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Episode 356: How to Turn Play, Learning, and Work into the Same Thing with Mike Evans

Episode Summary

In today’s episode, Mike Evans, Founder of GrubHub and Author of “Hangry,” visits us to share his story of how he turned an idea into a business empire. Mike is an MIT graduate who felt getting a pizza online was too complicated, so he decided to fix that issue, and “magically,” 12 years later, he sold GrubHub in a public offering. He is also the Founder of Fixer, a company that connects customers with skilled, friendly “fixers” in the Chicago area.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. We have a very talented, experienced guest with us today. I’m so looking forward to having him as one of our guests. He previously served as Co-Founder and COO of GrubHub. After graduating from college in 2000 with a pile of degrees and an equally impressive pile of debt, he followed along the dotcom bandwagon by joining Chicago-based Apartments.com. Welcome, Mike Evans.

Mike Evans: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.  

Steve Shallenberger: Before we get started today, I would like to tell you a little more about Mike. In 2004, Mike wrote version one of GrubHub.com because he was frustrated with the futilely of searching for delivery restaurants and grumbling through inaccurate orders. After refining the website, he jumped ship at Apartments.com and went full time to pursue making GrubHub a real business. Mike attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — go MIT!  

Mike Evans: Yes, I’m a nerd, as it turns out.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, I did right across the river there and hit other school. Harvard was cool, but we love MIT and our wonderful associates there. And he earned an undergraduate and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. Since leaving GrubHub, he founded Fixer.com, an on-demand handyperson service focused on social impact. He lives in Chicago with his wife, daughter, dog, and bike. You like biking. 

Mike Evans: I do. The book, Hangry, follows my journey from starting this thing, GrubHub, in my apartment. And then running all the way through the IPO. And then I punted it all and rode off into the sunset, I rode my bicycle from Virginia to Oregon, and it shares the experience of that as a holistic whole, not as I stopped one thing and started the next. But sometimes we get these sort of canned sanitized stories about what it’s like to create a business, and then you finish and everybody lives happily ever after. But actually, life goes on, as it turns out. So, it explores some of what to do with that level of success once you’ve reached it. 

Steve Shallenberger: It’s a great metaphor, I love it, and I’m glad that you shared it. Let’s start, Mike, with your background. Tell us about your background including any turning points in your life that’s had a significant impact on you and what you’re doing today. 

Mike Evans: The whole experience of creating GrubHub, obviously, was pretty transformative. I talk a lot in the book about the importance of having a personal definition of success and about how I got through this IPO, and a lot of people are like, “That’s great! You had an IPO, you’re successful.” Or “You made some money doing that. You’re successful.” But I didn’t think those were the reasons I was successful. I thought I was successful because I transformed an industry and helped independent restaurants be more likely to succeed with us than without us. That was a transformative experience going from “Boy, I can’t stand having a job and having a boss and I need to pay off the school debt” to thinking about bigger issues like how making it possible for restaurants’ same business, changing the way Americans, especially, how they interact with food. So, one of the ideas in the book is to think about that stuff early and often — like, where are you headed? What are you trying to accomplish? 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, let’s talk about Hangry. What is it? Why did you write it? And what’s in it? 

Mike Evans: The book follows my experience. Starting with this idea, “I want a pizza, so maybe I should make a website that makes it easy to get a pizza” to 12 years later, having 4500 employees, and a multibillion-dollar business. As it turns out, it changes a person, as you go through it. So, I wanted to share that experience. So many of the startup stories, these unrealistic expectations around “I wrote up a business plan, I put it in a PowerPoint presentation, people gave me millions of dollars and now I’m wealthy and I changed the world.” That’s not how it goes. It’s a lot less a straight line from A to B, and a lot more of an experimental and evolving process personally as a company. So I wanted to share that because I think it can be motivating to understand that it’s not just a lotto ticket, there’s an amount of applying oneself and learning and adapting and innovating and doing that in an iterative way that anyone can do. Provided the right amount of drive and this weird mix of arrogance and humility. So that’s why I wrote the book; I wrote the book to share that experience with people in the hopes that somebody else might try it, too.  

Steve Shallenberger: Thanks for that great background on it. And one of the reasons, Mike, we were so excited to have you on the Becoming Your Best show is because these are lessons and the experiences that you’ve had and what you talk about what you put in the book are things that will help individuals, whether they’re entrepreneurs, whether they have an idea, or whether they’re within a company helping grow that company. And then you’re going to have a lot of younger people that are thinking about ideas that they have and how do I develop these. So I think your message is going to resonate with a lot of people, glad that you’re able to join us. So, what messages do you hope readers will take away after reading the book?  

Mike Evans: Well, first of all, I hope they find it funny. It’s an entertaining book, I think anyway. I wrote it to be entertaining. But one of the main themes in the book is this idea to ask yourself who defines success for you. Is it you? Or is it somebody else? Because there’s a long line of people down the street who will define success for you. And if you don’t do it for yourself, it’s elusive. There are questions that derive from this definition of success, like how do you have work-life balance? Well, how do you know the answer to that question if you don’t know what trade-offs you’re making between relationships, career, leisure, or whatever? So, there’s a lot in that book about the experimental approach I took. And I didn’t get it all the way right all the time about how do I approach that question, and how do I approach success in a personal and explicit way. Also, there’s something about the journey, both the journey for the company and the bike trip, where I didn’t create an overnight success, I spent 12 and a half years doing it, and it was just one day at a time. And the bike trip that I took, I didn’t take a 4500-mile bike ride, I took 90-50 mile bike rides. And that’s easier. It’s easier to split it up. There’s something about this idea of grit versus quit. When do you have the tenacity to stick something through? When do you decide something’s not worth the effort anymore and move on to something else. That really is central to the struggle in the book.  

Steve Shallenberger: Those are great questions. Those are some questions that face a lot of people. 

Mike Evans: Absolutely. It’s the nature of being human to want to have fulfillment and satisfaction in the work that we do. 

Steve Shallenberger: Now, in Hangry, you discuss the difference between quitting and giving up. What’s the difference? And why does it matter? 

Mike Evans: At its most superficial, giving up is what you do at 9 pm when you’re tired, quitting is something you do at 9 am when you’re making objective and thoughtful decisions. This came out of the bike trip, but actually was retroactively applicable for the rest of the GrubHub experience, which was, after a long day of cycling, as I was doing this crazy cross-country bike ride, at the end of the day, there were a couple of times I laid down on my tent and I’m like, “I’m getting on a plane tomorrow, I’m done with this, this sucks.” Then I wake up in the morning, I’d be like, “You know what? I can go ride for an hour. I can get an hour in under my belt.” And then that became the whole day. And taking it one day at a time, really, I was able to do something pretty impressive. But that was true in the business as well; this idea that giving up is something you do because you run out of steam, but quitting is something when you’re leaving something and heading towards something else. It’s the nature of innovation. It’s the nature of creating something from nothing that you have to experiment. And if you’re going to experiment with things, you have to give yourself the freedom and the right to quit things that aren’t working. We talk about quitting with such a stigma. And I’m not saying it’s okay to not put the effort in, what I’m saying is it’s important that we don’t continue putting effort towards the things that aren’t getting us closer to our goals. And that was a theme throughout GrubHub and certainly on the bike trip as well. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, Mike, how do you know when you’re at that point? 

Mike Evans: You don’t. That’s the hard part. One of the things you can do is you can surround yourself with people who don’t blow smoke, who aren’t trying to flatter you, who will point out your blind spots, and who you trust. You can read, you can try and take an attitude of continuing to learn. It’s the paradox of doing a startup that you start out from this place of arrogance where you say, “The world is broken in a way that only I can fix, and so I’m going to do it.” That takes a lot of arrogance to say that. But it also takes humility to experiment along the way and actually be honest with yourself when you’re doing things that aren’t working. That’s a lifelong process — discerning between the things that you should keep working on and the things that you should move on from. There are no simple answers. 

Steve Shallenberger: I agree. I guess there’s finally a point where you look at things, you use your best judgment, you bounce it off of others, and ultimately, you just call it and trust yourself.  

Mike Evans: And I think being action-oriented helps. It might turn out to be the case that most decisions don’t really matter but what actually mattered was decisiveness and action. And that is the case in some situations where, literally, you would have been happy or the business would have worked with either decision, but what was important is you made the decision, you committed, and you went for it. So, I think there’s this idea of being action-oriented as opposed to passive within the book. That’s one of the ideas I’m trying to promote. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, I love the sound of music. There are times when a door closes, but a window opens somewhere else. Whatever you’ve been doing, sometimes you just feel a natural thing that this is it. And all of a sudden you see another opportunity open that is a huge blessing in your life, but you couldn’t have had it, really, without having previous experience sometimes. 

Mike Evans: There’s a story in the book, a very specific story about the founding of GrubHub, where as it was going from just a delivery guide where I would charge restaurants for just exposure on the website to an ordering platform. The first system I designed and wrote was this phone-based ordering system where people would actually call one of our special numbers that would forward on to the restaurant and we would track orders that way and we would charge the restaurants for the orders they were getting. And that whole system was terrible compared to online ordering. It really was not a good system. But I don’t know that I could have built the online ordering system without building the wrong system first. Now, I learned this idea from Dr. Bose, who started Bose speakers in my classes at MIT. He said, “The way to make a good speaker is to make a bad speaker, and then figure out what’s wrong with it, and then make it better.” You don’t start at perfection, you start with the best you can. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s a great insight. Let’s talk about mentors. You’ve talked about mentors and how important they are. How do you find a good mentor? And then how do you cultivate that relationship so it can be a great value in your life, both for you and the mentor? 

Mike Evans: There’s this concept that when you’re interviewing an employee or you’re doing a press interview, you don’t ask yes or no questions, then the person you’re talking to can just say yes or no. The same thing is true with mentors. Once you find one, don’t make it easy for them to say no to you, you really have to be very persistent. If it’s a mentor that’s worth engaging with, they are definitely busy.  There are no good mentors who just have lots of free time. So you have to be persistent and it has to be clear to them what value that they’re going to get. And for most people who are in a position to share their knowledge or their expertise, what they really don’t want is they don’t want their time to be wasted. So you have to show them that you have the tenacity and grit to stick with trying to become a success, whatever that means. So I think that finding mentors is actually the easy part, convincing them to mentor you is the hard part. And I think it just takes tenacity, it takes a little bit of just understanding what it is that that person wants out of life, and trying to share that you if that’s building a legacy that it’s worth investing their time in you. 

Steve Shallenberger: That last comment is really important: It’s worth it for them to invest their time with you because there are a lot of really wonderful people that have a lot of experience, men and women, who want to help. But you need to present a picture here of why it will be fun for them, why it works for them, and how it fulfills their needs. Sometimes that might be that you point out the vision of the company, maybe you provide some compensation that also makes it worth their time, but it can vary a little bit. You have to put together this vision, this purpose that makes it fun for both of you. 

Mike Evans: And fulfilling. Beyond just fun, it has to be fulfilling for both parties as well. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, you brought up this great word of fulfillment. You’ve done a lot of stuff, so what are some ways in which we can find fulfillment at work? And maybe you’ve seen both sides of it.  

Mike Evans: I have and I talk about this in the book a little bit. The first thing is that you have to understand what your own personal mission is and what your own personal definition of success is. And then you have to understand where you work and what that company’s mission is. And you have to understand, one has to understand the difference and the similarities between my personal mission and my work mission. And I also have to understand the values that that company has and whether or not they align with my own values. And then there’s this other third piece, which is actually it’s easy to skip over, which is, is the company doing what they say they’re doing? And am I doing what I say I want to be doing? So, if all those things line up, if your purpose in the company’s purpose lines up, that’s fundamental for being able to find satisfaction, excitement, joy, and fulfillment at work. There are other things as well that are necessary like your direct manager has to be a good manager. It’s very hard to work for a great company with a bad manager. That’s terrible. It’s just as bad as working for a bad company with a good manager, you need both. You need the people that you have to rely on at work or you need to be people that you really can rely on and they invest in you and you invest in them, you need to have a boss that advocates for you, and you need to work with a company where their values are aligned. If you get all of those things, it’s magical. I have a seven-year-old daughter. And for her, work, play, and learning are all the exact same thing, there’s no distinction between those different things. And I think that that’s probably true for adults, but we forget it at some point along the way. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s great. That word “magical” is wonderful because when you have leaders and employees in your company that you really help develop or they have been able to develop on their own, their vision, so they really know what resonates with them. And then when that aligns with a company, that’s magical, that’s where people really unleash and this wonderful potential comes out and you have long-term employees that make a difference. The same thing is true with an entrepreneur as they get going. And that goes the opposite way of finding people that align like that. So, I love your description of that, Mike, that’s awesome. 

Mike Evans: Thanks. I appreciate it. 

Steve Shallenberger: I had two questions I wanted to do before we wrap up today. One is, what have you found the best way to find balance, this harmony between the various roles of your life so you don’t go nuts? 

Mike Evans: I have not succeeded with this. I think that work-life balance is elusive at best. The best I’ve been able to come to approaching it is being honest with myself and explicit about what I want to get out of different spheres of my life, and then understanding when there’s a trade-off between the two. Because I think that a lot of people go into this idea of work-life balance with the assumption that you can maximize all things, that I can have a perfect work experience, perfect life experience, and perfect relationship experience, and they never conflict with each other, which is just silly. That’s not the way it works. You have to make trade-offs. You have to make trade-offs with your time, you have to make trade-offs with your resources, with your energy. So being explicit about those trade-offs, I think, probably leads to a good set of outcomes, but it’s not a set of outcomes that’s not without consequences. There are always consequences to making those kinds of trade-offs. So I think the best you can do is be explicit and honest about them as opposed to just hoping that it’s all going to work. 

Steve Shallenberger: I love that answer. You may know that, of course, our first book out 10 years ago was Becoming Your Best: The 12 Principles to Highly Successful Leaders, and we’ve been blessed with that. It’s been a national bestseller. Well, we just released our fourth book called Do What Matters Most. And to your point, you’re really spot on because it starts with a person and their vision, knowing what’s important to them in the first place. And then being able to have a filter to make those tough decisions, like you just talked about, on a consistent basis. So I think you’re right. And once you can put in front of you your key roles, now you have a basis for making those decisions. It’s hard to do every single one of them, so you have to make the choices. 

Mike Evans: Yeah, but I think that that ultimately leads towards a balanced life but not necessarily one without challenges. And actually, being hard and being fun can be the same thing. Fun things are not always easy. 

Steve Shallenberger: Here are our final two questions for today. It’s been fun having you on, thanks, compliments to all the things you’ve been doing. Great job. 

Mike Evans: Thank you.  

Steve Shallenberger: What is maybe one of the biggest messages out of Hangry? 

Mike Evans: If you look around and you see that something’s broken in the world and that nobody else seems to think it’s broken but you know it is and you think you can fix it, do it. All the business books, all the mentorship, all of the learning, everything else that you can do is 49% of success; 51% is just starting with the idea. It is the big message of the book is just start. That’s it. Start whatever it is the thing that you want to do, start it. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s great. I love it. That’s inspiring, that’s encouraging. Regardless of whether you’re within a large company or whether you’re leading a small group, get going with it, look for the opportunities and get out and get into the arena. Now, before we wrap up, any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners?  

Mike Evans: I think this idea of being intentional, explicit, and thinking big in terms of your goals, I found that that has been the best way to live. The only times in my life where I think I’ve had any kind of regrets is when I didn’t think big enough or didn’t plan big enough when I was tunnel-visioned in what I was trying to accomplish. So, I just encourage people to think big in terms of what it is they’re trying, the change they want to see in the world.  

Steve Shallenberger: Thanks for your message today, Mike. 

Mike Evans: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. 

Steve Shallenberger: Before we wrap up, tell people how they can find out about you. 

Mike Evans: The easiest way is you can get the book, Hangry, on Audible or any of the audio services or also on Amazon. But if you want to find out more about me and what I’m doing now, I’m at mikeevans.com. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you so much. And thanks for being part of the show and we wish you the very best as you’re lifting lives and building and inspiring people. 

Mike Evans: Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it. 

Steve Shallenberger: To all of our listeners wherever you might be, we’re so grateful that you tune in to the Becoming Your Best podcast show. You make such a difference and you are such an inspiration. We wish you the best today and always. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best
CEO, executive, corporate trainer, and community leader.

Mike Evans

Founder and Author

Founder of GrubHub, Author of “Hangry, A Startup Journey, Founder of Fixer

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