If you’re looking for a short bio or my headshot, 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.
Everything was going great until I met a girl. I had never had a girlfriend before. I had never even been on a date. My first date, ever, was a blind date I was coerced into when I was 22. Then suddenly I met this girl who I became infatuated with and who seemed to be super into 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, to be exact). I didn’t care what else happened, I just knew I had to make this girl 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 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.
“Do I Have to Dance?”
A year or so before all this mess, 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
From 2007 to 2011 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.
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. Life was good. What else did I need?
Let’s Make a Deal
By the end of 2011 I started getting antsy 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 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.
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. After getting a few tips from Corey 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 for more advice. Then I asked him if I could pay him hourly to do some light consulting for me. 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.
By April, 2013, I was convinced I needed to hire Corey on full time, the only problem was that Corey was already committed to go 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 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’ve done a bunch of research on it and talked to a lot of people and we know we’re crazy and it will be difficult). Soon after making this decision, I looked at the arrangement I had where I was simply doing sales and transferring the work to my friend’s company to take care of fulfillment and thought that since I could work from anywhere in the world, why not move to China? I figured it would help us learn some of the language and become familiar with the culture, food, etc., all of which would help us ease the transition of our daughter into an American home. It would also be a great experience for our other two kids and our family.
As we started looking into China, we spoke with some friends from our neighborhood who had lived all over Asia, including China, who advised us to try out Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Singapore first, since we had no prior experience in Asia, other than that my wife had lived in Japan for a few years as a teenager. That seemed like sound advice, and we narrowed things down to Hong Kong and made the decision to move there no later than mid-2013. This is how I ended up moving to Asia while Corey was doing summer sales. Another important event that coincided with all this was that I started writing for Forbes around this same time.
Getting Into Forbes
Without moving to Asia and talking business with Corey none of what has happened since 2012 would have happened, but there is one more factor that had a huge impact, and that was when the chance to write for Forbes came along.
It all started in early 2013 when I went to my friend Cheryl Conner, who runs the Utah based PR agency Snapp Conner, and asked her if she could help me get some news media logos on MWI’s website. I had seen competitors with these logos on their websites, and I felt like it added major credibility for their businesses and I wanted to do the same thing. Since I enjoyed writing, Cheryl helped me get a piece in Fast Company, and we were working on more placements when I came across some of Cheryl’s writing on Forbes. In our next meeting I asked her how she got this job, 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?”
At this point, I almost made what would have been one of the the biggest mistakes of my life. I was so overloaded running my business I almost told her thanks but no thanks, but instead I said, “Sure, that’d be awesome!”
After our meeting, I remember going home and discussing it with my wife, and talking about how busy I was, and yet writing for Forbes seemed like such a great opportunity. I didn’t know why it was a great opportunity, or how it could really benefit me or my business, but gee, it’s Forbes, right? How could I pass it up?
Two weeks later I attended an event at Weber State University in Utah, where Cheryl’s editor from Forbes, Tom Post, was speaking. After Tom’s talk and during lunch Cheryl introduced me to Tom. I assumed he had no idea who I was yet, but as we spoke he said “Cheryl showed me your article in Fast Company. I wish you had written that for us.” I was flattered. “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!”
There’s no one reason why everything that happened next happened—it was chemistry. The combination of certain elements made things explode. If I had started writing for Forbes, but without Corey on board, or Corey had come on board, but without me writing for Forbes, perhaps something else would have happened and we would have found success, but based on the success we’ve had since 2013 it’s hard to believe it could have been better any other way.
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, then executed a flawless plan, and everything worked out as predicted. But I don’t think chemistry works out that way for anyone. I’ve never heard any story about an inventor, scientist, chemist, or entrepreneur who started something and succeeded on the first try. But I’ve heard hundreds of stories about people, like Edison or Curie, who tried and failed hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of times before finding 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 radiation poisoning.
Call it God, or luck, or whatever you want to call it, in 2013 things came together in a wonderful way.
The $2M Blog Post
When I started writing for Forbes I didn’t know where it would lead, but I knew it was a great opportunity and that I didn’t want to mess it up. I figured I should stay far away from writing anything that seemed self promotional or tried to push MWI’s services. As a result, I focused on entrepreneurship and startups. 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 other tangible benefit to writing for Forbes, at least for the first few months.
However, after I had gotten my bearings I began to 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. “If they’re writing about digital marketing, and they run marketing agencies, why can’t I write about digital marketing?” I thought.
I decided to write a piece on digital marketing and see how it went. I did. Nobody at Forbes said anything. So I wrote more. Then I got lucky. MWI had lost a few deals because, in my opinion, the potential clients had made mistakes in how they went about choosing which agency to work with. I quickly wrote up a piece with the title 4 Tips For Hiring The Right SEO Firm and published it. I hoped it might attract a client or two, or that I could send it to clients who were considering hiring MWI. I had no idea what would happen next.
The brilliant thing about this piece, which I can’t take credit for because I didn’t realize this until after the fact, was that it hit MWI’s potential clients 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 get the idea that SEO might be a good way to do it, but you’re not sure where to start. You begin researching SEO firms and you find hundreds out there, and some offer SEO packages for $250 per month, while others have no pricing on their websites and when you contact them they tell you they charge $10,000 per month at a minimum. You come to the realization you don’t want to hire the cheap SEO firm, but you also don’t want to pay $10,000 per month, so you go and find a handful of firms that charge between $3,000 and $7,000 per month, and you’re trying to figure out which one you want to work with, but it’s difficult. In frustration, you go to Google and type in “How to hire an SEO firm” and then one of the top results you get is this:
You think “Huh, I need tips on hiring the right SEO firm,” and then “And this is on Forbes, so it seems like I should be able to trust this.”
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, and it’s written by a guy who has an SEO firm…why don’t I just hire his SEO firm?”
Apparently this is what happened to many people, because as soon as I wrote this article we began to be flooded with leads. It struck a chord with readers, and our phone began to ring off the hook, our email inbox filled up, and Corey was busy responding to everyone and began to close 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…”.
Over the next few years, we tracked at least $2M in revenue directly to this blog post. The leads have kept coming in, and the number might be $3M at this point, but I’m not 100% sure about that so I’ll say $2M.
The fact that I started writing for Forbes at the same moment I moved to Hong Kong completely changed my experience in Asia from what it otherwise would have been.
Let’s put it this way—I wasn’t the most popular guy in school. 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, I was happier staying 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!).
However, when I walked off the plane in Hong Kong and told people, hesitantly, “Yeah, so I run a digital marketing agency…and I also write for Forbes,” the response was “Oh wow, you write for Forbes?!” and the next thing I knew I was being invited to everything. Having grown out of my shy stage, and being new in Hong Kong, I felt like I had to accept every invitation. I was invited to meet with government officials, judge startup pitch events, and meet with local entrepreneurs. 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 third child, 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.
The first year I didn’t do much on it. I was busy working with Corey on the US side of MWI and writing articles. I knew the first thing I needed to do was find someone who was good at sales, like Corey, and who could also be an entrepreneur, so I was searching and asking around, but not as intently as I could have.
When my first year was up and I had to justify to the Hong Kong government why I hadn’t hired anyone, I realized I should probably get moving on it. I hired a number of sales people, but none was the right fit. That cost me the better part of the second year. I finally found someone who seemed to have a lot of potential to do business development and be more entrepreneurial, so we hired him on and committed a lot of resources to him.
It didn’t work. After 8-9 months we let him go. There went the rest of the second year and half of the third year in Hong Kong as well.
It’d be nice if I could blame that guy, but it wasn’t his fault. That is, it was his fault that he didn’t do the job we had hired him for, but it was my fault for hiring him in the first place, and my fault for letting things drag on so long.
Part of the issue is that I am the opposite of a micro-manager to a fault. I can be suuuuper hands off to the point of neglect. This works great when I hire people who are proactive and take control of things, but it works out poorly when I hire people who need more supervision and guidance. While this guy was “running” MWI Hong Kong, I was holed up writing articles and focusing on training for an ultra-marathon on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island.
I let that guy go at the beginning of 2016. In May, 2016, I met Jason Wong.
Was it chance? Sort of, but not exactly. I was on LinkedIn searching for everyone in Hong Kong who was LDS, or Mormon. I don’t recall looking for anyone in particular, I was just curious. I stumbled onto Jason’s profile, which contained a few things of special interest to me. One was that Jason had experience growing an office of the recruitment firm he was at. Another was that he had previously worked for Vivint, a Utah-based company that uses high-pressure, door to door sales tactics to sell alarm systems. Corey had also worked for Vivint, albeit briefly. Corey had also worked for similar summer sales companies, and I had seen the value it brought to MWI to have someone who understood sales, and rejection. As I looked at Jason’s profile I thought “This is the Hong Kong version of Corey!” I had to meet him.
I contacted Jason and told him I wanted to meet him. What I didn’t realize was that he had assumed, naturally, that I was interested in his firm’s recruitment services. When he showed up he started giving me his pitch, and although it wasn’t my intent to mislead him, I recognized this as a great opportunity to see how he tried to sell me, since this was a large part of what I wanted the next person we hired at MWI Hong Kong to do.
Jason did a great job, and after his pitch I started giving him my own. I gave him the MWI history, and told him how I had been frustrated at the hiring I had done so far. I told him who we were looking for, and he listened intently, taking notes and nodding his head. Then I popped the question—”Rather than you finding me someone for this position, what would you think about applying for it yourself?”
Jason looked at me in surprise, but I could see the wheels turning in his head as he nodded and said “Yeah, um, yeah…well…” I could see he knew it could be a great fit. What impressed me more at that moment was that he said “Well, this is interesting, but let me think about it a bit. I don’t like rushing into things and I have considerations I have to think about.” I don’t like hiring desperate people, in fact, I like hiring people who resist at first, although that’s not a prerequisite for working at MWI. It just makes me want to fight for someone when they aren’t interested but I know they would be a great fit.
The next time Jason and I met we spoke for hours, then had dinner, then spoke for hours more. I believe it ended up being between 5-6 hours we were talking. Finally, he came on board with MWI as our managing director in Hong Kong.
The CMO Book
At 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday, October 28, 2014, I entered a conference room at the Hong Kong offices of Nexusguard, an online security company. We had negotiated a contract with Nexusguard for our services. I was there to get the contract signed and have a kickoff meeting to get things started.
I was introduced to various members of the marketing team, including Hope Frank, who informed me that as of the previous day, she was the company’s new CMO. She said she was interested in talking to me about my agency’s services, but no contracts would be signed that day. I walked out of that meeting wishing it had been scheduled a week before.
A few months later, my management team and I had a meeting to discuss creating client personas for our agency. I recalled the meeting with Hope and said, “CMOs can make or break deals with agencies like ours. Is there a way we could understand them better and establish credibility with them?”
We decided I would write a book on the topic “What CMOs need to know about digital marketing.” As I started doing research, I realized that while I knew plenty about digital marketing, I didn’t know enough about CMOs to write the book. But I thought I knew where to learn more. A few years previously, my 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 the “At Work” series. I was also in the middle of succeeding volumes Venture Capitalists at Work and CTOs at Work and knew there were several other books. I figured I would go buy “CMOs at Work,” read it, and then I’d have the knowledge I needed to do a better job on my digital marketing book for CMOs.
However, I went to Amazon to buy “CMOs at Work,” but I couldn’t find it. I found it hard to believe the book didn’t exist, so I kept searching, and that led me to the Apress website, where I verified that there was no such book. However, as I was looking over the Apress website, I stumbled onto a page inviting authors to propose and write additional titles for the “At Work” series. The thought struck me that I could write the “At Work” book on chief marketing officers and that this would be excellent preparation for writing the book on digital marketing. I sent a message to Apress, explained that I was a contributor to Forbes and other business publications and I felt I had the network and means to contact CMOs and other top marketers to be part of this book; and I secured a contract.
In hindsight, I’m thankful that the meeting with Nexusguard happened when it did. Were it not for the impression losing that deal made on me, I wouldn’t have interviewed 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, I asked my publisher if they were planning on doing an Audible version of the book, and they said they weren’t. I asked if I could have the rights, and they signed them over to me. I make about $2-3 per print copy, and $10-12 per Audible copy, and the Audible copies appear to be outselling the print and Kindle copies by a wide margin. Remember that 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 when you write a book–suddenly people care about you. A book is a business card on steroids. Somehow, a book legitimizes you as an expert. It doesn’t even need to be a very good book. A friend of mine has a book out that is terrible. It’s not well written. It’s full of typos. The physical product is cheap. It’s self published. Doesn’t matter, he gets invited to speak at all sorts of conferences and is commonly referenced as an expert in his field. I don’t think event organizers even read his book, I think they see that he has spoken at another event, and that he has a book, so they check their boxes and say “Well, he must know what he’s talking about, after all, he wrote a book on it.” If he gives a terrible presentation, the organizer can always tell her boss “But he has a book! I assumed he would be awesome.”
Not long after I wrote my book, around December, 2015, I received an email. I almost deleted it immediately, because it sounded like spam. The email was inviting 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. Generally the catch is that it costs $25K to go, but what caught my eye in this email is that it was personalized to me. The person sending the email reference my book and said she was reading it, and that’s not the type of thing you can automate and spam out to 50,000 people, so I read it 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 if he was going. He said he was, and that the event was legit, 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, which only sleeps around 25 people. I looked up the pricing on my place, it was around $800 per night, but given that it was an isolated bungalow on a hillside looking out over the Caribbean, that seemed like a bargain.
When I arrived, nothing had been said about Richard. I assumed we were just hanging out on his island, not that he would actually be there. But the first night, before dinner, we were all there at the villa on top of the island and out comes Richard. Someone interviewed him for a few minutes, he cracked some jokes, and then we sat down to an amazing dinner together.
Everyone was angling to get photos with Richard and shake his hand, and I didn’t want to be that guy, so I kept my distance, although I was kind of secretly hoping somehow we would just naturally end up chatting, cause c’mon, it’s Richard Branson! He was there at breakfast the next morning, and here and there through the whole week, and finally one night we were having a banquet on the beach, and without intending to (I just wanted 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.
Sure, I was a little starstruck, not gonna lie. So then I pitched him on investing $5M in my new startup and he wrote out a check on the spot…ok, that’s a lie, but 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, we had a little 1-minute chat, I asked him some softball question about entrepreneurship, he said he’d have to think and get back to me, and that was it.
The week was amazing. I got to meet the head of Time magazine, the CMO for Mastercard, Gary Vaynerchuk’s business partner, the founder of FourSquare, the head of the largest ad agency in the world ($14B in ad spend per year), etc. Everyone was super nice, super approachable, super normal. The only difference between them and everyone else I know seemed to be the amount of zeros behind all the numbers they were talking about.
If there’s any one thing I walked away with, it was a vision of what’s possible in terms of growing a business. Every single one of the massive or massively influential companies these people represented or worked for at one point was just an idea in someone’s head.
Moving to Mainland China
Once Jason was hired to manage MWI Hong Kong, I could check off one of the reasons I was in Hong Kong. The first was adoption, finding our daughter, who was actually in China. The second was to get Hong Kong self sufficient enough that I could leave, and within three months Jason had done that and I could see I wasn’t needed anymore. However, I wasn’t about to move to China, because of one thing–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 things down. Even though you can get a 100MB connection in China for cheap, it’s only 100MB for sites hosted within China’s great firewall. For me, that was a deal-breaker.
As MWI Hong Kong came into its own, my wife and I considered moving somewhere else in Asia where we could open another MWI office, but still be reasonably close to China where our daughter was, somewhere. The logical next place was Singapore. We already had clients there, my cousin lived there, it’s another hub like Hong Kong, tons of opportunity, why not?
We got as far as traveling there as a family to scope out apartments and were planning on moving there at the end of 2016, I mean, we were set on this, it was the plan. And then…we decided to watch this documentary on Shenzhen by Wired magazine.
My wife and I had traveled in China a number of times, a few times with our kids. We had been to Inner Mongolia, Shanghai, and Shenzhen itself about 10 times, because it’s right there across the border from Hong Kong. We knew it’s where our daughter was. 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 that slow internet issue.
But immediately after we finished watching that 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 found an apartment in Shenzhen and moved in.
A Decent Proposal
As you can see, I’m not putting all this down in strictly chronological order. It’s organized, in part, by topic or event. Maybe that’s not the best 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 had been the CMO of a $2B company. She had 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? At this point I was in the middle of doing interviews for my CMO book, and I recognized that this woman had amazing experience and I wasn’t sure what she wanted to 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 such a thing, I didn’t know what it meant to be a coach or how to go about it, and wasn’t sure how to respond. She told me should would pay me $1,000 per month for four hours of my time. At first, I was tempted—I won’t pretend this wouldn’t have been good money for me—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 coaching, how many other people were there out there like her?”
That moment marked the beginning of the movement I would come to brand as Influencer Inc.
Although I turned down this first opportunity at coaching, I started to think more about what I had learned about thought leadership and influence, and how I could pass that on to others. But in the meantime I was still busy with MWI.
A Model For Growth
Before I ever started MWI I dreamed of it becoming a global player. As we grew, the model for what this might look like began to take shape. A few key points about managing an agency became clear to Corey, Kurtis Kildew (our COO), Jason, and others at MWI.
- 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 and as of mid-2018 we’re still searching for the right solution.
Also in 2018 we hired Taran Hercules 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. I’ll come back and update this as details emerge.
Making Myself Unnecessary
In mid-2017 I approached Corey and Kurtis at MWI 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 wouldn’t allow us to keep growing, I would have to write just to maintain our size. 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 let MWI 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?”
I should also mention I have plans, which I’m not yet publicly sharing, which extend beyond MWI or anything else I’m doing right now, and I wanted to set MWI on a course such that it could run well, or even better, without any of my attention.
I thought Corey and Kurtis would say “No! Josh, we can’t live without you!” but instead they could hardly restrain their joy when I told them that by the end of 2017 I wanted to take a month off from MWI. Guess they had been trying to figure out how to get rid of me for a while…ok, I kid, but they were very supportive and thought it was a great idea. To this point, from 1999 onward, 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.
Getting rid of myself at MWI was easier than I expected, up to a point. The first 90% was a piece of cake. The next 5% was all the passwords I had to 50 websites and my name on bank accounts and taxes 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. “Yeah, you’ll miss me when I’m gone and you can’t upgrade the Dropbox account!”
The last 5% is that to this day I’m still involved in high-level strategy and bringing in clients, but the point is that well before the end of 2017 I had freed up most of my time and taking the one-month vacation from MWI was no problem.
The only problem 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.
Starting Influencer Inc
If you had asked me in mid-2017 “How would you like to start another business right now with a bunch of employees?” I probably 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 this would put in motion taking Influencer Inc from a vehicle for my speaking and writing revenue, and turn it into a real business with a partner and employees, and that by the time I realized things were in motion, 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, after all, you can’t trust an addict.
One Thing Leads to Another
Remember that CMO who wanted to pay me to coach her about how to become more influential? That’s how it started, but it wasn’t until 2017 that others began to approach me. It was a question here, a question there, then more, then more people offering me money to coach them, and then suddenly I had a lot of free time on my hands and I asked myself “What’s the best way I can pass my knowledge on to others?” My philosophy and motivation was that I believed then, and still do now, that most people are good, and if I could help people become more influential, they would make the world a better place.
I figured a book was the best way. I decided to call it Influencer Inc, because I wanted to help people become more influential, but then I thought about how perhaps I should focus on a financial component. After all, if someone wanted to influence others full time, they had to already be independently wealthy, or be able to make a living from their influence. Without an income, they would be restricted to influencing nights and weekends, and the world would be poorer as a result.
I had read enough of Ryan Holiday’s books and articles to know I couldn’t expect to merely write a book, self publish, and see it spread like wildfire. I needed to build a foundation, and especially an audience who would be ready to buy my book the second it was published. So I thought “Hey, I’ll start a Facebook group and see if people want to join it and learn about influence.” I called the Facebook group Influencer Inc, and it took off and a year later had 4,000 members and all sort of incredible activity going on it. People getting PR, speaking gigs, opportunities to write for top business publications, etc. It took on a life of its own.
In 2017 I also decided I had the time to start coaching, so I took on a few clients. Suddenly I had $5K/month coming in, on top of my salary from MWI, so I thought “Hey, I’ve always wanted some virtual assistants, so I’ll go hire a few and then I can effectively clone myself by freeing up my time.” So I hired four of them, plus a husband-wife writing team based in the US to help me craft sales letters to get more coaching clients. I figured coaching would be a great way to test out material I was creating for my book.
Then I was approached 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, and are typically done interview style. I did some research, saw that they could be quite lucrative, found a partner to handle the backend of things, and jumped in.
Then I also got the idea to put on a live event in the US, after all, I could leverage the audience from the virtual summit and my other audience from the Facebook group, things were zipping along, and I had big dreams.
This was all towards the end of 2017, and I quickly realized I was BUSY. Then things came to a head, real fast.
I lined up 60 interviews for my virtual summit (about 40-50 too many), and of course being in China and almost everyone I was going to be interviewing living in the US this meant I was up in the middle of the night, a LOT, for TWO MONTHS. It was hell, even though it was an awesome, incredible experience. However, it didn’t turn out as lucratively as I thought it would, in fact, I didn’t make any money on it at all. I was able to pay my partner decently for her part in it as we had agreed, but there was nothing left over. I pulled it off, but I was dead.
While I was doing the virtual summit I was keeping on top of the coaching I was doing, but it wasn’t growing like I had hoped and anticipated. I was also expecting more paid speaking gigs, and I wasn’t getting enough of those, 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. And I had the overhead of my four VAs plus my writing team. My costs had grown beyond my revenue, and my commitments beyond the time I had available.
There was only one thing to do–add something else to the pile.
Last updated 11-July-2018. I’m writing as fast as I can, but if you want the rest of the story, you’ll have to check in sometime in the future.