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Tyler Denk: One Professor Away from Developing the Curiosity to Explore

Tyler Denk is the Head of of Product and Tech at my favorite newsletter (besides ours, of course): Morning Brew. With 2 million+ subscribers and an open rate of 42%, they are truly the gold standard. Every day, they deliver relatable, compelling content that’s both thorough and easy to digest.

In our discussion, Tyler Denk breaks down how he helped built this incredible product and found a career where he belongs. These are some impressive credentials, but our three years of friendship have shown me so many other things about Tyler I greatly admire.

Tyler Denk is the rare type of person who can tap into both the right-brain and left-brain mentality. Since he can remember, Tyler has been a problem-solver with a passion for entrepreneurship. His current role is a dream job, but he wasn’t always sure where he would end up.

“I’ve always looked around and seen how different systems, businesses, or processes could be improved.”

Tyler Denk

How Tyler Deck Segued a Passion for Physics Into Engineering and Programming

Tyler grew up with a clear sense of what interested him, how he could solve problems, and what he had to offer: an innate ability to analyze situations and see how to optimize and improve them.

Nonetheless, he spent most of high school without a clear sense of how he could turn these strengths into a fulfilling career. Everything changed when his junior-year physics teacher totally transformed his worldview. 

“Before then, I couldn’t have told you what engineering was. Mr.  Doetzer’s physics class really opened my eyes to this whole new world of things I could pursue.” 

Equipped with this understanding of where his strengths applied pragmatically, his path forward became much clearer. During college, he launched a business called VentureStorm and taught himself programming alongside his co-founders.  

After completing his degree in mechanical engineering, he realized that software was the best way to combine his passion for entrepreneurship and knack for problem-solving. Meeting a generative connection through Next Gen offset his lack of a computer science degree and set him on the fast track for success.

All the pieces fell into place for Tyler when he met the person who changed everything: Austin Rief, the COO of Morning Brew, who was looking to hire a developer. Even though he didn’t have the cookie-cutter credentials that most applicants would have featured on their resume, Tyler had something even better to offer than a formal education in computer science. 

All of the skills he proactively acquired, interests he explored, and experiences he sought out up to that point made him the perfect fit. Essentially, it all came down to his unique perspective: 

“There are countless problems in the world faced every day, but there are always equations and solutions you can apply to improve them.”

Top 5 Takeaways From Tyler Denk

  1. Having a hard time choosing a career? Figure out your passions and skills first. Many of us struggle to find our calling, even if we have a sense of our interests. If you’re in this position right now, look for specific topics and capabilities you have a knack and strong interest for. Once you hone those skills, it will be much clearer where you can professionally apply them.
  2. You don’t have to choose between being an entrepreneur or a subject matter expert. In fact, having both the capacity for innovation at a high level and also the ability to implement and deliver will turn your ideas into reality much more efficiently and effectively.
  3. Don’t let your background limit your dreams. If you feel drawn to a field that doesn’t match your degree or resume, take matters into your own hands. Teach yourself the skills you need. Go above and beyond in the opportunities you’re given to prove yourself. Lean on a strong work ethic to show your merit and capabilities.
  4. Focus on the product before pushing for growth. Everyone wants to go viral, whether that’s through content, a publication, an app, or even a tweet. What do you want your legacy to be? Rather than keeping the blinders on and going full-throttle on publicity or audience acquisition, strive for excellence in everything you create. A high-caliber product will innately appeal to so many more people, for so much longer than a gimmicky PR push for a sub-par delivery.
  5. Be open-minded about where you can thrive. Name-brand opportunities aren’t always going to be the best opportunities you can get. Even if a well-known company or position that traditionally fits into your formal education feels safe and comfortable, think outside the box about where you can maximize your talents and passions.

Tyler has the passion and drive to create learning and skill-building experiences that make him stand out from the crowd. He’s not just an “ideas guy,” either: he has the work ethic to go above and beyond the basic requirements, working up to 60 hours a week to not only get the job done, but also improve it.

Tyler Denk’s innovative mindset drives him to optimize the entire process of every product he creates to achieve better results than could have ever been expected during the ideation phase.  

Venturing Down Curiosity Lane

Even when he was offered top-notch positions at Big 4 consulting firms like Deloitte, Tyler took a leap of faith and came onboard with at a 3-person company at the time. Through a combination of hard work and innovation, he’s developed several disruptive products for Morning Brew.

Most notably, he created the referral program, a key component of the company’s mind-blowing growth. Morning Brew was one of the companies that inspired me the most when I was launching BW Missions and my productized newsletter. 

Tyler is a talented engineer and an inspiring friend to have. Our paths have many similarities, and I feel fortunate to learn from him. I hope you learn something valuable for your own professional journey as you listen to this episode, too! 

Check it out on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or watch the YouTube video above, and follow along by reading the transcript below. 

Transcript

BRYAN WISH: Hello everyone, welcome to the One Away Show. I’m here with Tyler Denk, Head of Growth at Morning Brew. Welcome, Tyler!

So Tyler, we’ve built a great friendship over the past three or four years now. There are just so many things about you admire beyond the work you do in the business space. You’re a really good human. You shared some answers with me beforehand. Let’s have you kick it off and we can dive into your One Away moment and have you share that story.

TYLER DENK: I approached the question of how I got to where I am today from a business perspective. Given my background, there’s been a lot of different steps and people and experiences along the way that have really led themselves to be a catalyst in my life to get me where I am today, working for Morning Brew and building really cool products. It’s interesting to think back to that’s where I think it all started from.

It all goes back to my physics teacher in high school. I entered my junior year of and had zero idea what I wanted to do. I’d just been applying to colleges that looked fun and had nice weather rather than choosing based on academics. I had a few friends who were older than me who said physics was the hardest class they’d ever taken in. Even though they advised against it. I signed up to see what it was about. It ended up being my favorite class. 

The teacher, Mr. Doetzer was a 65-70 year old guy. There had been rumors that he had part of his brain missing due to a surgery. He had an indentation in the front of his forehead, and he had absolutely no emotion. He would all these say funny things, but he didn’t realize that they were funny. There was something about the personality that he had that this made him so unique. He really opened my eyes to the world of physics and that problem-solving mindset. I ended up getting an A in the class and doing AP physics the following year. 

BRYAN WISH: Superb. I always tell people you’re so unique because you have both that left brain and right brain way of thinking. Now before we move into your experience with engineering, what was it about that teacher or physics that got you hooked? As you dove into the topic, did you think, “wow, there might be a pathway here for me?”

TYLER DENK: Mr. Doetzer was brilliant. He was the first person who introduced engineering to me as a career field. When you think about physics if you don’t have that background, you typically imagine Albert Einstein and all these theoretical physicists. From his personality to the way he talked, learning from him was all-encompassing. 

I also just fell in love with the subject itself. With something like math, you’re exposed to the subject in 1stor 2ndgrade and then build upon it throughout the course of your education.

Physics involves an entirely different way of thinking. His class really opened my eyes to this whole new world of things I could pursue. In turn, this led me to building out my problem-solving mindset. 

My high school had a huge pull to go to the University of Maryland which has a great engineering program. Before taking Mr. Doetzer’s class, I couldn’t have told you what engineering was. That was the first real moment in my life where I loved the ability to solve problems and take things on from a systematic approach. His introduction to that mindset led me to discover myself and figure out a lot of things that I went on to do.

Physics is entirely different from the way you think about everything and the way it explains the phenomena that happens in the day to day. Everything around you can be explained by a set of principles and formulas. It sounds nerdy to go into detail about why I found it so interesting, but it was completely new. I’ve always found it unbelievably interesting since that point. His class opened my eyes to a whole new world of fascinating things I’d never even thought I could once thought about that he opened my eyes to. 

BRYAN WISH: Tyler, you really know how to connect with people. You have a strong human sense as well as that engineering side. Being able to think with both the left and right brain is pretty uncommon in today’s tech environment. Typically, it’s hard to have a mixture of both. That makes you unique. How did that lead you into engineering?

TYLER DENK: Before I was introduced to the career path and discipline of engineering, I was always an entrepreneur. That’s what I always said I wanted to do. A lot of engineers hate when people say the “idea guy,” but that’s how I saw myself in middle and high school. I would walk into a random restaurant and just say, “Wow, if they just rearranged this and moved this over here and did this that way, they’d streamline processes and completely increase optimization and efficiency.” 

That’s still how I approach a lot of things in everyday life. I always look around and see how different systems, businesses, or processes could be improved. I’ve always had that mindset, but I didn’t really know how that would translate into anything rigorous in college. I didn’t know what coursework led into that. I knew there were entrepreneurial programs, but I don’t think there’s an entrepreneurship major. I have seen some weird resumes where people actually do have that. For the most part, I don’t think that’s something should really be focused on studying. There’s a lot of skills that you can develop that lend themselves into entrepreneurship, which is   the route I ended up taking. I think engineering does a great job with that. 

I’ve always been a problem solver. I like figuring out how to optimize things. When Mr. Doetzer introduced me to physics and the set of principles and formulas that create and explain the way things are done, that lent itself into engineering and solving problems. There are countless problems in the world faced every day, but there are always equations and solutions you can apply to improve them. I saw the connection between being an “ideas guy” and an entrepreneurially minded person. Coupling that with engineering and problem solving and critical thinking all fit together, and that’s the direction I went in. 

BRYAN WISH: You also talked about your friend, Hunter, who you met through a Next Gen Summit. He gave you an opportunity and opened a lot of doors in engineering. Shed some light for us on the way you met him and what opportunity he gave you. 

TYLER DENK: Well, I think the first real catalyst was Mr. Doetzer and physics opening me up to engineering and taking about that career path. I ended up studying mechanical engineering, which I loved. However, it didn’t really involve much software. 

In college, me and a few buddies started a company called VentureStorm. We taught ourselves how to code in order to build the platform and the company itself. I didn’t take any formal computer science classes, but I learned programming along with these two co-founders. One thing led to another. I graduated, had a lot of student loans, had to pay back those loans, and the company wasn’t generating all that much revenue. We ended up shutting down the business, and I started looking for different opportunities. 

I knew through my experiences with VentureStorm, a lot of my passion was in the software space. It’s very interesting to work on like airplanes with Boeing, which is what a lot of mechanical engineers did. I saw the world of software lending itself to an entrepreneurial mindset a lot more easily than the mechanical approach would. 

My next step was in the software space while trying to figure out how to pay off my student loans and start a career. I began applying to all these different jobs at software companies; the big one that were stretches, like Facebook, Google, Apple, etc. I got an interview at SpaceX in L.A. which was cool. Ultimately, most of the feedback was, “You have done four years of mechanical engineering. You didn’t have a computer science degree. You don’t have any formal internships in computer science. We aren’t going to hire you to do software and be a developer on our team.” This was the consensus after applying 3-4 months to places. That’s where Hunter steps in.

Basically, through Next Gen Summit, I met this guy Hunter who had a development agency up in New York. He needed a developer to work remotely and help build different projects for him. While I was still very underqualified, he took a chance on me and allowed me to work on these different projects which really jumpstarted my career. As I continued down that path, I got a lot better at coding. Eventually, I started being able to work 40, 50, 60 hours a week building things on different projects for him. He was someone who trusted in me when no one else was taking a chance.  I very well could have gone down the route of working for a Big Four consulting firm, which is where I had an offer. He kept me going in being able to refine my software skills. 

BRYAN WISH: Why do you think he saw potential in you? Once you started working together, what stood out about him helping develop you and get you to a place where you could really refine these skillsets that you have today?

TYLER DENK: It could be because I was the only person who showed interest. By default, he had me join the team. What I’d like to think is that through our conversations, he knew. Maybe there was a level of both being in the same community that’s pretty highly vetted. He assumed I had some characteristics of being a hardworking, entrepreneurial person to even be in the group. I’d like to think he saw that I was someone who is extremely passionate, hardworking, and willing to solve problems even if I didn’t know what the answer was at the time, which is pretty much all software development. He allowed me to continue to work and get better for the end goal, which was work somewhere in software. 

BRYAN WISH: Were there any particular moments working with him that are memorable and stand out? 

TYLER DENK: Freelancing was a completely new world to me. As someone who takes a lot of accountability in everything that I do, it was interesting to have a dollar amount tied to your name and work. Let’s say I was being paid $50/hour. It feels a lot different versus being on salary than being an hourly, contractual freelance worker. I’d never done that before. I remember if he would say, “Here’s the project we’re working on. It’s a new website. It needs to do X, Y, Z. Let me know when you’re done.” For me, I wanted to get it done in as little time as possible from the mindset of he took a chance on me. I need to prove myself and he’s paying me hourly. In my point of view, the best thing I could have done was return it in an hour, have him pay me the $50/hour, and him being, “Wow, that was great.” In actuality, anyone who has done any   software development knows that the smallest things will catch you up for hours. There’s a lot of different rabbit holes you can go down when building different products and websites. I remember the first few days, me being scared to go to the bathroom. I was in a rush constantly just trying to get things done as quickly as possible. Then when I had it done after two days of work, I’d say, “Here’s the project. I’m really sorry it took a little longer than I anticipated,” and he said something like, “Don’t worry about. That’s all part of the learning process.” Him saying that, and this is someone I’ve never met in person and didn’t really  know what his personality was like, really helped me calm down and really start to trust my skills. 

BRYAN WISH: You talk about Austin being another influential person in your life. Share how that led to Morning Brew and the incredible work you’ve done over the last few years.

TYLER DENK: Austin is one of the co-founders or Morning Brew. He’s also from my hometown in Baltimore. I put VentureStorm to the side in February 2017. I started applying for jobs February-April. I started working with Hunter in April/May 2017 and through the summer. While I was working with Hunter, I was still applying to different jobs and he knew that. I ended up getting a job with Deloitte as a technology consulting to start in the fall. Personally, I love making an impact and doing things I can see the tangible impact that I’m having on the business or end result of what I’m doing. I didn’t see myself as a Big Four company with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of employees really making an impact. That’s a job I was not definitely looking forward to but I had that   light at the end of the tunnel of in the fall, September/October, I would join Deloitte and do technology consulting which is what a ton of engineers from the University of Maryland and others do as well. Somewhere in between that summer, Austin reached back out.  

BRYAN WISH: When you took the Deloitte job, did it feel right in your gut or just seemed like the logical next step?

TYLER DENK: It’s not the thing I was most passionate about, but it was a very secure, safe job with a decent salary. As someone starting down at student debt, it became the safe play. I definitely wasn’t satisfied. I continued to apply to other places throughout the summer. Austin reached out, more as a friend, than as a business proposition. He reached out somewhere in the summer of 2017. I knew he had been working on Morning Brew the past few years while he was at Michigan. While I was working on my company, he was working on Morning Brew. We would always talk about different business problems and what we were working on. He reached out. It was basically, “I have this idea for where this business can go. I think we can scale it to X. I think we can launch this product and this product.” He had these huge ambitions. It really came down to, “I really want to add a feature to our newsletter. We don’t have a developer on our team. Do you think you could build this for us?” I looked at my bank account and had like $10. I knew the answer to whether or not I could build it was I had no idea how to build it but I could. I couldn’t say no given I had no money in my bank account. I told him I could build it, no problem. 

I spent the next three weeks teaching myself what it was with adding the social share of Facebook Twitter, LinkedIn into the newsletter which involved adding content onto a website and a few other nuances. Basically, they didn’t have any of that built out. I   lied in saying that I could definitely build that no problem and knew how I would. In reality, I stayed up till 2 or 3 AM in the duration of those 2-3 weeks figuring that out on my own. I came close to quitting several times, but I had no money and didn’t have an option at the time. I end up building that one project and Austin goes, “If you do a good job with this, there’s a few other projects we have in the pipeline. You can continue to work throughout the summer before you join Deloitte,” which he knew I was going to join in September. 

One project turned into two projects, turned into me basically stop working with Hunter and working full-time remote for Morning Brew but not officially. I was doing 40, 50, 60 hour weeks from my parent’s house in Maryland building things for Morning Brew. I remember even coming up in New York to visit the team, which was really just Alex, Austin, and the two writers at the time. 

Austin walked through the features of the company and said, “We’re going to hire a developer from Google, like a top CS grad.” At that point, I was like, “That’s definitely not me. I’m a self-taught, so I’m insecure when it comes to building things because I don’t have that formal education. I’m always second guessing whether it’s the best way to do anything when I’m building stuff. At least, I was at the time. I never once felt like I’d join Morning Brew full-time. It was never on my radar or something I was trying to prove. It was just a paycheck at the time. 

Eventually, he said sometime in September, “Would you just like to join us full-time?” I was like, “I definitely don’t want to join Deloitte.” It was actually a little bit hard of a decision because one is very safe in a Big 4 company like that. Morning Brew, at the time, had three employees, and maybe 100,000 subscribers. It was anything but a sure thing. The decision I eventually made was to join Morning Brew, and I have never really looked back since. 

BRYAN WISH: One of your signature projects you’ve done at Morning Brew is building a referral program to 800,000 people. Any wisdom or words of advice for anyone who wants to follow a similar path and grow something really big?

Tyler TYLER DENK: I always start off with saying that first, you need to focus on the product. A lot of entrepreneurs can fall into the trap of thinking that a referral program that works really well will be a big band aid on a product that isn’t perfect or really something people want to share. They   think of it as a hack to grow their business without actually putting the work in to make the core product better. 

The first thing that I would ever mention is make sure the product is right and people actually genuinely want to share it on their own before adding fuel to the fire and building that referral program. We realized, before we formally built out the referral program and perfected that, that people were sharing organically with their coworkers, friends, and family. When we’d ask people how they found out, they’d say, “We found out because one of my classmates told me or my best friend has recommended it to me.” Once you see people are doing that without any incentives, once you add that incentive, it’s fuel to the fire. I’d definitely focus on getting the product right first before focusing on a referral program. 

BRYAN WISH: Tyler told me after the episode that I could have gone deeper in his insecurities around joining Morning Brew. Tyler, dive in.

TYLER DENK: I know you’re big on pushing on relationship, experiences, insecurities, and how that builds and plays out over time. The biggest thing where we started to get into was when I first joined Morning Brew, I mentioned how Austin was looking for this top-notch, ex-Google software developer. I was like, “That’s not me.” When I was working with Hunter, I had insecurities about not knowing how long it should be taking or if I was doing it the best way possible. 

It all stems back to that chip on my shoulder that I didn’t have the traditional four-year degree in computer science and I’m self-taught. I taught myself on the fly. If I had to build a certain web page or functionality, I’m scraping the web looking for how that’s possible without really knowing, “Oh, this is the best way to do that and approach it because of X, Y, and Z.” I just don’t know what I don’t know from not having that traditional four-year degree. I went from someone who always had that insecurity of am I building this correctly and having all these companies say, “We don’t want to hire you because you don’t have any experience or internships in this space” to joining Morning Brew and having Austin and Alex introduce me to partners as the lead developer. 

At the time, it was me and three others. We didn’t have a development team. I didn’t have a mentor. I didn’t have a supervisor teaching me or nurturing me into a better developer. I was now on my own again building things but with the responsibility of if I mess up and the entire website goes down or something breaks, there’s no one to turn to but me.

Somewhere in my decision making, it was the safe thing, safe salary, big company or being the guy at a company where I have all the responsibility, all the accountability. I was a little insecure about how I got to this point and that I’m self-taught. Did I want to own all that responsibility and potential down side if anything goes wrong? Which it eventually did at some point. That’s something factored into the decision making and lends to what you said about throwing yourself into the fire. 

BRYAN WISH: Was that really scary?

TYLER DENK: One thing that I knew even before that is I’ve always learned the most and put myself in the best position when I’m thrown into a fire way over my head. I’ve always done that dating back to college, starting this company, and working 20-40 hours a week on it on top of a rigorous engineering course load. 

My last semester in college, I picked up a research project in the engineering lab where I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I became the lead researcher doing research on this like capacitor that I didn’t fully understand. There was no one to turn to. I was the guy and I had to deliver final thesis, all these papers, and everything on the research I was doing. I was up at 3AM thinking about quitting but having no option but to figure it out on my own. 

It lends itself in with constantly putting myself in a situation where I’m in over my head but there’s no other option but to learn what I need to do, get better at it, and then hopefully come out on the other end accomplishing something. That has been extremely stressful and is probably why I will have a head full of gray hair in the next five years, but that set me up to be where I am today and really learn what I’ve learned. 

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Catherine Kushan

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