“I stand before you as a recipient of an embarrassment of miracles. Without those in my life, I would be dead several times over.”
I’ve literally come back from the dead 3 times, either from a shattered body or a shattered mind. I’ve been told twice by teams of doctors that I would never work again, saying I should just go on disability and give it up. Most of them couldn’t even tell me what was wrong. I now know I suffer from bipolar disorder.
I’ve been bankrupt 3 times. Been on welfare and Medicaid even after taking a company public. I’ve been obliterated by the press and told by many that my career was over and I could never come back. And I’ve attempted suicide twice.
Yet the companies I’ve started have created $7 billion in wealth from nothing. They’ve sold more than $4 billion in goods and services. They’ve created 3,000 jobs and they’ve paid hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes.
Am I an abject failure or a successful entrepreneur? The answer is both. And that keeps me humble.
And if there is one thing I’d like you take away from today, it’s that humility is the most important trait in a successful life. My hubris almost killed me, and quite frankly it should have.
When I was 16 years old, I was having problems with unreasonable anger and rage. I was having constant racing thoughts of hurting myself or other people. I told my dad, who was a doctor, and he said to me, “It’s probably all those spy thrillers you read….”
I did go to a psychiatrist and he diagnosed me as bipolar and put me on lithium. When it was time to get the prescription refilled, my dad asked me, “Do you feel any different?” Now, the whole point of lithium is that you don’t feel any different. It stabilizes you so you don’t go crazy. I told him no, so he said, “There is no need to refill or go back to the doctor.”
This was 40 years ago, and he can’t be blamed for not knowing how serious bipolar disorder is. But here are some facts. About 50% of people who are diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder die unnaturally. That imputed mortality is more than many cancers. 12% of the male population in prison is bipolar although less than 1% of the US population is bipolar. 58% of the homeless population is thought to be bipolar.
This is an insidious, deadly, and tragic illness that must be taken very seriously. Your life is at risk, but the lives of the people you love are also at risk.
One of the biggest symptoms I had was constant racing thoughts of suicide and self-harm. I would see a knife on the counter, and I could visualize plunging it into my neck. I knew where all the unprotected bridge abutments were — the ones without the big barriers. One day I nearly got smashed by a flatbed full of bricks, but instead of saying “Wow that was really close!” I said “Crap! I missed my chance.”
Now this was when I was driving a new Lexus from my lovely home, with a soulmate as my wife, two beautiful children, running the public company I had founded. But I didn’t attempt suicide until my first wife and I split—I actually overdosed on lithium, and I spent a week and a half in intensive care while they decided if I needed a kidney transplant.
I didn’t thank God, and I went straight to treatment. Initially I was diagnosed with major depression, because I don’t have a lot of manias. But man, when I do, watch out because they are big.
However, I had not had any manias until then. And I was treated for major depression including electroshock therapy, a raft of meds, talk therapy, horse therapy, dog therapy, talking stick therapy. Everything you can possibly imagine, I did.
Unfortunately, the treatments for major depression are not the same as they are for bipolar disorder, which is a totally different animal. The psychiatrist I met in the hospital was a brilliant woman. And while we were dealing with the wrong diagnosis—which happens about 8 times before people are diagnosed with bipolar—she saved my life many times over.
She was looking through my file and said, “So, you’re a Marine?”
“Yeah, I’m a marine.”
She said, “Let me ask you a question. Would you die for your children?”
“In a heartbeat.”
“Would you kill for them?”
She said, “Well, let me tell you about daughters whose fathers died early by their own hand.” She brought me a raft of statistics about sex, drugs and lives ruined. They were probably all fabricated, but it worked.
She said, “Here’s what you have to do, Marine. You have to suck it up and live for your kids.”
That was tough. In fact, I had to live in my car for a week as I arranged somewhere else to live after I got evicted. I had to take a food box home from the clinic because I had no food. That, my friends, will make you humble.
I spent three years trying to stabilize. I had to find the right doctor, and I went through many. I had to find the right meds. I would exhaust myself everyday just trying to keep breathing. But I’m stubborn and I would not quit on my daughters. So, I sucked it up. I did whatever it took. I totally surrendered to my treatment team. I never missed a dose of the nearly 20 different meds that were prescribed to me in all different kinds of combinations. I constantly looked for answers. I changed my lifestyle, and I’m just too stubborn to quit. But it took an awfully long time and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Living was hard.
As I said, I joined the Marines as a young man. I wanted to be one of the few. I wanted to be proud of myself. I had a giant streak of shame running through my core—which is a totally different story—and while I compensated for it with performance and achievement, it was my fundamental shame that drove me to the Marines.
Maybe I thought they would finally beat my shame out of me, and I would respect myself. The Marines sold that, I bought it, but it didn’t take.
I wasn’t a great athlete when I was in the Marines. And to be a really good Marine, you have to be an athlete. But I was smart, smarter than most, and it got me promoted. I’m also too stubborn to quit. While I couldn’t run a six-minute mile, if my fellow Marines were running six-minute miles, I was right there with them.
I was just not going to quit.
After the Marines, I left and went to college. I was determined not to go back to the military. And then something happened that most of you won’t remember: a good friend of mine was murdered by terrorists and dropped like a sack of trash out of an airplane in Algeria.
I took my records and my grades and I said, “Where do I sign?” at the ROTC office. I spent virtually the rest of my career in the Army’s special forces group, and eventually became a team leader.
What I learned is that to lead an elite unit you have to earn it every single day.
The core competence of the military’s combat teams is leadership development. It is the ability to create and mentor small unit leaders. Without that core competence, a unit will die in combat. There were real consequences for us, including death, if I didn’t do my job right. These men I thought of as brothers would follow me straight to their deaths and it would be my fault.
I learned how to be a leader, and I learned how to make new leaders. I use that knowledge now as my secret weapon. Lead people, manage systems.
I believe that building a hyper-growth business is the closest thing to combat in the business world—not that I loved combat. While there are many core competencies to make a startup go, to run a business, to recruit, to do all these things, the single most important core competency of a hyper-growth business is small unit leadership development. Because there is so much tribal knowledge, it takes too much time to put that knowledge into other people to replace someone who has it. They need to impart that information and continue to teach how to impart it. Without this core competence, a business will fail, or it will not grow fast enough to take advantage of the market opportunity.
Now I’m not really known for doing things slowly. But I have large ideas and they change markets, and I execute. But when the company takes off it’s not my doing. It’s those senior and junior leaders who signed up for the mission, the ones who have trained each other, the ones who have bled together. They’re the ones who make it work. My job is to hire people that are smarter than me, enable them to win, and then get the hell out of their way. Not doing that is the biggest mistake of a leader.
I have a code of conduct by which I run my businesses and my life.
First, do what you should not what you can. This is a very profound decision rule. As you inculcate this through your culture, people start to realize that your company isn’t about processes or policies, your company is about people — your customers, your vendors, your shareholders and especially your teammates. If you can get your teams to make the decision to do what they should, rather than what they can, you end up building a kinder company, and kindness pays.
Second. We lead people and we manage systems. I’ll just put it this way. An employee who is managed goes home at 5 o’clock. A teammate that is led will break down steel doors.
Next. Be right here, right now. One of the ways that manifests is that we don’t allow electronics in meetings. It makes the meetings much more productive. Meetings that would last an hour last twenty minutes. People feel respected, people feel engaged. I don’t know how many of you have been in a meeting with someone who is just sitting on their phone, but I said no to a venture capitalist who did that to me. He wanted to give me $6 million, and he was a big guy, but I didn’t want that kind of disengagement on my board.
Finally, we are about what matters. And what matters is integrity, relationships, and performance. If you’re in a company, you have to perform, or go home. Family matters, so if you have a family issue at home, we want you taking care of it. Society, we believe, matters. And most important, each of you matters.
A little bit about my entrepreneurial story. In 1995 I founded a company called Internet America. Three years later the company went IPO. On the first day of trading, the company’s stock increased by 24%. We were one of the first internet service providers in the country. Uniquely in our space, we were also cash flow positive. But in 2000 the internet bubble burst and in 2001 we were delisted from Nasdaq– a humbling experience.
The company sustained itself until 2014 when it was sold, but I was gone by then. You see, I sued my board of directors because they would not register options to the people we had promised, the ones who had bled and worked for the company. Suing your board is not really good for your career path as a CEO.
Eventually we settled. It cost me millions of dollars, but my teammates got what they had earned—because integrity matters, and people matter.
I took the money I earned with Internet America and started a company called DotSafe. It was a filtering service for schools that wanted to keep bad content from their kids, and wanted to keep an eye on what other people were doing.
The schools didn’t really grasp the size of the problem at the time and they didn’t have the funding to address it. I was a couple years ahead of the times. The internet bubble had burst, there was no money for investment, and all my money went away trying to do DotSafe.
But let me tell you something: with our first installation, we caught thirteen pedophiles in one school system in two weeks. They all went to jail for a very long time. Eleven of them were teachers. Even though I lost all my money, I would do it again in a heartbeat because society matters.
In hindsight, it’s probably fair to say that the bursting of the internet bubble, losing my money over and over again, and stress triggered my illness again, although we still didn’t really know what we were dealing with.
When people with bipolar depression get depressed, we deal with very severe pain, undifferentiated pain in our bodies, and there is no way to get away from it. That’s why I’ve been misdiagnosed so much. Once I had my appendix taken out, and the doctor came out and said, “there was nothing wrong with your appendix” and I said, “well it still hurts.”
I would be physically ill. I would throw up, I would have fevers, I was impossible to diagnose.
In my manic episodes, I was undependable, I gambled voraciously, and had no sense of right or wrong. No concept of cause and effect. Ultimately my illness cost me my marriage, and it separated me from my children when they needed me the most. It cost me my fortune. I was a good, honest, and honorable man 99.9% of the time, but .1% of the time I was not.
Bipolar disorder was the reason, but the reasons don’t matter. The .1% of the time started defining my life and who I was, as well as who other people thought I was. A manic episode landed me in jail. One day, five deputy sheriffs came to my door and said it was time to go and that they had a warrant for my arrest.
Apparently, I had taken a marker ( a loan from a casino) in Las Vegas and I didn’t repay it. I ended up scratching enough money together to pay it off and pay the fine, and the charges were dropped. But it was not good.
When they came to my door, I was very confused. I was going through electric shock therapy when that episode happened and one of the universal side effects is that your memory during those months of treatments is completely wiped out. I had no real memory of taking out the marker, and my identity had been stolen once before. I concluded as I went to jail that someone did this in my name—someone stole my identity!
I spent twelve days in the psych ward of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s infamous jail. It was an interesting and difficult experience, but not as difficult as some other things I had done.
To be clear, although my memory of it is more like a dream, I have now been convinced I did take out the marker. Did I lie about the identity theft? Not at first, but then it became an easy lie for me to believe.
Was I rigorously honest? No. But there were a couple of inconvenient facts that made it difficult for me to believe that my identity had been stolen after I read about it in newspapers. I was convinced after the second article. To my detriment, I chose the easier route. This is the first time I have publicly admitted that I was fundamentally dishonest on that story. I should have never said that my identity was stolen regardless of my memory loss.
When you sit in jail, you have a lot of time to think. And when I was still thinking that my identity had been stolen I thought “there has to have been a way that I could have known about this. A way I could have stopped it.”
Thus was born the concept of Lifelock. Things got better after that. But not forever. Years later, having already been publicly shamed for my own bad behavior and my arrest, I would find myself and my company embroiled in presidential politics—which is yet another story–and I found myself getting yet another important lesson in humility and absolute honesty.
Because Lifelock had inked a deal with the late Fred Thompson to be our spokesperson, the story of my arrest resurfaced as national news as reporters went digging for dirt about him. It went from the New Times here in Phoenix, to the New York Times and to everything in between. The message was “Presidential candidate endorses crook.”
Now I decided to ‘do what I should,” the first item on my code of ethics. I had to publicly fire myself from the company I had created. I couldn’t defend myself in the press or speak publicly about it because trying to defend myself would just make the story live longer. The company needed to be free of the smell of dishonesty and I needed to pay for my own past misdeeds.
So I did the right thing. It cost me $100 million dollars. It cost me fame and a guaranteed entry into the two-time IPO Entrepreneur Hall of Fame. But I believe to this day that it had to go down like that.
While I didn’t garner any public accolades, my reputation in investor circles was cemented. I’m known first and foremost as an earner. Lifelock later went public without me on the team, and made many people millions of dollars. But much more important, I’m known for doing the right thing, at the right time, regardless of how much money is on the table, and regardless of whether it is going to adversely affect me personally.
And that is why I receive the support, love, and encouragement of the people who have invested in me, or wish they had, or have worked for me. It’s also why others want to invest and work with me again. That, my friends, is worth more than $100 million dollars.
Now I’m the founder of a new startup. With another embarrassment of miracles, I’ve assembled the most capable team I could have ever possibly hoped for. We’re backed by millions of dollars of smart money. And together we will build a business that dwarfs anything that I have ever done.
We’re changing how businesses are going to deal with their merchant processing fees. This is a $16 trillion-dollar market growing 11% a year. SurchX is the culmination of my lessons. This is my story, a story of wins and losses, shame, vindication, love, leadership, hope and miracles.
The more people you lead, the more you serve. Just because you’re the CEO doesn’t mean you’re in charge. The people have to give you permission to lead them. You have to have moral authority to lead. And you have to earn that literally every single day. The people on my senior executive team are much more accomplished than I am. They have unbelievable resumes. Me telling them what to do is not going to work; they won’t follow me because they are leaders themselves. I literally wake up every morning, spend some quiet time, and say, “What do I have to do to earn my spot today?” I learned that in the service.
I believe there is a greater purpose in life. I have a greater purpose than making a bunch of people a bunch of money. I’m so grateful for my life now. Every day is a new gift, and I know there are no limits to what I can do with my life.
I’m no longer ashamed. That’s a big statement. I’m healthy and I’m stable. But more important, I’m a living testimony that you can do anything you want. Leave the world a little better than you found it. Imagine if 6 billion people did that.