Inspiration is for amateurs

Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.

– Stephen King

Not a big Stephen King guy, myself. But I love that quote.

So true.


How to Lead Young

I got my first “real job” when I was 21.

After Kristen and I got married in June 1997 the big boss at my company called me one day. “Adam, we’re going to post a job today supervising your area. I want you to apply for it because I want to hire you.

A couple weeks later I got the job.

At 21 years old I was put in charge of one of those jobs in a company that’s really important but no one wants. Weird shifts, overseeing three shifts of workers, union issues, very expensive and complicated equipment, constant unrealistic expectations and impossible deadlines, and higher ups who constantly reminded me that it’d be way cheaper to outsource my department to another company. Oh, and just for fun, this little mini-department had just been moved offsite to a warehouse where we were hated.

Looking at the facts it was a no-win situation. I was a new manager, in charge of very expensive equipment, doing a very important job for the company, but put on an island and given a hodgepodge team of full-time, long-term employees in their 40s and temporary workers… many of whom had felony convictions and never had a “real job.”

I never saw it as a no-win situation because I had one thing in my corner… a boss who really believed in me. She didn’t hire me to be lead to the slaughter. She hired me because together we were going to kick some butt.

My charge was pretty direct:

  • Meet or beat every deadline.
  • Create a team that believes in itself.
  • Figure out how to do this cheaper than outsourcing.

Over the next five years that’s exactly what I did. We never missed a deadline, we created the proverbial “mail room” for the company where a crew of temps and union employees became family, and every year I was there we lowered the cost-per-item produced.

But, in all honesty, this little feat only happened because I had a boss who invested in me. I believed it was possible because she believed in me. She didn’t just hire me and stick me in no man’s land in that warehouse. She continually invested in me and taught me the right things to do.

And most relevant for you? She taught me how to lead young. The things she taught me about being a young leader were directly transferable to my next life as the young leader on a church staff. So I wanted to pass them along.

5 Things Every Young Leader Can Do to Earn Respect

  1. Be Prepared – Each week we had a weekly staff meeting. Like a lot of organizations, these meetings were predictable, we were going to go around the conference table and each person was going to give a brief report on their area. I was surprised how many people got fired as the result of performing poorly in the meeting. They came unprepared, they didn’t have the right information, they didn’t have answers, they didn’t offer solutions for the rest of the team– they thought it was casual because we served coffee and donuts.  Before my very first staff meeting I was pulled aside and told the truth: This might seem casual and even friendly sometimes. But don’t ever show up to this meeting unprepared. Sometimes you’ll get away with sharing very little info, but other times the pressure will get applied. Always be prepared. Never show up without all the information you need.
  2. Be on Time – Living in Chicago, it would have been easy to be late a lot. (Traffic is always an issue.) I saw managers come and go in my time and one of the big reasons was simply that they couldn’t manage to control their time. They were late for meetings, they were late for work, and they fostered this expectation that they wouldn’t be on time. The flip side is that when you are young you want to establish that you are dependable. Being consistently 15-20 minutes early told older managers I valued their time enough to be on time. We live in a culture who expects young adults to be lazy, disorganized, and otherwise undependable. Get on the other side of that and you’re winning hearts.
  3. Dress Right – I worked in a warehouse. A dusty, hot, place where I might go a week between seeing someone from the main office. But I learned the value of dressing right. As the years of success built it became more and more normal that my little area became part of the tour that the people wearing suits showed off to visiting company presidents. Our success story became part of the success story for the whole company. I can’t tell you how important it was to be dressed appropriately so that when I got a call that the “big bosses” were coming to tour our facility or I needed to go make a presentation at the headquarters, that I was ready. It might seem silly, but one thing I was queued into early was that it was important to have a nice watch and a nice pair of shoes. I might have left for work at 3:45 AM, I might have had a lot of laughs with my team, but I also rocked those uncomfortable dress shoes and that gold watch day in and day out.
  4. Don’t Make Excuses When You Fail – Mistakes will happen. Your team will fail. You will not always meet every last expectation. I’ll never forget seeing a high level boss catching a co-worker in a lie during one of those staff meetings over a mistake in her area. She was trying to cover for someone and got called out on it like a shark on a baby seal. Reduced to tears by the embarrassment, credibility lost, she transferred to another area of the company. I learned right away that having “sober judgement” about failures, being clear with the facts, holding the people at fault accountable, and owning your own mistakes grows respect and credibility. Those who tried to cover things up or sugar coat their failures… they didn’t survive when their blood was in the water. A failure is a test of character, nothing more and nothing less. Own it, deal with it, and move on.
  5. Don’t Kiss Butt – One of the biggest mistakes I see young leaders make is kissing butt. It’s one thing to kiss a ring… there are a lot of rings to be kissed as a young leader… but it’s another thing to kiss someone’s butt. Kissing butt can get you attention. But it’s the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of leader. If you want to establish respect in an organization you’ll let your results speak for you. If you’re resorting to kissing up to get what you want, your boss already knows you aren’t a leader… you’re a butt kisser. That boss owns you and you’ll never lead. Worse yet, your coworkers see it and respect you less and less as the butt kissing goes on.

What advice do you have for young leaders in an organization?


Start-up Success: Big Heart, Big Ears, Tiny Head

The Youth Cartel is my second start-up.

My first, Youth Ministry Exchange, had acquisition in its DNA from it’s day one. Launched in 2005 and sold in 2008 we wanted to acquire as many users as possible, as quickly as possible. We wanted as much activity as we could get, as quickly as possible. The “why” of that was simple. Get big and sell quick.

It was all heart and balls. 

We had no idea what we were doing.

And, my hope, was that we’d build it up and sell it rather quickly. Literally, that took 3 years. At the end of 3 years we’d grown like crazy, nearly collapsed because of the insanity of our structure, and regrouped enough to sell it.

Personally, as an owner, I learned a ton with YMX. I made some terrible mistakes along the way. But in those 3 years I got an MBA from the business school of life, kept it all legal, kept all our documentation, and managed to grow it enough to sell. We didn’t get rich off selling it. But we took something that we started for less than $100 in capital investment and sold it to a subsidiary of one of the largest media companies in the world.

Not bad for a first try!

A lot is different about the Cartel. But in a ton of ways, we’ve picked up from the lessons of YMX and built upon that success. Because of YMX I had a clue about structuring the business side, was a lot faster to keep the right documentation, and all of that.

One core difference between YMX and the Cartel is one of acquisition. We never built YMX to last because we had a short-term goal of building it up and selling it. The flip side is that, since the beginning, the Cartel has been designed to be “it” for Marko and I. We’re not interested in a 3-4 year build up to acquisition. Instead, we’re looking at how to build something that’ll last and be significant for a long period of time. We think we’re offering something that folks in ministry to adolescents need now and will always need.

The Garage

The Cartel is just about ready to outgrow it’s “garage” phase. American culture has a fascination with small businesses that got started in a garage. Companies like HP, Apple, and Microsoft had their earliest years in a garage. Our team is dispersed… so it’s more accurate to say the Cartel is in a Living Room phase. But, several hours per week I am quite literally in our garage working away. So I know that while it’s romantic to think of a start-up working out of a garage, in the moment it’s far from sexy. It’s sometimes 120 degrees in the garage. It’s always full of cob webs. And you just have to get used to people walking by and staring at you. “No, this isn’t a meth lab. We have a business license. Yes, the UPS truck really does have to come every day… sorry if it is loud.”

The point is sharing all of this is simply this: I’ve learned some things along the way. Not very many people can say they’ve bootstrapped two start-ups… and both of them have worked out.

3 Lessons for Those Thinking About Starting Up

Here’s 3 things I’ve learned from two successful start-ups that I think are universally transferable.

  1. Big Heart – You have to love what you are doing. You. have. to. love. it. But beyond love, you have to have a heart for what you are creating and the people whom you are creating for. Having a big heart means saying yes to the right things. And it also means saying yes to the wrong things sometimes because you need to make some sacrifices in order to pay the bills. I can’t tell you how many times with both YMX and the Cartel that we’ve had to go back to the heart of the matter. “What in the world are we doing right now?” To make it, you have to love what you’re doing, the people you are serving, and the vision for what you’re trying to do. Starting up ain’t easy. There are going to be times where you have to will it to succeed… and that comes only from the heart.
  2. Big Ears – If you’re “all heart” you are screwed. I can’t tell you how many start-up businesses and non-profits that I’ve seen fail because they started with all heart but were completely deaf. The earliest phases of starting up, you’ll hear from your friends. People will be super encouraging. They will love what you are doing. They will buy something or invest a little. But you need to be really careful with that because if you aren’t careful you can start listening to the wrong people. If you are really going to make it you need a big heart and big ears. What I mean by big ears is: You need to listen better than anyone you know. You need to listen to the advice of experts. You need to listen when someone tells you that you need help. You need to listen to that little voice that asks, “Um, think I need a license to do this?” Listening will save you so much pain when it comes to creating your start-up. But I find that having big ears goes further than just the operational side of things. You need to have big ears to really listen to what your target audience needs from you. Often times they’ll tell you they want something but really don’t. And the only way you’ll know what to do is to listen with big ears.
  3. Tiny Head – Starting-up is going to feel arrogant and selfish. Not because it necessarily is, but it takes some amount of brashness to strike out on your own and seek to make your ideas a reality. But you need to understand that if this thing you are creating is going to make it, it’ll be grow out of your humility and struggle where you are arrogant. This is particularly true beyond the initial start-up time of getting things going. Once you’ve launched and things start moving fast… if you’ve got a big head, it’ll be an anchor dragging you down. You have to constantly hold onto the heart part of your start-up but let go of your desire/need to make every decision. The best start-up leaders hold firmly to the heart of the organization but loosely to “how we get there” bits. Big head is death, tiny head is life.

These are 3 things I think you can take to the bank. Did you find this helpful? 


Undervaluing People in the Age of the Sawzall

One thing that irks me is undervaluing a persons abilities in an organization.

Here’s how it works:

  • A rising star gets hired for a starter role.
  • They dominate it. They do a great job and even make their job look easy.
  • A few years of domination go by.
  • A role opens up in leadership of that organization.
  • That person gets their hopes up that their dominance in their role will have drawn the attention of others.
  • They are passed over for that role.
  • They realize that they’ll always be seen as someone filling their current role.
  • They move on to another organization.
  • The original organization suffers twice. Once because they are no longer dominating at that one spot. Twice because they missed out on a rising star who was passionate about their organization but left feeling burned.

“We just don’t think of that person in that way.”

That’s what people say when you ask them about that rock star person in their organization. They got hired at a specific role, not as a “leader.” And so, in the people that matters’ eyes… they’ll always be that role. 


Kristen: “What’s that?”

Me: “What?”

Kristen: “That. What is that for?”

Me: “It’s a Sawzall. Everyone has one.”

Kristen: “Um, we don’t need that. We rent our house.”

Me: “But it’s the 75th Anniversary edition. It’s limited.”

Kristen: “…”

Me: “Think of it like a hope chest. One day we’ll own a house and you’ll want me to take down a wall. This will be the perfect tool.”

Kristen: “…”

Me: “Are you saying you want me to put it back?”

Kristen: “We came here for light bulbs.”

There is No Ceiling

Centuries ago you needed a lot of money to chase your dreams. That’s just not true today. Anyone can start a business with a laptop and about 45 minutes on You can start a legit 501 3c in your spare time over a couple weeks. You don’t need an office, you don’t need a big staff, and you don’t even need a pile of special skills.

My advice for those who wake up to the reality that their organization “doesn’t look at them that way” is simple: Buy a Sawzall.

We used to have to wait for doors of opportunity to open. We used to spend decades positioning ourselves for the right moment.

But today? You don’t have to wait.

When all the doors around you are closed and locked to your dreams go buy a Sawzall and make your own door.

p.s. If someone wants to buy me a Sawzall for me for Christmas. I’d appreciate it. 


To be Dynamic You Need Tension

Kicking Butt vs. Counting Butts in Seats

I’ve been around organizations that are dynamic, where risks are taken, new innovations fly, and the response is incredible.

And I’ve been around organizations that used to be dynamic, where it seems people are remembering big risks, iteration has taken over, and the response is flat, predictable even.


Don’t Get Bored

The other day I was thinking about all of the people I know going through job changes, struggles, and frustrations.

Work isn’t supposed to be fun all the time. In fact, the Bible promises that work will often suck. (Genesis 3:117-19)


Simple Growth Strategy


A big term in college basketball this year was, “Are you the hunter or are you the hunted?” In other words: Are you the aggressor?


The New Economy Emerging

“This is a bad economy…”

“Pretty cool, especially in this economy…”

“You know, in this economy, every dollar counts.”

I don’t know about you. But I hear bad news about this economy all the time. It’s at the point where it drives me nuts. You see, it’s one of those things that’s said on the news or people believe that just isn’t true. Want some proof? Read this AP article from today.


The Secret Connection that Drives Growth

You probably didn’t even notice. But you’ve benefited from this for years.

The lowly API is driving tons of growth in businesses small and large, connecting systems and sharing information behind the scenes.

What’s an API?


The Process of Winning

I remember a few years back about 10 years ago a speaker at the Willow Creek Leadership Conference saying there were two types of organizations that see huge gains.

  1. The organization that buys talent. (Like when the Florida Marlins won the World Series)
  2. The organization that grows talent. (The speaker compared that to the farm system of the Boston Red Sox.)

The implications were simple. You could go out and buy talent and win in the short-term or you could build an organization that cultivates talent.