Daniel Flynn’s Mission Impossible
After a much-heralded keynote presentation at WORLDZ and an impromptu sit-down with President Obama, Flynn refuses to stop asking, “What if…”
When Daniel Flynn first hopped on a plane from Melbourne to Chicago to attend The Obama Foundation’s inaugural Global Summit, he wasn’t sure if it would even be worth the trip. As the co-founder of a little-known non-profit, it was nice of them to pay for his flight, but he wasn’t presenting at the event and he was in the middle of making some very difficult decisions about the future of his company.
“I was lined up to register, having just gotten in, and these two girls came up and asked if I was Daniel Flynn. ‘You didn’t get back to our email. President Obama wants to interview you tomorrow on the live feed.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
You’d think Flynn would be a bit more immune to impossible stories by this point. After all, the company he started as a teenager is now in its tenth year of going head to head against multinational corporations in a range of over 50 consumer good categories from water to diapers to food. But the fact that thankyou. commits 100% of its profits to fund safe water, food, hygiene, and sanitation services around the world leaves little left over to actually grow the company.
So several years ago, Flynn had the bright idea of publishing a book to fund the next chapter of the company in a country where even a best-seller rarely nets more than $50,000. That book brought in $1.4 million in its first MONTH. The entire history of his company is a string of improbable things coming to fruition. Propelled forward by Flynn’s refusal to accept other people’s definition of “impossible”, it is a remarkable journey he recounted in his wildly popular keynote at WORLDZ 2017 – available for the first time here:
So it’s a bit surprising to hear Flynn’s reaction to the offer from the former President. “I’m not so used to America, right? So everything for me is sort of next level… They had something like 20 secret service guys lock down the room before the interview. It was like a movie! One of them was talking into his arm… he goes, ‘100 feet, 70 feet, 60 feet.’ My heart is pounding out of my chest. What is going ON? And then sure enough, ’20 feet,’ and the doors open and here comes President Obama. He’d obviously been briefed, he knew our names, he knew what I was all about.”
In a poignant exchange, Obama and Flynn discuss the implications of the “selfie” generation and the methods by which we might preserve an empathetic, socially conscious culture in an increasingly isolated, tech-obsessed world. The former President specified that his primary intention for the Obama Foundation Summit is to encourage and inspire ambitious entrepreneurs of tomorrow to foster connections that will someday serve as keys to unlocking the world’s biggest social problems. See the video below:
“We didn’t even apply [to be a part of the Summit]. Part of me wonders if WORLDZ had something to do with it… we haven’t had a lot of exposure in America. 20,000 people applied, 500 got in. He picked our story out of a few, so to think that started out of 20,000 people, it’s a pretty humbling thought.”
But with big highs come big lows – especially in business. And a couple of days later, thankyou. released a report entitled Better Before Bigger, which, from the sound of Flynn’s voice, may be a pivotal moment in the company’s history.
“Since WORLDZ we’ve had this real focus in the organization around literally becoming better at what we do before we become bigger. We had to take a good hard look at ourselves and kind of get excited about things like Operational Excellence – which historically isn’t very exciting. We [realized] if we want to scale this thing to other markets it has got to be at a world-class level, not just conceptually, but every layer. [So] we decided to drop our food category. It’s kind of like taking a step back, but we did it to take a big step forward…”
“We’re literally head to head with some of the biggest multi-nationals in the world and if we take our eye off the ball.. while we’re trying to essentially grow a food category that isn’t growing… we may spread ourselves too thin.”
Like many entrepreneurs I’ve spoken with, Flynn refuses to see setbacks as anything but a net positive. Not out of some sense of denial, but out of the understanding that every situation in life and in business is what you make of it, and over time the biggest setbacks are often what propel you the furthest.
“Most of us think that growth is linear – backwards isn’t growth. But you read the greatest case studies from some of the legends of leadership, and they’re talking about backwards steps – about getting the foundations right. It’s kind of not the fun stuff. But at the same time, without it you can’t do the fun stuff because otherwise you’re scaling a house of cards. At thankyou., for the cause we represent, we can’t afford for it to ever fall over. It’s bigger than us.”
“I think vision is really powerful – what really drives me is [not only] the thought of someone getting access to clean water – that’s moving – but part of the motivation is to scale that so it’s not one person that gets water but millions.”
He sounds as if he is getting emotional – as if he really is imagining those in need so vividly that it is impacting him at that very moment. It is perhaps this genuineness that compels people like President Obama to invite him for a sit-down.
“Our purpose statement when you walk into our office says ‘Empowering Humanity to Choose a World Without Poverty.’ It doesn’t say ‘Empowering Australians’ or ‘Empowering Americans’. So that drives me – the thought that we can empower, one day, hundreds of millions of people, that we can help… So for me that’s the fire that kind of keeps me bouncing back each day.”