If you’re in the tech webspace, you’ve heard of the Paypal Mafia, a legendary group of highly successful individuals who were all involved with the company Paypal either as employees or founders when it was in its early startup stage. These people went on to found or fund companies such as Facebook, Youtube, Linkedin, Tesla / Spacex, Yelp, Kiva, 500 Startups and many many more.
I think when you have a disruptive company such as Paypal you attract a certain type of person. You attract people who are willing to bet on themselves and believe that they can be a big part of a change agent in an industry. People who don’t want to fit in with the status quo and are almost unemployable. You need to be a little crazy to start a startup, and you also need to be a little crazy to work for (or with) one.
In Hawaii in the mid 2000s, there was a company that produced some noteworthy Alumni (small potatoes in the larger scheme but not bad for Hawaii at least). A tiny design firm called Spunge. Founded by Chris and Wil Lucero, two award winning graphic designers who caught the entrepreneurship bug and decided to try to forge their own path and make it on their own. In Spunge’s short life, Chris went on to be named the youngest 40 under 40 award recipient ever in Pacific Business News and they won even more Pele awards (AAF Hawaii’s annual award show). Though they eventually closed up shop and moved on to other things, the effects of this small design firm and its two founders have had huge impacts in Hawaii’s growing tech scene today. The Spunge team was so small, so scrappy, so cash strapped, everyone who worked with Spunge was basically doing it because they wanted to be a part of the change that Hawaii so desperately needed. The idea was that we were going to change the culture of Hawaii itself, bring art and technology together. We were all in our early to mid 20s at the time. We definitely were not compensated with money but with simply the feeling of being a part of something that could be bigger than we were.
The Spunge Alumni
1. Eric Nakagawa – Co-creator of icanhascheezburger.com , co-founder of simplehoney.com. In the mid 2000s Eric was working a full-time job at CTA as a programmer. In his nights and weekends however, he was hanging out with the Spunge team, and often times helping us with our projects. He single handedly coded the e-commerce store for world renown DJ lifestyle company Thud Rumble in his free time during nights and weekends for Spunge. Eric would later go on to co-create the viral sensation icanhascheezburger.com with Kari Unebasami (who coincidentally I sat in the cubicle next to at my next job on Oahu!) which he then sold to Ben Huh for a rumored $2.25M. Eric is now the co-founder of a new startup simplehoney.com, a company looking to simplify vacations.
2. John Garcia – Co-founder nonstophonolulu.com, The Greenhouse Hawaii. in the mid 2000s, John was working for Airgas Gaspro as their in house designer. During his nights and weekends however, he was busy with his own client photography business. We contracted him numerous times at Spunge, in fact he was the photographer for the photo shoot that won Spunge its first official Pele Award (as a company). What amazed me most about John is his professionalism at such a young age, I was 22 at the time and he was even younger than me but he sure had his act together. John went on to co found nonstophonolulu.com which has media partnerships with KITV and Oceanic Cable and also open what has quickly become the premier co-working space in Hawaii, The Green House.
3. Me ( Ryan Esaki) – Co-founder ukuleleunderground.com – I was hired at Spunge right out of college as a web design intern. It was my first real job, one that I got on my own. It was an eye opening experience which I wrote about in this other blog post. I credit Chris and Wil for infecting me with the entrepreneur bug as they talked about it constantly in the office. I only ended up working at Spunge for less than a year but my time there has definitely had a huge impact on my future. I went on to fail miserably in business many times before starting Ukulele Underground in 2007 with Aaron and Aldrine.
It’s always neat to think back to those days, when we were all so young, so hungry, trying to compete with these these advertising companies who were filled with people who were all at least 10 years older than us, and all had so much more money that us. It was exciting and miserable all at the same time. We were all trying to hammer our dents in the world. Its so awesome that we’re all well on our way to doing just that (or for Eric already have done so). Today when I look back at those hard times I can’t help but smile, and I’m so grateful for the experience.