Codewise: The Untold Story Behind The Second Fastest Growing Company In Europe
Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.
Codewise wasn’t originally my company; it was founded by three other guys and it was destined to be a rather typical outsourcing gig. In 2011 I approached them along with a handful of other Polish software companies, asking for a quote for my first startup (WeSave.pl). Codewise got back to me with the most reasonable offer and so our cooperation began. With time I decided to start a second project (Zeropark) and we worked on the two in parallel.
Things seemed to be going well and to make our cooperation more official we decided to do a minor share exchange. A while later we did a more sizable exchange, after which I came to own a good chunk of Codewise. It’s important to note that during this whole time I was running a rather large one man affiliate marketing operation grossing around $300,000 revenue per month. I used the profits to keep Codewise afloat as we hired more people and continued to work on the two projects that had profitability nowhere in sight.
At some point in 2012 I started to acknowledge the fact that I was having a fallout with two of the co-founders. This progressed to a point where Bartek (third co-founder with whom I got along) and I had ‘secret’ meetings without the other two guys because we just couldn’t bear working with them anymore. One of them had a bit of a power trip being CEO of Codewise the other was not very competent as CTO. I wasn’t certain how I felt about it all and debated how to address it. Then bam — the day before my first holiday our then CTO made a blunder that almost cost us everything.
A blunder can be to varying degrees. This particular one cost me over $300,000 within the span of four hours — this was a f**k up on the internal tracking platform that we built to scale my affiliate marketing activity. “What the f**k!?” I felt faint and didn’t really know what was going on, all of a sudden I was overcome with anger and stormed out of the office without a word got a pack of cigarettes even though I didn’t smoke. Bartek (my future CTO) found me in the park nearby our office. We talked and decided that we need to find a way to boot them out. We decided that we need to meet with my lawyer and plan a hostile takeover. I didn’t even fully understand what that meant at that time. I went off on my vacation and tried to enjoy it as much as I could — but insomnia and stress had the best of me, I was irritable on the trip and quarreled with my then girlfriend; I came back a nervous wreck, but I was ready to do what had to be done.
After discussing various options we realized that Codewise would run out of cash within three weeks without my funding. I arranged a meeting on the weekend with everyone and opened with: “I’ve arranged this meeting today because I will be ending my cooperation with Codewise.” My words were met with silence and shock. They had no idea it was coming. Mind you, this was one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my life. I vividly recall washing my face with cold water in the bathroom minutes before saying “You son of a bitch, you can do this. You have to do this!”
They knew this was the end. We called recess and both sides went their own way to come up with the terms. Two hours later we sat down again. Each of us brought a stern, pale poker face and there was this sense of despair lingering in the air. I was quiet and let them speak first. With forced confidence and a wry smile the two guys demand $250,000 each, claiming that Zeropark was on the verge of becoming something huge. They really had no idea if this was true or not, nor did I at that moment. Zeropark hadn’t even broken even at that point.
It was then that my lawyer laughed and made some snide remark to the guys. It was unprofessional and I asked him to stop.
The adrenaline rush was unbearable for me. My hands were shaking as I tried to get my quivering voice under control. I somehow managed to calmly say that I will pay them $50,000 each, no more. They didn’t take it right away and the serenade of negotiation commenced. These were tense discussions in which they knew they had no leverage, really. And resolving the situation in court would be costly and a waste of time. Both parties knew that. But I had something they didn’t know how to value — it was the fact that without my industry know-how the company wouldn’t be worth a thing.
They accept. Emotions were high and things were moving rapidly. By some miracle we found a notary that was working that weekend and went to sign over the company to me. The guys were in tears, they were losing their baby. I totally understood their sorrow; they’d founded Codewise well before I had joined. I wasn’t proud to be doing what I was doing but I knew it was necessary. The room was silent and the tension was palpable as we waited for the documents to print and be notarized. We signed the papers. Legally it was done. Codewise was ours. All I had to do was wire the money. Bartek and I went to get sushi and I wired the $100k sitting in the restaurant, sporting an ear to ear smile on my face, saying, “I can’t believe we f**king did it. The company is ours!” It was surreal and that elated feeling carried us all the way back to the office. And I’m not ashamed to say that I danced like a mad man all over the place. I was stoked.
The next day, I had to do what felt like an even more challenging task.
It was Monday, at that time we had eight developers working at the company. How was I to convince these guys that two of the three co-founders had just been ousted and that a company that was losing money was still going to be a secure and stable place to work? Mind you, to hire these guys we had to literally lie about how well we were doing to create the illusion of job security, when in fact we had no clue of what the future held. To a great extent we really didn’t know what we were doing. I rehearsed what I was going to say and showed up to the office at 6:30 AM so I would be the first one there. I had to talk with each person as they arrived, one on one, and tell them what happened before any misinformation or rumors spread. I somehow managed to convince them that this was for the best and guaranteed their job security. This took place in January 2013 and it marks when I truly took the reins at Codewise, got my shit together, and started moving the company in the right direction. I had no other choice.
I was pedal to the metal for the next years and it went so fast and I ended up in the year 2015 with a huge problem. I was experiencing extreme burnout — psychological, physical, along with utter insomnia. I wasn’t able to cope with the scale and the stress that came with it. At this point my mental hardiness was faltering, which led me to drinking and not exercising. I started to completely neglect my health, my insomnia got worse and I stopped eating properly. Living in a constantly foggy and dazed state became normality for me.
The company was highly profitable, affiliate campaigns were no longer a part of my work, and we had successfully launched a new product, Voluum. None of that seemed rewarding because I was in the worst place I had ever been in my mind.
Bartek, my CTO, was in Japan on a month long vacation. But I was filled with strife and having internal battles that forced me to debate if I was able and willing to continue on with what I’d begun. It was eating me alive from the inside out. When Bartek came back to Krakow he sent me a text message to meet him outside the office in a café. I was instantly nervous. You know that sickly feeling in your stomach when you know what you’re probably going to hear? I had that feeling — I remember the nauseating sensation.
I went to meet him and immediately felt that something wasn’t right. We sat down and he straight away told me that he had made up his mind, he’s leaving the company. I was in shock. I had been having these same thoughts. What the f**k is going on? This is the end, I thought. He went on to explain that his stress ran in parallel with our success. The size of the company was greater than he ever wanted it to be. His role had evolved into something that had taken him away from what he loved; coding. He had become a manager and was no longer excited about what he did at work. Then there was the heavy toll his life outside of work had taken. He wasn’t happy and was beginning to wonder if it was all worth it. He hadn’t even been able to relax on a month-long trip. There was no need for him to make me understand, because I got it. I was experiencing the same thing.
However, I also knew something else. I knew that if he ever left I’d be doomed on my own. This was a deeply-seated insecurity that I’ve always had that runs in tandem with my impostor syndrome. I began to seal what seemed like an inevitable fate. We were two guys who owned a self-funded company that was the envy of many — a company that was raking in millions of dollars in profits. It wasn’t good enough; we both wanted out.
Why were we so miserable? It perfectly demonstrated how only the surface of success is visible to outsiders.
The iceberg — outsiders only see the tip, the surface of success; it’s very much true and I continue to witness people perceiving success this way. There is more pain, confusion, self-doubt, loneliness and stress below the surface than most can imagine. Obviously along with an incredible amount of hard work, discipline, persistence and sacrifice.
The Codewise Iceberg looked wonderful from a distance, but beneath the surface there was chaos and turmoil.
Listening to Bartek basically speak my exact thoughts, I let him finish. I then told him that I’d wanted to sit down with him upon his return to discuss me quitting. He was definitely surprised by my admission. That’s when we began to have a different discussion about Codewise, one that was about getting rid of what we’d planned so closely to take over a few years back.
We had two options on the table. 1) I buy him out and continue running the company. 2) He stays on until we sell the company together.
I’m not sure what exactly happened, but my competitive and nihilistic character kicked in and I decided that I wanted to try to run the show solo. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t useless without Bartek. I wanted to try to prove to myself that I had been mistaken about ‘knowing’ that without Bartek I was doomed. I wanted to see what I was capable of when I’d have no one else to rely on, other than myself. Throughout my entire life, I always found that I functioned best in “do or die” mode. I have gravitated toward situations where stress and pressure cripple most people and dove into the deep end, even though I didn’t always know how to swim.
We negotiated terms and he was out. At the December monthly meeting he had his farewell. I broke down sobbing as I said goodbye to him in front of the company. It was heavier than I had anticipated. I had not appreciated how much pent up stress and emotions had accumulated over the years, it all came out.
Let me digress a bit to the negotiations. Much transpired during this time. I had initiated dialogue with a couple of investment banks that had expressed interest in selling the company for us. I went to Los Angeles in January 2014 to meet one of the banks to get an idea of where Codewise stood in terms of a potential exit. They presented me with a 100 page dossier which included a very detailed analysis of our company based on metrics we had provided, as well as comparisons to similar companies they had sold. This led to an estimated sale value which blew my f**king mind. The range in which we were valued reached well into nine figures. I couldn’t believe it.
At this point I had a very healthy distance to money, practically no emotional attachment to it. I told the bankers this, and that I wasn’t ready to sell. They said they hear this from every founder/owner they speak with, but when they hand them a check with eight zeros, it changes everything. I stuck to it and again said that I wasn’t ready to sell.
Truthfully, what I thought to myself was… “If I was to get $100M+ in cash I would lose my f**king mind. I’m 29 years old, what the hell will I do?”
As busy as I’d been up until that point, I still knew myself well enough to know that I’d likely go insane and probably die rather young if I agreed to sell at that point. I didn’t want to let that happen. I recognized I was at a critical moment in my career because I came to fully appreciate what we had built…
A company of this value, built in a country (Poland) which often feels like it’s designed to discourage entrepreneurship instead of facilitating it. Archaic bureaucracy, laws, and absurd procedures discouraging thousands of potential entrepreneurs, stifling innovation and progress. There’s a reason Poland’s start-up scene is practically non existent when it comes to scale. We’re an extremely talented nation, but we don’t have the luxury that our Western counterparts have — of savvy forward-thinking governments that understand the value of facilitating entrepreneurship.
When I’d first begun, I wanted to give up countless times purely because of the bullshit bureaucracy. It often felt like too much, even for an ambitious young mind to handle. Entrepreneurs quite literally live in fear in Poland. The tax authorities have a reputation for being vicious and unsupportive, more keen on punishing you rather than helping. They’re even known to invade offices and start prolonged audits all on the hope that they are going to find a small mistake for which they can fine you to reach their quotas. Companies are even required to keep physical copies of every single invoice for 5 f**king years! To give perspective — at one point we thought we’d have to print an invoice for every single visitor we sold on our ad network. That would have been billions of invoices. We found a way around it, even so, we still have a dedicated room to comply with these ridiculous requirements. I’m about innovation, responsiveness, and efficiency and these qualities clashed with Poland’s archaic rules. All I saw was an expectation that was ridiculous and unnecessary to my young mind, not to mention the support an entrepreneur needs to survive and thrive.
But I digress. Ultimately, we had already beaten all the odds that were stacked up against us, why stop now? I wasn’t doing it for the money. Even though often enough it would push me to the verge of breakdown, other times it was still the most rewarding experience of my life.
It was a game, the most beautiful game in the world. A game of few rules, one where you are only limited by your own creativity and skill set, and one where the competition is at the highest level. It’s the ultimate arena to prove yourself in.
And I was winning with a company based in a country that was a communist state less than 30 years ago. I was on the verge of building a self-funded Polish unicorn. Holy shit. Had anyone ever strung those three words together? Self-funded Polish unicorn. It was unthinkable.
More importantly, I realized I was not in this game to exit for a few hundred million. There was something deeper and more meaningful that was keeping me going.
I got back to the office with a new fire, and that fire was lit right under my ass. It was do or die. Bartek was gone and I quickly realized the significance of how much had been on his shoulders. I had completely underestimated it. Somewhere from deep within a new Rob emerged and started hustling like never before. I honestly didn’t recognize myself in the beginning. I quickly evolved into a master of execution and delegation, figuring out step by step how to fill in the hole that was left behind. Soon after, I knew that I was able to keep this show on the road on my own, and it was the sweetest personal victory in my career.
Fast forward to October 2016. Two big things happened. I turned 30 and received a couple of awards at the Deloitte Fast 50 gig for fastest growing company in Central Europe with a growth rate of 13,052% over the past four years. My parents were there, it was beautiful.
In November we moved into our fifth office. This one we designed, built, and planned over the course of two years. Bartek and I had initially negotiated the terms of lease years earlier when were just profitable and any reasonable person would have thought that it was too risky and far too high a cost. But we weren’t reasonable — that’s how we got to that point in the first place. It was originally 2000 sqm spread over two of the top floors of a four story office with none other than Uber located right below us. One day I woke up and made a decision based on a gut feeling that we needed another floor so we got the first floor as well and made an Uber sandwich. Writing this in 2018, it’s easy to look back and think that it was a good decision as we’re already out of space on the top two floors — but again it was a very costly and risky decision at the time. Surprisingly, following your gut feeling over reasoning pays off more often than not, I think.
Our new office is designed for 250 people with a gym, sauna, yoga studio, soundproof music studio, massage room, and in general, it’s made for life and not just work. The basic thought process driving the creation of this beautiful space was to create an environment where I’d want to work if I worked for someone. Nothing else.
2016 kept going out with a force that continued to amaze me. In December, I was away in Peru exploring and doing Ayahuasca among other things, during that time a reporter from Forbes emailed me asking if I had time for a telephone call. I remember the moment vividly as I sat in a sunny square inside the Palacio del Inka hotel in beautiful Cusco. The connection was poor and the line was breaking up, we discussed doing an interview when I was back in Poland. Towards the end of the call I thought I misheard something about the Forbes 100 richest list. I paused to process and asked him to repeat what he said. This time I heard it but it was difficult to believe. He told me that there was a good chance that I would appear on the Forbes 100 richest list in Poland as the youngest ever self-made man.
I had never even dreamed about this, let alone considered this to be a possibility. For many years I would buy the copy of Forbes that included the list to see if any young entrepreneurs had made it, desperately seeking to validate the possibility that someone young could to make it big in Poland. But I was always disappointed to see the same old smug faces of cronies and old school “biznesmeni” in their 60s, 70s and 80s who had made their fortunes during the shady privatization era.
To think that I could be the young person that I had always hoped to see. That I may be a source of proof and inspiration to thousands of entrepreneurs in Poland who struggled the same way that I did. It was unreal and impossible to internalize. My impostor syndrome didn’t allow it and I went on to continue enjoying my time off in Peru as if that call had never happened.
I came back to the cold, bleak, and grey reality in Poland and flew to Paris the very next day to pick up a second meaningful award for the year, this time for the third fastest growing company in all of EMEA. This ceremony was held in the Eiffel Tower. It felt like I was completely detached from reality and living some sort of dream.
“..no one else comes close to the 13,052% recorded by Polish tech marketing hub, Codewise, which leads not only the Fast 50 ranking itself but also the ‘Big Five’ listing of larger companies.”
- Alastair Teare, CEO of Deloitte Central Europe
As 2016 came to a close I was stoked to feel and intricately know I was in the best place I had ever been in my life, both personally and professionally. What I’d learned was incredible and I felt ready to share a broader message.
The road to success is a rocky and unpredictable one. Whatever the outcome may be for you I know it’ll be worth it.
When you are fully invested in your vision you cannot help but to grow, develop, and mature at a rate like never before. You need to remember that this is the priceless bit of the entrepreneurial journey. Money is secondary.
In early 2017, it was confirmed. I was to be the youngest self-made man to ever make the Forbes 100 richest list in Poland. I was anxious but again, unable to internalize it until I saw it. The day the publication came out, early morning I was on my way to the store to purchase a copy, laughing and smiling to myself the whole way. Before I got to the shop, my friend texted me “Congrats on #57”. Thanks for the spoiler I thought. Rank #57? That’s way higher than I had thought. I had no idea of how they would value me and where it would position me. Not that it really mattered, but it was an incredibly unusual and novel experience. I walked into the store and there it was. Forbes magazine with my silly mug on it, un-f**king-believable. The lady in the store asked me what I was so excited about — I showed her the cover, she didn’t seem to care.
I had been a hardcore gamer most of my life and I had always described business as the most beautiful game — now I was officially ranked #57 on the high score list in Poland. I walked back to the office with 5 copies of the magazine giggling like a lunatic. The only thing you can really do in situations which are too bizarre to feel real. I walked in, and everyone in Codewise was ecstatic — they seemed more excited than me! It was one of the most peculiar days of my life, but shortly after, things went back to normal. Looking back, I don’t consider the whole Forbes thing as some sort of personal achievement. But I do feel it was an important occurrence for all the young Polish entrepreneurs, who like me, needed to see that it was possible to build a valuable startup in Poland. For me, it was all a game and you can’t treat a game too seriously — I just happened to be playing this one pretty well.
Shortly after, the Financial Times contacted us informing us that our numbers would officially make us the second fastest growing company in Europe on the FT 1000: Europe’s Fastest Growing Companies List. Deloitte was one thing, Forbes was pretty cool, but to be recognized by a media publication that I have utmost respect for. That felt like a serious honor! And to be listed second out of 1000 of the most ambitious and fastest growing companies in Europe. Most of which have millions of dollars in VC money backing them. That was un-f**king-believable! The Polish self-funded underdog in the number two position. Right behind HelloFresh, a company with $364.5M in funding. Success never tasted sweeter and more real.
The Struggle is the Way.
What a crazy few months it had been. Looking back and thinking that I had almost abandoned all of it. I quickly came to realize that the struggle is the way. This became my mantra moving forward and anytime the feelings of wanting to quit would surface I would calmly reiterate this to myself. I would remind myself that the greatest moments in life often follow the most difficult moments in life. You just need to continue pushing through. To accomplish extraordinary things, you must quietly endure uncertainty and suffering.
Success is about moving forward, even when you don’t really know which way forward is. Uncertainty is part of the game, those that endure it prevail.
This became one of the most important lessons in my life — deeply understanding that to do great things one must be able to make difficult choices and then quietly endure the uncertainty and suffering that come with those decisions. I discovered Stoicism around that time through Tim Ferris and started reading more about philosophy and found that Stoicism very much resonated with my beliefs.
“Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.” — Jerzy Gregorek
I found myself becoming more joyful and I would handle adversity and bad days with humor and a smile knowing that this was merely part of the process of accomplishing what I wanted to do. I kind of felt like Neo in the Matrix becoming attuned to reality like never before, becoming very mindful of my full range of emotions and the situations that life would throw at me — observing them almost as an outsider. I felt unstoppable, because I came to understand that only I stood in the way of everything that I ever wanted to do. It was utterly liberating.
I’m a big believer in the importance of breaking patterns. Shaking up the routine. As humans we have this tendency to fall into the comfortable trap of familiar processes, habits, and surroundings — we’re programmed to do this. I would try to regularly change things up by travelling as often as I could. Even doing little things like taking a different route to work. But there came a point where this no longer did the trick. I started to feel trapped in Krakow and our new office felt to secure and comfortable — I wasn’t accustomed to this. I had a fancy private office and you would think that one would feel great in such an office, but I did not. I was getting comfortable and I was losing my drive. That sense of insurgency that drives founders to do great things — it was fleeting.
I came to realize that I needed a drastic change in my life. I was 30 years old, I had spent the last six years of my life in a city that didn’t feel like home and one I didn’t even really like. I was consciously making that sacrifice as I truly wanted to build something that I would look back on at the end of my life and be like, yep, you did that — against all odds, you built that. As opposed to the younger version of me that was driven by money and the need to prove my worth to the world, the new mindful version of me was purely driven by the desire to do something extraordinary and to show myself what I’m capable of — personal fulfillment. It was a very important transition for me. I was growing up and shedding my insecurities. I liked getting older. A conscious sacrifice with the goal of personal fulfillment. A noble cause worth suffering and struggling for I thought.
I had always dreamed of living in California. I remember my first time there seven years earlier, in Los Angeles, specifically in the Venice/Santa Monica area. I was working for a Czech startup as an intern and found out they were going to a conference there. I had only been with the company for a month but I desperately wanted to go so that I could prove myself to the team in action. They wouldn’t have it — I asked the CEO if he had a moment to speak. I was direct and told him that I’d pay for everything myself if I could go. It was a difficult proposition to say no to. He agreed. I scraped together around $1,000, purchased my ticket and went to California.
I immediately fell in love. I knew this was a place where I would want to one day live. It felt so right. It had a welcoming and laid-back vibe but at the same time everything was so inspirational. That trip and the decision to pay for myself shaped my career and led me to living in Santa Monica today.
Krakow mid 2017, I announced to the company that I will be moving to California to open up our US office. It was a way of forcing myself to pull the trigger and do it. I had no idea what I was doing, I had no plan, I just announced it because I knew I personally needed the change in my life. At the same time I was genuinely scared to go through with the biggest change in my life.
After the announcement I found a small office in WeWork, found a place to live, bought my tickets and that was it. I was secretly hoping that this was the right move forward, I had no idea. It felt more as though I was running away from my responsibilities. My mind conjured 100’s of reasons for not moving and staying in Krakow.
Thankfully it proved to be the best decision of my life and career. Soon after arriving I realized that this will completely change the future of Codewise. So many doors appeared and opened up. Ones I didn’t even know existed having been isolated in Eastern Europe for so many years.
I had a new found energy, that feeling of insurgency resurfaced, nobody knew me here — it was bliss! We had a tiny office, I had to order desks and monitors, it felt like building something from scratch. How I missed that feeling, that startupy feeling! I had been so comfortable in our fancy office. This was what I loved, building things from scratch. Creating anew. It’s hard to describe to someone, that achieving success, however you define it, is only momentarily rewarding. It becomes normality in the blink of an eye. The exciting part is the process of getting there, building your way up to it. It’s not without reason that you often hear it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.
I had forgotten this, and being in our tiny office now, working on a standing desk that I had assembled, writing these words — I couldn’t be happier and feel more in my element. Living and working in what I consider one of the most inspirational cities in the world. Living in a new country, surrounded by people with a completely different mentality than back in Poland — talk about breaking patterns! So much new opportunity out here, for one, finally building a sales team.
Codewise got to where it is with no sales team. We never had one because I had no experience with sales. My experience led me to build self-service products. Sales was never part of our formula for rapid growth. It completely surprises people when they learn of this. Apparently in the US the common strategy is to build a mediocre product and have an excellent sales team. We’ve built an excellent product, and only now will we build an excellent sales team. Opportunity awaits — it really feels like it’s just the beginning.
The Transition: One-Man Show to Grander Vision.
I wouldn’t say that I had suddenly stopped wanting to be an affiliate marketer. After all, it was the foundation of my professional career that led to the right opportunities for everything that came next in my life. But as I matured it was a gradual and mindful process in which I started to ask questions and began to contemplate if the affiliate game was the one I wanted to do for the rest of my life. The answer revealed itself. When Codewise finally became profitable I slowly phased out all my media buying even though it practically ran on autopilot with two or three hours of work required on my end each week. So why phase it out? I didn’t get any joy out of running the campaigns and refreshing stats everyday. It became completely unfulfilling; a pure grind. Also, I started to realize that even though it only took a few hours of my time a week — it disturbed my focus which negatively influenced my real business. It was an opportunity cost not worth the price. There’s an important lesson to gain from that feeling: If you’re at that point yourself, you seriously need to start asking yourself if this is what you want to do and if this is what you should be doing. As you mature and realize that money isn’t as important as you once thought, you realize that success isn’t the amount of money you make, or how famous you are, it’s the process of doing and building something that you’re passionate about — something bigger than yourself.
The biggest challenges.
One of the the biggest challenges was leaving the affiliate mindset behind. It’s a mindset of instant gratification. It’s addictive and the highs and lows are comparable to gambling. I know this to be true, as I had a pretty serious gambling problem in my late teen years. There needed to be a shift from instant gratification to distant gratification. It meant I had to reprogram my brain, which was neither quick nor easy.
There is nothing quite like affiliate marketing in terms of a quick potential return that you can then scale — it’s thrilling. Building a business can be frustrating if you remain stuck in that mindset; it takes time and you don’t see results for months. You’re essentially sailing into the abyss not knowing what awaits you. You look behind you and only remember what you’re leaving and you look ahead and don’t see shit. It’s intimidating the first few times, and when you start out your doubts and negative projections typically guide you to failure or stagnation.
Zeropark was my second startup, my first failed miserably. The only thing that I give that effort credit for was teaching me more during the first year than any school or job that I’d previously had.
It’s all a bit like a role playing game, where you level up as you go, taking hits here and there, and as you gain experience you’re able to take on greater challenges more comfortably. Failure is part of the game. The winners grow with failure; the losers get crushed by failure. That’s what distinguishes real entrepreneurs from regular folk.
On that note, I used to be a semi-pro gamer (Counter-strike) and I also played a lot of strategy games. I feel this experience has been vital to my success, as I gamify everything I do. Money is comparable to the high score or a resource/tool that you can use to grow further. This perspective is what helped me with the emotional attachment to money that I had for many years — something that most people never abandon. They maintain a poor man’s mindset, which is a mentality which revolves around scarcity. You cling to what you have because you’re afraid you may lose it all.
The scarcity mindset is particularly common in Poland. A result of our unfortunate history. Any nation that went through communism will understandably have a scarcity mindset prevalent among its general population. You cannot get very far with this mindset. I managed to shake this type of thinking off relatively early, and because of it I was able to take a big step — perhaps defined otherwise by some — which resulted in not having too much problem with dropping $30,000 on exhibiting with Voluum at Affiliate Summit East 2013 in Philadelphia. This was huge for me back then not only because it was a ton of money back then but also because the platform wasn’t even ready. Holding back, taking my sweet time or waiting wasn’t an option, as I didn’t see the value in that either. This type of forward thinking is something we continue to do. At Dmexco and the Mobile World Congress we spend around $250,000 per show. People often ask me if I get a ROI on the conferences, I say I don’t know, I don’t measure it, but what I do know is that one good meeting could pay for everything 10 fold. That has happened before. Furthermore it makes us a far more reputable potential partner for the giants in the industry.
By taking action to create a presence Zeropark and Voluum are ahead of the competition. Where our competitors often don’t even exhibit to “save money,” we go balls out and rake in the winnings while they stand on the sidelines with their scarcity approach. I have coined this method to madness as CDD (Conference Driven Development). If you don’t have pressure to execute, by default you take on a more lax approach. CDD forces us to work harder, faster, and smarter because of the looming deadline of a massive conference where we drop big money. You have to put yourself out there to make it big, it’s not going to magically happen on its own. Spend money to make money is what I say. I’ve made people in our company lean toward this type of thinking. Obviously it’s a bit different when you’re not the owner, which is why I call myself “The Enabler.” I grant anyone any expenditure that I feel at some point might benefit Codewise.
Mistakes: I’ve made a few.
The biggest mistake — not delegating. At times, entrepreneurs have thick heads and they thoroughly oppose delegation, at least in the early stages. Some people find it easier to delegate while others struggle, but it is a skill that everyone has to learn one way or another. It’s the simple thought and projection that “nobody will do it as well as I will.” Then before you know it, you are the bottleneck of the whole operation. What you also fail to realize is that it is quite likely that no one will do things as well as you from the get go. However, if you never trust anyone enough to let them try they will never learn and never be able to become better than you at executing that certain task that you were hesitant to delegate.
This is often the hardest for ego-driven individuals and perfectionists. You can learn to keep your ego in check and when it comes to being a perfectionist, believe me, this is not a strength, it’s a massive weakness. It’s the single greatest obstacle in the path to becoming a proficient executor. You will always unnecessarily delay things. You will not delegate tasks instead of just getting shit done and charging ahead of your competitors. I used to be that perfectionist and it was only when I became mindful of it that the shifts toward success began to happen. If I was still a practicing perfectionist, I would not be where I am today. Whenever the perfectionist voice creeps into my thoughts, I simply ignore it. You have to.
Another mistake was neglecting my health, both mental and physical. I used to be very active at school — gym, sports, the lot. Work became my excuse to discontinue all that. There’s always time to do and take care of things, and nothing is more important than your health. At one point early on in my affiliate marketing career I was grinding 16 hours a day, and instead of exercising I was taking prescription muscle relaxants. This led to a whole slew of problems, including battling insomnia for years. Only now starting to get better as I’ve taken a step back from daily operations. All sorts of prescription medications, depression, mental breakdowns. It’s all part of the hard knock entrepreneur life when you push yourself to the limits and lose sight of the proper perspective of life, as a whole. Psychologists, psychiatrists, I’ve been through it all.
The Work/life balance is of utmost importance. Keeping your head straight requires effort.
When you’re young and in your 20’s you think you’re unstoppable. Such reckless behavior has extreme costs for your mind and body, and in turn, your business. On the other hand it’s also part of the journey. Each person is different and you just need to be aware of what you’re doing to yourself and figure out what your limits are. “But Rob, if you didn’t work and grind so hard you wouldn’t have gotten as far as you did.” I hear this often enough and what I say is “Bullshit. I feel I would have gotten further.” I almost lost it all because of that. My brain was a mess for a long time, running at 10–30% capacity with constant mental fog from being deprived of sleep, exercise and proper food. All I managed to do was sustain what I had set in motion when I was still able to charge ahead at 100%.
Work/life balance is the main reason we built a gym and a massage room in our new office. We’re now in the process of finishing up the floor that I mentioned I had decided to lease on a gut feeling. It’ll be open in March 2018 and we’ll be moving the gym there, making it bigger, adding a yoga/martial arts area and sauna. We have PTs working at the office, a yoga instructor, and a full-time physiotherapist. I encourage everyone to work out during working hours. The days when I would train in the middle of the day often were my most productive.
This all wraps back around to delegating. When you have so many things on your shoulders your mind is on constant overdrive. It’s like driving your car and revving it in the red zone nonstop, it’s going to break down quickly and it’s going to break down hard when it does (that’s actually how my psychiatrist explained my mental breakdown to me). You need to take your foot off the pedal and figure out where that breaking point is. Remember, when you’re burnt out you’re only a small fraction as productive as you would be if you were well rested, feeling driven and fresh. Not to mention, in the state of burn-out it’s impossible to do seriously good creative and inspired work. You just grind away at tedious-seeming tasks, finding yourself clicking between browser tabs watching the day go by. I’ve found that taking time off when I felt a burn-out coming on, like 2 weeks, has led me to coming back and doing more in a week than I did 1–2 months before the holiday. I travel all the time now. Not only does it refresh my mind and enable me to keep growing the company, I also get my best ideas when I’m out of the office. When you have that fresh perspective outside the daily routine, beautiful and creative ideas spawn in the mind. The wonderful effects of breaking patterns.
Time travel: what would I tell myself 5 years ago in 30 seconds, and why?
I used to have thoughts like this along the lines of “Damn, if only I could just travel in time and buy this cheaply, or do this differently, then I’d be super ‘successful’ now and I’d show everybody”. This type of dwelling guarantees two things: 1) wasting time; and 2) being seriously counterproductive. Ruminating, I used to do it a lot. For a brief moment, like a complete fool you feel good doing it — imagining the “successful” version of yourself. Just don’t do it. You’re projecting into the past, what is the point. It’s a quick little escape from the unsatisfying reality which you’re too afraid or lazy to change in order to make it what you really want. It’s the unsuccessful mindset that leads to these thoughts. You’re behaving exactly like the people who go out and buy lottery tickets. It’s foolish, full of false misleading hope, and you need to grow out of it. The more you dream and talk and not do, the more you start to feel like a victim of life.
I’m going to continue on this mild tangent. It’s that necessary. The most important transition in my life was growing out of the victim mentality. It is the key to everything I have accomplished.
I used to go to great lengths to avoid facing the truth that I alone am responsible for my circumstances. Afraid to acknowledge that only I stand in the way of my own success and doing everything I ever dreamed of.
I was not happy with my situation but I was too afraid to take control and change it. Taking responsibility required effort, so I chose the easy option. I ruminated about the past, dreamed about the future. I complained a lot. I blamed and criticized others, and created excuses for everything. This behavior gave me temporary relief from my own misery and dissatisfaction. With time, I began to see that dreaming and acting like a victim led to nowhere. It was pure escapism.
Where I once saw problems, I now see opportunities. From victim to victor. This is the fine line between winning and losing in life. You see the world in a whole new light, and you hope that others will accept responsibility for their own lives too.
As you become more experienced you realize that success is quite literally nothing more than a mindset, a way of thinking.
Success is only attainable once you fully accept that you alone stand in your way to doing everything you want. Where the wantrepreneur only sees problems the veteran entrepreneur only sees solutions and opportunities. They have the vision of success and failures they’ve learnt from. There are no obstacles, only the ones you project in your mind. You’ve got to commit to this, as it is not something that comes naturally. I have mindfully reached a point in my life where I see no barriers or excuses. Everything is possible and doable. I see a way out even in the direst situations where I feel most people would have given up a long time ago. That is what defines a successful person. Always yes, never no. Always doing, never throwing around empty words and not taking action.
So what would I share during my time travel back to me? If I went back and had 30 seconds to tell myself something I’d say:
Rob, stop feeling sorry for yourself and being a victim you son of a bitch. Stop talking shit, ruminating, and dreaming, and do more — it’s pathetic and you’re embarrassing both of us.
You were able to do these things, but I doubt your way could be “my way”.
If you’re sick of hearing about delegation, you need to keep listening. It is probably the most important part of growing as an entrepreneur, and you need it if you have such ambitions. I was absolutely terrible at delegating in the beginning. Three years into the company I was still ordering office supplies and equipment because I believed anyone else would order the wrong things. My control freak was in control and fought against letting things go. It was an epic battle, in which the voice of reason continued to lose for many years before it realized that being a control freak was, in fact, an act of desperation.
Delegating is something that you learn by doing. With time you see that people who you’ve entrusted with certain tasks become more proficient at executing them than you. When you get a taste of that, it’s a revelation. Your eyes suddenly open to the fact that this is the only way forward, and the only way to make it big.
I may be a lot of things, but I demand not to be a bottleneck for my business today. This requires that you shift your thinking and begin to identify your weaknesses. Get comfortable with not being the smartest one around — embrace it. The most rewarding thing at Codewise is when I see something amazing that someone or some team has done with zero input from me. These days I often have no knowledge of certain features that are being worked and sometimes I see them only once they’re live and deployed on our production servers and I love it! This big beautiful machine has become autonomous and I no longer have to be constantly stressing about being in control, trying to drive it forward “my way.” It’s now “our way” and I am rarely the best informed person to be making such decisions. I no longer am the bottleneck and as a result we’re growing ridiculously quickly.
Attracting and hiring technical talent.
People assume that because I’m the owner of an IT company, that I have to know how to code. I don’t think I can even code “Hello World”.
I am not a programmer. I desperately wanted to be, but I almost failed C++ class in high school. To pass, I had to hire a programmer that I found through an advertorial to do my assignments for me. Little did I know that was my first experience with delegating work — nobody will teach you that at school. Bartek, my ex-business partner/CTO did the hiring. What does all this reiterate? If you don’t have a technical background and you want to build a tech product, service, or platform, you need to surround yourself with the best or you will fail at some point. At best you’ll hit a technological bottleneck — something I see happening to many companies we now work with. Technology is everything in this business. Unless you have a great sales team apparently but I don’t know much about that.
How to justify the high salaries of talented tech people.
That was the easy part. I believed I was building something that had huge potential. The difficult part was finding these people and once they were found, convincing them to join a tiny company that had little to show for itself. It was a game of presenting the company and vision in a way that you didn’t even believe at that time. If you get the right players on board, give them what they need, give them autonomy and treat them with respect. Then in return they will respect the company and you. Why? Because you’re likely providing them with a life and work environment that would be difficult to find elsewhere. From my experience, autonomy and purpose outrank money in terms of what drives and motivates people. Humans desire to feel like they’re part of something; they want to have a say in things and see their input be transformed into results. When you feel a part of something you care. Slap some good old CDD on there and you’re on the right path to building something great.
Motivation is a fickle thing, it comes and goes. There are some days when you wake up and it’s there. Other days you cannot even force yourself to do the simplest tasks. The day goes by without you having done anything productive other than clicking between tabs, jumping between trivial tasks, and being on social media. You realize with experience that motivation isn’t something that you can count on. However, I’ve found that motivation follows action.
Motivation is nothing more than a set of emotions which make it easier to act and do. You cannot expect to be happy by not doing anything positive in your life, just as you cannot expect to be motivated by sitting on your ass and waiting for it.
Let’s be real here, there are a lot of people who sit around and wait for motivation to come to them instead of plowing through and taking action. This approach couldn’t be more flawed. Motivation typically follows once you take action and get the ball rolling.
Think of those senseless school assignments. You open a word document, write a title, and an introductory paragraph. You feel good about yourself and you leave it. You then come back to it right before the deadline, and you grind out another paragraph. Then another, and before you know it you’re on a roll, you’re in the zone, you’ve caught the “flow”. You ride the wave of motivation that you’ve created yourself to finish a paper that will have zero impact on the world and that no one other than your teacher will ever read. And yet, you feel motivated because emotions follow action (time constraints help, like CDD for us). The same happens in business and work.
The other thing that motivates me is the fact that I’m going to die. Oops! I said it. Yes, for some reason this topic is rarely spoken of, it’s almost considered taboo. It’s the one certainty in life, that we will all die one day.
Life is goddamn shorter than you can comprehend. If you’re reading this, you likely have around 15,000 days of life left.
Think about that for a second and let it sink in. This is something that I remind myself of every single day. Now ask yourself if you want to be the loser who waits around for motivation and the “right moment.” Or do you want to be the person who gets up and crushes it every day regardless of the odds and how you feel. I feel as though most people live as though their days are unnumbered, being blissfully ignorant of the fact they are going to die. Piss poor mannerisms come along with this, such as making excuses and blaming others for not doing things we really want to or putting off what we can do today until tomorrow.
Our days are fleeting, the beauty of life comes from its temporary nature. We have one opportunity to do everything we dream of yet somehow, it’s easy to find an excuse not to — to tell yourself that you’ll do it later. Somehow we’re often able to waste away our youth by conjuring up this idea that when you retire you will make up for the lost time. You will not, that time will be gone, you will be frail, your priorities will change, and you will realize that the time to fulfill those dreams was then, yet now it is gone. Dreams of today will become distant regrets of tomorrow if not acted upon.
Embrace the temporary nature of life. Use it to your advantage to do all the things you want now, to make that change in your life that you so desperately desire. Hate your job? Quit today. Unhappy in your relationship? Move on. Your mind is the only obstacle in the way of doing everything you ever dreamed of. There are no excuses, and no one to blame. There is nothing more empowering than this in life.
“I know it’s cliché, but life is too short to play it safe. Given our natural limit of about 100 years, we have every reason to throw ourselves at the world with a good measure of (smart) reckless abandon. That’s the mark of the imperfectionist. It won’t be satisfying at the end of your life to have solid excuses for not doing all the things you wanted to do.”
- Stephen Guise, How to be an Imperfectionist
I can articulate all these profound thoughts today, but mind you, it took me years to realize, learn, and become mindful of them. I would say that I’ve only entered this zen type of flow around a year ago; of doing things and seeing absolutely no obstacles — roaming around with a permanent success mindset. It’s infectious, it spreads to people who surround you. You attract more like-minded people and more positive opportunities arise when you’re in this state. It’s beautiful. When you’re a naysayer who sees problems in everything — little problems when there’s a big exciting vision — instead of just believing that it can be done, knowing it can be done, people don’t want to be around you. Don’t be that person.
From the obvious downside of it, there is another reason you don’t want to be the naysayer — company culture. You’re out to build something, but you may not realize that your company is nothing more than the people you hire and the products and technology they build. You are the company culture. Your company’s culture is an embodiment of your character, way of being, and persona. Nothing else. It will, of course, change and evolve over time as the company grows but it will completely reflect the type of person you are at all times. Really, you grow and mature together. This is why it is critical to be in the right mindset. If you’re greedy and money hungry, the culture will reflect that. If you still have the scarcity mindset and are fearful of the future, it’ll be projected onto your people.
Stoicism goes a long way. You need to show your toughest side in the worst moments, make it appear like you know what you’re doing and where you’re heading. It’s tiresome as hell. I’ve taken a slew of different medications and have experienced a handful of mental breakdowns over the years, days when I wouldn’t even come to the office. If you’re thinking that your road to entrepreneurship won’t be rough, think again. You may not have the same fallouts I’ve had, but you will struggle one way or another. This isn’t naysaying, it’s just saying.
People see my success and have no idea of what I’ve been through. But I don’t regret a thing, it’s changed me for the better. I’ve grown as a man, and I feel that at 31 years of age I have a deeper understanding of the inner workings of this world than most people will have in a lifetime.
Today, I feel like I know myself far better than ever before, I know what makes me tick and I know my limits — and I try to respect them. Codewise feels like a family composed of people who are all smarter than me in many ways. I’m in a good, happy place at work, even though I still burn-out here after a while due to information overload. When this happens my approach is different than medications and a breakdown. I take some time off, I go offline and I gravitate towards spending time out in nature where I am reminded that you do not much to be happy and feel at peace. In fact, you need less. Although I find myself craving tranquility more and more, the desire to build something extraordinary simply will not die off and so I constantly seek balance between the two. It’s probably about time that I start mediating regularly to facilitate this balance.
Hard physical activity also helps. I enjoy hitting the gym and really using my body after working at a computer all day. There’s nothing like some good disciplined intense physical activity to really put things into perspective. It clears the mind and resets me every time. It gets me ready to perform.
After some time away from work, I always come back to see how not being a control freak pays off. Sometimes records are broken in my absence. Nothing is more glorious. It is the ultimate confirmation that I am whatever the opposite of being a bottleneck is — The Enabler. You also start to see that you can have a serious impact on this world when you reach a certain scale. From what I’ve learned and how I have grown I now have distant plans to do some serious philanthropy and start other — not necessarily digital — businesses to make a positive impact on this crazy world we live in. I’m fascinated by high-tech sustainable fish farming and it’s something that I want to pursue.
Work culture: Recruiting and hiring A-players.
I often get asked about recruitment. Employers tell me that they’re unable to expand their business because the people they hire are not competent enough to delegate to. Here’s my question, why would you hire someone who is incompetent? Are you insecure about hiring people who are clearly smarter than you? This happens surprisingly often at mismanaged companies. It turns junkyard ugly, too, and becomes a dog-eat-dog culture. Instead of working together people find themselves fighting against each other to move up or keep control by not sharing information. At Codewise every single person is at least competent enough to be able to thrive in an autonomous environment where he or she decides what and how to do things to move us towards our business goals.
The most important thing that you need to get right in the beginning is surrounding yourself with two or three amazing people and then hiring A-players. Don’t hire anybody just because you got tired of looking or because you start thinking that you’ll never find the right person. Do not settle. Just like in real life, you do not want to settle for a relationship which you’re not 100% convinced of, because it’ll affect the rest of your life. Yes I know, people still do this and it’s unfortunate. In business, especially in the beginning, do not settle for anyone but A-players, the absolute best. They will define the whole future of your company. Additionally, if things go well you will be working with these people for years to come. If you hire B-players, they’ll later start hiring C-players and before you know it you have a shit show and not a company. Your first hires are the most important, you need to seriously vet them, feel out if they’re the kick-ass type or at least have that potential to be if they’re young or junior.
Hindsight is bliss. Of course, you don’t know these things right away, you pick up on the nuances as you have the experiences.
I also cannot recommend going into starting a business alone. Find a partner you can trust, someone with a different set of skills and slightly different point of view, but not to the extent that you argue over petty bullshit. When you do this the interview process becomes a two-person show. You go in together, discuss afterward, and come to a mutual decision.
Another thing I recommend that should not be underestimated is using headhunting agencies. We’ve actually only just built our in-house recruitment team recently. Up until now most of our hiring was done by agencies or word of mouth. People tend to think headhunting agencies are pricey. They are, but if you get the right one, it’s totally worth it. Get over this as quickly as you can. Remember, your company is nothing more than the people you hire. Why wouldn’t you splash out some cash and pay a professional to help you find exactly who you’re looking for? Hiring isn’t easy. Not everyone is good at it; they may lack emotional intelligence. If you’re having thoughts like this, then definitely work with recruitment firms. Spend the money, save yourself the time, and find the people you need. Do whatever it takes or you will likely fail.
Burn-outs: impossible to avoid but possible to address.
I touched upon the health issues I faced, the stress, the sleepless nights. At times, running your own business feels like a massive burden and can be a very lonely experience. All your friends are comfortable and safe working at corporations and other established firms and you have no one you can really talk too. Depression creeps in and you start questioning what the hell you’re doing all of it for. The beginning is the toughest. You don’t really know what you’re doing, you have little experience and yet you have no choice but to do or die. It’s the time when you learn exponentially, it’s the time that really defines what caliber of entrepreneur you are.
For me it seems so long ago it feels hard to recollect now. What made me question everything was just feeling like shit day after day, mental fog from being deprived of sleep and being tired of waking up feeling worse than when I went to bed. The stress felt like it was strangling me and the only way I found to cope was to drink. It was seriously hellish and lonely.
I’ve got to tell you, there is likely to be more bad times than good when you’re starting out. You start hiring people, before you know it you have 10 people. You then realize you are responsible for them and their families — that on its own is a lot of pressure to deal with as a young person. Being responsible just for yourself can be tough when you’re in your early 20’s.
Going back to the loneliness, that was often the worst part. You start to feel very different to other people as you learn more about the intricacies of how the world really works. You start to see that most people just sort of go blindly about their lives not asking questions, just being part of the system. It becomes difficult to find anyone you can really talk to about these things, but at the same time you realize that you’re privileged to be in a position to ask these questions. I like to use an analogy of a river to describe life. Most people’s lives are just that, water mindlessly flowing downstream, going where everyone else is going. Some of us try to break free, try to forge our own flow, it requires you to go against the current, it requires you to break through the bank. Most of those that try will dry up and fail, but some will create a new stream which with time will become a new river and others will begin to flow down the path you forge.
Get an education, go work at a corporation, find a partner, get married, buy a house, and have kids. That’s the path of least resistance.
Like with everything in life there are good days and bad days. You need to remember you’ve strayed off the beaten path that was laid out for you since the day you were born — the path that 99% of people embark on. There’s nothing new on this path that hasn’t been done by someone else before, seen by another. This path of least resistance is easy to take and has little risk that you control. Just because everyone is doing it doesn’t make it right. When I was a kid I’d often think about that path compared to a hearty battle that put me against the lure of the herd mentality. It takes grit and you have to plow through the struggles, try to come out on top, and grab the world by the balls and say, “I’m going to do things my way! The rules that apply to everyone else do not apply to me!”.
The years prove the lessons you learned, the ways that you’ve grown.
Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.
When you reach that point and you think back to everything that you’ve gone through… you feel you’d do it again, because you realize that you’re blessed to live a life that others will only dream of for the rest of theirs. Your deep understanding of the inner workings of the world that everyone else is blind to puts you in a position to change it. This is the most liberating feeling I know and it’s worth every cost.
To your success,
If you’ve read this far, I am sincerely humbled… I truly hope you enjoyed the story and found some inspiration for yourself — if you did leave some claps so that others will be more easily able to find this story. If you have any questions leave them in the comments section below and I’ll get back to each one.
To get an insiders look into what it’s like at our Codewise HQ I recommend episode #2 of my vlog: