Home Alone on Thanksgiving? I Saved You a Seat.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

If you’re in San Francisco and alone on this special day, drop me a line. We’d love to have you!

Twitter: @MattMireles
Email: iwantbeer@swigme.com

My girlfriend is making cranberry sauce, stuffing and sweet potatoes to go along with our gigantic turkey. Gautam Sivakumar of MediSaS (who I first met through Hacker News) will be joining us from England for his first ever American Thanksgiving.

I’ve been helped by strangers and friends and strangers who became friends. When I was 20, it was the people who picked me up on my cycling/hitchhiking mis-adventure down the California coast and let me stay in their homes on Xmas. When I was 25, it was the New Yorkers who welcomed me into a new city and taught me how to stay safe in my job as a paramedic. When I was 29, it was the entrepreneurs who introduced me to Silicon Valley and showed me how to get from Zero to 1.

And now, I feel compelled to return these favors in some way, small or large.

So…if you’re in San Francisco and you need a place to call home for Thanksgiving, let me know. We saved you a seat at the table.

-Matt Mireles CEO, Swig!

SwigMe.com: The Liquor Store in Your Pocket. Get Beer, Wine & Booze Delivered To Your Door in Under an Hour

Becoming a Father

Luca my son

Luca 1st day
On March 7, 2012, I became a father.

I think often of what this means. I look at my son in awe. I was once him. My father was once me.

To be honest, I feel shame.

When I was 15, I challenged my dad to a fist fight. He whacked me with the vacuum hose in return––man that fucking hurt. I still remember that one, pa. It stung. Last time I ever did that.

At the time, my old man was 66 years old.

And then I look at my son.

One day––maybe––he’ll be that punk ass kid; one day he’ll raises his fists against me.

***

I sing to my son. I change his diapers. I wipe his ass. Literally, I scoop shit out of all the little crevasses of his groin and his balls. As crazy as it sounds, I love it. It’s amazingly intimate and surreal.

My pa must have felt this way once upon a time. I too was so vulnerable; I too was so dependent.

And one day, this little man will be my intellectual superior.

‘Tis is the story of father and son. What a fucking trip. I’m excited, scared and ashamed all at once.

Thanks pa. I can never repay you for all that you’ve done.

Love,
Your Son Matt.

Mémoires of My Early Twenties


I ran across Chateaupia this week. It’s a documentary about Le Chateau, a place I lived as a UC Berkeley student in 2001-2002. It was shot during the time I lived there. I dropped out of Berkeley for the second and final time in May 2002.

As the video suggestes, Chateau was a madhouse.

First they flung chunks of a cooked pig at passing cars. Then another resident of the student housing co-op beheaded a chicken with garden shears, said shocked neighbors.

Le Chateau is Berkeley’s own Animal House, its neighbors say, and they want a court to force the landlord to pay them damages for their years of suffering through raucous naked pool parties, nighttime bongo drumming and piles of rat-friendly garbage.

Truth is, Chateau was a madhouse. Gutterpunks hung out on the porch at all hours, doing whippits (aka Nitrus Oxide) and smoking weed.

When you heard about something really bad happening at Chateau, it was usually a result of the gutterpunks. Gutterpunks were crashers––they didn’t live at Chateau, they weren’t technically part of the house although they typically had friends who were. But their presence was felt far and wide, nonetheless.

For example, the guy in the film who lights his nipple on fire and punches himself in the head repeatedly is a gutterpunk, not an actual Chateauvian. If I remember correctly, he also had 5150 tatoo’d in big letters on the back of his head. Nice kid at heart, just had lots of problems.

The scariest gutterpunk episode was when someone jumped off the 4th floor roof into the shallow end of the pool. At 3 feet deep, I thought for sure the guy was gonna die. It was so scary. But somehow, he lived, popping out of the water with a scream: “Oh my god, I can’t fucking believe I’m still alive!!! That was awesome!”

Which isn’t to say that the real Chateauvians were angels. My roommate, for instance, caused a stir when he cut down someone else’s San Pedro cactus and boiled it to make mescaline for a weekend camping trip with a girlfriend. The problem wasn’t that he used it to make mescaline; the problem was that he had prevented someone else from using to make mescaline. A Molecular & Cell Biology major, he financed much of his education by distributing Psilocybin Mushroom to the East Bay.

Once a month, I would arrive home to a massive pile of shrooms on the coffee table. He would divide them up into freezer bags and sell them off, making (I assumed) several thousand dollars of profit in less than 24 hours.

Personally, I was afraid that he (and me as his roommate) would end up getting robbed at gunpoint. Fortunately, this never came to pass.

Truth is, the drugs never had much appeal to me. I wanted adventure; I wanted excitement. The madness of Chateau initially seemed like it had both. And for a while, it did. But then the novelty wore off. There’s a great line from the film, at 17m47s:

I thought it was going to be a socio-political experiment inside these walls. But it’s just a bunch of people with cheap rooms trying to move somewhere else when they can.

People moved out because it was the extreme. Newcomers would arrive and some subset would do a bunch of drugs and spin out of control. Three weeks after I moved in, a guy lost his mind and jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. He was one of two suicides that year.

Chateau was really, really bad for people with underlying mental illness (most mental illnesses rear their head in your 20’s). Their illness would be exposed and offered an assortment of uppers, downers and hallucinogens; the chance to run free, no limits. People lost it. It was bad.

But that was just the dark side, which for a time felt like a minority of what was going on in the house: Staying up until 5am every morning; painting murals on the walls whenever you wanted; naked pool parties; strangers doing LSD in the living room; for better and worse, it was the centennial Garden of Earthly Delights.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hironomous Bosch
In the end, however, I grew cynical of the whole thing: A dear friend of mine succumbed to the drug culture and turned into a meth addict. I was heartbroken for a long time over that one.

At age 20, I had already done too much and seen to much to be overly enamored with the drug culture. Drugs had already been a part of my high school experience: my best friend had gotten busted for smoking pot and doing acid, both of which were revealed when he crashed his car while studying for the SAT. The cause? Acid flashback triggered by marijuana use. (He scored a 1520/1600 the next day, fyi.) This was the kind of kid I hung out with in high school.

For me, Chateau was like working as an EMT in South LA or fighting forest fires in Montana––another adventure, another episode in my life; I was never an insider, never a drinker of the Chateau kool aid.

All in all, the Chateau adventure was a good one. And this film a good reminder of where I was a decade ago, before I had learned about the elite class and power at Columbia, before I had turned into a jaded street medic in the Bronx, before––hell, long before––I had ever thought of becoming an entrepreneur.

Oh, what a long strange trip it’s been. I’m just grateful that it’s taken me here.

Coming of Age as an Entrepreneur

Well it was just a dream
Just a moment ago

I think back to the Winter of 2008-2009. SpeakerText was a few months old. I was still living in New York. The city was cold at night. It snowed like 2 feet in one day.

Back then, for all intents and purposes, SpeakerText was just me, just my dream. We had no hustler on staff. No hacker. No money.

I remember one night in particular. I had left a small meetup organized by what was then called the Blue Venture Community (aka BVC), Columbia’s entrepreneur group. Goddamn it was cold. I was cranking Biggie on the iPod, walking down 53rd St in midtown, huddling in my wool coat. The Bloomberg sign hung in the air above. One day, I told myself, there’d be a SpeakerText sign. One day.

Well, we ain’t there yet.

But we’ve come a long way. On February 1, 2011, we got our first office (see photo above). And then, about two weeks ago, I found myself at The Rosewood, a posh restaurant on Sand Hill Road. Swanson and I were there meeting Mikael Berner, one of SpeakerText’s investors. It was a strange, fantastic feeling. I wasn’t there to beg for money; I wasn’t there as “the help,” picking someone up in the ambulance; I was there as a CEO meeting an investor––not a prospect, but an honest-to-god man that had written us a check.

For the first time in my life as an entrepreneur, I felt like I’d arrived, like I was equal and not just another outsider trying like fuck to break in. It felt awesome.

***

Over Christmas, I shaved my mohawk. It started off as an accident. Normally, I would cut the sides myself, then let Swanson clean up the edges. But it was December 23rd and he had already left to see family. I was about to turn 30 and fly down to LA. Over Christmas, I was expecting to see a woman that, well… let’s just say I wanted to look good for her. I wanted to cut the edges as close as possible, and ended up creating a bald spot in the back o’ the hawk. This led to me shaving my head entirely.

I ended up letting my hair grow out. I even got it cut at an actual barber.

As it turns out, I’m not an outsider anymore.

Vote for this post on Hacker News and follow me on Twitter.

Why I Love Hip Hop, America


I grew up in Orange County. I was corn fed on punk rock. When I was 17, I saw Rage Against the Machine at Irvine Meadows. The mosh pit was gigantic. Actually, it started off as two pits. They ultimately merged. There was a fire in the center. I ran against the grain. It was awesome. Just. Fucking. Awesome.

Thirteen years later, I still relish that night.

But there’s something about hip hop that I enjoy. Something distinctly American. Something I fucking love: the songs all tell a Horatio Alger story of rags to riches, of hustle, of “you can’t put me down.” As an entrepreneur, it tells my story.

Sometimes, when I’m running down Market Street in SF, I blast the music, think about it all, and shed a tear.

It just feels right.

I love this life.

Why I Became an Entrepreneur (the Long Story)

This is a post about growing up.

My parents are an old school latin couple: My mom (b. 1938) grew up in a small town in Argentina. My dad (b. 1929) grew up bouncing from village to village in the deserts of southern New Mexico. They met at UCLA in the late 1950s and got married in 1963.

Yes, I am 29; and yes, I was a total accident. (I think that they thought the machinery had stopped working by 1980.)

Anywho, my parents are Catholic––my mom more so than my father––and like my 3 elder siblings, I spent my childhood and adolescence getting a Catholic education, first at St. Bruno’s Elementary School in Whittier, CA; then at Servite High School in Anaheim, CA. It should not surprise you that I was a major pain my teachers’ collective in the asses: I chafed at the concept of authority qua authority and constantly harassed my elders, unafraid to give them shit.

Obviously, little has changed.

Yet despite my protestations at the time and the fact that I had renounced my Catholicism in 7th grade, some of these lessons stuck. One in line in particular, the specifics of which are hazy to me, got burned into my brain: something about how a man’s character can be culled from how he treats “the least among us.”

The general principle here is that if you want to see who a man really is, give him power. Watch how he treats the people beneath him, the people with less power, less status: Does he treat them with respect? Does he act solely on the basis of self-interest, or is there a deeper magnanimity at play in his behavior?

As an entrepreneur, I think of this often.

Personally, on this matrix, I have failed often. But my heart is in the right place.

The thing is, I have a little chip on my shoulder.

My family always had more brains than money. My father was a community college professor who had clawed his way from a childhood of poverty into college, then grad school, then the American middle class. My mother, a kind and nurturing women who suffers from crippling emotional problems, spent her life as an artist, churchgoer and housewife.

In high school, we were in the bottom tier of income earners. It wasn’t that we were poor, it was that everyone else was rich, at least by comparison. For some perspective, Servite is a prep school in Orange County, California––Orange County as in “the OC.” But I was one of the guys, and although no, I didn’t have my own car and yes, I mowed my own lawn, I never felt different. Like the rest of my friends, I was a know-it-all honors student and a little punk.

After high school, I went to a popular destination for punk ass know-it-all honors students: UC Berkeley. Still a punk, I quickly grew unsatisfied and began to lust after real adventure. After a single semester, I dropped out and got a job working as an EMT on an ambulance in Southeast Los Angeles (Lynwood, Compton, Southgate, and Watts, if you want to be specific). There, I found adventure. And got my bell rung.

As it turns out, no one on the ambulance gave a shit that I had gone to Berkeley or had been a honors student. I was just a punk, a clueless punk. After 6 months, I got fired for disagreeing with my boss over how to treat a severely injured child. He wanted what was good for the company, I wanted what was good for the kid.

That next fall, I returned to Berkeley.

Fast forward two years and I had dropped out again, this time to fight forest fires in Montana and, later, the Sierra Nevadas. When the snow started to fall and the fire season ended, I found myself back on the ambulance in LA. The boss who had fired me was gone, terminated for embezzlement.

Not liking being low man on the totem pole––Paramedics run the show at the scene of emergencies, and EMTs are subordinate to them––I enrolled in a Paramedic training program. Still a know-it-all punk, I blew off the “required” preparatory studies and, along with 80% of my classmates, failed out of the program. And so I enrolled again, this time graduating at the top of the class.

The thing about being a Paramedic is that it really makes you grow up. When a baby stops breathing, when a car flips over on the freeway, when an asthmatic is on the verge of death, there is no one else to call. You are the cavalry. The EMTs, the fire fighters, the mother whose son just took two bullets in the chest and one in the eye: they all look to you for reassurance, for calm, for direction. Your shit must be together at all times. Or you must fake it.

To be honest, I loved the pressure. I loved being the guy with the cool head amidst a world of swirling chaos. Having been tasked as a child with taking care of my mother in her many panicked, distraught moments, it felt natural. I was born for this shit.

But I wasn’t born to follow rules. And that was the downside of being a paramedic: MDs created the rules––the protocols––and our job was simply to figure out which algorithm to use and apply it. I realized this fact in early 2004, about 2/3 of the way through my paramedic training. At that moment, I decided to go back to college.

UC Berkeley, I concluded, was not for me.

New York City seemed appealing, and through the grapevine I heard about a program at Columbia University for “non-traditional” undergrads who had skipped or dropped out of the traditional college path in favor of a life more interesting. That summer, while fighting forest fires for one last season, I applied and was accepted.

My dad, a frugal man if there ever was one, called it a dumb idea. “Son,” he said, “Look, I know you love the bright lights and pretty girls, but New York is the most expensive city in the world, and well…Son, let’s face it: Columbia is a rich kids school. You are not a rich kid.”

And with that, he rescinded my parents’ promise of modest but meaningful financial support. Columbia was an education I’d have to pay for myself. My dad figured it would only take a couple semesters for me to throw in the towel, get my head on straight, and head back to Berkeley.

He was almost right.

If it’s not clear already, I was always something of a cocky kid. Never in my life had I felt poor or “less than” anyone. I feared no one. All were my equal, and I believed that there was nothing I could not earn through merit and hustle. That is, until I arrived at Columbia.

The sneaky thing about this “non traditional” undergraduate program at Columbia is that––at least compared to the “traditional” college where scholarships abound––they fuck you on financial aid. The mean debt load of my graduating peers (the ones who needed financial aid, not the millionaire-in-my-twenties ex-hedge funders) was $80-100k…for a fucking undergraduate degree!!!!

Misguided academic administrators and financial aid officers did their best to obscure the numbers and peddle the debt as a worthy investment.

I saw through the bullshit and promised to graduate with no more than $35k in student loans. Skip, the financial aid officer, chuckled when I announced this in our first meeting. “Let’s be realistic,” he said.

Well, as it turns out, Skip, I graduated with only $25k in student loans, no thanks to you.

My first Paramedic job in New York paid $23/hour and offered one crucial perk: all-you-can-eat overtime. It was on an ambulance in the South Bronx. Once I had some experience, I got a second job on an ambulance in Washington Weights that paid $25/hour. I made my own schedule and regularly pulled 16 hour days. If needs be, I could clock 48 hours of work in 3 days. During one Spring Break, I clocked over 100 hours.

Even though the pay was great and the flexibility was ideal, I still struggled. Tuition was $1,100 per credit. Plus, living in Manhattan, as my father had predicted, was not cheap.

In July 2005, I hurt my ankle off the job and made the mistake of telling my employer. This put me out of work for 6 months. With nothing else to do, I took summer classes, which were more expensive than normal as Columbia––whose financial aide was meager to begin with––budgeted nothing for the summer session. I used an American Express Card to pay for tuition. The bill was $10,000.

During that time, I also began to pursue a longtime interest of mine: journalism. Covering the visit of foreign dignitary for the school paper, I met an injured Iraq Vet named Garth Stewart. He had gotten his leg blown off as an infantryman during the war and, having been medically retired by the Army, had enrolled in Columbia’s “non traditional” undergraduate program. I wrote a story about him.

It took me 6 months to pay off that $10k AMEX bill. I worked 50-70 hour weeks even as I was in school. At the end of the semester, I was exhausted. My grades were good, but my financial aide situation and unwillingness to take on massive debt meant that I could only take a handful of credits each semester. College 2.0 was progressing at a snail’s pace.

Frustratingly, this created a chicken and egg problem when it came to scholarships. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (of which I was a member and later got a scholarship from), for example, reserved all their scholarship money for full-time students. I tried pleading with them (and others): “I can’t afford to go full-time unless I get a scholarship!” Their response was polite yet indifferent.

I had never before felt bounded by social class, by economics, by mother fucking money.

I remember when it hit home: I was taking a graduate seminar on Afghan Politics. After class one day, I struck up conversation with a girl sitting next to me. She asked about my background. “I used to fight forest fires,” I explained, thinking I was so cool.

Her forehead crinkled. She stopped for a second, then responded: “Oh. I didn’t know they let people like that, you know, in here.”

Crash and burn.

There were other things too. On Fridays, I would typically work late and hit the Columbia gym before heading back to my apartment. As I headed home, the college girls would be heading out. Sometimes I’d see a woman I knew from campus and try to strike up a conversation or make eye contact. But the blue paramedic uniform was a signifier of the wrong type. It labeled me: “working class.” And Ivy League girls didn’t go for working class guys.

For the first time in my life, I felt shame. I remember trying to approach an attractive and otherwise cheerful brunette that I knew from an American History class. She gave me a once over, then eyeballed her friends in disgust: “OMG, what is this creepy guy in the uniform doing.”

Maybe I should’ve just brushed it off, but I’m a proud man. It hurt.

Also, there was that whole East Coast Ivy League thing. See, that was never me.

By May 2006, I was on the verge of quitting. Without a scholarship, Columbia seemed like a hopeless slog. It was either leverage myself to the hilt, or graduate in seven years. Fuck that, I said.

My voice cracking, I called my dad to discuss accepting defeat. The financial barrier seemed too high. I couldn’t find the hack.

Two days later, I got a phone call: News Corp had seen my little article on Garth the war hero and liked it. And by “liked it,” I mean they decided to cut me a $10k check and give me a fancy award. After the ceremony, which featured me sharing a stage with Rupert Murdoch and Mayor Bloomberg, my dad changed his mind about this whole “Columbia is stupid” thing and decided to start kicking in some cash for tuition.

Suddenly, I was back in business.

The extra cash allowed me to attend school full-time and scale back my time on the ambulance. Instead of 50-70 hours a week, I was putting in 24-40. Still a lot, but manageable.

Life started to revolve around school, with work on the ambulance a secondary concern. I started to feel a sense of belonging at Columbia, and with it that sense of the-world-is-my-oyster entitlement that so infects the Ivy League.

In 2007, I fell in love with a girl. Her name was Isabelle. The daughter of a real estate magnate, she had been born and bred in Manhattan’s ritzy Upper East Side. Although her parents had money and lots of it, Isabelle was down to earth, diligent and uninterested in extravagance or luxury.

While I spent every free moment either studying or working on the ambulance, Isabelle spent her spare time interning for politicians and magazines and political research groups––which is to say, polishing her resume. Occasionally, I would do project work freelancing for Newsweek and then later the NY Times, but that was rare.

It wasn’t fair of me, but I became jealous of Isabelle. Being a paramedic, which had been fun and exciting at first, devolved into a mercenary task that I did for money.

Every day on the ambulance was another day of me not polishing my resume, of me not moving up in the world. It was a constant reminder, a symbol of how no matter what I did, the deck was always going to be stacked against me. The truth is that I wanted what Isabelle had: Freedom. Freedom to try different jobs, to check things out, to explore, to travel.

Over Christmas break one year, Isabelle flew to China––a country I had studied in class and desperately wanted to visit––as I, once again, worked 90 hours a week on the ambulance. Checking Facebook during those times were downright depressing. Everyone seemed to be posting pictures of their visits to Ireland or Istanbul or Tehran. Meanwhile I was on the bus with the idiot no one else wanted to work with, picking up drunks on the corner and covering for my partner’s incompetence.

By the time I graduated from Columbia in the spring of 2008, it was clear that the mainstream media as we had known it was doomed. Journalism was the one job I had trained for, and now, gutted by the internet, it served only a door into the abyss.

It’s hilarious to consider now, but during that period I actually wanted to be an investment banker. Not that I really understood what the job entailed (or that I even do now) but there was one thing I did understand: Being a banker, at least in New York in the summer of 2008––before the Lehman meltdown, before the AIG debacle, before the apocalypse––being a banker meant that you were someone who had money and who the pretty Manhattan girls would talk to on the train. All the smart Columbia kids were doing it, after all, including the women.

And so I asked about interviewing at Goldman. My lack of resume polish was, predictably, an obstacle.

That summer, I attended a 5 week business-for-idiots program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. It was there that I discovered the world of startups. Visiting entrepreneurs lectured us, spinning tales of adventure, chaos, glory and, yes, riches. In this mythic world, normals and rule followers were torn to shreds. Success, they explained, required being a street-savvy swashbuckler who broke all rules.

I think they were trying to scare us off.

But for me, it was a hallelujah moment. Fuck banking. Fuck journalism. Fuck everything else. This is what I was born for, I thought.

For the first time in my professional life, someone described for me a job that didn’t require me to fake or hide or suppress who I was. It felt awesome.

In October 2008, during the chaos of the financial apocalypse, I decided to start the company that would become SpeakerText. “Starting” was a declarative act, but so began the long journey.

It is ongoing.

R.I.P. SpeakerCar


When you have no money and you need a car, you get SpeakerCar.

M2 sold her last week for $350––less than the price of a new iPhone. For all the nausea and fear that she caused, her passing was an emotional event. This is an ode to SpeakerCar, the ultimate car of the scrappy startup.

***

SpeakerCar was a 1991 Acura Legend. Black with black leather interior, the hood was bashed in from an accident in 2002. The windows don’t roll down and the windshield is cracked. It leaks when it rains. Wadded up newspapers occuppy the joint  above the driver’s seat to seal the hole.

The electrical problems started a few years ago, when M2 drove her into a lake. Yes, a lake. The entire engine compartment was submerged.

Ever since the lake incident, the power steering has been out. Parralell parking was often a two-man exercise.

The lack of power steering impacted wheel alignment, leading to excessive tire balding and frequent flats.

On a hot day, SpeakerCar was a nausea-inducing sauna. On the freeway––prone to unexpected power outages and brake lock ups––she was a deathtrap. When Tyler‘s parents saw the car during a visit on the 4th of July, his mom cried. To his parents chagrin, he had turned down job offers from GE and Lockheed-Martin to join SpeakerText, and now here he was driving around in the world’s unsafest car. As a lifelong IBMer from the bourgeois suburbs of Vermont, his mother was distraught.

Environmentalists, too, had much to say, as SpeakerCar burned oil and emitted large clouds of blue smoke at crosswalks and in parking lots. Older women crossing the street would often cough and gag as they passed through the cloud of noxious gas perpetually emitted by SpeakerCar.

But for all her electrical dysfunction and mechanical disrepair, there was something charming about SpeakerCar, something symbolic––something in her that represented us. She embodied defiance (of clean air laws, if nothing else) and relentless, insistent survival in the face of clear and unmistakeably valid excuses to give up, to throw in the towel, get a real fucking job and real fucking car.

And yes, on the 4th of July, we did get one last flat tire. As beautiful, made-up women walked by with their boyfriends, M2 and I jacked up the car and changed the flat, our hands blackened and burning from the heat. And then we got bombed. But she had taken us where we wanted to go.

She was our mascot and we drove her with pride.

The Case for Talking Shit on Wall Street

My friend Ben Siscovick wrote an interesting blog post today entitled Stop Shitting on Wall Street.

There is way too much vehement anti-Wall Street sentiment in the startup community. Not that it is completely without merit – there are tons of valid reasons to dislike many of the cultural and practical elements that give Wall Street such a bad name – a focus on wealth accumulation, an over emphasis on the short-term, positioning as value extractors rather than value creators, etc.

What bothers me most is that the disparaging commentary on Wall Street is rarely rooted in fair and objective dialogue, but rather, more often than not, merely degrades to straw-man argumentation, broad generalized attacks with no respect for nuance, and an utter lack of appreciation for the benefits, not just the costs, of Wall Street experience.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, but while Ben is in fact a HUGE Phish fan, he is not––so far as I can tell––currently on drugs. So let’s take his argument at face value.

Why so much shit-talking about big corporations and wall street in the startup world, you ask? Well, I think it should be pretty obvious: Wall Street and Big Co. are the competition. We compete with them for talent and mindshare every day. And precisely because they are so appealing and have so much to offer, especially monetarily, we try to detract from their power and allure by spreading fear and talking shit. We try to make people afraid that joining Google or Goldman will lead to a forfeiture of their soul. Is it 100% rational or true? No, as he adroitly pointed out. But it is strategic and accretive to the startup ecosystem for us to talk such shit. It is marketing in its most pure and basic form.

Now, you can protest and say “But it doesn’t have to be that way!” To which I’d answer: Sure, if either: a) the startup community doesn’t really care about winning over the hearts and minds of America’s youth, or b) there’s not really much competition between us and them. But as it is, especially on the East Coast, the startup community is competing desperately for mindshare amongst a scarce talent pool of elite college grads, and the competition––Wall Street––is deeply entrenched. So we shit talk. It ain’t pretty, but it’s the one weapon we have. And it works.

My Mohawk and Being the SpeakerText CEO

After seeing the constant pants-jizzing on Twitter by Keith Rabois about Quora, I finally signed up and started using the service. Today I got this question…

Matt Mireles, As a CEO, do you find that your mohawk has a positive, negative or no impact on how you are received by peers and members of the funding community (VCs, Angels, Bankers)?
The reason I ask is because I am in a VP position now and am looking to found a company and although I don't have a mohawk, I do have a very large imperial mustache, and I'm wondering what to expect.

My response…

It depends on who you are as a person, what kind of public persona you want to cultivate, and what kind of market you're pursuing. 

Generally speaking, having an unorthodox/flamboyant persona is a strategic asset if you're selling to consumers. Remember, when you're a startup, any press is good press. And umm, yeah, you've got nothing, ergo you've got nothing to lose!

That said, if you're selling to businesses, the flamboyant persona tends to be more of a liability––or at least it takes a lot more finesse and work to neutralize the liability aspects and magnify the asset value. 

For me, the mohawk is and was a conscious choice and part of a broader branding strategy for both myself and SpeakerText. In my view, the "CEO with a mohawk" is just part of a larger decision to be known as a slightly crazy, shit talking, scrappy mofo of an entrepreneur with working class roots––despite an Ivy League pedigree. Similarly, I want SpeakerText to be known as a scrappy company filled with serious hackers who care about satisfying customers and achieving world domination WAY more than pleasing investors or adhering to uptight social norms.    

Simply, I decided that I was going to be a high-profile person and create a high-profile company with a very strong and meaningful brand.The mohawk, the blog, the plentiful f-bombs, etc. are all just a part of who I am as a person, but I also choose to accentuate that part of my personality for strategic reasons. 

The beauty of this approach, if you ask me, is that it creates a very useful selection effect with regards to potential employees and, to a lesser extent, investors. When you have a strong brand that's genuine and that you're proud of, especially one that seems "risky," it signals that you the founder are a person of principal, that you stand for something beyond making a quick buck, that you're passionate and you care. Some of the best people spend their whole lives searching for meaning, searching for a community of people with real values. And by being unafraid, by signaling that you in fact are willing to risk a suboptimal short term outcome by cutting a contrarian view, you become able (quite ironically) to attract some of the best people to join your crazy company at a discount, sometimes at a steep discount, versus the market rate, which is the key to long term success. 

Mental Toughness

Back in 2004, before I lived in New York City or attended Columbia or even dreamed of starting a company, I fought wildfires for the Modoc Interagency Hotshot Crew. Hotshot crews are the US Forest Service’s equivalent to the Marine Corps: the elite infantry in their perpetual (and stupendously wasteful) war against fire. Modoc Hotshots 2004––the above video––is a highlight reel of that season, my third and last fighting forest fires for the government.

Honestly, it was the worst 6 months of my life. The guys I worked with, well, most of them hated me, and I hated them. I was lonely, friendless, and miserable. They tried to break me. They tried to make me quit. But I didn’t break and I sure as hell didn’t quit.

I showed up at the hotshot base in May 2004 weighing 175lbs and was in what I thought to be excellent shape. Little did I know. As it turned out, I had two problems: 1) I couldn’t hike fast enough, and 2) I couldn’t swing a tool in the dirt for long enough. 

Hiking. Sounds like a pleasant, leisurely activity, doesn’t it? Well, in the hotshot world, hiking––since we operated in the mountains, by and large––takes on a bit more urgency. Our packs weighed ~50 lbs. plus a 10 lb. tool, and add an extra 35+ lbs if you were carrying a saw (as in chainsaw). We hiked at altitude, rapidly, and always in a straight line up the hill. I sucked at it. 

As the FNG (Fucking New Guy) and an urbanite, the odds were already not in my favor. Our crew was based in the true armpit of California, the northeastern most corner, in a town called Canby, population: 135. And not only could I not hike, but I had a big mouth and didn’t believe in the pecking order. Bad combo.

On top of that, I couldn’t swing a tool to save my fucking life. After 10min, my arms were shot. To put this in context, we were a hotshot crew. Our râison d’etre was to dig fireline with handtools and chainsaws along the burning edge of a wildfire for hours and hours on end. I was like a construction worker who couldn’t lift bricks: useless. 

And so, naturally, the guys tried to break me, to expunge me from the clan. A hotshot crew is a clan: 20 people living, breathing, eating, sleeping, shitting and working together almost every day for 6 months straight. When assigned to a fire, we typically worked 16 hours a day for 14 days straight, then got 2 days off before heading off to another fire. Rinse, repeat. 

My first big fire was also the most miserable. Much as with the entire hotshot experience, it started off as a dream come true: We had got assigned to a fire in Alaska, the mythic home of the last frontier (see the shot of the moose). Promptly, we were assigned to a .5 million acre wildfire outside of Fairbanks. Contrary to all logic or local fire fighting norms, our boss ordered us to dig proper fireline…through the 8″ tundra and all the way down to the permafrost. It was fucking horrible, pointless, backbreaking labor. The axe head on my tool quickly dulled, and half the time I’d swing as hard as I could just to have my tool bounce off the tundra. That day, half of my hand went numb, and I didn’t regain feeling in it until a year later. 

Let’s just say I bitched loudly about a) the hardness of the work, and b) the futility of our task. Did not win me friends. #Fail.

Senior crew members hazed and harassed me. No one wanted to talk to me or sit next to me. Quite simply, it was hard, miserable, lonely work. I had failed. And I got depressed. I started drinking everyday after work (we lived in govt barracks on the base itself, and slept in the dirt when on assignment). My self-confidence turned to shit. But I didn’t quit. And when I wasn’t drinking my loneliness away, I worked out after work. I hiked. I ran. I lifted weights. 

By mid-season, I had gained ~20 lbs. of pure muscle and was weighing in at 195 lbs. Finally, I could keep pace with the hikes. Even better, I could swing a tool for hours and hours on end without discomfort. I was fast and I swung my tool (a pulaski) hard. They still hated me, but at least I was good at my job. 

To be honest, I wanted to quit; I wanted to quit so bad. But I had debt I needed to pay off and money I needed to save for my impending move to NYC. Mom & dad sure as hell weren’t gonna bail me out. So I pressed on and used alcohol to self-medicate.

By the end of the summer, I was so used to taking abuse that I honestly didn’t give a fuck anymore. I had tried so hard to fit in, and my efforts had failed. I had made every concession I could think of, improved my strength and endurance, all to no avail. So I adapted my thinking: Fuck them, and if you don’t like who I am, fuck you. It was adaptive, really, but also liberating.

I was no longer the sensitive, empathic writer who had dropped out of Berkeley to write a book. No, I had since joined Lord of the Flies, thinking it was gonna be a chapter from the Hobbit. A hard, lonely lesson indeed. And yet I came out the other side.

Yes, I was scarred. It took me 3+ years to be ready to take risk again, to desire another grand adventure having had the last one blow up in my face. But in all the pain and misery and loneliness, fighting fire taught me something invaluable: to be hard inside, to be mentally tough, to inure myself to social rejection, to deal and cope with loneliness and pain and still function. 

The best part, now that it’s over, is that I know that nothing I ever do in my life will be as hard as those last six months I spent fighting fire. Nothing short of prison could be more lonely, and no work I do will ever be physically as painful. It is the zero with which I weigh the rest of life’s struggles, and I am glad to have it as a reference. It serves me well.