From Dead-End Job to Uber Billionaire: Meet Ryan Graves

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How did one man go in a few years from working a dead-end job inside a large multinational corporation to being worth hundreds of millions of dollars (at least) and a key player at what is one of the hottest start-up companies around? And more importantly, how can you use the same techniques to improve your finances and your life?

That man is Ryan Graves, head of global operations for Uber, whose mobile app connects would-be passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire.

In 2008, Graves was a database administrator for GE Healthcare (GE), a job that he says was "unglamorous" and didn't provide the potential for rapid advancement that he desired. As Graves bluntly put it, "The corporate career -- 20 years in the same company -- was not really my thing. I can't be the GE guy."

Moving Out on His Own

So in mid-2009, he decide to make a radical change. A fan of Foursquare, an app that allows people to check in on their mobile devices when they patronize business establishments, Graves decided to go to work for the company.

He spent hours each week cold-calling bars around his adopted home of Chicago, explaining the benefits of Foursquare, showing business owners how the app worked, and encouraging them to sign up. And he didn't even work for Foursquare.

You see, Graves had been turned down when he applied for a job. But instead of giving up -- and while still working for GE -- he spent evenings and weekends pretending to work at Foursquare, and signed up 30 customers.

He then emailed that list of new customers to people connected with Foursquare, including investors. He was promptly brought on board to help with business development.

But Graves didn't stop there. He began to relentlessly interact with people in the start-up industry, not just at networking events, but through social media. In his words, he wanted to "put himself in the right position to meet as many frickin' people as possible."

Hire Me :)

He was in the right position one day when he saw a tweet by Uber founder Travis Kalanick: "Looking 4 entrepreneurial product mgr/biz-dev killer 4 a location based service.. pre-launch, BIG equity, big peeps involved--ANY TIPS?"

His response: "here's a tip. email me :)" Graves became Uber's first employee.

Though the company is private, a recent investment by Google Ventures (GOOG) values the company at $17 billion, which conservatively places Graves' net worth at between $850 million and $1.7 billion. The takeaways from his story can be used by just about anyone to excel in all aspects of their lives:
  • Never give up. When Graves was turned down for employment at Foursquare, that didn't stop him. He knew what he wanted to accomplish, and he was determined to achieve it, no matter what obstacles were in his way.
  • Be true to your nature. In all likelihood, Graves could have stayed on with General Electric in a secure job that would have eventually yielded him a pension and gold watch after 40 years of service. But that wasn't who he was. A corporate gig wasn't fulfilling him, and he was insightful and honest enough with himself to recognize that.
  • Follow your own rules. Among the most rigidly respected traditions in the American business world is the job interview. Yet Graves understood that there was another, more powerful way that he could prove his value to a company, and by playing outside of the normal rules, he was able to convince Foursquare to hire him, despite their previous formal rejection.
  • Never stop moving forward. After achieving his goal of employment at Foursquare, Graves could have easily rested on his laurels, but instead, he kept his radar hot, scanning for other, potentially better opportunities -- like the tweet that led him to Uber.
Brian Lund's blog offers more on personal finance, the stock market, investing and the secret to eternal life.

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