My brother picked me up outside the convention center. I was sweaty. Exhausted.
Just moments earlier I had delivered the most intimidating and rewarding entrepreneurial pitch of my career. Seven minutes, a panel of four prestigious judges, and an audience of nearly 300 executives seemed to hold the future of my company, gameFI, in their hands. I opened:
“It’s amazing what you used to be able to accomplish with two quarters…”
I’d rehearsed the line so many times, I wasn’t worried that I’d deliver it well. But as I tried to transition to my next line, a million thoughts rushed through my head. I hadn’t practiced the physical part of the presentation. What do I do with my hands? Do I use props? Should I present to the table of judges on stage, or to the audience in the banquet hall?
I switched slides and peered to my right. A foot away from me was Daymond John, star of Shark Tank and one of the most amazing Horatio Algiers stories you’ll ever hear. He’s what America is all about, and what anyone who has ever dreamed up a new idea or company strives to become. And he was there to listen to my pitch.
“For two quarters I could become anything in the world I wanted to be. I could be a ninja warrior. I could save princesses from evil. I could defeat Nazi armies or race to victory in the Indianapolis 500. At the video game arcade I could be a hero.”
The words were delivered just as I had rehearsed, but their meaning had never been more clear to me. My whole life, I’ve wanted to be a hero. More to the point, I’ve wanted to be my heroes. I wanted to be Larry Bird, a small town Indiana kid who became the best in the world at what he did. I wanted to be Henry Ford, someone who transformed the world with a big dream. I wanted to be Roald Dahl, someone who entertained millions with written words and creative genius. I wanted to be Daymond John, someone who earned success with hard work and the pursuit of an idea.
I’m none of those things, but for that moment I felt close. Opportunities like that don’t come by chance. They come from years of hard work, sacrifice, trial, and error. And as much as I’ve been killing myself over the past year on this idea, it suddenly felt worth it.
Somehow, I delivered my presentation exactly as I had planned. Then I closed:
“And for only two quarters per employee per day you can deliver engagement like never before. More importantly, you can let your employees for the first time feel like the heroes that they are. They may not be saving princesses or defeating armies, but they’re the most important assets your credit unions have. It’s time to engage them. It’s time to have some fun.”
I did it.
This is what it’s all about.
The judges (including Daymond John), four amazing people I’ve looked up to for many years, proceeded to grill me on my pitch. I was prepared, and gained confidence with each answer. It worked. They unanimously selected my company as their favorite, one even joking (maybe?) that she wanted to be an investor. And even though the audience ultimately voted us as the runner-up, the event was definitely a triumph of unimaginable proportions.
But I had to go. My brother was waiting to pick me up. We had to go to the hospital.
You see, about five weeks ago my mom discovered that she has stage-three follicular lymphoma. Three weeks later, as doctors started to plan chemotherapy treatment, my mom’s heart stopped functioning as expected. Before the cancer could be treated, they determined, she had to undergo quadruple bypass surgery. The news was staggering.
Boom. Your mom has cancer.
Boom. She needs open heart surgery, too.
My brother and I arrived at the hospital to find my mom surrounded by nurses. Something was wrong. Doctors had been draining fluid from her pleural cavity with large tubes, but had decided that morning to switch the tubes out for smaller ones. During the process, one lung collapsed. She couldn’t breathe. We were quickly asked to leave the room so the doctors could tend to my mom’s collapsed lung.
We went to a waiting area where I was left alone with my thoughts. Obviously, human mortality is not a new concept. We’ve been living and dying since the dawn of man, but each of us still struggles with how that concept applies to those we love. And in that moment I struggled with the timing of its application.
My mom’s young, but she's put a lot of years into her years. She raised four kids in a Southern Indiana farmhouse, most of the time by herself as my father traveled around the world for work. She drove each of us to a million different sports practices, games, and other extracurricular activities. She taught us respect and integrity. She taught us to stand up for ourselves. She taught us to dream and wonder and question everything. She taught us to care for others, prioritizing their dignity over our own. She sat bedside as my sister and I struggled with significant medical issues of our own. She somehow put us all through college.
On a day that had me literally a few feet from what I had dreamed to become, I realized that the real hero had been with me since my first breath. As I walked back to her room, it became even more evident.
“How did your presentation go?” she asked with a smile.
“It went great, but don’t worry about that. How are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m fine. I just couldn’t breathe. Tell me about your presentation.”
Matt Davis is the founder of gameFI, President of 6th Story, and co-founder of CU Water Cooler. He's a leading thinker, writer, speaker, and creator in the credit union world. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and two sons.