078. The Paradox in Connecting to The World’s Needs with Erik Bergman

By on December 3, 2019

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The Do a Day Podcast from Bryan Falchuk

Erik Bergman is a co-founder of Catena Media, a company that went from 0 to 300+ employees in five years. Under this journey Erik made more money than he will ever need in his life, but at the expense of burning himself out, as well as both his business partner and his fiancee that also worked in the company.

Now he has started the company Great.com. This time the focus isn’t extreme growth but rather well-being, transparency, trust and flexibility for the team and where 100% of the profits will be donated to help the environment.

Key Points from the Episode with Erik Bergman:

  • Erik started his story in the midst of the biggest deal of his life. After days of negotiation, he finally has an agreement to sell a picture of Wayne Gretzky when he was 8 years old.
  • This was the biggest deal for him because he started an activity that allowed him to be accepted when he had been an outsider by selling hockey player pictures on the school yard.
  • First, these hockey player pictures were the currency of friendship, and later it was business and finances, and he found he had a passion for building businesses.
  • In those early days, he wasn’t cool enough to be included. If people hung out with him, it was a sign of not being cool – unless you were doing it to buy hockey player pictures.
  • He found an excuse for people to be friends with him.
  • That meant he focused all of his energy on whatever thing he could transact with people on, whether hockey player pictures or whatever the latest fad was.
  • This sparked him to start companies. Sometimes he failed, and sometimes he succeeded.
  • His first business started with his best friend when he was 19 or 20 to build websites for small businesses.
  • When that didn’t really pan out financially, they started to build websites for themselves, and started building sites for online Bingo games.
  • At the same time, he had been playing poker professionally online, so he was building a story around online gaming or gambling.
  • The business grew slowly, but clearly had legs, so they put all of their energy into it, including Erik moving to Malta and putting all of their energy into it.
  • After a very close call with bankruptcy, things turned around and started to go extremely well.
  • They took the company public in 2016, and Erik made more money in one day than he’d ever need in his life.
  • I asked how and why they were so successful, and it wasn’t as simple as his earlier comment that everything they touched turned to gold.
  • Instead, it was a mix of luck and timing with online gambling blowing up, and skill honed through many attempts and failures along the way.
  • Erik shared one of those failures where a big event he had created ended up a total failure. In the wake of that, he asked himself what the worst part of it was, and he realized it was the shame.
  • Walking into school the next Monday morning, he expected everyone to be staring at him, laughing, ridiculing, etc. Instead, no one cared.
  • It showed him that, actually, no is worrying about your failure but you. That gave him a sense of freedom to go out, try, and be willing to fail proudly because no one will care if you do or hold it against you in the way you fear they will.
  • The fear is very reasonable, and it took him a lot of experience with failure to realize that it isn’t real beyond what’s in our head.
  • We are all really only stars in our own movie, and everyone else is an extra. And in their movie, the roles are the reverse. And no star cares about the extras.
  • Going back to his adult life, he is totally focused on the currency of friendship, and he had been using business and financial success as a proxy for it.
  • In the day his company went public, he had $15 million dollars, and figured he’d have eternal happiness. After about a week, he realized how empty he was.
  • He started to realize how the most important relationships around him were not ok.
  • His girlfriend, who worked with him, and he were growing apart, and broke up.
  • His best friend and co-founder and he parted ways and didn’t speak.
  • He traveled a bit, trying to find happiness, but just kept feeling empty.
  • A friend introduced him to a charity project in Africa to build a school, and he donated to it and got involved, and started to feel something.
  • He went to the school he helped fund the construction of, and heard about how in a gray, prison-like building, the kids were beaten. In the new building, which was painted with bright colors, there was no beating allowed. It struck him profoundly, and showed him he needed to focus on making changes on meaningful things.
  • He got involved in more projects, like fighting malaria, and also struggled with how to build a business to support these needs and causes.
  • He realized giving money is fine, but it’s not sustainable or enough.
  • What he’s really good at is building business, so he decided to found Great.com as a purely capitalistic business to give away all of its profits for charitable causes that can change the world.
  • I challenged him on the basis of the business being gambling which is so contrary to the good he wants to do with the money from it.
  • It’s a difficult paradox. If he could go back in time and be extremely good at another type of business, he would. But he can’t do that. What he’s great at is building gambling businesses. So if he wants to give the most money to these causes, then he must do what he’s best at from an earnings standpoint.
  • He knows he will destroy some lives in the process, but he believes the net good is so much greater that it’s worth it. And many of those lives that are worse off would still be without him.
  • While that may be an excuse or cop out, he is aware of the issue rather than being ignorant to it. He’s just so focused on trying to maximize the benefit to the world regardless.
  • She shifted gears and talked about why Erik and his girlfriend broke up. He noted that they are actually back together and engaged today, which is a testament to the growth journey he’s been on.
  • They broke up because of neediness on his part, and how much it wore on her on top of the stress of the business.
  • His treatment of her stemmed from his need to be so successful in business, insecurities he had as a result, and a sex addiction he struggled with left her feeling pushed too much of the time.
  • He met an older man at a public speaking course who became something of a mentor who introduced Erik to some new thinking that started to change his perspective and approach. He felt like he was meeting himself 20 years in the future.
  • A book that really struck him is Come as You Are by Emily Nagosky (see her TEDx Talk). She talks about the idea of the gas and the brake, and how society has a lot of things that feel like stomping on the brake to us.
  • If you push on the gas pedal without thinking about what’s on the brake, you create more pressure on the brake.
  • It got Erik thinking about how to create a safe space where there isn’t as much pressure on the brake so he and his girlfriend could put more things on the gas.
  • The other book that really helped is Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. It’s a communication method that changed everything for Erik.
  • It’s an approach based on honesty, how to communicate honestly, and from a place of what our needs are in a way that helps people see and understand them.
  • We got into what he’s working on with his business, Great.com, which is currently solely supporting climate change and an organization called The Rainforest Coalition.
  • Erik shared that we can offset our carbon footprint for one year for roughly $15 through The Rainforest Coalition, which is not only a small amount, but incredibly efficient and simple.

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