BY NATHAN WERTZ - THISANDTHATTECH.COM
Captain Stephen Machuga, US Army (ret), is the Founder and CEO of Stack-Up.org, which assembles and delivers video game care packages known as “Supply Crates” for military members deployed in combat zones, recovering in military hospitals, on humanitarian missions, and even to stateside bases in support of a number of family readiness missions. Stack-Up also has an “Air Assault Program” that pays for deserving veterans to attend video game and geek culture events, such as: Comic-Con, E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), PAX (Penny Arcade Expo), and even a game developer studio tour.
Stephen shares with us a bit of his background in the military, how gaming helped him with PTSD, and the pitfalls, perils, and successes of starting his own military charity based on video games.
Can you give us a bit of background on where you grew up and what life was like for you?
Wow, so we're starting all the way back there. I am from Erie, Pennsylvania, originally. I joined the military in 1998 after I got an ROTC scholarship when I was out at college at Purdue University.
I wanted to go in as a MI guy because I spoke Russian and in the wisdom of the Army, they put me in as an infantry guy. So went in infantry for four years and then transitioned over to MI at the four year mark. Two deployments overseas, Kosovo and Iraq.
Was there a specific reason you joined the Army?
Actually, yeah, funny story on that. I originally was going to join the Marines with my buddy from high school. We were gonna go in together because that’s how that works. You know you just become bunk buddies then, right? They put you in the same unit. Sure, that’s how it works, you know dumb 17 year old us.
And so my dad grabbed a hold of me by the scruff of the neck. He said, "All right, tell you what, go do a semester at college. If you still want to join the Marines when you get at the half year mark, you let me know." And I was like, "All right, old man, I'll show you." Yeah, I got there and I'm like, holy shit, this is amazing. Oh, God, I never want to leave. This is great.
So yeah, loved the hell out of the college experience and then ended up going ROTC, which kind of split the difference. And so I got a little different college experience than most. You know all my friends were out drinking and having a good time and I was having to wake up at 5:30 for PT and things like that, so I am kind of glad that worked that way. I still had a hell of a time out there. So I got both worlds and fell in love with the military pretty hard.
Funny story there was when I went to the ROTC Department, like at Purdue each branch has its own, you know it was like Marines, Army, Air Force, Navy. So I started off with the Marines because that was where I was planning on going. I talked with a recruiter and the recruiter literally - and this is pre-9/11 mind you, they're like, "If you're not here to kill, the Air Force is down the hall." Literally said that, quote, word for word. And you know I finished the interview with him, but in my head that stuck with me. I'm like, okay, well, we're just gonna go right out the gate here with the -- okay.
And again, pre-9/11, I was like that’s not really my gig here. I'm here to do something with my language skill and this and that. I'm like, okay, well, thanks but no thanks. So I walked down the hall, literally, and then I was like all right, again, splitting the difference, I was like, oh, well, let me check out the Army and see what they have to offer. And of course they were the more level-headed of the two.
Oh, yeah, what are you wanting to do? Do you want to do some language? Sure, we can do that. You know whatever the recruiters will tell you. Oh, yeah, just sign here, no problem, we got you covered, buddy.
So yeah, did not see that coming, but then could not have been happier with looking back on it. Like thank God that worked out the way it did because I got the “Real Deal” Holyfield military experience, you know doing four years at Fort Bragg, falling out of perfectly good aircraft as an infantryman, going to Ranger School, Airborne School, and all these different schools. And yeah, I'm glad instead of just surfing a desk, I'm glad I did all that.
And then at the four year mark I switched over and went MI and then rode a desk. I look back and was very thankful that I got to go shoot it out as an infantryman for a while.
Any big lessons learned or takeaways from your service? What are your thoughts about serving now?
Absolutely glad I did. It's one of those things where it sucked. Well, it sucks to suck while you're in it. You know it's like, again, PT every day and 12 hour workdays, minimum, and that’s just the way it is and you don’t even question it. And, hey, we need you to come in for CQ and all that shit. But again, looking back on it, it's one of those things that I have with me always now. It's kind of like joining a fraternity or something, where you just have this brotherhood that you can lean back on or you can talk to other people about, "Oh, you were in? Oh, okay, I did this." You know and it carries with me as I go forward.
You know I look at my civilian counterparts who have not put time in, in the service, and they have a much lower tolerance for horseshit that the world throws at them. You know kind of like the "millennial" issue that’s happening where you just got a bunch of kids who just think they're entitled. It's like you kind of start thinking, hey, you know what would be great? If everybody had to do a year in the military, mandatory service, like a lot of these European nations where it's like -- that would kind of put a lot of these peoples' heads on straight and get them ready for the real world as opposed to this, “I'm gonna be a YouTube guy.” It's like, well, okay, may or may not be a special snowflake, but that’s like, again, winning the lottery anymore. That is well-trodden territory at this point.
What was your path after exiting military service to your current position?
Did government contracting for ten years. That was a great time. A lot of good money. That’s another big takeaway from my time in the military. If you have the opportunity to get a security clearance, holy crap, go get it, because that opened up so many doors while I was in D.C. because, again, they generally won't even look at you if you don’t have a security clearance down there.
That got me so many jobs and so many job offers and very high-paying jobs, that as an infantry guy would not even have had the opportunity to do. I ended up spending some time at the FBI and was down at the Pentagon and all kinds of great opportunities while I was in that, that I would not have been able to take part in. So if you can get it, make sure you do and keep it active as best you can.
What is Stack-up and your current position at the company? How do you describe your job to a layman who asks what you do for a living?
I started a military charity called Stack-up and we support veterans with video gaming. It sounds like a strange, little, extremely niche market, but in a world where parents are raising their kids on iPads with Minecraft on it? You kind of saw this with the Pokémon Go fascination of this summer where suddenly front page of every paper in the nation, “What is this Pokémon Go thing? Everybody is playing it.” And it was like, yeah, we've been out there the whole time, just everybody has been in their houses doing it. By 2018 they're saying gaming will be a 100 billion dollar industry. And to give you some kind of reference point there, Hollywood is a 10 billion dollar industry.
And I have to defend myself every time I do this pitch because people, “Oh, video games, that’s weird and bizarre and -- oh, okay, nerd stuff.” Okay, got it. But it is becoming more and more mainstream every day where you have advertisements on the Super Bowl, during the Super Bowl and every major event that’s happened, Activision or EA or something like it will have a Battlefield trailer or something. It's reaching a saturation point.
So myself as a dyed in the wool gamer who grew up born and raised with a joystick in my hand, every time I would get out of training or get done with classes or get home from work, I would immediately flop in my leather recliner or whatever and just disappear for a couple hours. And the big takeaway there was when I was in Iraq, whenever I deployed forward, there wasn’t really a lot to do. And if anybody listening or anybody who is reading this knows, if they’ve been overseas they know that their leisure time activities are extremely limited based on where they're located at.
And both times I deployed, like I lived with the Russians for seven months, so I was kind of out there flapping in Kosovo. And then in Iraq we were on the road all the time, so I had mobile systems with me to keep myself entertained. But it was those things that kept my motivation up, kept my morale high.
And when I got back home I was having issues from Iraq. I was having issues leaving my house on Tuesdays because Tuesday was trash day and there was just piles of trash all over the side of the road, much like you would find in Iraq, where you would have explosive devices left by insurgents for you. So I would just find reasons not to leave the house on that day and then it would start to turn into two days. And then I just, I'll go out later, I don’t need to go out at all. It was becoming an issue.
And then I also got home right around the time World of Warcraft launched, the original World of Warcraft, which really forced me to focus my energy into something that took my mind off my problems. Like I was so focused on that, like I wasn’t paying attention to, “All right, it's Tuesday.” [Instead] I've got to run out and grab something real quick so I can get back to the game.
("World of Warcraft" is a MMORPG “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game” that was originally released in 2004 by Blizzard Entertainment, boasted 12 million subscriptions, and holds the Guinness World Record for most popular MMORPG.)
And you know it may not have been a healthy obsession with the game, but it certainly beat the usual standard of, oh, prescription drugs or regular recreational drugs or alcohol or any of the usual things that guys tend to run to when they are in distress through PTSD issues or things like that. You know you’ve got a lot of guys that deal with them differently and gaming became this healthier way for me to deal with my PTSD issues.
So the charity was founded originally to help guys overseas get something to do while they're over there, to keep their spirits high. This kind of luxury care package organization because I knew what I would have wanted if I was still overseas, you know compared to the 5th grade canned food drive mentality of most care packages that get sent overseas, where it's just like, hey, let's box up some garbage and send it over there. And like, okay, well, thanks. You probably didn’t even need to spend the postage on this.
So it started off as that and now it's more of a here's how we're supporting veterans, not just in a morale way, but keeping their medical issues and things like that between PTSD and stuff. So that is a major tenant of what it is we do as an organization.
(Operational Detachment Alpha in Africa received a Supply Crate to help pass some time and relax. Note the epic skulls on the table).
Do you feel that the military has helped or hindered you in terms of the charity market?
It's neither/nor really. When we reach out there's a lot of general, not distrust, but a lot of red tape and paperwork and it just makes it literally impossible to help out. Like we just did an event at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar out in San Diego where they took a "risk" on us and just kind of like, “Well, yeah, just come on down and you're just gonna give us Playstations and Xboxes for our troops who are deploying and for our single Marine programs?” And I was like, yeah, that’s what we do. And they were very skeptical and they were expecting like all kinds of -- I guess they'd been burned from other organizations, but they just took a chance on us and we just showed up and did our thing and they were just kind of like, wow, that was easy. And it's like, yeah, that’s all we're here to do. We're here to help. You know the point of charity, right?
So, yeah, they don’t really hinder, but they don’t really help until we get past their frontline defenses. And then once they realize, oh, we're just here to give you stuff and help out the troops, then it's like, oh, okay. Well, that’s great, let's do that.
Like we're currently working in Brooke Army Medical in San Antonio to do some stuff here in January and make sure fill out some day rooms and some Fisher Houses where individuals who are wounded, who are staying there, their family stays, so keep their folks happy and healthy. Keep them preoccupied with something else other than, oh, I'm at a hospital and I'm recovering from this horrible trauma.
(Brooke Army Medical Center. Tweet caption reads: “It's a Stack-Up #PAXSouth party at Brooke Army Medical! We replaced ACTUAL jigsaw puzzles with @PlayStation 4s! @Benny_Boy1010.”)
Since you've started doing this charity work, were there any problems you experienced along the way? Like you’ve already talked about some red tape, but any gigantic shifts in how you had to proceed with the charity?
No, no, not really. We're just growing as an organization, but there's always hurdles. I mean charity work is some of the hardest sales pitching that I've ever done. The military teaches you how not to ask other people for help. You know the Ranger Creed even has though I be the lone survivor, I will carry on the Ranger Mission, that kind of thing.
And so asking people for help was like, boy, what was I thinking when I started this thing? I hate asking people for help. And so I do nothing but ask, you know email and phone call people all day long asking for help now. So that has been a huge personal hurdle that I had to climb over. But in order to make it happen, in order to forward it to work, I've had to readjust in order to make it happen.
What about work/life balance? Is that something that’s a struggle for you? And if so, how do you manage it?
100 percent. Yeah, absolutely impossible for me to balance it. As a startup -- it's not just a startup, but a charity startup, it may have a good idea and a lot of people are like, “Gee, that’s great, that’s an awesome thing you're doing. Well, I'm not gonna pay for it, but I mean that’s awesome that you're doing that.” It's like I get that all day long. And you know what, you hear crazy like - you know I'm sure there are charity events happening right now for Flint, Michigan, for their water crisis and starving children in Africa and everybody is like, “Oh, that’s great. Well, I'm not gonna pay for it.”
So that is a huge part. So work/life balance kind of gets tossed out. Again, as a startup, I was told most startups generally don’t get to relax until your fifth year. And I'm trying to work on it, but it's usually at least 12, 13, 14 hours a day and then it's not unusual for me to be just sitting at my desk at 3:00 in the morning and just kind of going through my emails or getting ready for the next day. It's funny, you know, I'm in a space where I am in gaming, like I'm in the games industry I'd like to think, but the more entrenched into the games industry I get, the fewer games I actually get to play because I'm so busy trying to build this foundation of an organization and raise donations and send out games and systems and continue to interact with military personnel and veterans who are asking for our help and make sure all our paperwork is in order. I mean it's just managing employees and it's crazy. It's absolutely crazy.
So you know definitely starting your own thing is a steep climb, but there's also a lot of reward to it as well if you're willing to put in the absurd number of hours.
I was working as a government contractor and I just wasn’t particularly happy with what I was doing. I was just kind of going through the paces and was like, well, this is what you're supposed to do, you make a lot of money, and then you retire early and then yay. And it's like I was doing the charity stuff on the side and it just got to the point where I was like, why am I doing this other thing if I can try to make a living at this? And I'm not making nearly the money and I'm working -- I've never worked harder in my entire life, outside of possibly Ranger School itself, where it's like, okay, I'm literally shortening my lifespan doing this. Taking a 50 percent pay cut and just like, all right, well, I'm gonna make this work, but boy howdy I love my job. That is pay enough a lot of the time.
Military.com has a lot of active duty and veteran readers that may want to someday work in your field. To get to where you are at today, what do you feel is the optimum path to travel? Any other advice for people just starting out?
Well, you're gonna make a lot of mistakes. If you're interested in starting your own charity, don’t do it on your own. You're gonna need to hire a lawyer or you're gonna need to hire somebody to help you with the paperwork because -- you can get the paper -- again, it goes, what's the triangle? Fast, cheap, and good, pick two. Like, okay, you can get it done quickly and you can get it done quality, but you're gonna pay for it.
And that is exactly what I did in order to get the charity started. I went out got a lawyer, paid thousands of dollars for him to file all the paperwork, and we had it done in a couple of months, versus stories about people who are like, well, I'm gonna save a couple thousands dollars and I'm gonna spend two years pushing this document through all this red tape in Washington and this, that, and the other. It was like you're gonna have to just suck it up, think of it like a business loan, and you're gonna be paying a lot of this out of pocket because you're not gonna be finding buckets of money to pay yourself for a long time.
So it's extremely, extremely difficult. Like I don’t recommend this for a lot of people. Like you have to have a bulletproof idea. When people hear it, it's like, all right, that’s amazing, we need to help this or that’s amazing, here's this revenue stream. It's extremely difficult and we have a great idea and we've got some serious supporters helping us out and it's still -- I'm still looking at the Quickbooks every day and it's like, oh, okay, we've got this, how much is that? Here's how much burn rate we have for the next couple of months. And it's like, okay, and having to fight for the board for dollars. And it's tough, but be prepared to put a lot of money down upfront to get it started and be prepared to be living off of whatever savings that you have, you’ve saved up over the years, because you're not gonna be getting a paycheck for a long time.
Or I would say work fulltime and do your charity idea on the side until it gets to a point where it is profitable or you can see it -- keep your day job and do this on the side. It's kind of like starting a band in your garage. It's like, okay, you know what, that’s fun, but until you have a tour date with Def Lepard or something like that, just pick a random band, until you have made it, don’t leave your day job. You need that money. You need to pay the bills and the mortgage and the charity is not gonna be the thing that does it for a long time.
And be prepared to be told a lot of stuff. Like people will tell you a lot of stuff to your face as far as, hey, we're gonna help you out. And I've been sold some real bill of goods over the years with people saying that they're gonna do X, Y, and Z for the charity and then when it comes time, you know you push them for it, and then, oh, you know, hey, this just didn’t work out. You have to be able to walk away and go, okay, well, all right, well, we'll see you next year and hey, no problem. You can't take it too personally. You just have to go, yep, this is the nature of the business. A lot of people promise a lot of stuff and they don’t always deliver and you just have to have a lot different rods in the fire so when it doesn’t work out, that you don’t get too bent out of shape over it.
You can't put too many eggs into one basket because like for instance we had 40 different developers and publishers say that they were gonna get involved with our Veteran's Day event. That was in June and by the time Veteran's Day in November came around, we had 8 of them that were committed still, that actually pulled the trigger and were there for veterans. It was like, Jesus Christ, that kind of attrition, and then you have to continue working with these guys and be like, okay, well, maybe 2017, huh?
So you have to be extremely diplomatic, you have to keep that smile just absolutely like Joker, like absolutely you have to have that smile on your face at all times because you have to be the nice guy, you have to be the charity worker. And it's tough. It is extremely hard. As somebody who likes to swear a lot and say what he thinks on social media, it's tough. Like you can't be that guy. You can't bring a lot of drama to the table. You're supposed to be there helping veterans and you can't be there kicking up a bunch of dust because it takes away from your mission.
(Air Assault to PAX West and a tour of Bungie Studios).
Any books, podcasts, mentors, that helped you along the way and that you would like to recommend?
I've got a wall full of Grant Cardone quotes. Grant Cardone is a salesman. He's got a series of audiobooks and just listen to that guy. He's the closest you can get to having a drill instructor. Just somebody who is like, look, if you want this, you’ve gotta go get it yourself. Nobody is gonna give it to you. It's your responsibility. The world isn't gonna be easy and you’ve just gotta go for it. You’ve got to give it 100 percent.
And just having somebody there barking at me in that weird accent of his, that is my guy. Like he is my spirit animal and I just listened to him yesterday. That’s where I get a lot of my motivation from because there's -- you know you get a lot of self-help books and it's like very soft and squishy and this is the closest I can get to somebody just yelling at you and just going, no, this is on you, man. You’ve got to want it and you’ve gotta be serious. Okay, roger.
One of the most valuable things I learned from Grant Cardone was that if a “no” gets you down too much, that’s because you didn’t have enough opportunities in your pipeline.
His book, the 10X Rule, like have ten things going for every one that you want to come through. And that is exactly what I did for Veteran's Day, where it was like I'm getting as many of these things in there because I know how this goes, I know these people are gonna start cutting out on me and I need to make sure this is successful. And sure enough, boy, it is a good thing I did that because 20 percent came in at the end. It was like, all right, so we actually overdelivered for the numbers that he was saying, but at the same time it was like, Jesus, it is a good thing I busted my ass on this.
What's your game of the year for 2016? I know you don’t get to play as much now.
That’s a tough one. Honestly, if you talk about time played, I've been playing a lot of H1Z1, King of the Kill, which I'm horrible at. Game of the year, what the hell? Damn, I don’t know. I'm looking.
We had a big year. We had Uncharted 4, Battlefield, Titanfall 2, Final Fantasy, Doom, Dishonored, Dark Souls, Gears of War 4.
Yeah, I'm trying to -- eh, nothing really. I'd have to actually think about it. It certainly wasn't Dead Rising. That was really bad. Yeah, I can't honestly say. Like I'd say, actually, Dead by Deadlight was one of my bigger games for the year. Dead by Deadlight, it's a 1v4 survival game where one person plays with a psycho killer like Jason.
Ah, like Jason Vorhees?
Yeah. And the other four players are trying to escape from it. It is really a lot of fun and I enjoyed the hell out of that.
They're actually making a Jason game, but they delayed it, so I think they beat them to the punch.
I just played the beta last night for Friday the 13th.
Does it hold up or not really?
It's just Dead by Daylight. It is real hard right now. Like I have a clip of me playing it on Twitch where there's a 30 second rubberbanding issue where I literally was running from Jason, I got free, and then it literally rewinds time 30 seconds and I'm right back in front of him. Like what the hell just happened?
What’s next for you at Stack-up?
Veteran's Day was our big push. Our next big push will be Military Appreciation Month in May, but we will be doing some stuff with Wounded Warrior, the regional branch in Chicago here on the 12th, which that should be an interesting event there.
Live Fire Event - Wounded Warrior Project in Chicago on January 12, 2017. “This event went better than I could have ever imagined.”
– Kerry Bassett, Wounded Warrior Project’s Regional Alumni Manager.