I still remember the night I turned 21. A group of friends were over to celebrate as soon as the clock struck midnight. This was back in the day when I didn’t consume alcohol. About 10 minutes before midnight, I snuck out and went on a walk in the dark of night — I wanted to welcome my 21st year of life just me and God. The sky was clear and the air cold, and I dreamed of what life could look like. Adventure, please give me a life of adventure.
I thought I understood God. I believed.
I returned to the party past midnight and remember Rachael saying “where’d you go?!” I just laughed and ate cake. Rachael and I were best friends and then we dated and it was terrible. I lost all my self-esteem. One summer she worked in Colorado and I went to visit her. I camped out in a forest by myself and would see her when she got off work. The highlight of the trip was camping alone. Time to move on. She didn’t like me. It was ok, at that time I didn’t really like myself. We broke up while I ate the most delicious feta-burger on the planet (if you’re ever in Athens, Ga get the Meteor burger at Clocked).
Throughout my early twenties I threw giant rave style parties that were drug and alcohol free with an entire team of students. And for better or for worse I was leading them. I had a partner in this endeavor, Chris. We started as roommates, then best friends and grew into business partners. But we weren’t ready to be business partners.
I spent 6 or 7 years throwing these parties. The first year or two was pure discovery and thrill. Every party got bigger and badder, but we had no clue about turnover and my senior year of college I looked around and there was only four of us. It was a bad year. So I stayed for another senior year. This year went well and I graduated.
I didn’t attend my own graduation. Instead I went and played frisbee golf on north campus with the group of guys that had thrown those parties with me. The fireworks went off and we paused and they congratulated me. That was the right way to celebrate — they really were my college experience.
I went full time throwing parties and it became my first job after college. I had to raise money. If you know me, you know I’m always raising money. We ran out of money. My salary was $19,000. Someone told me that was close to the poverty line in America. I didn’t care — I had my team of guys and we were building something special, something priceless. I had done it for free for years. I lived in a frugal way. I saved as much as I could.
My friend Todd asked me to go to Beijing for Chinese New Years. His family friend was doing a lot of business over there and invited Todd, telling him he could invite a friend. He chose me. That trip changed my life. Every time I travel to another culture it changes my life.
I took a one way flight to Istanbul when the semester ended and then popped over to Greece and traveled through Europe for 89 days. No plans, I just went. There still wasn’t enough time. I pulled more all nighters during those three months than all of college combined. That’s what happens when you desire everything. I saw as much as I could see, from the fjords of Norway to St. Peter’s and I barely scratched the surface.
In Italy I met up with Will, one of the students who was throwing parties with me. He had become like a brother to me, and we stood atop the duomo in Florence and he told me how he could build a full-size Spanish galleon complete with two 60-foot mast beams because everyone knows a true Spanish galleon has two giant masts. I didn’t know that, but right then and there atop that beautiful cathedral I shook his hand and said we’d build it as the centerpiece for the next party.
I continued my travels. I got food poisoning on the Mediterranean and thought I’d die there alone. I ran with the bulls in Pamplona. I ate a thousand kebabs. I stayed in a shitty hostel that had bed bugs. I journaled every day.
I got back to the States and two weeks later we threw that party featuring the Spanish Galleon Will had talked about on top of the duomo in Florence. It was a slamming success. As the year went on I believed the team of students could do it without me. The organization was growing, but my relationship with Chris had deteriorated. Even so, I went back to China for Spring Festival (what Americans call Chinese New Year) and invited Chris and his brother. On that trip I knew it was time for me to leave the thing we had done together for so long.
In fact, I decided to leave solely because of my relationship with Chris. It was beyond repair at that time. It taught me how important and how powerful relationships are. Relationships are everything.
I still remember the day Chris and I agreed it was best for me to leave. That conversation finished, I walked over to the piece of property where we had hosted thousands of people for parties. I climbed up into the DJ treehouse that Will and his dad built. The morning sun filtered through the trees and the place was still. A highlight reel played in my mind and I could see everything we had accomplished there. Great memories of times past filled me. It reminded me of looking at ruins in Rome — no one really understands what happened there, only those that lived it. Yet there was something hesitant in me to leave, something tugging at the core of me. I leaned against the railing. What? Why am I feeling this deep in my chest? And then it all hit me. The team. I didn’t want to leave them. The guys who had given me their college careers, who had spent countless hours, who had followed my lead even when I didn’t know what I was doing — those guys — the ones I had chosen when they were nothing more than high school boys and watched become men. I witnessed them come into their giftings to create things, to build things, to lead people themselves. I love them, that’s what I was feeling. And that’s when God spoke to me — I don’t know how– saying “so it is with you. I choose you, I’ve been leading you, I’ve watched you freely come into your giftings. I’ve loved you all along.” I cried forever in that tree house. I’ve told that story 3 times and cried all three times. I’m crying right now as I write this. I don’t understand God. Those guys are the best theology I’ve ever known.
There’s no playbook to life, you just follow your instinct. When I left, I had no clue what to do next. I heard about a vacant building in Clemson. I thought I could turn it into a music venue. I hired the (then) owner of the Georgia Theater to be the lead consultant on the project. I began raising money. I’m always raising money. I tracked down the building’s owner. Will and I went and walked the building. It needed a ton of work. I called an investor and met with another. The second one I met with changed my course forever when he said “I’d be shocked if you raised the money for this. The business model just doesn’t allow much profit. But honestly, I’d be even more shocked if you don’t find a different idea to work on. One that’s better.” I went home and sat on my mom’s couch and thought. He was right. I hated to admit it, but he was. The deal fell apart and the building still sits vacant today, five years later.
I knew exactly what to do next. I walked outside and called my friend Daniel in Texas, saying “I’m going to move out there now, on one condition, we build businesses and lives worth living.” He said he’d been expecting that call for years.
Yet life makes things much more complicated than they should be, and I got in a wreck which delayed the move a month or two and while my vehicle was still in holding, I said screw it and hopped on a one-way flight to Austin, TX. I still remember Daniel picking me up from the airport. It was late at night and he brought chicken nuggets. I was carrying one duffel bag that Chris had given me as a parting gift. Life is all about relationships.
Ok, I’m in Austin, now what? The first day I went to change my driver’s license then walked into a fast food restaurant and asked for a job. They hired me. I worked in the drive thru. I went from throwing raves with thousands of people to working in a drive through in less than a year. Damn.
I tried to build an app. I lost all my money and went into debt. The idea doesn’t matter when the execution is atrocious. I’d never been in debt. I hate debt.
But, at the same time a friend who worked in the airline industry gave me a companion pass that let me fly anywhere in the world for super cheap. Though there was a catch — I could only use it for the next 8 months. I went everywhere I could. Chile. Israel. China. He said he was spending his birthday in Dubai and I should join. So I did. I still remember returning from Dubai and putting on my fast food uniform and walking into work and the owner saying “how was your weekend?” and I thought about answering “have you ever been to Dubai?” but I just shrugged instead.
After a few months I calculated how many flights I’d taken. I was averaging 2.3 flights a week. In December, I flew from Texas to Seattle to Japan to China then made it back to Augusta, Georgia on Christmas Eve just before Santa Claus, hopping 7 flights in total. That was my saddest Christmas — I didn’t give any gifts to anyone because I was so broke. I felt empty. Not one gift. Not even a stick of gum or a pair of socks. I flew back to Austin and wrote myself a letter admitting what a fuck-up I was for not being able to give one thing to my mother who brought me into this world. I vowed to never let it happen again.
As soon as Austin ok’d the ridesharing companies, I began driving for them. I could make more money doing that than in the drive thru, or so I thought, so I quit my fast food job. My first night driving was one to remember. I figured I’d go on when the bars let out and get the big fares from the high demand. The first ride came in and I drove to 7th and Trinity. Three people came up to my car: a tall, muscular black guy, his beautiful girlfriend in a skin tight dress, and a scrawny white guy rocking the frat bro look. As they were getting in, the frat bro said, “hey look there’s that asshole from the bar” and yelled something at him. The next thing I heard was “Oh shit, here he comes. Drive! Drive!” but I couldn’t go anywhere. Cars were in front of me, they were behind me. I looked over to see a giant roided-out dude in an Ed Hardy tee running full speed at my car. He didn’t stop, just letting his momentum carry him to the car and into a punch. The punch was aimed at the frat bro, who happened to be sitting in the backseat right behind me. The only problem was the window was up, but Giant Ed-Hardy-wearing-t-shirt guy didn’t seem to mind and punched right through the window. Glass exploded everywhere. Everyone got out of the car to fight except me. I called 911. Then everything happened really fast. The black guy went over and started shoving the roided-out guy back and forth. Then the little frat bro got out of the backseat, went and tapped the giant on the shoulder, he turned around and the frat bro hit him one punch to the jaw and knocked him out cold, ice cold, and the giant Ed-Hardy-wearing-t-shirt guy fell to the pavement, landing face first on the curb with the sound of teeth crunching. Yikes. You’d think it was over but no. Apparently this giant Ed-Hardy-wearing-t-shirt guy had a sister, and I heard her running down the way just in time to turn and see a female version of the Kool-aid man coming down the track. She was huge and round and she ran full speed at the innocent beautiful girlfriend in the tight dress who was now standing on the road. Bump. The tubby sister used all her weight to bellybump the slender girl down to the ground, and she hit hard and lay unconscious on the pavement. That now brought the count to two. The muscular black boyfriend saw this, and reacted by grabbing the tubby sister around the shoulders and throwing her down the hill. The tubby sister hit and rolled down the hill. Now we’re at three. I thought it was over, but it only escalated — for someone in the distance saw the black guy throw a large white woman and yelled out “You don’t hit a woman, nigger!” I jumped in and separated the new aggressor all the while wondering where in the world were the cops — it felt like we were about 3 seconds away from this thing combusting into a race riot all over some stupid comment from a frat bro to a guy in an Ed Hardy tee. Just then sirens blarred. The muscular black guy picked up his girlfriend while the frat bro hailed a cab the old fashioned way and the three of them pulled off in a yellow taxi just as the cops showed up. It was quite a timely exit. I was the only sober person on the scene and explained it all. At the end of it, I went to my friend Ben’s apartment and slept on the floor. It stormed so bad that the trash bag I used to cover the window blew right off and I woke up to standing water in my backseat. Austin flooded. I wasn’t cut out for rideshare driving, after all, that was my first attempt.
Amidst all my traveling I was working to source manufacturers to run production on a consumer good my friend had imagined. A local Austin entrepreneur heard about it and hired me on the spot to help bring his product to market. I still remember him saying “I’ll pay you some shitty salary, I don’t know 38, 40k or something, to bring this to market.” I was happy — that was double what I made throwing parties and way better than my hourly wage in the drive-thru. I’ve always done the work I believe in whether someone pays me or not. He found a spot to use as a distribution center and I became the ecommerce and warehouse manager. We did a production run out of China, arranged 9 containers to get it all the way to Texas, and were waiting at the door when the trucks starting pulling in. We unloaded more than 20,000 boxes, one at a time and arranged them according to the plan I had come up with. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked. Yet distribution is harder to get than we imagined and now we had almost a million dollars in inventory we were paying to store. I told the owner I would leave if it helped his bottom line. He said it would and thanked me for the work.
I left there and pitched the owners of a medical software company my idea for a “food startup.” They decided to take me inhouse and absorb the costs of launching my business. I was ecstatic — I’d moved to Texas to learn about software and now I’d be working with a tech company to bring my idea to life. It was a dream come true. But, I was young and idealistic. I didn’t know how to navigate a company or lead product development. I’d read books while waiting for responses. I spent too much time reading, waiting.
After doing one marketing video for the “food startup” the owners of the company asked me to do marketing for their product, which was the money maker financing my deal. I said yes as long as my best friend Daniel could come on to keep the startup moving and they agreed. After a little while they asked us both to do marketing for their software and put my startup on the backburner. Their pitch was that we’d set a goal for specific revenue, hit it, sell the company then everyone would be flush with resources to pursue whatever. I talked with Daniel and choose to do it.
So now I was a healthcare marketer. I didn’t know what I was doing.
It took over a year but we hit the revenue goal, not really because of anything I did. We didn’t sell the company. It takes a long time for a company to sell, and even longer for shares to vest and yada yada yada. The company set a new revenue goal. I lost all my worth ethic. I despised the financial side of the healthcare industry — it’s slow, everyone is afraid of a lawsuit, and no one grows up wanting to work in medical billing (except Morgan K, she loved it). For the first time in my life, I was doing the bare minimum.
One weekend I told Daniel I thought I could build the first version of the website for the “food startup” myself. When I came back on Monday the owner called me into his office and asked if I was happy working there. We’d always been honest with one another. I still remember exactly what I told him, “If I’m still in the healthcare industry in 3 years, I’d consider myself a personal failure.” He told me I could leave and he’d pay me til the end of the month. I’ve always liked him and respected him, and our parting was as amiable as can be.
Ok, back to square one. How do I build a tech company myself? I don’t know, I just started. A lot of my time went to self-doubt and loathing. I built a website. It crashed all the time. It worked sometimes. I reached out to people. I just kept trying things. Somewhere in the midst of this I realized this was my one time to go.
A friend of mine got a new house. I installed a floor in exchange for storing my stuff there. My stuff is still there right now. I packed a duffle bag, the same one Chris had given me as a parting gift. I moved out of where I was living. I planned to sell my car, and one morning I woke up and it had been hit. I got $2k from the guy’s insurance and sold it as is for $1600. I had no income, no place to live, no car, and no clue how to build that which I imagined. But I had an idea. What if I drive around the country to discover more folks making real food?
You could say I couldn’t afford to do it. I saw it on the contrary — this was the only time I could afford to do it. Sure I didn’t have the money, but I’ve never had the money. If ideas are the new currency, I had two compounding ideas. Not just starting a business — but doing it while driving around the country. I wasn’t looking to do something remarkable — I was hoping to find something remarkable.
Daniel and I went in 50/50 on the vehicle for the trip — a 1980 VW Vanagon Westfalia. We could only afford it because it didn’t run. We bought it and I spent 3 or 4 months banging my head during an engine rebuild. Carlos, Daniel and I took that thing apart and got a machinist to do the longblock portion, then tried to get it to run. I’d never recommend doing an engine rebuild while starting a company — it allows a lot to go wrong in a day — but that’s what I did. Finally we got it to crank. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to go. But Daniel said we should throw an event to launch the trip and he was right. Before I knew it we were hosting the First Annual Ungrocery Dinner in Austin, TX, a 4-course plated meal featuring local food with beer pairings all prepared by a super talented Texas chef. We sold out on word of mouth alone — no emailing, tweets, or loathsome facebook posts. Just wait for the next one…
When the dinner ended, I felt sick — I was so excited for the trip, but anxiety filled my chest because I had been responsible for the engine work. I wouldn’t have let you take it down the street for fear it’d breakdown. Hell, I hadn’t driven it more than 10 miles myself before setting out.
I left Austin Wednesday evening. I barely made it 30 miles before breaking down. Thankfully, it happened near Big Matt’s neighborhood on the night of his birthday party, so we drank beer and tequila before I crashed on his couch. The next day I “fixed the issue” and had a last supper-esk moment with Daniel and Carlos. We ate taco bell in the van during their lunch break then I hit the road. Ah day two, I didn’t make it past Waco before breaking down again (I was spewing hot oil out of the back of the van). I pulled over and the engine drooled black everywhere. All of my anxiety was coming true. I determined a fix which took about 8 hours to dry, so I holed up in a coffee shop and began editing pictures from the First Annual Ungrocery Dinner. It had really been a smashing success, but that felt like years ago as I sat in Waco alone uncertain if the fix would work. It’d been two days and I could have ridden a bicycle further. I pulled out of Waco around midnight and drove through the night. I saw the most beautiful meteor streak across the night sky — all sorts of brilliant neon green light illuminating the landscape brighter than all the dancehall signs in Texas combined. For a moment, I lost my mind — the light was too much.
I drove as long as I could before sleeping in a truck stop, my old VW among giant big rigs. After a few hours rest, I drove off then did an oil change on hot Mississippi black-top and drove the rest of the day. I discovered my gas gauge didn’t work — it stuck at a quarter tank — when I ran out of gas just past Birmingham. I made it to Atlanta about 1am Saturday. I had left Texas on Wednesday. The trip, well, it started slowly.
And then I had the time of my life.
Today I turn 30. Someone asked me what I was doing to celebrate. They said I have to do something special. I laughed and said half my 29th year was spent traveling around America — that’s what I did for my 30th.
I had the best 20s of anyone ever. I wanted to try as many businesses as possible; to learn as many skills as I could; to see as much of the world as I could; and most of all, to live a life of adventure. I’ve spent all my energy pursuing that which I believe in. I’m shocked I still have friends. I’m a hard friend to have — I’ve woken up Daniel at 4AM for a ride to the airport; I called David at midnight to see if me and another guy could crash with him and his wife for a few nights; I took Graham on a 19 mile march from the south rim of the Grand Canyon down to the river all around then back up in a day simply to exhaust him (and because the park rangers told me not to do it); I’ve pulled pranks on Todd so much now I have to get others to do them — one prank was so good he didn’t speak to me for a week and we still don’t talk about it — just wait til he sees what’s next. If you’re reading this, there’s a 75% chance I’ve crashed on your couch. All that to say, I count myself the lucky one in every friendship I have. All of them. To everyone I know, you’ve made me the wealthiest man on the planet. Seriously, all the bank accounts in the world can’t add up to the love you’ve given me. Consider this an infinite IOU. And a thank you. Yes, you, thank you.
On the trip, I hiked alone through the Redwoods, the ancient trees standing unapologetic — timeless — and thought of my brother Joe. While I was throwing drug and alcohol free parties, he went missing. He ran from the law and we didn’t see him for 2 years. He was 20 years old. I have no clue how he celebrated his 21st birthday, but I bet he was questioning God too. He probably doesn’t remember, too many drugs. The law caught up to him. He plead guilty to it all and got a stint in the state pin. Today he’s a husband, a father, and a business owner. He got married on my mother’s birthday — the greatest surprise of a present she’s ever received. I’ve seen her cry the saddest of tears while he was on the run; I’ve had long silent car rides with her after she got done visiting him behind bars; I’ve seen the pain he caused her, pain he’ll never see. But I’ve never seen her smile bigger than on his wedding day, her birthday. I call her on the phone and she talks about how much she loves her grandbaby, Lilly Kate, Joe’s little girl.
When he was missing, I’d dream he’d come back, but it seemed impossible. Too many felonies, too many drugs, too many broken relationships in the family. I’d pray, but I didn’t understand God. I’d cry in anger, but only alone.
He’s been called many things, and all of them accurate, at one time or another: addict, fugitive, convict, prisoner. But he’s none of those things today. He’s the comeback kid. A free man. A man who loves his wife, his daughter, his mother, his family.
I’m proud of him. Not because he’s made money, but because he’s made a life.
This is it. We only get one life. I feel as though I just got here, like I just woke up, that there’s so much left to discover, to try, to explore. So many more tears to cry, joys to share, moments to grasp. Struggles, failures, successes, all on the horizon. Are you sure we only get one life? Is this it? I don’t know — even though we differ on the destination, we are the only species that believes in an afterlife. Heaven, hell, this planet or another — I stand amazed that we discuss it at all. We definitely are the only species who buries their dead.
The reason life seems so short is because you only realize what’s good at the end. That’s why I write everyday — to get to the end of a story, to get to the bottom of things, one thing, to find the essence of good in all the shit.
Because stories of redemption are happening all around us and rarely do they involve an altar.
Because humanity devours conflict while our souls crave peace.
Because death is a guarantee and life is not.
Because there’s more, there’s got to be more,
I’m publishing a book this year. Whatever is the opposite of a self help book, that’s what I’m writing. If you found these stories remotely entertaining, submit your email address here for more and first access to the book.