Gerard Adams is known as The Millennial Mentor and is a thought leader, serial entrepreneur, angel investor, and philanthropist. He co-founded the popular online news platform Elite Daily and sold it for $50 million to The Daily Mail. At only 30 years old, he has backed 9 companies. Discover his story in today’s podcast.
Why Success Without Fulfillment Is The Ultimate Failure in the Millennial Generation
Welcome to the show, with me today is Gerard Adams, co-founder of the Elite Daily, the number one news platform for Generation Y and the millennial generation, an experienced angel investor, Millennial thought-leader, and social entrepreneur. Welcome to the show, Gerard.
Thanks for having me, Mark. Pleasure.
So how did you get started as an entrepreneur, Gerard?
Well, you know, it’s funny. I never even knew what the word “entrepreneur” meant when I became an entrepreneur, to be honest with you. Growing up I always was somebody who, I like to say was a young hustler. I had this hustler mentality. I had to see both my parents work seven days a week and they didn’t hand me anything, so I had to go and earn everything on my own. I had to grow up pretty fast and did a lot of odd jobs; sold t-shirts in high school, sold car parts, I was just doing different side hustles throughout my life, and I was just always interested in the internet. I wasn’t really the smartest kid in school. I was more of a street-smart person. I was also very charismatic; I was good with people. I was able to build a lot of relationships, understand people’s strengths, weaknesses, and I was taught at a very young age to be a leader by my father, not to be a follower. So I very much always rallied people up and got people together.
What did he do, Gerard, to teach you? When you said he taught you. Did he specifically sit down and say, “This is what you need to do,” or was it more just by observing him and picking it up from him, if you like?
He would actually say the word “leader” to me quite often, that “You need to be a leader,” not to be a follower, not to be afraid to be myself, to go against the grain and to stand up for what I believe in. To have integrity, never to sacrifice my integrity for anything or anyone. You know, talked to me about his life and how he grew up, and his struggles, and that he had to sacrifice a lot to get here and be a leader in his own right. And he used to talk to me very much about growing up in Newark during the riots and during that time, and how my grandfather came from Ellis Island and was an immigrant here. So a lot of also knowing the history behind my family.
Then he would also leave notes everywhere, hidden notes in the refrigerator, in a book, in my book-bag for school he would always hide notes with famous quotes from leaders in history. It could be a quote from a Roman Emperor like Marcus Aurelius, or from John Adams, those type of tactics he always used.
Lovely, a nice story. I think you mentioned when we last spoke, you’ve got brothers and sisters right?
I do, I have two wonderful sisters who were always like my rock. My older sister I always looked up to. She’s a beautiful mother and entrepreneur herself with a company called Cake it, Baby where she does all of these unbelievable, fancy cakes and different customary cookies, everything baked, and it’s her own little solo entrepreneur business. It’s doing really well, she’s known as the best around. And then my little sister, Monica, super proud of her. She’s actually a NLP practitioner and expert in meditation. She started a company called Operation Muse, for young women to understand how they connect their heart to their head, she calls it. So I’m really proud of both of them.
And they got the same treatment of these notes hidden in the fridge as well, right?
I’d like to think that I was the first one getting those notes, Mark. I gotta tell you.
No, it’s a lovely story. Okay, so I interrupted. You were telling me you’re beginning to get interested in the internet. Let’s carry on with your creation story, if you don’t mind.
Yeah, and then what happened next was my father really thought that the road to success was to get a great education. I saw him working for a big Fortune 100 company, Prudential Insurance, and he worked for them for 30 years over his lifetime before fast forward, I’ll get to what ended up happening, which is pretty interesting but, he told me that was the road to success. And I really didn’t think that resonated with me. I didn’t understand going and working for the big boss and working my way up just yet. I kind of was a little unsure about it, and I was afraid of not being able to get into the best school. He kept pushing to get into Princeton, and I just wasn’t the smartest kid. So I ended up getting into a local college, and my goal was going to be able to transfer. But then first semester I realized quickly that I looked at school as a really big business; they were telling me what classes to take, I was getting into debt to be able to pay for school, and I just saw this opportunity, what was happening with tech and internet boom and I said to myself, “If there’s ever a chance to take a risk on starting my own business, I should do it now while I’m young.”
This is what, six or seven years ago was it?
No, this was over ten years ago. I was probably 18 years old at the time, probably 12 years ago.
Which business I mean, you’re well known, obviously for Elite Daily. How did you find yourself in the Elite Daily in that business if you like? What led up to that opportunity?
Sure. It was a long road, it didn’t happen obviously right from the gate. I had to grow my passion for marketing and for content creation. It started with the first company believe it or not, the first company, it was totally separate from Elite Daily. I wanted to learn how to invest into public companies. I wanted to learn what the stock market was, and how I learned how to invest, that was where the wealth was going to be created, especially like looking at New York City which was very close to me growing up in New Jersey. I didn’t understand where there was place for someone like me as a novice to learn, online. There were a couple of forums and chat-rooms but none of them had any credibility based upon the members. So I looked at the model of eBay, Amazon, at that time, and I said, “If I was able to use that rating system for each member and created a forum where traders can now rank each other and discuss this company that they were investing in and trading, it would be unique in the marketplace and it would allow me to now get experts onto my site, chatting. And the ones that had four to five star rankings, with gold stars, I knew were expert traders, and investors so I can study from them and that’s a way for me to solve my problem as well as building something of value that would be used in the marketplace online.”
That was my first idea. I got 10,000 initial members and it was doing really, really well and it led me to then getting a job for a public company that was a nanotechnology company reinventing the battery. That was my first kind of intrapreneur type of opportunity where, either of the CEO became a mentor and he taught me everything about investor relations. I wrote all his press releases, I did video marketing for him, I did all of his marketing for the company.
Great experience, right?
It was an unbelieveable, priceless experience. It led me to my first failure, which was really important for me in my career.
Wasn’t that when the technology didn’t work, right? It failed in some demo? I seem to remember you told me the story.
Yes. So everything is going great. A year goes by, I decide to do a first ever demonstration of the nano battery. Classic demo day, they didn’t prepare, crossed the leads incorrectly and the thing didn’t work and everything went like hell. I was with like my tail between my legs, young man thinking my career was over.
How did that feel at that point? What did you do to drag yourself up off the floor?
Yeah I mean I thought my career was over, but what happened was interesting, having a couple of CEOs come up to me and say, “Hey kid, I’m surprised you got me in the room. Here’s my card, call me.” They thought I did a good job to actually get them in the room and from a marketing standpoint. So I ended up saying, I said, “You know what, if I was able to do this.“ Like it was out of my hands, right. It was management that was supposed to be prepared for the actual demonstration. It was my job just to get people paying attention and I did a good job at that. So I said to myself, after I had gotten those cards from some CEOs, I said, “If I can do what I did for this company, there’s no reason why I can’t do it for many other companies that will be prepared.” So that’s when I started my own marketing agency to help small companies, and built that up to $10 million in revenue by the time I was 24.
And then, where Elite Daily kind of came in was, then the market crashed in 2008 and everything changed. All my friends are graduating from college and they now couldn’t get a job, you know. My father gets laid off from Prudential. My business takes a really sharp turn and nobody wants to spend money on marketing because of the market. So I was in a place where I was like, “Holy cow, what do I do?” And the first thing that I did was I realized that all of my generation, the millennial generation, was not paying attention to the true economics of the country; they were paying attention to the Kardashians or Jersey Shore, reality tv. So I created a documentary called College Conspiracy to talk about the student loan debt crisis and that got millions of views. I got asked to be on Bloomberg, Fox, and it grew my passion for making documentaries and for content.
Then after I got notoriety for these documentaries and I was continuing to hedge the market with my investments, I ended up having an intern work for me. She came to me and said she wanted to start a website for the younger generation around business. When we look to study the marketplace I said, you know what, “Right now Wall St. is tainted, and I think we could do something even bigger. I think we could do something like the Huffington Post of Generation Y and the millennial generation, like a one-stop shop in all verticals, health, dating, business, humor, entertainment, everything. One full newspaper online for Generation Y.” And we agreed and went full force ahead working on it from my apartment at first and then built it to now having over 200 employees. Last year, God willing, we were acquired by the Daily Mail for $50 million.
Wow, what a story, what a story. Then I think going forward, subsequent to that, you had a life changing – an epiphany almost, based on the quote from Tony Robbins.
So you’d made the money, you’d done the exit, you felt probably pretty good about everything you’d built and all the jobs you created. What happened then?
First of all, just making that decision for the sale was very, very hard. Everything stopped. And you just don’t know, is it the right time to sell or not? Right? Especially in an era where we’ve seen all these companies in a matter of a short period of time getting sold for billions, you’re kind of not sure if you’re getting shortchanged or not. We were under pressure, a decision had to be made before the end of the year and we had less than probably 45 days to make the decision. I was running around the city meeting advisors, meeting investors, and it came down to this one last board meeting where it’s finally huge board meeting with some of the biggest venture capitalists and I looked at my two other cofounders and I said, “Let’s go into the other room and talk.”
Us three went into the other room and we said to each other, “We started this thing together, let’s make an educated decision together.” We looked at the Facebook algorithms how they were changing, and we thought that that was really going to make a significant impact on our traffic and we said, “You know what, the Daily Mail is going to give us the infrastructure to scale, to provide security for all the jobs that we created, and this was the dream, you know? We all still own a large percentage of the business, and it was like, I think this is the right decision to make. So we did it, and it was emotional after that. It’s like, “Holy cow, I can’t believe we started this thing in an apartment as an idea, and this is a dream for any entrepreneur.”
And then I was a little bittersweet not knowing like, man, should we have waited? All this stuff, and then it was until I took care of my parents, paid off their mortgage, and then talked to some of my friends growing up and they’re like, “Man, this is so huge.” I knew that I wanted to tell my story. I’ve never told my story before, I had only just worked and built businesses. I was like, “I really want to share my story for kids like me that grew up that weren’t the smartest kids, then that they worked hard, they were passionate, they never give up, they have integrity, they are leaders, they have discipline, they have a lot of the characteristics that I learned and gained, and I can help impact this millennial generation.
I ended up getting invited to go see Tony Robbins. I sat in the front row, and I was so impacted by him and his presence, and his quote, when he said to me, “Gerard, success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.” That’s when I really took a shift and said to myself, “Now I’m going to focus on really being a leader for this generation.” I started a nonprofit incubator in Newark where my father originally grew up, and basically what we like to call “the hood.” Kids are street-smart, they don’t have that many opportunities, they don’t have a good foundation, they don’t have the resources like you may have in Silicon Valley or New York, and day in and day out I’m over there introducing entrepreneurship, bringing in startups to help make Newark big again. And we created a video series called Leaders Create Leaders.
We’ll get to that in a minute because I know that’s just been launched. Let’s step back a little bit. You represented the voice of Generation Y. What is special about the Millennial generation, and I’m curious about your decision not wanting to go and follow your father’s footsteps into a large organization. Is that a common kind of emotion or decision for Millennials? How would you characterize the millennial generation relationship to employment, if you like, Gerard?
I don’t think that everybody should want to become an entrepreneur. I think everyone should learn about entrepreneurship because it’s very important, especially when you’re in a large organization. I think the reason why so many of us now want to be called an entrepreneur, or don’t want to go and work for someone, it’s not that we don’t want to go and work for a large organization, I don’t think, it’s just that for me particularly, going through what happened in 2008 through 2010 with the financial crisis everything that we’ve been told we felt like we were lied to. And now all of us in the millennial generation are kind of graduating, and a lot of us again, we couldn’t get jobs, we couldn’t keep jobs.
Even the advertising world, the way that we were sold things changed. Now there’s influencer marketing, now we’re seeing like how big we can see eye-to-eye through social media with different influencers and build relationships with brands and become more trusted. And we’re seeing a lot of disruption with a lot of new companies that are coming up and the way that we relate to them and we feel they are more authentic. I just think that really the financial crisis changed a lot and played a big part in the way we think whether you’re in the millennial generation or not.
Yep, so kind of let down, the model doesn’t work anymore. I guess entrepreneurship is about getting in control and hustling, again, and feeling like you can create your own future versus depending on other people. Is that part of it?
Yes, 100%. It kind of forced us to think, “Hey how can we create…” like we do at Elite Daily, how can we now create there’s a lot of great publications, we should create one just for our millennial generation. And a lot of the millennials generation now fees that we have the resources, now it’s different, the times have changed where we can now quickly get a business launched and have a ton of resources to learn about how to launch a company, the way that we communicate at work with using different technology like Slack, just the way that we communicate to each other. Everything is rapidly changing and that’s why we’re seeing so much disruption now with a lot of new companies. One thing I know for sure that hasn’t changed, and that’s the grit and the work and the teamwork and the culture and the things that you have to do in order to build a business. It’s not easy, that’s for sure.
Yeah, sure. I’m also curious, how important is the sense of purpose to the millennial generation? People say that the millennial generation wants to bring their dreams to work, which you’ve never heard in previous generations. My generation I’m a bit older than yours, even your dad’s generation I wouldn’t talk like that. Is this real or is this just a myth, an urban myth, if you like?
No I think it’s very real. I mean, I can speak for myself. I went through it myself. I could very easily have been selfish after selling the company and said, “I’m just gonna go and not really have this feeling of wanting to give back.” And I think a lot of companies are seeing a ton of success. I think it’s just very important to us that we have this sense of purpose. We’ve seen some amazing companies that are integrating that into their business models like Toms for instance. I’m getting ready to interview somebody named Joe Huff in my Leaders Create Leaders series who created a company called Lstn where it’s headphones, these really great headphones like Beats, but every purchase they’re able to give hearing aids to a kid in need. I just think it’s starting to really play a big role in the world.
I also know you also work with a lot of CEOs of large companies, and you’re helping them, I suppose to become more relevant the the millennial generation, to attract and retain them. Can you say a little bit more about what are the concerns of these CEOs for these large mature companies? Tell me about the typical conversation, obviously without mentioning names or businesses.
You hit the nail on the head. They want to learn how can they retain the millennial generation to want to be able to work for these larger companies, and be happy working for them. I think that the challenge is that, you know, a lot of the millennial generation today, a lot of things matter to them; they still want freedom, they still want to be in a position that challenges them, the culture is placing major, major role. At Elite Daily if we weren’t able to build a certain type of culture within our office and with our employees and team, we would not have been nearly as successful. So it’s like how to build the right culture.
What specifically did you do with the intern to build this culture? Tell me about that because lots of CEOs I work with say, “I know we’ve got to change culture, it just takes too long.” What did you do, because Elite Daily, you built it pretty quickly didn’t you? Give us some specific examples of what kind of culture you were trying to build and how did you do that, Gerard?
Everything from as little as, every single birthday got celebrated. As crazy as that sounds we celebrated birthdays. It’s as simple as that to as large as making sure that we did every year a very large retreat. We had also speakers come into the office and really motivate everybody. We offered resources for all the employees for them to be able to have freedom. We offered them different resources and made sure that they felt that they were very much incentivized to get their work done, but we didn’t handcuff them. By giving them a little bit of freedom, almost like reverse engineering, we would even say like, “You can take off at any time you want. There’s no rules. But we have to see you to be dedicated.” It was almost like they were like, “Wait a second, I don’t even get that.” And if somebody abused it, of course we knew they weren’t for us. But by doing it, what’s crazy, they actually started working more. They were afraid, they’re like almost scared to take off their paid vacations. And then we created ways of having hackathons, we did competitions, we did every pizza Friday, our CTO would give classes to anybody in the company that wanted to learn a little bit more about coding maybe or design.
Little things that they felt they were gaining more than just a paycheck. They were gaining knowledge, they were gaining an experience, they were gaining friendships, they were gaining this feeling that they are so a part of this growth of this company, that they want to work for it forever. Doing that is definitely not easy. What we do is typically we go in and we have these big sessions with everybody and all the ones in the millennial generation particularly, and ask them, “What do you look for? What would you want?” And then we’ll create a plan with the CEO.
Obviously, I guess some of this stuff is easy to do, others is a lot harder for a large, mature organization.
For sure, for sure. Even communication-wise.
We’re building solutions. With Elite Daily we built some of custom solutions on the way that information was shared and easily more accessible, because yeah, that was important for our organization when it scaled. Sometimes it was hard; how do you source information? You don’t want to go and have to send an email or walk all the way to another department, we wanted to make a huge database for people within the company to have information very easily accessible. And coming up with certain solutions like that also made people want to work there longer because it would make them more efficient.
Absolutely, I can understand. When you go into a large company I understand the conversations you’re having with the CEO and the executive team what advice do you have for people your age in the millennial generation who are maybe stuck in the cubicle wondering whether they’re in the right place? You said right at the beginning that developing entrepreneurial skills is important whether you want to be an entrepreneur or whether you’re in the corporate environment. So what kind of conversations do you have with the folks in the cubicles, mid-twenties, early-thirties wondering whether they’re in the right place or whether they should be going off and starting something from scratch?
You know, it’s getting down to just getting to understand their why, and really digging down into them as to, “Hey look, be honest. What are you looking for in life?” It’s okay if it’s not this and this is just one step to maybe what you’re looking for and your goals in life, but connecting with them and hearing them about what are their goals in life, how do they perceive their role in that position to help them get to that goal, and making sure that we express to them that we want to help them get to their goal and that we want to be a part of that at the end of the day. I think that’s most important.
You touched on this a few minutes ago, Gerard, your web video series, Leaders Create Leaders. Can you say a little bit about what led up to that and what kind of feedback are you getting from it, how are people using it, what’s been the experience after what did you say? I think you’ve had ten episodes so far? By the time this goes out you’ll probably have 15 or so. How’s that going?
I mean it’s going fantastic. I’ll always have a passion for creating content, it’s just something innate in me. I have such an amazing network of such inspiring, interesting individuals, both male and female, and for me it’s leveraging my platform to be able to share stories and get people, young, aspiring entrepreneurs, all the way up to founders and CEOs to just hear some other inspiring stories about how people have had to overcome their own adversities and obstacles and what lessons we can take from their stories that have gotten them to this success that they have. And we have fun with it. We do day in the life with each person, and it’s been pretty cool.
Wonderful. Where do you think this is going to take you? What’s the long-term plan for this series? You’re obviously enjoying it, it’s getting a lot of resonance in the community, people are giving you lots of feedback. It’s right up your street in terms of the millennial generation, this is what you do really well. Where could this go do you think?
It’s a great question. For me I’m not worried about it so much. I’m more just worried about creating quality content that will resonate with an audience and continuing to do that and do it well. When you do that it’s pretty cool how you don’t even have to worry about what opportunities will come, they kind of manifest on their own It’s already starting to happen with some of the individuals that have been on the show, Lewis Howes, Gary Vaynerchuk, a growth hacking engineer recently and we’re now doing a little course and offering a growth hacking course to individuals. When you do quality good work and put out good quality content it’ll grow, and eventually I would love to do a tour and a big live event. If I were to guess, I would say I would love to be able to have it be built to eventually have a great live event doing some kind of tour.
Lovely. And I guess some of the content is relevant to feed back into the corporate world for some of these organizations who are struggling with figuring out how to attract or retain the millennial generation and how to deal with all of this disruption you talked about earlier, right?
Some episodes are not. You know, they’re kind of like unconventional stories of just individuals, solo entrepreneurs, but it’s still for instance the last one was about content, how one person was creating guerrilla-style content to build his brand, so I guess there definitely are nuggets, and then we’re also going to have an episode that’s specifically around this topic of Millennial retention and being a CEO in a large organization. I look forward to that episode coming out soon.
Yeah, wonderful. So let’s begin to wrap this up on the millennial generation in the workplace, Gerard. This has been fantastic, I’m glad we finally managed to talk. I sent a few questions to you in advance. First one is, what are your morning rituals?
Morning rituals would be… Meditation in the shower. I like to take my time in the shower and really zone out, think about things, try to think clearly. A good breakfast, juice is important to me. Walking my dog GiGi, she’s important to me in the morning. You know, stretching, just getting ready for the day and that’s like a typical early morning for me.
Great. Second question, this is somewhat harder, I guess. What have you changed your mind about recently?
Wow. You know, I gotta say, I don’t know… From a business standpoint… Well, personal or business?
Yeah, exactly. So you might have had a belief or you might have had a distinction, or just a way of looking at the world, which you might have inherited, or it’s how everyone looked at the world and you’ve just sort of inherited it, and then one day you woke up and thought, “You know what, it’s actually rather different.” Is there anything like that? You’ve touched on one already, which is this idea of success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure, which I guess was something that forced you to change your mind.
But just wondered if there’s anything else, profound that’s really shaken your world recently.
Really just opening up the incubator in Newark. Over the first couple of months I had some people that were really doubters, and I got to a point where I almost doubted it myself. I said, “Oh my gosh, it’s a big, big job. A lot of the individuals don’t even know entrepreneurship, and how can I get startups to want to come to Newark and work from Newark?” And it was like really tough. And then one day I had a young man who came by, and I happened to be outside on a phone call and he said, “What is this place?” I said, “This is Fownders?” By the way, for everyone listening it’s FOWNDERS. com, with the word “own” in the middle to teach ownership. And I said, “This is Fownders. Why don’t you come in and learn about what we’re building and learn about entrepreneurship.” And he’s like, “Alright.” So he came in and after 30 seconds he comes outside and goes, “Nah, this isn’t for me man. I don’t belong here,” he said, “I gotta go.”
And I said, “What do you mean you don’t belong here? I built this place for kids like you, so that you can learn how to take your struggles in life, get off the streets and start channeling your energy in a positive way with likeminded, that people would also want to get on the right path. This was built for you. Get back in there. If you go through life with this fear that you think you don’t belong, you’ll never get up, you’ll never get onto the street. But if you actually lean into that fear and feel that you belong and put yourself into uncomfortable situations with people like this and situations like this, you’re not the smartest person in the room, that’s when you’re actually going to really grow.” And he looked at me, and I kid you not, I seen this kid’s mindset change instantly. He went in there, he started talking to some of the individuals in there, and by the time he went to leave that day, he stood up, he shook my hand, he said, “Gerard, you just changed my life. I want to thank you so much, and I promise you that I’m going to be dedicated and you’ll start to see me show up here every single day.” And I seen him show up, this young man named Shaq, like Shaquille O’Neal, show up everyday. And that one person, I seen him change, I said to myself, “I don’t care what people say, even if it’s one kid at a time, I’m going to continue with this Fownders.”
Lovely. Nice story. Final question: what advice do you have for a young Millennial, maybe about to leave college now, as they’re stepping out into the big, wide world? What advice do you have to them?
I would tell them don’t procrastinate. Just do it. This is your time to actually take a risk in your life. This isn’t your time to like, go and party, or take your time. Put yourself in uncomfortable situations, where you’re going to be able to learn, and just do it. Don’t give up and procrastinate, don’t overanalyze things, just actually go out in life and get out there. It makes it happen.
Great stuff. Where can folks get in touch with you Gerard?
You can follow me on Twitter @IamGerardAdams, Instagram as just my name, @GerardAdams, my newsletter is at GerardAdams.com. If anyone wants to see the video series it’s at GerardAdamsTV on both Facebook and YouTube. And again, Fownders, if anyone would like to apply to Fownders, has a startup, has an idea, or wants to learn more about entrepreneurship, they very much can. That’s at www.fownders.com.
So it’s been great to talk to you Gerard and a real pleasure having you on the show. I’m hoping that we’ll going to be able to meet face-to-face. We’re a few thousand miles apart, but I’m sure it’s not impossible. Wish you all the luck, I’m sure our audience enjoyed it as much as I did. Thanks very much for your time today.
Thank you. Look forward to meeting you as well, Mark, and I’ll see you soon when I get to travel over to Europe. Anyone that visits New York City or New Jersey or the East Coast, you’d have a friend here. Feel free to get in touch and I’d be more than happy to show you around.
Wonderful, that’s very kind of you. Thanks very much Gerard.
[Tweet “My father would leave hidden notes, with famous quotes from leaders in history.”]
[Tweet “If there’s a chance to start my own business I should do it now while I’m young.”]
[Tweet “My generation paying attention to Kardashians, not the true economics of country”]
[Tweet “Tony Robbins told me, success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure”]
[Tweet “Everyone should learn about entrepreneurship especially in a large organization.”]
[Tweet “Lean into fear, put yourself into uncomfortable situations, you’re going to grow”]
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