On February 17th, I received my last paycheck as a Square employee. I unceremoniously exited the doors of 1455 Market Street and walked away from fully-stocked micro-kitchens, a 4-tap kegerator and phenomenal beer fridge, a smoothie bar, several in-house baristas, three prepared meals a day, and a comfortable, stable life as a tech worker in Silicon Valley.
Two weeks later, my health and dental coverage ended–I was officially unemployed. I took my beautiful yellow Kia hatchback, Daisy, and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to move into the basement of my best friends’ house in Mill Valley. The Bachelor of Marin had arrived to his #basementlife. I was living the dream.
Despite the astronomical livings costs for a single male residing in San Franisco ($50 for a bad first date, really?), I was fortunate enough to save a couple of bucks over the years (thanks in part to the 36-roll toilet paper runs and bulk discounts from my favorite wholesale retailer, Costco). Having this Rainy Day Fund meant that I had some financial runway to take my leap of faith into running without immediately necesitating a more traditional employment. I promised myself that I would remain steadfast on my running-only pursuit until the completion of the Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc race in early September, giving me 6 months of fully-focused training to see how far I could push my body at Western States and UTMB.
But in the last three months I have fallen in love with this new lifestyle (as I had always hoped!) and my aspirations no longer end in September–I want to turn this running thing into a sustainable career (and, frankly, the thought of returning to an office job is more frightening than toeing the line of a 100 mile race). Instead of approaching this hiatus from Middle-Out Algorithms and building the next “Uber for _______” as a 6-month vacation, I’m now focused on making this passion project into a career, to turn my love, knowledge and experiences in running into dolla, dolla bills, y’all.
So, where to begin? Let’s look at the landscape today. There is a mere handful of runners in the sport today who are making a “living” from ultrarunning and even fewer print enough green to actually save money for things like retirement, a house or a child’s college fund. The topic of sponsorships and salaries is about as forbidden to discuss as the name of that balding fellow from the Harry Potter movies who always seemed to be in a grumpy mood, but it appears that outside of the Jureks and Karnazes of the world, there are very few ultrarunners who have “made it”.
And there’s a reason that it’s so tough to turn this passion of ours into a profession. It’s always stumped me how kitting an athlete out in gear moves the needle on sales for an apparel company. How exactly does the marketing department at a Nike or a Hoka One One measure the impact of an athlete finishing 3rd at Jamie’s Rumble in the Desert 50k on selling Wildhorse or Clifton shoes? If I see Magda win Western States fueled completely on GU Roctane Energy Drink am I more likely to then buy that product? Absolutely. But outside of our tightly-knit community of trail junkies, the Average Joe is getting 1000x more exposure to Serena Williams fueling with Gatorade and LeBron James lacing up a fresh pair of Nike kicks. Why invest even a dollar in our 3rd place 50k finisher when you could double down on Serena?
I don’t blame the major shoe companies for offering little more than gear and travel stipends to athletes–it’s our responsibility to prove that we can have an impact on their business. Us athletes should aspire to not just reach existing customers but also grow the overall trail running “pie”. And as much as I hate to admit it, building a following that waits with bated breath for updates on what you ate for breakfast and how you dressed your dog for Halloween is equally, if not more, important than posting fast times. I mean, look at Kim Kardashian–she has yet to win Western States, hasn’t even made it to the starting line in Squaw, and yet she has several more commas to her net worth than the legends in our sport. Curse you, Kim, and your adorable bitmoji stickers!
Now, there’s some good news for the super-elite (a tier of athleticism I aspire to reach some day)–if you’re fast enough to regularly place on the podium at prestigious races, regardless of your proclivity to post cute selfies on Instagram, people are going to naturally be interested in what you say, eat and do. So, my first goal: start winning races and competing at the highest of levels to build interest in Mocko the Athlete. Kevin Costner (or James Earl Jones?) said it best: “If you win it, Instagram followers will come.”
The second goal: generate content. A lot of content. It takes a certain level of narcissism and ego to believe that what you have to say is interesting and important enough to broadcast across the interwebs, and I still don’t feel super comfortable publishing blog posts or getting extraordinarily active on social media. But I understand that this is now part of the business and if I want to succeed I need to put myself out there. Am I still uneasy posting an MTV Real World-like confessional of me talking to my iPhone camera for 5 minutes on the YouTubes? Sure. You’re exposing yourself to the world and unfortunately wherever there’s a comments section you’re vulnerable to criticism and Internet trolling (not fun!). But as Taylor always tells me, “Haters gonna hate…hate hate hate hate.”
(promise this is the last time I exploit the adorability of my parents!)
But I also didn’t expect to have as much fun goofing off with my parents as I filmed them making breakfast for me or dancing like idiots in an Airbnb living room. I’ve approached this experience much like an A/B test from my days in product development at Square–not all of these endeavors (blog posts, videos, cooking shows, Cribs episodes, tweets, podcast interviews, etc.) are going to be successful or instant sensations, but I’m going to learn from my failures and focus on the trials that do get some traction (man, I hope something gets traction!). And I cannot begin to articulate the satisfaction from some of the positive feedback I’ve received–from the friend at the gym telling me they shared my last blog post with their two children or passing a runner during my race last weekend and hearing them exclaim “MOCKKKKO SHOW!!!” +1000 ego points.
The third and final goal–connect with my audience. Growing an audience by producing content is a great start, but the real value comes when you interact with those followers. In my very first trail race I watched as Hal Koerner, a legend in the sport, chatted up fans at the start line with a big smile and some words of encouragement. Hal could’ve been laser-focused on his own 100 kilometers of tough racing that lay ahead for him, but instead chose to engage with his fans who were all too excited to have his ear. At that moment I understood how Hal had made a name for himself. Winners of major races will come and go (can you name the 2015 winner of UTMB?), but becoming a legend requires building deeper connections with the running community that continue well-beyond your last major race victory.
- Goal #1: WIN.
- Goal #2: CONTENT.
- Goal #3: CONNECT.
Alright, let’s do this!
AUTHOR’S NOTE: As with most of my ramblings, this post went in an entirely different direction than I expected. I planned to detail my finances from my first two months “on the job” and define financial success for me in this sport. But I soon realized after I began typing that laying out my plan for establishing my personal brand was an important first step. We’ll jus thave to save the big #s, fancy bar charts and rigorous forecasting models for the next written episode of The Mocko Show (which will follow shortly after, I promise!). Until next time!