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Six months ago, I was an exhausted startup employee and became friends with an overworked journalist. Over a pitcher of beer, we discussed creating a podcast on innovation called The Commonwealth. I would host the show and land the biggest guests possible. My friend, Alec McChesney, would produce the content and manage distribution.

Since first putting our podcast idea on a napkin, this passion project has taken us on a wild ride. After building up some episodes, Alec left journalism to take a job as a Marketing Strategist at Firespring. My startup went through a restructuring and laid me off. This gave me the opportunity to focus on the show full-time.

We’ve now been releasing episodes for three months. The Commonwealth has given me the chance to pray in a mosque with people attempting to bring peace to the Middle East. I’ve been able to talk with the visionary behind Microsoft Office over the phone and laugh with a Maroon 5 groupie who leveraged her connections to launch a career in fashion.

The amount I’ve learned from each guest is tremendous; I can’t even appreciate it all just yet. However, these are currently my top takeaways since we started this show.

Use Disposable Resources | Amanda Valentine

Amanda Valentine moved to Los Angeles to follow her brother who was forming a new band. The brother would play lead guitar. Adam Levine would sing. They named the band Maroon 5.

Amanda started getting involved in wardrobe design for the band. She moved to Nashville to start her own boutique shop when she auditioned for Project Runway. She was voted off the show after a poor performance on Season 11. When season 13 rolled around, the producers asked if they could include her on a list of previous contestants for fans to vote back onto the show. She said yes. 

Her friend, Adam Levine, Tweeted the link. All the Maroon 5 fans voted. She made that season and placed runner up.

“Most really successful fashion designers come from really wealthy families,” Amanda told me on the episode, “Zac Posen is funded by his family’s trust fund. Same with Tory Burch.”

She didn’t have a family trust. But, she did have a famous brother and leveraged that resource to help her succeed. Most people don’t have trust funds or famous siblings. However, many people have resources available to them that they don’t use because they are too afraid to ask.

Know Your Core Offering | Runza

Donald Everett is the President of Runza. His grandmother opened their first fast-food restaurant in 1949. The chain today is run by the third generation of Everetts, has 85 locations in the Midwest and is beloved by most that call themselves Nebraskans.

Runza has experimented with multiple menu items throughout the years, most recently a vegetarian Runza. Some have been incredible successes, while others have dramatically flopped.

When asked the approach Runza takes to these new menu items, Donald said, “At the end of the day, Runza sandwiches, fries, hamburgers account for 80% of our sales. The other things are noise. You have to make sure whatever thing you add to that menu isn’t a flippant decision. You have to make sure you know how it’ll impact the execution of your other products.”

Being the best at everything is impossible. Pick one to focus on. When adding something to that core competency, make sure it doesn’t distract from the rest.

It’ll Go Unexpected Places | Nelnet

Jeff Noordhoek is the CEO of Nelnet, one of the biggest student loan businesses in the world. I asked Jeff if he ever thought the company would grow to this size when he joined the team as the third employee.

“The short answer is I had no idea it would get to this level. This idea for this business came about when Mike (Dunlap), who’s speaking later on the episode, and a friend Steve Butterfield came together and said we’re going to start a company. They approached two friends—I was one of them—with the idea that we’d finance student loans.

“At the time I remember thinking: ‘This is a big risk, it’s a startup company. If we made it to 10 people, in my mind, we’d be highly successful.’ Here we are, 23 years later, with 6,800 employees. We have 560 open positions today.”

Jeff continues: “At the time, I had no idea what it would get to. But that’s the beauty of life.”

Value Diverse Experiences | Buildertrend

Buildertrend is a construction management SaaS company in Omaha, Nebraska. After emailing hello@buildertrend.com, I was able to get time with its three founders.

Buildertrend started with Jeff and Steve Dugger building websites and software in their parents basement. The freelance work allowed them to create products that solved problems across a variety of industries. After making a website for a construction company, word got around with local home builders wanting a website. Jeff and Steve saw the pain point and brought on their high school buddy with sales experience, Dan Houghton. Thirteen years later, the company has 500 employees with software that’s used around the world. Without dabbling in multiple industries and projects, Jeff and Steve wouldn’t have been able to discover the construction pain point.

It Takes Times | The Commonwealth

Creating this show has given me the ability to speak with some remarkable and renowned individuals. We built up some episodes before launching the show. When we released the first episode, we didn’t get thousands of hits overnight. Podcasts grow primarily through word of mouth, which takes time to develop. This project has been consuming, frustrating, exciting and overwhelming… depending on the time of the day.

We have a specific vision where we want this show to take us. If achieving it were easy, everyone would have a well-known podcast. It doesn’t happen overnight. But the first step in building anything is laying the first brick.


Nick Castner is the Host of The Commonwealth podcast. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

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