Transforming Data Ownership Into A Connective Force

Aaron Lyles
Founder and CEO or CommonAlly
1hr 19min
May 2, 2024
About the Show

"Data is your footprint. It is who you are, but it's currently extracted from you. It's sold without you benefiting from that. That is really the big problem we are trying to solve right now."

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Aaron Lyles is the Founder and CEO of CommonAlly, a company that builds two-sided marketplaces to connect organizations with hard-to-reach communities in a way that empowers people and gives them agency over their data. Aaron's entrepreneurial journey began at a young age when he started a snowboarding magazine in high school despite challenges with ADHD. This experience taught him the value of passion, perseverance, and creative problem-solving. After college, Aaron founded a photography firm called Pixel Lab, which later evolved into a video production collective called Multiple Mammals.

The idea for CommonAlly was born out of Aaron's desire to create a more empathetic and less polarized world, especially for his young daughter, in the midst of the tumultuous 2016 election. He raised money from friends, family and dev firms to build the platform. Recently, CommonAlly was acquired by Small Great Ventures, allowing Aaron to continue pursuing his vision with the necessary resources and support. Throughout the interview, Aaron shares valuable insights and candid stories about the challenges of entrepreneurship, from difficult co-founder splits to navigating the acquisition process.

This episode is a must-listen for anyone interested in mission-driven entrepreneurship and the real-world challenges and triumphs of building a startup. Aaron's story offers an honest and inspiring look at the entrepreneurial journey, with lessons on resilience, adaptability, and staying true to one's values in the face of adversity. Aspiring founders and business leaders will come away with practical insights and wisdom they can apply to their own ventures.

Episode Resources: 

CommonAlly (current company): https://www.commonally.com/
Multiple Mammals (previous company): https://www.multiplemammals.com/
Small Great Ventures (acquired CommonAlly): https://www.smallgreat.co/
Emerson College (attended): https://emerson.edu/

Key Moments

Turning Passion into Profession: Lessons from Entrepreneur Aaron Lyles

Aaron Lyles
, the Founder and CEO of CommonAlly, recently sat down with Pete Sena  on the Forward Obsessed podcast to share his remarkable entrepreneurial journey driven by personal passion. From starting a snowboarding magazine in high school to building and selling a mission-driven tech company, Lyles' story is one of resilience, adaptability, and unwavering commitment to what he loves, and what he believes in most.

Throughout the interview, Lyles candidly recounts the challenges and triumphs he faced while navigating the worlds of creative production, market research, and social impact. His journey serves as a powerful testament to the transformative potential of aligning one's professional pursuits with their deepest convictions and personal values.

In this article, we distill the key lessons from Lyles' experience, offering valuable insights for aspiring entrepreneurs seeking to turn their passions into thriving ventures. Join us as we explore the art and science of building a purpose-driven business with Aaron Lyles.

The Importance of Identifying and Pursuing Your Passions

At the heart of every successful entrepreneurial journey lies a deep-rooted passion that fuels the drive to create, innovate, and persevere. For Aaron Lyles, this passion first manifested in his love for snowboarding and storytelling. As a high school student navigating the challenges of ADHD, Lyles found solace and purpose in channeling his energy into a creative outlet that combined his interests and talents.

Recognizing the lack of a dedicated platform for the burgeoning snowboarding scene, Lyles took the initiative to create his own magazine. With a non-existent budget, he poured his heart into the project, leveraging his skills in photography, writing, and entrepreneurship to craft a publication that resonated with his peers and the wider snowboarding community. Against the odds, the magazine quickly caught the attention of ESPN, a national audience, and then an international aduience as the popular demand for Snowboarding content grew across the planet. Lyles loved it - traveling to events, performing interviews with the best snowboarding athletes in the world, and learning every step of the way. This early venture not only provided an outlet for Lyles' passions but also laid the foundation for a lifelong commitment to pursuing purpose-driven work.

Lyles' experiences in creating the snowboarding magazine served as a serious catalyst for his personal and professional growth. After years of suffering from ADHD and poor performance in school, the success of the publication bolstered his confidence and validated his ability to turn his passions into tangible outcomes. It also instilled in him a resilience and adaptability that would prove invaluable throughout his entrepreneurial journey.

At this point in his life, Lyles was able to recognize the transformative power of education. He decided to channel the same tenacity and scrappiness that had fueled his magazine into his academic pursuits. Despite the challenges posed by his ADHD, he fervently pursued maximizing his education in every way, securing a scholarship to Harford Academy of the Arts and ultimately earning a degree from Emerson College. By leveraging his unique experiences along with a self-propelled ambition to learn and maximize his potential, Lyles demonstrated that passion and determination can overcome even the most formidable mental obstacles.

Put it into practice:

  • Take time to reflect on your personal experiences, interests, and values to identify the themes and pursuits that bring you the most fulfillment and joy. These should be the guiding lights in every decision you make.
  • Experiment with different creative outlets, hobbies, or side projects to explore and refine your passions. Allow them to evolve, change, or even disappear as you gain more experience.
  • Seek out mentors, collaborators, or communities that share your interests and can provide guidance and support as you navigate your entrepreneurial journey.
  • Cultivate a mindset of continuous learning and growth, recognizing that your passions and pursuits may evolve over time.
  • Be willing to take calculated risks and make sacrifices in pursuit of your vision, understanding that the path to success is rarely linear or easy.

Aligning Passion with Purpose

While passion is essential, it's not always sufficient on its own. To build a truly meaningful and sustainable venture, it's crucial to align your passions with a larger purpose or mission. For Lyles, this pivotal moment came in 2016, as he witnessed the polarization and discord that surrounded the presidential election.

As Lyles progressed in his career, his passions continued to evolve and expand. Becoming a father and witnessing the polarization and discord within his own family during the tumultuous 2016 election ignited a new sense of purpose within him. Driven by a desire to create a more empathetic and understanding world for his daughter and future generations, Lyles conceived the idea for CommonAlly. Recognizing the immense potential of his vision, Lyles made the bold decision to go all-in on bringing CommonAlly to life. In a testament to his unwavering commitment, he sold his house, channeling the proceeds into building the foundation of the company. This act of faith and sacrifice underscores the depth of Lyles' belief in the power of passion and purpose to drive meaningful change.

Driven by a desire to foster greater understanding and connection, Lyles founded CommonAlly, a platform dedicated to empowering people and organizations through ethical data practices and insights. By aligning his passions for storytelling and technology with a mission to promote empathy and bridge divides, Lyles created a venture that was both personally fulfilling and socially impactful.

As you contemplate your own entrepreneurial path, consider the broader context in which your passions exist. What problems or challenges do you see in the world that resonate with you deeply? How might your unique blend of skills, experiences, and interests be harnessed to address those issues? By finding the intersection between your passions and a larger purpose, you set the stage for a venture that is both meaningful and enduring.

Put it into practice:

  • Identify social, environmental, or economic issues that resonate with you deeply. Take time to research how those systems work, why they disfunction, and what measures could be taken to improve them.
  • Research organizations and initiatives working to address those issues and explore potential partnerships or collaborations. Learn from the work that has been done before you, and explore the concepts that are still unaddressed in the market.
  • Develop a personal mission statement that articulates your core values and the impact you hope to make through your work.

Embracing Adaptability: Navigating Pivots and Embracing Change

In the dynamic landscape of entrepreneurship, the ability to adapt and evolve is not merely an advantage—it's a necessity. No journey is without its fair share of challenges, setbacks, and unexpected turns. On the Forward Obsessed Podcast, we call this the “Pivot” - it is often a key moment in which the entrepreneur recognizes that, if they stay on the path they originally thought would be successful, they will encounter certain failure and collapse. It is a test in their resilience, their ability to see ahead, and their willingness to change course. The key to navigating these obstacles lies in cultivating a mindset of adaptability and mental toughness, a quality that Aaron Lyles has demonstrated time and time again throughout his remarkable career.

Lyles' journey with CommonAlly serves as a powerful case study in the importance of embracing change and remaining open to new possibilities. When he first conceived the idea for the company, Lyles envisioned a platform that would combat polarization and foster empathy by providing users with unbiased information and facilitating connections across ideological divides. It was born out of Aaron's desire to create a more empathetic and less polarized world, especially for his young daughter, in the midst of the tumultuous 2016 election, and his passionate ambition was able to create an unlikely business from scratch.

However, as Lyles and his team began to build and test their platform, they encountered challenges that prompted them to reassess their approach. They realized that while their mission of fostering understanding and bridging divides remained paramount, the path to achieving that goal would require a more nuanced and adaptable strategy.

Recognizing the need to pivot, Lyles and his team made the bold decision to refine CommonAlly's business model, shifting their focus to building a two-sided marketplace that would empower individuals and organizations through ethical data practices and insights. By leveraging their expertise in market research, data analytics, and storytelling, they positioned CommonAlly as a platform that could connect organizations with hard-to-reach communities in a way that was both empowering and mutually beneficial.

This pivot proved to be a turning point for CommonAlly, attracting the attention of strategic partners and ultimately leading to the company's acquisition by Small Great Ventures. By remaining open to new possibilities and willing to adapt their approach, Lyles and his team positioned CommonAlly for long-term success and impact.

Lyles' experience underscores the importance of cultivating a mindset of flexibility and agility as an entrepreneur. Regularly reassessing assumptions, seeking feedback from customers and stakeholders, and being prepared to course-correct when necessary are all essential practices for navigating the inevitable ups and downs of building a business.

By viewing challenges as opportunities for learning and improvement, entrepreneurs can develop the resilience and adaptability needed to weather any storm. Lyles' journey serves as a testament to the power of embracing change and remaining committed to one's mission, even as the path to achieving it may shift and evolve over time.

Put it into practice:

  • Regularly assess your business model, target audience, and value proposition to identify areas for improvement or potential pivots
  • Foster a culture of experimentation and iteration within your organization, encouraging team members to propose and test new ideas
  • Stay attuned to industry trends, customer feedback, and market shifts, and be willing to adapt your strategy accordingly
  • Cultivate relationships with mentors, advisors, and industry experts who can provide fresh perspectives and guidance as you navigate change
  • Celebrate failures and setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth, and use them to inform your decision-making moving forward

Lyles' journey serves as a powerful reminder that identifying and pursuing one's passions is not always a linear or easy path. It requires introspection, experimentation, and a willingness to embrace change and uncertainty. To uncover your own passions, start by reflecting on the activities and subjects that bring you the most joy and fulfillment. Consider your unique skills, experiences, and perspectives, and how they might be leveraged to create value for others. Don't be afraid to iterate and pivot as you explore different avenues for expressing your passions professionally.

Drawing inspiration from Lyles' example, aspiring entrepreneurs must also recognize that passion alone is not enough. It must be coupled with action, resilience, and a dedication to continuous learning and growth. By leaning into his strengths, embracing his unique perspective, and remaining committed to his vision, Lyles demonstrated that passion can indeed be the driving force behind a fulfilling and impactful career.

By turning our passions into professions, we not only create fulfilling careers for ourselves but also contribute to building a more empathetic, connected, and equitable world. To dive deeper into Aaron Lyles' story and gain even more entrepreneurial insights, be sure to check out his full interview on the Forward Obsessed podcast.  

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