Living Adventure: Founder and FC Member Patrick Sweeney on biking to Everest, beating cancer, and the Olympic Trials
After founding and selling ServerVault, a datacenter company, followed by Odin Technologies, which was in the RFID space, Patrick Sweeney still felt a void in his life. He’s since filled that void rekindling his passion for adventure sports and building up a YouTube channel following.
What drew you to the technology field initially?
I think my biggest draw to technology was innovation, it was really doing something that was interesting, new and innovative. I probably got that because my dad, who had never graduated from college and was a first generation Irish immigrant, was one of the first guys that Ross Perot hired for Electronic Data Systems, so we had computers in our life in the 70s before most people did. .
He'd work on Saturdays and he used to take my brother and I into his data center and we'd play with the punch card machines and look at all the tapes and crawl on the raised floors and everything else, so I think I probably got the attraction pretty early when it comes to the data center and technology stuff.
What led you to start your first company, ServerVault?
After the Olympics, I went back to grad school. Then within grad school or just after grad school I did an internship, and my first year out I was working for the largest real estate company in the country at the time. We were building data centers, which seemed like second nature to me. I ended up thinking to myself there's going to be such a big need for data centers, I can start a data center company that basically outsources everything and really kind of took the playbook from Ross Perot and added a little focus on security. I decided that I would be much better off doing something for myself than for somebody else.
You mentioned the Olympics - Did you participate in the games?
I was second in the 1996 Olympic trials in rowing. I raced the World Cup for three years and travelled through in thirteen different countries and really had an amazing experience. In rowing, we take one person in each event, so when I got second I had the chance to possibly become the spare for the Olympic team or I could go Europe and race the World Cup. I decided to go to Europe and race in the World Cup and travel some more. I retired after winning one of the biggest international races in the World the Canadian Henley Regatta. It was a good way to end that era.
Have you always been active in sports?
Yes. One of the things that I believe is that people are born with a passion. My passion has always been being outdoors and pushing myself to do really challenging things athletically. I think a lot of people, particularly entrepreneurs, when they get caught up in just focusing on building wealth or chasing after nothing but material things, lose a lot of their balance and can oftentimes lose their passion as well. I strongly encourage entrepreneurs to remember what they were passionate about before their 12th birthday and make time for that.
After you sold ServerVault, you started Odin Technologies and moved into RFID technology, which was emerging at the time. What sparked your interest in RFID?
When I sold ServerVault, I had raised over twenty million dollars in venture capital and debt, so when we sold it, I made a little bit of money and the venture capitalist made a lot of money. I wanted to bootstrap my next company and do things my way, especially since I experienced the insecurity of a first-time venture capitalist at ServerVault. The investors weren't experienced and when things got bad they fired me, tried to take the technology, realized it wasn’t going to work and then they hired me back. I went through all the ups and downs of a first time entrepreneur it was crazy, but highly educational.
When I decided that I was going to start another company, I knew I wanted to bootstrap it, but I also knew I wanted it to be in an industry that was emerging and that was somewhat chaotic.I didn't want there to be one big incumbent provider that I had to compete with. I went up to MIT and I took a summer course on RFID and then I was working with a charity to help raise money for the Irish peace process at the time, and I was lucky enough to play golf in Ireland with the CEO of Walmart at the time, Tom Coughlin. I got a little insight into their RFID program, and that was one of the things that made me think this was the right technology, because there wasn't a big incumbent, there was a lot of chaos, and not many people knew about it, and there was going to be some very big spenders in the space.
You went from there and then transitioned towards an adventure-geared career. You now have a very active YouTube channel focused on adventure. How did you leap from tech to entertainment and back into extreme sports?
I was lucky enough to sell Odin, the RFID company, for quite a lot of money and I owned seventy percent of the company because we had bootstrapped it. When you have enough wealth to not worry about paying the bills, I think that gives you a good opportunity to sit back and reflect, ‘Am I really living a balanced, passionate life?’ For me, there was a big void missing from just doing technology. There a couple of milestone moments: one when I got a rare case of leukemia.I ended up in Johns Hopkins because that’s where the specialist were. They were treating it with everything imaginable to try to figure out what it was.
The day I was released from Hopkins, which is in a run-down area of Baltimore, I walked out of the hospital into a gray, rainy, crummy day and I looked down and there was a leaf in a puddle. It was kind of red and tinted orange on the outside of it and it was just sitting in this dirty puddle. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen because I just had all this gratitude for life and for everything that I was given: getting out of the hospital and making it out alive. At one point during my treatment the doctors asked me if I had my affairs in order and everything else.
Beating that disease taught me a lesson of gratitude and got me thinking about everything I was doing and if I was balanced and living my passion. I had a second milestone moment not too long after leaving Hopkins, maybe a year and a half, I was sitting in a meeting in downtown DC getting zombieized by a powerpoint presentation and I looked out to see this guy who kind of looked like a cross between an Armani model and Kurt Cobain go flying by on a bicycle at about thirty miles an hour in completely dead stopped traffic. He was weaving in and out of the traffic with a grin stretching ear to ear . He was a bike messenger in DC, and I thought that guy's having a lot more fun than I am. Something’s not right with my life.
It was at that point when I realized there was a pretty big void in my life. The void was that I wasn't being true to my adventurer inside me, my adventurer within. I was living a life competing with a lot of my friends in the tech community and more concerned with building a bigger company and making more money and more money, and I wasn't really following my passion. With the help of this group within YPO, Young Presidents Organization, which is a group of folks who are put together into a highly confidential forum, it changed my life. We are eight people that meet with once a month, and have for the past eight years. They encouraged me to follow my passion and get back into doing adventures and pushing myself. One adventure led to another, soon I was taking a GoPro and other cameras to record them. Then I just had a lot of people who were asking to see what I was doing, and I started recording it, and that kind of led to the TV stuff. That also led to me creating the Adventure Hub to build a community of people wanting to live an adventurous lifestyle.
Did you have any intros to the adventure space already or how did you go from deciding you were going to do that to actually executing on going into that space?
That was probably one of the scariest things I've ever done, despite jumping off cliffs and flying planes upside down and everything else extreme. One of the scariest things was to leave the technology world after being a tech CEO for twelve years and being really good at it and having that attached to my identity. You can be great at something and it’s not your passion - that’s when it becomes work. Really taking that step to follow my passion and getting into a whole area that I knew nothing about and that I didn't really have any contacts in was the biggest challenge, but I've always believed that having an open heart and an open mind can open doors. I got into this space and just started making phone calls and meeting people and learning a lot about it and it's just been a tremendous experience. I’m now doing the TV and speaking to companies, associations, and YPO chapters around the world about using Fear to find Strength. It’s really resonating with CEOs who aren’t sure how to face their deepest fears.
Do you have a particular accomplishment or story that you're really proud of when it comes to your adventures?
I'm the first person to ever attempt cycling the Seven Summits, so I'm riding a bike as far as possible on the seven highest mountains in each continent and then climbing the rest of the way. I think that’s pretty special - I’m doing each one for a charity and each one with a different partner.
What do you do with your bicycle when you're climbing up?
It depends on the mountain. I went to Everest Base Camp only by bike. This past February, my partner and I summited all the way Mount Kilimanjaro by bicycle and then rode down. I was the first one to officially mountain bike to Everest base camp. Doing all seven summits is really a special challenge. I do each adventure for a charity. Kilimanjaro we did for this group called World Bicycle Relief. In Everest, I did that for the Little Sherpa Foundation. For each adventure I'm not only recording and making TV out of it, but I'm also putting a charitable aspect around it as well.
That's really powerful.
It gives you a whole different level of motivation as an adventurer. There's a big difference between doing an adventure for ego and doing an adventure for a greater good.
How many of the Seven Summits have you completed?
I've only just started last February with Everest and then Kilimanjaro. In June I'm doing Denali, August Elbrus in Russia. The whole thing will take a total of almost two years.
That’s amazing – please keep us updated on how you progress!
Thank you, I will do that.
Tacking back toward investing and tech: How did you find your way into startup investing? You were a founder, but obviously investing is a different side of it.
I think because the people that helped me the most and the people who inspired me most, starting in grad school and then going on to each one of my three startups, were guys who had done it in the past and who understood the ups and downs. I think that led me to believe that I could help out people who were starting their own company and I could also pick people who had the drive and passion to be successful. I think it was a combination of being able to pick the right people and then being able to help those people that led me to startup investing. I'm in probably twenty-seven or twenty-eight companies now.
If you had followed your childhood dream, what would you be doing right now?
Exactly what I'm doing now, adventure TV.
Of all the places that you've traveled to and lived, do you have a favorite place that you love to go visit?
My favorite place that I love to go visit if I wasn't living in Chamonix, it would be Chamonix. I think I live in the most beautiful place in the world.
What made you decide to go live there?
I visited it in the winter for skiing and for some mountaineering exhibitions and I thought it was just absolutely incredible. I didn't think it could be that beautiful in the summertime, but it was probably more beautiful when I went back and visited in the summer. It's absolutely the most incredible place in the world. It's the only place I've lived, and I've probably lived in a dozen different places, maybe more now, where when I go away I miss where I live.
Is there any one person that you particularly look up to or who has influenced who you are today?
It's a tossup between Teddy Roosevelt and John Wayne.
What is it about them that makes you look up to them?
I think Teddy Roosevelt was one of the truest adventurers we ever had. He was an amazing person of integrity and passion. He always lived by that integrity and passion. I think there's something similar about John Wayne when it comes to courage, grit, and work ethic, and I think there's an awful lot of that missing today in our society.
Patrick recently launched his new website, www.PJSweeney.com, where you can follow along and engage with him as he pursues his adventure endeavours.