My first real paying job started when I was 13 and involved hard manual labor.
Riding in the back of my father's F-150 pickup truck each summer, I would maintain community pools in wealthy suburbs, assist construction workers on housing projects for the elderly, and deep clean apartment units when tenants moved out. Manual labor at that age taught me the value of earning your place in the world and how quality work serves others, whether or not they recognized it. Recognition didn't matter, as it wasn’t a particularly fun story to tell—making a living to help support my family did, however.
Fast forward almost 20 years, and while I'm no longer wedged between power tools in the back of my father's truck, I still find myself working everyday to help those around me. More importantly, I work to make a living doing that in a way that helps others tell their story as easily as I tell mine.
My first company, Jellifi, wilted as fast as it bloomed.
We learned how to develop a strong, memorable brand experience. We told a really good story. Jellifi was made to help entertainers, vendors, and service industry workers land more gigs by connecting them with a community of event producers. When we ran out of runway funding, I walked away and returned to the corporate tech world for my paychecks and health insurance.
With the help of dedicated mentors, they polished the raw passion that I had for great work, slowly revealing all the blind spots I missed when creating Jellifi. They may not have known it at the time, but I listened intensely to everything they said, memorizing everything they drew on their whiteboards. Some of those lessons were painfully simple, like saying “I don’t know” over grasping for anything that made you sound smart or in control.
When my early mentors left for opportunities at bigger organizations, I lingered around for another year to see how close I could get to the executives' table and be mentored by those at the top. I'd walk into senior manager meetings and ask to help ‘take the notes.’ After enough of these bold stunts, they simply expected me to be in the room to satiate my curiosity. They seemed to like my energy. I quietly witnessed top-down organizational process, direct and empathetic negotiation techniques, and an executive-level confidence that seeped into my clothes like a strong coffee.
As amazing as it was, we cycled through 3 VPs of Marketing during my time there (my sales/marketing people know how insanely stressful that sounds). By the time the last one came on board at the end of 2015, my responsibilities plateaued, and I was seen as too young for a senior role by the incoming leader. I wasn’t invited to take notes at the executives’ table anymore. My work lost its meaning. I left in February of 2016, foolishly without a fallback lined up. Unsure about what or where the next step was, I knew it needed to be bigger than what I currently had, and the mentors I left behind told me as much.
I took up a variety of branding and entertainment projects to pass the time and line my wallet. Each project added more depth and reach to my experience, allowed me to travel and talk to more brilliant people, and nudged me in a direction where doing great work could be found. All of this brought a huge amount of uncertainty.
In that uncertainty, I applied to 250 jobs over a 9-month span throughout 2016.
You read that right—two hundred and fifty. Out of those 250 applications, 40% were outright ignored. Another 30% sent replies from an firstname.lastname@example.org handle, rejecting me with a soulless bot. The remaining 30% went to a phone call. Most of those went to a 2nd call, and a dozen sent me to the final round.
I’d falter every time at the finish line, looking like one of those triathlon runners that melt into the asphalt when their muscles give way on the final steps. I was trying my best to fit the mold they were looking for in each role. I wondered what the hell was wrong with me and why I never good enough to get an offer. Desperate and depressed, the answer escaped me, feeling more alone and abandoned than any other point in my life.
It wasn't until the final rejection until I realized I had my situation backwards. The final company in question flew me out to San Francisco and set me up in a swank hotel. That night I went to dinner with my closest friend who lives there to talk about my journey to that moment. Her success in one of the world’s most famous cities inspired me. She assured me that simply being myself throughout the interview will either convince them that I'm their man, or convince me that I need to think beyond my current mindstate.
The next day, I went into the company’s gorgeous downtown SF office and spoke with the hiring team for the rest of the afternoon. I flew back to Austin right after, all in under 24 hours. Never having received such treatment from a potential employer, I came to the interview table with a deep sense of honor and accomplishment. I returned the favor by being as true to who I am than I had in any interview over those 9 months. It meant not necessarily fitting the mold of the job, instead telling a story of passion, drive, and service; a story that resonated on a fundamentally emotional level. I left San Francisco convinced that story would land me the role and a new life to match.
For the first time in my career, I was rejected for being overqualified.
They acknowledged my passion and experience would never be satisfied with the title of ‘Event Manager,’ even with a cushy office, free food, and a new life in San Francisco. After heeding the advice of the women in my life to 'Just take something in the short-term that pays the bills!," I failed at doing even that. I was devastated for a week before I recalled what my friend told me—I needed to think bigger.
It dawned on me one morning in the final month of 2016 that it was time to create something new and my own again. It meant not settling for menial work, just to pay the bills. It meant remembering what it takes to achieve A+ work by working with A+ individuals on A+ projects.
Every job I found and applied for up to that point was for a B-player role on a B-tier company. I've never been the type to enjoy working with those kind of brands or people. Even during my time at Facebook, I was regulated to selling a B-level product that never made it past the testing phase. I went back to my catalogue of Steve Jobs speeches to find a clip of him going on about A-Players vs. B-Players. He broke it down into something that still resonated 15+ years after he gave it.
For example: if you fly into Austin and hail an average Uber driver vs the best Uber driver, you’ll probably get to your destination with the best Uber driver 30% faster. The same goes for the car itself. The difference between the best car and an average car is around 20-30%. When you go into a bar that night and order a drink, difference between getting a cocktail from the BEST mixologist than from just an average bartender, is also around 30%. That said, 2:1 is a pretty big deal in the everyday human experience.
But, according to Jobs, when dealing with average and the best in arts and technology, that ratio explodes to 50:1, and in some cases it’s 100:1! In his eyes, his work at the intersection of tech and art correlated to an exponentially massive gap between average (B work and below) and the best (A+ work). You’re probably reading this on one of his company's creations right now, and you can tell the difference between an Apple product or something of lesser quality. You just feel it.
He did that by finding truly gifted people, ‘A-Players’ as he called them, and never settling for working with B and C-Players. He discovered that A-Players really like working with each other because they never had a chance to do that before, and they’ll never want to work with B-Players again for the exact same reason.
With B-Players, you invariably get ‘Oh, that’s just the way it’s done’ or ‘That’s not in my job description.’ Nobody knows why they do what they do because B-Players never think about things very deeply in business. It’s this fundamental difference in mentality that leads A-Players to only want to hire more A-Players, and the cycle propagates. Yes, the work is challenging, intense, and formidable, but you end up with work that takes B-Players a lifetime to achieve, if ever.
What I discovered over the past 10 years of my career is that brands are built and broken by how well they tell their story. B-Players run their businesses never really thinking about how to tell it, and their products or services end up being mediocre in the process. A-Players, however, fundamentally understand the WHY in their brand, and everything revolves around that purpose. This makes telling their stories very easy, and people intuitively ‘just get it’ as a reward along with their business. That means being able to tell your story a thousand different ways to a thousand different people, a thousand different times, and always getting the same genuine reaction in return.
That’s my mission in creating A-Player Management. By working with A-Players and never settling for ‘just the way things are done,’ APM’s goal is to help brands and creatives understand and execute their WHY just like I have done for myself. Throughout my life I’ve been told I can tell a good story, and my WHY is to help you tell yours.
ABOUT APM: A-Player Management is a branding and entertainment company, helping companies tell compelling brand stories, produce memorable experiences, and open opportunities for creatives to bring their passions to life. If you’re a business or creative that wants to work with A-Player Management, we’d love to hear from you.
This article was originally posted to my personal website at martinmarteen.com