The Founders of The Hustle Share Their Entrepreneurial F*ck Ups

An intimate conversation with Sam Parr and John Havel on their vision for the next 10 years and how they created a media company without coding backgrounds.

January 8, 2016

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Every month, Ambassadors of The Hustle get to quiz superstar entrepreneurs about their successes and failures. The founders of The Hustle, Sam Parr (26) and John Havel (29) were first to take the mic.

They don’t pull their punches. Find out about their biggest mistakes, their plans for growth, and how many subscriber push-ups Sam Parr has really done…

Answers have been edited for clarity.

What are your stories?Roxine Kee

Sam Parr: I was in college in Tennessee. Had a hot dog stand and an online liquor store that helped pay the bills. Flew to SF because I tricked Airbnb into giving me an interview. Met John. He had a roommate matching company. I asked him if I could help. He said yes.

We joined another company 10 months later. A year after that I left that company and asked John to come. Here we are now. Before that, I lived in Missouri. I ride motorcycles for fun, listen to bluegrass music, and read history books.

John Havel: San Antonio – Vermont – San Francisco. I’ve worked in demolition, executive recruiting, a trucking aerodynamics startup and a roommate-matching service as the founder. [This is where he met Sam, who became the co-founder.] We got “acquihired” to do marketing at an apartment listing startup, and then I quit to work on Hustle Con. I later started The Hustle.


How did you two sell 600 tickets within 90 days for Hustle Con? Any particular hacks or hustle you want to share with us?Manish Bhattacharya

SP: Yo brother. So I did the first Hustle Con on my own and sold like 400 tix in 7 weeks. I wrote about it in a blog post. Then John Havel and I worked together and sold like 600 tix in 90 days. But the process was pretty much the same, which involved lots of content creation and begging people to share our content and the website.

Also, when I did the first HC there was a TON of luck involved. Most conferences suck ass and take themselves too seriously so I made fun of myself in a lot of emails and called myself ugly and for some reason people thought it was funny.

How did you decide what your audience wanted before starting to sell tickets? I know you found out later that they wanted something more/different, but most companies fill a void or create a need.Frank Schwarz

JH: We didn’t know what the audience wanted. We knew what appealed to us and hoped others would feel the same. The void we identified was conferences that we actually wanted to attend (which wasn’t very many). I think the best way to run a business is to start with yourself and your own taste. If you cater to people inauthentically (is that a word?) then it’ll bite you in the butt.

Although you prove (like Steve Jobs, Jack Ma, etc) that it’s very POSSIBLE to start successful tech companies without knowing how to code, do you think it’s important for founders to learn how to code?Aman Agarwal

SP: Personally I think you need a technical cofounder or at least a technical early employee. John might disagree but that’s because he has taught himself how to code over the years. If it weren’t for him The Hustle wouldn’t exist, so I think you need someone who know’s what they’re doing. However, some people (like my old bosses) never had a technical founder. In that case, you’ve got to be GODLY at sales or fundraising. If not, no one will follow your vision.

Tam Pham, The Hustle rockstar community manager: But Hustle Con’s message is to learn how to start companies from founders who don’t know how to code. Does this answer conflict? Or do circumstances vary?

SP: No, I don’t think it does. I mean you will always need someone to build what you need built. But the person who starts the company isn’t always the one who builds it. Plus, there’s so much to do besides building. If you just spent time coding then you most likely wouldn’t have a company. A product, yes, but not a company. You need to sell, meet people, design shit, do marketing, and tons of other stuff. And the idea for Hustle Con was nontechnical tactics so it wasn’t just for people who couldn’t code but all the other shit involved in starting a company.

JH: I look at coding as being enabled. If you have a technical cofounder, you can easily try whatever the heck you want. If you have to outsource and work on someone else’s time, you have more constraints to deal with. I taught myself the basics because I was genuinely curious and wanted it as a core competency.

Like Sam mentioned, if you don’t code you have to be damn good at something else while still managing an engineer (assuming it’s a tech business). The problem I see with hardcore engineer founders is they get too bogged down with the technical specifics of the business rather than the business itself. You could spend a couple years working on building the perfect app or get something that’s “good enough” and go out to try and sell the damn thing.

The experience from doing shouldn’t be undervalued in building a business and not being overly technical makes you get out of your bubble. So no, you don’t need a technical founder but it makes it a whole lot easier.

With what it seems like more media consumers reading less in favor of more visually stimulating media, how do you feel your brand will have to adapt to appeal to a wider audience who would love your normal content, but in perhaps a different form? (i.e video or infographics)Bart Starr Mistrot

SP: We are 100% aiming to become a video provider. We’re going the article route in the beginning because a video team is expensive as hell to run so we wanted to prove our voice and model first. More people read articles than anything but video is more fun and profitable.

Hustle Con 2015

What was the most unexpected obstacle you experienced when launching The Hustle / Hustle Con, and how did you overcome it?Ryan Krebs

SP: So for The Hustle, it has been finding good writers. Everyone can literally write. And a lot of people think they are good. But that’s not true. Most people suck at writing. They think writing means being good at grammar and stuff, but that’s not it at all. When it comes to writing, you can be a C writer and an A+ storyteller and everyone will tell you that you’re an amazing writer. But most people have it backwards. Tucker Max is a great example. His actual writing and grammar kind of sucks. But his stories are amazing so people consider him a great “writer.”

With Hustle Con, the challenge is scaling. One of our advisors is the creator of Governor’s Ball, which is a big festival in NYC. When we started HC we had no idea about events. I thought 500 people would be too many people but now we have 3,000 people coming. Personally I have no idea how to make 3,000 people flow nicely so everyone has fun. Thankfully, we have that advisor who will help, but I still think about that.

How do you plan on maintaining the culture of The Hustle and Hustle Con for years to come?Kevin Tyrrell

JH: Keep hiring good people.

SP: Hire people who we wanna hang out with outside of work. Create a cult.

The Hustle team.

The Hustle team.

The Hustle and its content are focused on a niche of entrepreneurs – those wanting to found companies but can’t code. Do you see yourself scaling and expanding to other Hustlin’ professionals outside of potential C-levels? If so how would you bridge the gap?Paige Ando

JH: Hey Paige, you’re right that we started with a specific niche. That’s where we came from, that’s what we know, that’s what we’re interested in. Obviously it isn’t the biggest market out there but focusing on entrepreneur/founder types is good early on so we can build a core audience, then expand from there.

Our goal is to scale our interests and voice beyond the niche and become more of a lifestyle-type media company where we can talk about food, politics, sports, whatever we want. But that’s a long ways out. First, we’ll expand beyond founders to anyone who’s interested in business and technology.

How do we bridge the gap? It’s all about “the hustle” as an attitude. Create content that highlights the entrepreneurial spirit, not just successful founder case studies (although we’ll probably keep doing those because they’re interesting). Then we aren’t limited to tech and can appeal to a wider audience.

Where do you see the Hustle in 5-10 years? What about Hustle Con? In my opinion, one of the greatest problems of everything successful today is that it becomes commercialized. How do you intend to be different and not let yourself be run by some CEO who only sees $$ in their eyes?Ivan Tikvesanski

JH: Ivan, there are a few things driving what we do. One is money, that’s why you get into business. The other drivers are about affecting a large group of people by providing a quality service and doing something we love. This means not compromising or “selling out” because then we’re playing by other peoples’ rules. I agree with your point about commercialization, but for me there are three outcomes:

  1. we fail
  2. we succeed and sell out
  3. we succeed and run it until the grandkids put us in a nursing home

Which one ends up happening 5-10 years from now depends on the circumstances. Maybe we hit a wall and it’s best to cash in and try something else. Maybe it keeps growing and there’s no need to look elsewhere. All gonna be circumstantial and, again, we’re just going to keep trying to do what we love and go from there.

SP: I agree with everything John said. My opinion is that chasing the money isn’t the wrong way to go a lot of the times. With this business, I think that it can potentially make a shit ton of money AND I’m interested in the work. Where I come from, being interested in what you do is an added bonus, not the reason why you have your job. For me, I’m interested in building a company regardless of industry but am thankful that I LOVE the content we create and am extremely passionate about the topic.

What was your biggest error?Isaac A. Gonzalez

SP: I once wrote a blog post revealing the revenue for our conference. I was an idiot for doing that. Made me look like a douche. People were emailing me thinking it was easy to host an event or that it was a get rich quick thing or that I put all the profit in my pocket (it all went back in the company).

What keeps you up at night?Jamie Ellis

SP: Hitting sales and traffic goals for Hustle Con and The Hustle.

JH: Speaking for myself, figuring out how to scale the business while maintaining our core qualities like tone/voice. In order to grow The Hustle we need to recruit a bunch of writers to create a bunch of tip-top content. The obvious risk there is that our brand could get watered down and we’ll be soulless like the Huffington Post or something (not what I want). So the question is how do we grow our organization and not lose our personality.

How do you guys approach making big decisions as a team?John Petroff

SP: Just talk to each other. If we disagree the last question is “how strongly do you feel about that?”. If one person feels more strongly than the other then that’s the answer we go with.

JH: I strongly disagree with his answer.

This question may fall into the douchebaggery category, but how do you think a start-up can be heard in a noisy internet world with so many damn start-ups?Frank Schwarz

JH: There’s a great book called Different by Youngme Moon that I think about a lot. You’re right, the internet’s noisy and everyone one and their sister have a startup that’s changing the world. The thing is that most of them are the freakin same– just look at the latest batches that come out of incubators like YCombinator or 500.

In my mind, the best thing your company can do is try to differentiate itself as much as possible to start, then slowly bring it back towards what’s expected.

That could be anything from branding to business model to voice/tone. Want to stand out as a newsletter? Use the word “fuck” a few times. Sam will get called a dbag but at least you got people’s attention. Even if you piss people off it’s better than blending in with everyone else. Creating an emotion is an amazing way to stand out.

If you want to be apart of the next live Q&As hosted in our private Facebook community, become an ambassador for The Hustle here. Serial entrepreneur, startup advisor, and past Hustle Con speaker, Jack Smith, will be our next featured guest.

Also, we’re releasing tickets to our flagship conference Hustle Con on January 12th. Be the first to get notified here.

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