Entrepreneurship Lessons: What You Need To Know To Find Success With Adam McGowan
Success in entrepreneurship isn’t a zero-sum game. You can help others while still driving success in your own business. This is the credo Tony Martignetti’s guest, Adam McGowan, swears to. Adam is a problem-solving consultant and entrepreneur and, in this episode, he talks about his first forays in entrepreneurship, the lessons he learned from it, keeping the spark alive, and why helping others can drive success. Learn more and be inspired by Adam’s story by tuning in.
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Entrepreneurship Lessons: What You Need To Know To Find Success With Adam McGowan
It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Adam McGowan. He is a problem-solving consultant for entrepreneurs. He helps entrepreneurial clients raise funds, build teams and perfect their products as a true partner to his clients. He often takes on acting products, technologies or leadership roles in their ventures. As the Executive Director of The Startup Coalition, he helps founders and startups create greater connections and opportunities for success. He lives in Concord, Massachusetts, with his wife and two young girls. I want to welcome you to the show, Adam.
Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.
I am looking forward to unwinding your story of what brought you to making such a great impact and supporting this community of entrepreneurs, which I think we all need help with as we get things off the ground. Nobody goes out alone. That's one thing I've learned for sure on my journey, but also through all of the amazing guests that have had on the show. I'm sure you're going to share a lot of those great insights from your journey.
I hope so. I'll do my best. I don't know how insightful they're going to be, but I'll try.
As we do in the show, we usually allow you to share your story through what's called these flashpoints, points in your journey that have ignited your gifts into the world. As you're telling your story, we'll pause along the way and see what shows up. You can start wherever you like and share what you call to share. With that, I'm going to turn the mic over to you and let you get started.
Thanks for the opportunity. I love the format and structure. I'm excited to be here. A reasonable place to start would be when I think the entrepreneurial bug first a bit me. That would have been when I was an undergraduate. It's funny because, at the time, I pretty much thought I knew everything about everything. I learned the lesson very quickly. I knew nothing about pretty much everything, but that was a bit of a slap in the face because if you were then, “At the end of my college career, was I someone who was graduating as the CEO of some super success successful startup?” No, I was not.
I was graduated as a kid with a pile of student loan debt who needed to go out and get a real job. That's what I ultimately had to do. When I exited college, I went into finance, but it was an interesting trajectory for me because I came into school not really where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, where I wanted to end up. I got connected with a bunch of thoughtful, inspired people, all of a sudden had a whole bunch of ideas. Me at eighteen, there's a lot of bravadoes a lot. A lot was going on back then. I think you can conquer the entire world without understanding what that means at that point in time.
We were all inspired, excited and I think maybe our eyes were a little bigger than our stomachs when it came to entrepreneurship. We learned a bunch of interesting lessons. Some are difficult to swallow than others, but it ultimately put me on a little bit of what I would describe as more of a hibernation track on entrepreneurship because I had to put that on the shelf for a little while because of real life. Like I said, student loan debt, all these other responsibilities start to come at me. I had to put that on pause for a little bit when I jumped into finance.
I ought to pause for a moment here and speak into that. There are some realists that a dreamer with a realism base and you have to be touching the ground, but also with your head into the sky. Before we go along on this path, I have a question about where did you come from? Are your parents entrepreneurs? What were their professions and what was the environment that you were brought up in?
I grew up in Connecticut. I had an awesome childhood, a great family and one brother. Both my parents still are incredibly supportive of the two of us, but it was interesting because I was the first member of my family to graduate with a Bachelor's Degree, graduate from a four-year university period. At the same time, my parents had this vision that they wanted more for their kids than they had for themselves. I love them for this, they are pushing me and my brother to do the best that we could. My dad worked a number of jobs over the course of his life. He was super enterprising and also an entrepreneur.
He ran his own business for a good chunk of his life, even mean the vast majority of my life, I should have watched him in a very entrepreneurial role. My mom, in many ways, has a much more challenging job, frankly, which was to raise my brother and me and bring the two of us up. It was a great balance between the two of my parents, as well as to support for and with my brother, my best friend. It was a supportive environment for me growing up.
Sometimes I wonder where people come from and what prompts them to be that. They have that entrepreneurial spirit and it does often come from our childhood. There's a connection to that. I'd love to know, here you are, as you were telling your story that you had to pay the bills and student loans. Tell me what happens next. How did you start to progress in your story?
I mentioned about my mindset, that early part of my career. Maybe we'll get to this a little bit later in the story, but my mindset evolved a little bit over time. I'm a high-energy, type A and all these sorts of things, but when you go back to me coming out of school and on top of that, maybe not a fully baked ability to have a good perspective as to what mattered. I played sports all through college. It had a very competitive nature to me and I still do, but maybe to a lesser degree, but I felt everything was a zero-sum game back then.
It's either you get this job or I get the job, but it's not both of us or it's like, there's only so much pie to go around. If you get a bigger slice, I get a smaller slice. That was the way I thought about it. I did what a lot of my classmates had done. It was very common. Coming out of school like you are trying to be a consultant or go into finance. Those are the two things that many people were doing. I tried the same track and ended up going into finance. I started working in investment banking right out of school. I'm not sure if it was healthy, but it fed that hyper-competitive zero-sum game type of mentality.
If you make more returns for you, it's less for them. It was very much almost like a game of monopoly. There are many houses around the board. There are many bits of currency. If you get more of them, you're doing better. When you work at a company where you have investors and things like that, they want the most return. It all bolstered this mindset that was, at the moment, seemingly awesome because you have this hyper-competitive environment. You're leaning into it and doing well. It's very exciting.
Fast forward into the late 2000s. The financial crisis is coming and where I worked, I was right in the middle of it. It was an interesting reckoning for me. The title in my job was Chief US Subprime Mortgage Analyst when the mortgage crisis hit. I can't think of a better title for the tragedy story that you want to write about someone that works in that space. As far as looking a year or two before that happened, the way I described my personnel, it’s like, “This is great.” I've been given all this responsibility, title and all these things that my 25-year-old self would think for so phenomenal, and then my 27-year-old self goes surprised. We're right in the middle of it.
Without going into all the detail, things didn't work out with that venture where I was. What oddly enough, I did have the opportunity to stay in that career. I had probably opportunities to maybe move to other companies or other things, but it was a real reckoning for me. I was shooked by the experience. I started to question a lot of my motivations. I started questioning whether or not I was confusing a skill or what I thought was a skill for passion and getting them conflated, which I think I had been doing for years and I didn't realize until things weren't going so well what I was really up to and what mattered.
My entrepreneurial journey, like I mentioned, was a little bit on a hibernation track once I came out of college, but it wasn't dead. It was just sleeping. I think that was the earthquake that woke me up and said, “I think it's time for me to come back around to this. I think I might have to get off this finance highway because I felt like I was on a collision course.”
What you described is powerful. It reminds me of Climbing The Right Mountain, the book that I wrote. It has this element of you start to get on this path where all of the external factors start to line up where, “This is what I should want. I should want to go around the monopoly board as quickly as possible, collect the $200, and then keep it ongoing. In reality, what is it that I want for myself?”
You needed to break that pattern to see on the other side of, “What is it that I want?” This moment defines a flashpoint. It's a beautiful one and hindsight. Going through, it is an emotional rack because you start questioning everything. You've gone to this point. You're saying, “I'm ready to go back to the kernel of the idea of being the entrepreneur. How do you go about doing it? How do you connect with that?”
When you work at a company with investors, they want the most return. It all bolstered this seemingly awesome mindset because you have this hyper-competitive environment.
In retrospect, it feels hard. At the moment, it felt like it was very easy because what had been happening was the entrepreneurship was asleep but not gone. I still had these fleeting moments of it during that finance career. I had been incubating all these ideas for 7, 8 or 9 years. When jolt happened, I said, “This was it. This was the premonition that said it's time for me to tap into some of those ideas that I'd been thinking about.” I don't think it was that hard. I talked to a lot of founders. Particularly when I start talking to entrepreneurs in university or people trying to make the leap into entrepreneurship, I am very upfront about the circumstances at that point in time.
This isn't supposed to be some hero's tale. I granted the end of my finance career wasn't comfortable. It wasn't a happy time, but I had paid that student loan debt down. I had achieved those things I wanted to achieve. I put myself in a position where I had a lot of flexibility about what I wanted to do. Had I been in a spot where none of that happened, I might've had a different outcome. I might've had an outcome where I had to stay where I was, or I had other responsibilities at that point in time. At that point, I didn't have my family. I didn't have the mortgage and all of the other responsibilities that come along with growing up a little bit.
I had this moment where I said, “I'm still at a place where I can take some pretty big risks. It was good fortune before the bad fortune in the finance career. I tried to stow away the good fortune and prepare for the cold winter.” That gave me the opportunity to make that jump. What was interesting was that, in many ways, the preparation that got me into that place of comfort, where I could make the leap was great because it facilitated this new transition, which I'm an entrepreneur now, so there haven't been any more points of a break in between. It's been a long run now of straight entrepreneurship. It was phenomenal for me that I made that move.
I do like to say that my two stints of entrepreneurship college and then that one after finance both started the same way with miserable failure. Both of them started without me being successful. This college story didn't play out well, but my first venture coming out of the finance career was won by I was recovering from over the top bravado that led me to a finance career, but it wasn't completely cured yet. I still thought I could run through walls that weren't meant to be run through. I still thought I could do a lot of things that I couldn't necessarily do. To make matters probably a little bit worse for me, I had a few means to do it, so I didn't have to go out and raise a bunch of money.
I didn't have to convince hundreds of people to work with me. I could get this going as empowering as that could be. It's also a little bit dangerous because there's no check valve. There's no accountability. There's no third party that says, “Is that the best idea or do you think that's the best idea?” “Of course, it's a great idea. I came up with this.” “Are you kidding?” “This is a phenomenal idea.” There was still a little bit of that going on at that point in my life. That was one of the interesting bits about that point of transition because it was that formative time. My greatest lessons all come from failure.
I can't remember the last time I learned something insightful by being successful. You score the game-winning goal in a lacrosse game. I don't remember that as being formative in me. I don't remember coming away from that being like, “I should have done these five things better.” That's not the result I had. The same thing was true in all of these other elements. I do think that it was those moments in trying and not succeeding. It was the first iteration of entrepreneurship post finance that led me to spend pretty much the better part of the next ten years forming the model that I use now with all my clients and entrepreneurs to learn from those lessons.
I've since then surrounded myself with clients and relationships who were very akin to my situation. Oftentimes, I consider myself a mid-career founder. I found a little bit of success elsewhere. I transitioned into entrepreneurship. For most people, I described that as my first real stint in entrepreneurship. It's scary and hard. When you don't have any guard rails or guideposts, it's not innate. A lot of people think it's innate. It's innate to have the spirit of entrepreneurship. I grew up with it.
It's not innate to have the skills to be a great entrepreneur and I didn't have them. I'm not sure I have them now. I hope I'm learning constantly, but I certainly didn't have them when I first jumped back in my late-twenties, but I've been working like hell for the course of more than ten years now to learn as much as I can and impart as much of that on the people that I work with.
You mentioned this thing about the learning mindset, which I think is such an important part of being a good entrepreneur is the ability to know that you don't know. The ability to continue to adapt to whatever shows up is so important. There's something about what you described, which is so powerful, is that it's like you're constantly doing an inventory. I'm sure this is something about the way you approach the people you talk to you now, which is you're inventorying what you have before you jump into that next thing and say, “You're not blank slating it.”
You're coming from a place of, “What have I learned and experienced already? What are the things that I have as assets that I can build from that allows me to be successful in the next endeavor?” That includes the wounds and wins to some extent. That allows you to be able to build from there, not from a blank slate. It reminds me of this thing that comes from transcend and include, “You're not running away from your past, you're including your past, but you're transcending it at any given moment. You don't want to run away. You face it, then you move from there.”
It's a great way to encapsulate a lot of the thinking that I've had because one of the things I find that differentiates me or makes me seem a little different in a lot of the work that I do with founders now is that I try to focus on exactly what you said. It isn't a blank slate for them. Particularly because most of the people I work with have that trajectory like mine. I'm not working with Adam McGowan 1.0 entrepreneur when I was eighteen. I'm working with Adam McGowan 2.0 entrepreneur when I was 27 or 30. That's where I sort of fit in.
I had a body of life of experience and responsibility. All these things played into that. The tough part is a lot of times I find that the entrepreneurial ecosystem has encouraged and inspired me as I am by it. There are some challenging elements like when people are trying to go raise money and they think I have to do it this way and do these certain things.
All of a sudden, it feels to me like your ventures, maybe not your own anymore. I have to meet all these standards of other people. I have to take risks consistent with what other people want, what the investors in this portfolio of venture capital want or what is important to them. I understand that, but I start from a place of saying, “What is it that you want?” Unpacking what they want.
The funniest thing about it is that they start talking, “I want to raise money.” I said, “Tell me why.” It's funny because when you unpack it, most of the time, they very quickly diverge from what they wanted and it's what they think they needed to get to this place. Usually, the answer is there are other ways to get there. That was probably the biggest revelation for me when I made that second transition into entrepreneurship. That evolves from there was because I still came into it with that zero-sum game mindset, which was, “Whatever my next venture is, it's got to be a unicorn. It's got to be that billion-dollar valuation. I have to do all these things because that's what you do.”
That's how you'd become a successful entrepreneur. All of these definitions weren't mine. They were somebody else that I put on myself. I don't want to get on a soapbox or to be too preachy or anything with the people that I work with, but I do start from that place of saying, “What is it that you want and from what place are you coming?” If you're diving into entrepreneurship with 2 mortgages, 3 kids and a W-2 salary job, that's pretty steady and stable some wild times out there in our world the last few years, that's very different than having the warmth of your dorm room and all your friends, hoodie and all of those sorts of things.
It's a very different environment to make that leap. Can Adam McGowan 1.0 and 2.0, both go out and take the same risks. Absolutely, not. Do they come at it with the same perspective? Absolutely not. Frankly, the second version of me would be infinitely more effective at being able to lean into this role of entrepreneurship and find success in it, but most of that came from perspective. I don't think it was just good luck, fortune or hard work. It was mostly just from the way that I was looking at it. That's a big thing that I do was with the people that work with.
There’s something that you’re tapping into which is so important is that the entrepreneur has to have some perspective-taking some inner work. They get some thinking, “Am I ready for what comes next? Am I coming from the right perspective?” The one thing that I'm toying with as you say this is that there's like a paradox here is that you want to come in with this idea that, “I'm doing things the way I want that I'm inspired to do that I want to do,” but then you fall into the trap of bringing things on and it becomes almost like a career or something that is taking on a life of its own then you no longer have a love of it. You're just doing it because are you serving it or is it serving you?
It's spot on because interestingly, that happened to me again, even after I had gotten myself back into entrepreneurship because the way that had evolved was I leave finance, dive into my venture. I'd been incubating in my mind and all these ideas for the better part of a decade. I started to bring some of them to fruition. Traditional tech startup software, development and design, and all of these sorts of elements, all the specifics are maybe less relevant, but as I mentioned earlier, it didn't work. The first iteration of me trying to build this new product didn't work. I was funding it. I didn't want to put more money into it because what good fortune I had was pretty much dried up at that point.
I thought, “What am I going to do?” I went out into the market and I started to make some connections, started to network and I started to see, “This entrepreneurial bug isn't gone, but maybe I can just suppress a little bit of my pride. Maybe I can join someone else's venture. Maybe I could stay in this entrepreneurial sphere, but I don't have to be the ideal person.”
I could maybe be the supporting execution person or something like that. Having a number of conversations with a bunch of thoughtful, exciting, great people, but they all said the same thing. You're like, “You’re an entrepreneur, where have you been the last couple of years?” I'm like, “I'm pretty much been in a hold-up in a cave working on trying to get this new thing out the door. We haven't seen you out.”
The idea of stoicism is seen as being overly austere, but it has this incredible depth to it. So much of it was the simplicity and the clarity that provided so much a perspective.
This was one of my first moments where I thought, “Maybe I missed out on a couple of the lessons here. Nobody taught me about how the importance of community is enormous.” I didn't learn that. I learned that lesson the hard way. I spent a couple of years where if I had spent 90% of my time focused on the specifics of the venture and even 10% of that time focused on everyone else around me. That would have paid huge dividends for me. I had to dig myself out a little bit of that hole. People would say, “I don't know if there's a great role for you in my venture,” and this is part of the reason why I've probably been introduced to these people. There was a kinship with me.
They were mid-career and founders trying to do something technical, but they weren't computer scientists. They weren't particularly technical. They needed help getting that venture off the ground. That was me. That’s what I was. What they would say to me, I will say that it seems like you were working on a venture. You've got some technical people, some designed, you brought some people together and then you have this interesting mix of backgrounds, startup hood, and finance, “Do you want to help me get my product off the ground? Maybe a little fraction of your developer, designer, a fractional amount of your time to help me maybe raise the money with some strategy stuff, would you be willing to do that?”
I said, “I'm flattered. Thank you for thinking of me in that way,” but what that means is I'd be running like an agency. I'd be like a service provider. In my mind, I still had this vision of someone else's definition of being successful with a startup. I said, “No. That would be a lifestyle business. That would be a service. That would be an agency. That's not going to the moon startup. That's some other thing. I can't do that.” It was maybe 3, 4 or 5 more conversations like that one with that inspired founder where they asked me the same question, “Would you be willing to do that?” At a certain point, I said, “Maybe someone or something is trying to tell me something that there's something here.” I suppressed that pride a little bit more and tried to alter my persistence under one of these flashpoints.
I had to alter my mindset and my perspective to say, “Maybe I need to be open to this. Maybe I need to open the door to this idea,” and I did. It became great. The ability on like a Monday with a client, I go sit side-by-side with them, trying to raise money from a venture capitalist. On a Wednesday with someone else, I'm helping them ideate and design from the ground up how to envision their new product.
On a Friday with someone else, we're working with our team to design and build a new mobile app or something. It was an awesome week that we were doing that week in and week out. That was phenomenal, but what inspired this line of thought for me was your comment about this idea of maybe losing a little bit of passion.
Fast forward, a few things happened. I got married and had two kids in the gap. A lot happened while I was trying to scale this business, but the business had grown. We went from a couple of us to 20 of us. I mean, we were growing. However, if someone were to ask me, “What is your business do?” I would say, “We're strategic consultants. We help early-stage founders cross the board, get their new product to startup off the ground, money, team, all these things we helped.” They said, “That’s funny because the person that introduced us said that you run a software development shop.” There's nothing wrong with that.
I have a lot of friends that run phenomenal software development shops. I said, “Software development shop? No. We're these catalysts. We're doing all these things.” I heard 3 or 4 people say that to me. I sat down and took a look at the books. I said, “Last month, what did we get paid to do? About 98% of what we got paid to do was to write design software and code.”
How about the month before that? “It was 96%.” You run this back and all of a sudden, you go years into the past. It snuck off on me, but it had gone from the vast majority of what we were doing and paid for was to help with this big strategic vision and all these different kitchen sink type of approaches to helping get something off the ground.
It evolved because more people needed that software development piece. I also looked at the client base and it’s phenomenal as they were. I was like, “How many of them are early-stage founders like I was when I could have used help from someone like me or this firm?” The answer was very few. All of a sudden, I had blinked again for multiple years, marriage and two kids. The venture had moved away from where I had wanted it to be. As much as it was doing well.
I don't want to disparage in any way, amazing people, clients and team. that the finances were good. I was helping to prep for my kids to save for college, no complaints. Except I wasn't passionate about it because as much as the work ultimately produced great results for others, I didn't want to be known as the person who ran another software development shop, particularly as a non-software engineer who's not passionate about writing code.
That didn't feel like the right fit for me. I thought, “What is the right fit?” The right fit was those elements you described in my intro. Me being that problem, solving consultant, being there when people are trying to raise capital or build their team, or thinking about how to get that product into the market in the right way, not necessarily writing the ones and zeros all the code, but before that, figuring out what's the right thing to do. Those were the things that I was super passionate about. I took a two-year journey to wind down. I elected to wind down that’s when I had become a software development company and then re-emerged.
Frankly, what I was or intended to be all the way at the outset after I had those chats with those founders asking me if I'd sit in that seat with them and go help raise money, team or product. I'm going back to that, but I'm not going to this time conflate it with all of the software development pieces. That's where I draw the line. I'll bring in other teams, resources, friends or others to help when it gets to that part, but I'm hyper-focused now. I'm going back to those founders, similar to where I was and helping them do those things I'm super passionate about. It’s a bit of a long sidebar from a quick point that you made. Even after I felt more enlightened in my second bout with entrepreneurship, it still isn't an easy road. It still sneaks up on you.
Thank you for sharing that because I think one of the things that reveal is that we can easily get sidetracked into this world of like, “We're making money. The business is successful.” Therefore, it's not broken, don't fix it, but in reality, if you're driven by a need or desire to make an impact and to do something for the right reasons, then you will disrupt that pattern.
You will change things up because your desire is to do things in a different way to align with the gifts that you have. Therefore, it comes back to the entrepreneur wanting to do things that are lighting you up. I say that a lot because I always say, “Follow your spark. What lights you up is what you should be doing. If you're not doing that, then you should change gears and do something different.”
It's funny you said spark. There was a moment when I was still trying to figure out what was going on with I had become a software development company. I hadn't quite figured it out, but I knew the spark was a little bit gone and I needed to figure something out. I also knew as much as my intuition told me. I was going to maybe wind some things down. I thought, “I still need to be a little bit practical because I do have a mortgage. I do have responsibilities. I've got kids and diapers. It’s always are the things I need to deal with. Let's not be rash about this.” I did feel like I wasn't able to scratch that itch when it came to that passion and feeling like it was starting to dim.
I took the idea of the spark. I made it into something that wasn't figurative. I thought in the same way, I had learned years before that the lack of community was a real challenge for me. It was a missed opportunity. I thought, “Let me lean back into that because I'm so passionate about the stories of others and getting inspired by their entrepreneurial, professional journeys and life journeys.” I created this experiment and I called it The Spark Series.
It was the beginning of 2017. Here's the experiment. I will make an offer to ten people to buy them lunch and a nice place. My only request of them is they come with an open mind and when they arrive, “Please don't run down your LinkedIn CV with everybody. Just come, we'll sit, and then I'll try to lead the conversation. As a favor to me, will you do it?” I got ten people who agreed.
I picked ten people that didn't already know each other or didn't know each other well. They were all unique in their backgrounds and approach. I had gotten through this book by Adam Grant called Give and Take. I thought, “Let's try this. What if I ask people for an offer?” I asked each of them to make this authentic offer of, “If someone were to take me up on this offer, I'm making to this table, it would energize the heck out of me.” It's not a burden on me to do this. Not that you're asking me to drive you to the airport or mow your lawn. I'm going to offer some that are going to light me up, and then I'm going to make an authentic and pretty vulnerable ask of the group.
This isn't, “Does anybody know a tax accountant?” “I have this board I'm on. I'm trying to work on this thing,” or whatever it might be. You don't need to be saving the world, but at the same time, it has to be authentic. I thought, “Let's see what happens.” If people want to later talk about, they're a managing director here, a founder here, a venture, whatever they are or they're a PhD this fine, but not at the beginning.
A magic happened at the early table. We just had these awesome, phenomenal conversations and I didn't expect, so I thought, “Let's do it again.” I brought ten different people. Two weeks later, did again. The Sparks Series turned into 41 of those lunches, 250 people. Some came back to multiple tables, but I brought 250 people around the tables. They ranged across the board.
Your willingness to give isn't a truly selfless act. It is a self-fulfilling act, and it can be self-fulfilling while also being beneficial to other people.
I call it The Spark Series, but it brought my spark back. That ability to build the community. The thing was I knew this was interesting, like liberating element, it’s so often you're in those moments and everybody assumes that there are some other motives. I had thoughtful people. I come to the table and afterward would say, “Tell me about the return on investment because you're buying everybody's lunch.”
They're like, “I'd love to do this too. How do you pick the people? How do you sell your services late? When do you decide is the right time?” I thought, “Number one, I made a mistake inviting this person to lunch. I got a bad read on this person. Number two, I was unencumbered because I knew that I was going to be evolving away from the venture I was in that I wasn't even implicitly forced to figure out how is there something going on underneath, how do I figure out, how do I monetize this thing?” I think that's what made it so great and authentic.
The challenge is that it's expensive to do that. I couldn't do it forever, and particularly because I wasn't using it to drive business, but I think The Spark moniker worked in two ways. I hoped that we would spark interesting interactions amongst the people that would come, but in some ways, even more importantly for me, it sparked in me.
The passion to realize how important it was to get that community back together as much as I was inspired by so much of what I heard in these tables, the things that probably drove me the most were these thoughtful, inspired stories of people trying to jump out there and say, “I've found success in this career, but I think it's time for me to flex my entrepreneurial muscle and go jump and do it.” Listening to them with this mix of anxiety, excitement, fear, passion and all these sorts of things that I thought, “This is it. This is what I've got to get back to.”
Shortly after that 41st launch, it was the time when I had gotten to that point where I thought, “I know what I needed to do. Now I've got to mix my experience, skillset and this ability with this community to figure out how I can help facilitate the inspiration of entrepreneurship with the execution of entrepreneurship, which I think I was pretty good at being able to do.” Your one little term there sparked this entire conversation, but it's very literal for me. The spark is huge.
It lands squirrely. It was such a powerful insight, especially when you hear this element of like, everyone thinks there's this ulterior motive, but when you come into it with this open mind and feel like, “We all want to share, communicate with each other and connect,” we do need connection. It's a win-win when you can come in and it lights you up because you're bringing these people together, but they also come in from the perspective of saying, “We get to create a community.” If something comes from that, fantastic, that's even better. The idea that there's no ulterior motive, it is what it is. It’s what we need.
Thank you so much for bringing that. Everything you've shared so far has been great, powerful insights and stories. It gives me a real sense of who you are in the world and how you lead. I'm grateful for what you're doing. I'm going to shift gears a little bit. We're coming to the close of our time together. I have the last question which I'm dying to find out more about how you think. What are 1 or 2 books that have had an impact on you and why were they impactful?
I love Adam Grant. Of all of his books, I love Give And Take. The thing about it that struck me was that he couldn't have better broken down my prior misconception about this idea of that zero-sum game. I thought of things on this spectrum, like the more I get, the less someone else gets. The more they get, the less they get. There was something about this that always had to balance out. I saw it like this spectrum. You pick a point, “More for you, less for them.” He had this very simple matrix he put together in one of his pages of the book. On one axis, it was a benefit for me. On the other axis, it was a benefit for others.
What was fascinating about it was that there were four boxes there. One of the boxes was a benefit to me and to others. He calls this being other-ish and being other-ish is this idea that you can do good for yourself while doing good for others. He goes into all this depth about why that's true, but it's because your willingness to give, given the right ways, thoughtful ways and selfless ways, isn't a truly selfless act. It is a self-fulfilling act and it can be self full while also being beneficial to other people. Almost the entirety of the structure of The Sparks Series was built on this basis of trying to figure out how to be other-ish.
That concept has driven so much of the way I interact now with friends, family, coworkers, clients and you name it. Give And Take has been absolutely pivotal, even to the point where every single one of the people who came to one of my lunches had a copy of the book at their seat when they sat down. That was huge for me. Even people that came multiple times get another copy. I'm like, “Give it away to someone that could use it.” It was very critical.
The second one, I was turned on to this by the author Ryan Holiday about this notion of stoicism, Meditations. It's a collection of thoughts from Marcus Aurelius and it's phenomenal. I use it as a little bit of a guidepost for me when things are getting a little wild and hectic, his writings and using help to center things. The idea of stoicism is seen as being overly austere and there may be a bit of that, but it has this incredible depth to it.
So much of it was the simplicity and the clarity that provided so much a perspective. It's funny because that's probably a book that I would have cast aside. The 25-year-old me would have been like, “This is a waste of my time.” The 40 something-year-old me says, “No way.” I feel the opposite. Those are two books that I could not recommend more.
I'm going to say about stoicism in general. There's an element of hitting it at different levels. You can't just take it all at face level. You have to think about the times and what is the underlying message that is being shared in those quotes and thoughts that they're sharing. I love that you brought that into the space. It might've been the first time that's been brought into this space. Adam Grant is somebody who's influenced me in a big way. I'm a huge fan. We're going to have to tag him on the show. If we can get him as a guest, I would be overly excited.
I can't say that I have any sort of relationship with him, but I have had an exchange with him on email because one of my moments where I had a new crop of folks coming to a Sparks Series lunch, Amazon didn't have enough of his books. I didn't know where to get it. We've all become so dependent on some of these things like Amazon. I thought, “Who better to ask where to get Adam Grant's books? That Adam Grant.” I emailed Adam Grant.
I said, “They're out of books, I need to buy you 25 copies.” We had a brief exchange and he put me in touch with someone in South Dakota who was able to hook me up. I'm certain that he sent thousands of emails like that to other people, but that's the depth of my relationship with Adam Grant because he said, “Yes. Talk to so-and-so in South Dakota. They'll get you as many books as you need.” I'm not sure he has the time anymore to be responding to emails like that.
I can't thank you enough for everything you shared. It's been an amazing time to spend with you. Thanks for coming to the show. Before you go, I want to make sure that you let people know where they can find out more about you.
You can find out what I do professionally at my website, AdamMcGowan.net. You can find me and follow me on LinkedIn and that's my primary place to be found online. You can also use other mediums to be able to reach out to me with a message.
Thank you so much for coming to the show.
Thanks for having me. The time flew by. I appreciate you, the questions, your mission and your approach. I was happy to be here.
Thanks, readers, for coming on the journey with us. I know you're leaving us some great insights. Definitely reach out to Adam, quite an amazing soul. We love the work he's doing in the world.
- The Startup Coalition
- Climbing The Right Mountain
- Give and Take
- LinkedIn - Adam McGowan
About Adam McGowan
Adam McGowan is a problem-solving consultant for entrepreneurs.
As a serial entrepreneur himself, he’s been a great ally, advocate, and adviser for numerous startups in Boston and worldwide.
Adam helps entrepreneurial clients raise funds, build teams, and perfect their products.
He majored in Economics at Harvard University, then worked in finance for ten years as a risk analyst at an investment bank and hedge fund.
In the following ten years Adam was an entrepreneur. He founded and grew Firefield, a successful consultancy that built and enhanced tech ventures and products. Adam was a true partner to clients, often taking on acting product, technology or leadership roles in their ventures.
His connection to the startup ecosystem runs deep. He has mentored at various programs including LearnLaunch, the WIN Lab at Babson, MIT Hacking Medicine, the SCALE Challenge, and BUILD Boston. As a featured speaker, teacher, or judge, Adam has shared insights at General Assembly, MassChallenge, The Startup Coalition, Lean Startup Challenge, YouthCITIES, Radio Entrepreneurs, and TrepCamp.
Adam founded The Spark Series — cultivating the inspired ideas of more than 250 founders, investors, and change-makers across 45 events.
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