Last year, many miles from Silicon Valley, a soft-spoken, churchgoing funeral home IT guy from York, Pennsylvania pulled off one of the great coups in tech start-up history.
I first interviewed Eric Martin, then 28, in February 2015, when he catapulted to national fame by gaming a contest run by Jet.com. The new e-commerce start-up promised 100,000 shares of stock in the company to the person who could generate the most referrals to its "Insider" loyalty program.
Martin used rudimentary data analysis and wisely invested $18,000 into growth-hacking campaigns on "rewarded advertising" sites like Swagbucks and Gifthulk to gin up referrals. He and his spreadsheets vaulted ahead of the competition in just three weeks, winning the 100,000 stock options and making him, at least on paper, a millionaire.
"Until I can actually see real dollars, it’s not going to hit home," he told me at the time.
This week, Martin's saga got even wilder when Jet.com announced that it was being acquired by Walmart for $3.3 billion. Someone familiar with Jet.com's finances told me last year that Martin's 100,000 stock options would be worth $10-20 million "if everything goes according to plan." They are almost certainly worth more than that now. At the time of my article, Jet.com's valuation was $600 million. Even if Martin's shares were diluted in later fundraising rounds, being acquired for more than 5 times the valuation will still net him a massive payday. (A spokesperson for Jet.com did not respond to a recent request for more details on the terms of Martin's deal.)
I spoke to Martin, who now has a digital marketing start-up, just after the official news of Jet's acquisition broke. He doesn't yet know exactly how much he stands to make, whether he'll be paid in cash or Walmart stock, or what the other relevant terms of the deal are. But he's optimistic that Jet will honor its commitment to him, and he says he's been "occasionally laughing hysterically" since he learned of the $3.3 billion acquisition that will change his life forever.
Here's a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Fusion: How’s your day going?
Martin: It’s going well. It’s kind of crazy. There are lots of random people reaching out to me. Old friends, relatives. It’s really fun.
Have you heard from Jet yet?
Unofficially, but yeah.
What have they said?
They said I’d have more details soon.
What do they mean by "details"?
My understanding is it’s directly related to the share price.
Last year, when I wrote about you winning the contest, Jet said that they expected your shares to be worth $10-20 million “if everything goes according to plan.” Is that how much you expect to make now?
Under the terms of the deal, I have no idea. I guess it’s possible it could be Walmart shares.
What do you expect, though? Are you hoping to retire from this?
I think it would be cool to retire. I don’t plan on doing that, though. I hope it’s a lot of money, and it’s a blessing to my family.
How does your family feel about it?
They’re very excited. My dad is like, "you’ve done well." I got two texts so far today saying I should get a security system.
Is that something you’re worried about?
Not really. I have little kids, so slightly.
So Jet hasn’t been in contact with you in any official way?
I’ve gotten some updates here and there. As far as I can tell, they’re making good on their promise. Because Jet started off on this level of transparency…I have a feeling it’s a little less complicated than your average startup. But I just don’t know.
Are you waiting to celebrate until you know more?
I took half a day off.
To do what?
Fielding a bunch of phone calls and tweets. Honestly, I’m hoping I get a plug for IdeaDash.com, my startup, because that’s two months old. As far as celebration goes, I think my parents want to have a dinner with the family.
Do you think there’s any chance Jet will go back on their end of the bargain?
I guess there’s a chance, but I don’t see that. I’ve met the CEO, I’ve talked to some of the top executives, and they’re just extremely upstanding people.
If you get this huge payday, will you still work on a startup?
Absolutely. The way I look at this is, just the beginning of a new chapter of my life. This isn’t quite a lottery win, but it kind of feels like it. The lottery winners of the world tend to end up with the same amount of money they had before they won. I’m hoping I can use this as a catapult toward future ventures.
How will you spend the money?
I’ve had some thoughts. Part of my mind has to do with the exact figure. I think there’s a lot of tax implications. Until I navigate all of that, it’s probably not worth having a plan.
Are you disappointed they sold to Walmart so early?
Yeah. But my disappointment is far exceeded by the potential payout. Having $15 billion a year in profit backing them is going to ultimately be a much bigger beast for Amazon to contend with.
Do you buy everything from Jet now?
Not everything. I got organic milk from them, which was cool. I’ve been known to pay a little more on Jet.
What else is going through your head right now?
The initial excitement of it was last week, when I sort of knew something was happening with Jet and Walmart, and I was occasionally laughing hysterically. I’m kind of socially awkward, but this was another reason to laugh randomly. Who knows? I might be laughing in my sleep.