Keys to Winning the Start-Up Game: Reflections on Five Years

I believe our lives are a reflection of our thoughts, if we change our thinking we change our lives. Based on my recent announcement, here are some of my thoughts.

First, a big thank you to everyone for the kind words and well wishes. The main thing I have had to make clear, in the many texts I replied to over the past few weeks... I am not leaving Zartico. 

I am leaving the day-to-day intensity of being President of this great organization. After five years, it was time. I will remain on board, literally, as a Founder and board member. I will remain active in the industry and stand firmly behind Zartico. I will continue to see you at events. The difference now is — it's only the events I want to attend. Yeah, I earned that one. 

Most people don't know this, but this is my third start-up from zero. The difference this time has been a lifetime of experience (or bad decisions) behind my strategic decision-making. 

It has been an amazing five years. We have gone from zero to nearly 100 employees, raised $24.5 million in investment, launched a tourism-focused company during a global pandemic, rebranded, add in a recession for good measure, and brought on 300 tourism logos throughout. 

We went from a piece of paper (see photo below) to PowerPoint, to an actual product — of which we are on the fourth iteration in just a five-year period. Apple doesn't even version their phones at that speed. We introduced a whole new category of product to the tourism industry. 

Enough "self back pats" and onto business. Special shout out to Visit Fort WorthBruce Dalton, and Kyle Edmiston and Berkeley Young for our early opportunities.

Original bar sketch of product from February 2019

Original bar sketch of product from February 2019

To say I'm a proud Papa/Founder is the biggest understatement I can make. I am so proud of everything our amazing teams of people have created. All I can take credit for is bringing this group of leaders together and giving them room to be their best selves. 

Over the many podcasts, blogs, and interviews I have done in the past five years the constant question is... "What advice would you give other founders?” Well, here we go: 

1. Start a movement — not a product or a service.

The early days of having a start-up are painful and scary, financially and emotionally. How is what you are doing going to change an industry, improve people's lives, and hopefully change the world in the process? That is vision and passion. Your business will be primarily fueled by passion, not money, in the early days. Keep in mind the early days can be a couple of years. 

Passion and starting a movement are critical to getting buy-in from your family and friends. You will need emotional and, maybe, financial support from them. If it's not there, you won't succeed. You won't succeed because this will be the hardest thing you ever do. They have to buy into changing the world with you. If you can't sell them, you certainly won't be able to sell your target audience. Think about it! 

Five years ago this month, I sat in the Hotel Utah bar in San Francisco with my good friend Steven Cook and drew out my product idea. He simply said, "Wow man, that is really hard... uh good luck". Not the enthusiasm I was looking for. 

Steven Cook, Zartico

One year later, I could see how this company/product would change the tourism industry, make lives better, and eventually change the world. When I had that conversation with Steve he said, "I'm in.” I responded, "I have no money.” He said, “Doesn't matter." Steve wanted to change the world with us. 

Creating a movement will pull at people's souls if they believe in it. Everybody wants to change the world. Your early employees may be working for nothing — stock, straight commission, or a very low salary. The truth is, they are working because they want to be part of something amazing and life-changing. If your family, friends, and employees buy in, you will find early customers and seed investors that will buy in as well. It should be the heart of your culture going forward. 

Go back to the drawing board and create a movement. Then back it up with a good product and better service. 

2. Know yourself — including what you don’t know

If there is one thread of success that I could pull throughout the five years it would be this: Take a hard look at yourself and understand what you are not good at. It's not an easy conversation to have. 

Darren Dunn, Zartico

Thirty- or 40-year-old Darren could not have created this company as ego and stupidity would have got in the way. I am great at working lobby bars, selling, entertaining, etc. I knew I could have a mediocre company on my own or something spectacular with the right co-founder. I didn't need another me — I needed someone exactly the opposite of me who could actually build something. Enter Jay Kinghorn

When I was thinking of this idea, I wanted to stress test it with the smartest guy I knew in the tourism industry. Turns out, Jay had the same idea and was looking to break out on his own. I suggested we do something together — bringing our very different skill sets to create something more successful than we could do on our own. I didn't want to compete with his big brain, and he didn't want to sell. 

You also need the right co-founder for emotional support because again... It's really hard to start a company. Lesson: You don't need another you for a co-founder. Find your opposite, make sure your passions are aligned, and then create a movement, product, and marketplace. 

3. Choose your role wisely — and leave the door open for the right person to step into other roles


As a founder, you get to a point during the process where you say, "What title am I going to take?" I mean, you're a founder so it can be anything... CEO, King, Demigod. 

However, you need to be thinking 10 moves down the line and ask "Do I really want to be those things? What am I really good at?” Make sure you leave space to hire toward your weaknesses. I never wanted to be CEO, nor would I be good at it. Therefore I quite purposely gave myself the title of President to leave room for a good CEO. Enter Sarah Lehman. 

At the time, I didn't know I needed her in my life, but what I really didn't know was how she was going to change my life. We were three or four people at the time, and Jay Kinghorn suggested I meet with her about being CEO. Reluctantly, I met a well-credentialed, seasoned CEO who really bought into our vision, passion, and movement. 

I explained that we had no money and likely wouldn't for some time. She wanted to be part of, and more importantly, lead it. I made sure that she could put up with Ted Sullivan and Dave Bahlman — as they would eventually be hired — and vice versa. 

Sarah joined us in January 2020, just in time for the greatest shutdown of travel the world has ever seen. She navigated us through it... thank God! Again — passion and a movement. Motion creates emotion. Keep making plays!

Base Camp 2023

There were so many people who joined us in those early days — too many to mention. All helping us string this thing along at barely salaries or straight stock. To all… my sincerest thanks. You were and are my rocket fuel. 

There are many points of wisdom along the journey that I could share with you. I'll spare you for now. 

As I began to close in on five years of working on "our little start-up that could," I realized that I was at another tipping point at the company and in my career. What am I really good at? After all, I am surrounded by some of the most talented people in the industry running a successful company. 

Ultimately, I am really good at getting companies from zero to 10, or call it zero to 60, employee mark when it comes to travel and tourism. What I'm not good at is the process and discipline that's needed to get companies from 11-100. Employees are like that as well, though most don't know it. Those that got you here, aren't necessarily the ones that can get you there. Would I hire them all over again for zero to 10? Yes! 

Early last fall I took a hard look at myself and decided what was best for me and Zartico was to get out of the way so it could go to that next level. It’s one of the hardest decisions I've ever made, but it's the right one. The company is in excellent hands, and I will continue to serve as a Founder and board member using my brain to suggest the next opportunities for them to crush.

Darren and Team

Being a founder you live in dog years — five years seems like 35. It's 24 hours a day of chaos and anxiety slowly taking a toll on your mental and physical health. Again, clues that I was making the right decision. 

So the most important lesson in being a successful Founder: Know thyself and trust others to get the job done. Now this may all seem like I'm dissuading people from starting a company… I'M NOT. If you are a true potential Founder you are likely saying, "This doesn't apply to me and I'll be the exception." To those I say, Go get' em! Find your passion, create that movement, and surround yourself with amazing people. 

Oh, and renting an RV to share your passion cross country really works as well. #roadbacktour

Thank you for giving me the time to reflect. Without reflection we go blindly on our way.

 @WheelsUpDDD OUT!