In the TrenchesJun 08, 2020
Being in the trenches is a mindset - and spending time in that mindset gives you a different perspective of the world.
You learn to separate the essential from the unimportant, the mission critical from the nice-to-haves.
All of the great successes I’ve achieved in my career and life have been the result of time spent in the trenches fielding challenges, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing - but always bouncing back stronger as a result.
When I give keynotes, meet people at events, or spend time with friends and family - the one comment I get more than any other is "Wow, you’ve really been in the trenches."
When something like this keeps coming up again and again, you need to pay attention.
So I’ve decided to start a project that has been a long time coming and share some of my hard-won lessons in business and life through the launch of my new podcast In The Trenches.
The podcast will help you reach your highest potential on the healthfront, the wealthfront and the homefront, closing the gap between where you are and where you'd like to be, based on 3 core founding principles
#1 Advice from the trenches not the ivory tower
There’s a shocking number of 'experts' out there teaching people to do things they’ve never done themselves. The problem with this advice is that it doesn’t really stick because the person communicating it to you only understands the concept intellectually - they haven’t gone through the experience - and so their teaching is less effective. That’s why I’m committed to bringing you advice from hard won experience in the trenches, not the ivory tower.
#2 More practice, less theory
Theory's great, but in life knowledge isn't where the game is played - it’s about translating knowledge into action. We’ve all read books that make one point and go on for 300 pages, intellectualising about something they could have covered in 50. So everything that I share on the podcast will be focused on giving you the dash of theory you need to know along with the practical tips and tools that you can immediately apply to level up in life and work.
#3 Connecting the dots
As humans we’ve progressed by standing on the shoulders of giants. Almost everything you want to do in life has already been done by someone else - and everything you need to know to get there exists in someone’s else’s head. The key is to find those people and gather what you need from them - which is why I’ll be joining the dots between different areas of knowledge and bringing in experts where necessary to get you the insights you need to thrive.
To celebrate the launch of the podcast, I’ve been reflecting on some of the key ‘In the Trenches’ moments that have changed the course of my life.
#1 Basic Training: Turning candy bars into bicycles
I'm half Norwegian, half American, but for the most part I grew up in Chicago. As a kid, we moved around a lot - I went to a grand total of 13 different schools, constantly making and breaking friendships as we moved from one place to another.
On top of this, my family didn’t have much money - we were on food stamps at times because my parents couldn't afford to put enough food on the table.
One Christmas, a parish priest came over to our house with a big box of food and presents, and I remember asking my mom and dad, "What's that for?” as kids do.
"We don't have enough for Christmas and the church is helping us out” they said, taking the box through to the kitchen and starting to unpack the contents.
That feeling of not having enough and the desire to do something about it built up in my psyche as a kid so I started trying to sell things from an early age.
One year, when I was around 10 years old, a booklet started getting passed around in school for a charity initiative selling candy bars, with different prizes awarded depending on the amount you sold. The moment I got my hands on that booklet I opened it up and went straight to the back to see what the highest prize was.
If you sold 20 boxes of these candy bars, called World's Finest Chocolate, the prize was a new BMX bicycle. I didn't have a BMX bicycle. I had a bike that my parents got me, but we couldn't afford something as nice as a BMX. So I set my eyes firmly on the prize and climbed into the trenches for the first time in my young life.
The local grocery store in our neighbourhood was called Dominic’s and it was where I set up shop. I stood outside this grocery store every single day from four to eight o'clock, Monday through Friday, and eight hours a day on Saturday and Sunday. I did this for a whole month, greeting every single person that walked in the door with "World's Finest Chocolate, a buck fifty.”
Business was slow at the start but after a while people started to buy - whether this was down to my improving sales skills or the fact that people felt sorry for a ten year old, we’ll never know. Eventually I hit the target - 20 boxes of 30 bars added up to six hundred sales of World’s Finest chocolate - and one BMX.
That bike became my prized possession because I’d got it through grit, determination and hard work. It’s safe to say that I won a whole lot more than a bicycle when I got my hands that BMX - I learned the value of getting in the trenches.
#2 Joining The Firm: Hustling my way into McKinsey
For college, I went to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I absolutely loved it there but it wasn't the type of school that got you into the top jobs like the Ivy Leagues did.
One year, we had a professor called Forest Jordan join the faculty as a visiting professor from Stanford. That name was all I needed to hear - “OK, I thought, I’ll take whatever course this guy is teaching.”
In one of his classes on organizational behavior he introduced one of the companies he was about to profile by saying “If anyone in this room gets a job at the next company, I'll fall out of my chair."
That was it for me, I didn't need to hear anything else. I didn't even fully understand what management consultants did, but I said to myself, "I'm getting a job there."
The problem was that Mckinsey didn’t really recruit from schools that weren’t Ivy leagues at the time - so I came up with a plan.
Phase one was joining the finance club at school so I could organize field trips to companies...like you guessed it, McKinsey. On our field trip there I introduced myself to the recruiter. Now I wasn't just a piece of paper from a school that they wouldn’t recognize, I was Eric and I had a face. I made the handshake, I made the eye contact, I made the connection.
Phase two was going through my existing network - I asked every single member of my family, "Do we know anybody at other top schools?” and sure enough I was introduced to someone who ran admissions at the University of Chicago. A meeting with him led to an introduction to the guy who ran the consulting club at the university who I asked to help me out with interview preparation.
I ended up doing 20 practice interviews with him and other members of the club, putting myself through the ringer in advance of even having been invited to interview.
Sure enough though, I landed an interview. And sure enough, my time spent in the trenches paid off. I ended up getting that job.
2,000 applications and 22 positions. Two of those people didn’t go to an Ivy League - and one of them was me.
#3 Crushing it on Christmas: Becoming part of Skype’s Billion Dollar Success Story
I’d been at McKinsey for a few years now and had transferred to the Oslo, Norway office from Chicago. While in Norway, I started using Skype, a lot earlier than most people.
The company had Scandinavian and Estonian origins and its tagline at the time was something like 'A whole world can talk for free’ which to me sounded revolutionary. Add to this the fact that the product was great and I just thought, "This is going to take off."
I didn't really have a tech background, but my next goal was forming before my eyes.
I researched the company intensively and sent off a cover letter and resume making my case for getting a job at Skype.
I was rejected. "We’re not looking for someone with a business background" they said.
Three months later I sent in another application. They were beginning to realise I was persistent - and invited me in for an interview.
A few minutes into the meeting the recruiter was gazing down at my application form, looking confused. "The first letter you sent was dated December 25th” she said.
I remember feeling slightly embarrassed as I blurted out "Oh yeah, that's Christmas day” with an awkward laugh.
I made it through the interview with few scratches but did best to convince them that they needed somebody with a business background at that point in their journey.
It worked. I had literally fought my way in.
When I joined, there were about 30 people in the London office in Lexington Street in Soho. My business background had got me in the door but I now needed to learn as much about the product and technology behind it as possible, so I started asking questions whenever I could and reading anything I could get my hands on.
As a result, I was able to help build that multibillion dollar success story that everyone now takes for granted. The company eventually ended up selling to eBay for $4 billion and I had played my part in my own small way.
#4 Crossing the Chasm: Transitioning from Founder to CEO at Chilango
One of the first people I met at Skype was Dan Houghton. We were working together as a two person team helping the founders with special projects. When the company was eventually acquired by eBay we formed a pact. Whoever had a business idea would tell the other and whatever that idea was, we would start it.
One evening I found myself sitting on my sofa thinking about what to do next. Images of my times working in bars and restaurants in my youth popped into my head and I was really missing the great Mexican food I’d grown up with in Chicago.
So I came up with the idea to start a quick service Mexican restaurant chain and mentioned it to Dan. He sat on it for a couple of weeks and before we knew it, we’d left Skype and embarked on building what would become an award winning Mexican restaurant chain called Chilango in the UK.
But it wasn’t an easy journey. We took a lot of beatings along the way. And the way we started out was, you guessed it, in the trenches.
We’d get up at 4am three times a week so that we could get to the meat market and buy directly from the wholesalers. We covered every single position ourselves, from finance to ops and branding to marketing.
Those first 3 months were some of the most exhausting in my life. But we survived them and after our first store was up and running, things started to flow.
A few years later, with several sites and a growing team, I started to notice massive gaps in my leadership. It's one thing to start up a business but it's another entirely to scale one. Plus, we were fighting with some of the world's top brands in London competing for some of the world's most expensive real estate.
There were so many times when I just thought, "Do I actually have what it takes to build this?”
I made tons of mistakes along the way. But I kept at it, and that perseverance and determination culminated for me in 2019 when I was recognised as CEO of the Year.
The accolade was nice recognition for what me and my team had accomplished - a badge of honour if you will - but I wasn’t about to let it get to my head because I knew where it had come from. Straight from the trenches.
So there you have it - from selling candy bars, to racking up practice interviews at the consulting club, from writing job applications on Christmas day to getting up at 4am to get swindled at the meat market, I’ve spent a lot of time in the trenches.
But without those moments I wouldn’t have had the chance to advise Fortune 500 CEOs, help build up a multibillion dollar tech story, start an award winning restaurant chain from scratch and cross the chasm from Founder to CEO of the year.
Life lived in the trenches has its rewards - join me and you’ll see for yourself.