A Day In The Life : Alex Torrey

Alex celebrating his first week in the MKTG Chicago Office

This month we are featuring A Day In The Life of Alex Torrey. Alex sits in the VP of Strategy and based in Chicago. He joined the team this summer and his main responsibility is simply making sure the team brings their best, smartest thinking to the table in everything they do. Sounds easy right?

Alex moved to Chicago from Athens, GA after working for the CIA (yes, really) and for himself as Co-Founder of Umano, a socially-conscious clothing brand. Read on and learn about his experience at the CIA, as an entrepreneur, and what ‘decision fatigue’ is, in our interview with Alex.

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MK: What time do you wake up in the morning on a typical workday?

Alex: I wake up early. I wake up at 5:30. I’m a morning runner, I go for a short little jog. Chicago is a beautiful place for morning jogs.

 

Do you run on the lake?

I do, I run on the lake or the river. I don’t have a route. I’m very spontaneous, I don’t have a plan, so depending on how I’m feeling I either say Is today a lake day? or Is today a river day? and then I go from there.

 

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?

My alarm clock is NPR, so I’ll usually lay there for a minute or two listening to NPR. Then I have a glass of water and I pee. Not always in that order.

 

So you use an actual alarm clock?

I use an old-time analog radio with the little scrolly-wheel thing. If I ever bump my alarm clock it’s all messed up and I have to find the right radio station again. Yeah, like an actual alarm clock.

 

Is there a reason for that?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. There’s something very comforting about the alarm clock, like the snooze slap. You actually hit something bigger than your phone. Then literally the first thing you touch is not your phone, which is also nice. The last thing I touch is, well, I double-check my alarm. So the last thing and the first thing that I touch in a day is not my phone.

 

That is really nice. What would you say you can’t properly start your day without?

Run.

 

Even on the weekends?

[hesitates] This is like literally the first thing? Because I also have to have a cup of coffee. Without NPR, running, and coffee, and I sound like an 80-year-old man. But NPR, running, and coffee are the three constants for a weekday/weekend that I couldn’t start my day without.

 

So how do you commute to work, do you enjoy your commute?

I do. And I am embarrassed to say that my commute is a four-minute walk. I live 3-4 blocks from the office so it’s quite lovely, quite quick. Sometimes it takes longer to wait for the elevator than to actually make the walk.

 

When you’re at work do you wear your headphones at your desk?

No.

 

Do you listen to anything at work?

No, that’s why I sometimes do the office DJ thing. Because I like having ambient noise, so when my office door is open I can hear the music outside and I open my window and hear the street, hear the train go by.

 

I totally agree, the train sound is great. Though, I wouldn’t want to be any closer to it. So, what’s your go-to jam right now?

I don’t know if my day has a playlist. Because I don’t think my day follows one story arc. So, sometimes the suspense is right off the bat or whatever that big climax is, the conflict and climax. Sometimes it’s later in the day. I’m really digging the new Foster the People album; it’s surprisingly good. It’s been out for a little bit but I just never got around to it. I love Discover Weekly. Discovery Weekly is a big thing. It’s not a daily thing, but it’s a Monday thing. I have to check out my Discovery Weekly and see what’s on there. Then they do that other curated thing…

 

The Daily Mixes! Those are my favorite!

Yes, the Daily Mixes are great. And, one of my daily mixes, I don’t know why, is this super hard hip-hop, just aggressive rap. I don’t know why, I guess I listen to it more than I think I do or their algorithm is a little wonky. But it’s good if you’re in that mood.

…..

What are your favorite podcasts?

This is not a podcast, but what I just watched a series recently and feel like I need to include it here. I just watched The Defiant Ones, the HBO series. I don’t usually do ‘series’ of things. I’m not a Netflixer or a Huluer. So it was a really big thing for me that I actually watched the whole four episodes. I was like Wow! I actually watched four episodes of something.

In terms of podcasts, I love Ted Talks. The Ted radio hour on NPR as well. There’s just something about them. That little sound effect at the beginning of Ted Talks, you know that psychology experiment where they rang the bell and fed the dogs, I’m pretty sure I salivate when I hear that Ted Talk sound. Because I’m so conditioned to think Ooh, something really great is about to happen and I’m about to learn something!

Then it’s about discovering. I’m not a loyal listener, I don’t have a podcast that I listen to religiously. I love searching random things like Hey! I want to learn more about why people love the food they love. And lo and behold, there’s a podcast about people loving food!

 

I think it’s funny that you say you’re not a loyal podcast listener, but you wear all black every day! I was meaning to ask you about this before.

What about wearing all black every day means I would listen to the same podcasts? [he kids]

 

Well, to me, the uniform suggests being a creature of habit!

Can I talk to you for a minute about decision fatigue?

 

Yeah [I eagerly respond]

Decision fatigue is a real thing. The human brain can only make a certain number of decisions and then it’s done. Then you go to sleep, reset, and get your decisions again. So what really important people do, and I just simply try to copy cat and emulate…

 

Like Steve Jobs!

Yes, like Steve Jobs, very much so. Also like former President Barack Obama. There was a great article on Fast Company about Barack Obama talking about how he tries to conserve his decisions. He doesn’t pick-out his wardrobe, he doesn’t pick-out any meal, he doesn’t pick-out any workouts. Obviously, he’s the President of the United States, so he has people to do that for him and I do not. Therefore, to simplify and save my decision making, so I can bring my best brainpower to work every day, I don’t pick anything. I hang my t-shirts. Clean shirts go on the right, the next shirt I wear goes on the left and I literally reach in every morning to the left side and grab whatever the next shirt is, next black t-shirt. Doesn’t matter! It’s beautiful. You don’t have to think about it. I use the same cycle for pants. New clean pants go on the right, the next pair I wear goes on the left. I actually don’t have a cycle for shoes, I actually have to look down and grab whatever pair is closest to me usually. So yeah, it’s all about decision fatigue. I can be really indecisive in general. So, for little things, I’m the worst. Like if I’m going to dinner with a friend, I am the worst human on the face of planet because they ask, “Where do you want to go?” I say “ Doesn’t matter”. It’s genuine, like I really don’t care. If I have preference, or something I don’t like I will voice it like a normal human. But genuinely it doesn’t matter.

 

Have you always dressed in all black? Or is this new?

Well, running a t-shirt company gets you a lot of t-shirts in your wardrobe. So all of a sudden, I had a lot of t-shirts that I really liked. So, because of Umano I started wearing only t-shirts, mainly t-shirts. And at Umano, the last couple years, we only did white, black and gray. So between the white, black, and gray I started getting more and more black tees. The next thing I know my closet’s full of black tees. The all-black thing has been going on for a couple years, but not very long.

 

Oh my god. I have to rethink everything.

[we talk for a minute about how grateful we are that we don’t have to wear suits to work]

So anyways, all black, it works!

 

I’m freaking out.

You should try it! And if you want to get really nerdy and geek out for a second about the human brain. There’s a game, surprise element of my system. To see what shirt am I going to get today, and I’m like, Oh, I got a plain one! or I got one with a design! Or I got a crew neck. Those are really the only options, plain, design, crew neck, v-neck, pocket, no pocket. They’re all black, but those are the only options. And I don’t know what I’m going to get, it’s actually a little endorphin rush. That’s a crazy thing about people. I don’t know what shirt’s coming and I grab it and I’m surprised.

 

What are the top five apps that you can’t live without on your phone?

Well, I’m not technologically inclined. I’d say Nike+ because I run with that. But I can live without it. I did for many years. So actually I would say these are the 5 apps that I would miss the most or that I use the most, but I really believe that I could live without them. I’d have to say, Text message or iMessage, Nike+, Medium, Business Insider, and probably Instagram.

 

Are there any restaurants or spots near your office that make your day?

I do like the after-work beer at Green Door. It’s cool to be so close to such a great drinking institution of America. It’s cool to swing by Green Door to grab a beer, and it’s literally next-door. It’s also great to bring lunch but go eat it by the park.

 

What after-work activity seals off your day?

Drinking that beer, usually. I’m not good at working out in the evenings. That’s part of why I’m a morning runner. There usually is a good little post-work beer, making dinner or meeting friends for dinner. And then I chill. I’m trying to read more physical books, so I read.

 

I’m inclined to ask about being on Shark Tank, because my last A Day In The Life subject, Drew, was also on Shark Tank! But I also kind of want you to talk about the CIA. Are you allowed to talk about the CIA?

I can, a little bit. All the un-classified things.

 

Anything is good. In my made-up version of your life, the all-black clothes thing was part of you having worked for the CIA.

Those were the suit days!

 

Yeah, as soon as you mentioned suits I realized you wouldn’t probably wear a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers to work at the CIA, haha. When you talk about not being technologically inclined, is that a result of working for the CIA?

Well, I guess I would say I’m not gadget inclined if that makes sense. I do like technology, but I’m definitely not gadget inclined. Which completely de-funks any idea you had about a secret agent or spy with all his gizmos and gadgets because I’m not a gadget guy, never have been, even in the CIA. I did, no joke, get to use a pen with a secret camera on it. I got to use it once, and that’s the only gadget I ever used.

 

I’ve seen that gadget before, I’m pretty sure it was in Spy Kids or an episode of Alias!

So I worked for the CIA, and did that for about four years. Spent a year in Afghanistan, got to do some really cool things like fly under the cover of darkness of the Afghan desert in a helicopter while bad guys shot rockets at us. It was a very cool experience and I have a tremendous amount of pride in that. I also have a huge, huge amount of appreciation for people who still do that stuff being, out in that type of environment, in a war zone. It was really cool. I got to brief the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense. I was involved in the POTUS visit, when President Obama visited Afghanistan. It was a surprise visit, for security reasons, but his advanced team was at station so we got to participate in that and get front row seats to the logistics of bringing the President of the United States to a war zone.

Then I quit that to go home, screen print t-shirts out of my parent’s garage and then sell the t-shirts. People didn’t believe me, they thought it was a cover story, that I was going deeper undercover because it was crazy. But I wasn’t, it was true. I legitimately quit. Long story short, CIA is an amazing place, a phenomenal experience, I describe it as 99% perfect. Not even 99% good, 99% perfect. The only thing that could have pulled me away was that I was a 25-year-old punk-ass and I wanted to find what was 100% perfect. Which is crazy, because when you have 99% why would you be so focused on that last percent? I thought the only way I would get the last percentage point was to start my own thing. For me, in particular, it was social entrepreneurship.

I started this company with my brother, called Umano, Italian for ‘mankind’. The concept was to showcase a kid’s drawing as a work of art. So the clothing was the canvas and wanted to connect the consumer to the story behind the art and really get to show a kid’s drawing as a work of art. There’s a raw confidence in a kid’s drawing, and we wanted to use our brand to showcase that. With every product purchased we would donate a backpack filled with art supplies. We would go on “giving trips” to give the backpacks and that’s where we would get the drawings, through our giving partners. So the team, going boots-on-the-ground, to give the backpacks on giving trips, gather the drawings, the virtuous cycle would restart. Really it was about that story of the giving trip and connecting the consumer to that story.

 

It was awesome, we did it for about 4-5 years. We were on Shark Tank. Mark Cuban is super tall, with a super long face. John Kerry too. Super tall men with super long faces. The camera does not do the lengths of their faces justice. Anyways, we were on Shark Tank, we got a deal from Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner. It was an awesome experience. They’re actually very nice, even Mr. Wonderful. The whole process, as you can imagine, is a massive production.

It was great, we did a couple other pitch competitions. We’d raised a seed fund from other venture capitalists and we were sold in Bloomingdales. It was great!

Social entrepreneurship is about making the greatest impact possible. True social entrepreneurship is when the cause is the reason you exist, it’s in your DNA, it’s why you’re there. So you attach a business engine to a cause and it’s powerful. I set out for  explosive growth. I wanted to be venture funded, with that hockey stick growth, and be the next Warby Parker kind of thing. But it was clear that we weren’t going to hit the high of explosive growth, and I decided to say, Well, that’s what I was looking to do. I am not looking for a four-day work week or to start a lifestyle business or play golf. I don’t play golf. So I went to look for what else was out there. Then, MKTG Chicago came along.

•••

If you can’t tell, it’s hard to talk to Alex for an hour, because you leave with about three more hours worth of questions. It’s okay though, I’ve been busy thinking about decision fatigue and all of the other ways I can cut small decisions from my daily life. Anyone else?

You can follow Alex on Instagram @alexxtorrey

 

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Written by Mary Kate Pleggenkuhle
Mary Kate Pleggenkuhle

October 2nd, 2017 at 4:28 pm

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