Pursuing a dream with Dave Milliken
Kristin Darga (Impact Founder): Welcome to The Founder Confessional podcast. I’m Kristin Darga from Impact Founder and I’m happy you’re joining us today for this conversation from Denver Startup Week. Denver Startup Week is the main hub for entrepreneurs in Denver and has completely altered the startup scene in Colorado. Each year, over 1,500 people come together to celebrate entrepreneurship and share best practices on building companies. During the week, we capture the hardships, the triumphs, and the lessons learned from founders. These conversations represent the real, the gritty, and the unsexy side of what it’s really like to own a business. For more stories about the entrepreneurial journey, visit impactfounder.com. Please enjoy this episode from Denver Startup Week.
Dave Milliken (Greetly): I was a VP of Marketing of an Inc 100 company and left to start my own business. Greetings, my name is Dave Milliken. I live in Denver, Colorado. My company is called Greetly. I am the founder. What we do is we help keep your workplace, no matter what type of workplace, secure by tracking your visitors’, entry, exit, and what they’re doing while on site.
Kristin: Awesome, David. I love your enthusiasm. Thank you.
Dave: It’s so involuntary. Good thing no one’s here in person and can see this. I’m like, wow, this is actually really stressful.
Kristin: Not at all. That was a test and you totally passed. You didn’t fail at all. Good job. Everything in entrepreneurship really is a test so there’s that.
Dave: That is true. Battle-tested.
Kristin: Tell me a little bit about why you decided to become an entrepreneur.
Dave: I think at the end of the day, even though I had a 15-year big brand marketing career, it was what I was always supposed to be. It wasn’t I looked at it and it looked cool or fun or easy by any stretch. It was that I knew that there were elements of the corporate world I really enjoyed, the strategic thinking, the ability to work with some really excellent people, but I also knew that for me the impact was what mattered. Like picking up the baton from someone and following and game plan and putting my stamp on it, not a terrible thing at all but wasn’t for me. I like to navigate uncharted waters and find the puzzle and then put it together as opposed to just follow the road map.
Kristin: That seems like a pretty common reason why a lot of people decide to embark on entrepreneurship. Tell me specifically was there a moment that just had you go this is it right now. I have to do it.
Dave: I actually, speaking of Denver Startup Week which is going on right now, I was working in these corporate jobs and I was attending Denver Startup Week events, I believe the inaugural one. I can’t remember what year it was at this point. Just constantly meeting great people with great ideas and real ambitions to make a big impact to make the world better in some manner. That was exciting to me. I kept in touch with people. It was a group that had formed around a concept that would help small businesses raise capital in a more efficient manner. I thought it was a great opportunity to jump into entrepreneurship by helping other entrepreneurs. I was really inspired by the concept. It was a team of all-stars. I knew that it was the right time to make the move.
Kristin: That’s so funny. This event was actually what made me move to Denver in 2013. I met some of my best friends at Denver Startup Week. They’re still my friends today. I moved to Denver because I thought what an amazing community to be a part of.
Dave: Yeah, it’s an amazing startup community. It’s an amazing event that they put together. Look, I haven’t been a part of other startup communities, even though I did live in the bay area for a bit. I saw it only at the very edge of it, but what we’re told is that what makes us unique here in Denver and Boulder is that we help each other. We don’t look at the startup next door to us or another person or network as competing with us either for capital or for consumers or for clients, whatever it might be. I certainly felt that to be the case. Again, I don’t really know how to compare but it’s definitely a collaborative startup environment here.
Kristin: So collaborative, it’s really incredible. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about a challenge you’ve experienced so far as a founder? Do you have one that comes to mind?
Dave: Do I have one that comes to mind? A gazillion, quite frankly, but the one that comes to mind right now is obviously we’re in the middle of a pandemic and we all hope it’ll go away soon. Our product is literally supports physical workplaces. It starts by checking people in and it ends by people leaving and some follow-up communications. When we all stop going to the workplace, there were many moments when we thought this business might literally just not exist in a few months. Our clients were canceling and pausing and the ones that weren’t were asking for all kinds of different features and benefits and use cases that we had dreamed up just a couple of weeks prior. We were at the definition of an existential crisis. I know lots of other businesses were in and out of technology. We certainly weren’t alone. It definitely was something that I put in years into building this, have a great team, and it looked like it could all go away in just a matter of weeks.
Kristin: It’s so crazy how, with entrepreneurs, we get used to that anyway. We’re used to the instability or uncertainty. Every person at some level has experienced something right now that is similar to that, whether you’re an entrepreneur or not, but I know for myself, it’s like I woke up one day and half a million dollars were gone. That was when you’re actually ticking upward and things were going well and it just was like that. Tell me about how you overcame that challenge.
Dave: I will say one thing about our experience going into this crisis is that we had actually scenario planned a recession, a big recession. In our thinking what could happen, we planned a big recession. We know the work from home trend. It was nothing compared to now but it was already a pretty big trend with an increasing number of people working from home. We had a scenario planned for a variety of things, but all of a sudden, one day no one showing up at the office, that was beyond the scope of anything we thought of. At the end of the day, the solution was simple. We talked to our customers. We focused everyone. We said we have two things we could do. We could sit back and wait to see what happens. We could plan to close up shop, of course. A few people I’m sure really proactively went that route, but of course, it was an option. Another was we could look at this as an opportunity to reshape market share, to reshape our product, to reshape our perception with our clients.
We reached out to our active clients regularly. It wasn’t just a one-time thing. We said, what’s going on with you right now? What could we do to support you right now? After a couple of weeks, we reached back out to the same points of contact and we said, what’s changed? Do you have a go to market plan? When will you have a go back to the office plan? What do you think will look the same? What do you think will look different? We tried to hear what they were saying and hear what they weren’t saying and think about what our product could do. Really the brilliant strategy was not brilliant at all, it was not complex at all. We did as much listening to our clients as possible and we tried to hear what future unmet needs. We knew there was still going to be a lot of uncertainty but the more information that we could absorb from really smart people who are thinking about this was going to help us.
Kristin: It’s not like it’s rocket science or anything to talk to our customers but a lot of times I think business owners get stuck in this works. Not for nothing, entrepreneurship is exhilarating and fun but it also can be very exhausting. When you’re dealing with your own fears and you have this impending doom of a pandemic hanging over your head, sometimes it’s hard to get to that, well, let’s talk to them and see how we can help them. I know a lot of restaurants or just different industries, they opened a restaurant, they didn’t open a food delivery company so the pivot can be hard for some people to think of. It’s not rocket science.
Dave: Yeah, it was definitely a moment for us and some other entrepreneurs I spoke to. I had the same conversation over and over again. I’ve never worked harder with a greater risk of failure and me personally being more stressed and worried about everything going. It was not uncommon with people in my entrepreneurial network at all but there’s something I will say for me and probably for entrepreneurs in general, but for me, when my back’s against the wall is when I work the hardest, maybe not the smartest but I work the hardest and I rethink everything. I would not want any of us, myself included, to go through this again. The hard work and just making the phone calls and speaking with the team and being in touch with everyone and refining ideas and revisiting them and making sure that everyone internally and externally that our key stakeholders were mentally okay, that was the hard work. I can’t say it’s paid off but it’s kept us going at a pretty strong rate.
Kristin: Would you call that one of your biggest successes?
Dave: I think so. I think the trait behind it is grit. I think, again, it was definitely an opportunity to certainly to die and there was certainly an opportunity to be stagnant and let our competitors steal opportunity from us by doing so. Yeah, I think it was a big success to turn around a pretty big short-term decline and get back to where we had been and growing again.
Kristin: I have a couple more questions for you today. I think you actually covered the pivot in the biggest challenge and success, which is so interesting when you think about it. We don’t always think of our biggest challenge as our biggest success. In this case, that happens to be true for you. Tell me a little bit about that move from corporate into entrepreneurship. How did you make that choice? Was it just one day you did it? Was it six months in planning? Tell me more about that journey for you.
Dave: I was in marketing in particular. Generally in marketing, if you’re on the production side, the brand side, as opposed to an agency, you move every few years. Unless you’re in New York or Chicago or one of the other giant marketing markets, you move. I worked for Scotts Miracle-Gro in Ohio and then I came up for MillerCoors. It was a little bit of it came down to it felt like entrepreneurship and navigating new waters was the right place for me to be. There was another element of it where it wasn’t the right thing to be doing personally or for my family. I actually moved to Denver for the second time for my career.
I literally, from day two of starting a new job, I said I’m going to network with the entrepreneurs locally in both the food and beverage scene as well as in the tech scene. I’m going to make myself a part of that community, even though I’m not yet a part of that community with what I actually do with my life and my career. It was pretty well planned. It took about, when all was said and done, 18 months between starting, I’ll call it the search, starting to meet the right people and hearing the right ideas and things that were intriguing to me to really digging in and spending some time, putting pen to paper or digits on a keyboard with some people I enjoyed working with on some concepts until I ultimately made that switch. I would have said that I probably could have jumped at any point from day two on from when I found the right thing and the right people but it was pretty well planned in retrospect.
Kristin: I always love hearing those stories. I think there are so many different ways to build. There are people who build slowly while they actually maintain their salary, which I always tell people if you have a job when you start your company, just keep it for a while. It’s not like when you have a job and you just get paid when you’re learning. The first three months of a job when you’re learning more than doing, or the first month depending upon the industry and what the transition is, you’re getting paid to learn. With entrepreneurship, you’re not getting paid to build or learn. I always tell people, if you have that job, just keep it. If you are leaving a job, maybe choose to have a pretty strong runway a couple of years. It’s always a smart move but I always think there are different ways to do it. I myself bootstrapped everything and didn’t have another job. It was something for me that I felt really strongly about and I definitely experienced some pretty painful financial times in the first couple of years of building. It’s always interesting.
Dave: I had the same experience. I think it’s great advice. If you can have someone else paying you, obviously, your employer might have different rules and regulations around that. You want to make sure that you do it right so you maintain all intellectual property of what you’re building. I totally agree with you. I think if you can maintain revenue — another entrepreneur who came from the corporate world that was a supervisor of mine in the past, his advice was know who’s going to be the first person that pays you. Know that when you roll off your paycheck that there’s some revenue coming in from somewhere.
Going back to your take, the way my refinement of that or my take on the exact same thing because it’s not really how I did it but I do agree with that approach is though building the MVP ( minimum viable product) and putting into the market. Once you have something in market, either someone will download it or buy it or ask questions about it or not, but once you’re at that point, now you have people in the wild, so to speak, who might contact you. That’s when it gets hard to maintain a job. Someone calls you in the middle of an important meeting with your boss and they might be your first buyer, now it’s hard to do two things at once. In the meantime before that, when you are just building something and prepping for getting it to market, you can usually handle that. It’s a lot of time commitment but you can usually handle that and a traditional job at the same time.
Kristin: That’s some really great advice. Is there any other advice you’d give entrepreneurs besides that?
Dave: One thing specifically for people going from corporate to entrepreneurship is I actually found — I thought it was at the time bizarre and I’ve changed my thinking to a degree. I found it interesting that a lot of entrepreneurs would look at me with a corporate job, with a traditional job, saying, no, I really want to do this, and they totally dismiss it. They’d look at me and they’d say, “Hey, I understand that you have incredible experience but people coming from corporate just don’t really fit into true startups, three person startups, don’t make great first employees.”
In retrospect, I did and I would have. You fast-forward a whole bunch of years and I sort of understand. I think if you’re coming from corporate and you want to be the first employee or co-founder, you need to expect that that’s the case. There are legitimate reasons. It’s such a different environment and there is a culture shock. I’ve seen a ton of really great corporate people fail as entrepreneurs or fail as early stage employees at companies. You need to, one, make sure that it’s really what you want to do. It’s not something that just looks like fun or easy or sexy or great way to get rich quick. Once you know that you are someone who should be an entrepreneur, you need to expect that, you need to have a plan for overcoming it because it will come your way. You’re going to be better off if you say, “I understand. I understand why you think that way. I understand why that might generally be true, but here’s why it’s not true in my case,” and you’ll have a lot more success.
Kristin: It’s true of the opposite, too, entrepreneurship into corporate. I think you just have to find, regardless, I think leaders in either community or either society, if you will, because they’re different cultural groups a lot of times, too, but I think in each particular niche, you’re going to find that leaders are leaders. Those who aren’t leaders aren’t leaders. You’re going to find some people need structure and some people thrive outside of it. If you can cross pollinate, if you can actually have that work, it’s amazing because people who are entrepreneurs can work in corporations. It just depends upon the culture. People who are corporate can be incredible entrepreneurs. They just have some things to build for a while and then chose to leave it. The judgment that comes with that is pretty strong. I for one know that I have a lot of it but it’s always a really interesting dynamic.
Dave: It’s like any stereotype. It’s going to be wrong often. When you take something and think about it broadly and then you look at an individual, there’s got to be mistakes that can be made it can be overcome. You’re right. It does totally go both ways. As a candidate or as a person looking to make, I don’t want to call it a career change, but to do something different for your next project, just both ways, be prepared and know why it stereotype or the general thinking doesn’t apply to you and it’ll help a lot.
Kristin: We’re just going to wrap up here with one of my favorite questions because I think it’s always interesting to hear what words were said to you in the past that change how you live or shape how you live. I always ask what the best advice you’ve ever received is.
Dave: Mark Twain said that “the secret to getting ahead is getting started” and he was a wise guy, or so it seems.
Kristin: Awesome, that’s really great advice to end on. Thank you so much, Dave, for being here today. I really appreciate your time and your energy, your enthusiasm, and sharing with us how your biggest challenge ended up being an incredible pivot for your company which all of us need to hear that really positive approach to what’s been happening right now so thank you.
Dave: Thank you for having me. It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for your energy as well and for all of the great work that you do helping entrepreneurs. I appreciate it.
Announcer: Thanks for listening to this episode from Denver Startup Week. If you would like to share your story or get involved with us, visit impactfounder.com.