I wish someone told me to, “Keep your product focused but your distribution plans broad.” You can certainly fail by trying to be all things to all people but there is no prize is being too precise with your distribution plans. It would have helped me to think broader and bigger from the beginning about all the ways the narrow product I built could be used and all the different ways to sell into those use cases. There is a trap to equating linear thinking to order.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Graham Williams.
Graham is a successful telecom, media and infrastructure executive turned entrepreneur. Graham pivoted his career in 2020, creating Impart with the simple idea that communities can help each other avoid common missteps by sharing life lessons from specific life milestones, positioning loved ones for success. Graham lives in his native Denver, Colorado with his wife and two children, who have been his most important teachers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado by parents who taught me to have a strong work ethic and perseverance. My childhood was not without its challenges, but I was lucky to grow up in a safe, loving, and stable environment with a sister, brother and two stepsisters. I attended a mix of public and private primary schools, each of which offered unique perspectives. At Graland Country Day, I learned about rising to high expectations. At Manual High School, I learned that people all share a core dignity, but that life’s blessings are not equally distributed, which instilled in me a foundation of gratitude, responsibility, and restlessness. Studying at Davidson College, I learned about the importance of honor and the power of combining integrity with community.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen. And all you have to do is get in touch with it, stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball.” -Ty Webb, “Caddyshack”
Sometimes it’s simply important to laugh at ourselves.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig comes to mind. I have read that book a half dozen times at different points in my life and took something new away each time. Two takeaways have stood out. That book helped me understand the concept of “world view” and how people with different experiences can look at the same thing and come to different conclusions. Seems simple now but that was a mind-blowing realization when I was younger. The book also put forward a beautiful metaphor for our lives in the form of a train. Pirsig described each of our lives as a train and our experiences are the cargo. As we experience more, more cargo gets added that changes the weight and balance of the train cars, which in turn changes how we interact with new experiences on the track. That book encourages me to this day to step back from time to time and question my direction and intentions and make choices that will lead to growth.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
Most of my career to date has been focused on business to business telecom and internet infrastructure. I have held leadership roles in Product Management, Strategy and Operations for start-ups and Fortune 500 companies alike. Most recently, I was Chief Operating Officer for a data center company that I help create along with a great team called Cologix. We operated data centers across North America focused on interconnecting networks. I was responsible for Product, Marketing, Strategy, Construction, Operations, and from time to time, Sales. We sold the company in 2017 and left to spend some time with my family at the end of that year. Since then I have been doing advisory/consulting work and assessing what my next role would be.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
I read an unattributed quote the other day, “When everything is uncertain, everything that is important becomes more clear.” That speaks directly to my pivot as a result of the Pandemic. I’d had the idea for Impart for 6 months or so before COVID broke. The idea was that there was a remarkably simple way to address a growing starvation for connectedness in our society based on an inundation of information from untrusted sources, less time in social institutions and living further away from our extended families. It became clear to me that it was important to bring communities together online to share experiences, wisdom, and advice as a gift, to set up the people we love for success. I was convinced I could create a platform that would allow users to create a custom gift book filled with wisdom from family and friends for someone approaching a graduation, wedding, first baby or retirement in less than 15 minutes and for less than 50 dollars. In parallel, I’d had a number of real discussions about taking leadership roles in telecom/tech that would have been both safe and successful, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea for Impart.
That concept was really in early stages of thought when COVID hit. The implications of COVID were obvious immediately and made bringing positivity and community forward even more important, especially in a way that could be accomplished remotely. At this point I started to appreciate just how different the direct-to-consumer, B-to-C world is from what I had been doing and felt exhilarated by the challenge to learn a new business. I signed the contract to develop the platform within two days of the initial stay at home order in Denver. Once I had conviction I was going to pivot, I wanted to make Impart my COVID project and use it to help provide some stability in the local economy by using Denver firms to help with branding, development, legal and marketing. I was also highly focused on investing in the platform so that we could operate the business in a highly automated and remote-friendly model. So, I partnered with custom print company Blurb to enable an API connection to pass orders for fulfillment. It was a lean-in moment when most people were managing downside risk. Time will tell if the business will be successful, but I am proud of how we have spent our time in 2020.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
The idea for Impart came from a project I did for my son about a year and a half ago when he was starting Middle School. Middle School is a transition moment that is filled with new experiences, relationships, growth, and challenges. I wanted to find a way to set him up for success but was dissatisfied with the options of turning him lose on the Internet and then answering questions reactively on the one hand or sitting him down and reciting a list of rules from my own experiences on the other. I needed breadth of experience and trusted sources, so I invited 50 friends and family to think about what they now wish someone had told them before they started middle school and share that wisdom with my son. I put all the responses in a book and gave it to him. I also circulated all the responses without attribution back to the group so they could see what everyone else said.
The “Aha moment” came from watching my son read the book cover to cover and then refer to it after that. I knew that there were wisdoms in the book that would help him, and I knew that he saw 50 names of people that were in his corner going forward. The “Aha moment” came from listening to the feedback from the contributors on how much they enjoyed the exercise of reflecting back and how pleased they were to be able to be a part of this gift that my son continues to look at.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Impart is off to a fast start. We completed the initial development and launched the site in September. Thanks to our marketing maven, Lauren Cook, we are exceeding expected traction in audience and engagement across the website (www.giveimpart.com), and our social media platforms (@GiveImpart). We have watched user experience closely and interviewed early customers to identify opportunities to improve the platform. The overall feedback has been great. We already have several customers working on their second projects, which is very gratifying. Based on user feedback, we expect to complete a second round of development in December introducing new features including the ability for users to bring anonymous wisdoms from the site’s library into their books as well as introducing the ability for contributors to add photos to their submissions. We are in early innings, but the process is fun, and the response has been great.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am most grateful for my wife, who has been a constant source of support and confidence. When we talked about leaving a stable job during a recession with a young child at home and another on the way to go off and help start a data center company, she encouraged me to bet on myself. When I started formulating the idea for Impart, she helped me to crystalize the concept and then told me to get to work. Her belief in me is more than I deserve, but I am so lucky to have it because it is an inoculation against the many opportunities for self-doubt to start creeping in for an entrepreneur.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I have been really touched by the feedback from people who have learned about our platform. One thing I have found interesting is how many people introduce me to other similar services that they have recently used or heard about that I knew nothing about. While I was focused on launching a singular idea, people I talk to have convinced me that there is a new emerging segment in the marketplace for collaborative gifts as an alternative to traditional material gifts. I think a lot of people are asking themselves, “How many bar sets you I give for graduation gifts?” and now companies like Tribute.co, ThankView, Book of Everyone, and Impart are filling that need for something more experiential and meaningful. It has kind of been like noticing a specific make of car on the road one day and then feeling like you see them all the time. It’s interesting to have a trend unfold in front of you while you are in it.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- I wish someone told me, “Fear of failure does not go away once you have achieved success in other endeavors.” My fear of failure is a primal motivator, and it was silly to think that I would allow myself to rest on past laurels. It’s not a bad thing, just something I should have been more honest with myself about from the outset.
- I wish someone told me to, “Keep your product focused but your distribution plans broad.” You can certainly fail by trying to be all things to all people but there is no prize is being too precise with your distribution plans. It would have helped me to think broader and bigger from the beginning about all the ways the narrow product I built could be used and all the different ways to sell into those use cases. There is a trap to equating linear thinking to order.
- I wish someone told me to, “Over-index attention to strategic thinking because you will naturally be pulled more toward execution.” Working from home has been great on so many levels, but I find that my windows of work are shorter and that leads to defaulting to focusing on tasks on lists, which means a disproportionate amount of time is spent executing and not enough of strategic thinking. I’ve also found that strategic thinking requires interaction and discussion and disagreements, and white board sessions over Zoom are not the same.
- I wish someone told me, “It always takes longer than you think.” This is especially true during a pandemic when every member of our team is juggling new pressures and shifted obligations with both work and family life.
- I wish someone told me, “Surround yourself with a team that wants the company to succeed just as much, if not more than the founder.” The team members that hustle quickly become invaluable and stand apart from the pack.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
I wish I had a great answer to this one. There are days when it all hits me like everyone else and this year has been both especially anxiety-filled, and at times, really sad. For me, building things helps put me in a good state of mind. I feel lucky that building Impart is also fundamentally about bringing positivity and connectedness (different than connectivity) forward in our lives. Building things engages my sense of agency and makes me feel more in control of my destiny, which has been a huge help in the face of big challenges in the world that I cannot control.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would like people to spend less money and energy on developing Artificial Intelligence so that tasks can be easier and more time on improving human experience so that lives can be better. One way for that to happen is for all of us to treat our hard-earned lessons as a renewable resource. Some lasting life lessons are learned through evaluating successes, but many are earned by making mistakes with the currency of regret or pain These wisdoms help shape who we are, but as a practical matter, they are most valuable to other people approaching the same milestone that generated the lessons. Luckily, sharing these wisdoms does not cost anything. So, we have valuable, hard-earned assets that carry zero tax to share. I would like to inspire a movement to be generous with these wisdoms for our peers and younger generations so that they can spend less time than we did bumping around trying to find the same light switch in a dark room and more time on advancement.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I would like to take columnist David Brooks to lunch. He wrote two pieces that in retrospect helped shape the idea for Impart. First is his book, “The Second Mountain,” about our commitments to family, vocation, philosophy, and community. Second is his essay, “The Nuclear Family was a Mistake,” which explored the limitations of focusing family experience on a small unit. Both works hit me at the right time as I was thinking deeply about those topics. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I think he is a really smart, authentic, and thought-provoking guy, and I’d love to get his take on Impart.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!