Thank you Devin for being on Sidepreneur magazine. Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your business?
I am a full-time author and speaker. I make a living now via the pen or via the platform. I have an opportunity to work with a lot of Fortune 1000 clients; but I also have a side passion for creating and writing children’s literature, so that’s what I’m doing.
Wonderful. Can you tell us what caused you to start a business and not remain an employee?
Yeah. I had the traditional path. I graduated college in 1991 and did corporate work for over 20 years. I got all the trinkets you can get. I thought it was the primrose path. But later in my career I didn’t want any more awards, trips, that-a-boys or promotions. I felt like there was no purpose or meaning in my work. I didn’t want my legacy to end there. The feeling wouldn’t go away, and I was scratching around trying to find something else that I could do.
What led you to start something yourself and not looking for another job or a different kind of job?
A few things happened. I was tired of going to countless meetings listening to random people come up with crazy ideas and watching everyone nod their head when they actually thought it was silly. I just didn’t want to do the bureaucratic stuff anymore. I became wildly fascinated with those folks who lived on the edge on purpose, the artists who created something that was original; whether they danced or sang, the entrepreneurial crowd. It had intrigued me for a while, but now I really began to look around for my art, for 40 acres and a mule that could be mine.
What gave you the courage to do that, and how did you deal with the fear and uncertainty of doing your own thing?
I did some research, and I canvassed my community. Whenever I was out on the road talking to an entrepreneur, I asked about their journey. I listened to their stories, and I took note of similarities between them. There was never a right time until they made the time. There was always self-doubt, and there was uncertainty. There was a risk to be taken. Every entrepreneur story had those themes.
I had thought maybe entrepreneurs were unusually smart or had things I didn’t have. I found out they were just like me. They decided to do something different. It was scary and risky, but there was purpose, meaning, and an opportunity to create something. I decided if I ever was going to do something, now was as good as time as any.
Earlier, you used the word legacy. In your opinion, has starting your own thing allowed you to affect more people for good than you would have if you had just found another job?
Absolutely, 100%, no doubt. I’m not shackled down by corporate America. If there’s something I’m interested in, I can create it. Most of what I do has a social side. I’m very passionate about certain things. I do comic books and kids’ books. A lot of it’s around social issues. I’m doing a kids’ book right now around diversity, inclusion, and tolerance. It shouldn’t be a surprise in this country that race is a big deal.
I’m excited about making an impact on the next generation. That’s really where I get excited about my legacy.
You took a risk early on by telling your personal story. How did your book Contrast play into your business plan?
I wish I could say it was an orchestrated plan. It was me just going through a soul cleansing to get it out on paper. As I got into it and started to write the book, I got more and more into it. I didn’t really know where it was going to take me but knew I had to tell my story. As I shared my story with others, the feedback was just so convincing and validating that it inspired me to keep going.
My story is my story, but what I found is the power of story—the power of our collective stories. There are stories in all of us. So many of us don’t think there’s an audience for our stories. There certainly is, and that’s what really intrigues me about doing what I do now.
You have a fairly unstructured job. I assume there are times you have to manage yourself as opposed to relying on other people for structure. What habits have you created that have helped you succeed in this business?
I’m nothing without habits, really. Most of us are. Everything I do is structured. I used to think disciplined people were born that way; maybe it was an extra gene. What I have found is the most successful entrepreneurs on the planet are just very structured. Their time is their most precious commodity. If you look at my calendar, every half hour there’s something scheduled. Every single day I have three to four things I need to do to be successful.
I also read 30 minutes a day on some personal development; so I invest in myself, that’s another habit I picked up. I exercise 30 minutes a day. That keeps me in a good, positive emotional state. I volunteer. Highly successful people have a very structured day. No time is wasted.
Since you are in a business where you’re constantly selling yourself, what kind of systems and habits do you have in place to get leads and keep your marketing efforts cranking?
I’ve been fortunate in that since I have an opportunity to speak for a living, most of my leads come from the audiences I speak to. When I woke up this morning, I got an e-mail from someone who saw me speak in Orlando a week ago and now wants me to speak in Boston. I’m fortunate to generate leads just by doing my job.
I blog a lot. I use social media a lot, but most of my leads are referrals. I don’t do as much cold calling now as I used to. Lead generation is probably the scariest thing for any of us because you don’t have a guaranteed paycheck as an entrepreneur.
I don’t use any systems per se. I don’t have Salesforce.com or anything like that. I’m somewhat old school. I have an Excel spreadsheet for follow-up, but my follow-up is also in my calendar. For the next month or so I know who I’m going to touch every day, usually via e-mail or a quick phone call.
Did you borrow money to start your business?
Do you have an opinion about whether others should do the same?
I think it’s situational. It depends on how much money we’re talking about and from whom. I didn’t want to leverage myself that way, and I didn’t have much startup cost. I think the beauty of being a sidepreneur is you can have one foot in corporate America and another foot in your business. What I did, and what others I’ve talked did is to devote weekends and maybe 3 or 4 hours a night to building your side business. When you’ve got some wind under your sails, maybe you can go out and do it full-time.
I would say though, in lieu of borrowing money, I would suggest building your business incrementally on the side. Start saving money like a madman so you don’t have to leverage yourself. That way, when you do go out on your own and you don’t have the paycheck, you don’t have a loan to exacerbate the stress.
You talked a bit about how you reach out to people regularly for lead generation. Relationships are important in lead generation, but how important are strong relationships to your overall success?
In the internet age, I think far too many people have discounted relationships, which I don’t. I’ll be more specific. Right now it is in vogue to never actually talk to another human being. We’d rather email, text, Tweet, Facebook, or LinkedIn than actually talk to someone. I make a point of picking up the phone and actually talking to people. Sounds novel I know. I also send handwritten notes to people, the kind with a stamp.
In some ways, I’ve gone old-school with my communication. I use social media, but I also try to differentiate myself with the personal touches. In these times, everything is so sterile and generic. I believe that you create more positive emotions when there’s a direct connection between two people. I put a premium on that.
I agree that face-to-face communication has diminished recently.
You know Harvey, there’s one thing I didn’t mention, but I think it’s important. I create profiles on important business connections. My approach is somewhat like LinkedIn, but I take it to another level. I keep track of where they went to school, their hobbies, their spouse’s names, what sports teams they like and their kids’ names. I do as much intel on a person as I can. Not to be a stalker, but if you’re going to connect with someone on a personal level and create a relationship that’s real, you need to know who they are and what they value.
Though others may not do these personal things, I still feel they’re important.
I agree. How do you recommend people deal with others who might be critical of their efforts in business?
Well, the haters are certainly going to come out. When you tell anyone you’re going to leave “that great job you have” to go out on your own, they will probably try to talk you out of it—at least that’s what I found. People will think you’re insane because they don’t have the courage to do it themselves.
Now, I balance that. Assume they’re well-intentioned and not looking to harm you. They have no frame of reference for starting a business. The prevailing script is to work 30 years, get a gold watch, a cake, a handshake, and you’re out the door when you retire.
My only suggestion is that you should expect some people to try to talk you out of it. I think you need to listen and be open to hearing what they have to say. Don’t dig in your heels too much because there may be some gold nuggets they share with you. You’ve got to balance both sides and make a well-informed decision.
As we discussed earlier, being an entrepreneur involves some uncertainty. Would you share a story about a decision you had to make in the dark without all the facts, without knowing for sure there was a guaranteed win? Did it take faith for you to make that decision?
Fundamentally, Harvey, I believe the only time we grow as human beings is when we’re uncomfortable. I’m purposeful about putting myself in uncomfortable or dark situations. As a kid, my father said to me numerous times, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.” The scary, uncertain times are growth moments.
Any more, I don’t look at those times as risky. I look at them as opportunities to grow and be great. That said, I’m doing a children’s book right now. I don’t have a literature background. I majored in sociology in college. I’ve written one book, but I have no background at all in children’s literature. I created a kids comic book before, but this is a picture book for kindergartners: three to five-year-olds. It’s pretty uncertain to me. I’m trying to figure it out on the fly, but it interests and excites me. I think it’s going to be good but again, I don’t know.
That uncertainty you described, I crave it now. That’s the thing that excites me—going where others haven’t gone. I like talking about things other people avoid. That niche is where you’re going to make your money anyway. Avoid the me-too crowd. Talk about or do stuff no one else is talking about or scared to do. That’s where the magic really happens.
When did you most want to give up on your business, and how did you persist through that time?
I think early on. The doubts were like Freddy Krueger. I mean the persistent doubts. Fortunately, my wife supported me, but when I looked around I could see others enjoying a lifestyle I once had. When we go from corporate to entrepreneur, most of us throttle down our lifestyle. We start budgeting a bit more. We start eating out less. We do things we used to do, but we don’t do them as much. That hurts a bit.
Maybe for Christmas you don’t spend as much money the first year as you used to. Maybe you don’t go on your usual vacation. When I felt the financial restriction, it started to sting a little. I started to think, “Wow! Am I going to be able to push through this?” It was almost like being in a rainstorm in a car with broken windshield wipers. I was holding on to the steering wheel for dear life.
What’s one mistake most new business owners make and how can we avoid it?
From my personal experience, the mistake they make is going a mile wide and an inch deep. Instead, go a mile deep and an inch wide. They try to boil the ocean. They try to be everything to everyone. My suggestion is to focus on a little area that you own, where you’re a world-class expert. Be the de-facto expert in that first. Don’t try to boil the ocean. Just boil a pot of water.
I would say have a little success. Winning and losing is more powerful in the brain than genetics and drugs. Put yourself in situations where you can get some wins because you’re going to need that. I used to tell myself repeatedly that it was about progress, not perfection. I needed to hear that. Incrementally I was getting that much closer.
As you are writing your business plan, focus on a small group of customers. Could you sell widgets to everyone on the globe? Yeah, but why not sell widgets to the people within 100 miles of you so you can touch the customer. Don’t try to get orders from some guy in Thailand that you’ve never seen before. Don’t put yourself in a place where you’re scrambling around trying to find inventory.
What book have you recently read that you think would help somebody considering starting a business?
The one I’ve read and I continue to read is Guy Kawasaki, The Art of the Start.
Why do you recommend that book?
Guy’s had a corporate job. He worked for Steve Jobs and then became a venture capitalist. He went out on his own and created his own brand. He’s got some really great practical advice in there. I’ve actually read it two or three times.
I’ve also read a book called The Think Big Manifesto by Michael Port. It’s another good book—kind of motivational and inspirational. It also has good practical information to help you work on emotional mojo for the entrepreneur.
When you go out on your own, you figure you have to know it all. You think if you don’t know something it’s an indictment. I learned early on that you don’t have to know it all. You just have to know what you don’t know. When you don’t know something, you find someone who does. You don’t have to be a world-class expert in everything. You just have to be aware enough to find people who know what you don’t. Help them, and they’ll get you that much closer.
You build a support network of folks. I’m not a techie. I don’t write code. I don’t build websites, but I’ve got a lot of people who love to do that and can do it better than I. Relying on specialists saves time. Let others help you.
Well, thank you so much for coming on Sidepreneur Magazine Devin. Do you have any special offers you’d like to leave for our sidepreneurs?
If anyone has questions or I can help them go forward, they can certainly visit my website. I’m pretty transparent. If I can help anyone with a question or anything at all, I’m happy to help.
Well, thanks again. Really appreciate it.
Okay, thank you, Harvey.