Ep #13 | Gratitude and Grit

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Brett Hagler is the CEO and Co-Founder of New Story – an innovative nonprofit that transforms slums into sustainable communities around the world.

Brett is a cancer survivor, author, speaker, Y Combinator alum, and 2016 Forbes 30 Under 30 Entrepreneur. After reviving a lost Christian faith, Brett took a trip to Haiti and met families living in the type of slums that New Story is now on a mission to transform into sustainable communities.

That on-ground experience paired with his background in marketing, sales and formerly a venture-backed ecommerce founder, connected the dots to create New Story. For fun, he oddly enjoys doing burpees early in the morning. Brett writes about entrepreneurship, leadership and New Story’s journey at bretthagler.com/blog and on LinkedIn.



Shantel: Hey, we've got Brett Hagler on the show. Brett, we're so excited to have you.

Brett: Hey Shantel. Thanks for having me on.

Shantel: Yeah, of course. Well, I am so excited to learn a little bit more about you. In full disclosure, we are friends and fellow graduates of Florida State, but I would love for you to educate the listeners on what you have going on, and your entrepreneurial journey so far.


Brett: Yeah. Lookin' forward to it. So, the high level of what I do today, is I run an organization called New Story, which is a non-profit that I started almost three years ago. And what we do is we build villages in the developing world, and we've been doing that now almost three years, and we do everything from funding homes for, and building homes for almost about $6,000 per home to getting a large piece of land and designing, really, a village with other components such as a school, clean water, solar power, etc. And, I am based in San Francisco, and have a full-time team of ten team members that I'm really lucky to do life with, so that's the high level.

Shantel: That's great. Since last time we spoke, it seems like the terminology has changed, or shifted a little bit. Before, it was houses, and now it's villages, which is awesome.

Brett: Yeah, it's not necessarily a pivot. I think it's more of like, growing into it. So, the very beginning, we were really trying to fund very simple houses for families that are in desperate need that I met after a personal trip that I took down to Haiti. We're really trying to just create a more transparent experience for the donors. So, we crowd-funded all the homes, which I'm sure your listeners are familiar with. So, you got to meet the family, see them online, see their kids, read their story, give directly to them. One hundred percent of what was given would go towards building the house, which is built by local workers. And then, we send move-in videos when the family's moved in, it's one of the best days of their lives, and if you donated, you got to see the end result. What happened, Shantel, was that very simple transparent concept caught on a little bit, and we started growing, and all of a sudden we had a few hundred homes, and realized that, holy smokes, we actually have a village and a community. So, we really grew into the idea of, "Yes, we fund homes, but there's a much bigger idea," and it's that, if you can fund and build all these homes, in one localized area, well, you then have a platform that you can bring on other partners for components. As I mentioned, a school, or clean water, or micro-loans, et cetera. So, that, we use partners to do that. But that's what it's evolved into.

Shantel: That's amazing. And it sounds like it stemmed off of a personal trip of yours. Let's talk about your personal journey, and what kind of got you to that place.


Brett: Yeah, the super-short version is that I never thought that I would start a charity or do anything with charity. You knew me in college a little bit, and this was not what I wanted to do. And so, I actually got into entrepreneurship. I started a for-profit company right out of college. Just wanted to try to make as much money as I could. Then, about two years out of college, I graduated in 2012, I kind of just got sick of really just living for myself, and no bigger purpose than really what I could get for me, and what other people thought about me, and all that stuff of really "Checking the box." So, I had a 180 in my personal life through a revived Christian faith, and then that sent me down on a trip to Haiti, which is actually the poorest country on our hemisphere. I had never seen anything like this before. It was a total noob, I knew nothing about this stuff. I just had my world rocked on the trip. And so, I came back, and decided to eventually try to do something about it.

Shantel: That's neat. And what sparked the, you mentioned full transparency. So, were you frustrated with the typical non-profit world?

Brett: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. When I went down there, I didn't have an epiphany to say, "Hey, I want to go back and start a charity." I actually already thought there was way too many organizations. I was trying to find one that I could really champion and get behind, and be excited about. I basically couldn't really find that, and then also, uncovered another problem which was a lack of trust and skepticism of how American donors felt in America. So, if you're listening, and I asked you, "If you gave, not ten bucks, but a significant amount of money, let's call it $1,000 dollars, online right now to a larger international charity, would you trust exactly where it's going and how it's being spent?" It turns out that about 43% of people would say they don't trust it. That's when kind of the entrepreneurial side took over and said, "Okay. Here's a problem. How do we reverse-engineer that and create an experience to change that disconnect between the kids that I met that didn't have one of life's most basic needs, which is safety and shelter, which is just crazy. Disconnect between that and the skepticism that potential donors had." So, that was how that originally happened.

Shantel: That's really neat. And you mentioned that entrepreneurial spirit, and how it kicked in. Were you surrounded by people growing up? Did you have mentors or advisors, or people that inspired you to start your own company? Or was it just a great opportunity, and you saw a need, and you carved that path for yourself?


Brett: Yeah, I never even really thought about entrepreneurship until probably my junior year in college. I think, in hindsight, two things helped me become an entrepreneur. The first was sports. I think a lot of the characteristics in sports are really good DNA-forming stuff for an entrepreneur. I also had an adversity in high school. I went through cancer and came out as all good there, but that was a lot of adversity that really instilled gratitude and some grit down into my bones, which has certainly helped as an entrepreneur. But, in college, I just, I think I saw the social network or something and was like, "Wow, this is crazy. You can be really young and have no accomplishments on paper, and you can control what you want to do, and the only thing really stopping you from doing something is limits and beliefs of starting." So, I started to read a lot of books about entrepreneurs, started listening to podcasts and all that stuff, and just really became obsessed with learning. In my opinion, that's a really good way for people to start, is just by learning and if you find yourself becoming more and more obsessed with the learning side of that, I think that means that you probably have entrepreneurship in you sometime in the future.

Shantel: When I think, coupling the learning piece with the grit. Right? So, people, entrepreneurs. Everyone wants to learn, and people want to grow, but the execution piece, I think, is one of ... something that's extremely valuable in an entrepreneur. That then you can learn something and also execute it, and know that you don't have to know everything, but you're going to figure it out along the way.

Brett: Totally.

Shantel: Would you say that grit, and that learning piece have been one of the more influential factors in the business success today, or is there something else that comes to mind?


Brett: Yeah, I think grit is probably number one. I would say, I usually describe that answer as a combination of determination and discipline. Because a lot of people can be very motivated. Right? Like, you can watch a Gary Vaynerchuk video, or a Tony Robbins video, and be all jacked up on trying to go do something, right? You can be motivated, but what it really comes down to is, are you, day in, day out going to have to discipline to do a lot of the hard things that are super hard, and that you don't want to do because they're uncomfortable, and it doesn't make sense, and nobody else is doing it. Are you or are you not going to actually do that? I think, if I look back on my short career as an entrepreneur and a CEO, I've understood that those are really the moments that are testing. There's a lot of things that I don't have the strengths, but I think having that discipline along with extreme determination has probably been the number one reason for the little success that we've had.

Shantel: Nice. I'm glad that you touched on the strengths part. I think, everyone I've been talking to, for the most part, seemingly is very self-aware, and they know their strengths. They know what they're not good at, also. And then, can find the people around them that are great at that to balance. What would you say your top strength is?

Brett: Yeah, I think it's around being able to have a larger vision, and a goal. And then, rally people around that. So, that could be your team members. That could be investors. In our case, that can be donors. That can be partnerships. So, most people would call that leadership. But, I think that's my strength, is, "Hey, here's a big idea. And then, how do we assemble the right people and get them on board to sign up for this vision?" So, that would be my strengths. And then some of the weaknesses, is probably more on the actual operations side. I've been extraordinarily lucky to have an incredible COO, and a co-founder. Her name's Alexandria. So, she balances me out there. We work pretty well together with that balance.

Shantel: That's great. And, I know we've had some conversations offline. For our listeners, Brett is a tremendous goal-setter. I think that you cast a vision so well, and we've kind of exchanged some spreadsheets about, "Here's the vision." And then you make it bite-size from Week One, Week Two. And, I mean, it's amazing. Did you learn that from the book "Traction." Or was that something you learned from ...


Brett: That's actually ... I know that's part of "Traction." And I'm certainly aware of that. I would say that that has certainly influenced it. Originally got that concept through a program that we went through called, Y Combinator, which I actually highly refer for anybody listening to check out some of the resources that they have out on entrepreneurship. If you just Google "Y Combinator Resources," there's a lot of, in my opinion, gold, on start-ups. So, that's where it started, and the basic principle is you have your really big idea, and then, we call it reverse-engineer that down into a couple main annual goals, which then breaks down into your quarterly goals, which then breaks down into monthly goals, and then all the way down into weekly and daily, is kind of the ladder that we have set up.

Shantel: That's great. And that, I certainly imagine, helps you optimize your day-to-day and know those high-performance tasks that you actually need to be doing.

Brett: Yeah. I think, for anyone that is listening, and either you're in an leadership position, or you want to one day. I think you always have to connect what you're working on this quarter, this month, to the overall vision. One thing I've learned is that you can't communicate that enough. The more you do it, the better. You may think you're sounding repetitive, but you're actually not. Because you're helping influence, and really, not even motivate, but give purpose to your team members of why you guys are doing what you're doing.

Shantel: I love that ... on the "give purpose." We've been interviewing quite a bit, and recruiting for some new roles, which is really exciting, but, one of the things that almost every person has mentioned in their interview is they want to work somewhere where they feel like they're making a difference. That goes back into that giving the team purpose. Sometimes if, I imagine, if they have trouble articulating it, it would be difficult for them to feel passionate about what they're doing every day.

Brett: Totally. Yep.

Shantel: Let's talk about your day-to-day. So, busy. You're growing a company. You've got ten teammates. How do you optimize your day? What are some tools or techniques you use to stay organized?


Brett: Yeah, so I think it starts by first, really ... before I go into the day, which is super important, starting first with having your big priorities, and then breaking those down to where, for the week, you should know ... we call it, "The Main Thing." So, each team member, and each department, has one main thing for the week that, if all else fails, they need to get that done. So, from a weekly standpoint, I have that main thing, which comes from what I talked about before, of having the monthly main things, and the quarterly main things, but then that helps give me clarity on what's the most important thing for me to do during the day. So, my daily routine, I try to keep very consistent, even though I travel a good bit. Is, I have a pretty strict morning routine before I get into the office, that really just consists of personal time, reading, prayer, journaling, and then the gym. Which is kind of my meditation at the gym. And then I get into the office relatively early. And I have from about 7am to 10am blocked off. Where, I'm trying as much as I can not to take meetings, not to take phone calls with team members. It's just 7am to 10am, just three hours of my blocked time that I call, "Maker Time." That's when I'm working on things that are a little more creative or bigger picture, and I just really need my own space to do. Now, of course, you can't always hold that every day, and if things come up, you can, of course, make changes. But, that's the goal, is to have "Maker Time" in the morning and then, in the afternoon, is "Manager Time." That's when I try to book my meetings, or my one-on-ones with team members, or phone calls, et cetera, is all in the afternoon, and then I'll usually wind down at night with one or two other things. But, that's a typical day.

Shantel: Do you find that you're just far more productive in the mornings, so that's why you were intentional about setting aside that time?

Brett: Yeah. Totally. For me, I'm a morning person. I am a ... I pass out at night, usually, before 10pm. So, I'm not an night owl. I just find my brain is functioning the best, and creativity is the best in the morning. And, so that's when I use my creative things, when I need to write something. Whatever it might be for the morning.

Shantel: That's great. I've only been able to, so far, I can certainly be better about this, but block off Tuesdays to work on the business, instead of in the business. And it sounds like you've found a way every day.

Brett: That's awesome. Yeah, I mean, I have a chunk of the day. But, that's not always the case. Things come up, and when you're traveling, and stuff like that, it's not always the case, but that's what I aim for.

Shantel: Okay. Fair enough. Well, you mention traveling a lot, super busy, where and when do you learn, and how do you get inspired when you're abroad or traveling somewhere else?

Brett: Yes. I listen, a lot, to audio books. So, I use Audible, and Podcast. So, I usually do ... I can do it in the gym. So, I usually have 50 minutes to an hour where I'm listening to a podcast, or working my way through an audiobook, and then just kind of in transition as well. So, I walk to work, so when I walk home at night, I usually have 20-ish minutes where I can listen. Or, as any other time, I have my headphones in, and I'm trying to listen to something. On Sundays, I try to carve out a couple hours for actual physical reading. But, I usually am listening to stuff.

Shantel: Okay. Do you like personal reading? Like, not learning reading, but just fun reading?

Brett: Fun reading. I need to get better at that. I would say, so I have, I do a lot of the typical, and I think they're great, leadership, management, business books, all that stuff, which I think is awesome. But then, more of my fun stuff, where I'm not growing business-wise, would be more around my faith, and more that space, which, it does help, obviously, with the business side and leadership, and all that stuff. But, that's what I'll spend time on.

Shantel: Certainly. I asked, and this is more of a personal thing, but I have trouble sometimes reading all of the business books that are stacking on the side of my bedside table, or if I'm reading a personal book, I feel guilty because I need to be reading that business book.

Brett: I think it's a balance. I think it's really healthy to, whatever the cadence you want to set up where it's like, I don't know, one business book, one personal book. Or, whatever that is. I usually have two businessy books, and then one personal or inspiration faith-based thing for me. That's how I try to split it up, but anyone can kind of set their own thing.

Shantel: It's a great balance. Is there a book or podcast or audiobook that you listened to lately that you can't stop thinking about?

Brett: Yeah. Let's see, the podcast that I really like is, god, there's as bunch. There's a newer one that's really cool out of Silicon Valley called- not the show "Silicon Valley," but from the actual place with real people, it's called "Masters of Scale," with the co-founder of Reid Hoffman. It's a newer one, it's really cool. Another one that I absolutely love which not many people have heard of, I don't think, it's called the Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast. Andy is a pastor in Atlanta, but the podcast really has nothing to do about faith or being a pastor. It's just all about leadership, and that is one of my favorite go-to ones.

Shantel: Okay. Well, I'll have to link those for the listeners, and certainly take a look myself. Day to day, if there could be one thing you could take off your plate today, what would it be, and why?

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Brett: That's a good one. Let's see. Well, we just, business-wise, we just hired somebody last week that is going to be taking a lot of things off my plate. So, that's one way to do it. I don't have any ... that is going to solve a lot of the stuff on the business side. I think when you have too much on your plate, what I've gotten better at doing is just, I've just stopped doing things. Instead of really loading my plate with a lot of stuff, I'll just say, "Hey, this is all the things going on, and I'm going to literally write out what are the most important things, and the more that I have on there, the more I obviously dilute all the rest. And then I try to cut it." So, one short example is Warren Buffett, and one of the really cool things he does each year is he writes down 20 things, like 20 big things that he wants to accomplish for the year. Like, 20 goals, right? And then he goes back and he crosses out, I think it's like 15 or 14 of them where he only has three to five goals, and that's all he focuses on. So, whenever I feel a little bit overwhelmed or there's too much on my plate, I really try to just zoom out, look at everything going on, and then just cut stuff, and then just stop doing it.

Shantel: Wow, so I imagine you've had to get pretty proficient at saying no to a lot of things.

Brett: I mean, I don't know. As time's gone on, there's certainly more things that come up. So, you've got to say no.

Shantel: I like that Warren Buffett idea, about the goals. I was speaking to a podcast guest, a couple weeks ago about Trello. Do you use Trello?

Brett: Yeah, our team does. It's really good.

Shantel: Okay. We haven't started using that yet, we use Teamwork for our project management, but Trello seems like a good visual for brain dumping all of the things we do and then maybe moving them to different columns based on what I want to do, what I don't.

Brett: Yeah, so one book recommendation that is kind of on that stuff I was just talking about of cutting out and not diluting yourself, is called, "The One Thing." Really, really good. Our whole team has read it, really awesome. It's called, "The One Thing."

Shantel: We just read that as a team. I'm glad that you mentioned it.

Brett: Really? Yeah.

Shantel: I got another recommendation from someone else, and the next book, apparently, that we should read is called "Essentialism." Have you heard of that one?

Brett: Yeah, I did that one a while ago. I probably need to do it again, but highly recommend.

Shantel: You liked it?

Brett: Totally. Yeah.

Shantel: That's great. Well, is there, ... I've got two more questions to kind of wrap it up.

Brett: Yeah. Fire away.

Shantel: Is there anything that you wish you would've known when you first got started, or something that you're really looking forward to over the next couple of months that you'd love to share with the guests?


Brett: So, what I wish I knew when I first got started. Yes, I would say, when I first got started, and our story, we kind of like ... I moved from Atlanta to Silicon Valley. When you get out to Silicon Valley, there's a ton of pros. But, you can also get a little brainwashed that everything is about growth, and growth rates. It's like, if you're not growing extremely fast, then something's wrong. So, for my first year and a half, almost two years, I really prioritized everything through the funnel of, is this going to help us grow faster or not? It turns out that that's not the best way to grow a company, in my opinion. And, so, what I would say, and what I would recommend to anyone starting a business is to actually focus on getting better before bigger, which is actually the theme of our team this year, is to get better before bigger. Because if you can get better, then your customers are going to demand that you get bigger. So, I wish I knew that earlier. I think we were trying to probably get bigger, and then better as we go. But, better before bigger is really important.

Shantel: And that's been the theme for the whole year, or ...

Brett: Yeah. Yeah, so that's the team. We try to do one mantra like that for the year. And that's what it is for this year.

Shantel: I love that. I'm going to take that back. That's a good piece of advice.

Brett: Yeah. That's good. I didn't make it up. That's what happens when you listen to a lot of podcasts and books. You all of a sudden become smarter and more creative. It's like, the more you listen to people, you hear people say smart things, which they didn't make up either. Right? They heard it somewhere else. And, all of a sudden, people are all like, "Oh, that's really good." I just stole it from this other person.

Shantel: Well, you can coin that one. I'll give you credit on the show. What's next on the horizon? Any fun adventures? Speaking engagements, so that we can follow along?

Brett: Let's see. You can follow New Story on our social channels, and kind of follow along with what we're doing there. We'll be hiring a little bit more in the future. Internships are always available. Yeah, we're just ... we've got off to a decent start to the company. We're about three years in now. Now, just really looking into the new phase. So, we've got a couple pretty innovative, more risky things that we're planning to do over the next six months. That will be coming out soon, but nothing at the current moment.

Shantel: Okay. Well, we'll be sure to follow along and cheer you on in the meantime. And, if anyone wants to get in touch with you, is the best way through the website or ...

Brett: Let's see. Pretty active on Twitter. It's just my name, Brett Hagler, on Twitter. And then, you can email, which is just Brett, B-R-E-T-T at newstorycharity.org.

Shantel: Great. Well, thank you so much for spending some time with us. Love chatting with you, Brett. Thanks again.

Brett: Thanks Shantel.