My history with addiction and incarceration shaped my success as a founder
Originally published in Fortune on 2/23/23
I shared that I had a criminal background on LinkedIn in a state of frustration. A famous TV personality and startup investor, whose name I have decided not to disclose, had just turned me away from an investment after a background check, and I decided it was time to bring my past to the forefront of my story instead of holding it back.
That was the best decision I’ve ever made.
My track record with addiction and recovery and my experience navigating society with a criminal record have shaped me into who I am today and propelled me to build LIVSN. But those very variables have also sometimes become barriers, and they’ve kept some people from wanting to work with me. It shouldn’t be a barrier.
Before I go on, I should answer the obvious question: What did I do?
In 2011, I was battling an opiate addiction, shaking from withdrawals every day, and deeply in debt to the wrong people. In the midst of this personal turmoil, I made the unthinkable decision to rob a liquor store. There was no violence. There were no threats. I think I even said “please.” A couple of days later the police raided my house and took me to jail.
I started detox in jail: cold turkey after five years of hard use. After being released on bail with about four months until my court date, I flew straight to Austin and enrolled in a 90-day inpatient rehab. I chose to forgo a medicated detox with the intention of fully feeling what was happening to my body. I wanted to remember the pain. I still remember. I made the choice to accept that this was rock bottom. When you’re at rock bottom there is only one way to go.
What happened next is what I’m proud of.
I took rehabilitation seriously. I engaged in counseling sessions, formed relationships with my peers, and made promises to myself about the kind of life I would pursue if given the opportunity. I took every chance to volunteer my time for community service. I discovered spirituality. I learned to meditate. I began to rebuild myself. And I played a lot of ping-pong. More than anything though I discovered that being in nature leads me to my higher power. I learned that I could turn to the outdoors instead of pills. I credit this realization with my life.
During my sentencing, I was offered the opportunity for early release through the completion of a military-style boot camp. I did three months in jail and one week in prison, and then 105 days of boot camp before being released. I could write chapters on my experience in those places, but that’s for another time.
Incarceration strips people of their humanity. It’s at once terrible and oddly enough…not that bad. It taught me that I was adaptable.
After being released from prison on a hot July day in Arkansas, I didn’t know where my life would take me, but I knew I wasn’t going to waste it. I earned my bachelor’s degree. I married the love of my life. I bought a house. I started my own company. I had two sons. And I spent a lot of time outdoors.
That time—all the way from my first day in jail to the last day of boot camp—influenced the person I am today, the life I live, and the business I built. I am not the man I was in 2011. My past created my present. It created the startup I run today, LIVSN.
But most people didn’t know that.
I sat on that LinkedIn post for weeks before pushing the “publish” button. I was nervous. I had built up a small reputation as an entrepreneur, and I was worried. I live in Bentonville, Ark., a small town of around 50,000 people. What would people think?
More than anything, I shared my story for myself. If my past was going to stop someone from engaging with me, I wanted to know that from the beginning. My hope, however, was that it wouldn’t.
Something I think about a lot is how people are the sum of their experiences. I learned how to be vulnerable in rehab, I learned what society values in court, I learned patience in boot camp, and I learned to meditate in recovery. I learned that experiences are what are truly valuable in the end.
I started LIVSN in 2018 with the mission to make sustainable outdoor clothing. I wanted to help people uncover what the outdoors can do for them because it has done so much for me—and to avoid adding to the world’s waste problem by making clothing that was durable, versatile, and designed with sustainable materials. Our core message is that experiences are more important than stuff—a thought that arose repeatedly when I was behind bars, deprived of my freedom.
LIVSN is derived from the Swedish word livsnjutare, which means “one who lives life fully.” The logic goes that if someone is this person who lives life to the fullest, this livsnjutare, what are they wearing when they’re out collecting memories? It needs to work well in many scenarios. It needs to look good. It needs to be comfortable. And it needs to hold up. That’s what we make.
Since I started building LIVSN, the company has gone on to raise just under $1.6 million from Techstars, angel investors, and a Wefunder campaign. We posted more than $1 million in revenue in 2021 and 2022, and our clothing is distributed by 102 retailers, including Backcountry and Moosejaw.
Could I have created this brand without my unique past? Would I have? Maybe, but I don’t think so.
My past taught me how bad life can be. How many freedoms I can lose. How few more breaths I could have. I gained a perspective that will never leave me. Looking at 40 to life in prison while being thankful for simply being alive has had a lasting effect on how I process difficult situations now.
When cash flow is tight, shipments are delayed, and there’s a break-in at the office, it’s not as bad as getting yelled at while walking naked through prison intake at 2 a.m. with 150 other men, waiting to be deloused and getting my head shaved. It’s not as bad as 96 hours alone in an eight-by-10-foot concrete cell. Is the perspective starting to make sense?
What happened after I pushed “publish” has filled me up in ways I could never have imagined.
The post went viral.
The outdoor industry responded with so much love. Friends from the industry reached out with support. Partners reached out for collaborations. Some retailers who had been giving us the cold shoulder decided to give LIVSN a chance.
People started to write comments with the most supportive, kind, and understanding messages I have ever read. They also started to send me messages detailing intimate stories. Stories of their past issues, the problems of their family, and tales of friends long gone who didn’t make it through their ordeal. People told me of the struggles they’re having right now but they don’t know how or where to bring them to light.
What I didn’t realize when I shared my story is the power it might have for other people. As I said, I wrote it for me. But it turns out that our stories help others.
My past is not my present, but it brought me here. If that continues to scare some investors away from backing LIVSN, then so be it—but it shouldn’t. I believe it’s why we’re valuable.
I really resonant with LIVSN’s core message that experiences are more important than stuff, that gives me confidence and purpose as a Wefunder backer. This is this first individual investment I have ever made and it took me the whole length of your campaign to sign on. Two things were the deciding factor, the quality of your product and the authenticity of you and the LIVSN team. Reading your journey from addiction, to incarceration, to recovery and discovery of your purpose life, with meaning, family, and relationships only increases my confidence in that decision. I have also discovered that being in nature leads me to my higher power and recharges my soul. I’ve migrated from road running and marathons, to the warm embrace of nature in the jungles of Asia, with an occasional ultra trail event to keep things interesting. I am all-in as a member of the LIVSN tribe as “one who lives life fully."
At best, in moving through our worst of times
. We hope to better ourselves
The truest form of betterment of ourselves is
. When I’m doing so, we better others.
The responses you receive show that you are doing just that. Good on ya Andrew
Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for sharing your powerful, vulnerable and real self. It’s refreshing. Bravo and keep up the positive work.
Honestly stand by your product because it is good. I love my pants. But, share your testimony to those that ask. I don’t feel it should be used to sell your product.
Love my LIVSN clothes and very proud of your journey and friendship.
Wonderful and inspiring story! I’ve been sober for almost 7 years and I’m always amazed by great recoveries like yours. Looking forward to the chapters of your future books as well as the ongoing success of Livsn. I appreciate everything you and your brand represent!
Great read, man. Proud of you, dude! Been a pleasure working with you over the past few years.
I admire your courage thank you so much for sharing!
Incredible story. Thank you for sharing and making this article accessible!