Episode 122: Founder Origin Stories: Dan Martell

June 16, 2017
Episode 122: Founder Origin Stories: Dan Martell
Episode 122: Founder Origin Stories: Dan Martell

Jun 16 2017 |


Show Notes

To kick off this summer’s Founder Origin Stories, Sherry interviews Dan Martell, founder of Clarity.  They talk about his early years as a troubled teen and the experiences and people along the way that helped give him the skills to be a better person and successful entrepreneur.

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Episode Transcript

Rob Walling: This episode of ZenFounder kicks off our seven-part Founder Origin Series that’s going to run here for the next seven weeks. Very excited to do this again. This has been one of our most popular series of episodes that we’ve ever recorded. We’re going to kick this one off with Sherry speaking to Dan Martell. And I first ran into Dan when he and I spoke at a [inaudible 00:00:23] startup conference a few years back, I think it was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And he had already had one exit from his consulting firm and I saw Dan hustling and I knew that he was going to have success with his next one. He sold the next one, then he started Clarity and since then he’s had another exit. So he’s had three exits. He’s done very well for himself and he’s a really impressive founder. He’s one of the founders that thinks at a different level than a lot of people around you. He would never call himself a growth hacker but he knows how to hack growth and some of the ideas he’s come up with are ingenious.
But what’s perhaps even more interesting, especially related to this podcast, is Dan’s origin story. It’s fascinating. Grew up in a group home, was involved with the drug scene. And you’re going to hear a lot of interesting twists and turns in his origin story. And if you’ve only seen Dan online talking about his successes and you haven’t heard kind of a comprehensive look at his background and what he came and what he fought against and what he overcame to become a founder, you’re really going to enjoy this episode.
Before we dive in, I want to encourage you to head over to ZenFounder.com, even on your mobile phone, we’re mobile responsive, and sign up for our mailing list because we are planning an in person event in the Fall. It’s going to be small, it’s going to be hand picked, hand crafted. It’s going to sell out quickly because of the idea of how small we want to keep it. That’ll be sometime in the Fall but if you’re at all interested in hearing about things that are coming up on our radar. Sherry actually already sold out her ZenTribes course that she’s doing. It’s kind of a mastermind group of about 10 people over the course of eight weeks with Cory Miller. And that sold out within a couple days of opening it up. So things are getting exciting over here at ZenFounder and I’d encourage you to keep us with us via the mailing list. So let’s dive in.
Sherry Walling: For people who don’t know you or aren’t familiar with your work, what are you most proud of that you’ve accomplished professionally?
Dan Martell: Professionally. I mean I consider myself a tool builder. I’ve been writing code since I was 17. I kind of don’t write code anymore. People are like, “Oh, you’re a programmer.” Not anymore. I probably stopped a couple of companies ago. But my last company was called Clarity and it’s still around today. We got acquired about two years ago. And it was a vision I had of looking, I was living in San Francisco at the time, and I was looking over the city and I thought, “How would the world change if all of a sudden all these smart people that lived in this area were available for anybody. Regardless of your status in the hierarchy of life or geographical location you could plug in and talk to those people?” So entrepreneurs, product managers, marketers, and then eventually, just anybody, right? I would say Clarity is probably the thing I’m most proud of because of the vision and the mission and really the volume of calls that we enabled and connected. There was a marketplace to help entrepreneurs get unstuck. It’s still around so people are still using it but I’m no longer involved in the business.
I’d say that and my investments. For some weird reason I started investing about 10 years ago just because I have ADHD and I just see these entrepreneurs doing cool stuff and I wanted to be involved but I also knew I had my own business. So I pretty much took whatever money I had and started just kind of investing in other companies and now I’ve got like Hootsuite, Innercom, Unbounce, geez, 30 some companies. I feel like a dad trying to name all their kids. But that will give you a flavor. I’ve done really well that. I feel really blessed and lucky that’s been the outcome. I know it’s not the norm but I’m so pro entrepreneur. I just love people that get up every day to create a better world for the rest of the world. I really think that anybody that produces content, creates tools, creates opportunity for people, that they’re a unique breed because it’s so easy to be criticized. It’s like an artist putting out a painting to the world. It takes a certain type of person to be okay with that feedback.
Sherry Walling: With putting yourself out there over and over and over.
Dan Martell: Yeah. And like most people live this world of shyness and they would never do that. They don’t even speak up in a meeting let alone create something for the world to judge.
Sherry Walling: So you mentioned ADHD. Let’s start there. So you talk about, in some of the things that you’ve written about yourself, your early experiences of having ADHD and being a kid who wasn’t quite acquiescing to the classroom environment and to the expectations of other people around you. You’ve talked about how that’s become kind of your superhero, or you’ve figured out how to use that as a strength. But I’ve got to imagine that when you think back about  who you were as a little kid, was it hard to have a mind and a body that was moving so much faster than everyone else’s?
Dan Martell: Is this an e-rating podcast? Like can I swear or are you trying …
Sherry Walling: Yeah, you can swear. Go for it.
Dan Martell: I’ll just say it fucked me up. It fucked me up as a kid and I’ll tell you why. I got diagnosed when I was eight and put on Ritalin. And anybody that’s ever taken any medication for ADD or ADHD, like you literally are not the same person. And so from a very young age, for me anyways, I associated myself as broken. And that messed me up in the sense that I started kind of playing into that label of, you know, the bad kid. I mean I also had a temper issue. I mean I grew up in an environment where my mom was an alcoholic and my dad was in sales. I’m the oldest of the boys. There were four in our family, two younger brothers and an older sister, and I didn’t have anybody to show me the way so I was trying to figure it out. Having that anger issue, which was a byproduct of just how my mom was at the house and my dad not being around, I just played into that. I mean the police showed up at my house when I was like 10 and then all of a sudden the neighborhood kids weren’t allowed to spend time with me. So I just, literally that moment was probably the beginning of the label in my head that I’m broken, that I’m bad, that I’m not worth anything.
Sherry Walling: Something’s wrong with you.
Dan Martell: Yeah. And I just played into that. And by the time I was 12 I got put in a foster home because my parents literally couldn’t take care of me. I was acting out at home. I’d threatened to burn the house down when they were sleeping. I mean things I’m obviously not proud of but it’s just part of my journey.
Sherry Walling: You can look back on the angst and anger and anxiety that you were probably experiencing as a kid.
Dan Martell: Yeah. And I mean to me, that’s why I say it’s my super power today, but at the time it was tough to figure out who I was. And I mean this is true for a lot of people. I just acted out. I’m intense, you know, we can talk about that. But when I do anything I do it … that’s why I don’t play video games. I literally do not own a PS whatever or and Xbox whatever because you won’t see me. We wouldn’t be on this interview. I would try to become the world champion at whatever the game is, you know. That’s why I love business, it’s like this game that can never be won.
Sherry Walling: And it’s like adaptive, right. It’s not going to get you in jail, usually.
Dan Martell: No, no. It’s positive. My dad said that … yeah, so as a kid I got in trouble, I ended up in jail. My dad used to say to me, “If you could only find something you’re passionate about that isn’t illegal you’d do well in life.” And he used to say this to me all the time. It took a while. It took a while. But I would say, you know, just that feeling started as a young kid. When I was 13, two things that really kind of changed my life, my parents got divorced and I got introduced to drugs. And like I said, I do things full on and it didn’t take long for me to start dealing and hanging out with people twice my age. And I got kicked out of the foster home, put in a group home, ended up in trouble with the law, jail when I was 15 and then really had a moment when I was 17 that kind of changed everything for me.
Sherry Walling: And I want to get to that moment but I kind of want to unpack those teen years a little bit more. Well, maybe even earlier. You described your mom as an alcoholic and it sounds like she was pretty overwhelmed with the needs that you had, not to mention whatever’s going on with your siblings and in the rest of your life. What was your early life like? I mean was it an environment where you felt cared about or were you kind of scrapping from the beginning?
Dan Martell: Yeah, it’s funny, because my wife always asks me, I eat really fast, and she’s like, “Why do you eat that way?” And it’s funny because like I’ll eat over my plate and just kind of … and I think it was, not that we didn’t have food, we had food, but there was just a sense of we were rushed all the time and we’re annoying if we didn’t … you know, there’s all these things that I can look back on. And will say today that I wouldn’t change a fucking thing. Like literally not one grain of sand out of place. I am grateful for the life I live today and it is a byproduct of what I went through. And I tell my mom, she comes over every Sunday, we have an incredible relationship today, that I am so blessed to have her as a mother, regardless. She hears these interviews and she’s seen me on stage talk about it. Look, we were all different people back then but the truth is, is that we just learned things.
I just learned for myself that I’m just going to create, I literally just, whenever I wasn’t playing in the woods, I was trying to build tree forts and snow castles. I grew up in Canada. And just tried to convince the neighborhood kids to do it for me. Like literally my move was to convince my neighbors to go steal their dad’s wood so that we could build a new tree fort. That was all we did. And I would never swing a hammer and I never shoveled the hole, but we would build cool things and I got them excited about it. And I joke with some people that I started in real estate when I was a kid because I use to charge the other kids that didn’t help out, to play in the thing.
That was just kind of who I was. I never had a lemonade stand, probably because nobody would buy anything from me, no adults anyways, because they didn’t like me very much. I mean literally I was the kid in the neighborhood, you know, Dennis the Menace. People would say that, “Dan’s like the menace.” So I literally would have to go in the woods just to play with my neighbors that I would see on the school bus in the morning that they weren’t even allowed to talk to me.
Sherry Walling: But you were the guy with the plan and you helped inspire and organize people to implement your plans.
Dan Martell: I’d inspire pellet gun wars. I remember one day my dad found, he came home and he found all these pellet guns under the deck because we’d spent the whole morning shooting each other in the woods. Like, if my boys, I have two boys that are three and four, if they even thought that that was a good idea I’d be like, “What?” You know what I mean? We were wearing snow gloves and goggles thinking that was going to protect us from steel pellets flying through the air. And one of our buddies, Serge, actually got one in the hand and had to go to the hospital and get it surgically removed. I mean it was just the stuff that we did.
The other day I brought my two boys on a train to go to a hotel, it was a boys things. So they went on a train for the first time, we went to a town, which was two hours away, we got a hotel, we went in the pool, woke up, ate breakfast, went in the pool, got back on the train, came home. And I remember the first time my dad brought us to the pool in a hotel and he wasn’t looking, me and my two brothers went and took all the furniture and put it in the deep end of the pool and went in and we’d sit. Like there was nothing that we wouldn’t try. And I can’t imagine what we put our parents through but that’s the kind of kid I was.
Sherry Walling: So there’s a wildness about you that is just ingrained in who you were from the beginning.
Dan Martell: I just thought, “If it’s interesting I’m going to do it and I know I’ll get in trouble, but it’s worth it.”
Sherry Walling: Yeah. So getting in trouble never dissuaded you? That was never sufficiently threatening?
Dan Martell: In many ways, now that I know, it was what I was supposed to do. I was the character that I feel is the label I was given that I just felt like, “I’m just going to play into it.” It would be weird for me not to get in trouble kind of thing.
Sherry Walling: Like that was your role in your family and in your neighborhood?
Dan Martell: That was, I was the black sheep, I was the one. Like literally high school friends, neighborhood friends see me today, Facebook, speaking all that stuff, and they just go, “I don’t understand it because we would have thought, you know, most likely voted to be dead in a ditch my their 20th birthday kind of thing.” I feel really lucky that obviously that didn’t happen.
Sherry Walling: You were eleven when you needed to be removed from your home for a while. What was that like. Do you remember that memory of someone coming to your house to pick you up and take you away?
Dan Martell: Well it was the police that brought me away and I got put in a crisis center. I mean do I remember it, absolutely. There has probably not been many moments in my life that I woke up that scared. It was nighttime, I got brought to … they have homes, kind of like foster parents, that are equipped for those scenarios where they’ve got to kind of take … sorry.
Sherry Walling: It’s a tough memory I imagine.
Dan Martell: Yeah, I kind of forgot. I just remember waking up the next morning and wondering like, “Am I going to live with these people? Am I here for a week? Am I here for a couple months? Maybe I shouldn’t have said what I said.” You know, you know don’t know. And they were really weird. That’s all I remember. And put yourself in their position. They’re probably getting kids and leaving all the time. It was just weird waking up in somebody else’s house. And I was there for a couple of weeks and eventually got put in with a foster dad, a guy named Dave. And the unfortunate part for him, he was like 35, 36, always wanted to have kids, never had kids. He was a professor and I was his first foster kid and I can tell you I was his last.
Sherry Walling: Threw him in the deep end.
Dan Martell: Man I just, he wanted to be like a big brother and I took advantage of it like nobody’s business. I mean the first day we went to the grocery store to get food and he’s like, “What do you eat?” And I convinced him I eat Pop Tarts and hot dogs. Like literally I said, “Chocolate Pop Tarts and hot dogs.” And we walked out with a couple hundred bucks. I said, “Call my mom, she’ll tell you. I’m a very picky eater.” And he’s like, “Okay.” That was the beginning. Once you did that then it was like, “We should get a slingshot and go shoot. There’s an archery range about a mile away and it’ll be a way for us to bond.” Really I just wanted a slingshot in the house so I could play with it when he wasn’t around.
Sherry Walling: He really wanted to have a caring, connected, emotional relationship with you.
Dan Martell: He literally wanted me to like him. And I really needed somebody to step up and give me structure because that’s what I was missing the most out of my life.
Sherry Walling: Yeah. So your family up to that point had been pretty unstructured? You describe your dad was, sounds like working a lot and away and your mom was struggling with addiction.
Dan Martell: And when he was home on weekends it was kind of like, too many kids, leave me alone, I’m tired, I’ve got shit to do around the house, like don’t bug me kind of thing. I don’t remember throwing a ball with my dad. There was just a lot of stuff I see my friends talk about and I’m like, “Yeah, that just didn’t happen.” And look, like I said, I wouldn’t change anything but it was just a little bit different than what other kids go through. And definitely different than what I’m doing with my two boys. But my mom grew up with an alcoholic mom, kind of the same pattern repeated itself. We’d come home sometimes she’d be passed out on the couch and we’d have to wake her up. We didn’t even know what was going on for a long time. It was just, my sister tried to play that role. My dad had a great job, we didn’t live in like the slums or anything. But I think some of my neighbors wished that I did. We just didn’t have that emotional support I think.
Sherry Walling: Yeah. It sounds like lots of chaos. Like you all were kind of left to your own devices.
Dan Martell: Oh, that is it. I mean I tell people all the time, “I grew up in chaos.” Maybe it was self-inflicted but if you say, “What’s the word?” It’s chaos.
Sherry Walling: And then that sort of breeds more chaos. So you’re in foster care and group homes and sort of moving from one place to another.
Dan Martell: Eventually I lit off a whole pack of roman candles inside the living room of my foster dad’s house. I ran away because I knew he was going to kick me out anyway. The cops picked me up, brought me back and he said, “Take him.” Ended up in a group home after that. Spent a year there at 12 turning 13 with guys that were 17, 18 years old. I mean this guy, Shane, that taught me how to shave at 13 had been in jail twice at that point and was kind of between things. Yeah, they were teaching me shit I just never should have learned. At 13 my parents got divorced and I got introduced to drugs and that was that.
Sherry Walling: What was your drug of choice?
Dan Martell: Anything that fucked me up. So I mean literally everything from PCP to mescaline. I did cocaine a few times. I didn’t inject anything. I took a lot of Valium, speed, weed obviously, drinking, and all of those mixed together. I mean there was nothing … if somebody said, “Hey, look, this is cool.” I’d be like, “Great, give it to me.”
Sherry Walling: The goal was to not be present, to be fucked up. Not to have some kind of experience. Yeah. Were you doing anything with school during this part of your life?
Dan Martell: Yeah. I mean I was in school. And this is the weird part, I’ve always been good on the school part. So like, I remember one time I did a 103 on a math test and my teacher brought me to be principal’s office to report that I cheated because there’s no fucking way somebody that never went to class could do that. And the only reason I got 103 is because I got the bonus questions and I was the only one in the class. And instead of saying “Congratulations, Dan, maybe you have gift,” they fucking brought me … I mean I forgot about that moment until you just asked me that question.
Sherry Walling: They put you in that troublemaker role again.
Dan Martell: They assume there’s no way, there’s no way. They didn’t give me another test, they didn’t ask me, they just said, “No way.” And that’s just messed up now that I think of it. So anyways, I went to class but as soon as I hit high school and I started doing drugs, I would spend most of my time … there was a coffee stop across the main road and I got to know the manager there and she liked me enough to not call the school. I spent most of my high school years there. I got kicked out, ended up getting caught selling drugs. Ended up in jail the first time when I was 15, for the summer. And it was funny because I got in trouble and the judge said, “If you do well in school then I’ll be lenient.” And as soon as I did well and got back in focus then he said, “Great. Finish off the school year, you’re going to jail for seven weeks.” And I was like, “Fuck.” Yeah, I lived a very colorful childhood.
Sherry Walling: Yeah. What’s interesting though, what I’m so curious about, about your story and about other founders who have similar stories is, there are these basic skills that most of us learn in childhood. Like how to regulate our emotions, how to deal with frustration, how to deal with failure and disappointment. Traditionally in the optimal package, we learn those in the context of like supportive adults that are helping us go through those developmental phases and learn those skills. But somehow you’ve learned a lot of those skills, right? You’ve learned how to present yourself. You’ve learned confidence. You’ve learned delayed gratification. Like you’ve learned all of these things that you’ve used to kill it in business but you didn’t learn them in the traditional way.
Dan Martell: No. That’s why I spend a lot of time … I have a program where I teach at risk youth how to build their confidence through entrepreneurship. It’s not even about building a business, it’s literally just talking to them about the world and how to create and build that confidence. And the argument I make for them right from the first time we talk is that they’re in a better position than most of the world because they know who to deal with uncertainty. They’re comfortable in the uncertainty, which I would argue is the premise of being a great entrepreneur. Most people need all their ducks lined up and the T’s crossed and everything figured out and a clear path and everybody else saying, “Yes, if you do this you’ll go here, here and here.” And an entrepreneur says, “I’m okay if there’s nothing there. Let’s jump and build something along the way.”
And I feel like obviously going through that, and that’s why I say chaos taught me that, obviously you tell a lot of lies as a kid in that situation. Just learning those social skills and the emotional intelligence that comes with that and how to get yourself out of … I mean some of the scenarios I found myself in, it was literally life and death. When people talk about risk in business I kind of laugh because the worse case that happens now if I threw everything down and lost it all, is sleeping at my brother or my friend’s house for a few months and build back. Back then it was literally getting shot in the head or getting arrested or put away for years.
Sherry Walling: You talked about the time when you were 17.
Dan Martell: But even before that there was a moment that I’ve never told before where I almost robbed a store. And literally I was on the side of the store with a handgun, ready to run in, and something just felt off and I turned around and when we came across the other street there was a police that drove by. And I ended up in jail, it’s not like I avoided it, but that crime specifically gets a minimum two-year sentence.
Sherry Walling: So that might have been a game changer.
Dan Martell: I don’t know what the cops do when they see a kid running down the street with a handgun but I’m sure it’s not a good scenario.
Sherry Walling: Right. It doesn’t always work out well.
Dan Martell: I feel like literally there’s been an angel looking out for me my whole life.
Sherry Walling: How did you go, Dan, from believing yourself to be broken, kind of a piece of shit trouble maker to believing that you’re someone who’s worth an angel watching out for you?
Dan Martell: You got me crying, fuck.
Sherry Walling: Sorry. That’s the downside of talking to a psychologist. I’m so sorry.
Dan Martell: Yeah, I mean, there was a moment for me when I ended up getting in a high-speed chase and I had the handgun in a bag and I said, “If I get pulled over I’m going to pull the gun and let the police do their job.” A routine road block, I pull off the highway and I stop but then they ask me to pull over and I just took off. I thought I could get to the woods and run away. I ended up in this neighborhood and I saw an open garage door and I just figured maybe I’ll hide in the garage, close the door. I was kind of ahead of the police and I ran into the side of the house, I came in way to fast. I went to grab the gun that was next to me and it got stuck. I could hear the police getting closer and all of a sudden the doors open and they kind of grab me and take me away.
I woke up the next morning sober and just thought, “I should have been dead. Somebody’s looking out for me again and if they help me get through that …” because I didn’t know what I was looking at from a time point of view, but I just said, “If somebody helps me get through this I’m going to commit to just being a better person and giving back and helping other people.” I just had this sense of overwhelm of like, “Help me get through this and I promise I won’t disappoint.” And I didn’t even know who I was talking to. And I ended up serving five months and while I was in … it was an adult jail because of the severity of my crime. They had like two units that were for youths out of the adult section. And one day I get in a fight, I got put in solitary confinement for three days, and on the third day, which is probably the most inhumane thing you can ever do to a human being.
And this guard, Brian, he was kind of a quiet guard, didn’t say a whole lot, but he was kind of, if you treated him with respect he always kind of looked the other way for small things. Sometimes you’d find a cigarette laying around. Kind of you know what, he was a good dude. And he came and got me because he was on vacation or he was away when the incident happened. He comes out, he’s disappointed, he walks me back to the cell block and we walk past the door where all the other inmates, all the other kids, and we go into the guard unit that overlooked these two cell blocks. And he sits me down in the corner and he starts asking me, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Well, I got in a fight with this kid Kurt over coffee.” And he’s like, “Not that man. What are you doing here? Like what are you doing in jail?”
And I said, “Well, you know, I got in this high-speed chase and I had a gun.” And he’s like, he goes, “Dan,” said something like, “I’ve been watching you work, try to stay out of trouble, do the right thing, stay out of the politics, and I’ve been working here for seven years and you don’t belong here.” And he said, “If this is the first time anybody’s ever told you this, I want you to know that I believe in you.” And that was the first time in my whole life that I felt … and maybe other people had said the words, but it was the first time in my whole life that I felt somebody that came from a place that could say that, that it just hit me like a ton of bricks.
Sherry Walling: You believed him.
Dan Martell: The messenger, he had the credibility. He had no reason to sit me down. Like there was no, he was a therapist, he wasn’t my parents, he wasn’t an uncle, he literally thought, “I’m going to sit this kid down and let him know what I see.” And he’d seen hundreds of kids come and go and for him to say that, it just landed.
Sherry Walling: Yeah.
Dan Martell: And this is right after I’d been doing so good and then I get in a fight and I think, “There I go again.”
Sherry Walling: It’s over for me.
Dan Martell: “I’m back to the old patterns. I guess they’re all right about what they say about me.” And that just shifted everything. A few months later I got released and so instead of finishing my time there, I got released into a rehab center called Portage, it’s a therapeutic community, and I did 11 months of therapy, working on myself, rebuilding a relationship with my parents and my friends, building a new peer group. And it literally saved my life.
Sherry Walling: So this allowed you to learn all of those things. Becoming a grownup.
Dan Martell: Skills. The program itself, it’s so special because it’s got a few core concepts, but all the staff, they were ex drug addicts. So that’s one of the things. The program literally teaches you basic values and then rebuilds your emotional … you know, we do feeling management groups. And it was 11 months of personal development at 17 years old that most adults would benefit way more from than a kid if they go because of their own shit they have to deal with. I mean I heard people tell me their stories. I feel so lucky and it was at the tail end of that, that I discovered computers. Like I found a book there on java programming and it shifted my whole life, my whole career.
Sherry Walling: And that’s where you started.
Dan Martell: That was my new addiction. I got out and I discovered the internet and that was that. Turned out to be kind of a big deal.
Sherry Walling: Are there other moments when the old Dan comes out.
Dan Martell: Oh, yeah. Yeah. If somebody does me wrong, I got to catch myself. I still have that anger, it’s real, it’s there. And very few people in the last decade have seen it, but man is it … it’s almost like the fuel, it’s like the engine of everything else, but sometimes the lid comes off, you know what I mean? Like it’s my drive, it’s my energy. People are like, “Dan, you’re all full of energy.” It’s that but there’s these certain buttons, a certain scenario. It’s almost like if somebody’s on purpose trying to mess with me. So if I was cleaning a house, which I don’t do so people know that’s never going to happen, but I was cleaning a house and there was a rug and I needed to get under the rug and there was a person standing on the rug. And I go to clean it and I go to pull on the rug and they kind of stand on the rug and just look at me and smile as if they’re meaning to not move out of the way so I can’t do it, that scenario, for whatever reason, will cause me to flip the fuck out. Like literally that rage, I would take that person off their feet. Like there’s just something about that situation that just gets me to a point where I see red.
Sherry Walling: Does that happen in business?
Dan Martell: No. Actually that’s never surfaced in business. It’s usually more personal.
Sherry Walling: Yeah.
Dan Martell: It’s like whenever somebody’s doing something and my family is involved. Like somebody’s trying to take advantage of my family. It’s a more personal thing. Business I’m very … I care but I don’t care. But, yeah, it’s more like personal situations. I mean, yeah, it’s only happened a couple times in a decade but when you say, “Does that ever come up?” It does.
Sherry Walling: You kind of feel it in the way that your body is made. Sounds like what you’re talking about is that level of kind of physiological activation where you’re busy, you have energy, you’ve got like a lot of energy to burn, but then every once in a while it get tapped in the wrong way.
Dan Martell: It is, it’s scary. Scary for me and it’s definitely scary for the other people around. Luckily through fucking years of therapy, I’m able to kind of identify it, calm it down, separate myself from the environment, distance myself, recalibrate and come back and then say, “What can I learn from that moment?” But, yeah, it happens.
Sherry Walling: What has been your most important relationships as you’ve become an adult and grown in business?
Dan Martell: I mean literally there’s so many. One of my mentors, Jerry Pawn, has been a really important mentor of mine. I call him the OG. He might get mad at me if I guess it wrong. I want to say he’s 87, hopefully he’s not 70. He’s an old dude. He’s amazing. He’s still crushing it today, still meeting with entrepreneurs. And I look at the impact and the people and the businesses he’s supported and I’m just in so much awe and respect. When I was 26 and really struggling, my first successful company, he showed up in my life so I have a lot of love for him. I would say more recently, one of my buddies, [inaudible 00:28:51], who’s arguably one of the best speakers in the French market, he’s like the Tony Robbins of the French market. And he came into my life like two and a half years ago and it was probably the first time, especially in a business context.
We met because I was organizing a big dinner for my city. 100-growth entrepreneurs and his name kept coming up and I invited him over to my house just to talk. And we just, we became brothers. And the big reason was is that he just didn’t, there was no ego and the conversation was real pure. And it’s been like that ever since, that I could tell him literally anything and there’d be no judgment, there’d be no negative talk, it would just really be just a pure friendship.
I kind of look over the last 20 years, there’s a lot of those kind of people that showed up for the right moments and continue to play a big part of my life.
Sherry Walling: Kind of like Brian the guard.
Dan Martell: Exactly like Brian the guard. He believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.
Sherry Walling: When did you learn how to love?
Dan Martell: You know, I would say it’s later in life. You know, I thought I loved when I was in my 20s and 30s, but I would say it wasn’t till I met my wife, till I started to see the possibility in it and then I’d have to defer to the day my son was born. And people say it and it’s corny and they’re like, “You don’t know love until you have a kid.” And I’m like, “Well.” You know, you hear it and it’s kind of like, whatever. Man, there is something when you literally … having a kid is like having your heart walk around outside your body.
Sherry Walling: It’s true.
Dan Martell: So I would say meeting my current wife, even though I’ve had multiple serious relationships over the years. I said I loved them and I probably did to a certain degree, but there’s something about the woman I’m with today. Renee is just such an incredible human being and like I didn’t know it was possible to have everything that I thought … I didn’t think one person could have it all, you know what I mean? Being such a beautiful person, such a giving person, driven, things that are almost like oxymoron. I’m not very thoughtful. I want to be thoughtful but I’m not. Nobody’s going to be like, “Dan’s a thoughtful person.” Nobody gives me that one, right? They’ll say he’s passionate, he’s energetic, etc. She’s both. That’s rare. Anyway, so I would say we met when I was like 32, so there was still some of that learning to be done as a man to get to that point.
Sherry Walling: What parts of your story are you most looking forward to sharing with your sons?
Dan Martell: Hmmm. You know it’s funny. The other day I got invited to speak to a bunch of kids, they’re in the system. They’re essentially before they would have been at risk, they’re between nine and 14 years old. It’s like a camp and the guy that runs it is one of my mentors. And I went and I spoke there and I brought my boys, Max and [inaudible 00:39:06], and Renee was there, my wife. And telling my story and I’m telling the part about going to jail and Max, my youngest, stands up and goes, “Dad, you’ve been to jail?” And I was just like, and all the other kids look over at him and they’re like, because they’re on the edge of their seats, and I’m like, “I did Max.” And I said, “I’m going to tell you the rest of the story now, okay?” And he goes, “Yup.”
So like I know that when I first tell the story, even before I had kids, people were like, “Do you want your kids to see this?” It’s like, “Look, that’s my life, that’s my story, I’m pretty public about it.” And the truth is I think it’ll serve more people than … I can hold it back and tell it and I didn’t tell anybody for 15 years. Literally not a soul, even my wife, my best friends. It was about five years ago now, four years ago, that I told it in front of a group of people and I realized that my ability to connect with people on a level that I want to connect with, the same kind of relationship I have with Martin, is only possible when I go first.
And I’m open and vulnerable and then people share things that, “I’ve never told anybody this but I want to tell you this.” “Okay, why?” “Well because you just told everybody that thing on stage.” That’s real.
Sherry Walling: It makes you real and accessible.
Dan Martell: Yeah, like success theater, business. We all do it, I get it, there’s a purpose, we want to connect, we want to show people that we’re real and we do real shit. But like I want to know what makes somebody who they are. Kind of like this conversation. I can’t even connect with somebody if I don’t know their story. Why do you do what you do and where’d that come from. It’s really important to me. You know, what part of my story do I wish my kids understand, I think it’s the always trying. Literally every day I ask my boys, “What did you fail at today?” And I want to celebrate it because I want to teach them that that’s part … you said like what’s the one thing. Yes I’m going to teach them entrepreneurship. They’re going to learn how to build million dollar companies. That’s a given.
But I want them to learn that everyday we look for opportunities to try, even if we fail, just to celebrate the fact that we got up and tried. Every time I pick them up from daycare, “Hey guys, what did you fail at today?” So I would love for them to see that in my story so that they could feel like I can speak from experience. Because I think that’s the key in having a message stick. Like Brian did for me was the messenger had the credibility to share that message. If my kids know my story and they know that when I say that it comes from a place of credibility, then I think that would probably be the most important for me.
Sherry Walling: They’ll believe you when you tell them that it’s okay, you can keep trying.
Dan Martell: And it’s not do what I say, not … whatever. I got so upset the other day because like it’s easy to tell your kids, “Don’t do this.” But then they look at you and if you’re doing it, what’s … you know what I mean? It’s like really weird.
Sherry Walling: Sure, sure. Kids are even harder to sell on credibility than people in business probably.
Dan Martell: Yeah, they’re sensing things you have no idea. They’re reading between the lines all the time. They’re computing on a level that … most adults are not giving enough credit to their little toddlers.
Sherry Walling: Yeah. What’s next for you. What’s next in terms of your own growth and development as a human?
Dan Martell: You know, one of the challenges that I decided to take on a little under two years ago was just the skill and practice to communicate, to become a teacher, right? And that shows up in the form of coaching. So I have some programs, group programs, where I coach high performing [inaudible 00:35:05] entrepreneurs to scale their businesses. And that meant I need to produce content. I do a weekly YouTube video. And really that was kind of like the part of what I knew that I wanted to get out of me and just have it documented for my kids. Originally the YouTube videos started for my two boys, Max and [inaudible 00:35:27] because I thought, you know, if something ever happens to me, I don’t take life for granted. I plan in five-year increments, I don’t plan in I’ve got the rest of my life. So what would I want them to know. So those were like the first dozen videos. And then I started sharing more of the business stuff.
You know the next thing that’s coming, that I’m working on right now, is my book. You know I’ve been wanting to write a book for probably a decade. This won’t be the book, I think I have several books to write, but it’ll be one that’s really important. It’s going to talk about my approach to kind of identifying and cultivating the right ideas to build into tools, software tools. And honestly, if we’re talking like what’s next, next, I mean I will always do the teaching part. I think that will be part of my life and a thread and I’ll always have a group of entrepreneurs that I support. I’ll always try to produce content and teach because, that’s how we met, that’s just always been part of my DNA. But from a company point of view there’s something around kind of machine learning and AI that I think applied to some of the world’s biggest problems could be super interesting.
So that’s kind of where, when I lay down and look at videos on YouTube, I’m studying the best scientists in the world right now and just seeing where that intersection comes.
Sherry Walling: And what scares you about that?
Dan Martell: That’s the thing is that anybody that has any level of intelligence and understanding … it’s kind of like saying there’s people working on a nuclear bomb. If that was what we were talking about, see AI is the same thing. It has the potential to essentially eradicate the humans on earth. And I don’t think people understand that. So that’s why for me, I know that that’s a possible. And It doesn’t matter if it’s a thousand years or a hundred years or 50 years or 20 years, it’s going to happen. We built the system that just continuously wants to build more productive machines. And as a byproduct of that we’re going to get there. So that’s why I feel like I have an opportunity to understand that and try to create solutions to combat that happening, then I think that might be a place that I would like to spend some time. It definitely scares me, that’s why I’m interested in it because I can’t just not get involved.
Sherry Walling: You can’t turn your back on that.
Dan Martell: I can’t look away. I know my kids are going to grow up in a totally different world. Like it’s kind of one of those things where, it’s funny how some people choose to just believe the world’s shit and it’s not not true. Like that’s the funny part. It’s not not true. But does that mean you have to be upset and angry and frustrated and cynical [inaudible 00:37:44] your day? No. That’s a decision we all make and I choose to be grateful and happy and positive, but I’m not going to be not realistic and not say, “Okay, there’s this thing happening and maybe we should go be educated and understand it and see where we might be able to contribute to a solution.” So that’s kind of, I would say if you ask me today, that’s where my head’s at.
Sherry Walling: Well thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. I’ve heard pieces of your story before but it was a privilege to sort of dig a little deeper and hear some of those in between years that have really shaped you. And it’s incredible to hear how much you’ve practiced coping with moments that were scary and moments that were painful but yet letting them fuel you and motivate you to become a person that now you’re proud of.
Dan Martell: I appreciate that, Sherry, It’s probably literally been the most interesting, most I’ve ever cried on a podcast, ever. So congratulations. This is a unique one for the books.
Sherry Walling: Well, yeah. I appreciate your honesty and vulnerability and all that stuff.


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