This is the story of a kid who believed he could change the world with an idea.
It was mid February, and the RV had been ours for about a week now. I was in my apartment in Columbus, Ohio, talking with Ben on the phone.
I met Ben a few years back through my old company, Young Entrepreneurs Across America, at the annual training conference. He was a college dropout who owned a landscaping company called Edgeline; I was a college dropout who managed a painting company. We immediately connected.
Ben was the guy who went all-in on this adventure with me; the only one crazy enough to share my vision. We had a mission, and we were going to change the world. More on this later.
That night, Ben was sitting in his car in the Edgeline parking lot. The camper was parked inside the chain-link fence, which surrounded the property. From the outside, he could see the top of it tower above the fence.
He noticed a couple of girls in their lower twenties walking by, glancing up at the RV over the fence.
“They just stopped,” Ben said to me over the phone. “Now they’re taking pictures of it over the fence…”
Maybe you would have the same reaction if you saw it for the first time.
To understand where this all started, let’s rewind a week:
To set the stage: I recently quit my job, and my relationship had just come to a catastrophic end. To say the least, I was ready to take a big jump into something new.
We took the weekend to visit Ben’s cottage in Petoskey, MI to develop the branding for Xplor, an alternative school for creatives. Neither of us knew how to build the business, or what exactly the program was, but we knew we had to get started or else we’d never figure it out.
That weekend, we made a website, created a simple lead-capture, and released a wacky, attention-grabbing video.
Our plan was this: Drive viewers from the video to our website, then filter potential customers by offering a College Dropout Survival Guide for email optins. Xplor was born.
Well, actually Xplor was born a few months before that…
Let’s rewind once more:
Xplor originally started as a Project XQ submission to build a new high school. For us, it was all about helping kids learn and grow in a way that was natural to them.
School had forced me to learn things that weren’t exciting in a way that wasn’t engaging. I experienced firsthand how school kills creativity, and how detrimental it can be to a child’s aspirations and development.
Ben had a similar story – he was never challenged in school. He was the type of kid who would skip school to play drums and cut lawns for cash.
I realized this in 2014, almost 2 years into college, and dropped out because of it. I was then catapulted into an ongoing deep philosophical exploration on what education really was in its core form. I no longer valued credentials, classroom politics or job titles, which cleared space for me to pursue the root behind the concept of education – what makes us grow? What does “educated” mean? Why is it important? How is it being done? Why didn’t it work on me? How should it be done? Is it different for everyone? Is it possible to scale up individualized education for the masses? How?
Here are some fundamental truths about education that I learned during my explorations on the subject:
- Education is growth.
- Growth happens when we’re genuinely challenged by doing something uncomfortable.
- We all have a “range” of actions that feel comfortable. Growth occurs when we stretch past that feeling of safety, and do actions that make us feel nervous or physically uncomfortable (examples: public speaking, learning new finger patterns on the guitar, operating a DSLR camera for the first time)
- We only thrive and achieve lasting growth in those uncomfortable situations if we a) understand and value and practicality of the lesson, or b) are excited by the process. Or both.
- Doing an uncomfortable thing consistently makes it eventually become comfortable.
School largely ignores these fundamentals. Instead, it focuses on teaching already-known principles in a comfortable setting. The lessons in school are not very practical when it comes to producing results in the real world. Students often don’t care about the growth they’re supposed to be having, and so they don’t achieve lasting growth.
I ended up publishing a book on what I learned during this exploration period.
But there was still more to learn. I was (and still am) obsessed with learning and human development. I had to figure out the best way to educate people, because I couldn’t let what happened to me continue to happen to impressionable, unsuspecting kids.
Most of my friends thought I was crazy, but in my heart I knew the public school goliath was making backwards progress. It was doing the exact opposite of what it was supposed to be doing.
Directly, it teaches valuable subjects like math, science, and history. But the structure of school indirectly teaches obedience, and suppresses individuality and creativity. I knew there was a better way, and I was determined to find it.
Months before the “cottage hustle weekend” in Ben’s Petoskey cottage, as we dubbed it, we submitted this video to the Project XQ competition. It was an attempt to capture how we believed education should be handled. Keep in mind, we didn’t have a clear vision of what the school would be or how to implement it. It was such a massive project and we didn’t want to overthink it – so we just got started and kept it real.
Our video didn’t make it that far in the process, so we decided to build our school on our own.
Fast-forward back to that weekend in Petoskey.
After being denied by Project XQ, we decided to create our own solution. I knew how to run a house-painting business, and Ben knew how to run a landscaping business, but neither of us knew how to build a school.
We didn’t hide from this fact. We embraced it and started small. What we lacked in experience, we made up for in clarity of purpose.
We left that weekend after creating a website with a value-offering, a lead-capture, and a marketing video, knowing we would test first and make adjustments later.
This simple online structure was a great start, but it didn’t seem like it was enough.
We genuinely felt like we were creating a worldwide movement. We were changing the paradigm of education – challenging the foundation on which the century-old multi-billion dollar public school system was built. You’re not supposed to challenge things like that.
It only seemed fitting that a bold statement like the one we were making should be executed in an equally bold way.
Ben and I had contemplated the idea of going on a nationwide tour to launch the business on and off for several months. It seemed like the perfect way to get wide exposure, test our ideas, and have fun doing it. Though, it never really seemed like a reality – until the day we left Petoskey.
On the drive back to Detroit, I had this intense longing to buy a plane ticket and explore somewhere I had never been. Particularly, Austin, TX. After all, our whole brand was based around being an explorer – testing new things, finding new paths, and going into the unknown.
This wasn’t the first time this desire came up. Remember, I was going through some pretty intense career and personal transitions. Shifts like that often call for drastic measures.
It was the perfect storm – we were riding the wake of completing our first true action-steps on Xplor, and I had that overwhelming urge to pick up and leave everything behind come over me.
In that moment, we approached an RV dealership on the highway. We looked at each other in solidarity.
“Want to check it out?”
No more than 6 hours later, we were proud (mobile)homeowners.
Sidenote: I have a strong auditory memory, so certain songs bring back specific memories for me. This song reminds of the day we bought the RV. Back to the story:
Some would call this an impulse buy.
I call it a passion-fueled educational investment. We didn’t necessarily have the money, but since when do people avoid spending money they don’t have on “education”?
This was different – it aligned with the fundamental truths of education. I didn’t invest this money so I could sit in a classroom and learn how to launch a business by putting on a tour. I invested the money so I could try something new. Test. Explore. Step outside of my comfort zone. Come alive. Meet new people. See new places. Spread my ideas. Develop my ideas. Go into the unknown. Grow in my own way. Learn how to teach others to do the same.
Some people still look down on me for making this “risky” decision. I wholeheartedly believe it would have been more risky to stay where I was, save my money, and ponder about what might happen if one day we went on tour.
In my heart, it felt more right than anything I had ever done. We were going to change the world. We were doing something so unique, people wouldn’t be able to ignore us.
The worst case scenario was this: our school doesn’t take off and I still learn and grow more than I ever imagined.
Now, back to that night in February:
As Ben was describing the two girls taking pictures of our camper over the fence, everything seemed to make sense. This was the perfect plan. We hadn’t even left yet and we were already drawing attention.
This was the first bit of validation for me. I now knew that the thing we had created was intriguing people. It was working. The RV was a travelling, interactive billboard that we were about to bring across the country along with our vision of a better education.
We had the vehicle and the vision.
Next, we needed a plan.
This is Part 1 of a series I’m doing on my experience touring the country in an RV trying to convince people to drop out of college.