15 Things I’ve Learned in 60 Days

Being an entrepreneur–hell, being a human–is about constant learning. At least it should be if you want to grow and develop. The past two months of my life have been a great reminder of this. I bought a house, hired my first employee and decided to completely re-brand my company. To sum it up: I feel like I’ve compressed an entire year into two months.

While it’s certainly been crazy and stressful at times, I feel strangely zen (now, at least). Once you go through the fire, your vision becomes clearer and you become tempered.

Anyway, enough philosophical spouting from me. Here’s what I’ve learned about life, business and myself over the past two months, in no particular order:

  1. Listen to your gut. Always.
  2. Learn how to differentiate your gut from your fears.
  3. Reward loyalty and quality.
  4. Let go of things and people who place you in servitude. (Bonus: Service and servitude are not the same thing)
  5. Let go of people who do not value you or your work. And be unapologetic about it.
  6. Go out of your way for those who do value you and your work.
  7. If you hire family, expect challenges. That includes hiring family members of your employees or contractors.
  8. Sell to people who value your service/ product AND can afford it. (This relates to #5)
  9. Don’t be afraid of growth, change or challenges.
  10. Sometimes those who supported you when you began won’t sustain or support you as you grow. That’s okay.
  11. Diversify, diversify, diversify: talent, income, skills and relationships
  12. Believe in the good in people, but keep them honest when you have to.
  13. Never worry. Either work harder or let it go.
  14. Stay focused on your vision even when everything around you is uncertain.
  15. Let go of who you want your customer to be and see who they are.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Short and sweet. Now go do something amazing. I believe in you.

Why I Ride a Bike, pt 1

All of my fondest memories of childhood involve riding a bicycle.

I can remember my British babysitter teaching me to ride–after many unsuccessful attempts with my dad as the instructor. She walked me and my pink bike, tassels blowing in the wind, to an empty parking lot where she patiently helped me overcome my fear, find my balance and–triumphantly–ride on my own.

Biking opened up a new world for me. I could explore further, visit more friends and chase the ice cream truck with confidence. It was glorious.

Later, when we moved back to the States, I’d ride around with my dad. My brother would slowly tag along with his little legs and training wheels, shouting “Wait for me.” Which we did. Usually.

I don’t quite remember when or why I stopped riding a bike. It must have been during high school, that age when we become aware of the status symbol of cars. My memories of cars are not fond. They mostly involve hand-me down autos and headaches. My first car shook violently when it exceeded a certain speed. My second one had no shocks. It’s no wonder I never latched onto the whole automobile craze.

Around the age of 26, I decided that I definitely did not like driving. At 28, I restricted my driving to 2 – 3 days a week, which my 10-year-old Dodge Stratus did not appreciate very much: I seemed to have more breakdowns the less I drove. Crazy. So, when I moved to Chicago, the decision not to bring my car was an easy one.

But this isn’t about cars, it’s about bikes. My last two years in Atlanta, I had started biking around the city. Instantly, I remembered everything I loved about riding a bike. The freedom. The mobility. The stupid smile that takes over your face on a sunny day. But now, as an adult, there were new reasons to love biking: the efficiency of not being stuck in traffic, the counter-culture statement, the exercise. Not to mention the money saved. I was hooked.

If Atlanta taught me to reconnect with my inner-bike-loving-child, Chicago taught me to be a badass biker. Cycling in Chicago is exhilarating. And yet, I realize the feelings I’ve shared here still don’t capture the reason I choose two-wheels as my mode of transportation. Cycling has changed the way I see the world…

On Productivity

Making the shift from employee to entrepreneur requires a different set of behaviors. Making the shift from entrepreneur to small business owner requires a change in mindset, especially with regard to productivity.

This was a hard lesson to learn. Recently, I’ve begun to measure my productivity in different terms. I used to be task oriented, focusing on handling my to-do list regardless of the level of importance of each task. Now that I’m tasked with growing a business–not just operating one–I’ve learned that some tasks aren’t worth my time. Some tasks take away from valuable things that have a real ROI.

I call it the bed-making philosophy. We have a rule in my house: last one out the bed, makes the bed. Lately–due to my night-owl tendencies–that’s been me. Let it be known that I despise bed-making. I like a well-made bed, I just would rather be doing something else with my time.

Since I can’t outsource this task (grrr), one of two things happens: I either don’t make the bed, or I give myself a short amount of time to get it done (30 seconds, if you’re curious). Then I’m outta there.

I use a similar approach with my business. My to-do list gets divided into three categories: important, outsource to VA, delete, or postpone. Checking off small tasks isn’t important to me anymore. What’s important is creating.

I’ve begun to define my productivity by how much I’ve created that day. Funny thing is, once you get into creative mode, you won’t feel productive no matter how many small tasks you do. At this point, I’m just not happy unless I’m creating content or relationships. Everything else seems so unimportant…

Don’t Worry About Dunking

I always stand when I’m on the train. It’s my way of balancing—in my mind—the damage I do to my body by sitting for 8 hours per day. I also almost always wear sunglasses.

This particular day, I stood by the door, on my way home from a meeting in the Loop. It was something past seven o’clock, which meant I’d gratefully missed the rush hour crowds. Instead, of a car full of sardined people trying not to look at each other during their commute home, I was surrounded by people coming from appointments, after-work meetings, the gym, band practice—a car full of people pushing themselves to do more.

Trains are rather predictable. Full of stops and starts. The interesting bits are the people. I don’t remember which stop it was, but suddenly—just before the doors closed—a group of boys rushed into the car. Bursting with laughter and winded from their near miss, they raced toward the other end of the car.

Then, at the next stop, they came back to the end of the car I stood on. There were three. A skinny one, a tall one, and a fat one. Probably in ninth grade and all wearing the same uniform: khakis, white shoes and a white shirt. They were coming from school.

The best part about wearing sunglasses on the train is that you can watch people without making them feel uncomfortable. So, for a short moment, I watched these three boys. I watched the way they laughed and cracked jokes on each other, as only adolescent boys do. I watched as the fat one ate two packs of donuts without offering his friends any. I listened to them interweave advanced vocabulary with random cuss words. I watched as they discussed their favorite and least favorite teachers, friends and basketball tryouts.

It was basketball that turned the tide of the conversation. As they discussed upcoming tryouts, their faces lit up with excitement. The tall one said, “I just want to dunk!” The fat one replied, “Man, you can’t dunk.” And then the skinny, shy one said, “Man, I don’t care about dunking, I just want to improve my skills.” His friends laughed at him. So he said it again. They didn’t laugh the second time, which is not to say they understood.

With my sunglasses on, I watched the entire interaction…and smiled. The tall one got off first. They cracked a joke instead of saying goodbye. Then the skinny, shy one got off, one stop away from mine. He walked off the train. The doors remained open. He walked down the stairs. The doors remained open. I wondered if I should tell him that what he said was wonderful. The doors remained open.

Running after him, I finally caught him in the street.

“Excuse me!”
“Yes, ma’am?”
“I just wanted to tell you I was listening to your conversation about basketball.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Well, what you said was brilliant. It will set you apart from your friends. Keep that perspective, not just in basketball, but in life. Don’t worry about dunking. Focus on improving your skills, yourself. Let that be your focus in life. Dunking, success, it will come if you keep practicing. Don’t get sidelined by the flashy tricks.”
“Yes, ma’am.”

I’m rarely pray, but as I walked home, I said a small prayer that he would remember our conversation. That as he grows up, a young black boy in a mixed-class neighborhood, he remembers that he was smart enough to see what others didn’t.

Quiet the Noise and Go with Your Gut

I am, by nature and practice, a contrarian. At a very young age, I was encouraged to ask “Why,” or, “What if we do it this way instead?” This way of being makes it difficult for me to follow others. It also makes listening to  best practices, tips and tricks, and other markety catchphrases extremely uncomfortable painful.

Because I don’t believe there’s one way to do anything–and neither should you. (I find it hilariously telling that the same folks who tell you to blaze your own trail also tell you to follow their formula.)

The best way to do something is the way that feels right to you. Don’t believe me? Let me tell you a story.

Three months ago I left a vibrant, supportive online community that’s sole purpose was to help people like me grow their business. They offered funny and informative video courses and a forum that could slay Facebook for the #1 time-sucker. I spent countless hours connecting with people, having Skype calls, helping people and being helped. I love everyone in that community, especially the three amazing guys who created it. But in the end, I had to step away.

It’s taken me a while to articulate why, but I think I’ve got it now: I couldn’t hear my gut anymore. The endless opinions on branding, product development, web design, etc. began to create a cacophony of distractions around me. Instead of acting, I became increasingly overwhelmed with information until I was simply stagnant.

Slowly, this feeling that I was no longer working in a way that was true to me began to build. With it came a realization: I needed to stop listening to everyone, take a step back and do things in my quiet, deliberate, introverted way. I needed to stick to my gut about my business decisions.

So I did. And it’s been the best decision I could have made.

  • Instead of listening to branding “gurus,” who pushed countless tools for creating your brand, I focused on communicating my company’s values–which came from my own–and making damn sure that those values oozed out of everything I did.
  • Instead of doing everything myself, I hired a professional designer and focused on creating content.
  • Instead of targeting my current big business customers, I looked toward those I knew were underserved and thought about ways to create models & products that are affordable for them.

The results? After getting zero leads from my site for an entire year, I’m seeing 2 – 3 per week. After surmising that small businesses were underserved–mostly from a gut feeling and personal experience–I’m seeing 80 percent of my leads come from startups, solo entrepreneurs and small businesses. After ignoring the lean startup crowd and spending money on design and advertising, I’m hearing people tell me that my brand resonates with them.

There’s still so much work to do as I continue to grow my business, but now I feel more grounded, more productive.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed with numerous opinions on how to build and grow your business, here’s my recommendation: Get out and do what feels right. Because the truth is: the same people giving you a formula to follow broke rules and went out on their own at some point. Advice from others isn’t a bad thing, but it can never replace your gut.