If you want to talk to me about becoming your book coach, check out my book coaching page.
If you’re looking for a short bio or my headshot, or are interested in having me speak at your event or to your company, check out my speaker page.
If you’re ready for the looooong TL;DR version of my story, then read on.
To start things off, here’s a picture, circa 1980, when I was about five years old, playing around on the TRS-80 my father bought at Radio Shack.
Normally what follows would be the details of how this was when I started programming and how I developed an app by age 9 that got me into Stanford and then I went on to be a millionaire by 15 and then I changed my name to Mark Zuckerberg, but…that’s not what happened. I played some games, learned how to write some basic programs in BASIC, and then I ignored computers until 10 years later when I had to write a junior high biology paper. Instead of becoming a computer genius, I read books, drew pictures, and wrote stories that amused my classmates and outraged my teachers, leading to my expulsion from a private school while in the 5th grade. But I’m getting ahead of things, let’s back up a bit.
My first brush with earning money came when I was four or five. My father gave me a 3-column financial ledger and labeled the first column “income,” the second “out-go,” and the third “balance.” He taught me to track every penny I earned. Then he gave me a job to do moving some bricks. He paid me a quarter, and I recorded it in the book.
After that I made money wherever I could, doing extra chores around the house, mowing neighbors’ lawns, and recycling cans and newspapers (back when there was good money in it).
When I was 10 years old, a friend of mine and I were in love with surfwear, and we decided to start a clothing company. We got as far as coming up with a name (AquaMount, inspired by the Quiksilver logo), and we designed a logo and some t-shirts. We talked about it all the time. We never actually did anything other than talk and draw designs, but it was the first time I ever thought about starting a business.
Smells Like Teen Startup
I started skateboarding when I was around 12 years old. Everyone else was doing it, too. The next year, everyone quit, but I was addicted and couldn’t stop. The trouble, however, was that skateboarding was expensive. By the time I turned 16 I was skating so much I could go through a hundred dollars of boards and shoes in a month and the minimum wage job I had at Little Caesar’s only paid $4.25 per hour, and plus I got fired from that job for my political views. What to do?
I decided I need to start a skateshop. I didn’t think I could open a real shop, so instead I got a business license and a resale permit to collect sales tax, filled out reseller applications for all the skateboard product companies, and told them I would be selling the stuff from the back of my car. Most of them turned me down, but several liked my
moxie money and agreed to sell me product in small amounts. My father gave me a $1,000 loan to get started and I placed my first orders.
The plan worked. I was able to pay my father back and get all the “free” skate product I wanted for the next few years. More importantly, I got an education on how to market a business, do sales, and deal with customer service issues.
You Mean Colleges Teach Business Classes?
When I turned 18, I left home and went to study art at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho). I decided to study art because…well, actually, it wasn’t much of a choice. I had no idea what else to do. I knew how to draw, I liked drawing, and I hated math, so I figured I’d be an artist.
Then at 19, I did what many young men who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do, I became a missionary for two years. I was assigned to Manaus, Brazil. Hanging out in the Amazon jungle for two years changed my mind about a few things. One of them was what I wanted to study in college. Actually, it wasn’t the mission itself that changed my mind so much as a pamphlet one of my missionary buddies had. It was for the business school at BYU in Provo, Utah. As I read through the pamphlet for the Marriott School of Management I suddenly looked at my buddy in shock and asked, “You mean colleges teach business classes?!”
I had no idea. I was so ignorant. I thought people just started businesses and ran them. I didn’t realize you could study business. That’s when I decided I was going to switch my major from art to business.
I Get Schooled
After I returned from being a missionary I started college again in January of 1997.
I was on fire. I was a machine. I was disciplined, organized, focused, ambitious—nothing could stop me. I was in bed at 8 pm every night and up at 4 am. I worked out every day. I ate well. I studied like I had never studied in my life.
My first semester back in school I took 25 credits of classes. Remember how I hated math? Now that I was going to be a business major I knew I needed math, and I decided to go back to where my troubles started—7th grade algebra. Part of the reason I took so many credits my first semester back from my mission was that I was taking remedial math classes—5 years worth—in order to catch up to where I needed to be. I got all A’s except for one A- (in philosophy). When I asked the professor what I could have done better he said he’d change it to an A if I wanted him to. My future was bright.
That summer, I traveled cross-country from Idaho to the East Coast for three weeks with a few professors from the business department and about fifteen students. We were enrolled in course and studied while traveling, but the real education happened when we stopped at businesses along the way and learned how they worked. We visited Motorola and talked to their giddy CFO, just after they launched the ill-fated Iridium satellite phone network (cost = $5B, later sold for $25M). We stopped at the Cabela’s HQ and I took the opportunity to interview for a job, totally spur of the moment (I didn’t get it). We visited dozens of other businesses until we reached Boston, where none other than Clayton Christensen, who was not yet the famous author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, gave us a tour of the Harvard Business School. While we sat on a patch of grass under a tree outside a red brick building, Christensen spoke to us and I had an electric feeling, like someone telling me, “You’re going to go to school here someday.”
I returned from the trip energized for the fall semester. Maybe I’d take another 25 credits and get more straight A’s…but then I met a girl. She seemed to be into me. We started dating. I had never had a girlfriend before. I had never kissed a girl before. My first date, ever, was a blind date I was coerced into when I was 22. Then suddenly I meet this girl who I became infatuated with and who actually likes me and I had no idea how to handle things. Instead of being in bed at 8 pm, I was up chatting online until 2 am. Instead of waking up at 4 am and following my rigorous schedule, I was sleeping in until 10 am. Instead of taking loads of classes, loving them, and getting perfect grades, I began to fail classes (three F’s that semester). I didn’t care what else happened, I just knew I had to get this girl to marry me.
Then she dumped me.
Deep down I knew it was for the best, but I was a wreck. Getting dumped coincided nicely with graduating from BYU-Idaho, which at the time was a 2-year school. That was the entirety of 1997, and I had received more of an education than I bargained on.
Getting Schooled, Round 2
In January, 1998, I transferred to BYU-Provo, where I had my sights set on the Masters of Information Systems Management (MISM) program. The MISM billed itself as a tech-MBA. Half the classes were computer science/technology courses, and the other half were MBA classes. 1998 was the middle of the dot-com revolution, every company was investing in tech, and I knew I needed a strong tech background. I also knew the university couldn’t do it all for me—I needed real world experience.
From 1998 to 1999, I worked a few tech jobs. The first was at Intermountain Health Care (IHC) in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I got a job doing tech support for hospital staff. When a doctor couldn’t figure out something, they called the support line. I answered and walked them through rebooting their PC. When a nurse called and said the computer in a patient’s room was frozen, I would troubleshoot it with them, restart the system, or do whatever else was needed. I learned basic operations on legacy computer systems like AS/400 and Tandem, became an expert with Windows NT and network hardware. Most of all, I learned how to think fast on my feet and figure things out in a hurry.
Whenever a doctor called the support team it was an urgent matter. Even though I usually didn’t know what the solution was, I had to hack my way to a solution asap, without being in front of the same screen as the doctor (and in these days there was no screen sharing). Hundreds of times a panicked or angry doctor called me with a problem and I calmly said, “No problem, we’ll have this fixed quickly for you,” while in my mind I was thinking “I don’t even know what he’s talking about, how in the world do I fix this?!” A few minutes later the problem would be fixed, the doctor sent along his merry way. I was left sweating and panting yet feeling euphoric because I had gone from a state of sheer panic and helplessness to figuring everything out. Knowing I can figure things out, no matter what the situation is, has been a major benefit to my career as an entrepreneur.
While I was working at IHC and taking classes at BYU, I met another girl. Having learned a few lessons from the experience with my first girlfriend, I was more prepared this time around. We were married in August of 1999.
The Internet? Is That Thing Still Around?
The internet was already a thing when I left for my mission in Brazil, but it wasn’t much of a thing. My father had a subscription to Prodigy and there were a few poorly designed websites, if you could say they were designed at all. It wasn’t obvious the internet would be much more than a few pages of information.
In 1996, when I returned from Brazil, the internet was something altogether different than what it had been two years earlier. Websites actually looked good. While at BYU-Idaho I taught myself how to design websites and discovered I had something of a knack for it, perhaps due to all the art/design I had focused on for years.
After working for IHC, I landed a job in Provo, Utah designing websites. It wasn’t that I wanted to design websites for a living but it paid well enough while I was a student. That company fizzled out quickly, but now I had “web designer” on my resume and that helped me land my next job with a company named MyComputer.com.
I was employee #22 or #23 at MyComputer.com. The company was well-funded and growing fast, as all dot-coms were at the time. My boss, Aaron Walser, was a talented creative director and designer, and the best manager I’ve ever had (no offense to the others, who were also great). I only worked at the company for five months, but I went in more or less clueless and came out with an education in design that became invaluable.
Working at MyComputer.com also inspired me to become a real entrepreneur. It’s the first place I worked where I looked at the leadership team and thought to myself “These guys aren’t geniuses, if they can run a business so can I.”
Five months into working at MyComputer.com, the COO met with me to make me an offer he thought I couldn’t refuse—quit school, work at MyComputer.com full time, and get a salary of $35,000 per year and 3,000 option shares—the first round the company issued. I turned the offer down, stayed in school, and decided to start my own business instead. MyComputer.com went on to change its name to Omniture, and a few years later was bought by Adobe for $1.8B USD. I could have bought a house or two with those stock options. I still think I made the right decision, but you may have a different opinion as you keep reading.
Thus began the following timeline:
It’s hard to explain to someone today how crazy 1999 was. Everyone thought the internet would change everything. People raised millions of dollars for ideas scrawled on napkins. People were raising money when they didn’t even have an idea. I remember hearing about a kid who walked into a venture capitalist’s office and said “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m wicked smart and I’ll figure out something awesome,” and got funded. Everyone wanted “in” on the internet and nobody wanted to be left behind. I got sucked into the excitement. When MyComputer.com gave me the options of going full time or quitting, it wasn’t too hard of a decision. I already wanted to start my own business, and this gave me the excuse. I went home to my wife and told her I wanted to start a business, and her response was “Well, we’re college students and we have no money, so what have we got to lose?” If she had only known what was coming.
I quit MyComputer.com in December of 1999 to start a web design company called DonLoper.com (there’s a story behind that name, but you’ll have to ask me in person for the details). It was a dumb name, but there were lots of crazy names going around at the time.
The “business” was me, a computer, and a “high-speed” DSL line (256K!) in our $500/month studio apartment. I thought if I threw up a website and told people I designed websites, I’d be flooded with clients who would beg to pay me. It was only a matter of time before I’d be a millionaire. I built it, but they didn’t come. I struggled to find clients to pay me anything, and for the next few months my wife and I lived off student loans and selling most of what we owned on eBay.
Then I got a lucky break.
A sales guy called me on the phone and tried to sell me something. I wasn’t interested (I had no money), but he persisted and asked what I did for a living. I told him I designed websites and he said “Oh! My brother needs a new website for his business!” He gave me his brother’s name and number, I called him up, and he became my first client. I asked for $15/hr, and I got it. Considering I was paid $13/hr at MyComputer.com, I felt I was doing pretty well.
My next client was a former co-worker at MyComputer.com. I decided to push the envelope and ask for $18/hr. He bit. I was ecstatic. “I’m on my way to earning those millions!” I thought. I landed a third client after that, then another, and another, and each time I asked for more. It went from $18/hr to $20/hr, then $25/hr, then $30/hr. I was convinced no college student had ever made as much as I was making. While my friends were working as janitors earning $6-7/hr, I was making several times that, and in the comfort of my apartment, in my underwear, whenever I felt like working.
During this time my grades suffered. It was hard to focus on school when I was making big money. Also, the classes were boring.
It wasn’t my professors’ fault. I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was a kid and maybe it’s that, or maybe it’s something else, but whatever the cause all I knew was that everyone spoke too slowly. My brain struggled to focus. I wanted a firehose of rapid information and it felt like the professors were speaking in slow motion. To compensate, I would half-listen to the professor, but under my desk I was reading business magazines. I consumed every issue of Red Herring, Business 2.0, and The Industry Standard. To this day I have a hard time being patient when it comes to learning. I listen to all my audiobooks at 2-3x speed, and the same for podcasts.
This was the second time since my mission that my grades had taken a dip. First it was girls, and now it was entrepreneurship. I didn’t tell my professors about the girls because I knew they’d have no pity on me. However, I did tell them about the business. I explained why I was late on assignments, missing classes, and jumping up in the middle of class and running out the door to take phone calls. It was incredibly rude of me, but I lived in a bubble and didn’t see it. My professors didn’t seem to mind, either. At that time, it was rare for a student to run a business while in college and my professors seemed to think it was cool. They let me get away with a lot, up to a point. Some even asked if they could partner up with me.
Despite the mercy my professors showed me, during my college career I would fail and retake seven classes. At one point, I was put on “academic warning.” Every class I failed, I then retook and got an A in. All except for basic accounting—dang you income statements and balance sheets! I could read the statements, but the tests required me to create them from scratch and I could never remember quite how, nor could I see the point since Quickbooks did all that for me in my business.
But back to business. I was making $30/hr doing freelance web design for clients when a large company contacted me. I knew they had deeper pockets and higher expectations than my other clients. Web development firms in Utah were charging around $125/hr at the time, and I didn’t see why I should be charging so little if I was producing the same kind of results. I took a leap and asked for $65/hr. It felt gutsy, but my prior experience raising prices gave me the confidence.
I was turned down flat.
They even seemed offended. I had gone too far! I had flown too close to the sun, and now I was crashing and burning. What was I thinking asking for $65/hr?! This company could have kept me busy for two months at $30/hr and I would have been thrilled with that! But it was too late, the deal was gone.
Three weeks later the client called me up again. “You said you’d do the work for $65/hr, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, and I was just about to add “But I’d be happy to do it for less!” when the voice on the other end of the line said “Great! We really want to work with you and we’re happy to pay that rate.”
I couldn’t believe it! $65/hr for a college student? (bear in mind, that would be like $130/hr today due to inflation) Over the next two months I made around $6,000 per month, working part time, while going to school.
Now, if you were a poor college student, what would you do with $12,000? Pay off student loans? Tuck it away in savings? Well, yes, you might do that, but I was a crazy entrepreneur. All I could think was “Gee, if I can do this well on my own, just think what I could do with employees and an office!” I had delusions of grandeur and that money was burning a hole in my pocket. Instead of doing anything wise like paying off debt or putting it in savings, or even doing anything less wise like buying a car, a nice TV, or going on an exotic vacation, I decided to start a “real” business. I brought on two partners, moved into an office, and hired on four full time staff.
Within a month I realized I had made a big mistake. $12K seems like a lot when you’re a freelancer who’s used to living on a college student income. It doesn’t go very far when you’ve rented an office, hired four employees, and brought on two partners. Somehow I thought we would close big deals quickly, but that’s not what happened. As a result, a few weeks after we started the “real” business we had to let three of our four employees go, and my partners and me had to go without pay.
We survived those first few months by taking pay cuts or not getting paid at all, and hustling to find clients. Around 8 months in, I and one of my partner realized there wasn’t a real place in the business for the third partner. We brought him on as a CFO, because all big companies have a CFO and we wanted to be a big company, but were were a startup with a handful of employees and we didn’t need a CFO.
That was my fault. I was ignorant. We negotiated buying our partner out and he agreed. The “buyout” consisted of us giving him the nice sofa we had bought for our office lobby. He went on to do well with real estate and today is a prominent state senator in Utah. Not sure if he still has the sofa. I should ask him.
Then things started to go well. We landed big deals, and then even larger deals. We renamed the company “Mindwire Interactive,” and by the end of the summer of 2001, things were really taking off generating leads and sending out proposals. That September, we found ourselves with three large deals on the table, the first of which would be signed on the morning of September 11th.
On that morning, I woke up and my wife told me “Hey, a plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.” I figured it was a small Cessna or something.
“Huh, that’s crazy,” I said, and then I went to take a shower.
When I came out of the shower the world had changed. I watched live TV and saw the gaping holes with smoke pouring out. I saw the first tower collapse, then the second. I looked on and thought “I am watching people die, right now. A lot of people.” It was beyond belief. And yet…what was I supposed to do, sit at home all day? I had to go to work. We had an appointment. We were going to close a deal. I drove to the office, but it felt strange, as though it were inappropriate to even think about work.
We called our client.
“Um, do you…still want to meet today?”
“No, no, um, no…I think we need to figure out how this is going to impact our business.”
The client owned a ski resort. They thought the 9-11 attacks might hurt the tourism industry, since all planes across the country had been grounded and nobody knew what was going to happen next. They were right. That deal was canceled and we never got another chance at it.
Our second potential client was an airline. That deal disappeared faster than the first.
Our third client was another ski resort. We still got that one, but it was the smallest deal of the three. 9-11 almost put us out of business, but I felt bad even worrying about it. 3,000 people had been murdered. We still had obligations and had to take care of our business, but it made our struggles and victories seem petty and meaningless. I took my business seriously, but 9-11 drove home the lesson that business is just business, and there are a lot of things in life that are more important.
2001 should have been an amazing year, but instead we barely survived. On the outside it looked like we were doing great. I was still a student and had entered a plan for Mindwire in the business plan competition at BYU. It won first place. I entered a competition for “Entrepreneur of the Year” at BYU and got third place (Sidenote: Brandt Andersen won 1st—he’s now a big time movie producer who has been involved with films like Everest, Lone Survivor, and Silence, and Brandt’s brother Derek Andersen runs the entrepreneur community Startup Grind.). We were building a brand for ourselves. People across Utah saw us as a successful agency, but the success on the outside was a far cry from how things were going on the inside.
2002 was a decent year for Mindwire, and for me personally. What I didn’t know was that it was the last year I would get a paycheck for a long, long time, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 2002, we grew to about 10 people, we kept receiving lots of positive recognition in Utah, and we landed good clients. My partner and I jointly received the “Entrepreneur of the Year” award from the Utah chapter of the Small Business Administration (SBA) and got to meet with the governor.
We also got lucky when we acquired the domain MWI.com, although it was the result of what seemed like a stroke of bad luck.
Remember how I used to call the company DonLoper.com? When I brought on employees and partners they banded together and told me the name was terrible, and that’s when we came up with Mindwire Interactive. Even back in 2000, it was hard to find good domain names. Mindwire sounded cool (at least it did back then) and the domain name was available so after we all decided to use that name Kyle Follett, our creative director, went to work creating a brand around it. Several weeks later, we went to launch the website and…whoops! I hadn’t bought mindwire.com, I had bought mindwires.com. Argh! To this day I have no idea how it happened. Mindwire.com was taken all along. Apparently I had made a typo, thought the domain was available, and went through the whole purchase process without noticing my error.
Mindwires.com didn’t sound cool, so we registered mindwireinteractive.com, but that was really, really long. For the next year we tried out other domains like mindwireinc.com but they weren’t ideal. We tried to buy mindwire.com from the owner but he wouldn’t sell at any price, not even for $500! (that was about as much as we could afford)
One day I stumbled onto MWI.com and thought “Hey, Mindwire Interactive…MWI, that should work!” I found that while the domain had been purchased, there wasn’t an active website on the domain. I contacted the owners and asked if since they weren’t using the domain, they might be interested in selling. They told me that while they weren’t hosting a website on the domain, they were using it for email addresses, so no, they couldn’t sell it. This was just one of many inquiries I sent out for various domain names, so I went on my way and forgot about this exchange.
Several months later, the owner of MWI.com contacted me and asked if I was still interested. I said “Yes…” tentatively, because even then three-letter domains were expensive, and whereas our budget was a few hundred dollars, I was sure this guy would ask for $20,000 or more. When I asked him how much he wanted for it, he shocked me by responding, “Nah, I don’t need anything, we’ve moved all our email to a different domain, you can just have it.”
I couldn’t believe it. I felt like someone was offering me a free house. I was sure there was a catch—there had to be a catch, and I kept waiting for it, but nothing ever happened. The worst thing that ever came from acquiring the domain was that another company named “MWI,” but completely unrelated to us, went out of business after running a huge scam operation charging peoples’ credit cards $80.76. Because we owned MWI.com, everyone assumed we must be that company, so we got a lot of angry phone calls. Sometimes it would take a solid 5 minutes of them yelling at us before we could explain to them that they had called the wrong business. One caller thought we were lying and proceeded to call all the clients listed on our website and tell them how dishonest we were. We only found out when a client called us and said “Some crazy, angry lady called me saying you guys charged her $80.76 for something she didn’t want, but you guys don’t even take credit cards, do you? What’s this all about?” However, after a year or two those calls died down, and to this day I still own MWI.com.
The Avalon Digital Deal
Toward the end of 2002, my partner met a company called Avalon Digital, also based in Utah. Avalon was listed on NASDAQ, had hundreds of employees, and was gobbling up other marketing agencies. They were interested in Mindwire, as well.
Normally, I wouldn’t have been interested in selling, but I wasn’t getting along with my partner. It was all my fault—I was naive and had a bigger ego than I realized. I felt like my partner was holding us back, and at the same time I felt like he didn’t have my back. I felt like I had to take care of myself because he wasn’t going to, and I didn’t like that kind of relationship. I like being in partnerships where I’m watching out for my partner more than he’s looking out for himself, and he’s looking out for me more than I’m looking out for myself. My partner wasn’t and isn’t a bad guy, but we were mismatched in terms of personality, vision, goals, and perspective. In retrospect, there was more that united us than divided us, but I had no idea how to deal with the situation, so I wanted out.
Doing a deal with Avalon seemed like a great solution to our partnership issues. Avalon would buy Mindwire, my partner would go work for them, and I could start over on my own, owning 100% of the company.
Very long story short, we did the deal, and it turned into a nightmare as soon as I signed the documents. I had personally guaranteed leases on equipment, which Avalon acquired with the all-stock (i.e. no cash) deal. The agreement was that they would take over the leases, but they didn’t. I didn’t find this out until months later when a collection agency contacted me asking for $15,000.
In addition, at the time of the deal, Mindwire was moving to new offices, and since Mindwire was liable and Avalon was acquiring Mindwire, we agreed that Avalon would pay a certain amount to me to compensate me for taking over the new office lease myself, which I planned to use as office space for my new company. But Avalon then refused to make those payments, which added another $10K in expenses for me.
I struggled to get Avalon to keep their agreements. I struggled to start my new company, which I called MWI because Avalon let me keep the domain name MWI.com but not the name Mindwire. But I wasn’t the only one struggling. Avalon was struggling to stay in business. At the time of our deal, the stock they issued me was worth something around $800,000, but I wasn’t allowed to sell it for a year. By the time one year rolled around, Avalon Digital had entered into bankruptcy, had been delisted from the NASDAQ, and my stock was worthless. They hadn’t come through on their obligations to me, and I had to come up with $40,000 to cover the obligations they never kept to me. In other words, I worked for two and a half years to build a company, got paid poorly to do it, and just when it was on the verge of great success I paid someone $40,000 to take it.
Despite trying to get over it, I still have hard feelings over the matter. I want to let go, because it’s so far in the past and it only hurts me to hang onto it, but I’ve never figured out how.
The Avalon deal closed in January, 2003. On January 13th, 2003, MWI started. Given the trouble of explaining all this backstory to people, I just tell them I started MWI in 1999, because MWI was effectively the same company as Mindwire in spirit, if not on legal documents.
Now that I was free of my partner and had a $100,000 loan from the SBA, I was ready to go full Sinatra and do things my way and show the world that finally, I was going to turn MWI into a global force to be reckoned with. I immediately went out and hired three employees, much the same way I had done when I started Mindwire. But this time things would be different, because now I knew what I was doing…right?
It turned out I hadn’t learned much. $40,000 of that $100,000 loan disappeared with the Avalon deal that went south. Rent was $5,000/mo. The people I hired weren’t cheap. Then there were computers, chairs, desks, high speed internet, the phone system—it all added up. As it turned out, that $100,000 was about enough to last me for a month, if I didn’t pay myself. If I landed a few clients, perhaps I could stretch my limited cash out long enough to squeeze by until things could take off.
I wasn’t off to a good start, but that didn’t keep me from making things worse. After spending all the money I had and then some, the second mistake I made was to attempt to do every type of work that came my way. Desperation has a way of making you say, “Hey, I can do that!” about everything that comes along. Within short order we were doing brand development, print design, web design, content management systems, ecommerce, and custom web integration projects. We lost our identity trying to do everything for everyone. At one point we had a list of over twenty services on our website. We thought we were an ad agency, a branding agency, a web development firm, and a web design firm all wrapped up into one awesome digital agency. In reality we lacked focus and excelled at nothing.
We scraped by and survived that first year as MWI, but barely. I was late on almost every payroll. I didn’t pay myself at all. I worked myself to death. We looked successful on the outside, but it was fake.
To make things work on the personal side, my wife and I moved out of the townhouse we bought in Provo and into a studio apartment in Draper, Utah. The apartment was above someone’s garage. We owned a single car without air conditioning. My wife had a low-paying job working as a child care licensor for the state. That was our only income.
Although MWI offered dozens of services, our main source of revenue was web design and development. We were pretty good at it, but it was a royal pain to manage. We lost money on almost every project. Worse than that, the biggest challenge running a web development firm was that we didn’t know how much money we were going to make from one month to the next. One month we landed a few new projects and brought in $90,000, and the next month we didn’t bring in any projects and we collected just $20,000. Whenever we brought in $90,000 I always thought, “Finally! Now things are taking off!” and I hired more full-time staff. The next month, when revenue dipped, I realized I made a mistake. To cover expenses I racked up the credit cards, took out a line of credit, borrowed from family, and even failed to pay payroll taxes—just to make sure I could make payroll. I did these things repeatedly. In this way, I quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt while I continued to not pay myself a dime.
One bright spot this year was that while trying to figure out how to increase revenues, I started playing around with search engine optimization, or SEO. SEO was still a new thing. There were, perhaps, two or three companies in Utah providing SEO services, and they were all small players.
At first, I just did SEO for MWI. Then a client asked if we could do SEO for them. Since I was still in the mode of “We will do anything for money!” I agreed. Suddenly, we had a source of recurring, monthly income. It was sooo nice! It was a small portion of our overall revenue, but having that small amount I could depend on, month after month, felt amazing. I began to optimize MWI’s website around SEO services to attract more clients, and our recurring revenue numbers grew. Things got a little bit better in terms of company finances, and we survived another year, although I was still always late on payroll and still not paying myself—there was never any money left over for that.
I approached two years doing business as MWI, doing things my way, with nobody else to blame, and I was up to my eyeballs in debt and barely hanging on. Of course I blamed others. I blamed Avalon Digital, I blamed bad luck, I blamed politicians, I blamed the lack of a 36-hour day. I blamed everyone but myself. I figured I needed a lucky break and that if I kept working it would come. I also figured the harder I worked, the faster it would come, so I worked 100-hour work weeks, week after week.
I didn’t work Sundays, that was my limit, but from early Monday morning until midnight on Saturdays, I was in the office. Some nights I slept on the office floor. I ate junk food from nearby fast food restaurants.
Nobody on the outside of MWI knew what was going on. We were doing great work, even if we lost money on it. We had clients everyone had heard of. We had an office right next to the major freeway with our name on it. Only my team had a clue that things weren’t as rosy as they appeared, and only I knew the whole truth of how bad things were.
I don’t know why any of my team stuck with me more than a month. Some of them didn’t, but others stuck around for years, despite being qualified to make much more money somewhere else. When they quit they would tell me “You’re the best boss I’ve ever had, but I have to get paid.” I think they meant I was a nice guy and they liked me, not that they thought I was good at managing anything.
Maybe I wasn’t the complete idiot I’ve made myself out to be. I was smart enough to get rid of most of our services other than SEO and web design, the two things we were really good at and which were making money. We landed a few big name clients and occasionally our projects were highly profitable. However, I failed to make whatever success we had permanent.
As I desperately tried to make MWI profitable, I continued to work too much, see my wife too little, and I was getting fat. As the year ended, I hadn’t paid myself in almost two years.
2006 was more of the same and it was, perhaps, the worst year of my life. Three years can go by quickly. Three years of 100-hour weeks with no paycheck in sight. Three years of paying my team late. Sometimes I had nightmares. One night I had a dream that the wife of one of my employees was screaming at me about how I never paid her husband on time. She would have been in her rights to have done it in real life.
My wife was incredibly patient. We still lived in our tiny studio apartment. At least we now had two cars, but frequently my car didn’t work and more than once I had to call a member of my team to ask for a ride to work. The junker my wife drove still didn’t have AC.
We went on our first “vacation” since we had gotten married. It was the first time in almost seven years that I took a break from work. We drove from Utah to Oregon, visited some friends, and drove back. I worked the whole way there and back, and during every spare moment I could sneak in. The thought of taking a real vacation, one where I didn’t work, was unthinkable. I didn’t believe MWI could last a day without my attention, let alone a week.
MWI had over $500,000 in debt. It was a crushing weight. We were personally on the hook for every dime of it, and the debt was still growing. With the amount of debt I was in, I could have bought a very nice house in Utah. Instead, I had the debt and nothing to show for it. I once told my father-in-law about it and he said “Well yeah, but if you hadn’t gone into debt you wouldn’t be where you are today.” He was trying to comfort me, but all I could think was that he was absolutely right, but not in the way he thought.
I was a slave to the debt. I didn’t own myself. It ruled me every second of every day. How could I go home and spend time with my wife when I owed so many people so much money? What would they think if they knew I was enjoying myself, even for a second? I had to stay at work as long as I could stay awake, and then some. I skipped family reunions, birthdays, and weddings.
It wasn’t all selfless. The state of the business was a convenient excuse for me to do whatever I wanted to do, and get out of everything else. “Oh no, sorry, I can’t make it, I’ve got to work,” was the easy way out of any obligation. The debt gave my selfishness legitimacy.
I ate junk food to comfort myself and got zero exercise. I grew to 240 lbs, about 70 lbs too much for me. I was so out of shape that when I arrived at work and walked up the single flight of stairs to our office, I couldn’t talk to anyone for five solid minutes while I recovered my breath.
I wanted to change, but I didn’t know what to do. I felt cursed. Nothing I tried worked. Everything I tried to do made things worse. I was going on four years of this torture. My parents asked me why I didn’t quit and go get a real job, but how could I? I had $500,000 in debt. There was no way I could pay that off with a normal job. I felt like the explorer who burned his ships to motivate his men and keep them from turning back. I had burned my ship long ago, and there was no way out except to make MWI a success. But the more I tried, the more I failed.
Thankfully I never lost my faith in God. I didn’t understand why He sent me so many challenges or why allowed me to be such an idiot, but I knew He was there. Many nights at 2 am found me in MWI’s conference room, looking at the lights of the Salt Lake Valley, and then I dropped to my knees and prayed to God and asked Him why I was going through this. I prayed for relief, I pleaded, I asked Him to show me where I was going wrong. And then I finally had a brilliant idea…
It was mid-2006 when I had a stroke of genius. I thought back to my experience on the campus of the Harvard Business School when I had that electric feeling telling me that someday I would go to school there. Maybe now was the time.
I crafted a plan. I would escape from the mess MWI had become and use all my pain and suffering to write the most amazing application essay the MBA admissions people at the Harvard Business School had ever seen. They would see how valuable my experience was, toiling away in the trenches of glorious entrepreneurship, and they wouldn’t be able to resist welcoming me into their MBA program with open arms. When I graduated, I would have another few hundred thousand dollars in debt, but I’d probably pay all my debts off the first year with whatever amazing job I chose to accept from the many that would surely await. I’d be debt-free. I’d get rich. People would respect me. I would change the world. It couldn’t fail. It was The Perfect Plan. All my suffering had not been in vain.
I took the GMAT exam. I wrote my application essay, rewrote it, had my wife edit it, and rewrote it again, and again. I enrolled respectable businessmen to write my three reference letters, submitted my application, and then I waited.
As I waited and the end of 2006 neared, I brimmed with excitement, practically gleeful. Sure, I was still racking up debt, getting fatter, and not getting paid, but all that was about to change. I started searching for luxury condos to live in while we were students in Boston.
As 2006 ended and 2007 began, I started to worry, just a little. Shouldn’t Harvard have flown me out for interviews already? How come I hadn’t heard anything? But then it occurred to me, of course they don’t need to interview me! My application is that good, they didn’t need to go to any of that trouble. I was probably the first person in the history of HBS who would be admitted without an interview, based on the merits of my application alone. No worries.
January 16th, 2007 found me typing out a blog post, informing the world that I had applied to HBS and would soon, hopefully, receive my acceptance letter. I wrote about what would happen to MWI. I explained why I wanted the MBA…well, I didn’t explain that it was a creative way for me to escape from the failure my life had become, but I gave the usual reasons people give for wanting an MBA from Harvard. I ended my blog post with the words, “I should have some sort of notice from HBS within 24 hours. My fingers are crossed.”
This Rock Has No Bottom
On January 17th, 2007, I opened a letter from the Harvard Business School while sitting in my office at MWI.
I read it.
The hand holding the letter slowly dropped to my lap.
I turned my head to look out the window.
After a minute or two I read the letter again.
It still said the same thing.
I had been rejected.
You know that moment in movies when the camera zooms in on the wide-eyed face of the person who suddenly realizes they’re doomed, while everything else around them zooms out?
It was kind of like that, except I couldn’t say I was all that shocked. I mean, what could I realistically have expected?
I was a wreck.
My business was a wreck.
My application was a wreck. It was all over the place without a clear plan for why I wanted to go to HBS or what I would do with an MBA. What had I been thinking?!
I just sat there, dejected, thinking, “Well, that’s a bummer.”
That lasted a second or two.
My next thought was “What a relief, now that I know that door is closed, I can get on with life.”
My third thought was “This is a good thing. I just hit rock bottom. The only way is up!”
I started to get excited. A new story unfolded in my mind, one where I not only overcame the adversity of my business, but I rose above getting rejected by Harvard and succeeded despite all the obstacles placed in my way. This was my moment to shine! But as author Mike Michalowicz says in his book Profit First, “I discovered that day that when you hit rock bottom, sometimes you get dragged along the bottom, scraping your face on every one of those rocks until you’re battered, bruised, and bloodied.”
It wasn’t as though I suddenly had all the answers, just because HBS rejected me. I was still fat, broke, and running a business that was half a million in debt with no recovery in sight.
Something had to give. God wasn’t done schooling me yet.
I didn’t have any.
I wasn’t in control of my business.
I wasn’t in control of my debt.
I wasn’t in control of my health.
I wasn’t sure what to do about the business or my debt, but I knew I could do something about my health. I could start going to the gym. It was the only thing I could think to do.
I told my project manager, Ben Smith, that if he made sure I got to the gym each morning I would pay for his gym membership. He agreed, and each morning we met outside MWI’s office and drove together to the 24-Hour Fitness in Sandy. We worked out for an hour, and then both went to work. It was a small step, considering the mess I was in, but it was the only step I was sure was the right one.
The funny thing about improving one area of your life is that it’s nearly impossible to do it without it rubbing off on other areas of your life. If your life has five areas, such as family, work, health, friendships, and spirituality, then if you’re at a 1 on all of them, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being perfect, then you’re comfortable. Sure, life’s a mess, but at least it’s coherent. But if get your health in order, and it climbs up to an 8, then you start to get uncomfortable about your life being a 1 in every other area. You start to feel like either you need to start neglecting your health again or start fixing those other areas.
Ditch the MBA, Go For the PhD
A few months into 2007, not long after I was rejected by HBS for their MBA program, I got a call from someone, someone I didn’t know very well and who I’ll call “Bob.”
“Josh, I read your blog post about getting rejected by HBS,” Bob said.
“Yeah, bummer, but I’m going to apply again next year,” I replied.
That’s kind of how I roll, if something I really want doesn’t work out, it just makes me that much more determined to make it happen.
“I’ll just keep applying until they give up and let me in,” I said. What he told me next wasn’t at all what I expected.
“Forget about the MBA. You don’t need it. You should get a PhD and become a professor,” Bob told me.
“But…I don’t want to be a professor,” I stammered. I couldn’t imagine why he would suggest such a thing. “I’m an entrepreneur, I want to run businesses, not teach classes, although maybe I’d like to teach after I retire or something.”
“No, not a teaching professor, you should be a research professor,” he said, decidedly, as if he knew better than I did what was right for me.
I had heard of academic research, but I had next to no idea what it meant. As far as I knew, I had never been exposed to the benefits of academic research, so I couldn’t imagine how it could be anything worth doing.
Bob continued, “I know we don’t know each other well, but I’ve been reading your blog for a long time. I’ve seen the way you think, the way you run your business. You like to ask questions and find answers. You like to experiment.”
This much was true. Sometimes I felt like I enjoyed experimenting with MWI more than making money, and I felt like this might be a major factor in MWI’s financial problems.
“Research professors ask questions and find answers,” Bob went on. “And I think if you took a closer look at academia, you’d love it and you could make a big contribution. I’m actually finishing up a PhD at HBS right now, you should check it out.”
I hadn’t known Bob was doing a PhD at HBS, plus flattery always works on me, so I agreed to think about it.
“Do I Have to Dance?”
In 2006, a year or so before all the mess with MWI and applying and getting rejected by HBS, my friend Mark Browning started working for me as an office admin. Mark and I had been friends since we were 18 years old. We met each other in 1994 when, between the two of us, we made up roughly 20% of all the skateboarders in eastern Idaho. After meeting, we lost contact when we both went on missions, then reconnected unexpectedly after our missions were over, finding, much to our surprise, that in the two years since we had last seen each other we had both learned Portuguese (Mark served his mission in Philadelphia, speaking Portuguese, while I was in Brazil).
While I kept a brave face for other members of the MWI team, Mark was the one person I could vent to. Sometimes, after everyone else had gone home, Mark would sit at the front desk, I would drop into a lobby chair, and I’d complain about how nothing I did ever worked. Mark was patient and never complained about my complaining.
On one of these evenings, Mark said, “Josh, I know something that will help you.”
“I’ve been going to this self-help course, and I know it would help you.”
“Are you serious?!”
The last thing I wanted to do was go to some weird, touchy-feely self-help class. It didn’t make things any better when Mark told me I would need to take three days off work and pay $500 to go to it.
“How would this course help me? What can I possibly do that I haven’t already done? I’ve tried everything!” I asked him.
“I don’t know exactly how it would help you, I just know it would. It’s helped me a lot.”
I brought up an issue at MWI to challenge Mark and asked, “What about this? How would the course help me figure this problem out?”
Mark gave me some advice, and it was good advice. He told me it came from the course he had gone to.
“Ok, ok, I’m willing to try anything. Fine. Just one question,” I said.
“This course sounds weird…do I have to dance or anything like that? Cause I don’t dance.”
“Um, yeah, you might have to dance.”
“Ohhhh…, argh. Fine, fine. Anything to get out of this mess I’m in.”
And that’s how I got signed up for a strange adventure in self-discovery, but one that would change my life.
The course was held in Salt Lake City, out near the airport on the west side, in a single-story building in an office park that was probably state of the art in 1980. The asphalt was old enough to have turned a light gray. The building was brown cinder block. As I entered the front door I found a 10-year old cubicle set up as the front desk. I was ushered down a hallway and into a large classroom. Everything looked cheap and dated. I lowered my expectations.
There were around thirty other people in the room. It was a diverse mix in every way, except there was a distinct lack of successful people. I suppose people who are successful don’t see much point in taking time out for self-help courses.
A woman in her mid-fifties entered the room and walked to the front to speak. She introduced herself, told us how she had worked for decades with groups like ours and then she quoted Yoda. Well, maybe not exactly, but what she said came pretty close to, “Do or do not do, there is no try.”
Then she told us a story about when she was raped. Whoa, wait, what?! Yeah, it was terrible. Not listening to it—she was a great storyteller and it was riveting, but what happened to her was terrible. By the end of the story everyone in the room hated the guy who had done this to her.
Then she told the story again, except she said, “Now, I’m going to tell you the accountable version.” In the first version, she put 100% of the blame on the rapist, which makes sense, right? I mean, who else could possibly be responsible? However, in the second version, she took responsibility for her part in it. She talked about how she knew this guy was trouble, but still hung out with him. She talked about things she had done to send him the message that she was open to having sex with him. She never claimed he wasn’t 100% responsible for his actions, only that she was 100% responsible for her actions. She showed us how, if she had made different choices, she could have prevented the circumstances that led to the rape. The way she framed it, the first version of the story took her power away and made her helpless. The second version gave her power.
When she finished, we were all silent. We didn’t know what to think. Before hearing her story, I would have said the victim in a rape bears no responsibility whatsoever. Now, I wasn’t so sure. I could see how telling a rape victim, “There’s nothing you could have done,” is not an empowering message. It tells victims they have no control. It tells victims they have no power to protect themselves from being a victim again. I began to think perhaps this self-help course might have something to teach me after all.
For the next three days, I spent every day involved in the self-help course. By the end, I knew what was wrong with MWI and what I needed to do.
On Monday, I walked in to MWI, sat down in the lobby chair, and Mark asked “Well, how was it?”
“Yeah. But Mark, I’m sorry.”
“I’m going to have to let you go.”
I didn’t just let Mark go. I let all ten of MWI’s team members go. I got rid of the office space. The sign came off the building and went into storage. I sold the furniture. I scaled MWI down to just me, working in my basement. It was hard, but the self-help course had helped me see things more clearly and redefine my goals.
What I learned in the self-help course was that the reason I hadn’t been paid during those four years was because of my ego.
Instead of paying myself, I was paying $5,000 per month for an office.
Instead of paying myself, I was paying people the company didn’t need, or didn’t need full-time.
I didn’t want to be a failure, but I also didn’t want others to think I was a failure. As long as I had that office and ten employees, people thought I was a successful entrepreneur. Once I saw that I was foregoing a paycheck for the sake of my ego, I was able to step back and say “Well, that’s pretty stupid.”
I Get Paid
Within two months of enrolling in the self-help course, everything had changed. The office was gone. Everyone on my team had either found new jobs or were working for me on contract on a project by project basis. Instead of piling on the debt, I was paying it off to the tune of $10,000 to $20,000 per month. And for the first time in four years I paid myself.
The Good Life
During 2007 my life improved dramatically. I didn’t make a lot of money, but that wasn’t my focus anymore. I made enough to get by and pay off a lot of debt. I dropped my work hours from 100 hours per week down to under 30. I spent time with my wife. My wife and I adopted our first child, then two years later had our second child biologically. I started to read books again, something I had done voraciously as a child and teen but had somehow neglected in the 10 years between the ages of 23 and 33. We moved out of the studio apartment and into a townhouse, and then a full house with a yard. I continued to work out at the gym, but then took it a lot further.
In April 2007, my friend Te Koi Smith invited me to watch him do a triathlon. I had never seen a triathlon before and I’m not sure I even knew that it was swimming, biking, and running. I accepted the invitation because I wanted to support my friend, but as I watched him, I got a funny feeling. “I’m going to do this, I’m going to get sucked into this,” I thought. It felt inevitable.
At 33, I had never run over a mile in my life, but six months after watching a triathlon for the first time, I was competing in my first one. After that, I was hooked. A few months later I did a half marathon. Less than a year into starting triathlon I completed a half-Ironman (1.2 mile swim, 60 mile bike ride, 13.1 mile run). Then I ran a full marathon. And I kept going, ultimately getting into ultra-marathons on mountain trails, something I never could have conceived of doing when I was struggling to walk up 10 stairs without passing out. I lost 60 lbs and I felt great.
That PhD Thing Again
During 2007, as I was undergoing my physical fitness transformation and transferring MWI to its profitable basement existence, I also researched getting a PhD and becoming a research professor.
I had more calls with my friend Bob. My wife was on some of these calls and that was enough to convince her I should go into academia, but I wasn’t completely sold on it yet.
I contacted professors at BYU in Provo, where I got my masters degree, and volunteered as a research assistant. I wanted to get real experience doing research to make sure I didn’t hate it.
The more I talked to and worked with research professors, the more I liked it. And my friend Bob kept talking it up and telling me how I’d be a perfect fit.
“Most academics have little real-world experience,” he explained. “They’re also quants. You’re a writer, and frankly, you can get a student intern who’s way better at math than you or any other professor will ever be to do all your quant stuff, but writing? That’s tougher, and it will put you ahead if you can do it yourself.”
I also realized how many people I admired, like Clayton Christensen, were academics. By the end of 2008, after many conversations and a lot of thinking and praying, I gave up on the idea of getting an MBA and set my sites on getting a PhD.
There were just a few issues:
- I didn’t know what I wanted to research.
- I didn’t want to go into school with a bunch of debt, and I had a BUNCH of debt.
- I didn’t want to go back to school as someone who failed in business, and I didn’t feel like I had succeeded yet.
I told Bob I was going to do the PhD…once I wrapped up a few things.
Let’s Make a Deal
I didn’t wrap things up in 2007, nor in 2008, 2009, 2010, or 2011. During these years MWI was just me and a bunch of contractors. I resisted any temptation to get an office and full time staff again. I focused on my health and my family. I paid down debts, but it was slower going than I liked.
By the end of 2011 I started getting antsy about entrepreneurship again. Sure, life was good in the most important ways, but I still had business debts to pay off, and I still had ambition. I wanted to make more money, faster, and I couldn’t imagine running an SEO firm from my basement for the rest of my life. I felt like I was supposed to do something more.
I learned about a large SEO firm in Utah that had a lot of cash flow and a great brand, but was reported to be poorly managed by its owner. It seemed like an undervalued asset that could be turned around simply by eliminating the owner and letting the team do their thing. I researched the company, met with the management team, then flew out to DC to meet the owner and his lawyers, and pitched the idea to scores of investors. I put together a buyout plan, got buy in from key employees, and then…the deal fell apart. The owner wanted $25M while the 30 investors I spoke to said it wasn’t worth more than $12M. It was too large a gap. I couldn’t get the two sides together.
I spent part of 2011 and most of 2012 on this deal. Even though it didn’t work out, I learned a lot from the experience. Seeing how this large company was run so poorly and yet was still successful, gave me the motivation to try my hand at growing MWI again. The only problem was I wasn’t sure I had learned what I needed to in order to make it work. Having failed for so many years to achieve any sort of real growth with MWI, I lacked confidence and dragged my feet.
In 2012, I returned to Brazil for the first time since I left in 1996 at the end of my mission. My wife didn’t go with me because I wanted to go for three weeks to make sure I could visit everyone I hadn’t seen for all these years, and she didn’t want to leave our young children at home for that long. At the same time she didn’t want me to go by myself, so my friend Mark went with me. If he hadn’t, my life might be very different today. No, Mark didn’t save me from crocodiles or street thugs. It was one sentence he said during our trip.
We were driving in a cheap rental car on a pot-holed road in the state of Rondonia and, just like old times, I was venting to Mark about my business challenges. Mark knew my whole history and after hearing me out turned to me and said, “Josh, I know you don’t want to hear this, but you need a partner.”
It “gonged,” as I had learned to say in the self-help class, or in other words, I knew he was right. After what I went through at Mindwire, I had determined to never have a partner again, but after almost ten years of running MWI by myself, it felt like the right time to reconsider. When I got back from Brazil I had a goal to find the right partner to help me grow MWI into what I had always dreamed it could be—one of the top digital marketing agencies in the world with an international footprint. Also, if I found a partner, they could run MWI while I went back to school to do a PhD. It was perfect.
I spent the rest of 2012 searching, but by the time I got together with my wife’s family for Christmas, I had exhausted all my contacts and had no leads.
“Let’s Just Try This Out…”
During the Christmas break with my wife’s family, I struck up a conversation with my brother in law, Corey Blake. Corey is about 12 years younger than I am and he was about 12 when I married his sister, so it hadn’t occurred to me to talk business with him before. I was trying to launch a subsidiary of MWI called Full Occupancy which would focus exclusively on digital marketing for the self storage industry, but I struggled with the sales/bizdev side of things. Corey was still in college, and had worked a few summers selling pest control and alarm systems. It was a different kind of sales, but I started to pick his brain and get his advice. He gave me some tips, I applied them in my business, and they worked.
Note: Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that there was one more reason I had never spoken to Corey about my business, and that’s because I had a firm commitment to never, ever, EVER, mix family and business. The last thing I wanted was to hire someone from my family, then fire them, and have family reunions be awkward for the rest of my life. As far as I was concerned, I would never hire a family member to work for me, not ever.
After the initial success with Corey’s ideas, I asked him if I could pay him hourly to consult with me on sales. We worked well together and got results, so five hours per week became ten hours per week, and then I asked Corey if he would work part time for me while he was finishing up school. We worked that way for a few months until April, 2013. By this point, I was convinced I needed to hire Corey on full time and that he might be the partner I had searched for during 2012. The only problem was that Corey had committed to a previous employer to do pest control sales that summer. Also, I was committed to moving to Hong Kong in June, 2013. Oh yeah, that’s kind of a big deal, isn’t it? Let me back up a little.
In August 2012, my wife and I decided to adopt a child from China. Most people adopt infants, but we felt like we should adopt an older child, a girl older than our first daughter (yeah, yeah, we know, adopting out of age order = crazy, adopting older child = difficult—we did a bunch of research on it, talked to a lot of people, and knew despite all our preparation it was still crazy and would be difficult). We knew that when we found our daughter, she wouldn’t speak English, she wouldn’t be familiar with American food, and there would be cultural issues.
Soon after making the decision to find her and adopt her, I looked at MWI, our living arrangements, and other logistical matters in our lives, and I saw there was nothing tying us down, so…why not move to China? Our daughter couldn’t realistically prepare to become part of our family, but we could prepare our family for her by learning her language, eating Chinese food (real Chinese food, in China), and getting familiar with the culture. This would help us better ease the transition of our daughter into an American home. It would also be a great experience for our other two kids. And maybe it would be advantageous for MWI.
As we looked into living in China, we spoke with some neighborhood friends who had lived all over Asia, including China. They advised us to first try out Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Singapore. “If you’ve never lived in Asia, going straight to China will be a shock,” they said. “Try living somewhere close for a few years, make some trips into China, and then if you still want to live in China you’ll know what you’re getting into.” It seemed like sound advice, and as we researched the options we felt Hong Kong was the right place. It was the only option that was connected directly to the Chinese mainland, which would make trips into China easier. We decided to move there in mid-2013, and we made that decision before I ever talked to Corey about helping me at MWI. That is how I ended up moving to Asia while Corey was doing summer sales.
Getting Into Forbes
If Mark hadn’t told me to find a business partner, if I hadn’t taken his advice, if we hadn’t moved to Asia, if I hadn’t talked business with Corey at Christmastime…it’s always interesting to think of how minor events that could easily never have happened can make such an impact on one’s life. There is one more factor that had a huge impact, and that was the chance to write for Forbes.
It started in early 2013. I went to my friend Cheryl Snapp Conner, who runs the Utah based PR agency Snapp Conner, and asked her if she could help me get some media logos on MWI’s website. I wanted an area that said, “As seen in Forbes, Fortune, TechCrunch,” etc. I saw competitors with these logos on their websites and I felt like it added credibility. I wanted that kind of credibility. I enjoyed writing, so Cheryl recommended that instead of getting others to write about me, I write articles and get them published under my name. She helped me get a piece in Fast Company and we were working on more placements when I came across Cheryl’s writing on Forbes. In our next meeting I asked her how she got a job as a journalist at Forbes, and how she was able to do it while also running her PR agency.
“Oh, it’s not a job, I don’t even get paid.”
“What? How’s that?”
“Forbes has a contributor model where they invite professionals to write for them, but unlike the staff writers who do it full time as a job, contributors get to write for Forbes, and it pays off for them in exposure.”
“Huh, that’s cool.”
“My editor is going to be in town in two weeks. I can introduce you to him if you like?”
I almost made what would have been one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I almost said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I was overloaded running MWI. I didn’t have time to write several articles each month. And what would I write about anyway? It seemed like a cool-to-have, not a must-have. But instead of telling her no, I heard myself say, “Sure, that’d be awesome!”
Then I went home and talked to my wife.
“I don’t know if I should pursue this,” I told her. “I mean, it seems like a great opportunity, but there are lots of great opportunities, and I’m not sure how this will really help things. Then again, it’s Forbes, how can I pass this up? Who knows what it might lead to?” My wife agreed. I could always try it out and if it was too much, I could quit.
Two weeks later, I met Tom Post, Cheryl’s editor at Forbes. Cheryl introduced us in the hallway outside a classroom at Weber State University, where Tom was speaking to a class of journalism students. I assumed Tom had no idea who I was, but as we spoke he told me, “Cheryl showed me your article in Fast Company. I wish you had written that for us.” I was flattered. He continued, “I’ve also been reading your blog. I want you to write for Forbes. Just write the same stuff you’re writing on your blog, except now it will be on the Forbes website.”
I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t even had the chance to pitch myself. All I could get out was “Sure, sounds great!”
What happened next was an explosion. It was the proper combination of ingredients and timing. If I had started writing for Forbes, but without Corey on board, or if Corey had come on board, but I hadn’t started writing for Forbes, or if Corey was on board and I was writing for Forbes, but it was a few years later, perhaps everything would have been different.
I wish I could say I was the genius chemist who examined all the elements, figured out what would happen if I combined the right ones in the right quantities, and then executed a flawless plan and got the results I predicted. I don’t think chemistry, invention, or creation works out that way for anyone. I’ve never heard a single story about an inventor, scientist, chemist, or entrepreneur who succeeded on the first try. I’ve heard thousands of stories of people, like Edison or Curie, who tried and failed hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of times before success. In reality I’ve been richly blessed—I only had to experience failure for 14-15 years with perhaps 10 attempts before things began to work out, plus I don’t have to worry about literal explosions or radiation poisoning. Call it God, luck, or whatever you want, but in 2013 things came together in a wonderful way.
The $5M Blog Post
When I started to write for Forbes, I didn’t know where it would lead. I knew it was a great opportunity, that’s all.
I stayed far away from writing anything that smacked of self promotion. I wrote about entrepreneurship and startups, mostly avoiding any mention of who I was or what I did. I got nice feedback from readers, and my articles seemed to be mildly popular, but other than boosting my ego a bit there was no tangible benefit to writing for Forbes.
However, after a few months I noticed notice that other Forbes contributors ran digital marketing firms, just like me, but unlike me, they were writing about digital marketing for Forbes. In fact, all they wrote about was digital marketing. And while they weren’t blatantly promoting their own companies, it wasn’t hard for someone reading their articles to figure out what they did. I asked myself, “If they’re writing about digital marketing and they run marketing agencies, why can’t I write about digital marketing?”
I wrote a piece on digital marketing. Nobody at Forbes said anything. I wrote more. Still, no one seemed to have a problem with it. Then I got lucky.
In the past, MWI had deals because, in my opinion, the potential clients had made the wrong choice. I was open-minded enough to know that sometimes MWI wasn’t the right choice for a client, but it irked me when I was convinced we were the right choice. I wanted to help companies searching for SEO services to make better choices, whether that meant they chose MWI or not.
I published a piece in Forbes with the title 4 Tips For Hiring The Right SEO Firm. I hoped it might attract a client or two, or that I could send it to clients who were considering hiring MWI, but what happened next blew me away. The article ended up generating so many leads I can easily track over $5M in revenue to it. You could make the case the actual figure is over $10M.
Why did that particular article work so well? Because it hit MWI’s potential clients the right way at exactly the right moment in the buying cycle.
Imagine you have a company, and you need to sell more stuff, bring in more clients, get more leads, or whatever. You convince yourself that SEO is the way to do it, but you’re not sure where to start. You research SEO firms and you find hundreds out there and while some offer SEO packages for $250 per month, others charge $10,000 per month. “Why is that?” you ask. “Am I getting ripped off by the expensive one or the cheap one? Am I really comparing apples to apples?” You end up paralyzed by the confusion of it all. You need more information to make the right decision.
You Google “How to hire an SEO firm” and one of the top results you get is this:
You think “Huh, I need tips on hiring the right SEO firm, maybe this article could help me.” You see that the article is on Forbes, which seems like a trustworthy source. On top of all that, the article is showing up at the top of Google, which also seems to imply that it’s trustworthy, especially since you’ve got SEO on your mind.
You click through to the article, read it, find it helpful and say “Thank goodness! This is exactly what I needed!” and then it occurs to you, “Wait a second…I’ve been struggling to figure out which SEO firm to hire, and here’s an article that tells me exactly what I need to know…who wrote this?” You look at my author bio, find out I own an SEO firm, and think, “Why don’t I just hire his SEO firm?”
This appears to have happened several hundred times. As soon as I wrote this article we were flooded with leads. It struck a chord with readers, our phone was ringing off the hook, our email inbox filled up, and Corey was busy responding to everyone and closing deals left and right.
As leads came in we would always ask people how they found us, and almost always the response would start out with “I read this post on Forbes about how to hire an SEO firm…”.
Writing for Forbes was financially advantageous, but arguably other benefits were worth even more.
Having just moved to Hong Kong, writing for Forbes turned me into a VIP guest at business events. This was a new experience, because…well, let’s put it this way—I wasn’t the most popular guy in high school or college. Even when I had friends I felt like a loner. I sometimes got invited to things, but I rarely went. I wasn’t into partying. During high school, I was happier hanging out at home with my parents and watching Twin Peaks. I was invited, three separate times, to go see the Offspring play in some guy’s basement in Pasadena or LA, and I declined every time (doh!). In college, I preferred getting a $5 pizza from Little Caesar’s and watching MST3K in my dorm to going to a dance or party.
However, when I moved to Hong Kong and people asked, “So, what do you do?” I would hesitantly respond, “I run a digital marketing agency…and I also write for Forbes,” and the response was always, “Wow, you write for Forbes?!” The next thing I knew, I was invited to everything. I was invited to startup launch events and meetings with government officials. People wanted me to judge startup pitch events and when famous business personalities like Tim Draper were brought by the government or other organizations to speak at events in Hong Kong, they invited me to interview them. If there was any event I wanted to go to, all I had to do was mention Forbes and I got free access and VIP treatment. I felt like the most popular guy in town. It kind of made up for those high school years.
Hong Kong Hustle
The main goal in Asia was to find our daughter, but I also had to get an MWI office up and running as part of my business investment visa in Hong Kong. If I didn’t work at it, they could kick me out. As things progressed with Corey, it became a template for what I needed to do in Hong Kong. But how could I find the “Corey of Hong Kong?” I tried, and even hired a few people temporarily, but nobody was the right fit for Hong Kong the way Corey was in the US.
When my first year was up I had to justify to the Hong Kong government why I hadn’t hired anyone. I told them I just needed more time. I kept trying people out, hiring and firing, and that cost me most of the second year in Hong Kong. Finally, toward the end of my second year in Asia, I found someone who seemed to have a lot of potential. He had run an agency before, seemed entrepreneurial, and knew how to do sales. We hired him on and committed resources to him to set him up for success.
It didn’t work.
There went half of my third year in Hong Kong. We let that guy go at the beginning of 2016.
If it sounds like I’m blaming the people we hired, I’m not. It was my fault for hiring people who weren’t the right fit, and my fault for letting things drag on too long once it was obvious they weren’t going to work out.
One of the challenges I’ve always faced as an entrepreneur is that I am the opposite of a micro-manager to a fault. I don’t like to step on toes. I like to give people space. I am often hands-off to the point of neglect. This can work out great when I hire people who are competent and proactive, but it works out poorly when I hire people who need more support.
In May 2016, just a few months after we left our last manager of MWI Hong Kong go, I met Jason Wong.
I found Jason on LinkedIn. I was searching for everyone in Hong Kong who was LDS, or a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I wasn’t looking for anyone in particular, I was just curious to see how many fellow members of the faith I could find in the city.
When I stumbled onto Jason’s profile, a few things stood out to me. First, Jason had grown and managed the office of his current employer, a recruitment firm in Hong Kong. Second, he had previously worked for Vivint, a Utah-based company that uses high-pressure, door to door sales tactics to sell alarm systems. Corey also worked for Vivint, albeit briefly. When I looked at Jason’s profile I thought, “This is literally the Hong Kong version of Corey!”
I had to meet him.
I contacted Jason and told him I wanted to meet. Although I meant to talk to him about potentially hiring him at MWI, he naturally assumed I was interested in his firm’s recruitment services. When he showed up, he started to give me his pitch and although it wasn’t my intent to mislead him, I recognized this was a great opportunity to see him in action, doing one of the primary things he would need to do at MWI if he were the right fit. So I let him keep talking.
Jason did a great job. After he finished his pitch, I told him about MWI’s history in the US, my move to Hong Kong, my search for someone to run MWI, and how so far the hiring hadn’t panned out. I told him who we were looking for, and he listened intently, taking notes and nodding his head. Then I popped the question, “Instead of finding someone to fill this position, what do you think of applying for it yourself?”
Jason looked at me in surprise. I could see the wheels turn in his head as he slowly nodded and said, “Yeah, um, yeah…well…” It was sudden an unexpected, but as he processed it in his mind, I could see he was thinking what I was thinking, that he might be a great fit. Then he did something I probably wouldn’t have done, were I in his shoes.
He said, “This is interesting, but let me think about it a bit. I don’t like rushing into things.” Yes! That’s what I wanted to hear. I LOVE rushing into things! That’s why I have to surround myself with people who are more judicious than I am. Also, I don’t like hiring desperate people. I like hiring people who resist at first (although that’s not a prerequisite for working at MWI). When someone resists, it makes me want to try that much harder to get them.
The next day, Jason and I met again in downtown Hong Kong. We spoke for hours, long enough to warrant getting dinner. Then we spoke for hours more, about 5-6 hours total. By the end of the evening, we had agreed—Jason would be our new managing director in Hong Kong.
The CMO Book
Flashback to 3:00 p.m. sharp on Tuesday, October 28, 2014. At that exact moment, I entered a conference room at the Hong Kong offices of Nexusguard, an online security company. We had negotiated a contract with Nexusguard for MWI to provide them with digital marketing services. I was there to get the contract signed and have a kickoff meeting.
I greeted members of the marketing team I already knew and was introduced to others I hadn’t yet met, including Hope Frank. Before I could get out the pens and paperwork to sign, Hope announced, “By the way, I’m the new CMO. I’d love to talk more with you about MWI’s services, but I was just hired yesterday and we aren’t signing any new contracts until I do a full audit of our marketing.”
That was a bit of a bummer, to put it mildly. I walked out of Nexusguard’s offices wishing I had scheduled the meeting for the week before.
A few months later, MWI’s management team and I met to discuss creating client personas for our agency. I recalled the meeting with Hope when we lost the deal with Nexusguard and said, “CMOs can make or break deals with agencies like ours. Is there a way we could understand them better and establish more credibility with them?”
We decided that since we had such good results with my writing for Forbes and other publications, I should write a book for CMOs, perhaps on the topic “What CMOs need to know about digital marketing.”
I began to do my research for the book, but quickly realized that while I knew plenty about digital marketing, I didn’t know enough about CMOs to write the book. I didn’t know how to speak to them. However, I knew where to go to learn more.
A few years prior, my venture capitalist friend Peter Harris suggested I read Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston of Y Combinator. That was the first book by the publisher Apress in their “At Work” series. I was also in the middle of reading Venture Capitalists at Work and CTOs at Work and knew there were several other books. They were great books that gave a fly-on-the-wall view of what it was like to be a founder, VC, or CTO, so I figured I would go buy “CMOs at Work,” read it, and then I’d know how to do a better job on my digital marketing book for CMOs.
I went to Amazon to buy “CMOs at Work,” but I couldn’t find it. I search Google, and that led me to the Apress website. I browsed their site, looking at every page that talked about their At Work series, and I could not find CMOs at Work, Chief Marketing Officers at Work, Marketers at Work, or anything under any other title I thought might contain what I wanted.
While I was combing through the Apress website, I saw a line on the footer of a page that read, “Want to contribute to the ‘At Work’ series? Contact us!” Then it hit me, “Wait, what if I wrote CMOs at Work?” Sure, I had never written a book before, but I had written a few book’s worth of articles…so why not me? I could write the “At Work” book on chief marketing officers and then not only would it help me know how to better write the book on digital marketing for CMOs, it would be great practice writing a book and it would give me more credibility as the author of a book targeting CMOs.
I sent a message to Apress, explained that I was a contributor to Forbes and other business publications. I told them I had the network and means to contact CMOs and other top marketers to be part of this book. And they gave me a book deal with an advance. I was going to be a published author!
In hindsight, I’m thankful the meeting with Nexusguard happened when it did. Were it not for the impression losing that deal made on me, I wouldn’t have landed a book deal or had the privilege to interview 30 of the top marketing minds of our day, and the book Chief Marketing Officers at Work would not exist. It was published in August, 2016.
As a curious side note, during the final stages of the book, I asked my publisher if they were planning on doing an Audible version of the book. They said they weren’t. “Could I have the rights to the audiobook version?” I asked. They signed them over to me without any fuss. I make about $2-3 per print copy, and $10-12 per Audible copy, and the Audible copies outsell the print and Kindle copies by a wide margin. If you ever work with a publisher—get the Audible rights for yourself, if at all possible.
Richard Branson’s Island
A funny thing happens after you write a book–people suddenly care who you are. Someone once said that a book is a business card on steroids. Now that we’ve all given up business cards that statement doesn’t mean what it once did, but the point is a book legitimizes you as an expert. It doesn’t even need to be a good book.
A late friend of mine published a book that was terrible. It wasn’t well written. It was full of typos. The physical product was cheap. It was self published. None of that mattered, he was invited to speak at all sorts of conferences and was commonly referenced as an expert in his field. I don’t think event organizers read his book. They saw he had spoken at a different event, that he had a book, so they checked their boxes and said, “Well, he must know what he’s talking about, after all, he wrote a book on it.” If he gave a terrible presentation, the organizer would have told her boss “But he had a book! I thought he would be awesome.”
In December 2016, not long after I published Chief Marketing Officers at Work, I received an email which I almost deleted immediately, because it sounded like spam. The person who sent the email invited me to come to Necker Island, owned by Richard Branson, and hang out for a week with a bunch of other top marketers.
I get emails like this on a regular basis. If it’s not a straight-up scam, the catch is that it costs $50K for a ticket to go. What caught my eye about this email and got me to read it was that it was personalized to me. The person sending the email referenced my book and said she was reading it—that’s not the type of thing you can automate and spam out to 50,000 people. I read the email again. I was still suspicious there was a catch, but I decided to respond and play the game and see where it went. Here’s the email I received back:
Hi Josh –
I’m excited to hear you might be able to make the trip!
The idea for the event came about pretty naturally. We work frequently with the committee members (Celtra, Forbes, Tribeca, Medialink, TUNE) and one day during Advertising Week in New York decided to collaborate and host an event together, bringing together people we thought should meet, chat, and share ideas amongst each other. This is going to be our first time hosting it.
Here are the basic FAQ:
- Who: 100 executives – creatives, technologists, investors, artists.
- What: 3 day event. An agenda of breakout conversation sessions and networking activities.
- Where: Necker Island, British Virgin Islands
- When: January 17th (5pm) to January 20th (noon)
- How much $: All you have to do is book a flight. We’ll take care of everything else. 🙂
Here are a few travel recommendation notes as you look into flights:
Which airport should I fly into?
Your best option is to fly on a direct flight into San Juan, Puerto Rico and continue to Beef Island (EIS) for both the arrival and departure. If you’d rather have a more adventurous experience, you can also fly directly into Virgin Gorda (VIJ) complete with small ‘jumper’ planes!
What happens when I land there?
Whether you decide on the adventurous route or the ‘I’d rather be on a bigger plane’ route, we will have dedicated staff ready to pick you up and take you to your accommodations. You can also count on us to bring you back to the airport on time the day of departure. In order to be able to do so, please kindly share your flight details with me by simply replying to this email once you have booked. We would greatly appreciate having all information including your chosen airlines, flight numbers, and flight times.
When should I fly in and out?
You are welcome to fly in anytime before 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, January 17th in order to ensure that you have plenty of time to check in and freshen up before we kick-off the inaugural Views adventure. You can also plan for an early afternoon departure on Friday, January 20th, as check-out is at 12:00 p.m.
I can introduce you to our event coordinator to share more logistics with you and keep you up to date as an attendee. If for some reason it doesn’t work out, we can change our head count.
Would that work for you?
Let me know if I can be helpful in any other way!
This was getting more interesting by the second.
I still wasn’t sure, but I noticed in some other materials that one of the CMOs I had interviewed for my book was on the invite list, so I emailed him and asked him, “Hey, is this legit? Are you going?” He said it appeared to be legit, and yes, he was going, so I booked my trip.
Once there, the Views crew put me up in the Bitter End Yacht Club, a short boat ride from Necker Island, which itself only sleeps around 25 people. I looked up the pricing on my place and it was around $800 per night. I had never stayed in a place that cost that much. Then again, I had never stayed in an isolated luxury bungalow on a hillside looking over the Caribbean.
The first night after my arrival, those of us staying at Bitter End boarded a ferry boat for Necker, where dinner was planned. I mingled with the other attendees, feeling completely out of place. I struck up conversation with a nice-looking guy, only to find out he was the President of TIME magazine. Another guy was the head of marketing for Under Armour. A woman was Gary Vaynerchuk’s former business partner and now ran marketing for Nike. A group of normal-looking guys turned out to be the makers of Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film about the Catholic Church abuse scandal in Boston. When they asked me about myself, I felt small as I said, “I’m here because I wrote a marketing book.”
Then, as we stood around chatting, out comes Sir Richard himself! I didn’t know he was going to be there, nobody had said anything about it. I assumed he was off somewhere doing important things for all the Virgin companies.
A mic was provided, and Richard spoke for a few minutes, cracked some jokes, and then we all sat down to an amazing dinner together.
As the evening progressed, everyone angled to get photos with Richard and shake his hand. I didn’t want to be that guy, so I kept my distance, although I was kind of secretly hoping somehow we would naturally end up chatting, cause c’mon, it’s Richard Branson! It didn’t happen that night. It didn’t happen the next morning at breakfast, either, when I sat at a table a few feet from him. He kept popping up here and there throughout the week, but he was always mobbed.
Finally, one night as we were having a banquet on the beach, as I was trying to get first dibs on the Indian food, I ended up in the buffet line next to Richard, got to chat a bit with him, and someone snapped a photo of it and sent it to me later.
Not gonna lie, I was a little starstruck, but I held my composure, pitched him on investing $50M in my new startup idea I had just came up with, and he wrote out a check on the spot…ok, none of that happened. I bet pitches like that happen to Richard all the time and outside he’s all smiling and nice and on the inside he’s like “Seriously?” Nah, what really happened is we had a little 1-minute chat, I asked him a softball question about entrepreneurship, he said he’d have to think and get back to me, and then he never did, but I did get an autographed book from him later to give to Corey, since I figured Corey deserved something out of MWI paying for me to go on this trip.
The week was amazing. In addition to the individuals I already mentioned, I got to meet the CMO for Mastercard, the founder of FourSquare, the head of the largest ad agency in the world ($14B in ad spend per year), and many more fascinating and notable people. Everyone was super nice, super approachable, super normal. The only difference between them and everyone else I knew seemed to be the amount of zeros behind all the numbers they were talking about.
I walked away with a much bigger vision in mind for MWI. After all, every single one of the massive or massively influential companies these people represented or worked for was, at one point, just an idea in someone’s head.
Moving to Mainland China
In 2016, not long after Jason was hired to manage MWI Hong Kong, I could check off one of the reasons I was in Asia—MWI Hong Kong was now largely self-sufficient and I was no longer needed on-site to make things work. However, the primary reason we were in Asia, to find our daughter, was more of a challenge.
We had filled out reams of paperwork, been through the approval process, and as soon as we found her, we could adopt. Our adoption agency kept sending us files of girls who matched our criteria, but every time I looked at them, I immediately felt like it wasn’t her. We weren’t ready to leave Asia yet, but we felt like we had learned everything we could in Hong Kong, MWI was thriving there, and there wasn’t any point to us staying.
We considered the different places we could move. Taiwan? Singapore? China? Vietnam? China itself made the most sense, at least as far as the adoption was concerned. That’s where our daughter was. If we wanted to find her, or at least learn about her language, food, and culture, then that’s where we should go.
My wife and I had traveled in China a number of times and a few times with our kids. We had been to Inner Mongolia, Shanghai, and Shenzhen itself about ten times, because it’s right there across the border from Hong Kong. One time we were in Shenzhen and my wife even said “I feel like someday we’re going to live here.” And yet in all our thinking about moving from Hong Kong, we never considered China because of a single reason–slow internet.
In China, the internet is “filtered” by the government and to access sites like Google, Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, and services like Dropbox or Whatsapp, you need to use a VPN, which slows everything down. Even though you can get a high-speed connection in China for a few dollars a month, it’s only high-speed for sites hosted inside of China’s great firewall. The rest of the world is on the outside, and slow. For me, that was a deal-breaker.
My wife and I narrowed the other options down to Singapore. MWI already had clients there, a cousin of mine lived there and could show us the ropes, it was another business and startup hub like Hong Kong with tons of opportunity, so why not?
We traveled to Singapore as a family to scope out apartments. We didn’t find one, but we still made plans to move there at the end of 2016. This was the plan. It was set in stone. We were getting ready to go, and then…we decided to watch this documentary on Shenzhen, China by Wired magazine.
Immediately after we finished the documentary my wife looked at me and asked, “Why are we moving to Singapore? Shouldn’t we be moving to Shenzhen?”
That was it.
She said it, and I knew it was the truth like I know 2+2=4.
Three weeks later, we had already rented an apartment in Shenzhen and moved in.
A Decent Proposal
As you can see, my story isn’t in strictly chronological order. Maybe there’s a better way to go about it, but I’ll leave editing for later. In the meantime, I apologize for all the backing up and then going forward again.
So…in November 2015, I was in the states on a business trip and met with a woman who previously held the position of CMO of a $2B company. She requested the meeting and I wasn’t sure of the purpose until she asked, “Could you coach me?”
“Coach you about what?” I thought. Who was I to be coaching anyone, let alone this woman? At this time, I was in the middle of recording interviews for my CMO book, which helped me recognize this woman had amazing executive experience. What could she possibly learn from me?
“I want you to help me get my writing into Forbes and other business publications,” she said.
I told her I was flattered, but I hadn’t ever considered coaching anyone. I didn’t know what it meant to be a coach or how to go about it. I told her I wasn’t sure how to respond. She told me she would pay me $1,000 per month for four hours of my time. At first, I was tempted—I needed the money—but I didn’t want to do this unless I had a plan, and I had no plan because the whole idea had just been proposed to me a minute earlier. I turned her down, only because I didn’t feel prepared, but it got me thinking… “If she was willing to pay me $1,000 per month for my advice, how many other people were out there like her?”
I was too busy with MWI to do anything about this thought, but it got my mind going about how I could help others increase their influence. More on this later.
A Model For Growth
Back when MWI was just an idea, I dreamed of it become a global player. As we grew, the model for what this might look like took shape.
- Clients like quick, responsive teams.
- Small teams are more responsive than big teams.
- Most client engagements require a mix of disciplines (SEO, SEM, dev, account management, project management, design, writing, etc.).
- Managing a small team isn’t all that difficult.
Three of those points contain the word “small,” but I wanted MWI to get big. As we grew, if we created silos between disciplines, with SEO, design, and writing each having 100 people on their respective teams, how would these teams work together effectively? That’s not how MWI operated when we had 10 people. We had one of each person on the team, and it was very easy to manage projects and get great work done. Could we preserve the best aspects of small teams, while still growing? The natural conclusion we reached was “We need to divide teams,” or in essence, created two MWIs within MWI. Two teams that are self contained with everything each one needs, and with their own clients. Would the teams ever work together? Sure, they might trade here and there, the members of the teams would communicate with each other and share best practices, maybe members would jump from one team to another occasionally, but for all intents and purposes we would have two companies within a company.
At the time, we were thinking about managing 20-30 people within a single office. But then we started to think about individual offices. What if we could create a sort of franchise model? Not an actual franchise system, but something that borrowed aspects of it. What if we created a headquarters, called it MWI HQ, and then we created individual offices under MWI HQ, like MWI HK, MWI AZ, MWI TX, MWI China, etc. Each office could be run by a sort of “local CEO” who would have a vested interest in its success (a sort of equity stake), and would operate with a high degree of autonomy while following basic rules and guidelines. Each office would pay a percentage of revenue back to MWI HQ, and MWI HQ would provide a brand, global marketing, training, quality control, and other various forms of support—anything to help the local offices grow, because this would be the only source of MWI HQ’s growth as it would have no clients of its own.
The more we discussed this model, the more I liked it. As an entrepreneur, I appreciated the control and transparency it extended to the local CEOs. They would truly be running those offices as though they were their own companies. Each one would be a laboratory for experimentation, and each year we could bring the leadership together for a mastermind where challenges and solutions would be discussed. As a marketer I was attracted to the idea of having a global network. The larger our footprint, the more we could secure larger deals, especially international deals. As a businessman I saw the potential for fast growth—it’s not that hard to start an agency and grow it to $1M in annual revenue with 10 people. And if we could provide a blueprint for success, based on our experiences, and provide support to the local leaders, this would greatly reduce risk and speed up the process. And as the network of offices grew, it would have more value.
From 2016-2017 we played around with the HQ model, trying out small experiments. One of our team members had a wife who was transferred to the UK, so we asked him to establish a presence for us there. Not exactly our model of finding a local CEO, strong at sales/bizdev, but it still was a foot in the door in that country.
We looked at acquiring a small agency already operating in China and having them become our China office, although we ultimately had Jason, who had done so well in Hong Kong, manage things in China. That turned out to be difficult, as no man can serve two masters. It fizzled.
Also in 2018, we hired someone to open an MWI office in Tampa, Florida. This was our first “real” attempt at the HQ model, where we went in organized with clearly defined goals and plans from the beginning. However, it also didn’t work and we had to shut it down. Implementing this model was more difficult than we thought it would be.
Making Myself Unnecessary
In mid-2017, I approached Corey and Kurtis, a friend of Corey’s who had also come on as a partner at MWI and was filling the COO role, and told them I wanted to make myself unnecessary to MWI. Not because I didn’t care about MWI, or had lost interest, but because I did care, and I wanted MWI to grow. I knew that if MWI depended on me, however, it was going to be restricted in its growth.
For example, a lot of MWI’s growth had been due to my writing for Forbes and other publications, but this created a dependency–we didn’t know how to get clients other than for me to write more articles. That’s all well and good, up to a point, but at some point my articles would stop working, or they wouldn’t be enough to sustain the same rate of growth.
Also, as long as I was generating leads through my writing, there wouldn’t be much motivation to do any other marketing. If we wanted to figure out marketing that could scale and help MWI continue to grow, I needed to get out of the way, even if it hurt, temporarily, and even if it meant that my team would eventually come back to me and say “You’re not doing much around here, so why are we paying you?”
Plus, I still had the PhD on my mind. Getting a doctorate would be a five-year commitment, with little to no time for me to focus on MWI. I couldn’t afford to be interrupted by an emergency at MWI while doing my PhD that might require me to choose between saving MWI or leaving school, which meant I needed a multi-year test to verify if MWI could function without me for an extended length of time.
I can’t overstate how hard this was to even wrap my mind around. From 1999 until 2017, almost eighteen years, I had never been out of touch with the day to day at MWI for more than a few hours, or perhaps one day at most. I had never taken a true vacation since starting the business.
Rather than telling Corey and Kurtis I wanted to take a few years off work, I started by telling them I was going to take a month off. I explained why, and they were very supportive and thought it was a great idea. They were excited to step up and take the responsibility to run things.
Once we began the process, it was surprisingly easy. The hardest part was all the passwords only I had access to, the fact my name was the only one on bank accounts and tax filings and business documents, and all those details you normally don’t think about until someone dies and you recognize their death is not just a tragedy but a major inconvenience. However, by the end of 2017 I had freed up most of my time and taking a one-month hiatus from MWI was no problem, at least not for MWI. The only problem for me was that nature abhors a vacuum, and when you give someone with Starting-Businesses-Addiction a big chunk of free time…well, he’ll start another business.
If you had asked me in mid-2017, “How would you like to start another business right now with a bunch of employees?” I would have said “That sounds great, but I should probably talk to my wife and consider all the details before jumping in.” Well, maybe that’s what I would have said. That’s certainly what I should have said.
But if instead you asked “How would you like to write a book about influence?” I would have said “Sure, that sounds like a good idea.”
And if you then asked “How would you like to start a Facebook group focused on influence, to make sure enough people are interested in the topic of your book?” I would have also said, “Yeah, I can handle that.”
What I didn’t realize was that writing a new book and starting a Facebook group would lead me to start a new business before I knew I was doing it, and then it would be too late to back out. Or…maybe I secretly realized that’s exactly what was going to happen, and this was a way for me to make it all happen without having to talk to my wife about it and consider all the details. Never trust an addict.
Remember that CMO who wanted to pay me to coach her about how to become more influential? She was the first one, but in 2017 other people began to approach me to ask for advice on thought leadership, personal branding, and influence. When I withdrew from the day to day at MWI and found myself with time on my hands and people offering me money to coach them, it seemed like the natural thing to dive in. I believed then, as I do now, that most people are good, and if I could help people become more influential, they would make the world a better place. Why shouldn’t I help these people?
I dove into coaching and writing a book. I called it “Influencer Inc,” although the word “influencer” would become so strongly associated with a different kind of influence that I felt forced to use a different name.
I had read enough of Ryan Holiday’s books and articles on writing, publishing, and marketing books to know I couldn’t expect to merely write a book, self publish, and see it spread like wildfire. I needed to build an audience, one that would be ready to buy my book the second it was published. I launched a Facebook group to see if people would join it to learn about influence. It took off and a year later had 4,000 members and lots of great activity.
Then someone approached me with the idea of doing a virtual summit. A virtual summit is basically a conference, but it all happens online. The “talks” are given beforehand, recorded, and attendees are then able to watch the talks as they’re released, one by one. I found a partner to handle the backend and logistics, and jumped in.
At the same time, I thought, “Hey, why not do a live event?” After all, I could leverage the audience from the virtual summit and the Facebook group.
Putting on a virtual summit, a live summit, managing a group with 4,000 members, and writing a book…I quickly became BUSY. Then things came to a head, real fast.
I lined up sixty interviews (fifty too many) with professionals on various aspects of individual influence (speaking, writing, marketing, etc.) for my virtual summit. Since I was in China and almost everyone I interviewed was in the US, this meant I was up in the middle of the night, a LOT, for TWO MONTHS. It was an awesome, incredible experience, but it was also hell. By the time I finished recording the sixty interviews, I was dead tired. As much as I enjoyed the interviews, the virtual summit was not as lucrative as I hoped. In fact, I didn’t make any money on it at all. I was able to pay my partner for her part in it as we had agreed, but there was nothing left over.
There were other financial challenges as well. While I was doing the virtual summit I kept up with my coaching clients, but the coaching business wasn’t growing like I had anticipated. I had put myself out there as a paid speaker, but I wasn’t getting enough of those either, nor did I have the time to dedicate to getting more. I had already paid $5K as a down payment to a hotel in the US to reserve a space for the live event, and I was on the hook for $20K, even if I canceled. I had hired four VAs to help me, but they weren’t getting the work done at the level of quality I needed, and I had hired a husband-wife writing team to help me with marketing, but I didn’t have the time to work with them. My costs had grown beyond my revenue, and my commitments exceeded my available time.
There was only one thing to do–add something more to the pile.
In 2018, I didn’t just add one more thing to the pile, I added a lot of things.
I brought on a partner, Rob Duffin, to help me run Influencer Inc, which is what I called the new business I had created to offer personal branding and thought leadership services to executives and entrepreneurs.
The first thing we did was to launch a course. It taught participants how to get into Forbes and other big publications as a contributor and leverage one’s writing to grow their business, just like I had done.
Actually, before we launched the course, I sold it. I filmed a video talking about the upcoming course, opened up sales for two weeks, and brought in almost $60,000. “This is it!” I thought. If I could sell a course that didn’t even exist and bring in $60K, just imagine what I could do once I actually had the course, people had gone through it, and I had testimonials!
I spent a lot of time filming and writing to create content for the course. I launched it, started working with my initial group of participants, and spent the $60K on my writing team, my team of VAs, and other business expenses. I don’t think I kept a penny of it. I was investing in the future, and after all, I was going to be bringing in $60K/mo from this course, right?
When I went to sell the course, after launching it, I wasn’t able to sell a single additional person on it. What had gone wrong? How could I sell a course I didn’t have, but I couldn’t sell a course I did have?
Turns out, I had exhausted my email list and Facebook group with my original offer. Everyone in my audience who was ever going to buy my course had already purchased it. The only way I could sell additional seats to the course would be to invest in more marketing.
Rob and I spent a good chunk of 2018 trying to figure out how to market the course. We became experts at webinars and Facebook ads, I created dozens LinkedIn and other social media posts to drive organic traffic. Nothing worked.
As 2018 progressed, Rob and I were running out of money, not paying ourselves, and we had a big problem. I had signed up with the hotel in the US to host our live event, and I was committed to paying another $20K, even if we canceled the event. However, if we went ahead with the event, we’d be on the hook for around $50K more. What to do? Eat the $20K, or hold the event and hope we could lose less than $20K and maybe even make a profit?
We weren’t sure what to do, so I put it out on social media for a vote. We got various opinions, but what tipped the scales for us was when a woman reached out and said, “I saw your post, I’m an event organizer, and I can blow your event out of the water and make it hugely profitable for you.”
We talked to the organizer and decided she had what it took to make our event a success. She showed us how she had done it before, even with a limited budget and on short notice. We went all in and told the hotel we would move forward with the event, which we named Impact Summit.
May I give you some free, helpful advice?
Don’t manage a large, live event on a shoestring budget from the other side of the world.
In fact, don’t manage a large, live event on a shoestring budget.
In fact, just don’t manage a large, live event.
Like my virtual summit, the live event was great and terrible at the same time.
We had amazing speakers.
We sold a lot of tickets and had well over 300 people show up and a bunch of exhibitors who paid to be there.
It was amazingly educational for me.
But we ended up losing $20K on the event, which meant that financially, we were exactly where we would have been had we never done the event and paid the hotel the cancellation fee. That figure doesn’t include the time we lost preparing for and putting on the event.
And then there were things like how the event organizer signed up a very well-known bestselling author and speaker for the event, because he was a friend of her and her husband, and when we lost money on the event she agreed to make sure the author got paid, but then she backed out and we didn’t have the money to pay that author (his fee was $20,000) and when we asked for a month to come up with the money he accused us of being dishonest and threatened to sue us, and I didn’t want to throw the event organizer under the bus since she was friends with the author, so we ended up scrambling to come up with his fee and never explained to him what happened. Ugh.
I later spoke with a friend of mine who puts on an annual event that’s incredible, and he said the first year he lost $275,000. The next year he lost $150,000. The third year he lost $75,000. And the fourth year he made a profit, and then the next year he made a big profit. Live events can be great, but know what you’re getting into.
The beginning of 2018 found us a year and a half into our experience in Shenzhen, China. We loved the experience, but we weren’t getting traction on our two primary goals, to open a mainland China office and to find our daughter.
As in Hong Kong, I searched for someone who could head up a China office. We looked at acquiring an existing agency, but that didn’t work out. We interviewed individuals, but that didn’t work out either.
Likewise, our adoption search kept turning up empty. My wife and I tried to visit orphanages, but they never let us inside, not that we really expected them to. Our adoption agency kept sending us profiles to look at—we had now seen around 40—but no matter how much I wanted to adopt every single child they showed us, it didn’t feel right. None of the kids were our daughter. We began to feel like maybe God didn’t want us to find our daughter while we lived in China, maybe it would be better if we found her after we returned to the US. But the thought of leaving China without finding our daughter was heartbreaking. It felt like giving up.
Target = Boston
In April 2017, I traveled to Boston to speak at the Content Marketing Conference, an event I had spoken at a few years in a row. I loved traveling to Boston, and ever since my experience there with Clayton Christensen in 1997, I remained convinced I would live there someday. It was just a matter of time and circumstances. I hoped living there would coincide with getting into HBS to do a PhD program, but I was becoming more flexible in my views about the future. Maybe I would get into HBS, maybe I’d get into another top 10 school, or maybe I would have to settle for a non-top-10 school for a PhD program. Regardless, I still felt like Boston would eventually be our destination.
During this trip, I visited the HBS campus, hoping to receive a message from God or some sort of direction on whether now was the time to move to Boston or not. I had been thinking about moving to Boston for twenty years, and I knew we would leave China someday to come back to the US. Why not Boston?
God didn’t speak to me while I walked around HBS that day. There was no stroke of inspiration. No electric feeling. However, later that day I had about five “interesting” experiences meeting people and learning things, and by that evening I was convinced Boston would be our next home. When I called my wife in China that evening, I told her, “I don’t want to make unilateral decisions, I’m just making a prediction here…I think we’ll be living in Boston within a year.”
When I began thinking about writing the book Influencer Inc, the first challenge I faced was figuring out how to structure the book. What would the outline look like? I considered collecting wisdom from influential people, or analyzing what influential people did. I began to ask myself whether there might be a formula for creating influence, a series of steps, or some sort of system.
I dove into research on influence and over the course of several months came up with a framework I called The 7 Systems of Influence.
I then began to test my framework in the real world to see how it held up. I analyzed what influential people did to see if they used these systems—they did. I experimented with the systems myself—they worked. I began to coach my clients using the systems and they worked for them, too. There were minor refinements here and there, but the core systems seemed to be more valid the more I tested them.
By the end of 2018, I replaced the name Influencer Inc with 7 Systems.
Around the same time, my partner Rob and I ran out of money and Rob had to get a job. We had a great time working together and remain friends, but he had to support his family somehow, and we weren’t getting enough traction with our efforts. I agreed to buy him out.
Back in 2013, LinkedIn bought a company called “Pulse,” a sort of blogging platform. Today, when you post an article on LinkedIn, you use what started out as the Pulse network. Previously, LinkedIn had been a sort of resume database, a place to find a job, but the Pulse acquisition turned LinkedIn into a content marketing tool.
Not long after LinkedIn bought Pulse, I had an idea for a simple experiment. What if I took one of my Forbes articles and published it on LinkedIn?
I did it, and I saw an explosion of engagement on LinkedIn. The same article that got a few hundred views on Forbes.com received tens of thousands on LinkedIn, eventually going over 100,000 views with thousands of comments.
How could this have happened?
Forbes was one of the biggest business magazines in all history. I was part of an exclusive group of contributors who had made the cut to get on there. LinkedIn’s blog network was tiny, in comparison, and anyone could post there. And yet here I was, getting 100x or more the engagement on my LinkedIn post vs. what I got on Forbes.
Of course, an experiment you try once is a fluke. If you try it twice and get the same results, it may still be a fluke. When you try it three times it may signal a trend. I tried it ten times, and every time I got similar results. Maybe I didn’t get over 100,000 views, but every single time I got way more attention than I was getting on Forbes.
I didn’t quit writing for Forbes, but I did spend a lot more time on LinkedIn.
Over the next few years, I learned a lot about LinkedIn and how it worked by performing more experiments. I shared what I was learning on LinkedIn and in articles I wrote elsewhere. One day, I started sharing a LinkedIn tip each day on my Instagram account, because, hey, why not? By the time I stopped sharing tips, I was up to sixty of them. Then I thought, “Gee, I could turn these into a book.” So I did. But first, I launched a crowdfunding campaign.
I used a website called Publishizer to crowdfund my book, ultimately getting 605 pre-orders at a total value of $26,441. It was one of the most successful fundraisers they had seen on the platform to date, but I had a secret weapon.
While I was running the crowdfunding campaign, a guy named Blake Hansen reached out to me. He was an entrepreneur in Boise, Idaho. I didn’t know him. I had never heard of him. He wanted some LinkedIn advice. I gave him some advice. He followed it, and he got results, and he wanted to talk more. I agreed to talk more with him. I still didn’t know a thing about him.
The next time I spoke to Blake, he asked me what I needed.
“Well, I am doing a crowdfunding campaign for my LinkedIn book,” I said, a bit hesitantly (I’m always hesitant trying to get anyone to buy anything).
“Done!” Blake said. “How many do you need me to buy?”
“Well, one would be great, and if you want to tell anyone else about it, so much the better,” I said, again, hesitantly, not wanting to ask too much.
“No,” said Blake, “How many are you trying to sell, total?”
I was confused. But since the published had told me I was virtually guaranteed a publishing deal if I got pre-orders for at least 500, I told Blake that’s what I was shooting for.
“How many have you sold so far?” Blake asked.
“Almost 200,” I said.
“Ok, I’m going to buy 300,” Blake said.
“Wait, what?!” I exclaimed. “No, no, no…Blake, you can’t do that!”
“Because that’s crazy!” I said, thinking to myself, “Who is this guy, anyway?!”
“So what? I’m going to buy 300,” Blake said.
I tried to resist, but Blake wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was insistent.
Over the next few weeks, I researched Blake and talked more with him. I’ve met crazy people before, but I’ve never met a crazy person who had money, let alone a crazy person who had money and gave it to me (I suppose one could argue anyone who ever gave me money was crazy, but no need to get hurtful).
But Blake wasn’t crazy, he was just different. “Different,” meaning he was the most generous person I’ve ever met, both in terms of time and money, because it didn’t stop with him pre-ordering hundreds of copies of my book.
Blake asked me what else I did. I told him I was also looking into coaching executives on thought leadership.
“You should start a mastermind,” Blake said. “I’ll be your first customer, and I’ll recruit a bunch of my friends to join.”
Again, I was thrown off balance by Blake’s generosity and tried to refuse, and once again, he wouldn’t back down.
I started a thought leadership mastermind, because of Blake. In retrospect, I think Blake actually paid for all the people to join who he recruited.
It went well for a few months, but then people started to drop out. Even Blake wasn’t showing up to our group calls.
At this moment, I stumbled onto a podcast featuring Stu McLaren, who teaches entrepreneurs how to start and run paid groups. On the podcast, Stu said paid groups fail for two reasons; first, they try to deliver too much information, and second, they don’t provide their members with a defined “success path.” I was definitely providing too much information for my mastermind—they couldn’t keep up—and the more they couldn’t keep up, the more information I gave them, because more is better, right? And I had no success path. I was coaching my members about thought leadership, but there was no goal, no way to know when you had “made it.”
As I pondered what kind of success path my mastermind members needed, I mapped out how thought leadership worked.
To become a thought leader, one needed a following. How did one attract a following?
To focus on thought leadership, one either had to be independently wealthy, or be able to generate an income through thought leadership. How did one generate an income from thought leadership?
I had already studied thought leaders, but I looked at all the thought leaders I could find, and analyzed what they were doing. Many were public speakers, many had podcasts, some wrote articles, a lot were active on social media, but one thing seemed to divide the paid thought leaders from the thought leaders who were doing it for free—a book. I certainly saw this in my own experience. I was already charging a fee to speak before I published my first book, but as soon as my book was out there, I was able to charge a lot more.
I also look at how a book seemed to make everything else easier. If you wanted to launch a podcast, create an online course, or become popular as a thought leader on social media, it was all simpler if you had a book. It’s not that a book was necessary, but it made everything else faster and easier. That’s when I created this graphic:
The idea was that as an entrepreneur, we all have buckets we can pour attention into in order to generate revenue.
If you invest in advertising and marketing for your business, you take that attention, put it through a funnel or process, and the attention turns into revenue in your business bucket.
Speaking can also be a bucket. If you generate attention for yourself, you can get paid to speak. And while you’re speaking, you can also generate attention for your business. Coaching can be another bucket. Attention from speaking and other sources can generate coaching income, coaching can lead to more attention for your business as well as bring you speaking opportunities. A book could tie all the buckets together, and generate outsized attention for the other buckets.
I told Blake about my idea to relaunch the mastermind with a focus on writing a book as the success path. He loved it. One of my mastermind members didn’t love it, and dropped out. The rest stayed on, and our meetings became much more engaged as everyone got excited about becoming authors and publishing “how-to” business books they could leverage to grow their businesses.
Of course, I’m never satisfied to leave well-enough alone. As I worked with my small mastermind group, I began to dream bigger. What if instead of helping ten people publish books, I could help a hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand?
I knew it was a viable business model because there were already competitors out there, but none of them focused exclusively on entrepreneurs who wanted to write non-fiction business books to grow their businesses. I figured I could carve out a niche there, one that would still appeal to tens of thousands of potential customers.
I needed a name. I found “publishedauthor.com” and purchased it for $2,000 (I used to hate cybersquatters, now I appreciate that they keep good domains available for me).
I built a simple website, and launched it. Then I put out the word to my email list and on social media that I was going to launch a paid group and the first people who joined would get lifetime membership in it for a flat fee.
Around 70 people joined, paying me over $45,000. This time, I remember what happened before and didn’t blow all the money immediately and I also resisted the temptation to assume I could do this again with the same email list. I knew I would have to build up other ways to market the program. Nevertheless, by mid-2018, Published Author was up and running.
Moving Back to the US
In early 2018, my wife turned to me one day and said, “I think I’m done with China.” I immediately felt what she felt. “Yeah,” I said, “I feel like we’re done here, too.”
I wasn’t tired of China, it just felt like our time was up and it was the right time to go back to the US. We didn’t know exactly why, although we had ideas. I needed to make progress on my PhD plans. Maybe we needed to be back in the US before we found our daughter in China. My parents were getting older and I wanted to spend more time with them.
Remember when I told my wife in April 2017 that I thought within a year we’d be living in Boston? It didn’t happen, but a year later we were in Boston looking at neighborhoods, in preparation to move there later that year.
We left China, and Asia, in December. It had been five and a half years since we lived in the US. We were returning without our daughter, but we felt like that was part of God’s plan for us. We felt like we had done what we came to do, and we hoped we would be back soon.
We spent Christmas in California with my parents, then hopped on a plane for Boston.
We didn’t know where we were going to live, yet. I had spent hours online looking at homes to rent, but hadn’t found anything that matched what I wanted.
“Why are you looking at farms?” my wife asked me whenever I sent her listings. “You grew in Los Angeles, you’ve never done an hour of farmwork in your life, you don’t even like mowing a lawn…so why do you keep sending me listings that come with 10 acres of farmland?”
“I want to live on a farm that someone else takes care of,” I said, “Where I can go out and work a little if I feel like it, but I don’t have to if I don’t want to.”
“Also,” I told her, “I want horses for the kids, and a skatepark, and good roads to run and bike on, and a 200-year old house with a lot of cool history, and…” I added about twenty other things to the list.
“Yeah, right,” my wife said. “Like we’re going to find a house with half those things.”
So I kept looking.
As we boarded the plane for Boston, my wife said, “Look at this email.”
I read it, and literally started bawling on the plane.
A friend of ours in the Boston area had put out the word through his network that we were looking for a place. The woman who emailed us was moving to Maine and wanted to rent out her house. Her house was built in 1779, was on a road used for an annual triathlon (good for running and biking), there was a skatepark within walking distance, and in the backyard of the house was a barn with 25 horses, a horse-riding business (that someone else ran), and 150 acres of wilderness with trees, trails, and a lake…and just about all the other twenty things I had on my list.
Do I have to say that we moved in? Yeah, we moved in. I didn’t learn to be a farmer. I’d still like to own a farm and I’d still like someone else to take care of it.
One of my goals, moving to Boston, was to get experience working with professors from top universities, and there are more top universities in Boston than anywhere else. I was specifically interested in MIT and HBS, because those are two of the top ten business schools and both of them had programs I was interested in.
More than just experience, however, I had a checklist that included:
- Find three contacts that can write great letters for my PhD application.
- Get my name on at least one, and preferably multiple journal articles.
- Make connections at HBS and MIT who will advocate for me when I apply.
Not long after moving to Boston, an HBS professor who attended my church congregation approached me.
“Josh, you’re a writer, right?”
“I think so,” I said.
“I need help writing something, it’s an HBS case study,” he said.
An HBS case study is not a journal article, but regardless, writing a case study sounded like great experience and I couldn’t have been more thrilled…and a little bit suspicious.
“Did you know I want to do a PhD at HBS?” I asked.
“No! I had no idea!” he said. “So you’re actually interested in this kind of writing, that’s great!” He just thought I was some random writer, and here he was, an answer to my prayers.
I had to jump through some hoops. HBS signed me up as a research assistant. It was the first time I had had a “real job” since 1999. I had to submit hours and everything, ugh. But then I got to work with two HBS professors on the case study. Frankly, I didn’t think I added much. When my new friend told me they were putting me on the case study as a co-author, I protested.
“I don’t feel like it’s fair, I mean, you guys did all the real work, I just wrote it up,” I said.
My friend assured me my contribution was valuable and I deserved to be on the case study. “Maybe my writing skills really are more valuable than I thought,” I mused to myself.
Finding Our Daughter
In May 2019, we received yet another girl’s profile to look at from our adoption agency.
To give a sense of perspective, most families adopting from China choose one of the first three children whose profiles are shown to them, and that happens within months of being approved to adopt. We had now been approved for over five years and had looked at around fifty profiles. We had received one other profile since returning to the US, and at first I thought, “If God wanted us to move back before we adopt, maybe this is it!” but it wasn’t. Just like with the other forty-eight profiles I had seen, I knew as soon as I saw this one that it wasn’t her.
But this profile, the one we got in May, was different…. I don’t know what it was, I just stood in our kitchen, looking at the profile, and I said to my wife, “I think this might be her…”. Fact is, I already knew, but I didn’t want to say it.
We gathered our family together in our front room and I said a prayer out loud that God would help us know if this was really the daughter we had searched for, for so long. I cried through the whole prayer. When I finished, my other daughter said brightly, “Well, whenever dad cries that means it’s the right thing!”
It was her. Then we noticed she turned fourteen in August. Chinese law states that nobody can be adopted once they turn fourteen–no exceptions. Normally, processing an international adoption takes six months or more. We had just three months. We called our agency.
“This is her. How do we make this happen before she ages out?”
They told us it would be tough, but they would do everything possible to make it happen, and that they thought it could happen.
The next few months were busy filling out paperwork, running it by hand to offices in the area because overnight wasn’t fast enough, sending it to a government office in Kansas that lost the paperwork with valuable documents for two weeks (and then magically found it), and trying to communicate with our daughter on video chat, which was awkward since we didn’t speak much Chinese and she spoke zero English.
We adopted our daughter with one week to spare. If a typhoon had hit the region and disrupted air travel, or if any other little thing had gone wrong, it might all have failed, but everything worked out. It always seems to when it really matters.
We brought our new daughter home to Boston. Then COVID hit and we became shut-ins for much of the next year, along with everyone else around us.
After two and a half years in Boston, we tried to buy a home, but the market was in a frenzy. We bid on a house, but it had eighteen other offers and we weren’t close to being the winner, nor were we sure we wanted to win. Another attempt made us feel like Boston simply wasn’t a realistic place to buy at the moment. Then Blake Hansen intervened again to change my life.
Blake decided he wanted me to ghostwrite a book about the way he does business. He flew to Boston so we could start working on it, and in the process of talking through his book we also talked a lot about MWI and my partners Corey and Kurtis. To help me understand how Blake did things differently, and how to write his book, he gave me advice on how to fix MWI. The more we talked, the more I saw how I had made many mistakes.
One of the big mistakes I made with MWI was to withdraw almost entirely from the company. I thought I was doing the right thing when I did, I thought I was helping Corey and Kurtis to take over and feel like the responsibility to grow the company was truly on their shoulders. I had internalized the quote from Dune, “Once you tell a man what to do, you must always tell that man what to do.” I thought this meant either I had to micromanage MWI or not be involved at all, but Blake helped me see that both approaches were wrong.
If you’ve read Traction or Rocket Fuel by Gino Wickman, then you’ll understand exactly what I’m saying next. If not, here’s the super-summarized version of a concept these books teach:
There are two types of entrepreneurs; visionaries and integrators. Visionaries have a hundred ideas every week, and maybe ten of them are good. Those ideas lead to new products, services, and companies. Integrators are entrepreneurs who like to get things done. Without an integrator a visionary’s idea would remain simply that, an idea.
There’s a visionary/integrator test online, which Corey, Kurtis, and I all took. Kurtis was almost all integrator (none of us was surprised). I was almost all visionary (again, nobody was surprised). Corey scored half and half, which made sense when we thought about it, but was surprising because it’s rare for someone to not lean distinctly one way or the other.
What I didn’t understand at the time I started to withdraw from MWI was how necessary it was for me to continue to occupy the visionary seat there. Well, actually, I hadn’t even heard about this whole concept. But when I did, I still thought my work as a visionary was done and that Corey and Kurtis had it handled. Blake helped me see that I brought something to the table nobody else did, and nobody else ever would.
The next time I spoke to Blake, I told him, “I’m moving to Arizona to be closer to Corey and Kurtis so we can start working together on MWI, and it’s all your fault.”
We moved to Arizona in July 2021. Anyone who has ever lived in Arizona or has visited in the summer will immediately ask, “Why July?!!” It just worked out that way. Also, we figured we’d start off feeling like we were living in hell and then when winter came around it would feel like heaven, and that’s pretty much how it worked out.
My conversations with Blake continued. He showed me a much larger vision than I had previously seen about what MWI could become. The core of it hinged around a few points:
- I wanted to start LOTS of businesses. I had more ideas than I knew what to do with, and I was passionate about all of them.
- More than starting businesses, what really got me excited was people. I love nothing more than to help people progress and maximize their potential.
- I wanted to do something big, something that would make an impact on the world and continue doing so for hundreds of years. Not for my ego, not to make a lot of money, but because I saw the world and what it could become, and I asked, “Why not me?”
Blake had a model that made all this seem realistic. While trying not to oversimplify, Blake’s model allowed an entrepreneur to do these things and more.
I could start all the businesses I ever wanted to.
I could employ lots of people and help them maximize their potential.
If successful, I could change the world, not just for a few people, but for many, perhaps many more than would ever work at any of the businesses I started.
There was just one problem—decisions I had made about my partners’ equity in MWI made it so MWI wasn’t the ideal vehicle, nor was I 100% sure Corey and Kurtis would be interested in accompanying me on the journey. What I wanted to do was a new plan and a different one from what anyone had understood when they came on board.
In addition, I had my own companies like 7 Systems and Published Author…how would we join all these together?
I decided to start a new business called Pando Partners, after the largest organism on earth, composed of 106 acres of aspen trees connected by a single giant root system. (The pando colony is being eaten by deer and fungus and may die but let’s focus on the positive side of the analogy) Pando would own my shares in MWI, as well as my shares in any other company I started or partnered on, whether that was 5% or 100%. This set up a dynamic where there was a bit of “Mine and ours,” between my partners and I, but we decided to make it work.
Like Pando, we decided that MWI would become a “super engine,” or a company that creates companies that creates companies. We’ve already experimented with a few models, some of which we probably won’t continue to fund and others that show promise.
Canvas PR is the first MWI subsidiary to produce real revenues. Canvas is like a PR vending machine—you put your money in, you get a PR placement out. Want to be in an article in Forbes? Inc.? Entrepreneur? We can give it to you for a flat fee and deliver within 90 days or your money back.
We’re also researching the self storage industry. MWI has been involved in marketing for self storage companies for more than ten years, but we’ve never thought about owning self storage, until now.
And there is a list of ideas for companies MWI might start and grow, too long to go into here.
It’s now August of 2022 as I wrap this up. It’s easier to write about what’s set in the stone of the past than things that are happening right now, because it’s hard to know what current events will matter. However, here are a few highlights:
- MWI bought Corey out. For the past few years Corey had spent time part-time teaching at BYU Hawaii, full-time working in the missionary department for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he recently took a full-time offer to work for Boncom, a large marketing agency that has the Church as its primary client. It never would have been a consideration for him to leave except for his commitment to the faith, and he never would have sold his equity in MWI except that Boncom wants to work with MWI but they can’t if Corey owns equity in it. We came to an amicable arrangement that is a true win-win, something Corey talked a lot about at MWI.
- Our daughter just turned 17. That means she’s been in our family for three years. She speaks English remarkably well and has a job and likes and dislikes the same things teenage girls have liked and disliked throughout history.
- Published Author is on pause. About a year into it I realized all my students needed a workbook. It’s 90% done. You can sign up to get it for free when it’s released.
- I launched a few more companies. BlueMethod is a LinkedIn agency built around the principles in my book 60 Days to LinkedIn Mastery, which became a USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Thank you to my co-authors Virginie Cantin, Andy Foote, Lorri Kane, Kyle Weckerly, Ben Wise, and Aaron Wrixon. AuthorVoice is a podcast management company for nonfiction business book authors.
- I’m working on more books. I’m in the middle of editing a memoir about my experience adopting our daughter from China. Also a book about context-based learning, another about the four fundamentals of education, another about digital marketing for CMOs (yes, I’m going to do it, finally!), another called PR is Broken that will be a marketing tool for Canvas PR, and I’m working on a fiction series that deals with teen suicide and a not-so-hidden world of spirits.
- Book coaching. I love working one-on-one with entrepreneurs to help them write, publish, and leverage their books. It keeps me grounded and it’s so satisfying to help someone else on their author journey. I work with a limited number of high-performance entrepreneurs at a time, one on one, to help them through the book process. My team and I literally take care of everything my clients need. It’s a blast to get a call from a potential client who says, “I’m a billionaire and I want to share my story and what I’ve learned. I want to give something back.” Not that you have the be a billionaire…but it’s fun when the client has the means to do things the right way. Learn more about my book coaching services.
- PhD. I’ve made more inroads on the right connections, but there’s a lot of business to take care of before I can seriously consider applying. I hope to apply within the next few years, because I’m not getting any younger.
As long as this is, I skipped a lot. I didn’t tell you about how I almost died last year from a leg wound and subsequent infection, or about my wife and I struggling with infertility, or how I recorded over 100 episodes of the Published Author podcast. There’s a lot of stuff I could add in, but who wants to hear that? Then again, if you got this far, I guess I’m already surprised at how much you want to know about me. Should I be worried?
Oh, And Book Coaching
If you want to reach me, email me at email@example.com and tell me you finished my story. I’ll give you a free hour of coaching for your sacrifice. And maybe, just maybe…I’ll update this story in a year or two.