Two of most motivating words to entrepreneur Casey Neistat are these: You can’t.
Neistat had heard those words repeatedly by age 17, when the high-school dropout found himself living in a trailer park, washing dishes for a living and raising his infant son. Fast forward 19 years and Neistat, 36, took the keynote stage on Monday to kick off the sixth Denver Startup Week.
Obviously, he could.
“Now, as an old man looking back at when I was younger, what I went through that led me to success every single time was the passion, the unrelenting passion inside of me that no matter what, I would succeed,” said Neistat, who sold Beme, his social-app startup, last year for a reported $25 million and makes nearly daily videos for 7.8 million subscribers to his YouTube channel.
The standing-room-only crowd stood and applauded after Neistat wrapped up following playing his video “Do What You Can’t,” which he called the title of autobiography (“When I first said I want to make movies — ‘You can’t. You didn’t go to film school,’ ” he narrated in the short film).
Neistat’s task was to rev up the audience for what has become one of the nation’s largest free events of its kind. It wasn’t too difficult. He followed many Denver luminaries, including Denver Broncos’ Ryan Harris, the event’s emcee; SendGrid CEO Sameer Dholakia, whose 400-person email company was just a 3-person startup in 2009; and Rachel Carlson, whose Guild Education just raised $21 million from investors for trying to solve the worker shortage and training issues.
The annual entrepreneurial event, which has a record 15,000 people registered, has 350 sessions geared toward entrepreneurs at any phase in their business, from raising money to understanding legal issues and not getting screwed by taxes.
But Neistat admitted that the logistics of running a business isn’t his speciality. Instead, he shared how he went from high school dropout to a video blogger with an HBO show, a New York Times partnership and later, an app that got started while on a fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The New York resident stumbled on video editing while living in the trailer park in the late 1990s. He maxed out his credit card to buy an iMac and made videos while taking care of his kid. Before YouTube started, Neistat shared videos the old-fashioned way. He’d play his home-made movies in a friend’s VCR, eject the tape and drive to another friend’s home and pop the tape into their VCR.
“All of a sudden, I felt like I had a voice. I could express myself. It was the first time in my life where I really felt passion, the kind of passion where there was no turning the that switch off,” said Neistat, who moved to New York City around 2000 after getting dumped by his girlfriend.
He and his brother Van eventually were hired by an artist to make videos of the art work, which led to gigs with wealthy art patrons, a string of viral videos (including “iPod’s Dirty Secret,” where he criticized Apple in 2003 for not having an iPod battery replacement) and ultimately an HBO series, “The Neistat Brothers,” in 2008.
But a pivotal video came in 2011. He made “Bike Lanes,” after getting ticketed by New York City police for riding his bike outside the bike lane. In it, he rides his bike into all sorts of things blocking the bike lane — including a police car.
“The thing went crazy,” he said. “New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg responded with a press conference.”
The New York Times called and together they did a series of videos. Neistat started his own production company. He got married. Then he got a call from Sep Kamvar, at MIT’s Media Lab. Kamvar offered Neistat a film fellowship as part of Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Artist Residency program. There, surrounded by smart people who could code and do amazing things with computers and software, he had an idea.
“And I remember telling Sep this idea. He said, ‘Is this a project or a company?’ I said this is a company. And he said, ‘Great, I want to be your first investor,’ and he slid a check for $100,000 over,” said Neistat, who went on to start Beme, a video sharing app where subscribers could post really short videos.
The experience exposed him to venture capital and Silicon Valley. He shared his idea with entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, who coincidentally was the keynote at Denver’s 2012 Startup Week.
“He had this quizzical look on his face and I was like, ‘Oh, you don’t get it, do you?’ And he said, ‘No idea what you’re talking about. Put me down for a half million.’ Gary explained then, ‘Look, I bet on the jockey, not the horse,’” Neistat said. “I realized later how important passion is.”
CNN acquired Beme last November in a deal valued at $25 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“I sold my company a year ago and for the first time in my life, I have money to invest,” Neistat said. “And I do invest in startups. I invest in young people and in people. It’s always about the person.”