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How I’m Crushing It

Shaun McBride, Shonduras


It’s no secret that I think spending four years getting a college degree if you have your heart set on becoming a businessperson or entrepreneur is a waste of time and money.

Make that a fucking waste of time and money. I feel that strongly about it.

However, I am grateful to Weber State University in Utah, because that’s where Shaun McBride received Crush It! as a reading assignment from one of his professors in 2010. If he hadn’t, it might have been a few more years before we finally heard of him. The timing, however, put Shaun in a position to become a mega-influencer. And he did it on a platform where most people said it couldn’t be done.

Shaun embodies the work-hard–work-smart model. At the time that he was getting his degree, Shaun was also running a skate/snowboard shop. It made sense; until then, skateboarding had been his main joy in life. His other love was motivating people and sharing positivity. He’d spent two years on a service mission in Honduras—that’s how he got his nickname, Shonduras—where he had been moved by his experience serving others and helping make a difference in their lives. The skate shop was an ideal place for him to share his love for sport and service. Problem was, while he liked the work, it wasn’t always much fun. He knew he wanted to build a business, and he knew his passion was skateboarding, but he had a suspicion that building a business around that passion could be a great way to ensure that he rarely got to indulge in it, like the music teacher and his neglected symphony in Mr. Holland’s Opus. “You can kill your passions. On a very good snow day, I was in the shop because everyone needed to buy gear to go snowboarding. I think it’s often best to chase things that are in line with your passions but aren’t exactly your passion.” Upon reading Crush It!, he applied some of what he learned to his in-store customer service, but more significant, the book made him realize that if he went about it creatively, he might be able to build an e-commerce business that would allow him to have fun every day doing something he loved. He didn’t know anything about e-commerce, but he figured the best way to learn was to just go for it. What could he sell online that would also allow him to interact regularly with people? His first thought, of course, was skateboards and snowboards. But snowboards need a lot of storage and are costly to ship and hard to buy in bulk. They were his passion, but they were not a practical choice. So what was small, lightweight, and easy to buy in bulk?


Who bought jewelry?


And where were moms hanging out?


At the time, Facebook was still in the early stages of its gargantuan growth, adding millions of users every month, women leading the way to make up 57 percent of the site membership and accounting for 62 percent of the shares.3 And Facebook had all these features that could enhance engagement. For example, if one person commented on a post, all their friends could see it! It’s hard to remember, but at the time that was still pretty remarkable.

Facebook became Shaun’s storefront and his design studio.

“I would ask my fans to tell me what kind of styles they wanted and help me name the pieces. I’d do giveaways like, ‘Whoever picks the best name for this necklace will get ten free necklaces.’” Engagement went through the roof. He gave people every opportunity to interact with the site. “It felt like they were part of the jewelry boutique and that we were creating it together.” No one was more surprised by the venture’s success than Shaun.

“I didn’t even think it was going to work. I was hoping I could make fifty bucks a week extra by shipping a couple of necklaces out of the back of my skate shop. And within one week, I had more orders than I could handle. Within two weeks, I’d hired all my sisters, and I was paying them with necklaces.”

It took only two months to net six figures.

He quickly hired more help, and by the end of the first year, the business had made $1.2 million. But Shaun wasn’t there to celebrate. He was having a blast, but after about eight months, he was done. His excitement for the business was rooted in the steep learning curve; now that he’d learned everything he needed to know, he was ready to see if he could apply that knowledge to a new business, one that traded in helping brands tell stories and spread positive messages via social media rather than selling consumer goods. Shaun sold the business to his partner and quit his day job at the retail shop, but instead of immediately starting a new company, he accepted a dream job as a sales rep for some of his favorite skateboard and snowboard brands, a position that gave him plenty of opportunity to “shred” as much as he liked. It also bought him the time he needed to study the market and figure out a scalable, long-term business idea.

The job required that he travel a lot, so Shaun’s high-school-age sisters asked him to download a new app popular among teens called Snapchat to make it easier for him to share his adventures with them. There it was: the answer he’d been seeking. At the time, you had to hold your finger on the screen or the image would disappear. That meant 100 percent engagement. You could draw cartoons and doodles on your pictures with your finger, something you couldn’t do on any other platform. That meant fun. If there’s one thing Shaun had learned from his jewelry-boutique experiment, it’s that he was good at creating safe online communities where people could come together to engage and have fun.

“The greatest challenge was trying to grow on a platform that did not cater to growth. Snapchat was a communication platform, like text messaging, so I had to make it into a content-creating platform. Eventually, Snapchat made updates, which helped with that, but I had to get creative at first.”

There’s a reason Shaun’s content got so much attention when so many others on Snapchat did not: he treated Snapchat like a business. Many people start pumping out cool content onto a platform and just hope they’ll get noticed and grow their audience enough that brands will come calling. Usually you have to be more proactive than that. Shaun had a plan. He set himself a series of goals, and everything he did from that moment was in service of meeting them.

Goal number one was to grow an audience through creative engagement and collaborations, so he started doodling. Every day he would post a video of himself doing something goofy or a fun picture he’d doctored to make people laugh, like a unicorn vomiting rainbows over a snowy landscape or his dachshunds in silly costumes and poses. He also invited his fans to participate in his snaps. For example, he drew himself as a triceratops and announced that he wanted help building Jurasnap Park, posting requests for friends to take selfies, draw themselves as dinosaurs, and send the pictures to him. He took screenshots of the images and displayed them. The response was tremendous. “It felt like one-to-one communication. On a lot of social media, you make a beautiful image, and then people comment below. Snapchat felt more collaborative. We built the stories up together.” Most people would naturally assume that it was Shaun’s artistic abilities that drew him to the platform, but there’s something funny about the way he drew his way to Snapchat stardom.

I literally did not know how to draw. When I decided to make the Snapchat thing work, I thought, “Well, if I want to tell a good story, and I think this is a great platform that’s emerging, a lot of it has to do with doodling and creativity, I need to learn.” I literally Googled “How to draw dinosaurs” and then “How do I do angry eyes?” and then I’d put them on my dinosaur. I never copied anything, but I would teach myself how to draw by looking up art on the Internet, and then I slowly learned how to layer things. Give me a Snapchat and I’ll make you a funny little doodle, but give me a pen and paper or a paintbrush, and I probably can’t do much for you.

He reached out to a talented Snapchat artist, Michael Platco, who was getting a lot of engagement, and with the aim of mutually growing each one’s fan base, they created the first Snapchat collaboration: a boxing match. Each invited his fans to send his opponent “punches” in the form of snaps doodled with a colorful Kapow! or two, with fists and boxing gloves. The person who received the most punches would be KO’d. Within an hour, thousands of punches were thrown, and Shonduras and MPlatco responded to each round with selfies doodled to make themselves look pummeled to a pulp. They finally declared the fight a draw, but regardless, Shaun had won by multiplying his audience by thousands, making it possible for him to move forward with the next stage of his plan.

Goal number two was to get press. The major hindrance to growing a brand on Snapchat was its impermanence. There was no way to link, no way to share, and the content vaporized after twenty-four hours. The only way Snapchatters could give their content a longer lifespan and establish a permanent online presence was to screen-shoot the images and push them onto Twitter and Instagram. The other way, it occurred to Shaun, was to get someone to write about him. Snapchat didn’t even have a website, so the only way someone could learn more about the platform was through Google. Shonduras intended to be the first name to pop up.

Once again, he got creative. His mother, understandably proud of her son, had contacted a media outlet and suggested they feature his work. Concerned that journalists wouldn’t pay attention to a self-promoter, he decided to use his mom’s e-mail address to pitch stories about Snapchat. Every night, he’d ask his assistant in the Philippines to draft personalized e-mails to contacts at the tech trades—Mashable, BuzzFeed, and Business Insider, for example—with an attachment of his work. The e-mails were written in his mother’s voice: “I saw your recent article about YouTube and I thought a story on this new platform called Snapchat might be a good fit for your audience. My son does these really interesting stories there. . . .” In the morning he’d wake up to three or four e-mails from people asking his mom for Shaun’s number.

The media attention snowballed until he started getting featured in Time, Forbes, and Fast Company. That kept him relevant and top of mind, so when brands started wondering how they could use the platform, as predicted, his was the first name they thought of.

While all this was happening, Shaun had also been working on goal number three: to tell a story for a brand. “Every brand I’ve spoken to, they aren’t just a product, they have a story, and they want to share it.” All along, he’d been hitting up small brands and local businesses to see if they would give him a chance to create some work for them as a case study that he could then use as a marketing tool. No one was interested until he wrote to Disney. Unbelievably, Disney, the biggest brand of all, said yes. Their branding slogan that year was “Show your Disney side,” so Shaun’s idea was to go to every part of Disneyland to look for his Disney side, snapping and doodling as he went along. Was he more of a Toon guy, a Tomorrowland guy, or an Adventureland guy? (In the end, he was an Everything guy, snapping a photo of himself sporting doodled Tarzan dreads, a robot arm, Tinker Bell on his shoulder, and a Captain Hook wig.) From there, the branding work took off. Besides reprising his role as brand ambassador several times for Disney, Shaun has created Snapchat content for Red Bull, Xfinity Mobile, Taco Bell, and many other companies. He even got to help promote the 2015 release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Even at the height of his success, though, he was looking ahead to see what else he could do.

“That’s the thing: once you’ve crushed something, you’ve got to keep moving on. Who knows how long Snapchat’s going to be around? Let’s crush it again.”

While still going strong on Snapchat, Shaun started developing his YouTube channel. Originally he was documenting the scene behind the scenes of his crazy Snapchat adventures and travels, but as he started creating more branded YouTube videos and his life became increasingly packed with meetings, the channel increasingly featured all the characters in his life, from the employees working in the “Spacestation”—Shaun’s studio and office—to his wife, Jenny, and his baby girl, Adley. In late 2016, they launched a second YouTube channel, on which they all have free rein to bring their “weird ideas” to life. Shaun envisions it as a sitcom in which all of his friends and family play a distinct role. His hope is that his audience will get addicted to the personalities and story lines just as they once did with shows like Seinfeld.

Though his YouTube brand deals today outnumber those he does for Snapchat, his Snapchat following remains robust. In addition, he continues to accept speaking engagements, including a TED Talk. He is also working as a consultant helping brands to strategize, work with influencers, and put together strong social-media campaigns. In 2017, he announced that he’ll be creating branded content for Viacom, including Nickelodeon and MTV. And he recently launched a successful eSports organization with some of the number-one teams in the world. There’s no sign of stopping. Every day, this long-haired skater dude with the instincts of a hardened businessman commits to spreading positive messages and giving people a reason to laugh and have fun.

What’s the secret to his success? “Personal relationships. I think a lot of people establish fake, one-way relationships—they just want to ask for something, or they want to do a collab and get a shout-out. They don’t develop those real relationships and provide value and just give, give, give. If you do that, eventually you’ll get back, and that’s where the success comes.” I have watched this man execute relentlessly for the last five years or so. What I love most about him is how his happiness comes through in everything that he does. He’s a classic storyteller who isn’t afraid to try anything. While many people find every reason in the world to say no, Shaun says yes. That’s his secret sauce.

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