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November 15, 2023
January 25, 2022

Becoming a Curious Explorer: A Message From Steve Sonnenberg CEO

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Recently I’ve been asked by other organizations to share my story, and I thought it might be nice to share that with a wider audience so people can get to know me and know my journey. I am many things: a dad, a husband, a basketball player, and the CEO and co-founder of Awardco. My cousin Mike and I set out to sail uncharted seas to figure out a way to create a points system around Amazon. We wanted to create a new currency, a type of motivational currency that could be redeemed around the world. This is the story of that journey.

In the Beginning

Mike and I decided to take a small metaphorical boat into the waters of entrepreneurship. We didn’t take seed money. We decided only to spend what we could afford—and it’s been hard. That decision has forced us to be more disciplined in our choices, but we are stronger because of it. Awardco is one of the fastest-growing companies in America. We are in control of our journey.

History is full of stories of explorers who have discovered new lands. Explorers are seekers who travel the unknown. Entrepreneurs are explorers, too. They are curious, determined, and tenacious. When Michael Dell was asked to name a single attribute that CEOs will need to succeed in the future, his response was “curiosity.” Even Albert Einstein admitted, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

While I was reading a book called “The Future Leader” by Jacob Morgan, I came across a story about Sir Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton was an explorer and a great leader at the turn of the 20th century. In 1914 he organized an expedition to explore the Antarctic with the goal of crossing it from sea to sea, going about 2,000 total miles. To gather his crew he took out an ad in a newspaper that was blunt and honest:

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”

Who in their right mind would sign up for THAT? It turns out that 28 curious, determined, and tenacious men did. When I read that newspaper ad by Shackleton, I likened the ad to starting your own business. There is a lot of truth in Shackleton’s ad that resonates with being an entrepreneur today.

A Hard Setback 

I’d like to share a personal story of my journey over the last 10 years. I have gone from bankruptcy to leading one of the fastest-growing companies in the country—and it hasn’t been easy.

In 2011 I was involved in a civil suit that had become so far-reaching that it had wrapped up another small company I had started. I was thirty years old, married, and had four kids all under the age of five. All my assets were frozen, and I had no money. I eventually settled from that suit after fighting it for a long time, and I walked away from everything I had built. Ultimately, I had to file for bankruptcy, and that was very hard for my family.

In the midst of this financially challenging time of my life, I decided to start Awardco. I borrowed $5,000, and I bought the domain name I had a big idea and I needed a bold name. I set out to build a technology that would organize the world’s incentive spend with a platform where employees could recognize each other, earn points, and redeem rewards all on one application. We wanted to make the best redemption experience possible with millions of choices, fast and free shipping, and zero markups. The only way to do that in my mind was to partner with Amazon, display their products on Awardco, and display the value in the form of points. No one, to my knowledge, had ever done this.

Into the Unknown

Like Shackleton, I needed help for my next voyage. My cousin Mike is a back-end developer. I was at the rock-bottom in my career, yet Mike was willing to go with me on this journey. He was excited but knew long, dark days were ahead.

Mike and I were able to carefully craft hundreds of millions of products to display on Awardco through some difficult development work. For the first time, organizations could now offer products from Amazon as rewards to their employees for all their recognition programs

This was going to change how the world recognizes and rewards employees. 

However, we had a big problem. I contacted Amazon and let them know what we were doing, and they balked at our plan. However, I did what I learned from Jeff Bezos, and I stayed stubborn on my vision but flexible on my approach. We were in uncharted territory, but I remained patient. 

In the early mornings and late nights from 2011 to 2015, I sold Awardco to interested parties. I still had a day job, but I spent all my free time on Awardco. As orders would come in, we would capture all the order details, and my wife would help fulfill orders. This model wasn’t scalable, but it worked. 

Scaling Success

Then we got lucky. In 2015, Amazon Business was founded. By this time, I had developed a few relationships with people at Amazon Business in Seattle. At the end of 2016, I was invited to come to their HQ to present Awardco to a team of new Amazon Business employees.

Amazon Business LOVED what we were doing and doubled down on forming a partnership. Together we improved the experience for the customer. We were ready to scale. 

However, we didn’t stop there! We integrated with all the Amazon warehouses worldwide in places like India, France, Germany, Japan, the U.K., U.A.E., Brazil, and more. This helped us to virtually eliminate customs and often reduce shipping to nearly zero. 

A Bright Future

We now have over 2.5 million users in 140 different countries. We have signed up some of the largest brands in the world. We are one of the fastest-growing companies in the country. We’ve grown from 50 employees to nearly 200 in less than a year. We didn’t take a large round of funding, either, and we didn’t spend more than we had. We remained cash-flow neutral the whole time. 

I share this story to prove it doesn’t matter the challenges you face. No matter what, you are never defeated. There will be moments you will doubt yourself. The rough times will come, but they have not come to stay. It’s easy to complain, and it’s easy to point out your circumstances. It doesn’t matter how many failures you have made—and it doesn’t matter how many mistakes you have endured or defeats you’ve experienced. What matters is that you stay captain of your ship by staying patient and curious. Entrepreneurs, like the explorers of old, are curious explorers. 

Curious Explorers

As the world continues to change, you must adapt; it’s the curious explorers who will be our future leaders.

So how do you stay or become a curious explorer? Let me suggest five ideas.

1. Take Quality Chances

I believe that optimism is essential for doing anything hard, like taking quality risks. That doesn't mean that you're blind or unrealistic—it means that you keep focused on eliminating your risks and modifying your strategy until it is a strategy about which you can be genuinely optimistic.

I started Awardco in 2011, and I didn’t go full-time until 2015. The risk was too significant, so for years, I worked on Awardco but I had another job to help pay the bills (so I had a clear mind). In 2015, I removed enough of my roadblocks to where I felt genuinely optimistic about taking a quality chance.

2. Be Okay to Fail and Be Wrong

Failure is the ultimate teacher. When I first started Awardco, it was going to be an embroidery shop. I had jobs where I created hats, polos, and even custom embroidered golf bags. That wasn’t taking off as fast as I would have liked, so I added symbolic awards like plaques and trophies to my offerings. I was shocked to learn the discounts I would get from my suppliers, so I tried to create a “Costco Style '' membership where companies would pay me an annual membership fee, and I would provide symbolic awards at wholesale prices. My third idea was to create the “Amazon Model,” but I needed a developer, and that’s where Mike came in. You can see that I failed often, but I never stopped failing. I remained a curious explorer. 

3. Value the Perspectives and Ideas of Other People

Leaders will have to rely on people with varied backgrounds and perspectives to make the best decisions. This means that in order to have a successful company, leaders must be open-minded to ideas that are not their own. 

Candido Botelho Bracher, the CEO of Itau Unibanco, the largest financial conglomerate in the southern hemisphere, with assets over 400 billion and an employee base of over 100,000 people globally, said this in an interview with Jacob Morgan: 

“As business transformations become much more frequent and necessary, the leader of the future must always be open to questioning ideas and assumptions from those who report to him or her or from third parties. Under these circumstances, the leader cannot be expected to always have all of the knowledge, information, and answers. Increasingly leaders will have to reply on their people with varied backgrounds and perspectives to make the best decisions. This means that in order to have a successful company, leaders must be open-minded to ideas that are not their own.“

4. Always Challenge the Status Quo

Just because something worked in the past doesn’t mean it will still work in the future. Since the inception of the Fortune500 in 1955, only 53 companies remain. That’s just below 11%. All of the others have either gone bankrupt, merged, or have dropped off the list. 

In the 90s, Reed Hastings (future founder of Netflix) rented the movie Apollo 13. Unfortunately, Reed forgot about his rental and ended up with a $40 late fee. The rental fine actually cost more than the movie itself! As Reed was driving home, he was annoyed that he would have to tell his wife. During that drive, a thought entered his mind. What if a video rental business was run like a health club? You pay a monthly fee, and then you go as often as you like. Thus, Netflix was created. Today Netflix has over 6,500 employees and is valued at over 150 billion dollars. Curious leaders are the ones who will challenge the status quo and change the world. 

5. Be a Perpetual Learner

For over 100 years, we have assumed that everything we need to know to be successful professionally would be taught to us either by our educational institutions or by our employer. That assumption was correct for a while, but it’s already proven to be an outdated way of thinking. Perpetual learning isn’t about letting new things come to you, it’s about actively seeking out new things, people, and ideas and then applying it right away to learn, fail, and learn again. 

Jo Ann Jenkins the CEO of AARP, the world's largest nonprofit organization, said this about perpetual learning:

“Future leaders must instill a learning culture in their organizations. Organizations that are not continually learning and adapting will lose their competitive edge and ultimately won’t survive. We’ve seen this over and over, and we’ll see it happen more often and faster in the future. Moreover, organizations that do not develop a learning culture will not be able to hire and retain the kinds of talent they need to succeed. Those people will just go somewhere else. For the future leaders, this type of perpetual learning is as essential as air and water.”

Let’s all be curious explorers and leaders where we stand today. Please understand that curiosity requires time and space. Often we suffocate ourselves with projects, tasks, and too many meetings. If you don’t provide time to be curious, you will never ask the questions that will help drive change. I have seen that we are obsessed with telling people how busy we are. When someone is busy, they are viewed as important, but maybe we should view them as lacking time management. 

Born With It

You already have the curious explorer mindset. We’ve all been born with it. My suggestion would be to block 30 minutes a day on your calendar to be curious, ask yourself is there a better way, challenge the status quo, and provide value to everyone around you. 

Good luck in your journey! There is never an easy path, but if you remain curious, tenacious, determined, and will absolutely make your dreams come true. 

Steve Sonnenberg
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Steve is the co-founder and CEO of Awardco. Since 2011 Steve has been hard at work reimagining the way we use technology to reward and recognize employees, and is passionate about driving change in the modern workforce.