When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I wanted to do something world changing. I had really bad grades in school, but I intuitively thought that I could still accomplish quite a bit without school, which is maybe a little more common now, but back then it wasn't conventional wisdom.
I was living in the Bay Area at the time, and there was this bill to raise the smoking age from 18 years old to 21 years old, and I thought that was unreasonable. I thought, you can vote, you can serve in the military, you have all these obligations and responsibilities, but we're going to treat you like a child and raise the smoking age.
I connected with an organization called the National Youth Rights Association and they were doing things in DC and New York, but they didn't have a presence in California, so I asked if I could testify in California on their behalf. I wasn't some powerful, glamorous person; I was working as a host at P. F. Chang's at the time. But I just always imagined that there were bigger and better things waiting for me somewhere. Anyway, I asked them if I could testify, and they agreed. Next thing you know, I was driving to the committee hearing in Sacramento. On the way out, this journalist from the Associated Press asked me for a quote, and I was in The Wall Street Journal. The story became national and international news. That whole thing stuck with me and was a catalyst for a number of things, initially tech startups and then later the music business.
How did you get from high school to where you are now?
Getting involved in the political stuff was remarkable. I came from an immigrant, lower-middle-class background, and suddenly, I was surrounded by these really successful real estate developers, tech folks, and venture capitalists. I was by far the youngest person in the room, and I now had all of these mentors who were really extraordinary people. So I ended up being the first employee at a tech startup.
The company is called AnchorFree. At the time, they had equipment to make Wi-Fi networks, which right now isn’t extraordinary, but back in 2004, that was a really big deal. We made some of the first wireless streets in the world. They had an office and there were all these adult things going on, and I thought it was amazing. But they weren't getting any recognition for it. So I said, "Let's get some buzz, this is a big story." And they said, "Okay, try." Next thing you know, I was in the office working until seven in the morning, reaching out to the press, doing it absolutely the wrong way. I didn't know any better, which was a strength in some ways. After four or five months of trying, one publication covered it and then PC World covered it and then I called the San Francisco Chronicle and it snowballed and became a really big deal.
Finally, they ended up raising a round of funding and they asked me, "Do you want to stay in school or do you want to be our first employee and get some stock?" Next thing you know, I'm making $75,000, I have stock options, the whole thing. I ended up working for them for almost three years and they raised another round. And I can proudly say that they recently got acquired for something I was really involved in.
The company ended up pivoting and became one of the biggest VPN products in the world, Hotspot Shield. At the time, we had this VPN sitting there and nobody really knew what to do with it so we just put it out for free and forgot about it. One day, I asked one of our engineers, "Who's using this thing?" and he said, "I don’t know, let me look into it." A week later, I got the response that we had 900 people from the Middle East using it and 100 people from the US, and we hadn't promoted it to anyone.
After digging further, I realized that in a number of countries, their Internet was censored. So people were using our product not in the way we intended it, but simply because it gave you an American IP address. I came to the founders and said, "We should actively promote this." I started looking for a needle in a haystack, meaning a site that has a ton of traffic that would sell me advertising for cheap. After many months, I ended up finding this site in Egypt. We had no Google Translate. We didn't have anything. After many nights of trying to communicate, I asked him, “How does this work?" He said, "You can have a banner for a month for $300."
Next thing you know, I'm driving to a 7-Eleven to give them $300 of my own money through Western Union. I drove away thinking, "Okay, I just got screwed. There's no way this is going to work." But a couple of days later, he put up a banner and we went up from 1,000 users a month to 10,000 users. I went back to the founders and asked if I could have a budget. I was already on my way out, so I broke all the rules and I spent a bunch of money, but I took them to their first 100,000 users. And then they ended up raising about $50 million and getting acquired.
I had money saved up from my years at AnchorFree, and I actually had the benefit of not going to college because I'd been part of the workforce for five years. So I started another company with a couple people from AnchorFree. We were basically trying to create a Craigslist for college students where you could buy and sell textbooks, carpool with one another, and so on. A lot of people have tried it. A lot of people failed, including us.
We were in some universities,and we had some success. I was on these campuses, working with different students, organizations; I got to see a little bit of what I missed by not going to college and it looked really fun. We ended up raising a small round of funding, but then my business partners and I had a big disagreement. The same day that that happened, my girlfriend of two and a half years broke up with me. It was a train wreck on both ends. But I ended up walking away from that company with most of my shares and enough money to live for a year.
The whole experience was the first work-related stress that I remember feeling. It all rubbed me the wrong way. The thing in the back of my head was my immigrant parents saying, "If you don't go to college, you're going to be a bagger at a grocery store." I was really set on proving to them that I wasn't going to be that guy.
After the legal issues settled, I spent two months doing nothing, just de-stressing, watching a show called Entourage. I was just sick of tech; it felt soulless, especially after that experience, and I was just turned off and bored. So I'm watching Entourage, and I'm watching these four friends from New York, and they’re in Hollywood mixing and mingling with all these famous people and going to parties and it all looked perfect. So I decided I wanted to work in the music business.
I had no idea how much harder it is to get into the music industry than into tech. In tech, you have recruiters, you have positions to fill, it's professional. Whereas in music, 99% of people are on the outside and 1% of people are on the inside. So here’s what transpired. A friend of mine called me and said, "I'm tired of you sitting at home and feeling sorry for yourself. We’re going to a rave." I said, "What's a rave?" She said, "It's this illegal party in San Francisco." And I said, "Perfect. Let's go."
I'd been so busy working that I didn't have a social life. All of a sudden, I had all this time. We went to this rave in a shady little pizza shop where you go up these stairs and suddenly there's this makeshift nightclub with three DJs playing electronic music. I knew one of the DJs, Max Vangeli, because we used to be friends when we were kids. He gets on and starts deejaying. He jumps on this flimsy wooden table and nearly breaks it. He’s crowd diving and the whole crowd is screaming. I didn't know anything about electronic music or deejaying, but I believed in him. I was just blown away by the energy, by the fun, by whatever that was, and so was everybody else.
I kept coming to these things, and he said he’d like to work with me. He said, “We need to do this bigger.” And it was just electric. We had one goal: for him to play at the biggest nightclub in San Francisco at the time, Ruby Skye. He was creating original songs as well as deejaying, and we created our own events company. All the money we made, we just put right back into the shows. Next thing you know, his music started taking off and he was an international star.
In between, I had been running an email newsletter to support myself and doing a little PR consulting. It was just a way to pay the bills so I could get right back to the club. We were working 12 hours a day and celebrating and partying the other 12 hours a day. We had these dreams of doing festivals and bigger things. Max and I were on a plane to Miami, Arizona, Europe, crisscrossing the world. We ended up doing that for three years together.
Then in 2012, I was done touring and partying, and I wanted to get back into professional work, but in the entertainment industry, not tech. I noticed that half of my contacts at the time were in LA, so I decided to move to LA. At the time, Max was part of a collective of artists under this record label, Size Records. The owner of Size Records was a guy named Steve Angello, another producer and DJ, but on a much bigger scale.
I had a rule at the time that I would always take meetings in person. Even if I wasn't around the corner, I would get in my car and fight traffic to get to wherever they were. My thinking was that face time is so important, relationships are so important. These were really influential people that in other circumstances I could've never reached, and they're sitting on calls all day. But when you’re with another person breathing the same air, in the same environment, joking, strategizing, that creates a much more meaningful connection.
At the time, Steve was managed by Red Light Management, which is one of the biggest management companies in the world. They said, "We need somebody to run our marketing." And I said, "Guys, it's done." I knew that this was a position that thousands of people in LA would have killed for. I made another rule for myself, which was to spend an hour a day in the break room. Anybody who walked in, I'd say, "How's your day?" chat them up, all of that. I got to know most of the people who worked there, managers, assistants, everyone. I ended up working there for about two years.
Steve is one of the hardest working people I've ever seen. He worked 16, 17 hours a day, and I thought, “If somebody who's making hundreds of thousands of dollars a show is working that hard, I'm going to work that hard.” I would set an alarm for three in the morning just to see if anybody had emailed me and then go back to sleep. It was totally unsustainable, but it was so much fun at the same time.
Then I was so burnt out. It just hit me at some point; I was so done with the music industry, with all of it. So I quit. A buddy of mine was back in Sweden, and he said, “Why don't you come to Stockholm for a while? Some of my friends have an office here, let's do something." Next thing you know, I'm flying to Sweden where I'd never been, and we started working on a business idea together.
We tried to create a media company for PR professionals, a B2B thing. My business partner was also a former music industry person, so he was interested in music. So we started an artist management company simultaneously. We also opened an office in the Philippines, and I lived in Manila for a year. We made money, but we also ended up spending money, and both of these businesses ended up suffering.
So in 2016, I came back to the Bay Area after my two businesses fell apart. My whole world came crashing down. I worked with the AnchorFree guys for a while, but I quickly realized that I didn’t want to live in the Bay Area, I didn’t want to do tech. It's like getting back together with an ex.
I'd spent some time all over the world, so I was without roots in a way. I felt very lost. I ended up selling a property I’d bought in 2012, and I went down to Mexico City. I wanted to focus on education. I wanted to pursue something, not for some sort of financial gain, but for knowledge. I had such a great time in Mexico City, and I met people so I decided to stay. I got a private tutor, and I was learning Spanish. I treated it like a full-time job. I was watching YouTube videos, I was reading, I was walking through the streets of Mexico City and talking to people. But a month in, I thought, "This is not enough." At the same time, Max called me and we reconnected.
His career had taken a bit of a downward turn, and he was just really down on himself, like I was. I said, "Drop everything you're doing and come to Mexico City." Next thing you know, he's on a plane. We hadn't been following what was going on in entertainment, and we were outdated in the approaches that work today. But through networking, we connected with the biggest influencers in Latin America. They invited us to the MTV Millennial Awards in Mexico City and we just got thrown into this world of tech and influencing. And now, I’m running an indie electronic music label called NoFace Records with Max.
In many ways, we reinvented what a label is. In the upper echelons of record labels, you're not very accessible, you're above the people, hard to reach, they can't get their demos to you, you are very removed. We took the opposite approach. We wanted to get as many demos coming in as humanly possible. We wanted to consider songs on the merit of how much the music spoke to us, not how many social media followers these people have. And we wanted to get away from deals that screw artists. We just wanted to make it very simple.
Beyond that, we created videos about how the business of music works, what you need to look for in a contract, how you reach different labels and send them your demos. We have a 400-person Discord chat community of music producers and artists. We want to show you how to improve your knowledge of the music space, how to network, all of that. When you send us a demo, that's the end of the process. We want to be with you well before that. And it just came from a place of let's build something that we wish was there when we were getting started in this 10 years ago.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
When you're lost, everything is shiny and interesting and you're jumping from one thing to the next. When you've found something you really like, it becomes so easy to say no to things. When I got focused and said, "We're going to build something great," it was unbelievable how quickly this thing grew and how rewarding it is to wake up and know that we're doing what we feel is important work and we're helping other people.
I wouldn't be afraid to take a nontraditional path if that's something you're set on doing. If you're going to do it, you have to have a thick skin and understand that most of the people around you are going to question you until you make it. And then when you make it, they're going to say they knew it all along.