Kevin O’Leary of “Shark Tank” recently told CNBC’s “Make It”: “If I have to give one piece of advice to someone who’s thinking about starting a business, I tell them this: Forget about balance. You’re going to work 25 hours a day, seven days a week, forever. That’s what it takes to be successful.”
Excuse me while my eyes roll all the way to the back of my head!
Here’s the truth: I made my first million dollars at a very young age, from a bootstrapped company.
And the other part of the truth: That business absolutely killed my health.
Today, my husband John and I run a company that generates several million dollars a year in revenue. And we typically don’t work more than 40 hours a week.
We did work long hours when we started. But, especially once we had a beautiful daughter, we realized the long hours we were working wouldn’t be sustainable.
John and I made a conscious decision to hire people and sacrifice extra money in the short term, in order to not kill our health long-term.
I am a ruthless outsourcer. John, who came from the restaurant industry, was knowledgeable on how to hire and grow a team. Together, we “bought our freedom.” We had full understanding that we could work longer hours, hire fewer people, and make more money in the short term…and we chose not to do that.
Instead, we hired employees and trained them, then hired 2 top-notch folks to be our executive team and help us grow and scale the business.
The result? A business that makes several million dollars a year, that also provides for our employees and their families, without killing us.
We Also Gave Our Employees More Time Off
I am a big believer in a shorter work week making people more productive. To that extent, we used to have our managers do a 5-6 schedule (5 days a week one week, then 6 days a week the next week.) This is common in the restaurant industry, but I was not a fan of it. Neither were our two executives.
As soon as our numbers allowed, we made the switch and all managers now only work 5 days a week.
In addition, this year we gave our employees an additional week of vacation, which now applies every year. Happier employees means a healthier business.
“Hustle Porn” Is Directly Tied to the Puritan Work Ethic
The “hustle porn” mentality, which basically says “Never stop working!”, appears to be mostly an American craze. I believe it stems from the old Puritan work ethic. It’s the same mentality that causes people to shame others for hiring help, such as housekeepers.
It also is the source of people working through lunch–and feeling guilty for taking breaks or vacations. The average employee who receives paid vacation only took about half their vacation days (source.)
Why? According to the survey, fear is responsible: “They fear getting behind on their work (34%), believe no one else at their company can do the work while they’re out (30%), they are completely dedicated to their company (22%), and they feel they can never be disconnected (21%).”
This is unequivocally harmful to our happiness as a society. I think a direct link can, and should, be made between “hustle porn” and the skyrocketing use of anti-depressants. “The number of Americans who say they’ve taken an antidepressant over the past month rose by 65 percent between 1999 and 2014. One in every eight Americans over the age of 12 reported recent antidepressant use.”
One in every eight Americans! Is anyone saying that “hustling” will make us happier?
It gets worse. Here’s an article published yesterday. “The suicide rate among Americans of working age increased 34 percent from 2000 to 2016, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
In the image above, I drew a direct correlation between “hustle porn”, reading about your friends bragging on social media, straight through to increased anti-depressant use and even suicide. We’re spending more time hunched over our phones flipping through the social media “trophy case”, and less time on relaxing and taking a break.
“Hustle porn” and the glorification of overwork is making us both sad and suicidal.
What’s the Alternative?
I don’t want to just breathlessly drop statistics and not offer alternatives. Here are a few ways I’ve stopped myself from overworking while still building a successful business:
Every Sunday night, I set 4 main goals for my next week. I try to set the week up so I have 4 goals and 4 days to work on them. My fifth day of work can then be consumed by any emergency that might pop up, doctor’s appointments, etc.
Every day, I wake up and decide which of my 4 goals I’ll be working on today. That starts my day off strong and focused. For instance, one of my 4 goals this week is “Write and publish a blog post.” That’s what I’m doing today!
I check off 2 “annoyances” and 2-3 household tasks every single day. Yesterday I paid bills, sent clients invoices, and cleaned for 20 minutes. (The 20-minute cleaning is a life hack called a “time block”, where I spend only a certain amount of time on a task to avoid overwhelm.)
When my annoyances, big task for the day, and household chores are done, I STOP WORKING. That’s right! I sometimes do a day from 10AM-4PM. This also gives me incentive to stop procrastinating, because once I’m done for the day, I’m done! I do not push myself into additional work at that point unless I’m motivated. Instead, I go outside and play some Pokemon Go, watch a movie, or read a book–guilt-free!
Time and time again, when creatives (writers and software developers in particular) are surveyed, we say we can’t do more than 4-5 hours of creative work in a day. The rest of our time is spent on boring and mundane tasks–many of which I would recommend outsourcing if you run your own business.
Or, if mowing the lawn makes you happy–do that yourself and outsource other items. I’ve learned how to cook and enjoy cooking, so I outsource cleaning and mowing the lawn, but I buy groceries and cook frequently.
If there’s one thing I would love for you to take away from this, it’s that it’s completely possible to build a 7-figure-plus business without killing yourself. It’s OK to hire people (as you have the money to do so.) There probably will be a time at the beginning of your business where you’re working long hours. But it most certainly does not have to be “forever”, no matter what Kevin O’Leary says.
“Hustle porn” does not make any of us happier people. Be OK with being happier instead of being a hustler.
I haven’t been writing as often on my blog lately. People often ask, “What happened?”
The truest answer I can give is that 1Up Repairs, our chain of repair shops, took off beyond our wildest imagination. We now have six stores and will do several million dollars in revenue this year.
Running repair shops is not what I expected I’d be doing with my life after running a funded software company previously. But honestly, it’s been really good for me. It’s been 3 1/2 years since we opened a single store in the middle of Austin, and what a ride it’s been.
It’s also been nearly a year since John and I committed to getting me out of the day-to-day aspects of our repair shops, and getting back into writing, shooting informational videos, and coaching. We’ve mostly succeeded at this point, which is why you’re starting to see new blog posts from me.
Shonda Rhimes and Her Train
I’ve been reading Shonda Rhimes’ book, “Year of Yes.” (If you don’t know who Shonda Rhimes is, she’s the creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and several other top shows for ABC’s Thursday night lineup.)
In it, she talks about how she writes for several of her shows. Her shows, she says, are like a train:
“Every single writer I met likened writing for television to one thing—laying track for an oncoming speeding train. The story is the track and you gotta keep laying it down because of the train. That train is production. You keep writing, you keep laying track down, no matter what, because the train of production is coming toward you—no matter what.
Every eight days, the crew needs to begin to prepare a new episode—find locations, build sets, design costumes, find props, plan shots. And every eight days after that, the crew needs to film a new episode.
Every. Eight. Days. That train of production is a’coming. Every eight days that crew on that soundstage better have something to shoot. Because the worst thing you can do is halt or derail production and cost the studio hundreds of thousands of dollars while everyone waits. That is how you go from being a TV writer to being a failed TV writer.”
That train is her pressure. That’s how she performs every week. Is her writing always perfect? No, but it’s arguably always good, and even more importantly, it’s done on time.
Success Often Comes When Your Back Is To The Wall
I’ve read countless biographies of successful entrepreneurs. One concept that often comes up in the beginning, when they were just getting started, is a driving force–a motivation so deep that failure isn’t an option.
This is my chance to be contrarian: I don’t think for many people their initial motivation was a lofty goal of changing the world. Sure, it becomes that later. But for many people who are successful–including me–their initial driving force was to get out of a bad situation.
Howard Schultz, the self-made billionaire who built Starbucks into a global empire, says: “Growing up I always felt like I was living on the other side of the tracks. I knew the people on the other side had more resources, more money, happier families.
And for some reason, I don’t know why or how, I wanted to climb over that fence and achieve something beyond what people were saying was possible. I may have a suit and tie on now, but I know where I’m from and I know what it’s like.” (Howard Schultz interview)
When I started my hosting company, my primary motivation was not having to go back and live with my parents, which I saw as a failure. That motivation drove me–it kept me up late at night writing code, creating ads, and building our website. Six years later, I sold the company for $1.1 million.
With 1Up Repairs, we took on a lease in a highly-visible area. The landlord had me put my house up as collateral. You better believe that was a huge motivation for both of us. If we couldn’t make the store work, I was going to have to sell my house. Long story short, we smashed it out of the park and 1Up Repairs became my most successful business to date. It makes more revenue and profit than my hosting company did when I sold that.
Shonda Rhimes has her train. Howard Schultz desired more money and a happier family. I had my fear of failure, and then my fear of losing my house. These sorts of gut motivations may not always be pretty, or highly aspirational, but they’re what drive entrepreneurs to huge successes.
Most People Don’t Want The Uncomfortable Truth
Here’s another hard truth: If you live a relatively decent life now, and running a business won’t add much to your quality of life, you won’t start a business. Or you’ll start it and wonder why it’s not flourishing.
The answer? You don’t have your back against the wall. You don’t have a huge motivation to become something you’re not.
That’s hard to hear for a lot of people. “Well, I’m not risking my house/family/life!” I totally understand. Shonda Rhimes doesn’t have a fear of losing her house driving her. But she does have an entire crew depending on her. That creates the same pressure that squeezes out a successful business.
Your motivation can be negative (I’m going to lose something huge if this doesn’t work) or it can be positive (the world needs this, and I’m the person who can provide it.) It can be internal or external–Shonda Rhimes’ is external; people depend on her.
So how do you create this driving force or motivation? You have to decide for yourself that wherever you want to go with your business is so much better than where you are now that you’re willing to make huge sacrifices.
What Has To Motivate You
If you know that starting a business is what you want to do, you must internalize that it’s not going to be easy, but the result is going to be worth it. You must be able to continually make the decision to go outside your comfort zone. In order to be successful, you must be more driven by what’s possible than by what’s comfortable.
This is difficult. It’s why most people don’t succeed. They think, “What’s the harm of spending another 30 minutes on Facebook?”
They can’t hold themselves accountable. And they don’t have enough of a driving force, a burning fire, a motivation to make it work.
Make Better Choices
Every day, when you wake up, you have a choice of what to do. Just like you (probably) are, I’m addicted to social media. Social media sites like Facebook employ thousands of people whose job it is to capture our attention for as much of the day as possible. Like cigarettes or caffeine, Facebook taps into our brain and sucks our motivation away. All so it can show us ads and make about $12 a year off of us.
Nine years ago, I wrote about passionate disgust and how I use that to create businesses. I refuse to let staring at social media continue to suck hours out of my life. I’m ready to create instead of consume. That lights a fire in me.
Creating is harder. Building a business is harder. It’s easy and fun to post on social media and count your likes. But it’s an empty high.
If you’re really motivated to leave your mark on this world, or even just give yourself a better life, you have to move social media to the back burner and put the time in to create something real. Something more challenging than a quick, flippant post.
Take some time after reading this post and figure out what motivation looks like to you. You have my permission to make it totally personal if that’s what drives you. There’s nothing wrong with being driven to make your family’s situation better. It’s exactly how Howard Schultz got started.
What, exactly, is going to force you to close Facebook out and stop watching TV? What’s going to be so motivating that you will step out of your comfort zone on a regular basis? What does that really look like to you? Get detailed. Get personal.
That’s where your successful business lies–right in the middle of that burning pit in your stomach.
Many people make to-do lists or apps into a complicated slog. They write long blog posts or videos with detailed guides on setting up to-dos.
This isn’t that.
I find I end up not using complicated to-do lists or apps. I need to keep it simple–the simpler, the better.
I also needed a weekly to-do list that was accessible anywhere I go. I always have my phone with me, so I wanted something that would work on my phone.
And hey, it doesn’t hurt when it’s free to use!
Given those criteria, a few years ago, I set up a system using a free app called Trello. I keep it simple: Trello is available as an app on my phone (works on both Android and iPhone), at trello.com, and is also an app for both Mac and Windows.
Here’s a quick, 8-minute video of how I use Trello to create a weekly to do list:
In case you’re curious: Yes, I really do use Trello in this manner pretty much every working day.
I address this in the video, but just so it’s in writing as well: I didn’t get paid to make this video, and I don’t have any sort of financial relationship with Trello. In fact, I don’t pay for Trello either–I use the free version. I made the video because I’ve seen way too many people overcomplicate to-do lists, and I would love for you to see how easy and simple a weekly to-do list can really be.
On a personal note, I’ve cleared up a significant amount of time so I can start creating more blog posts and videos. If you’d like me to answer a business question you have, or share more about how I set up my “work life”, please feel free to email me (erica at erica dot biz) or ask in the comments! I do read every email and comment.
I build businesses that high-flying tech startup investors generally don’t like.
The businesses I build are profitable, focus on cash flow, and sell commoditized services. They’re considered unexciting to tech startup investors, who want to invest in the new hotness.
I’ve tried to contort myself into building that type of business, but it’s just not for me. That’s because, in my view, those businesses are unnatural. A business must (eventually) make a profit to survive. And many of these fancy tech startups die once they’re forced–by the economy, their investors, or the public markets–to make a profit. They can’t turn the corner.
Are We at The Top?
We are, right now, in a state of economic expansion that has lasted for 10 years. Having lived through two major downturns (2001 and 2008) as an adult, I’ve trained myself to recognize the top of the market. And though I may be wrong, I feel confident in saying we are at the top right now.
That does not mean the economy will not continue to expand. “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent,” John Maynard Keynes wisely said. Timing the market is extraordinarily difficult.
I closely watched the financial news during the last two economic expansions and contractions, and for the last 3 months I’ve seen the same indicators I saw at the top of those two expansions.
So, if we’re not at the top, the markets will certainly only get more irrational and frothy from here.
Why do I mention all of these economic indicators? Because now is the time for you to start being a cockroach.
You should irrationally focus on profitability and putting as much money into the bank (liquid cash) as possible right now. And from a personal level, you should be focused on paying down debt, not taking on new debt, and stacking as much cash as you possibly can. Get money now while the economy is at the top.
As much as you can given your time and health, take on paying gigs now. Then put that cash in the bank and keep it there. You will need it when the economy tanks, whether that’s later this year, next year, or 2-3 years from now.
I say “irrationally” above even though what I just wrote seems rational to me, because in our consumer-driven economy, saving money and making a profit are not considered rational. Why save money when you can always just go drive for Uber to make more? (Because that option won’t always exist.) Why be a profitable business when you can just go get more funding to pursue the next hot thing? (Because investors will shut their doors on you once the economy tanks–ask anyone who tried to raise money in late 2000 or early 2001, or in 2008.)
I am warning you now: Do not take on new debt at this time, whether business or personal. It would be rational now to pull a line of credit as backup for your business–and then refuse to touch it except for emergency. (We are in the process of doing this for our business right now. Get credit while the economy is good.)
Pay off your cars. Pay off your phones. Stop buying new cars and phones. Pay off your student loans. And stack 3-6 months of money in your emergency fund.
Why Am I Saying All This?
I am blaring this horn of urgency while the rest of the economy is still having a party, and I am doing so for this reason:
In 2001, I was a web developer, working at Sun Microsystems on Sun.com (a job I hated, and was underpaid for.) There were no other companies hiring web developers, especially ones like me who were self-taught with no degree.
I eventually quit and subsisted on contract work, a lot of crappy food, and at least one eviction notice. My boyfriend at the time ended up moving in with me to my small 1BR apartment in the East Bay and paying the electric bill to avoid my utilities being shut off.
My landlord reduced my rent (when was the last time you heard of that happening in the Bay Area?) because so many people were leaving that they wanted someone to sign a 6-month lease. Please sign it, they begged. I negotiated. I got even lower rent.
After my 2001 horror story, I resolved I would never be caught unaware by a downturn again.
Throughout 2005-2007, I became obsessed with financial news as the market became irrational. By 2008, I was prepared. I correctly predicted the real estate downturn on this blog. I sold my hosting company on September 7, 2007, within a couple weeks of the peak of the market.
And then I took 4 years off without having to worry about money, while the rest of the economy tanked and everyone struggled. I built this blog, eventually reaching over a million unique visitors a year. I learned marketing inside and out.
This is not a “brag.” This is me telling you why I’m sounding the horn now. I understand it seems ludicrous to worry about this, especially if you’re young and didn’t have to live through 2001 and 2008. Those were incredibly rough years.
Now I am battening down the hatches again.
If I’m wrong, I come out of this with no debt, some savings, and a decent business (no plans to sell our business this time.) If I’m right, I can subsist on contract work again for a few years, this time eating slightly better food.
From Cockroach to Billionaire
I urge you to do the same. Cut unnecessary expenses, pay off the cars you have, make sure your business is profitable, trim unnecessary expenses there, and do not take on new debt at this time!
Take on additional paying work if it pays decently and won’t kill you health-wise. Use that extra money and put it away as cash. Do not invest it unless that investment pays cash-on-cash returns (aka dividends) and you have read the financial statements and believe the business will be OK in a downturn.
Be a cockroach, right now, while everyone else is still getting wasted at the party. Warren Buffet famously said, “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” Now is most certainly the time to rein in.
As an added bonus, stacking cash now will enable you to take advantage of market opportunities when others go bankrupt later. I am already making some plans in this area (involving commercial real estate, if you’re curious.) But now is not the time to invest. Now is the time to stack cash so you can invest later.
Billionaires often get created during downturns. In a few years, it may be your time to shine.
Recently, an up-and-coming fitness coach and friend of mine asked me how to get more visibility online. I’ve built successful marketing funnels for web hosting companies, this blog, a software-as-a-service company, and now a chain of retail stores. All of those marketing funnels are different, but the one a coach or a consultant follows I would call a “cult of personality.” It’s what I did with this blog, and it’s also how several people I know became quite famous and are making large incomes online.
Let’s explore one of them: Chris Guillebeau.
I got to know Chris Guillebeau when, many years ago, he asked on Twitter if there was a place he could stay in San Diego while he met with his agent (this was as he was writing his first book!) A mutual friend suggested me, so I got to hang out with Chris for a couple days at my house and get to know him on a personal level.
Be Dedicated. Turn Off the TV!
The first thing that struck me about Chris was his complete dedication to his readers. There he was, sitting on my couch one night…I knew a mutual friend of ours who was really into “The Amazing Race”, and wanted Chris to see it. I had a couple of recent episodes saved up on my Tivo, so I queued them up for Chris.
While I was engrossed in the show, Chris was furiously typing on his laptop. It turns out he was responding to every email he received and every comment he got on his blog (a dedication that Pat Flynn also picked up and used to his advantage.) Chris didn’t watch TV or do anything else until he got those emails done. And the thing about Chris was, even back then, I don’t think the emails ever stopped coming in!
Back then, Chris used to post pictures of his cat on his blog and call his cat his assistant. I encouraged him privately to get a real, human assistant, but I understood why he didn’t. He wanted all those people to know he really cared about them, and he felt like an assistant would weaken the connection he had with his readers.
With my low energy levels at the time, plus bad (undiagnosed at the time) ADHD, I wasn’t good at replying to emails and comments. (I’m better today, but I’m still nowhere near Chris’s level.) But those replies, to whatever his readers had on their minds, helped him develop an unmistakable bond with them. I suspect many of them still read and buy everything he has to offer, because 8 years ago he took his personal time to respond to their email. I have massive respect for his dedication in that area.
Achieve a Really Difficult Goal…And Share Everything Along the Way
Chris got publicity by having a really difficult goal and then writing constantly about his efforts toward achieving it. If you know Chris or follow him, you’ll immediately know what I’m referencing, because everything he did or said looped back to it. If you don’t know or haven’t followed Chris, his goal was to visit every country in the world by the time he was a certain age.
He did end up completing this goal in 2013, but when he stayed at my house he was still working on several of the more difficult countries–ones that wouldn’t let him get a visa or had exorbitant entry fees–and it was really unknown whether he was going to make it or not. He shared that doubt honestly in his blog, and it drew readers in like nothing else.
I’ll dig in to some of the factors that made this a huge success. First, Chris, if you know him, is a really genuine and unassuming guy. But he’s also dogged in pursuit of his goals. The goal itself was polarizing to a lot of people (if you can’t imagine why a goal like that would be polarizing, well, welcome to the Internet!) There were people who complained he was wasting his time, that he was ruining the environment by flying so many places, and–the most common complaint I saw–that his goal was stupid because it didn’t do anything or prove anything.
But his true fans got it. Chris’s personality helped; he was an introvert, but people genuinely liked him. The dude had basically no ego (I doubt he does even now; though I haven’t seen him in a while, he struck me as the type of person who would be exactly the same when he achieved his goal as before he achieved it.)
And the goal itself was an interviewer’s dream: Why would someone come up with that goal? How did he plan to achieve it? Where did he get all that money for travel (Chris was quite intelligent about this and turned his unique way of getting frequent flyer points into a “travel hacking” course and several blog entries)? Who was this introverted, slightly awkward kid with huge dreams who wrote about visiting every country in the world on a blog?
How to Build Fame When You’re Nobody
Now, if you’re wondering what you can take away from this, it’s that you don’t necessarily need to be “already famous” to make it online. But what you can do is have a polarizing, challenging goal and write about it. Think about what people would want to read about in a magazine. Then build a blog and videos and show yourself, every day or at least a few times a week, working toward that goal. Make people believe it is possible. Build your audience–get an email list going and have them sign up. Then, as you draw in fans, respond to their fears, concerns, and goals that they write to you about.
I look back at myself at that time and I certainly could have gone the “cult of personality” route. In fact, by 2012, this blog drew in over a million unique visitors a year. But I decided I didn’t want to; instead, I wanted to grow another business that was larger than just myself. Ever since then, I’ve been growing businesses, including the chain of retail stores I now co-own that has been hugely successful.
The Downside of “Cult of Personality” Businesses
My health then was precarious; I didn’t want to grow a cult of personality based all around me and then fall ill and suddenly stop producing content. That’s the negative side of any cult of personality business–it’s all based on you and your ability to perform. So consider this before you jump in with both feet: yes, it feels great to be famous, but can you really commit to living, breathing, and growing this business every day? To taking risks and being exposed if you do fail (and believe me, you’ll fail!)? To continuing to produce content even when you’re not on top of your game, and to producing extra content when you are on top of your game so you can take a break or be sick sometimes? You must consider all of this carefully before you begin.
If you think you can–then, by all means, grow a cult of personality! I’ve given you some insight on how to do it. This is why I’m back and blogging again; I’ve finally gotten my health in the right place to really commit to being here and showing up for my readers. I’m aware of the commitment it takes and I’m willing to do it this time around. The only question I have for you is: Are you ready, too?
NOTE: I didn’t reach out to Chris or interview him for this blog post, for a specific reason: I didn’t want to be influenced by what he felt made him successful. My goal was to write from my own perspective of knowing and following him in his early years and watching him grow his blog and business. If you’d like to learn from Chris in his own words, I encourage you to take a look at his 279 Days to Overnight Success manifesto (written back when he was still getting started) or his more recent “Success as a Travel Blogger” post.