PPI #1: Personal Stories from the Trenches

Jul 01, 2020


  • 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.
  • For this first episode of the podcast I reflect on some of the key moments that have changed the course of my life and give you some practical takeaways for each of them.
  • Story 1: When I was 10, I sold 20 boxes of candy to win the prize of a BMX bicycle. That bike became my prized possession because I’d got it through grit, determination and hard work. This was when I first learned the value of getting in the trenches.
  • Story 2: When a professor mentioned McKinsey in college, I became determined to get a job there. From networking my way to the knowledge I needed to obsessively preparing myself for interview I ended up getting in, earning one of 22 positions from 2,000 applications. I was one of only two people not to come from an Ivy League school. 
  • Story 3: The first time I applied for Skype I was rejected but I didn't let that stop me. I didn't have a tech background but fought my way in, even writing an application letter on Christmas Day. As a result, I was able to help build that multibillion dollar success story that everyone now takes for granted.
  • Story 4: My journey from Founder of Mexican restaurant chain Chilango to CEO of the Year was a tough one. I had to move from being a jack of all trades to a manager capable of getting the best out of my team. 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. 


You might think you haven't gotten to where you want to get in life because things haven't gone your way. You might think that you haven't had as many lucky breaks as someone else. You're thinking about it wrong, if that's the case, because until you appreciate the value of hard fought and won experiences; until you appreciate the need to work and live in the trenches and what that really means; you probably won't progress more than you have to this date. 

Hi, I'm Eric. And I want to tell you four stories - four stories from my life to illustrate what it means to be in the trenches, and how if you embrace this mentality, it can create an absolute shift in the trajectory of your life. I'm going to take you through four stories in my life, from my childhood to where I am today, from the age of 10 to 44; from when I had a completely full head of hair to what I have now, this shaved head.

I hope that from there, you'll pick up a few gems that you can apply to your own life. So we go back in time to 1985 - also the date that Stranger Things is set in, if you've seen that on Netflix. So it's 1985 and I'm 10 years old and it's school. I went to a school called St. Isaac Jogues in Illinois in the U.S in Chicago. And there's a charity event going on at the school. They pass out all these charity flyers to all the classrooms, and it's essentially a charity contest where the kids are all going to sell chocolate bars. There's different prices that you can get depending on how many chocolate bars you sell. The little magazines get passed out with the prizes that all the kids can.

I immediately go to the back of the booklet to look at well, what can you get in the top prize category? They're right before my eyes is this amazing BMX bicycle. I had a bicycle already. But, growing up, my parents didn't have a lot of money. I had nice things from my parents, but not always the coolest things that the other kids had. I certainly didn't have a top end BMX bicycle. I had my trusty Schwinn bicycle at the time, which I loved - that was actually called a Schwinn Stingray. I vividly remember it had this long banana seat - wouldn't look cool today, but it was all right back then. But anyways, I wanted this BMX bicycle. I set my eyes on that and I thought: "I need to get this".

I looked up and I remember, to the top left corner of that page in the magazine, it said that you had to sell 20 boxes of what was called "The world's finest chocolate" - I still think that the brand exists actually. Anyways, you had to sell 20 boxes. 20 didn't seem like many. What I didn't realize is that there were 30 chocolate bars per box. I had to sell 600 chocolate bars and they were $1.50 each. I had to sell $900 worth of chocolate bars as a 10 year old, and I had one month to do it. Now remember, I can't do this full time. I'm in school, I'm 10, but I was absolutely determined to get that bicycle. And so what I decided to do was to stand outside of this grocery chain.

I don't think the chain exists anymore. It was called Dominick's at the time. I stood outside of Dominick's grocery store from four o'clock to eight o'clock every night, Monday through Friday. I would ride there on my bicycle with the chocolate bars for the day. I stood outside the door and I said "World's finest chocolate, $1.50" to every single person that went in and out. I think after a while - the sales weren't great in the beginning - but I think after a while, doing this over a four-week period, people started to feel sorry for me. Remember, it's the olden days. People aren't getting their food delivered. Remember, everyone's going to the grocery store. I think after a while, people started to feel sorry for me.

Suddenly the chocolate bar sales started to ramp up and I started selling quite a few boxes - box after box after box. I was getting very, very close to the end there and getting close to those 20 boxes. I also, by the way, sold chocolate bars, eight hours a day, Saturday and Sunday. So four hours a day, every Monday through Friday; and then eight hours a day, Saturday and Sunday, I would ride back home at the end of the night with the chocolate bars that were unsold. 

I'm in Chicago where I grew up. The weather can be crazy - we can have these incredibly hot summers, and then at the same time the winters can be brutally cold. I'm also half Norwegian, so I can totally relate to brutally cold winters as well. But it can also rain. And when it rains, it rains hard. And I remember I was riding home with my bicycle that day, or that evening, and these boxes - when you started to sell a box of chocolates, you broke the box in half and it had like this handle in the middle - and so I was riding home with the unsold chocolate bars, one hand on the steering wheel, holding the box - and it starts to pour rain. And so what happens? The box starts filling up with water. I'm terrified, riding as fast as I can to get home, worried about the chocolate bars - and then suddenly, as I'm going across the street, the bottom of the box just splits open. All these chocolate bars just spill out onto the street.

I jumped off my bike and as I go to pick up the chocolate bars, I remember this car coming to a screeching halt, literally right in front of me. I hadn't seen it - it could have been lights out right there. All I remember is looking up and seeing the pellets of rain through the headlights of the car, and then seeing a pair of trousers and legs come up to me and a man saying, "Can I help you? Are you okay?" He helped me pick up the bars and I used my jacket as a bit of a cradle on the handlebars. I continued to peddle home and I got home and I was completely distraught, dumped all the bars onto the floor. My mom and dad looked at them and had a word with each other.

I was in tears because I thought there's never a way I'm going to get to the 20 boxes. No. They said to me that they would buy that box of chocolate. We didn't have a lot of money, so for them to buy a box of chocolate bars was a big deal. That gave me the hope to keep going. I just kept that eye on the prize. Eventually I got there by putting in the hard work, the relentless sales effort, day after day, no matter the weather, "World's finest chocolate, $1.50", would not give up. Why wouldn't I give up? Because I had my eye on the prize. The first thing that I want to tell you about being in the trenches is just that power of having your eye on the prize, and how it will help you get stuck into whatever you're doing and really go for it, and not give up on that dream. 

The second thing I want to tell you about is this story that goes back to university. I'm sitting in class at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. We have a visiting professor from Stanford University - to be honest, I only took the class because I thought, "Well, here's my chance to be taught by someone from Stanford. I'll never get that opportunity". I took the class and frankly, I wasn't even paying attention as I sat in the class one day. But then I heard the professor say, "If anybody in this room were to get a job at the company I'm about to profile next I'll fall out of my chair". Now, I've always been competitive. And that did it for me. So I perked up, I listened and the company that he profiled was McKinsey & Company.

He talked about it as this amazing place to not only work, but to get a fantastic business education and how it could literally be a door opener into a myriad of other job opportunities later in your career. I became absolutely determined to figure out how I can get my way into McKinsey. And the first thing I did was talk to that professor, and learn more about the company there. The next thing I did was ask my family if they knew anybody or knew anybody who might know somebody at some of the top MBA programs in and around Chicago, and sure enough, through our network, I ended up being connected with the director of admissions for the University of Chicago, which is a top MBA program. 

I spoke to the woman, a woman who's director of admissions, and she put me in touch with a guy who led the management consulting club, kind of a funny name for a club, but management consulting club at the university of Chicago, which is essentially a club that was set up to help people get into top strategy consulting firms like McKinsey, for example. And I spoke to this guy and basically he agreed to let me participate in their club and basically practice the interview style that McKinsey used to screen all their candidates, which is a pretty grueling case interview style. I did it - I must've done between 20 and 30 practice case interviews as an undergraduate with these graduate students at the University of Chicago, driving up from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, up to the University of Chicago in a weekend after weekend, to practice. The other thing I did was join the finance club at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, because I needed to get something more extracurricular on my resume.

In my position on the finance club, I had the opportunity to create a field trip for the group. I contacted McKinsey to create a field trip, to go and visit them up in Chicago. Through that process, I ended up meeting McKinsey's head recruiter. When we showed up on that day for the field trip, of course, I introduced myself. Later I was able to send my resume to that recruiter, and I had that personal relationship already established, together with the power of all the other relationships that I had assembled through the various graduate students that I had done the practice case interviewing with. And, sure enough, 22 analyst roles were offered that year by McKinsey and company to over 2000 applicants, 20 of the positions went to kids from Ivy League schools. Only two, including me, were from kids who didn't go to Ivy League schools, and I got in. I got that job and it was a real game changer moment for me. But it all came down to being in the trenches once again and doing the hard work, but through a slightly different lens this time - through the power of relationships. 

That's the key takeaway I want you to think about here - how can you, through your relationships, connect yourself to the right expertise, to either prepare for that next experience or help get your foot in the door for that next experience? The first story was about keeping your eyes on the prize and having that fuel you even through your low moments; the second story was about the power of relationships to help you connect your way into the right expertise to get you want to be going. 

The third story I'd like to share with you is how I completely transitioned from a world of management consulting with absolutely no tech background into joining Skype in its infancy, we were about 30 or so people in the London office, and helping blitz scale that company, we grew from 30 people to 500. During that period of time, we had an exit to eBay for $4 billion. Now, how did that happen for someone who had no tech background? Well, it happened through just absolute relentless persistence. I first came across Skype and I thought this is going to be huge. This is going back to 2005 now. So this is like 15 years ago, even further, actually it's about 2004. I sent in an application and the application was rejected, and they said that they didn't need somebody with a business background at the time. And so I sat back down, I waited a little bit longer and I wrote an application again, and I sent that separate second application.

I said, "Well, I think maybe now that the company has grown a little bit more, maybe now you could use someone with a business background and my sort of expertise. Could I please have a shot of coming in for an interview?" And I was finally given the chance to come in after chasing them a second time around and just relentlessly pursuing them. On my way out from that interview process where I was finally invited in, the recruiter came to me and said, "I can't believe you wrote your application on Christmas day." And I said, "Well, what do you mean?" And she showed me the date of my cover letter with my resume that I had sent in and sure enough, it said on there December 25th 2004. I was so determined to get that job that I hadn't even realized that I was writing that application on Christmas day and that relentless persistence, that relentless chasing them, to kind of get in that door and even give me the chance to interview, that's another example of a hard fought and won experience of being in the trenches to get what it is that you want, what you think you need. 

A key message there is, again, relentless persistence, never give up. That's how you can get some of the things that you really want and that you think you deserve. The last story I want to tell you is about the chain of Mexican restaurants that I built in the UK called Chilango. Once again, I had gone from management consulting to tech with no tech background. I had no experience whatsoever building a quick service restaurant chain. Who's ever born with that experience, right? Nobody. But I was determined to figure out the way to do that and to get that started as well.

I was missing Mexican, frankly, having grown up in Chicago. At this time I'm in London now. That started by me and my business partner doing whatever it took. We worked on all positions in the restaurant ourself to get the chain where it needed to be. 

Let me give you an example. When it came to buying the meat for the restaurant, we would wake up three days a week at 4:00 AM to get to the meat market; buy the meat that we needed; go to the fruit and veggie market; buy the produce that we needed to cook; prepare everything that was required to serve food that day. We didn't have to do that on our own, but we insisted on doing it that way.

We also took turns working through every position in the restaurant. We weren't great at it at all, and there were lots of people, right from day one who were much better at doing it. But again, by being in there and working every single position, we had a much better perspective on what was required to build the restaurant chain and make it succeed. Ultimately, Chilango, through its highs and lows, became an award-winning chain of Mexican restaurants in the UK in a very short space of time. One of the critical things that I recognize along that journey though, was that it's one thing to start a company as a founder, and it's another to scale one as a CEO. As a founder, you can get away with being a Jack of all trades, much as I was just talking about, and you're literally a master of none.

But as a company grows, you need to transition. You need to be better, become better at coaching others, working through others and helping them to deliver the results, rather than you yourself delivering every single result, and getting the team to win more games. That required me to dig deep and confront a lot of deficiencies, and realize that what had gotten me to where I was at that point, wasn't going to be what I needed to get to the next level. 

I voiced these concerns with my coach. He said, "Well, you should set your sights on the CEO of the year award", which I thought was ridiculous. But sure enough, that type of massive goal was what I needed to prompt massive action. I ended up interviewing so many different CEOs, understanding what drove their success, did three sixties with my team and board to uncover my blind spots and where I could improve - that all culminated in that CEO of the year recognition.

But only because I recognized once again that what had gotten me there wasn't going to get me further. What had gotten me here wasn't going to get me there. I really worked on that and confronted it. I wasn't afraid to shy away from it. 

In summary, what I'm trying to tell you is that, if you really want to get to that next level in life, if you really want to break through your barriers and reach your full potential, then you have to embrace the concept of being in the trenches. You have to embrace the concept of acquiring all of your experience in that hard fought, hard one way. Those are four examples of ways I've done it by keeping my eye on the prize; recognizing the power of relationships; being relentless, persistent; and never giving up; and all the while, recognizing your own deficiencies and realizing, what got you to where you are today, is probably not what you need to get to where you want to go. Therefore you have some things to work on and you need to identify those things. I hope you found that helpful.