Scribbles and Bits

by Derek Gathright

Planting Seeds

6 years and 6 months ago I was a recent college grad, unemployed, and recently fired from my computer sales job. I was horrible at sales. Not because I’m not social and can’t communicate, but because I always viewed myself as being on the side of the customer, not the employer. “No, you don’t need that, it’s twice as expensive as this model, and you won’t use most of the features. Here, this one is a better fit for you. Actually, you probably don’t even need this at all.

Needless to say, sales managers don’t really like that attitude.

So as a 24 year old (f)unemployed person, how do you spend your time? Trying to sell a professional sports team, of course.

Alright, that statement deserves a little explanation. If you know me, you know I’m a huge soccer fan. I’d been attending Kansas City Wizards games since Major League Soccer’s inception (1996) and was very involved in the KC team’s supporters group. Well, a few days after I was given a pink slip, on Dec 9th, 2004 the Wizards ownership group announced they had pretty much given up hope on the team and were putting it up for sale. That was pretty devastating for us fans. We knew there was little chance someone was going to come in and buy an MLS team in Kansas City. If they did, they were buying it to move to another city. There wasn’t much hope in keeping our team, but we weren’t going to lose it without a fight.

Being without a job, I had more than enough time to take the initiative and get the ball rolling. I registered our name (Heart of America Soccer Foundation), wrote forum posts, sent out emails, made phone calls, hosted a wiki for us to organize, etc… It was a busy time for a lot of us. Within a few weeks, we were having meetings, internally, with politicians, and with potential ownership groups. Our goal was to make the city and fanbase as attractive as possible to anyone interested in making a significant investment in the team. We of course weren’t the ones selling the team, but we could make a pretty convincing argument that Kansas City was the right home for whoever was buying it. It was a collective voice that needed to be heard.

While we organized & communicated mostly online, early-on we were without a website, so that needed to change. Wordpress of today would have been perfect for the task, but this was 2004, so it was pretty unknown at the time and certainly wasn’t as robust as it is now. I had built a few web sites before, dabbled in PHP, HTML, and CSS, but had never built anything too special and certainly nothing professional appearing. However, that didn’t discourage me, and I was excited for the challenge of learning how to build the site from scratch. Luckily, we had a talented designer in the group, so all I had to do was the coding. Off I went.

Because of how much fun I was having building the HASF website, I started to have the confidence that maybe I could turn my long-time programming hobby into a career. Within a few weeks, I had my first interview for a web developer position at a local startup. During that interview, I was asked all the typical questions, some technical, and some non-technical. I was doing ok. Well, maybe. My lack of professional experience was pretty evident, cause I had none. Towards the end I was asked, “Do you have a website you’ve built that you could show us?

Luckily…

Sure, I just built one a few weeks ago”, and we pulled up hoasoccer.org on the projector.

I was pretty proud of it, and they could tell as I enthusiastically talked about all the things I wanted to eventually do with it.

Later that night, I got a phone call, and a job offer. Accepted!

As I ventured into a new career, my involvement with HASF had to take a backseat. Oh, I was still involved, but I just didn’t have enough time to spend the majority of each day as the COO of a grassroots organization. At that point, more qualified individuals took leadership roles and did an amazing job. It was a long process, but on August 31st, 2006, the team was finally sold to a local ownership group for $20 million. Mission accomplished!

Well, mission accomplished as far as HASF was concerned. There was still a massive uphill battle for the new owners to get a stadium built for the team, ensuring its long-term home is Kansas City. Luckily for them, some of those heavily involved with HASF joined the new ownership group filling a variety of roles. It’s a very talented, passionate group of individuals. While I worked on building my career, they continued on the journey to build a world-class soccer stadium right in the heartland, in Kansas City. I was rooting for them every step of the way.

At the same time, in 2007 I was working as a developer at an advertising agency, and not having very much fun there. Jeff, a friend from HASF, emailed me one day about a meeting with a family friend of his who was working on a startup. We heard the pitch, and the challenge was exciting. I was in the process of buying my first home, so leaving a steady job and going month-to-month contract at a web startup was a pretty dumb idea. My mom disliked it, can’t blame her. But, I took it, and had an extremely satisfying 2.5 years there. It even directly led to the next chapter in my career.

Fast forward to today, a journey that started on Dec 9th, 2004 is going to conclude on June 9th, 2011 with that first game at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, home of Sporting Kansas City (formerly Kansas City Wizards). That’s 2,374 days of hard work one group of people have done to accomplish something uniquely special. I now live in Los Angeles, but am making the trip back for the first game in the new stadium this week. For myself, it’s going to be pretty amazing walking into that stadium for the first time. There’s a personal connection. But I can’t even imagine what it will be like for those people who have been involved with every step of the process.

It boggles my mind to think what I’d be doing if I didn’t wake up one day and decide I wanted to help save a sports team. If I don’t co-found a non-profit organization that had nothing to do with technology, I likely don’t get that first programming job at a startup. If I don’t work at that startup where I learned what it takes to build the engineering side of a company, I don’t get the experience to actually lead the next startup. Well, that next one is what directly led to where I am today and the new position I’ll be starting in a few weeks.

The takeaway from this story is that you need to be driven by your passions. This stadium’s story very likely could have happened without my involvement early on. But the fun part is, it did happen with my involvment. When you are motivated by things that you love, you’ll make awesome things happen. Continually plant seeds for for the future, because eventually some of those seeds will turn into trees.

You never know, someday one of those trees might look like this…

Photo credits: Facade: Ramsey Mohsen - Flickr Grass: Flickr