Brett Neese – Founder of Just Run

[quote style=”boxed”]If you continuously run small projects and experiments, and look deeply into what was both good and bad about them and learn from their outcomes, you can never truly fail; you’ll always have gained knowledge about what works and doesn’t.[/quote]

Brett Neese is a 19-year-old tinkerer, builder, and developer. In high school, he interned at a mobile user experience consulting firm, helped found the QC Co-lab (hackerspace in Davenport, Iowa), and wrote mobile device reviews for his school paper. While attending community college, he independently learned how to code and built Kikr, an open-source mobile social loyalty system, allowing him to become highly active and influential in local startup activities. His work led him to mingle with people often twice his age at events like Big Omaha and the Iowa Startup Fair.

While he’s still just breaking into the startup scene, he’s had an amazing journey that has led him to close places like Omaha and Des Moines, and far away locations like Palo Alto, California. He’s ventured hundreds of miles via a Greyhound and thousands of miles by plane, and, most impressively, did it entirely on microwave macaroni and cheese, a part-time minimum wage job at his community college, and the support of those he encountered along the way.

Now a full-time developer at Domiknow, an exciting Des Moines-based internet marketing startup, his tremendous luck led him to the realization that he needed to share his journey with as many other young people as possible. This influenced him to found Just Run, Co., an organization devoted to empowering young creators and builders by giving them the tools and support they need to start becoming all they can be.

What are you working on right now?

I’m building Just Run, Co., an organization devoted to empowering young creators and builders by giving them the tools and support they need to start building and becoming all they can be.

We’re starting by combining some of the key experiences I’ve had over the past year by sending a bus from Chicago to San Francisco and hosting a hackathon on board, as well as mini-conferences at each stop along the route. We’re raising money on Indiegogo in hopes that we have some capital to work with and to present investors and sponsors with our mission and show them that there’s already a bunch of support for our project. I realize this is a highly ambitious project, which is why we’ll probably produce a smaller bus trip before I go as far and as big as I envision.

The important part is that we begin to start building and failing and rebuilding as soon as possible so we can have a chance to find out what works and what doesn’t. I tend to stay away from talking about how this will affect systems like education down the road, but I believe that our humble project will begin to pave the way into destigmatizing the notion that there are far more potential young builders and creators than we realize whose talents are being systematically destroyed by centuries-old systems and beliefs.

Where did the idea for Just Run, Co. come from?

I was incredibly lucky. I met the right people. I talked the right talk. I became an entrepreneur almost by accident.

A year ago, I was flown out to California–for free–simply because a friend I met via Twitter thought I needed the inspiration. The individual who orchestrated the affair risked a lot of his personal clout for it to happen, and luckily, what he did worked. It allowed me to see what was possible, and what I could be, and it was huge for both me and him.

I’ve had other truly amazing experiences over the past year, from the time I crashed at StartupCity Des Moines during Startup Weekend because I couldn’t afford to stay anywhere else (my team ended up winning) to the time when my video contest entry won the Kaufmann Foundation’s ticket to Big Omaha. It’s been a whirlwind. And I’m incredibly lucky.

And yet, I continue to meet other young people who are stuck in the position I was in a year ago–and even some who are in the situation I was in when I was in high school. And I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why that is and why I needed a trip to California to kick my ass into gear. What I’ve realized is that even if you’re extremely intelligent, high school can be an incredibly discouraging experience. There are a myriad of exceptions, often due to organizations, groups and movements, such as athletics, drama club, 4H, Boy Scouts and even foreign exchange student programs. But there’s nothing that universally exists at the high school level that caters to young people who are incredibly curious and multifaceted enough that they might end up working at or even founding any type of startup or creative organization. As a result, we have many young people who are incredibly intelligent but discouraged by their experiences in high school. They get pushed off to college not having any idea what they want to do or what they can do with their life. And that hurts all of us in very practical ways–from raising the cost of tuition to lowering the number of talented young people who are eager and ready to start working on big projects.

So I’ve looked back at what happened to my life and looked into what’s happening to the lives of others who are currently dealing with the problems I faced, and I’ve realized that the world doesn’t have to be this way. There’s nothing stopping me from starting to build organizations and systems that empower creative, ambitious young people and allow them to see what’s possible, what they can learn, and what they can be and build.

While that’s fun to think about, it means nothing unless I start building a practical solution and figuring out what works in this arena (and what doesn’t). So, in search of a way to start solving this problem, I naturally looked at my life and starting working on a plan that combines the most important experiences I’ve had over the past year.

Several months ago, a close friend of mine and I were discussing a decision I was contemplating. He told me something that I immediately printed and posted all over my wall, and hope to never forgot. He told me “to take my life and never stop running.” He said that he was scared of what the next five years will bring if I just keep at it. All Forrest Gump jokes aside, that’s exactly what Just Run, Co. stands for. And I hope that with my work, I can begin to make a very practical difference in the lives of young people like me.

What does your typical day look like?

I’ve taken special care to construct my days under the precepts that I should always be learning and always be trying to experience new, exciting things while having enough focus to continue pushing forward each and every day. I wake up around 7:00 a.m. My alarm is set to NPR; I find that by immediately starting out my day learning about new and intriguing things, I can move through the world with a wonderful curiosity to know more and learn more. I find balance and eccentricity to be incredibly important when I choose what I’m going to learn. NPR does a great job of featuring extremely interesting subjects that I would never have otherwise considered researching on my own.

As I’m listening to the radio, I quickly shower and slurp down a bowl of cereal as I dress. I hop on my bike and head to work downtown. I try to be at the office by 8:00. I spend the morning sifting through the code I wrote the previous day to determine the best thing to start building next. As a junior developer, I’m fortunate enough to be in a position that allows me to focus on not only building what is asked of me but also working to improve and broaden my skill set in order to write the best possible code.

Around 11:30, I usually head out to grab a bite of lunch. Sometimes there are educational sessions or networking lunches somewhere downtown during my lunch hour, and if there are, I try to attend those. I’m a big advocate of trying to take advantage of any chance to learn or network that I can, and so I try to attend as many random events as possible. Even in a city as small as Des Moines, there is a ton of activity and there are plenty of chances to learn, educate and better yourself.

But sometimes there isn’t something happening during lunch, and when that happens, I try to catch a TED video or other talk while I’m eating and replying to emails at my desk. I also tend to use this time to update the Just Run, Co. Twitter account and Facebook page with the interesting materials I found during the previous 24 hours. It’s great that I’ve stumbled into a world with so much wonderful inspiration around every corner, and I love sharing my findings whenever I can in hopes that someone will see them. I hope doing so will fill a void in the lives of others and convince them to try something that they otherwise wouldn’t have tried.

I usually spend my afternoons coding out the solution I was contemplating during the morning. That will usually take me until about 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., but I don’t always stop. I’ve been known to work very late, sometimes to the point where it’s easier just to sleep at the office. I’m trying to simplify and separate my life from work as much as possible, so I don’t have internet (or a chair or desk) at my apartment. I’ve been told it’s kosher to go ahead and work on Just Run, Co. and other personal stuff at the office, and that can get me working until incredibly late in the evening.

But I admit that I usually try to find something exciting to do to end my day. There’s often a networking event, educational event, launch party or something else I can go to in the evening. I try to attend as many of those in as much of a diverse range as possible. And if there isn’t something happening, I’ll often try to catch a concert or music show. I’ve recently fostered a horribly wonderful addiction to music, and going to those types of events is a lot of fun; they unlock experiences and moods that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Believe it or not, jumping up and down while listening to someone strum his or her heart out on an electric guitar is one of my few releases and refuges from the world. It’s one of the rare times I’m actually able to forget everything else and focus on that moment. It’s so great.

If I decide I don’t want to crash at the office and there’s no event I want to go to, I’ll head back to my apartment and usually spin one of my vinyl records or listen to a podcast or audiobook. I try to absorb as much information about the world and how it works in a day as I can, but sometimes it’s overwhelming and I just need to drink a cold drink and listen to my music and chill. Learning to relax is one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to grips with as I’ve begun working on more and more projects and involving myself in more and more opportunities. But I make a focused effort to never stop learning, to embrace curiosity, and to stimulate myself and my mind. I sometimes have to remind myself that I should have fun doing it.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I write about them. I talk about them. I ask people about them. I share them as much as possible, sometimes to the dismay of others. By doing so, I allow my ideas to connect with the ideas and support of others, and to morph and change and mold. I listen to the feedback I get, discard the bad stuff and build the good stuff. I see where what I build fails. I investigate what worked. I try again.

Rinse. Rebuild. Repeat. It’s a never-ending process. But I only have 80 or so years to make a difference, so I know I have to get to work.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I love how the internet is beginning to cause deep shifts in real-world, human interaction and socialization. It’s enabling groups of like-minded people who may have never realized that there are other people like them with whom they can connect and share and meet in real life to build amazing things.

As this trend becomes even more pervasive (and hopefully more invisible), I believe that the amount of human progress and innovation will continue to be accelerated as more and more people band together after first connecting on the internet.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I’m lucky that I haven’t had too many horrible jobs. But I did spend a few semesters washing test tubes by hand in my college’s biology lab. It was an annoying process, and there were literally hundreds of tubes to clean. I quickly learned to make the best of it because I needed the money. In retrospect, it gave me a lot of time of spare time to think. I eventually started to listen to podcasts and audiobooks, and I still try to listen to many of them as possible. It’s a great way to learn, because you gain knowledge via a process that’s not necessarily concentrated or focused. I have a horrible attention span, and it’s great that I can be doing other activities and learning at the same time.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

My work with Kikr, a now defunct social loyalty system, has been both a blessing and curse. Working on it gave me an excuse to hustle to Des Moines every few months, even when I was still in college full-time and didn’t have a car. It gave me something to focus on building, and it gave me something to use to learn to code and practice building a startup. I loved that.

But from the beginning, I was always solving a problem I never really experienced or cared about. I was looking for a quick fortune, and it took a long time for me to realize that that’s not how startups work. I wasted a lot of time, money and effort building it, and in the end, I couldn’t get it off the ground because I wasn’t passionate about it.

One of the key reasons I’m working on something as crazy as Just Run, Co. is that I care about the problem intensely and I have been concerned with it since before I was in high school. Because of this, I’m much more able to ask people for help, pitch it, and risk a lot of resources to drive it forward. I couldn’t do that with Kikr, because I didn’t think I could afford to utilize those resources for what they were. If you actually care about a problem, you are required to utilize the resources and connections you have to solve it. The need to be passionate was a lesson that I wish I’d learned much earlier.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Fail. I’ve tried to do so many interesting and fun projects, and most of them didn’t work out. And yet, I keep doing other new things, often with the explicit understanding that the chances of something that I do actually becoming what I want it to become are slim. It took me a long time to realize that people don’t give a shit about what you have done that didn’t work, because embracing everything that didn’t work out leads to an understanding of how to build something that will work.

And really, the only way to fail at a project is to not learn from it. If you continuously run small projects and experiments, and look deeply into what was both good and bad about them and learn from their outcomes, you can never truly fail; you’ll always have gained knowledge about what works and doesn’t. So keep trying. And don’t be afraid to fail early and fail often.

What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

When I went to pitch something for the first time in my life, I was hella nervous. Looking back, I had every right to be. I had taken a bus and arranged for an overnight stay, just for a chance to talk to a stranger I was going to be talking to. We ended up meeting on the wrong day, so he had to quickly rush out of our chance encounter. I wasn’t coherent. I didn’t make sense. I was shaking like crazy. I thought I had blown it, and I felt awful about that.

But apparently it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. The person I talked to led me to some amazing opportunities, discussions and connections. I now see him several times per week. I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing today without that meeting. I needed to learn to stop being scared. I’m still fairly nervous and timid around people I deem important, but I’ve come a long ways from that awkward 18-year-old, and I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been in situations that scared the shit out of me. I’ve worked through them and am better and stronger because of them.

I took a leap, and it worked out for me. I’m fairly sure I’m one of the luckiest people I know, because I’m not sure many people could survive such a fall. But these days, I continue leaping, trying new things and putting myself out in a raw and largely unprotected way. I go to networking events and try to shake hands with everyone. I try to ask as many questions as possible. I know I’m the weird one in the room–even if most of the weirdness is just due to my age and relative naivety–but I’ve learned to embrace that and not hide it.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Someone desperately needs to fix instant messaging. I use four different networks–and I’m fine with that, except that my messages and contacts are never where I need them to be when I need them. I use three different devices, and if I see and respond to a message on one of them, the others need to recognize my response and stop dinging every time I get a notification. This wouldn’t be too hard to centralize and manage, but it needs to be done right. The internet would be a happier place if I knew that I was always going to get the messages people send to me, wherever I happen to be.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

I hated my educational career. It was awful. It was discouraging and depressing. And yet, I realize that my story and my personal educational journey haven’t been all that bad. I’ve been on the lookout for stories from others who suffered because of their education, and I have hoards of very depressing stories: the third-year freshman whose only problems are that his family moved a lot and he likes art, or the girl who was put in alternative school because she missed too many days due to her having to tend to a huge family emergency. The system has lost its common sense–it’s purpose. It’s turned into a giant, impersonal, bureaucratic, structured factory with a huge amount of accepted waste because “that’s the way it is.” Even those working in the school system have admitted that it’s broken, and yet millions of young people are forced to suffer through this madness every year.

I know I can’t solve this single-handedly. In fact, I’m not even ready to tackle it head-on. It’s a huge problem. But if I can make a dent in the lives of a few young people who are going through it, then maybe the system will start to change and mold and improve. The problem right now is that there aren’t many tested solutions that work better than the system we have now. Unless someone can say, “Hey look, we’ve tried some things and this didn’t work so well but this worked wonderfully,” nothing will change. Much like a science experiment, this process has to happen entirely outside of the box, in a controlled environment, without the influence of traditional barriers and variables. And taking and running those tests, and creating innovative solutions (and maybe even changing the way young people are educated in this process) is my life’s long-term mission.

Tell us a secret.

I have a huge man-crush on Justin Bieber. His story and rise to fame are an amazing example of the real-world changes that our society’s increased connectedness–combined with spontaneity and dumb luck–are just beginning to produce. Sadly, his music has gone from fairly good to bad to worse to awful.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

  1. Spotify. I didn’t listen to music before Spotify. I don’t like to manage files or data, and I love how Spotify has managed to do it for me, producing a near-seamless experience. Most importantly, this ease of use catalyzed a huge lifestyle change for me. I love services that become such an integral and nearly invisible part of my life that the effects expand beyond the product itself. And it’s really, really, really cool to see what my friends are listening to.
  2. Timehop. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had a whirlwind year. Timehop’s daily emails not only allow me to celebrate what has been and what will be, but it’s a great chance to instill some perspective and reminds me of where I’ve gone wrong and what I may still need to get better at.
  3. Cloud/Droplr. I love simple, practical services that solve a problem and get out of the way. Cloud/Droplr are both great examples of this. Because of them, I’m able to quickly take a screenshot and share it. It’s stupid easy. But the simplicity has changed the way I internet.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Steven Johnson’s wonderful Where Good Ideas Come From is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s a great read for anyone interested in how “good ideas” are born, and it does a great job explaining the patterns of innovation and distilling some of sadly commonplace but misleading myths of invention. If you’re lazy, he gave a great TED talk summarizing the ideas in the book.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

  1. Christian Renaud is probably one of the most practically influential people in my life. Also, he sometimes posts a useful article or tip. But even I have to admit that most of his tweets consist of random blabbering and incoherent obscenities.
  2. Jeff Slobotski is simply great. I’ve met him before, although I don’t know much about him. His tweets and retweets are not only relevant to what’s happening in the Silicon Prairie, but also contain very practical inspiration and advice. He is one of the few people I follow on Twitter whose tweets I actually look forward to seeing every day.
  3. Spencer Schoeben is a fairly close friend of mine, and one of the few people I trust enough to vouch for me even though we rarely communicate directly. To me, it’s important to find one or two people like him who only intervene in your life when you need them. They remind us that we’re never truly completely on our own. His tweets are a valuable source of inspiration. He has an interesting story himself and I’m honored to be a minor part of it.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

I’m an easily excitable person, and I’m horrible at keeping a straight face. So I have to say the last time I laughed out loud was this morning. I was volunteering at Coderdojo Des Moines, a code camp for kids, and the obligatory jokes about lazy developers came up.

Who is your hero?

I never know how to answer this question, which is why my answer varies so often. The easy answer would be someone like Steve Jobs or Charles Babbage, because they are people who have deeply influenced how I view myself and the world. But I think I’m going to have to pick someone I know personally: Ben Milne of Dwolla. He has been a huge resource to me, and I respect his journey and his hustle. He’s an honest, humble guy who got incredibly luckly and started building something crazy that he believed in. It’s worked out pretty well for him. He’s not afraid to admit that he’s made a lot of mistakes, and, of course, Dwolla has been huge to the Des Moines startup scene. It’s been really fun to watch him progress even as I try and follow in his footsteps in some indirect way. I admire people who are human and real, because life–especially in a startup world–is far from perfect.

Why did you become a developer?

Simply put, it pays the bills and just kind of happened. I’m 19, and I’m working on huge projects that may eventually lead to me quitting my job and working on them full-time. But I’m bootstrapping my life. I’m still going paycheck to paycheck. Moving to Des Moines was huge for me, but I can’t afford to drink the “full-time” koolaid yet. And I’m young and love what I’m doing. I may never be the world’s best developer, but I’m told I’m pretty good at it–and I’m really good at learning.

Why Des Moines, Iowa?

Des Moines is a small city with many of the barriers that exist in a small city. But there’s a huge amount of activity happening right now, unlike what I’ve seen in a lot of the United States and around the world. Our economy is fairly stable and may even be growing. Finding a job here consists of walking down the street and asking. There are still a lot of problems with the city, but Des Moines presents a huge opportunity for growth, and the environment is incredibly receptive to improvement and change. This allows so many people to try so many crazy things, and some of them even work, which means there are a lot of other young professionals here actively making a difference.

And maybe it’s just because I’m used to small-town Iowa, but I like that everyone here is incredibly nice. It’s small enough that you constantly run into the same people. I feel safe. I feel welcome. I feel at home, and being comfortable in your environment allows you to try things that you might not otherwise attempt. That freedom is really important to me.


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