Where It All Started: From High School Nightclub Promoter to Marketing Agency Executive
I never used to talk about my past. I was embarrassed and afraid of what other people might think when they heard what I used to do for a living. Working in an unconventional environment and turning into what I am today is very rare and so is the mentality that allowed me to be successful. That mentality is exactly why I wanted to share how this all started.
Part of my mission is to share what got me to this place — all the adversity and challenges that I’ve faced — because I want to show you that it’s not about where you come from. It’s about what you do with the opportunities you do have. I want everyone who is following along with this journey to be inspired to face those challenges and find the strength inside themselves to tackle them head on. That’s why I want to share these stories with you.
Why I’m No Longer Ashamed of My Past
Before I delve into memories from my early years, I first want to touch on the factors that made me initially hesitant to speak about my past.
In my mid to late 20s there were people in my life who loved to put me down. They’d taunt and tease me (and no, not in a good-spirited way). This continued even after I started to become successful and move on to bigger things. I let people walk on me. I thought if I just didn’t say anything, it would die out. But that’s never the case. Just like with my younger years in grade school, being bullied was a normal thing for me, and standing up for myself was incredibly difficult.
I didn’t speak up against those people when they’d make untrue statements or assumptions. I didn’t trust myself.
It wasn’t until recently that I’ve become comfortable talking about my early years. When I reached my 30s, I had a revelation about the mistakes in my life, and I took the opportunity to really dissect my life to date. For each of the few regrets I carry, there’s one common factor. Every mistake stems from letting others make decisions for me or influence my choices. Each time, I knew that it was the wrong decision, but I went with it because I thought they knew better — either due to their age or their experience.
Reaching this understanding is what allowed me to grow personally and professionally. It was a breakthrough. Everything made sense, and the world seemed like it was slowing down. I felt like a baseball player seeing the ball move toward me in slow motion, becoming bigger and bigger as it comes closer until it’s like the size of a beach ball in my eyes. I felt hyper-focused on what I needed to do.
I was no longer going to be handicapped by the opinion of others. I would seize every opportunity that lands in front of me for the remainder of my life.
Now when something negative happens, rather than listening to the many people who weigh in, I disconnect and make the decision that is best for me. I will never again let others influence how I handle a response. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll listen to others’ advice, but I won’t do something I don’t agree with.
I tell you all this to provide the background you’ll need for this story. I want for this story to show you where everything began and how I got to this point in my life. You’ll start to see where I developed my skills at a young age and why I was taking on these challenges. You might also get a sense of why I was so damn confident in my abilities when everyone else played it safe.
I owe it to you to put pen to paper and tell you about my first career, along with how it played an integral part in me being here to tell the story of my life so far.
Now that I’m more confident speaking about my experiences, I realize that everything I have today and the skills I possess were developed during my unlikely early career path. Even though I didn’t used to speak publicly about my past, it’s still what made me who I am today. And I wouldn’t change that for a thing.
My Origin Story
When I was 17, a couple friends of mine got involved with a company that promoted “Teen Clubs.” These were monthly events backed by MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) that gave teens a chance to have some fun in a safe environment. We lived one mile away from what became the fourth most dangerous city in America, so this was their attempt at preventing teens from getting into trouble. The event itself was basically a high school dance, but instead of taking place in the gym or auditorium, it was at a nightclub. My friends were paid to get people through the doors.
Now, although you sure as hell wouldn’t catch me dancing, I saw this as an awesome opportunity. Being a friendly and outgoing person, I found it very easy to strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere. I knew a lot of people from my part-time job and from sports, and I knew I could leverage those connections. Best case scenario, I make a little extra money. Worst case scenario, I get to hang out with some friends at the club once a month. Either way, it seemed like a win.
I talked to the company, and they told me the rules of the game: At the beginning of the night, I would turn in a guest list with the names of the people who I’d talked to. I could also hand out tickets with my name on them, and that would show which people stopped by on my recommendation. For every person who showed up with one of my tickets or whose name appeared on my guest list, I would get $1.
Over the course of the next month, I used every opportunity to talk up the event — whether I was at school, work, or just hanging with friends.
My First Night as a Promoter
When my first “Teen Night” rolled around, I showed up to the club with my guest list in hand. I had painstakingly alphabetized and typed up the names of every person I thought would attend, even if they already had one of my tickets so that it matched to the ticket number. In total, I had a list of 723 names.
Handing my list to one of the company’s professional promoters, I noticed him scoff and laugh with a couple of his buddies. “Oh well,” I thought. Because they were older and worked as full-time promoters, I figured they were just having a laugh at the expense of us “kids.”
We were definitely the lowest in the pecking order among the team — not only because we were teens, but also because we typically made much less than any of the full-fledged employees. Usually, teenage promoters could expect to earn about $20, which would cover the cost of admission to the club. If someone was really charismatic and knew a good number of people, they could make around $50.
Once the event got underway, I was busy running between the inside and outside of the club. Although I was busy greeting people and helping things run smoothly, I couldn’t help but notice and quietly celebrate as more and more people from my list came through the doors. I was sure as hell going to make more than 20 bucks.
Although I was well-aware that I would be making a nice profit at the end of the night, it wasn’t really on my mind as I made my rounds. I did, however, notice that I was getting weird looks from the door man and some of the nightclub management throughout the night. At the time, I wasn’t sure why, but I went on with my night.
After the event ended, the promoters all stayed behind and hung out. It was always a special privilege to stay a little late, and after everything wrapped up, you would get your envelope with your earnings.
That night, there were about 50 of us, and I watched as everyone received their envelopes with their $20-$50 in cash tucked inside. Everyone’s name was called…except mine.
I immediately got a pit in my stomach. Before I took the job, a few people warned me that this company always screws people over, that they don’t pay out, that they can be shady.
As these thoughts raced through my head, the owner of the promotion company stepped forward and asked, “Who is Mike Speer?”
I raised my hand, and everyone turned to look at me.
“Come with me,” he said. As for everyone else, he said they were all set and could head out.
“Who Are You?”
I followed the promoters through the club and to the upper level of the nightclub where the back offices were located. We turned into one of the rooms, and I was asked to take a seat in front of a large desk where the owner of the nightclub was sitting. Two of the promotion company partners were in the chairs next to me, and a couple more were on the couch to the side.
I had no idea where the heck this conversation was about to go.
One of the guys said, who are you?
“Mike Speer,” I said. I still had no idea where this conversation was going.
“No,” he replied, holding my guest list in his hand, “Who are you?”
“How many people did you have on your guest list?”
“Yes, 723 people were on your list, but how many actually knew that you had THEM on your list.”
“All of them,” I responded, a little annoyed now. Obviously, I created a list with the intent of these people showing up.
“How many people do you think showed up off your guest list?”
I sat there for a minute thinking of the people who promised to drop by but never did.
“Screw you, Dean,” I thought, remembering that I hadn’t seen him come through the doors. “Ashley, you talked all week about coming, but I didn’t see you!” So on and so forth, but as I started to list off the people that didn’t come, they laughed at me.
Again, they asked me how many people from my list made it to the club that night, and I responded with about 700, give or take.
While we were talking, I saw a change in their expressions. They were becoming less skeptical. My confidence and ability to list off names and numbers showed that I knew what I was talking about. I demonstrated an understanding the business side of what they did, and it was my first time ever being involved.
Internally, I was pretty excited. At $1 per person, $700 was nothing to sneeze at, especially as a high school student. Although I had another job at the time, I wasn’t making much. I was working at a record store called “Strawberries.” I loved music, so it was a great place to work. The pay, however, was awful, so on the side, I’d sell burned CDs and make another $500+ per week.
I was then told that the highest amount of people that came from a guest list that night that falls into the $1 per person agreement was 62.
There it was. There was the pit in my stomach. I was getting screwed over or something was up.
I couldn’t have been more wrong in my entire life. This was the moment that my entire life changed. Everything I thought that I knew about my future just came to a scratching halt. I was told that I had 712 people crossed off that came from my guest list but I wasn’t getting $1 per person.
I was given an envelope with $3,000 in it for my efforts that night. I was blown away. had never seen that much money in one shot, and I couldn’t believe it.
Now what if I told you that isn’t even the best thing that came out of that night, that there was more to this story that night in that grand office? You probably wouldn’t believe me, but that is just what it was.
A New Opportunity
One of the owners of the promotion company asked what I was doing for work. I had just turned 18 a couple months prior, and I didn’t have any solid plans. All I knew was that college wasn’t in my immediate future (that wouldn’t come until about a decade later). I had some ideas to make money in the same way I had for for years up until that point. However, there was nothing stable that I could base the rest of my future on. I wanted to create a path for myself, that much was certain. The details, though, were still fuzzy.
I told them all this, and, on the spot, the owners of the promotion company extended an offer for a full-time job. It turned out that these owners also were partners in a new nightclub up the street. They also worked events at a few other places, some 21+ and some 18+. My job would be to promote not only the teen nights, but also the adult nightclubs were involved with. I’d no longer have to submit a guest list, which to me, signaled that they had faith in the quality of my work.
My weekly salary would be $400, and I would receive an extra $1,500 monthly for the teen nights. Plus, they promised me an opportunity to grow, take on more responsibility, and make more money in the near future.
At that moment, I didn’t really care about what I heard from others my age. I knew they talked shit about this line of work and even about this company in particular. However, in this case, these guys recognized what I brought to the table right off the bat. I felt like a minor league baseball player being offered an overpriced contract and financial guarantee. They made an awesome offer upfront because they believed in my talent and my ability to grow into the role.
Boy were they right, but that’s another story.