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The giving economy … an interview with Kevin Burkart

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I recently stumbled across Kevin Burkart whilst listening to a podcast on BBC Sounds called Sideways, hosted by Matthew Syed. The episode is all about the giving economy, which is actually drilled into our DNA, as I blogged about recently.

The summary is that before we trade, commerce and money, we lived in communities where helping each other was in our nature. We would give a neighbour a helping hand, with no expectation of anything in return. We just do it as it creates a bank of trust between everyone in that community.

During the podcast I heard about how Kevin, who lives by the lakes in Minnesota, America, heard that a lady was in need of help. She had been on the lake and lost her wedding ring. As soon as he heard this, he drove over and, as an accomplished scuba diver, jumped in the lake – which is massive – and managed to find her ring. She was overcome and asked him how much he wanted for finding her ring. His reply? Nothing. He just enjoyed the challenge and helping her.

As his story continued, I was even more engrossed when I heard about his sky diving. Raising thousands for Parkinson’s Disease,  he was one of the first sky divers to achieve more than 100 dives in a day (most seasoned sky divers will achieve 20). Then he had a terrible accident on a snowboard, smashing straight into another snow boarder coming the other way, and spent months in hospital. The end result was the loss of use completely of his left arm. Not to be deterred, Kevin invented a one-armed parachute for sky diving and embarked on trying to achieve over 300 jumps in a day.

This amazing story made me want to hear more about his life and so I reached out to ask him about his views on life, money and finance. Here is that interview:

Source: Minnesota Monthly

Chris Skinner: you seem to have pushed it to the hilt in terms of everything from skiing to snowboarding and, in particular, skydiving is your passion, isn’t it?

Kevin Burkart: Skydiving and scuba diving. I was a professional scuba instructor for twenty years, and an instructor in all of those disciplines for several decades.

Chris: I’m keen get your story and then talk about your view about money and giving, because that’s what really hooked me onto you because of this story about the wedding ring?

Kevin: Yeah, that was a lost wedding ring. I’ve become the go-to guy for people that lose stuff in the water. They just gimme a call and I, I go out and see if I can find it. I enjoy the challenge.

Chris: So how come you’re not bothered about being paid for that, as that could be a commercial service?

Kevin: There’s no reason. I mean, how much, right? It’s not like I do it that often. What are you going to ask from them? A hundred bucks an hour? So a couple of hours, 200 bucks? That doesn’t really move the needle. It’s not that important. It’s just more enjoyable to hone your skills a little more by trying to focus on finding something in the water, especially in dark, dark water. It is always a little tricky. And we have a lot of that where I live. It’s cold water with a mucky bottom. There’s really nothing to look at or see down there except the occasional fish that comes up to say hi.

Chris: I believe you built a multimillion dollar business when you were very young?

Kevin: That’s true. I was  fortunate. I started with KPMG and then Deloitte as an accountant. I was a CPA in the 1990s, but I was a really bad accountant because I didn’t really care. It wasn’t my money. I hate to say it that way, but it’s true. Then, of course, with those companies, you’re working with really large multinational entities, and I really didn’t care about the accounting until it became my money. Then I cared and started my own business. That was really helpful because when you start your own business and get your own accounting software, it was out of a box and run on an old PC computer, and you figure things out. Then it starts to make more sense to you.

But by then it was too late and I was kind of out of that profession. So, I started a web development marketing company in 1996 and grew that. I had 12 employees, and a nice kind of a loft office building. It was attractive and somewhat successful.

You’re very familiar with buying and selling businesses so there was a decent exit. It became a very saleable asset. There was a lot of recurring revenue there. And so that was good. I just got really burned out after that. You know I invested like 17 or 18 years to grow the business, something like that, starting each day at 4:30a.m. Robin Sharma, a guy out of South Africa that does podcasts and videos, talks about the 5:00a.m. club? You get up at five, you spend 20 minutes exercising immediately and then 20 minutes meditating and then 20 minutes planning for your day. And that’s your first hour each day.

Chris: From what I’ve read and heard about you is you’re incredibly driven. You’ll work right through the whole day and then take clients out to dinner and then you’ll still be doing huge amounts of exercise and sports for the weekend as well.

Kevin: I’m not so big on the evening thing. I’m not a happy hour guy. I don’t drink much, and always felt that was a waste of time. It is not a good return on heartbeats* to be eating appetizers and drinking, and I’m not good at parties. I’m not good at that kind of socializing because I’m not comfortable standing around with a drink in my hand. There’s not much productive about that, and I’m not good if it’s the same people over and over again.

I think back to college. I was student body president of a large public university here in Minnesota, and you’d have event after event after event, and it was the same people at every event.

I always struggled with: what are we gonna talk about now? Are we doing anything new here or I don’t have anything left to talk with you about. I really would rather move on and meet other people and stop going to the same event, meeting the same people and stand around with a drink in my hand eating bad appetizers.

I really prefer to do things. I’m a really organized guy, as you might imagine, very obsessive compulsive. And everything that I have is very plug and play. So if I want to golf and skydive and scuba dive or water ski, bicycle and play racquetball, all in the same day and go for a run, it’s very easy for me to do that. I could easily do that.

I like that because I don’t want to stand out at the drop zone, standing around talking to people. If I’m out there to skydive, I want to skydive. The actual skydiving part is only sixty seconds, right? So I need to be going a lot and I don’t want to stand around if there’s a plane going up. I want to be on it.

I get real anxious if people are not focusing on that. On getting on that plane and getting airborne and going, because the whole point is to do skydiving. The same with scuba diving. Like get your gear on, let’s go under the water.

Here’s an interesting one: Tiger Woods loves scuba diving. He loves scuba diving and does it a lot off of his yacht in the Caribbean. He was interviewed and asked: why do you love scuba diving so much? Somewhat telling is his answer, which was because there’s nobody else. Nobody else can talk to me. I’m alone. It’s just me and the fish. Now that’s a bit of a tell.

You and I are intelligent enough to know that we can figure out that he had a lot of struggles in his life, right?

Chris: He’s cracking that head space where you can just be yourself.

Kevin: Do you struggle? Do you struggle a bit though? I do. I speak a lot, I’m sure you do as well, and I struggle with the message that I would give to college kids if I was talking to college kids right now, because it’s difficult.

I think to have adventure and travel the world and really get out and meet people, go places, do things is really hard unless you have resources. You can travel like a pauper and, you know, do Paris on $15 a day, and wash dishes at a small cafe and stay in a hostel. You can, but can you really do some of the big adventures without resources? I don’t think you can. I don’t know how I could have traveled the world without a substantial amount of money. If I added that up, the amount of money that I’ve spent on travel, that’s a significant sum.

Chris: So, do you need to have that cushion of like a million dollars plus to get the return on heartbeats, or can you have that for less?

Kevin: I don’t know. That’s a very good question. There’s plenty of things to do out there that don’t take money but the travel component demands money, right? I don’t know how you can get on a plane for free. I don’t know how you can stay at a hotel for free or have a roof over your head, but I suppose you could do it really inexpensively, just backpacking, right? You get a backpack and you get a small tent and you go. I know both Western United States and Eastern United States have some impressive trail systems that people go and hike for months at a time with just a tent. They’re probably doing that very cost effectively, and that’s adventure.

Chris: I’ve been lucky enough to travel the whole world near enough which is a gift. My return on heartbeats is from those experiences. What intrigued me about you is when you had your accident and what kept you driven afterwards, because you went back to skydiving and created a whole new way of doing it with one arm. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but you had this snowboarding accident?

Kevin: I’ve had six or seven accidents snowboarding, skydiving, water skiing. There was one incident that meant this arm is dead. It just kind of sits here. There’s a plate that’s stitched in there and it’s just dead. There’s no feeling or anything in the arm.

This was a snowmobiling accident. It was at night on the Gunflint Trail in Northern Minnesota on the Canadian border. I was leading a group on a trail, and there was another group coming the other way. The snowmobile coming the other way was a young man on a borrowed snowmobile. I was driving on the right side and he was on the left, maybe because he came from Britain, and we crashed head-on into each other.

We were coming over a hill at night and, at the apex of that hill, our snowmobiles hit each other. I’m sure it was a combined rate close to a hundred miles an hour. I would think it would have to be, because that particular trail was called the expressway, and the speed limit is 50 miles an hour. At the point of impact, I was on the right side of the trail and he was on, his left side of the trail. So the same side as me.

He was trying to turn to back, I suppose, as we came over the hill, so I hit the front of his snowmobile. That rotated his snowmobile so that his seat lined up perpendicular with my hood, and he came off of his snowmobile over my hood and went through my head.

When he went through my head, it created such a hyper extension that all the nerves that run down my left arm were evolved, meaning that the root and the nerve is plucked from the spinal cord forever, never to return.

Medicine has not figured out a way to plug a nerve back into the spinal cord. You can’t do it. And, and that’s called a brachial plexus injury, affecting the spinal cord areas C 5 6 7 and 8, and all of those nerves were severed, which means they are paralyzed for the rest of your life.

You can’t do a prosthetic because there’s no shoulder griddle to hold a prosthetic. There’s no muscles. There’s no nerves to run a prosthetic.

I did some significant surgeries at the Mayo Clinic here in Minnesota. They really put me through the ringer with a bunch of surgeries. I eventually got some elbow flexion by grafting a leg muscle from my right leg into my arm.

Chris: Having gone through all that, you then start skydiving again and raising money for Parkinson’s disease, which I know is very close to your heart. I feel, if it was me, I would sink into my office and not want to do anything or take any risk. So what drives you to come back and skydive again and create a brand new parachute that can be operated with one hand?

Kevin: When I speak, I think a lot of people are looking for some kind of a religious epiphany. I am not a religious person. I’m a humanist, and I believe in people. I always tell people that there’s something, perhaps a chemical imbalance in my brain, that is different than others where I just need to keep going. And I was fortunate for that too because, twelve years ago when this happened, it was the start of the opioid epidemic. It still continues to this day.

I found myself in a narcotic haze, is how I talk about it. I couldn’t sleep because of the pain. And they were giving me narcotics like chicklets. It’s like a street corner drug dealer, but we don’t treat them like that.

But NACO opioids did not work for the type of pain that I have. This intractable pain. It never worked. And it took me years and four withdrawals to get off of those drugs. And I would go in for surgery after surgery, and I would always tell them don’t give me any opioids or narcotics after the day before, during, or after the surgery.

And then I’d wake up from the surgery, the next day, and they will have given me the narcotics and made me a drug addict again, because that’s pretty much all that it does. It just creates a drug addict. But then there’s the revenue stream, and it’s what they do. That was a tough deal.

I remember thinking, am I gonna hit rock bottom? Because I was suicidal for a while, because of the drug. So you’re in that dark haze where you can’t sleep. You have constant pain, and your life has disappeared. Your life has disappeared and it’d be six in the morning. and I would watch my water ski buddies, water ski by.

I had a beautiful home on the lake here in Minnesota and it was just a phenomenal, beautiful recreational lake. We all have water ski boats and surf boats and pontoons, and we, we enjoy our life on the water. So, I would watch my friends go by in the morning and I’d just be sitting there in my living room crying. There was nothing I could do. I’d open wounds all over me from surgeries and the pain and really an inability to, to move. And at that time, so I, I think I just had had enough.

Chris: What brought you back?

Kevin: I remember, about 02:30 in the morning, I shared a photo of me standing in my boxers. My girlfriend took that picture at 2:30 in the morning, and I just felt like I needed to have an anchor as I had reached rock bottom. I had to come back from that.

My girlfriend at the time, now my wife Laura, thought that was perhaps a sign that I was going to kill myself. It was going to be the last picture of me alive. She was very concerned about that.

I realized that the first thing you have to do is get off the drugs, the opioids.

Chris: Is that what changed your head and got you off the drugs?

Kevin: I was going through those stages of grief. Anger, rejection, depression, acceptance and hope.  It helped a lot. And I suppose it’s those, what are those stages of grief, right? I just kind of made my way through that and, even now this many years later, there’s still some of each of those stages that’s still with me. You know, sometimes you feel yourself going to a dark spot.

Chris: In our final few minutes, I wanted to get your view about money and giving, finances and life.

Kevin: I was really fortunate to be a successful entrepreneur. I was involved with an organization called Entrepreneurs Organization, EO. EO has an inner circle roundtable. There’s Vistage. There’s a whole bunch of them out there. They are peer-to-peer groups and marvelous inventions. I’m a real promoter of those. I don’t care which one you go for, but just find a peer-to-peer group and join it and invest in it.

The more you invest in it, the more you’re going to get out of it. I’ve hung around entrepreneurs from all over the world and still have that circle.

One of the things I remember, I was with a group of entrepreneurs in Florida, and one of the things that we talked about was the concept that the more charitable you are, if you’re a wealthy person with, the happier you are. The more that you give, the more you seem to receive.

There’s some invisible hand there. There’s some gift from the ecosystem or benefit from the ecosystem that, in giving that money to a charity, you create a place for yourself, and it all just seems to come back to you. Your business grows as a result of, of that.

We talked about that as entrepreneurs and it’s absolutely true. I think all of us had that experience. So that was very telling.

Chris: That’s kind of like pay it forward.

Kevin: Yes, a very similar concept, and now that I have children I’m keen to make sure they are provided for in their future.

Chris: Does that mean stopping doing dangerous activities like skydiving and scuba diving?

Kevin: No, as this is part of me. I do get uncomfortable when people suggest that I’m an extreme athlete or that I do extreme things. I would say, similar to stunt men in Hollywood or magicians or circus people, there’s an appearance that it’s risky, but it’s not. It’s not that risky, because they’re able to replicate it, and do it over and over again without hurting themselves or killing themselves. So, it really can’t be that risky.

I think when people start talking like that, I always say I’m actually very risk averse. I’m very obsessive compulsive, so I’m very clear on controlling about my gear, the equipment, the environment, the what you’re doing, and when and why and where. I don’t think I’m a risky person or an extreme athlete or anything like that.

In fact, in the skydiving world, a good friend of mine Eric and I used to joke if he would land and I would always ask each other, how was your skydive? Was it extreme? And of course the answer is no. It really wasn’t that extreme. But everybody thinks it’s extreme. So, it was always, how was your skydive? Was it extreme? It’s not extreme. It’s very safe. Especially with modern equipment, modern airplanes, modern skydiving gear is just terrific. So cool. It’s just like teeing up a golf ball.

Chris: Talking of your skydiving, you are a great advocate for charities. Tell me a bit about your fundraising as, in way of a thank you for this interview, I would like to contribute.

Kevin: Well that would be great. Enabling Smiles is where I am fundraising right now. It’s amazing how, when you reach out and you don’t ask for money but ask for help instead, how people really open their wallets. I’d never ask for money. I just ask for help. So, is an Adaptive Water Ski program. You might have seen the downhill skiing adaptive equipment. It’s very similar to that, but it’s on the water with big FATCAN ski poles, and then you put the cage on the top of it. You then put the kid in a cage, it’s a terrible name, but they’re sitting in a framework. This is like a metal framework with padding on it, and then they ski!

We have special ropes and life jackets and neck harnesses. This means that a quadriplegic, who can’t even keep their head up, can get out on the water, water skiing with us. We have two side skiers and a chase jet ski with a jumper behind the skier. Then you’re hooked up to a professional towboat and a private water skier like me. I’ve raised about $400,000 for that program, and it’s the premier adaptive water ski program in the world.

We have two trailers full of our equipment, and we run 250+ children through the program each year. It’s all free for the kids. They get a, a high performance water shirt. They, they get pizza, they get snacks, water insurance, equipment, everything they need. Their families can ride in the boat during their set, and they get two sets of water skiing on the lake.

It’s just a wonderful program with Shriners and Gillette children’s hospitals? We work with them and also with terminal children who are going to die. I got several calls from parents that said, our child’s highlight of their life was water skiing with your group before they died.

You can donate to Enabling Smiles here.


* A great concept. Return on Heartbeats is that you know you have a finite number of heartbeats in your life. Every day your heart is beating is an opportunity to create a better day, and give yourself greater returns to your heart’s beats.

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Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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