the rescue mission was complete, I, as a 10-year old kid, could never forget watching a documentary and how it explained that many of the people who were buried under the rubble began to completely lose their sense of time. For some of the victims who survived more than a week, many thought only a few days had gone by. After interviewing several survivors, the documentary provided a hypothesis that the human mind, in order for the body to survive, adapts to the situation and creates a new sense of reality and distorts time to give survivors a psychological edge to increase their chance of survival. Although it may have been merely a hypothesis, this concept not only fascinated me, but it was a memory I frequently replayed as an adult during my Man Van campaigns. The mind is extremely malleable, yet powerful, and will adapt to what you believe in or in some cases, what you need to believe for your survival. Use your own convictions as a powerful advantage by expanding what you believe is reality.
In 2006, basketball legend Kobe Bryant scored eighty-one points in a basketball game – the most since 1962 when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in one game. In the modern NBA era, which starts in the 1980s, scoring more than fifty points is considered a feat in itself as there are usually less than a handful of performances in this range in any given year. For many NBA experts and analysts, scoring over eighty points was no longer considered possible. Ten years later in 2016, during an interview with ESPN, Bryant recounted his eighty-one point performance. “It’s really a testament to the power of imagination, honestly,” Bryant said. “There’s a lot of players who come up now who don’t think eighty points is possible. You think fifty, and if you’re really hot – sixty. I never had that limit. Ever. I never, ever thought that way. I always thought eighty was possible. I thought ninety was possible. I thought 100 was possible. Always. I think that game is a testament to what happens when you put no ceiling to what you’re capable of doing.” In essence, Kobe was able to accomplish an impressive display of scoring and it all began with what he believed was reality. Similar to Kobe, in order for you to achieve your wildest business ambitions, you need to believe that your lofty goals are attainable. Begin with goals that stretch the boundaries of accepted reality. Once you have your goal in mind, lock yourself in and figure out the “how” as you go. As LinkedIn Cofounder Reid Hoffman once said, “Starting a company is like throwing yourself off a cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down.” Your mind and body can adapt to the situation. Let your survival instincts kick in. More important, before you recruit business partners, clients, investors, etc., you need to sell it to yourself. Your pitch must come from the heart with strong conviction. Before you sell anything to anyone, believe in yourself!
Your Product, Service, and Company is an Extension of You
As the late great sales author Zig Ziglar would say, “Selling is essentially a transference of feeling.” If you do not believe in your product or service, people will know. If you do not believe in yourself, people will know. So much of business is psychological. So your product, service, and ultimately your company, needs to be an extension of your beliefs for you to achieve outlier success.
Often I see people unhappy with their jobs and unhappy with the products and services they are representing. If you are not proud to represent your product, service, or company, it will be much more difficult to achieve a high-level of success. Potential stakeholders will realize sooner or later that you do not believe in your own product, service, or company and you are more interested in short-term gains. If this is the case, have the courage to walk away. Value and respect your personal brand as well as your own beliefs.
The last two years at my own company, Dealflicks, was a constant struggle. Product development and fundraising deadlines were continuously missed. As the main person in charge of business relationships representing our products, I found myself between a rock and a hard spot where I was continually overpromising and under-delivering to our stakeholders. It wasn’t that I was intentionally over-selling our product. I was simply delivering the message I was receiving from other departments. After a while, I didn’t feel comfortable representing my own company.
I believed that I had a personal relationship with all my stakeholders that extended beyond measurable financial returns, and the only way I would continue to represent the company would be if we had a new management system in place to help oversee the entire business. It was the toughest professional decision I had to make, because escalating the situation could cause waves and potentially result in an outcome that could negatively impact the company. But I knew I wouldn’t feel morally right if I continued to promise deadlines that I knew would continue to be missed because of the lack of oversight. As I told a group of corporate executives during a sales seminar I recently held, “I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror because a commitment I can’t deliver is essentially a lie in my book.”
What helped me make the decision to move forward was the fact that I had defined what my values were prior to building the company. I had spent fifteen years writing a journal in first, second, and third person. Over and over again, I would obsessively write about my life and study myself along with my values. Furthermore, I would often write as if I were my clients or business partners. This type of exercise along with an interest in psychology, philosophy, and autobiographies, helped me truly put myself in everyone’s shoes. After internalizing the situation from a 360-degree view, I knew something had to change and I decisively moved with conviction.
When we first launched our company, we clearly defined who we were and created a Dealflicks culture document that was about twenty pages long. My goal was to build a company that was aligned with my beliefs and values. I am proud that for the most part of my tenure at Dealflicks, the values of Dealflicks aligned closely with mine. However, towards the end of my stint, this was not the case. It was apparent that our values needed to be realigned. As stated below, Dealflicks’s mission statement mirrored my own personal mission statement:
Dealflicks’s Mission Statement – Through inspired vision and maniacal resolve, we compel our faction of like-minded rebels to break the status quo, defy conventional wisdom, and empower others to dare to be great.
My Personal Mission Statement – My manifesto in life is to lead potential great leaders of my time to self-actualize their God-given potential. I will eliminate the fear of defeat and symbolize bravery. I will mold impossible towering dreams into routine landmarks of achievements. I will enlighten my fellow man by illuminating a way of life that is ultimately dedicated toward the greater good of humanity.
As I once wrote in a letter, I wanted, as “the heart, soul, and muscle” of the company, to build a company that thought of customers first. I believed our relationship with theaters was the most important piece of our business. The following is a segment from Dealflicks’s public version of the culture document. Dealflicks prioritizes its groups in the following order based around the same principle we have discussed: (1) theaters, (2) customers, (3) investors, (4) employees, (5) founders.
All employees had to abide by the culture document and had to write a two- to four-page essay related to the culture document during the interview process. As the co-founder who was seen as the glue of the company, I believed the culture of the company was a natural extension of my core values.
After the fallout with the company, I was extremely candid about my situation. Whether it was a client or a potential employer, I shared with them the same story I’ve shared with you. I soon realized people respected me a lot more for the decision I made. As a result, my termination opened up a lot more doors, from filming a startup lesson video with YouTube celebrities featuring Silicon Valley entrepreneur Justin Kan, who sold his company, Twitch, for $1 billion, to becoming a contributor for Forbes.
Not only was I truthful, but when assessing my next business and employment opportunities, I inquired deeply about the company’s culture. I reached out to current employees, former employees, as well as the company’s clients and my former clients to best assess what kinds of values the prospective company had. I treated my personal brand and values with the utmost respect, and I was only willing to listen to offers from companies that shared similar values.
Ultimately, I felt most aligned with Cinema Intelligence and the Vista Group. As a business professional, I knew finding a company whose values aligned with mine would be integral to my success. I believe my thorough vetting process has paid off. Just a few months into my new company, Cinema Intelligence, many of my previous clients from Dealflicks have already joined me on my new journey. One of them partnered up with our firm claiming, “I am taking a leap of faith because I trust you. I’m not sure what big data is, but I am willing to learn.” Your reputation will follow you. Be sure to respect it and value it. Only dedicate yourself to a company, product, service that aligns with you. People will take notice and follow.