Episode 19: Today, hosts Alex Lieberman (@businessbarista) and Jesse Pujji (@jspujji) are breaking down the recent sale of Jesse’s first business, Ampush. From building the company in the early days to making the decision to sell, to the actual negotiations and the emotional aftermath, Jesse and Alex dig into all of it.
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(00:46) - Intro
(04:50) - How Tinuity came to acquire Jesse’s company, Ampush
(07:20) - The creation and growth of Ampush
(18:43) - The first time Ampush tried to sell
(24:35) - What led Jesse to transition out as Ampush’s CEO
(30:04) - What drove the more recent decision to sell Ampush
(32:41) - What the process of selling Ampush looked like
(43:44) - What Jesse prioritized when negotiating the sale of Ampush
(49:53) - The emotional experience of selling Ampush
(1:02:25) - The importance of having a supportive partner in the entrepreneurial journey
(1:06:05) - Why the sale has made Jesse feel successful
(1:08:03) - How Jesse thinks about raising his kids now that he’s reached a certain level of success
(1:10:51) - What’s next for Jesse
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Alex Lieberman (@businessbarista)
Jesse Pujji (@jspujji)
Jesse Pujji: We signed the deal; we did what's called a split sign and close. I think I told you this offline, but so we signed on the 21st of December and we closed on the fourth. So imagine the most anticipatory two weeks of your life. The deal is done.
Alex Lieberman: I don't know if we're going to run this, but this is the M&A version of blue balls.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, I didn't want to say that, but yes. It's just like, oh my god, is it gonna...it's gonna happen. It's like...and then your family, nobody knows. Should they congratulate you? But I was like, no, it's not closed. And my dad's a real estate guy, so he's like, "You stay on this every day until"...you know, "It's not done until the money's in the bank." So there's all these, it's just sitting there, and that was a...like just a highly anticipation-oriented period.
Alex Lieberman: What's up, everyone? I'm Alex Lieberman.
Jesse Pujji: Yo, this is Jesse Pujji.
Alex Lieberman: And this is The Crazy Ones. Okay, I'm gonna start with something. I have a little surprise.
Jesse Pujji: Uh oh.
Alex Lieberman: Tell me if you can hear this. (cheering, buzz) It's the acquisition alarm. Woo woo! Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to The Crazy Ones. My co-host, Jesse, class A Crazy, officially sold his business, Ampush, after, what, 13 years?
Jesse Pujji: 13 years.
Alex Lieberman: 13.
Jesse Pujji: Overnight success.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah, the 13-year overnight success. Congratulations, man.
Jesse Pujji: Thank you. Thank you.
Alex Lieberman: We are going to talk about a lot on this episode, from the origin story of Ampush, what the business is, so that you have some table setting, but then what the process is like of selling a business. It can be brutal at times, it can be long, but there's so much you learn. And then, of course, I'd be remiss to not ask the squishy questions about the emotions around the process: what it was like to share the sale of a business with your family. So we're going to hit it all. Stay tuned for everything, and welcome back to The Crazy Ones, everyone.
Okay, so you sold your company. I saw...pretty funny. I saw the announcement on Google, I think, before you saw it.
Jesse Pujji: I know. I was just gonna tell you, you were the person who told me that it got announced.
Alex Lieberman: It's so ridiculous. You didn't have...
Jesse Pujji: Which is lesson number one of selling your company: It ain't your company anymore. So they didn't call me and go, "Hey, could we send this press release?"
Alex Lieberman: That is the most ridiculous thing.
Jesse Pujji: It was supposed to go out last week, and then I was just told, like, it's gonna go out sometime this week. And then literally you go, "Hey, it's public now. Can we talk about it?"
Alex Lieberman: It's absolutely ridiculous. I have to start with one question. How much did you sell it for?
Jesse Pujji: One day I'll share that. Episode number 452.
Alex Lieberman: I was talking to Jesse before this, I said, is there anything off limits in this conversation? And he said, nothing is off limits except for talking about the price. So I had to ask.
Jesse Pujji: I think the pertinent detail is it was a very good outcome. It's like life-changing, and it is the moment I think I dreamed of as a 20-something...
Alex Lieberman: Yeah. How old were you when you started it? Do you remember the exact date?
Jesse Pujji: Well, here's a funny story. So the name Ampush...you know this, but the audience might not know this. It's the first two letters of the founders' last names. So Chris Amos, Jesse Pujji, Nick Shaw. And our first company we started sophomore year of college, we were super douchey and it was called Amos, Pujji, and Shaw, Inc. It was like...
Alex Lieberman: Oh my god.
Jesse Pujji: And it was our T-shirt business. And one day we were looking at the forms for it and Chris, I think, came up with it. Chris looked at it and he goes, man, that spells Ampush. And they're like...immediately we jump on Google. Is that domain available? And it was available. So we've owned the domain and have kind of used that name for various things since 2004.
Alex Lieberman: I love it.
Jesse Pujji: That's how old it is. And then we held onto it and we didn't do much. And then the company, as a real business and as adults, was...we started in late 2009, 2010.
Alex Lieberman: I will say the name has a very good ring to it, for assembling initials of names. Usually when you try to do that with founders, it doesn't work out. If I try to do it with Austin Rief, Alex Lieberman, it would be like Lara, and I really would've been upset if Morning Brew's name was called Lara. So it's a catchy name. I want to...okay, so the way we're going to do this is I want you to just set the foundation of the sale. So when the deal was done, who you sold it to. And then we're going to pull back the timeline and start working towards this week that everything just happened. So tell me a little bit about the acquisition.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, sure. So it was acquired by a large tech-enabled marketing services business called Tenuity. And Tenuity has a really cool origin story itself, but it was a roll-up of a variety of different marketing services and agency businesses. That business is backed by a really awesome private equity firm called New Mountain Capital, who I got to know really well. I knew a little bit prior to this process, but really got to know them well and love their approach. They're all about finding a good sector and actually buying a bunch of businesses inside of it to create a bigger business. They're super entrepreneurial. Some of the partners there were awesome. They were generally really great parties.
So the reason they bought the company, they had had their eyes on it for multiple years. And so when we finally put up the flag, which we can talk about, they pounced, and they pounced pretty hard on it, which was exciting to see. They had bought one small social agency without a lot of tech and data chops. And I think they felt like they could really...that the Ampush offering would enhance what they were doing in a very meaningful way. And so I think for them it was, they're trying to build the largest...I think they call themselves the largest independent performance marketing business out there. They run Amazon, television, Google, and I think this was sort of an area where they thought they could build something really awesome and big and upgrade their capabilities.
Alex Lieberman: And I feel like that it's a relatively common strategy in, I guess the private equity middle market PE world where you have an anchor business, and then that anchor business does all of these kind of add-ons to increase the overall value. That's a common practice.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, very common. The other thing that happens that's kind of a cool thing, is it's called multiple arbitrage. And one thing that just happens in businesses, as your business gets bigger, investors pay a higher multiple. It's more stable; it's demonstrated more sort of staying power. And so what a lot of these private equity firms do, and we were sort of a part of this arbitrage, was, "Hey, I can pay you X multiple, I can buy it X multiple, but I can sell it Y multiple, and Y multiple is 2x or 50% to 100% greater than what I'm paying." And so naturally, every time I bring on a dollar of profit, it's worth more to me as the holder.
The other cool thing is, especially our management team and our CEO got a lot of equity. We got a little bit, which was by design. So we're riding a little bit with them in terms of what's going to happen.
Alex Lieberman: Got it. Sweet. So I want to talk through the mechanics of the deal, but I would say, probably some chunk of our audience knows your different businesses, between Ampush and then all of your Gateway X businesses, but also I think the pod has grown a lot in the last month or two. So there are people who may not know your story and what Ampush is. So can you just provide context on what Ampush is, when it started, what the offering was, so people can understand why a company would look to buy you guys.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, totally. Let me take five minutes to tell the whole saga, because I think it's worth it, just because I think you will appreciate the whole sale more knowing what all has happened. Because Ampush has really...I mean Ampush for me...and just to talk, get emotional a little bit...it is the place I grew up as a businessperson. It's where I learned all the things I've learned. Everything I do, without a doubt, from here forward and from here forward will be Ampush at its core in some ways. And it's just like the first of anything. It's the first child, the first love. And it's also been multiple businesses.
So I'll tell the story. I mentioned earlier, my college roommates, all of us went to go work in finance. We were in the financial crisis. Nick, one of our co-founders, one of my partners, he was going to a hedge fund in 2009.
And he gets an email...I get an email or message one morning from...I'm sitting at Goldman Sachs and it says, "Blue Wave has blown up. It's down 40%." And I wake him up; he's in India at the time, working at Morgan Stanley. And I'm like, "Hey, your hedge fund's gone." And he kind of paused and he was like, "You know what?" I was like, "I can get you a job interviews, no big deal. We'll figure this out." And he's like, "I'm gonna chill. I'm gonna see what happens." And so he actually...I think that was a big move for him, without us. I was still at a job and Chris was at a job, and he said, "I'm gonna just hang out." And he started working on a project, and then he'd call me every week for advice. And then as these things snowball, I was kind of like, I wasn't loving the job anymore. And one funny story is...you know what GLG is?
Alex Lieberman: Yeah, yeah.
Jesse Pujji: So it's Gerson Lehrman Group. It's this expert network where private equity firms and hedge funds can call experts. And so I told my firm, probably in late '09, "I'm leaving; I'm gonna go start a business." If you leave for a reason like that, they're very supportive. So they're like, "Oh, why don't you hang out for a few more months? Transition your work. What can we do for you?" So I was like, "Well, I want to just use GLG"...Goldman has an unlimited, probably million-dollar a month subscription to GLG. And every day we had three experts' calls with digital marketing experts...
Alex Lieberman: No way.
Jesse Pujji: It was amazing. I mean, dude, you couldn't ask for a better...
Alex Lieberman: That is the most incredible hack.
Jesse Pujji: Best hack ever. We got the sell side internet analyst to come pitch me and tell me, "What's the growing sector?" And so we had a lot of support in getting it going. And we were really keen on bootstrapping. And I think I have this deck, I don't think I've ever shared it with you, but I will, which is all about creating a really cool culture, generating cash flow, and then multiplying it many times over. And in many ways what Gateway X is today, that vision was back in 2009. We had no idea how to execute it, but we wanted to find a business we could get going, we could start, and sort of multiply on top of each other.
And so we heard from people, they'd say, "Oh, you're good with numbers, data, go look at digital marketing." So a bunch of 25-year-olds who said, "Okay, we'll go look at digital marketing." We start poking around, we go, "We have no relationships; we don't know anyone." They go, "Well, there's this one sector called performance marketing. It's kind of like Wall Street. You spend your own money and if it works, you make some money back, and if you don't, it doesn't work." So we're like, okay, performance marketing. We're like, what's a good space to do this in?
And at that time, just totally randomly, Kaplan, University of Phoenix, online education was having this day in the sun because it was a recession. There was this legal issue, this loophole that they were taking advantage of. So we decided, just totally screened our way into this, meaning no passion. We just like, we're going to start generating leads for online universities using digital marketing. We're going to arbitrage it. We literally bought AdWords for Dummies, start reading them. We had financial models and PowerPoint presentations, and we didn't know anything. We hadn't made a single sale. For eight months we did this.
The one funny hustle thing we did, you probably heard this story from me, is there was a company called Quinn Street that went public early on in us getting going. And a friend of mine called me, who was a hedge fund guy, and was like, "Isn't this what you're doing? This sounds really familiar." And he's like, "Explain it to me." So I started walking him through how digital marketing works and how you buy a click and then you get a conversion. And he was like, "This is amazing. This is so valuable." And the lightbulb went off in my head, and I called GLG back, and you know, I used to be a customer. I go, "Can I be an expert now? My rate is $500 an hour." And I was like, "Are you getting questions about this Quinn Street Company?" And they're like, "Yes, we are." And I'm like, "Great." And I start getting these calls for $500 an hour and then someone goes, "Do you have more research or data? You know this space so well?" And of course I'm like, "Sure we do." So Nick and I spent one weekend making a 50-page deck. I'll send it to you after this call. We could post it.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah, yeah.
Jesse Pujji: That's all about the online lead gen industry. And we started selling it for $5,000 a pop to hedge funds. And for a minute we were like, should we do this business? This seems like a way better business. So anyway, we were doing a bunch of random stuff for the first eight months.
Alex Lieberman: Were you using that just to fund your business? Was it enough to actually...
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, the way we funded the business was the three of us...there were a few sources of capital. The three of us each decided to put $33,000 in, which we had made kind of working on our Wall Street jobs. We were 25, 26. We had one of the most unique arrangements in the history of co-founder arrangements, which was, Chris had a commitment to Carlisle. He was in private equity and he had nine more months left on his contract. And he didn't want to burn the bridge and leave early. But we all agreed that basically, we would treat ourselves as one entity, and he would give up two-thirds of his salary to the entity while we tried to get the company. And that's how we all remained equal partners.
Alex Lieberman: That is so interesting.
Jesse Pujji: Which our accountants were like, this is the craziest arrangement we've ever seen. And then we used credit card debt, we used American Express. Actually, one of the saddest moments in the closing of this deal was when I had to cancel the Ampush AmEx. Because I was like, oh my god, this thing, like...this did it.
Alex Lieberman: I hope you kept the card.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah. I mean I have the card, but it's like, damn, it was a moment. And then, yeah, we sold these reports and other hustles to give us enough money to keep going. So anyway, we learned how to do these ads. We build a landing page on a website. I think I'm super smart. Start running Facebook ads or Google Ad campaigns on AdWords, and just start losing our ass. I mean, we would spend $5,000 and we'd get five leads that were maybe like $15 leads.
Alex Lieberman: You were just shitty at the one job you're doing?
Jesse Pujji: The one...I mean, beyond shitty, right? And didn't work, made it so complex, overdid it. And we're just like, what were we thinking? This was a terrible idea. We don't know...we have no idea what we were doing. It really hit us at that moment. You have all the positive version of it and had no...this was something we were starting from a cold start. We had nothing going for us. So we grinded for 90 days, eventually started making a 5% profit using Google Ads and just really simplifying it—frankly, copying our competitor. We just found what competitors were doing and started copying it...
Alex Lieberman: Which, by the way, is the best hack in the early days of the business, is just look at a competitor who probably has tested everything because they're better funded...
Jesse Pujji: Everything. They're buying this keyword, they're sending to this funnel. I literally went, that was the final solve. I was like...because we were trying to make our website really fancy because we thought the websites in the space looked shitty. Then we realized, no, no, no, we don't know what the hell we're doing. Drag and drop. Nobody wants that. They want to quickly move through the funnel and submit a lead, right?
Alex Lieberman: Totally.
Jesse Pujji: So we start copying a better...we're making a five, ten percent margin on what we're doing. And that was right around the time Facebook had launched the first version of their self-serve ad platform. And we actually poured it over the same...back then there was this thing called AdSense, which is now Google Display Network. And you could say categories like, oh, painting, drawing, oil painting. And they would contextually target on a website. We took those same exact ones and copied them over to be likes and interests on Facebook. And then we'd make ads that were like, "Are you an art lover? You should get your online degree at..." you know, whatever. And what was a 5% margin on Google was a 75% margin on Facebook.
Alex Lieberman: Why?
Jesse Pujji: Well, we were the first movers.
Alex Lieberman: Yes. So there was just no demand there yet.
Jesse Pujji: There was no demand. No one knew how to use it. You had to build one ad at a time. And literally within six months of doing it, we had guys in India doing it. It was our first version of GrowthAssistant, but we had people just uploading one ad at a time and going...and then the clients called us and said, "These are amazing leads. Where are you getting them?" And we said, "Oh, well we figured out..." And that became this calling card. I'll tell you a crazy story. In June of 2010, the business did $100,000 in gross revenue. By August of the following year of 2011, it was doing $2 million a month in gross revenue. It just...
Alex Lieberman: Absurd.
Jesse Pujji: It just skyrocketed...I mean, and it was all Facebook. I mean we...not all Facebook, but it was 70% Facebook. We were scaling it as fast as we possibly could.
Alex Lieberman: Were you scaling clients or just you were...
Jesse Pujji: Scaling clients.
Alex Lieberman: Okay.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah. Because there's only 20 clients that matters. Like Kaplans, University of Phoenix, Art Institutes.
Alex Lieberman: So you were still all exclusively in education?
Jesse Pujji: All in and expand. Yeah, correct.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah.
Jesse Pujji: Exactly. All in education, and growing that business really fast. And then we started to get a little bit...the whole lead gen category of performance marketing was a little bit skeezy. We'd go to these conferences. We didn't like...we were just like, this is not a space that we were proud of. We don't want to tell our grandma about it. There's a lot of, you're selling people's information. It just wasn't our cup of tea. But the business was making a lot of money. And by the way, it was...for everyone who's listening...like it was making millions a year in profit. And we were 18 months in and all coming from Facebook.
And we got a call from Facebook, and actually really one of these serendipitous things where our account manager was this awesome woman named Pat Lai. And she moved internally at Facebook from the account management group to the partnerships group. And one of her mandates was, go find companies that Facebook can partner with to build around their ads ecosystem. They can build software. They can build services. So Pat, I jokingly call her the fourth co-founder. She was like, "Guys, stop this lead gen stuff. You're literally so smart on the platform; you should be building a software and tech platform." And so in early 2011, I think, I broke off, and Nick and Chris continued to run the core business. And I started a new business that for many years we called Ampush Social. Now eventually we sold the lead gen business off in 2013. We divested it; we can talk about that. And we went all in on the social business around late 2012, early 2013. We went all in on it. And at that period, we were one of the few companies who knew how to make Facebook Ads work. One of the few who had access to Facebook's unique API. We knew it wouldn't last forever, but we were early to it. And we were getting calls and customers that today are dreams. They were tiny companies then. We got this one company that was like, "We got cabs in ten cities." I don't know if it's going to be very big. And it's like, oh, it's Uber. Okay. And next thing you know, we scaled them to 600 cities globally. We were spending $50m to $100 million a year with them on driver acquisition, getting drivers to sign up to be on the platform. Dollar Shave Club, Clash of Clans.
Alex Lieberman: It's insane.
Jesse Pujji: Peloton, Blue Apron, I mean you name...we had a stat that eight out of 10 unicorns have been Ampush clients at some point. And so for us it was...and we originally wanted to be a SaaS business, by the way. Nobody wanted to buy the software. They wanted services. We were bootstrapped; we didn't know SaaS services, we didn't know any of that shit. We just said, great, they need services. We started hiring young, really bright kids, training them on how to do this. 80% of Ampushers don't have a marketing and advertising background. We taught them from the ground up. The business grew, grew and grew and grew. And 2015 came around. I was probably your age, maybe a little bit older, 30. And we were like, "We're gonna sell. We're gonna grow really fast and we're gonna sell. And we ran this process and we ended up with a handful of really good offers. But in my mind, I thought we were going to sell the business for nine figures. I was like, "We're gonna sell it for nine figures."
Alex Lieberman: And how big was the business then? Can you say?
Jesse Pujji: Probably shouldn't, but it was...well, so what we'd been told, at the time, there was companies like RocketFuel and Marin Software that were trading, were billion-dollar market caps in 2012 and '13. By 2015, '16, they had gone down 80%, 90%. And so as somebody...
Alex Lieberman: Why?
Jesse Pujji: They were just ad tech businesses that weren't...they were sort of over-hyped. But when we greenlit ourselves the strategy, we said, we're gonna grow and sell for a huge multiple. Basically the multiple didn't come...it was still life-changing money. It was still bootstrapped, no outside money.
But one of my big lessons from that, looking back on it, was like, I did not understand my emotions. I was so sad and disappointed because I was connecting myself to my valuation. And I was like, no, that's wrong. That's wrong. And I was...no, the market's never wrong. I mean, you go out and you say what it is. And so we ended up, everything happens for a reason. We ended up selling a minority stake to this really cool company called Red Ventures. And we actually gave them an option to buy the rest of the business for, you guessed it, nine figures. We literally...because in my brain it was so clear that that was my mark I'd created for myself. Stupid mark...
Alex Lieberman: You had to keep the dream alive.
Jesse Pujji: I had to keep the...that's exactly what it was, right? And the deal...it was kind of a cool deal, by the way, which is, it was unique and maybe only very few companies would've done it. They bought a stake in the company, a 20-ish percent stake in the company. We gave them an option to buy the rest of the business at a nominal number, not a multiple. So normally you'd give an option to buy at a multiple.
Alex Lieberman: Totally.
Jesse Pujji: We said no, nominal number. And the reason for that was, it was a two-year option, and we wanted, we were going to behave as one company. So because they basically had all the incentives in the world to pump our EBITDA because they had a fixed price they could buy us back at.
Alex Lieberman: Totally.
Jesse Pujji: So we signed this deal, we celebrate, the first year...
Alex Lieberman: And what year was that?
Jesse Pujji: That was in late 2015. There were all kinds of other learnings along the way, but yeah, late 2015. And that was very close to an M&A style deal, because we'd done most of the paperwork. And what immediately occurred to us a few months after it, one, we made good money. And so that started this sort of reflection of, what's the point of this? And whatever, which we can talk about. But the bigger thing was, we were tired. We had been grinding for five years, and we said, now you have to change your business to try to fit the mold at this Red Ventures thing you did. And it was like, just for the first time I was like, I don't really want to do that. And it was like...we probably had our worst year ever in 2016.
Alex Lieberman: At that point, were you regretting doing the deal, or did you never regret it?
Jesse Pujji: Hugely. I mean, well, also because they were willing to buy the whole company. But I was so caught up on valuation, and the deal I just described...
Alex Lieberman: Oh, so that was actually an option?
Jesse Pujji: They would've bought the company full-out. We had multiple offers to sell the company, just not for the number that Jesse Pujji's ego wanted. His 30-year-old ego. Just like, no, it has to be a bigger number, right? I'm worth this and you're wrong. People are wrong about what I'm worth. I didn't do coaching back then. I didn't know it. Now I would say, if I had felt my disappointment and sadness, I probably would've made a clearer-headed decision. I just didn't, it wasn't a clearheaded decision.
So yeah, we regretted it immediately. We fired a bunch of people the next year. We were one foot in, one foot out. So we were trying to convert our business model more like Red Ventures, but we weren't willing to fully commit, because we were afraid that they had this option to buy us and they weren't being clear about it. And I'd had a son and I had a daughter on the way. It was a time that was the worst period of the whole thing.
Alex Lieberman: So you had your son in that two-year period.
Jesse Pujji: I had my son within months of closing the Red Ventures deal.
Alex Lieberman: Oh my god.
Jesse Pujji: And so, which was fine, by the way. I was like, "Oh, I'm a millionaire. This is great. And I have a kid; this is the right time to do it." But then you become a parent of a young kid. And I wasn't feeling motivated. I wasn't feeling excited. The one silver lining was the...Ric and the Red Ventures guys, they were so impressive. Like I said this, I think on Twitter, I thought I was an eight out of 10 businessperson. Then I met them and I was like, oh my god, I'm a four out of 10. And not in a mean way to myself or anyone; they're just genius. I mean, they're very smart, they're dialed in, they're extremely kind. They had found this...as I said, I worked at both McKinsey and Goldman and I would look at my bosses there, and not in a mean way again, I just never wanted to be them. And Ric was the first person I'd worked with my life who I said, "I want to be that guy."
Alex Lieberman: Yeah. You saw the perfect formula. Right? It sounds like you saw the person who on one hand had this side of your brain that can do laps around people when it comes to analyzing deals and companies...
Jesse Pujji: Math strategy, chess, sport...
Alex Lieberman: But on the other side, someone who so deeply exhibits empathy for other people and actually cares about them, and to find that mix is extremely rare.
Jesse Pujji: And is so comfortable in his own skin. And it's funny, because I tell him things sometimes, like "Man, I'm working on myself." He's like, "Well, I was in a plane crash; I almost died, so I kind of have a cheat code." He's very gracious about it, right?
Alex Lieberman: No, but it's true. It's true. It's true.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah. So anyway, so we did that deal. We really blew up the business. I mean, the original Ampush business was more or less gone by 2018. And this new business that we had created that was...it was basically deeper, more involved partnerships, so on and so forth. We continued to run it. Business was growing. It was kind of coming back, but it was more volatile. And I got to 2019 and it...there's something about hitting your nine-year anniversary at anything where you're like, "Oh, next year's ten." It causes you to reassess. And I had started coaching in 2017, '18, and one of the big things is finding up the thing that really truly lights your zone of genius. And I knew that I wanted...my "why" that I talk about is wanting to help other people learn and grow to be the best versions of themselves, and using entrepreneurship as the way of doing that.
And so we did a lot of things inside of Ampush to do that. We invested in companies, we tried a lot, but we never quite got there. And so I think it just became clear that I couldn't run Ampush as the CEO while also trying to live that purpose. I just wasn't able. I tried it for multiple years, and that's really what led me to go, "Okay, I'm ready to transition out." And actually at first we were gonna use Ampush as a holdco platform. It was generating a lot of cash flow and we were going to...what I've done at Gateway X, we were literally going to do a version of that underneath Ampush because we had the cash.
Alex Lieberman: And why didn't you?
Jesse Pujji: What happened was...so just to kind of memory lane. So transitioned out, we interviewed, actually, outside CEOs. We ended up selecting the head of our New York office to be CEO. He's awesome. He knew the culture. He was the one everyone wanted. People cheered when we announced it at the company-wide meeting. The company-wide meeting to announce it and our offsite was February 20th of 2020. You may know what happened a month later. The world shut down. So all of a sudden the world shuts down. I moved back to St. Louis after 10 years in the Bay. That was also part of my plan, pre-Covid. And a part of me stepping down and not being CEO. And we just took some time off. Nick and I took some time off. And I think we got back together and basically between us two and then Red Ventures, who's an investor, and John, who is an important stakeholder, they were just...people didn't want to do that. There wasn't alignment around doing that. He was running the company now. He was like, I need my cash. I want to manage it. Red Ventures is like, "Guys, I don't want to be Jesse's playground." And Nick was like, "I'm tired, I want to take a little bit more of a break." And I was ready to get going as...I took a little more time off. And so from that point forward, we essentially, we ran it as...we were controlling shareholders, Nick and I, meaning we ultimately called all the shots of what happened. But we tried to empower John...
Alex Lieberman: You were the chairman at that point?
Jesse Pujji: I was chairman. I mean, it's a pretty informal board.
Alex Lieberman: Oh yeah.
Jesse Pujji: The board was me, Nick, and Red Ventures. And then John was sort of, legally, technically wasn't a board member, but he behaved as one. We'd meet once a quarter. We were involved. I was still involved in helping drive a lot of business to the business. I took most of 2020 off, and then I started Gateway X in 2021. And so I was not super involved. There was different points where it ebbed and flowed. I was really supporting John. Whatever he needed me to do, I would do. Him and I had to recalibrate our relationship a ton, because he was used to reporting to me. And now I was like, "Well, I kind of report to you now, John. You're the CEO." That took him some time. He had to lead a business through Covid, which I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy. And poor guy. He became CEO and Covid happened and it was tough on him.
Alex Lieberman: Probably made him a ten times better operator.
Jesse Pujji: I'm sure. Yeah. And anyway, so we make it through that. We had a huge year during Covid. We were actually down the next year, which with Covid we had a bump we weren't expecting. And then business was back up in '22. And he, at the beginning of '22, sort of said, "I need a change of scenery, I need different people around the table. You guys are off doing your own thing." Red Ventures, then no longer involved. Red Ventures would already be done with it too, from their perspective. And...
Alex Lieberman: Wait, and by the way, I have to ask about it because you talked about this timeline. What happened in 2017 when the two-year option was up?
Jesse Pujji: They didn't exer...
Alex Lieberman: They just didn't exercise it and they kept their 20-something percent stake.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah. They kept their...as a minority owner. They had gone on to do a totally different business strategy, as people know, buying all these content businesses. They weren't interested in a marketing services business anymore. But they've been great partners. So throughout all of that, they've been fantastic and always helpful whenever we needed them. But it's a tiny rounding error for their business. It's not like they were giving us their resources...
Alex Lieberman: For context, by the way, for people listening who have never heard of Red Ventures. Red Ventures is the biggest company you've never heard of. I think last I saw, rough valuation on the business is like $12 billion. It's a massive company.
Jesse Pujji: And totally bootstrapped too, by the way.
Alex Lieberman: It's wild.
Jesse Pujji: And amazing people. Yeah. So John was like, I'm ready for a change of scenery, I want to get my team a win. He negotiated with us for incentives for his team. There was a lot of things that went on where he's like, I'm ready to...and I think if he could've had his ultimate top choice, he probably would've had his own...found a private equity partner and started to buy companies himself to spread the Ampush culture. I think the Tenuity guys basically gave him a version of that that's got a little more scaling capital. And what's really cool is they...this was a proud moment for me. They're a huge company, but they have a team that's kind of competitive with Ampush, and they're going to have that team coming under reporting into John, and they're embracing the culture that we built and wanting to have that as a big part of what they're doing. So that was an awesome moment for him. Awesome moment for me where we're like, cool, this is really a cool thing that we're doing. So anyway, that's kind of the long version of the story.
Alex Lieberman: The five-minute Ampush update. I love it.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, exactly.
Alex Lieberman: Okay. I think it's awesome foundation-setting. And I want to go from that point you just finished on forward, to talk about the deal. I think the first thing that I'm sure founders who are listening to this are wondering is, how do you know when is the right time to sell? So it seems like in the context of your business, John, who was the CEO of the business, he was ready for a change. Was that the primary driver for why you guys were looking to sell Ampush? Was there anything else contributing to it?
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, I think it's a great question. I mean in 2015, I think...what I'll say is I think most founders undervalue how important it is that it's such a personal choice. So in the case of John, I mean, John was like, "Hey guys, we're going to sell this business or I need a change of scenery one way or the other," sort of. That was kind of, and we're best buddies in trust so it wasn't like he was going to surprise us with anything, but he was also raising a flag, going, "Guys." And that was the CEO version, professional CEO version of the founder version, which I maybe happened to me in 2015, '16, which was like, I've worked really, really hard for a long time and I'm ready for something different.
And I think way too many founders who are great tacticians and try to get the answer all the time go, what's the right time? Is it optimized? Is the valuation optimized? Are all these other things optimized? And with enough years under your belt, you realize that stuff is far less important than, am I ready, and is it the right thing for the people in the company? And so I think in our case it was, everybody was ready. If it was going to be the holdco, we would've probably owned it for a really long time, but now that it wasn't, it no longer made sense. It was a huge asset in my portfolio that was like not diversified at all.
Alex Lieberman: And there's a feeling of, you don't have full sense of control over your money.
Jesse Pujji: No. For sure.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah.
Jesse Pujji: I mean, one of my friends in private equity, he says, look, we buy the business because it's a good business. And then the CEO, we either back 'em or sack 'em. That's literally...and at first I was like, damn, that's hardcore. Then I was like, well, no, that's actually the only thing I control, is who's running the company, and the company. And what does the company do?
Alex Lieberman: That is exactly their incentive.
Jesse Pujji: And that's how we were. We were essentially active private equity owners. We weren't going to get involved. There was a couple instances where John and I got into it, which was rare, but because he expected me to show up more like a person who still worked there. And I was like, well, I've got a bunch of other things going on. And so him and I finally got on the same page about that, which is partly my fault. I was saying, I'll do that for you. Then I would be late on it or something. And then he'd go, "What the hell, Jesse, when you told me you're going to do something you normally do." And I'm like, shit, you're right. I've got other things in my life. And so that was part of the learning around it.
Alex Lieberman: Totally. So you got to this point where, so it sounds like, all of the founders and John were ready for the next thing. So once you knew that you wanted to exit the business in some way, what do you do from there? What is the process like? "Okay, I want to sell the company." What do you actually go and do?
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, well, it wasn't the best year in the history to sell the company. That's for sure.
Alex Lieberman: Probably not.
Jesse Pujji: So that is what it is...you could consider timing. And again, people have pinged me since the deal, going, "Oh, what should I do?" Especially guys who run marketing services businesses. And I've said, look, if you don't have to and if you're not in a rush, if you're not...then hang on for another year or two because there's no reason not...wait until the market's a little bit better. But in our case, it's...the best analogy, and you know this. It's kind of like selling your house. You decide and you're like, okay, let me make sure my carpets look clean and I'm repainted a little bit.
And so there's a little bit of just like, we spent a lot of time in the beginning of '22, as an example, getting all of our most important customers into really long-term agreements. It's gotta be like, these are going to be iron-clad multi-year agreements. And we maybe even gave up on price and certain things that we might have otherwise not done to get them into these contracts. We made sure our best people were locked down, and they were feeling excited about the year and incented appropriately. There was real tactical incentives handed out related to this. What I don't recommend, actually, normally, but in our case it made sense.
And then we started, whatever, paying attention to the business, spending more time with John. We started, our board meeting shifted to every six weeks. So we would start just paying...being closer to it, trying to drive things forward. And then we started meeting with bankers. And it was interesting because it was a mixed bag. We had bankers who were like, "I actually don't want to work with you guys. I think you should wait." And we have other businesses...it wasn't a slam dunk that everyone was like, oh yeah, this is the hottest deal on the planet. I'm just being completely honest.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah. And also, there are certain bankers, they won't think about working with a business unless it's at a certain size because it's not worth their time.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah. It was a combo of size, growth, current market conditions. Because yeah, they're doing their math of...bankers, for everyone's knowledge, they get paid on a success fee. So they're basically betting on their chances and ability for them to get you a deal good enough that you'll take it. And so some people just look at us and go, either they didn't think we were serious enough or they didn't think the market was right. "I don't know if I'm going to get you a deal and you're going to take that deal. I think I can get you a deal, but you may not accept that deal." And so they have to balance all that out. And one of the big pieces of feedback they got was, get a quarter or two of this year under your belt showing that your plan is going to work, because Covid was such a volatile period for the business; we needed to make it more stable. So by Q2 or so, John was beating his plan, and we started talking to more folks and started working with a banker. And by the way, just another thing is you're not...first of all, they're too small for Morgan Stanley or some big company, but you go typically find a banker who knows your space and sector really well. I don't...did you guys use a banker?
Alex Lieberman: Yeah, we did. And we used a boutique guy who he was...he ran corporate development at IAC, the big media company.
Jesse Pujji: Exactly, right. So we used a firm called Palazzo. They had been previously at other media-related firms. They knew this space really well, right? They could talk to us about our business, what the buyers wanted. And when we ran the Red Ventures process, we didn't use a banker. And I actually think it was a mistake. It was again, me and my ego being like, "I can get us a deal." And I did get us the deals, but...
Alex Lieberman: Yeah, "It's not worth paying them the fee. I can just do it."
Jesse Pujji: That's exactly what I said in 2015. And the work part of it is okay; I think there's a lot of leverage and I think they can say things and do things you can do that...
Alex Lieberman: A hundred percent.
Jesse Pujji: You can't do in a buying and selling process. And they help create leverage. They make everyone behave more seriously, which if it's just me, swashbuckling, they're like, "Oh, we'll call you next week." If there's a banker, they're like, "This thing is happening." So if you either want it, you get involved. So that helps create leverage of multiple parties getting involved.
Alex Lieberman: I feel like it's also just hard for you to be a hard-nosed negotiator with the company that you're going to then be in bed with after they buy you.
Jesse Pujji: Exactly. So there's a lot of value there. We started marketing it in late August. It was pretty fast, honestly. And I think there was...things moved very quickly. So late August, we were a known quantity. That helped. We'd been around forever. So no one was wondering, who's this random company? It's been around 13 years. And so they knew us. So we went in, had a lot of conversations. I think there were a handful of interested parties who got serious and put together written terms to actually give us real things. And then I think the folks at Trinity New Mountain, they wanted the business. They moved fast and pretty aggressively. And again, just like when you're selling your house, maybe this other guy's offering you a little more money, but you're not sure they're going to have the cash in their bank account, or there's other issues you have to sort through.
And then there's one guy who goes, "I'll buy it all next week, in all cash." And so that's another big thing founders forget, is certainty of close, and is the person going to actually get the deal done? And there was a whole expanse of, there's PE firms. These guys were backed by a bigger PE firm. There's like random founder-led companies, there was a public company. There's all these different kinds of companies, and you're like, ooh, who's going to be the best fit? It's also, in our case, unlike a lot of cases where you're the founder and CEO, we weren't going with the business. So we were a little bit...we were like, get the deal done, get the right numbers, what kind of economics are coming to us? But we also carved a lot out for John to go, hey man, you're going to...you decide. And almost explicitly had an agreement with him of, we will accept, I think I said 15%...I'll accept a 15% discount on mine in exchange for you choosing the right partner for you. I don't want to sell you down the river.
Alex Lieberman: Totally. And I also feel like there's an aspect to it of, it makes sense to optimize for your economics, but also you've built this thing over the last 13 years. It'd be a shame to five years from now...
Jesse Pujji: Totally.
Alex Lieberman: To see the company be a shell of itself.
Jesse Pujji: Totally. Totally. Yeah. And I think one of the other many benefits of that Red Ventures deal was I'd had enough of a taste of making money to realize money is not everything. When I was 30, before I'd had that, I thought it was everything, which is why I thought a nine-figure valuation versus a high eight-figure was different. And just, my brain had never processed that stuff before. So yeah, we were under terms with them on November 1st. So September, October was taking pitch meetings with lots of different companies, going back and forth, going deeper in the numbers, getting LOIs. They moved pretty aggressively and we weren't going to slow them down.
Alex Lieberman: How early in the process did you tell these…so your banker, talking to a lot of these different firms, how early in the process do they get an indication of the price that would be required or the terms that would be required to get a deal done? How early are expectations set?
Jesse Pujji: Never. Never. We never gave pricing guidance, because why would you do...I mean, if someone comes in and offers you...
Alex Lieberman: Like why would you signal?
Jesse Pujji: Why signal unless...as you get closer to someone, if someone's late to the party, which happened in our case, you give them a number, and they're kinda like...it'd take me a few weeks. I gotta get the partners to discuss...
Alex Lieberman: Basically to just fast track them.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah. Well, once you have a real written offer in your hand from a serious party, or a few, right, then the leverage flips very quick. First you're like, get everyone to fall in love with me. Oh, a few people have fallen in love with me. Okay, now I get to pick, and I can call the other parties and go, here's the number if you want to get involved.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah. Now you're like, let me shop this in the most tasteful way.
Jesse Pujji: You go around interviewing for a job and you make sure you put your best pair of shoes on, and you tell your story and then you get three job offers, and you get to start digging. So that's kind of what that process feels like.
Alex Lieberman: Got it.
Jesse Pujji: In our case, there was a lot of alignment on our side, again, because it meant different things for different people, and that was a really important part of this. And then, yeah, the closing process went...closed on January 4th. So I was pretty impressed with everyone. We got done in 63 days or whatever, and it was a bear.
Alex Lieberman: For context, that, like, Jesse's...so the process from beginning to end, how long was that process for you? From when you hired your banker to close.
Jesse Pujji: August to January. From the fastest possible...especially given this market.
Alex Lieberman: Just for folks who haven't been part of an M&A process, haven't sold their business, that is incredibly fast. I would say for Morning Brew, our sale process was 11 months. It's definitely on the longer side. That was in the thick of Covid which is why things were slowed down. But four and change months is crazy fast.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, I think it's like six to 12 is normally what they'll say. And what I would tell people also. I think ours, the couple things it demonstrated was like, again, we were a known quantity. If you're in year four or five and thinking about this, build relationships now so that by the time you have those conversations, you're a known quantity. I think the other big thing was, when there's a strategic need, like when you fit in someone else's glove or whatever...there wasn't a lot of...it was clear that they needed it more, that they wanted it more than anyone. All that stuff was, and boom. So they went and got it done.
And I will say, by the way, because I think it's important, they're buying other businesses. They were amazing throughout that process. That's another thing that founders don't realize. I made that mistake when we divested the .edu business. I took the highest bidder, and they were...I'll say it publicly, they were scumbags. They re-traded the deal. They kept adding time to the deal. They knew they had leverage. I was building the social business back in 2013 and 2012, and they fucked us at every opportunity they got. This was back in 2013.
These guys couldn't have been more different. There was an issue that popped up: Hey, guys, we're going to work through this with you. Oh, hey, what's going on with this client? They changed around when they're spending their money, no problem. We get your business, we're going to work with you. No re-trade. They did exactly what they said they were going to do. And the reason I'm calling it out is because it's rare. It's actually a testament to them as buyers.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah. Most people do not act in good faith when they're buying or selling companies.
Jesse Pujji: Well, the buying especially, because remember, once you sign, just so everyone knows, you sign November 1st, we signed...they have exclusivity over us. We cannot talk to anybody else. That's one of the buying requirements. So if you're a buyer, you get someone in and then you go, "Oh, you know what? We looked at the company; we thought it was worth this. We actually think it's worth 20% less." That's a very common occurrence. And I thought that if they wanted to, they could have done stuff like that to us. They could have picked at things, and that that's just not how they behaved. And I thought...I was very happy with the way that they all behaved during the process.
Alex Lieberman: That's awesome.
Jesse Pujji: And then very collaboratively.
Alex Lieberman: I have one last question for you about the process, and then I want us to finish this episode talking about what it was personally like for you. Around the process, tell me, for you, what...you have all these different variables that are involved in a deal. You have, what amount is cash versus equity? How much are you getting today versus in the future? And how far in the future? Who is the partner, what is their goal with why they're acquiring us, and how much autonomy will we have? How much will it be our vision versus their vision? I'm sure there are other things that also go into the process. How did you, in your head, prioritize these different variables, and what did you optimize for?
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, I think the number one thing for me was cash at close for me and my family. I wasn't running the business anymore. I don't control a lot of what's going to happen if there's an earn-out or anything else like that. And so I was like, all right, look, what am I taking home when this thing closed? What am I giving up? And one funny surprise, by the way, in the process. The previous time I'd done this, lawyers and accountants, they all obviously turn to me. I was the CEO and the founder. Now I was not. And one funny thing that happened that was, it made sense to me later on was, the lawyers and accountants kept coming to me and Nick for every decision. And actually they left with...one of their jokes...we were doing superlatives at the end of the deal. And one of our jokes was, John was the most left-off person of emails. And it was actually kind of crazy, but it did reinforce the importance of ownership to me, which was as a matter of course, and the bankers too. They came to us. They go, you're the owners. What do you want to do here? And that was like, whoa. And so that was an interesting aside. But cash flow. I think number two was, was the team going to be taken care of both financially as well as a good culture? Are they going to preserve that? Are they going to build on that? That was super important to me on the margin relative to cash once we had hit a certain number, I think. Those are probably the two.
Alex Lieberman: Okay. And...
Jesse Pujji: I mean, yeah, it's different when you're going with the company, right? Then you have your comp plan and your earn-out timeline and all these other things.
Alex Lieberman: A hundred percent.
Jesse Pujji: I coached John a lot through that, by the way. I helped him negotiate those things.
Alex Lieberman: Well, just speaking about negotiation for a sec, what's your negotiation style in these types of conversations? And talk for a second about the interesting clause you negotiated around if you died.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, but that was a different deal. That was the Kahani fundraise.
Alex Lieberman: Was it?
Jesse Pujji: Yeah. Yeah. I can bring that up. But one funny thing that happened to me during this deal was I remember feeling very uncomfortable in the middle of it and not knowing why, and not knowing what to do about it. And the reason I realized later, because later on...typically when I negotiate with someone, I have built a relationship with them. I have a lot of trust. I'm the kind of person who's on text or can just give them a phone call and say, "Hey, let's problem-solve this together." I believe in collaboration in problem-solving. And I always believe one plus one can equal three, if you're creative enough and you're not coming from a place of fear. I had no relationship with the other party up until really the last couple weeks of this. They had met John. He pitched the business, he was going with the deal, and he obviously cared about his own economics. He cared about ours too, of course, but not in the same way.
And so there were a handful of silly things. There was the date moving, there was a few big items that felt very serious at the time. And I couldn't pick up the phone and just call Zack, their CEO, and go, "Hey man, help me..." And I didn't have that actual trust with the other person. And that was super uncomfortable for me. And even, I remember the term sheet was pretty back and forth. It wasn't, not normally how I would do it, which is, I would get on the phone and go, what's really important to you guys? Here's what's really important to us. Let's put this on a page. Let's find the Venn diagram and let's find a deal we're both really, really excited about. And so we got there. I mean the deal ultimately happened that way. But that was a really good learning for myself. I was talking to my coach after, like, man, I felt like I was entering into this hugely important thing for my life.
Alex Lieberman: And you didn't have control.
Jesse Pujji: And I had one hand tied behind my back. But reflecting on it, there's no reason I couldn't have asserted that. I just didn't. I could have said, "Hey, hold on, before I sign this thing I would like to meet these people and get to know them a little bit." And there was a call, there was a very serious call with 30 Zooms and lawyers and all these people on right towards the tail end, where we had to sort through the final, final issues of the agreement. There's like, what's this going to work, and how's the non-compete, and all these things. And I ended up...I realized it right after that call. Because I ended up leading that call from our side for a variety of reasons. And I was joking with their private equity guys and their CEO. I'm like, "Guys, you want to tie me down for so many years?" And I realized, I was like, oh, I'm really good at that. That's a skill I have and I haven't been able to use it up until now.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah, your banter is an incredible tool.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah. But it's like trust-building. It's not taking yourself too seriously. There's all these pieces that go into a good deal that like, most of them, I didn't get to use during the process. Towards the end I did a little bit, because there was a few final things and I was like, shit, that's a good learning for me. And I could have had that much earlier on in the process. My negotiating style is problem-solving. Say it again?
Alex Lieberman: Do you think the reason that you didn't engage the CEO of the business that bought you directly because you were afraid of stepping on John's toes? Like what was the reason that you didn't do what you could have?
Jesse Pujji: I'm a beginner. I've never been the chairman founder but not the CEO of a business. I just didn't know what to do, I'd say. And I think part of it was, it was John's thing and I didn't want to create conflicting signals. So it was just like, let him lead. There was bankers also. I asked the bankers, and you don't need to do that. It's not a big deal. Which they're probably right. I mean the deal got done it, but for me, I would've felt more comfortable and better if had some line into someone on the other side, which I just didn't, really.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah, it's so interesting. It's also interesting to think about, right? Like you mentioned with the term sheet, it's not the process you would've run, but still worked itself out, which is just an interesting thing. And just seeing...
Jesse Pujji: Totally. I bet you it would've gotten done if I had disappeared, if I was in the hospital for 90 days and couldn't talk to anybody. I would've just had this check show up in my bank account.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah. So interesting. Okay, we're going to get into the internal stuff. If you had to think about the journey from August to deal close, or even to today, from beginning to end, I want you to just start pointing out to me specific emotions that you felt in this process and when you felt them, and kind of why you think you felt them? And just bring up any emotion that comes to mind first.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, god, so many, man. I think I felt some fear early on, and John would call me out on it, because he's never sold a company. He's never pitched buyers or investors and I have; I'm pretty good at it. And so I felt fear early on or I was a little micromanagey towards him, that even when we almost got an unsolicited offer earlier in the year and I was just freaking out. I was like, oh wait, make sure you don't say this, do this, say this. There's just a bunch to manage around it. And probably not the best version of myself. I remember that feeling. I can't talk about it, but there was one buyer in the process who was such a cool buyer, such a well-known brand name company, and I don't think they were the right buyer, but I felt a lot of pride that they took a long, hard look at the company. I felt really, really, like that's super cool.
Alex Lieberman: You felt like a badass.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, I felt like a badass and proud of the culture and proud that...it wasn't like they took a look and "Ah, we're good." They spent hours, days with the team and were waffling, and half the people who didn't do the deal called me and say, "Oh, we should have done this." So it was a cool one.
Alex Lieberman: That's awesome.
Jesse Pujji: At some point I'll share it. And that was pride. I think a ton of excitement and gratitude for John and the team when we signed the term sheet, because that, as you know from the process, that's the moment it really gets real. At that point, you're 80% to close; you're very likely. And so I felt a lot of pride at that point. There was a lot of fun during the process. So our long-term VP of finance and HR became the COO of Ampush. Then she actually left a year and a half ago. She went to be the CEO of another startup; didn't work out. And then we convinced her to come back to help lead this deal.
Alex Lieberman: That's awesome.
Jesse Pujji: So she was back. And then me, Nick and John, we were, it was very last dance vibes. It was like, "This is it." We're calling each other. We're texting, we're figuring it out. It was just fun. It was really fun. I also felt a lot of gratitude to people at Kahani, GrowthAssistant. They were helping me. It took a lot of my time, and more than my time. It took a lot of my mindshare for somewhat obvious reasons. There was a couple periods of frustration. The biggest one again, in retrospect, is not a big deal, but these things are so tense. We were ready to close the deal and they said, "Let's close the deal on December such and such date." And then three days later they said, "Never mind, we want to close in early January." And it was fear and frustration. Like, "What? What do you mean? Are they looking at another deal?"
Alex Lieberman: You were just ready for it to be done.
Jesse Pujji: Well, it was just...well, no, it was more fear, like are they giving themselves optionality to look at a different deal? Are they cooling out? Are they like...what's going on? You don't really know. And I called my buddies in private equity. I go, this is what happened. And they weren't reassuring at all. They were like, yes, it could be the reason they're saying; it could be they just need more time and they don't want it to show up in their financials for a year, which is the stated reason. They want to give more time to communicate it internally. Very reasonable reasons. It could also be they found another deal they like more. It could also be this...and these private equity...I'm like, fuck, this is scary. Like what? We've spent so much time and energy on this. There's a lot of fear there.
Alex Lieberman: It's also just such a good illustration of when you are feeling fearful in any of these scenarios, it's amazing how good our brains are at story-making. And also how the majority of the time, the simplest story is the answer, but how good we are at creating stories that go to the extremes of painfulness.
Jesse Pujji: It's also, by the way, back to my whole thing of not having a line into the other side and not having trust built, it also for me was a signal of, that was lacking. Because again, when I've done deals in the past, if I actually have human trust with another person and he goes "Jesse..."
Alex Lieberman: You wouldn't worry about it.
Jesse Pujji: "I get it. You feel a little worried, like on my honor..." And I'm, by the way, I'm a very candid person and I'm very okay asking uncomfortable questions. So I'd be like, "Dude, are you guys looking at someone else?" I would have that conversation with the other side normally, right?
Alex Lieberman: But you couldn't do that in this situation.
Jesse Pujji: The banker, there was a CEO, like there's all these other people there and it made it harder for me to...but it was a good point-out. We signed the deal, we did what's called a split sign and close. I think I told you this offline, but so we signed on the 21st of December and we closed on the fourth. So imagine the most anticipatory two weeks of your life. The deal is done.
Alex Lieberman: I don't know if we're going to run this, but this is the M&A version of blue balls.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, I didn't want to say that, but yes. It's just like, oh my god, is it gonna...it's gonna happen. It's like...and then your family, nobody knows. Should they congratulate you? But I was like, no, it's not closed. And my dad's a real estate guy, so he's like, "You stay on this every day until"...you know, "It's not done until the money's in the bank." So there's all these, it's just sitting there, and that was a...like just a highly anticipation-oriented period. Just preoccupied, every day it's preoccupied. And then I flew up to New York for the deal to actually close. And that was the night before me, John, and Nick got dinner, and there was just tons of appreciation and gratitude and their wives came, and there was just really...I think one of the things I'm proudest of us as a group is, this is something my coach really introduced. He's like, typically when you go through a salary negotiation with someone or a challenging situation, everyone basically prices in that you're going to hurt your trust with that person a little bit. I'm going to piss them off a little bit, but we'll get to a place. He's always like, "No, how do you get your trust to go higher through a process like that? How do you love each other more and trust each other more?" And actually when you reframe it that way, you do things very differently. So that was like, I felt like we all came out of it feeling more gratitude and love for each other.
There was a really interesting...well, actually, I think it happened around then. It was weird for me and strange, I'd call it. And maybe feeling, just being totally candid a little bit, under-acknowledged or lost in the process, because I was, I'm just so used to being the man, the guy in the middle. Jesse, he's Jesse Pujji, he's this guy, he's gonna be the guy everybody falls in love with. And nobody gave a shit about me. I was just Shareholder A. John was the man, and the team...and which, by the way, I love, but there's a part of me that was like, well what about me? There was definitely a part of me...
Alex Lieberman: That seems very rational.
Jesse Pujji: ...that wanted the glory of...and then part of also the glory of, hey, I ran this business for ten years, and these guys ran it for like...what about me? I built this thing. So there was definitely a little bit of that, and wanting, and ultimately it came from, I think from Nick and John, of just saying, acknowledging me, going, "Yeah, dude, we know. We know that you were critical to this." But it was definitely...that was a feeling as we got towards the end, of wanting to be acknowledged or wanting to get some credit for it, which is hard to admit, but true.
Alex Lieberman: No, and I think it's such a natural thing. I'm just curious if you can, from your perspective, identify why you want that validation. What do you think was the root of why you want to be recognized for that?
Jesse Pujji: I don't know. That's a good question. I mean, I think I worked my ass off for it. I think I feel like I...one of the downsides of the three co-founders structure from early on was always, we were the founders. And I think, yeah, at different times I felt like, without me, it couldn't happen. And I wanted someone to say that. I don't know, just wanting to be seen, maybe, just like anybody wants that.
Alex Lieberman: I can imagine also, again, this identity for you as an entrepreneur and a business builder is so core to who you are. If there's anything that...
Jesse Pujji: Oh, and Ampush was so core to who...I mean I think I wore T-shirts publicly, like some founders do, for five years. And if you saw me externally at a conference, I had an Ampush T-shirt on. And I remember I hadn't worn one during the post-CEO phase as a part of changing that. And then I was like, wait a second. This is...the other funny thing that happened to me, Alex, I don't know if I told you about this, but I stopped being CEO and I left San Francisco in the middle of Covid, and so there was never the party, there was never both personal and business party of "Goodbye, Jesse." There was an all hands on Zoom or something.
Alex Lieberman: It was more like the Irish exit.
Jesse Pujji: Of running a company. So I felt there was this missing closure. And then I'd say, I think as the deal got done, the day the wire got sent, I felt like a crazy amount of probably anticipation because it takes whatever, six hours. I was like, I can't feel happy. I just don't feel it yet. I don't feel it yet. And I was like...
Alex Lieberman: Were you constantly checking, for those six hours, your bank account?
Jesse Pujji: Constantly texting people. The bankers in the middle of it wrote us a note like, "Hey, did you guys get your wire?" I'm like, wait, does that mean you got yours? You got paid before...? So there's this funny process. Where's the money? And my dad wouldn't call me until he confirmed I got the money. He's like, did you get the money? And then as soon as I was like, "Yes." So there's that day of, but then...
Alex Lieberman: Were with your family? Were you with your wife and kids when the wire...
Jesse Pujji: Well, so I'll tell you, it's a great story. So I was with Nick and his family in the morning, because I was in New York. We did the phone call where you're like, signatures approved, blah blah blah. The money's being sent. Him and I took a long walk in Brooklyn and did a lot of reflecting and sort of just appreciation, acknowledgements for each other. But it felt...he was like, "Dude, are you okay?" Because I just wasn't fully there yet. I was waiting for it. And then I went and got lunch with the private equity partner from the firm who bought it, and then it finally hit that afternoon. Then I was like, "Oh, let's go!" Like that. I felt the release, physical release, and then I flew home that night and my wife had...the kids were all decked out in Ampush gear and they had the music playing when I walked in.
Alex Lieberman: So awesome.
Jesse Pujji: The kids were so excited and so happy about it. And it's really...one really cool part about is like, it would've been cool to sell the company in 2015. It was so cool to share it with them, and they're both old enough now to actually be like, "Oh, I know that that means something really big." And that would've...
Alex Lieberman: To feel excited for you.
Jesse Pujji: Excited for me to see it happen, to understand what that means. The funny thing was when we first told, when we first got under LOI, I told my son, I'm like, "We're selling Ampush." And he got upset. He's like, "No, don't sell it. You're the founding father." He calls it like, "You're the founding father of Ampush. You can't, that's your company. What do you mean? You can't give it to someone." He was really upset by it. And then I'd say a big crash of sadness happened on that day we sold it. It's the first time Nick and I don't have anything we're working on together in 20 years. And I think it hit both of us. He was crying, I was crying. It was...
Alex Lieberman: Are you a crier? Do you cry often?
Jesse Pujji: No, not a huge one, but I do. And no, it hit me I big time, and I think even it is a little surreal of it not being ours anymore. It's been such a big part of my life for so long. So it was kind of feeling, a little bit feeling for your cell phone and it's not there anymore or whatever. There was that feeling of it just being a normal part of things. I'm still in a couple of the Slack joint channels, so I'm like, "Hi guys, I'm still here." I said, "I miss you" to them the other day and there's like a business development channel. I was like, "I miss you guys."
Alex Lieberman: So funny.
Jesse Pujji: But yeah, it was sadness. And then I think, a huge way that one of the coolest things that happened was, the next couple days, and that happened again this week. Two days after the deal, we announced it to the employees and former employees because they were all getting paid, right? And then it was like I felt tons of gratitude, but we got barraged with messages. So I actually, we should share some of them, but there was like, "I'm so glad I started my career there," "You guys changed everything," "I'm so happy for you," "I know this is what you..." Like there was hundreds...I mean we had a huge alumni base and all these people pouring in. And then the external version of it happened this week when we announced it publicly, which was like, oh my god, these people I haven't talked to in five years. And people who bet on us early. There's a lot of humanness involved in this. I started when I was 25.
Alex Lieberman: It's insane.
Jesse Pujji: And now I'm like, I'm 38. And I don't think there was ever a proper moment to go reflect on the whole huge journey, and now that moment is here. And so it's been really great to have that. But a lot of gratitude. A lot of gratitude for my wife.
Alex Lieberman: Well, I was going to say, you wrote an awesome Twitter thread that we should link to in the show notes. And honestly, I feel like that could be an episode in itself, because you had all these lessons in that thread, but you finished your thread, the last tweet was about thanking your wife and having gratitude for her. Just talk about for a second, because I feel like it goes underappreciated sometimes. Kind of the level of just sacrifice and support that any partner, life partner, has to provide to another partner who is an entrepreneur and has their own business. Just talk about that for a sec.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, it's a superhuman level of appreciation, support, tolerance. That's a word that comes in some ways. The best analogy, I was like, it's like imagine a training for an Olympic sport. I feel like people can visualize what that looks like. You're up early in the morning, you're home late at night. Your diet is unique. You have to do certain things on the weekends you otherwise wouldn't have to do. It's hard to be mentally present. My EQ has grown as I've grown, but I had no EQ in the first five years, so wasn't open to feel...so yeah, I mean think it takes a lot to, as a person in some ways, take a backseat to somebody else's thing, knowing you're late to something, you're going to cancel something. And even just being in that status with another person, I think it's obviously unfair in retrospect, but that's the status. The status is, something for your business comes up that's important; my thing is going to get deprioritized.
And I think I got much better at it after we had kids. But those first five years, I mean, I was working a ton and when I wasn't working, I was mentally not fully there. And she's still here, so she didn't have to be and she was supportive of that. And I think it's one of the most unseen roles in any kind of success like this. And even now we're still unpacking my appreciation, gratitude, the things I didn't even know I was feeling or know that I needed that I was getting from that. And yeah, it's a big one.
Alex Lieberman: And I like how you just talked about it in retrospect, of being unfair. I almost view it as like, a partner to an entrepreneur is so beautiful in the fact that they're signing up for ground rules that are unfair ground rules, yet they're still doing it. And they're doing it unapologetically, which is amazing.
Jesse Pujji: And the other crazy thing I think that we don't say enough is, if you're not doing it, you have no idea what it feels like or what the person's going through. So they do it not...I don't mean this in a negative way. They don't have an understanding or empathy because they can't; it's hard to know, and yet they're still doing it. So it's like, I'm going to support you. It's almost parental, right? I'm going to support you even though I have no idea what that's like. I don't even know what you're feeling or going through, but I'm still going to somehow choose to support you. That takes a big person. Yeah, it takes a lot of love and a big heart.
Alex Lieberman: A hundred percent. Well, I think the tape's been running for over an hour and I feel like we could go for another hour, but given our other episodes are 15 to 40 minutes, if you've made it to this point of the episode, just shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I just am so interested in how many people made it to this exact spot. Seriously, email@example.com, just say hi. I want to see how many people got to this spot. But we're going to finish up with some rapid fire. I have a few fun questions for you, and then we'll call it a night. First question is, do you feel more successful today than before the deal closed?
Jesse Pujji: Yes.
Alex Lieberman: Why?
Jesse Pujji: I thought back in 2014, having the stamp as an exited entrepreneur, successful entrepreneur, mattered a lot. And then for many years I was like, ah, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. Ric is this guy I really admire and he doesn't, he's not exited, he's been running his business for...and I think there is something to it. I think getting it across the finish line matters to the world. People, the way you're treated, the way that success...and I think I'm getting used to this amount of cash, but there is something unique about it and getting to plan and think for the future, of feeling very secure and safe in the family. I had that to some degree before but now it's really there, and it's like...a luxury example maybe thinking about is like, I was talking to my buddy the other day about, could we start something that would be here in a hundred years? And I just have never thought that way before. Never had thought I could think that way.
Alex Lieberman: Totally. Second question. Have you made a fuck-you money purchase yet, or are you thinking about it?
Jesse Pujji: I think you know the answer to this question. I'm buying myself a very nice car.
Alex Lieberman: I know that you're thinking about it. But I will say that Jesse is always judicious about his finances. And so it is a car that there will be tax benefits of buying.
Jesse Pujji: So we'll write off the entirety of this large purchase price. And I got the dealer to come down $23 grand by calling around. I called around the country and I found I could create some leverage.
Alex Lieberman: There we go. Yeah, you're going to be the grandpa that's going gas station to gas station when you're older, seeing which one's selling a gallon for a penny less. My grandpa does that. Next question is, have you thought about how you raise and support your children in a way that they have the hunger that you had as a child, given that you have money now that can lead to entitlement?
Jesse Pujji: I've definitely thought about it. I don't know that I have any genius answers to it. I mean, I think I'd love for them to have the motivation. I mean, I've spent a lot of time on motivation, but I'd love to have for them to have as much or more motivation than me. But I think one issue with the premise of that question is, my motivation came from maybe seeing hard immigrant parents. And we talk a lot about the fear motivation or the chip on the shoulder being the driver, versus a love or desire-oriented motivation, where you're actually trying to go do something interesting and compelling. And so in my perfect world, they'd be more motivated or as motivated, but from a different place. My son is very inventive. I mean, he created a widget toy the other day with Legos. And I want him to be able to pursue that with reckless abandon because he likes it and he wants it, not because he has to, or not because he feels the need to make money. And I think he will, ultimately. But I think...and my daughter's insanely creative. I mean, she tells entertaining stories at the age of five that...and so I want her to be able to pursue that, assuming that's what they choose and want to pursue as people. So I want them to be motivated to be, I want them to be enabled and motivated to do great things because they want to and they're drawn to it, not because...in my opinion, my reasons were like, I wanted to be rich because I saw my parents struggle and wanted to be a business baller.
It was just a very different motivator; it is a different motivator. I think the biggest thing is, some of the thoughts in my mind is there's not going to be a lot of free money given between me and them. And I don't just mean when I die, which is also probably not going to happen. But if they get allowances, they'll do chores for them. If they want to spend money on random shit, I want them, just like I did, to get an hourly job. I think an hourly job when you're 15 or 16 is one of the great balancers, right? So I don't think, there will not be a lot of, here's your credit card, you have a budget and an allowance. That just won't happen, regardless.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah, they're going to work for what they earn.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, exactly.
Alex Lieberman: Yeah. Makes sense. Well, it sounds like the North Star there is very clear and you want them to feel this love-based motivation for the things they do, as you get a better sense of the tools and the language you use in your life to try to guide them towards there. I'd love to do an episode where we kind of really unpack what is the playbook, because not that it's a very common challenge, but I think it is a very real challenge for a group of people that experience it. Last question for you, and then I promise we're done. What's next?
Jesse Pujji: Yeah. One of the benefits of the way we did this for us was, Nick and I acknowledge this was like, we thought about selling the business in 2020 when we decided to come out of it, and we probably would've just been finishing an earn-out right now or something like that. And instead we got the benefit of, we took time off, and then both of us have started new things and we're working on new projects. So I have my hands full with all the stuff I've gotten going, which you know: three companies have started, the venture studio. There is a part of me, even before closing the deal, who wanted to reduce the time on my calendar a bit. We've talked about my schedule and bringing that down a little bit. And so I think that still holds a little bit. I'm curious to see, I am not trying to over-control how I will respond and react to this. At the moment I'm like, no, this is, I'm building Kahani and there's this going on, and these things are getting off the ground. I still want to build this venture studio. I still want to work every day and build something really cool that I'm really proud of. I suspect there will be some edits and adjustments as I go.
One example is, can I use some of my talent and capital to build again something that's just for the benefit of humanity versus making more money? That's again a question I don't think I would've even asked a month or two ago. I told, my coach was asking, I was like, I think I will do things less 'cause I feel like I have to and more because I want to. And I don't mean that in a big way, 'cause I think in a big way I'm doing what I want to. But I mean I'm the key sales rep for Kahani right now. I take the sales calls and I like it to a degree, but it's like, you know what? Maybe we should hire a person to do that so I could get seven hours back on my calendar. So there's stuff like that where I think I'm doing them from the more founder "you need to get this done" thing that I think I'll probably have less tolerance for.
Alex Lieberman: I love it. Well, I'm incredibly appreciative for you walking through the journey, and also what the emotional experience was for the 13 years that was building the business and the reflection on selling it. Because I mean, I think you painted such a good picture of this rainbow of emotions that founders experience, and I hope our listeners found it valuable. And I know as a friend, and I look to you as a mentor, I've learned so much just from your process of building your businesses, and just another notch on the belt. And I know there's many more to come.
Jesse Pujji: Yeah, thank you. The one thing I'd end on is, with the benefit of this many years and this kind of view of hindsight, the people are really the only thing that really preserve through any of these things, of all walks in life. Like our biggest clients, who at one point took the business in-house and churned, they're still my friends. A lot of our employees...I've been going back and forth with all the partner managers at Facebook who got us to be in the special program. Those relationships endure beyond any of this stuff. And it's just a reminder to everybody and myself of that's also why they should be the most prized and prioritized part of any of these things. But it's so true. It's just, Ampush doesn't matter anymore, technically, to me. The numbers don't matter, none of it. It's not mine anymore. But all of these relationships and people are very much a part of my life, and it's just a really important thing to remember, for anyone listening.
Alex Lieberman: A hundred percent. And on that very similar note, if you are a listener that is still listening to this episode, after an hour and 15 minutes of us bantering about the journey that Jesse's experienced over the last 13 years, we thank you. And I just have one last ask of you before you sign off for the day and wait until next week's episode of The Crazy Ones. And that is, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and just say congratulations to Jesse. I want to see how many congrats we get for Jesse, because what he's accomplished is awesome, and it'd also be cool to just meet more people in our community. See how many more Crazies there are out there. Thanks, everyone, for listening.