Who is Austen Allred and the key takeaways in this episode?
They say that in life there are only two choices you can make: either you move forward or give up. There’s really no middle ground. Today’s guest is an example of someone who’s braved the uphill struggle to build a company. He’s determined to pursue his vision even if it means he’s got to live in his car for three months. But in the end, he’s made it through to talk about and share with us that all that he’s done, all that he experienced. It was all worth the sacrifice.
Austen Allred is the Co-Founder of Grasswire and in this episode we’ll dig into his story, so be sure to stick around and be inspired by his testimony on:How he survived a three month adventure living in his car and moving to Silicon Valley
- How he started Grasswire
- His most epic stunt when he was starting Grasswire
- What he thinks about people giving up on their dreams
- His personal take on how to avoid the most common mistakes entrepreneurs make
 How do you handle the adversity on how people view what you’re doing?
Answer: There are a few different camps of people, right? There are some people who are my biggest fans ever and not mine, but Grasswire’s, right? They had believed in the mission: they’re spending all day on the site, they’re contributing their time and money and whatever else to make it happen. So part of me feels, in fact, a lot of me feels responsibility to those people. Grasswire isn’t mine, it’s the community’s, it’s the user’s. At the end of the day, I don’t know, there’s stuff you have to do and there’s no other way to do it than to just plow forward and make things happen and that’s terrifying at times and people don’t like to talk about how, you have to always be crushing it when you’re talking to people, you know. We’re doing awesome and then you go to the board meeting and you tell everybody how awesome everything is and then a reporter calls and you say, “Yeah, we’re doing so well.” And in the inside, sometimes it’s like, “Oh my gosh, everything’s falling apart. We’re getting sued. This is happening.” But you kinda have to hold it all together.
 What’s the most common mistake you’ve seen make over and over again?
Answer: There are a couple of things. The first one is optimizing strictly for how much you can pay someone. So you might be able to get one guy for $80,000 a year and another guy for $100,000 a year. You would love to work with a guy who’s $100,000 a year cause he’s awesome and you could technically afford that, but like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if we had an extra $20,000 lying around that we could do something with after a year? That would be cool, let’s go with this $80,000 a year guy. He’s not great, but he’s okay.” I would definitely recommend being so far on the other side of that equation that if we find the right person that measures really well, that has the skill sets we need, honestly, our salary negotiations are, “Okay, what do you and your family need to stay alive? Be honest with me.” And they always are. And then we’d do that and that’s it.
 Can you tell our listeners what Grasswire is and how you came up with the idea?
Answer: Yeah. So Grasswire is a real-time newsroom for the Internet. So basically it lets everybody submit and curate and fact check news content in real-time. So must of the time that’s first-hand video and photos from people who are on the ground and it lets you see the news and what’s happening without really any filter other than each other.
Culture According to Austen Allred:
I think that your company culture is the result, simultaneously the result and the cause of all of the tiny decisions that are made. So it’s how people feel when they come to work and why they come to work.
Go To Quote for Inspiration
- Founders At Work by Jessica Livingston
What Austen Allred Wants His Company to BE:
- BE Smart
- BE Scrappy
- BE Pragmatic
Links and Resources Mentioned in this Interview:
Where to Find Austen Allred:
Connect with John on
FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
John: Austen, welcome to BE Culture Radio. How are you, man?
Austen: Thanks! I’m good.
John: Super, super. You’ve got a great story to tell. My listeners are eager to hear about you, but before we do that, tell us a little bit about you, where you came from, where your roots are at. Tell us about you.
Austen: Yeah. So I was born and raised in a little Mormon community in Springville, Utah. So just an hour south of Salt Lake and that’s actually where I’m living right now, so it kinda came full circle for a little bit.
John: Perfect. And you have an entrepreneurial family, I understand?
Austen: Yeah. So my dad started a company with my uncle. They did pretty well and sold it and they made a bunch of money. So yeah, it kind of runs in the family, I guess.
John: And your brother has a start-up, I understand.
Austen: He does, yeah.
John: That’s pretty cool. So it’s in your blood, it’s in your tribe; that’s who you are.
Austen: I guess so. It didn’t seem that way when I was younger because my dad was just an accountant, but then he ended up starting a company, and then I ended up starting a company and my brother ended up starting a company, and I guess we’re all in it together now.
John: That’s pretty cool. Hey, let’s talk about Grasswire. Can you tell our listeners what Grasswire is and how you came up with the idea?
Austen: Yeah. So Grasswire is a real-time newsroom for the Internet. So basically it lets everybody submit and curate and fact check news content in real-time. So must of the time that’s first-hand video and photos from people who are on the ground and it lets you see the news and what’s happening without really any filter other than each other.
John: You know, Austen, most of our listeners and our followers, we all like to ask the question “Why?” so I’m gonna ask you, why Grasswire?
Austen: Yeah. So I think the real impetus for the idea started when I was living in Eastern Ukraine and I would start talking to the people and I realized that for them Lenin and Stalin are like, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln for the people in the US. That really shook me. I grew up in very conservative part of Utah, where Lenin and Stalin are grouped with Hitler and Mussolini in the history books. And so I came to realize just how much influence news and the information has, and where we get our information about what’s happening in the world shapes our worldview. I didn’t feel like its responsible to leave that up to third parties or governments or corporations to decide what we should believe for us.
John: So it’s safe to say the newscasters that are on the radios and the TV stations, we shouldn’t all just believe what they tell us?
Austen: I would definitely argue, no. Some are better than others, of course. But by and large, I think it’s just best to avoid, honestly.
John: And wouldn’t you agree that most of these folks that bring us the news are shaped by their own culture and their own company culture, and what they’re trying to bring to us?
Austen: Yeah. So I believe that for a lot of, at least the journalism that we’re getting today, people truly and honestly believe in an end. So whether that’s they believe that X will be the best presidential candidate or that Y is the best way to govern, they do adhere to that philosophy. The problem in my mind comes in when your adherence to that philosophy changes the facts that are on the ground and that’s the dangerous aspect of journalism that is not only happening everywhere else in the world with no freedom of press but it’s pretty rampant in the US right now and that’s really worrying to me.
John: Now Austen, most of the entrepreneurs we all love the risk, we love the risk, we love the thrill; that’s what drives us. And as you know, people can say, “Oh no, not really.” It is. And your story’s so cool because here you were, from Utah, you gotta go out to Silicon Valley and you spend 3 months living out of your car to make it work, right? So people are like, “Wow!” So you had to have a tremendous amount of internal fortitude to make it happen. But what’s the most epic stunt you pulled trying to get Grasswire started?
Austen: Oh, jeez. There’s a certain level of scrappiness that’s just like, that’s [inaudible, 04:11] stakes, you know? You have to be able to endure certain stuff to just play the game. I probably came at it from the worst time, personally, that I could as far as finances goes. So I had like, 300 bucks in my bank account, and I was trying to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. So the craziest story, I mean, without a doubt – so I was driving along the 101 in my little Honda civic that also functioned as my home, so I slept in it in random parking lots and it broke down and I had no money in the bank and I was pretty screwed, that’s where I lived, you know. And a policeman came to the side of the road and he knocked on the window and he said, “Hey, you’ve gotta get your car outta here. The secret service is about to come by and Barack Obama’s caravan is coming through here in half an hour and if you don’t, if your car’s not out of here, we’ll have you impounded.” So it was pretty much the worst possible scenario I could even imagine and I didn’t, I knew that I didn’t have enough money to pay for the car repairs. So a mechanic said that I could borrow one of his cars to sleep in or come stay at his place or whatever when he realized that I’ve been living there. But to make the long story short, I ended up contacting a bunch of ticket brokers for a soccer game. I got them to send me a couple hundred tickets just in the mail to one of my friend’s apartments and they said that I could keep half of whatever I sold cause that was gonna be unused inventory for them. I ended up putting together a ring of 5 or 6 random ticket brokers and at the end of the day, made about 600, 700 bucks in one night, and that was enough to cover my car repair cost and stay alive for one more month.
John: Wow. It’s amazing what we’ll do when you have no options, right?
Austen: Exactly. There wasn’t anything else I could do.
John: So at that moment, you felt like all of your perseverance was tested and you just had no choice but to move forward, right?
Austen: Yeah. So in my mind, giving up just wasn’t an option. If it was, I would’ve given up probably a dozen times by now. But even still, a lot of entrepreneurship – that I don’t think people realize when they’re not an entrepreneur – is managing your own psychology. So the whole time you’re out there thinking, “Am I an idiot? What am I doing with my life? I have zero dollars, my car’s in the shop, I live in my car. I’m screwed.” So there come a few times, I believe, in every entrepreneur’s career, when you have to say, “Is this really worth it for me? Do I really believe in what I’m doing that much that I’m gonna keep on going?” For me, it wasn’t an option so did what I had to do.
John: And so how do you handle the adversity of how people view what you’re doing?
Austen: There are a few different camps of people, right? There are some people who are my biggest fans ever and not mine, but Grasswire’s, right? They had believed in the mission: they’re spending all day on the site, they’re contributing their time and money and whatever else to make it happen. So part of me feels, in fact, a lot of me feels responsibility to those people. Grasswire isn’t mine, it’s the community’s, it’s the user’s. At the end of the day, I don’t know, there’s stuff you have to do and there’s no other way to do it than to just plow forward and make things happen and that’s terrifying at times and people don’t like to talk about how, you have to always be crushing it when you’re talking to people, you know. We’re doing awesome and then you go to the board meeting and you tell everybody how awesome everything is and then a reporter calls and you say, “Yeah, we’re doing so well.” And in the inside, sometimes it’s like, “Oh my gosh, everything’s falling apart. We’re getting sued. This is happening.” But you kinda have to hold it all together.
John: That is so awesome. For me, 30 years being an entrepreneur, having started our own company a dozen years ago, I just saw a listener’s note, and that emotion doesn’t change.
Austen: Yeah. If anything –
John: If the stakes get higher.
Austen: If anything, it intensifies, right.
John: Oh yeah.
Austen: ‘Cause now it’s not just me on the line. Now I’m married and if I fail then my wife and I have to figure something out. And then we have investors and board members and my co-founder and other employees and as you go on, you’re just bringing more people into this uber risky game with you and promising everybody that it’s gonna be okay. And the good thing is that I’ve honestly believed that, right? At the end of the day, if I look myself in the mirror, I can say I truly believe this will be successful and that’s a difficult thing to do but it has to be done.
John: Well, I think you have to do that because you talk about all the parties you bring to the table and some of the entrepreneurs, then you sprinkle children on top of that. So add that to it, man. And that gives you a whole new meaning of “I am scared out of my shorts.”
Austen: Yes. So we’ve got four people on the Grasswire team right now and everybody else except for me has kids. I think one has 6, and then the other two have, well, 3, and then 2 and 1 on the way. So it’s not just me anymore, there are 12 kids and then my wife’s expecting too, so 13 children whose lifestyles depend on us making this work. So more so than the investors – they could lose the money and be frustrated and they’d be fine – there’s a lot on the line.
John: And there should be, if you’re gonna win.
Austen: There has to be, yeah.
John: And the end game is: you’re living your dream, you’re making a difference in the world and if it was easy, as my father has always said to me, if it’s easy, everybody would do it.
John: But it’s not easy and it’s not for the faint of the heart and if you can’t have that conversation with that person in the mirror every morning which says, “Here we go. It’s gonna happen. Make it happen.” And it only happens because you make it happen and have people follow you down this path because as you said, Austen, you believe it with all your heart and soul and the day you don’t believe it, get out, because you’re not authentic.
Austen: Right. And everybody can see right through that. You can’t fake your way out of that.
John: No. I mean, you can buffalo your way through a presentation, you can talk to the press, you can do a lot of things, but the people that are following you, they know. And they even know when you’re smiling and trying to lead and you’re struggling. They’re the ones who come and put their arms around you and say, “It’s gonna be okay.”
Austen: Yeah, exactly.
John: We’re gonna make it. Cause you need those people around you, and if you don’t have those people around you, then find them, right?
Austen: Exactly. That is my wife.
John: You know what, my wife is my business partner for the last 25 years.
John: And without her – I refer to her as my moral compass. And I refer to a tribe. I think everybody has a tribe, we all come from somewhere. I’m fortunate to be one of eight and I have great sisters and a brother that’s tremendously supportive, and parents. And I have over 50 nieces and nephews, and at any point in time I can reach out to my tribe and say, “I’m struggling.” And they can give you a hundred reasons why you shouldn’t be. Or as my mother says, “For the grace of God, go shoo.” So there are no victims. Suck it up and let’s go. And my mom listens to all the shows so after every show, I get a full critique of how I could do it better. Mom, I’m working on it. Just so she knows. Now Austen, I wanna shift gears into company culture.
John: Tell us what your definition of company culture is.
Austen: I think that your company culture is the result, simultaneously the result and the cause, of all of the tiny decisions that are made. So it’s how people feel when they come to work and why they come to work.
John: Can you share a story with our listeners on an experience you’ve had, how company culture from a previous job, or how it’s shaping Grasswire and how it can help you accelerate growth and get people to follow?
Austen: Yeah. I think for us, one of the important things is that, our employees are people, right? And we recognize, especially everybody has a family, and so just yesterday, there was, one of our employees said, “Hey, my wife is having really bad contractions, we don’t know what’s going on. So I’ll be available, I’ll bring my phone with me and I’ll be on slack and so you can contact me, whatever.” But we’re like, “Dude, if your wife is having contractions and you’re worried about your future child, go take care of that. We’ll hold down the fort and we’ll be okay in 4 hours. We’ll survive.”
John: Got to. You gotta do that. We have a philosophy at BE Furniture, that my wife is my partner in. We have 18 of the most incredible people that built this company with us and we only have two rules. Treat people the way you wanna be treated and your family comes first. And the moment this has become more important than the people’s family, they’re not gonna be very eager to contribute more success cause you didn’t take inventory and take care of their family. You bring up a great point.
Austen: Yeah. And I’ve seen people look at that from an entrepreneurial perspective and say, “Oh no, we need those hours. We need X output, that type of thing.” But that guy comes back halfway through the day; he’s been burning the midnight oil for weeks trying to get products launched. He hustled as hard as I have ever seen anybody hustle. Even from a pure productivity standpoint, you gain that back and then some. It just pays to not be a jerk.
John: It’s one of the things that, for me, corporate America didn’t work. Because you gotta work in corporate America and we are a family-friendly company. “Oh by the way, get on the plane Sunday morning and fly to somewhere else so you can be at a meeting Monday morning,” when you’re thinking to yourself, “I could’ve gotten a plane at 6 o’clock Monday morning and been at the same meeting.” “But we saved 200 dollars on the flight.” So my family time is worth 200 bucks, good to know. All those contradictions of terms leave people saying, “I don’t get it.”
Austen: Yeah. It’s hard to take your eyes off the bottom-line sometimes. Even though if you’re smart about it, it all works out, you just have to treat people well and there’s a respect that’s garnered amongst everybody and I hate this word, but there’s real synergy when everybody’s working together toward a common cause.
John: Well, you know, growing up in corporate America and that’s being the disciple of metrics, cause you get metrics, metrics, metrics. Well, the one thing that I find very hard to measure is the human spirit because it’s boundless. And if you unleash the human spirit and you unleash the passion people have inside, it’s incredible what metrics will follow. I think we’re just starting to discover that. Now, we have the millenials coming into the marketplace and they just don’t deal with things the way that the baby boomers did and they just won’t tolerate it. Take your metrics and stuff, I mean, you’re here.
Austen: Yeah. There’s definitely a difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, no question about that.
John: So I see you’ve received an amazing amount of funding last year, and I gotta tell you that the coolest part of it was the story about how you were homeless for three months, you lived out of your car, but at the end of the day, you made it happen. And can you just share with our listeners some of the milestones in that journey and how and what it meant to you?
Austen: So a lot of people kind of look at those things as disconnected. Like, “Oh my gosh, this guy is willing to sacrifice so much. But then, at the end of the day, he got lucky.” But to a certain extent, there was just a lot that we had to will into existence. And the reason that our investors invested in us and believed in us is because were willing to sacrifice what we needed to sacrifice to make things happen. And so when I can walk into a pitch with an investor and say, “Hey, look, I’m willing to put anything except for my family on the line.” Which, my family, obviously sacrifices right along with me. And here’s how I’ve proven that and here’s the vision that we’re going after and here’s what we’ve done to execute, to get to that stage. When I talk to investors, I get so riled up that I have to calm myself down and that kind of passion and that kind of belief, they notice and you can’t fake that. So when you really believe in something that truly, that deeply, everything else kind of gets out of the way or works together to make it happen.
John: Now, Austen, 12 months from now, what does Grasswire look like? What do you do with the new capital? How are you gonna invest it? What’s your gross strategy? ‘Cause I think a lot of my listeners can gain a lot by hearing what your next steps are.
Austen: Yeah. By 12 months, first of all, we’ll be out of money. So that’s something that a lot of people may not realize, is that your seed round doesn’t last you forever, especially as we’re trying to grow a company that has no revenue. So until we get to a certain stage of X number of users using the site everyday, we won’t make money and we can’t make money. So this is definitely – we’re shooting for the moon here and if we fall short and it’s a very binary outcome, it’s either a huge success or it’s a failure and we’re okay with it. So at the end of the day, there’s a binary result. We’re either going to be wildly successful and everybody’s going to make a lot of money or it all goes to zero and that’s just life with a consumer facing product that doesn’t make revenue from the users. So really, our focus, 100% of our focus right now is on the product. We need to make it just a joy to use. I need to make it so that my mom can jump on Grasswire and in 30 seconds can understand what’s happening in the world, be moved by it, and have just a great, great experience. And if we get to that point, we win. So that’s where we’re spending all of our time and effort and energy and everything else we have to believe will fall in place behind that.
John: So I can just hear some of my followers saying, “So Austen, what have you got to do to make that happen?”
Austen: So some of it is building features that we need, some of it is simplifying the user experience. But most of it, for us, is building a community. There’s a lot of goodwill and a lot of people that are excited about Grasswire and if they’re not coming together in the right ways and feeling the right feelings, that’s because we didn’t build something right or we made something hard, or there’s something that’s broken on our end. And those are really really delicate and subtle things, a lot of the time. So right now people are submitting content from Twitter, but they’re like, “Hey, it’s really annoying to have to find the Twitter link and then come over to Grasswire and submit it, and that takes so much of my day cause I’m submitting 50 pieces of content a day.” So we’re building out a tool that lets them reply to any tweet with #Grasswire and it automatically submits that. So it’s just little, little stuff like that that makes all the difference.
John: And what can we do to support you?
Austen: Just jump on Grasswire.com, create an account, and tell us what we can do to make it better. At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to.
John: Alright. Hope everybody’s listening cause he’s got something here and we should support him. Now, Austen, what tip can you give an entrepreneur who’s starting to hire and build a company, build a culture, and they wanna build this culture around great teams and great people? Any tips you could give them?
Austen: Yeah. First of all, and this has been the most important rule – so we hired a couple of people that just weren’t a good fit in the beginning, and that was a difficult learning process. So as my cofounder and I talked about it, we kind of settled upon the metric of, that we only hire people that we would like to work for. And I think that works fantastically. Cause that’s not only are you good at what you do, that’s, “Is there a mutual respect? Do you work well with the team? I can look at every single on of our employees and say, “I would work for them in a second.” And that has been really, really big. And as far as the culture goes, I think it’s difficult to fake culture. Culture isn’t just, “Hey, let’s ship in a Ping-Pong table,” and all of a sudden, we’re a fun company. Culture is made up of a million small actions that show people what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable. So the most important thing you can do as far as driving a company’s culture is realize and be very explicit about what your own values are, what’s important to you, what’s not, and yeah –
John: What’s the most common mistake you’ve seen made over and over again. You’ve gotta be saying to yourself, “I see this all the time. I really wish they wouldn’t do this because it’s easily avoidable, but people do it all the time and I don’t get it.” What would that be, Austen?
Austen: There are a couple of things. The first one is optimizing strictly for how much you can pay someone. So you might be able to get one guy for $80,000 a year and another guy for $100,000 a year. You would love to work with a guy who’s $100,000 a year cause he’s awesome and you could technically afford that, but like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if we had an extra $20,000 lying around that we could do something with after a year? That would be cool, let’s go with this $80,000 a year guy. He’s not great, but he’s okay.” I would definitely recommend being so far on the other side of that equation that if we find the right person that measures really well, that has the skill sets we need, honestly, our salary negotiations are, “Okay, what do you and your family need to stay alive? Be honest with me.” And they always are. And then we’d do that and that’s it.
John: You get what you pay for.
Austen: Exactly. Yeah.
John: When you’re building a culture, I tell people this all the time because we’ve been in the interior business for over 30 years, my wife and I. We go through it, when you’re building a culture, your interiors, your human beings, the whole thing is your culture, it’s your brand, it’s who you are. So people are amazed when they do silly things with employees or they do silly things with their brand and there’s a disconnect between “Oh I have a beautiful website and we’re high tech,” and they walk in and the people are not happy and the facilities look like people are sitting on egg crates and they’re like, “Cool, right?” I’m like, “No, not cool.” You missed.
Austen: That’s not okay, yeah.
John: And guess what, because you won’t change, it will change for you. People are amazed. Like I’m saying, “Trust me. You don’t have to talk to me, you’ll be talking to someone else shortly.” And the look, “Oh, John, that’s harsh.” I’m like, “Okay, but it’s the truth.” Hey, Austen, I wanna take you to lighting round, okay?
John: So here we go. Do you have a book that changed your life?
Austen: “Founders At Work” by Jessica Livingston.
John: And why is that?
Austen: That is, in my opinion, the best book to see what the early stages of a start up are really like.
John: Do you have a quote you go to for inspiration?
Austen: My favorite one is “Success is largely a matter of who hangs on the longest.” I’ve no idea who that’s by, but I like it.
John: That’s pretty cool. Now what company do you admire the most as it relates to culture and why? Other than your own.
Austen: I’d have to say – Nope, can’t say them. Let me think. I mean, Google. It’s tough to beat. Tough to beat that culture.
John: Right. That’s a pretty cool culture; they really get people. Now, why should a person want to work for Grasswire?
Austen: Because we’re doing something really really important and you’ll be fulfilled in your work.
John: I think fulfillment is one of the key issues these days, that if we can provide the environment and culture where people are fulfilled, we’re gonna go a long way.
Austen: Yeah, agreed.
John: Okay, here we go, a big finish, Austen.
John: If you had to describe your culture of Grasswire in three words, what would it be?
Austen: Be smart and scrappy.
John: Be smart, be scrappy, give me one more.
Austen: Oh, three separate words.
John: Oh yeah. No, no, stay with me. Here we go. Give me three. I know this is the hardest part of the whole show.
Austen: Be smart, be scrappy, and be pragmatic.
John: Be smart, be scrappy, be pragmatic. I can buy in to all three of those. Now, Austen, how can my listeners connect with you?
Austen: Probably the best way is on Twitter. I’m @AustenAllred and if you sign up at Grasswire.com, you get an email from me with my personal email address and phone number and you can call me anytime if you’re a Grasswire user.
John: Perfect. Any special rollouts you wanna speak to? Anything you wanna share with my tribe that says, “Hey guys, help me. Support me.” Here we go. Here’s your chance.
Austen: Just watch for the automatic Twitter submission coming in a couple weeks. It will be really really cool.
John: Excellent. Now Austen, I never end a show without sharing with my guests my favorite quote from Maya Angelou which is, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And we hope we made you feel welcome, we hope we made you feel part of our tribe today, and we hope we made you feel, most of all, valid.
Austen: Yeah. Thank you. It was good to be with you.
John: It was. I can’t thank you enough and I wanna invite you back in 6 months so you can share your progress with us cause I am absolutely convinced from our side that you’re gonna be wildly successful because we as a culture and a nation need what you’re doing.
Austen: I believe so as well.
John: Thank you, my friend. I wish you the very best and be well.
Austen: Thank you, you too.
John: Alright, bye-bye.
Austen: Have a good one.