This past January 2018, I spent three months in Denver and Birmingham working for my previous company. I lived the traveling life, filled with long days and short nights, hotel food paired with late night calls and texts with friends and loved ones where too often I dozed off after exhaustion during the call. This had been my work life for the past fifteen years, coupled with a lifetime as a touring musician traveling the world.
I spent nine hours driving home all night from Alabama on Easter Sunday in April of this year, and the following Monday, turned in my notice to leave my corporate job permanently. The next day I penned this hashtag with one extremely vivid theme: #makingadifferencein2018. Like catching lightning in a jar, I had now caught the entrepreneur fever and was ready to drink the shine! Goodbye paycheck, so long conference calls, adieu to hotel rewards “perks”, ciao to canceled and delayed flights. Hello to home, so nice to meet you finally!
“If you’re not making a difference in people’s lives, you shouldn’t be in business, it’s that simple…” ~Richard Branson
This past year, my partner and I have been refining our business plan that started as a dream several years ago. We’ve morphed from what was to what will be by combining both of our lifelong passions. We’ve sought guidance, feedback, funding and a home all while pitching our idea to many in the entrepreneur/startup community, as well as potential investors. What was a dream is slowly becoming reality, and I emphasize the verb with careful superlative caution.
I was asked to pen an article that would inspire other entrepreneurs, possibly sharing the innovation our brand brings to the events industry. Rather than self-promote our business plan, pitch deck, presentation or whatever we choose to call it this week, I am choosing to become gut-level and go against the grain by sharing how I’ve gone all in to make this dream a reality.
Although the excitement of our venture keeps me up at night, takes command of conversations in coffee shops, restaurants and networking functions, I’d rather share the pain, hurt, and road hazards, coupled with hope brought on by my own personal faith that you aren’t just beginning to make a difference in people’s lives by starting your own business. You’ve been doing it all along. Now it’s time to wake up and make a difference in your own life.
So Long Travel, Hello Entrepreneurship
In just one year, I’ve sold my house and moved into a small studio in the town we look to launch our first location. I sold almost all of my furnishings, pawned my touring drum set, liquidated what little I had in savings and retirement, and now I’m selling my car to get something more affordable. I’ve driven for Uber, taken on a handful of consulting opportunities (one that cost me dearly and still amazes me!), helped a local deli owner cater events (who has become a cool friend), and lastly, been the driving force of a new restaurant desperately looking to establish a forward-thinking culture (both on the floor and on social media). I’m constantly setting up meetings in coffee shops, where we all know refills are free and I’m not afraid to ask for the handout of the muffin or sandwich that is being tossed at the end of the day. I am that guy that has given up everything to see this dream take flight.
I’ve been blessed to travel all my life. So often, these “blessings” come with a personal price. I’ve been to every state, Mexico, Canada, Europe. Anyone that knows me past one cup of coffee or glass of wine knows I have a story or an experience from all these travels. But the experiences I received came with a personal debt. Two divorces, countless holidays on the road, and far too many relationship could-have-beens.
To go all in, I’ve chosen to give up most all personal travel this past year. Travel has become walking two or three blocks in my town to have a conversation about growth plans for the community or a business pitch. Although I’ve performed as a musician on stages all over the country and Europe, I’ve chosen to turn down every gig opportunity given to me this year. I’ve scaled back culinary and live music outings to something I can count on one hand. In short, I’ve completely scaled back the same passions I look to add to our combined venture. In an odd way of sorts, I’ve felt like I’m cheating on a loved one.
This journey from comfort and conformity has quickly turned into a daily sort of perplexing passion, yet what we look to gain far outweighs what has been given up. The hope of waking up every morning and living out this dream is stronger than ever after nearly a year. Like a candle, this wick runs deep. This past year, I was recognized for a grant from the Fortitude Fund, interviewed for TV, radio, social media and multiple news articles. We held multiple focus groups testing and refining our eventual brand with packed houses each night! I had a handful of speaking engagements, including two city council meetings. I was the kite flying effortlessly all year with so much attention paid to this dream. Thankfully, I had a trusted loved one holding on down below! What has been a struggle more than anything financial (although that weighs heavy daily…) are the confusing and misrepresented relationships (both personal and professional). The many emails that are never returned, the promised follow up from local groups, the friends and family that showed support when my paycheck had a few extra zeroes attached that are now near silent, and finally, the handfuls of close relationships that awkwardly have chosen to remove themselves.
Compare and contrast this vision: Little Johnny grows up playing on Grandma’s ole upright piano banging out an array of fist-pumping chromatic chords of chopsticks that instantly make dogs howl from two houses down. These mashed up melodies were never brought to light with honesty as Johnny’s elder refused to stifle the sensation of his nightly performances. After the final bow, and the clapping from the “crowd”, a distant sigh of relief from anyone around, be it two legs or four! It would be many years later when Johnny would meet a true professional with balls, and next thing you know, Johnny is now learning paradiddles, rhythm, and meter and kissed the keys goodbye. Yes, I was Little Johnny and this story makes sense for a five-year-old. Yet as hungry entrepreneurs, we’ve run into a handful of elders in the entrepreneur community that finds their transparency stops once the show is over.
Finding true, honest, gut-level, and transparent supporters is the key and should be kept to a minimum! Like any long-term relationship or marriage, there must be true honesty at all costs. Hand claps, fist bumps, toasts, and hugs are temporary feel-goods and completely lose their sincerity and value when you’re faced with challenging decisions that could lead you down the wrong path. When a potential consumer, investor, or networking partner says they like your idea, drill them with the open-ended questions. Refuse to let them get away without giving you their true honesty. I’ve made this comparison in my professional life for years: compare the marriages around you now that are satisfied versus loyal. I’ll take loyalty hands down all the time. Build your dream on loyalty!
Seek This Pain Out
Have a solid partner that you trust to be faithfully honest with you even when you’re feeling the glory of perceived support. Even if you’re on your own, I highly recommend someone who balances you out, even an equity partner. Be wary of tunnel vision and self-promotion of the masses. Ask what, why, and how from your true supporters. Challenge yourself to get more than just market research, or the allure of the latest group of potential consumers who can’t wait to buy your product or service. Like a new app on our smartphones, these relationships will replace themselves with somebody else if they are not true supporters. Don’t be afraid to challenge the entrepreneur community to expose their own pain and hurt past a weekly/monthly support group. There are many out there that do and are willing to share, but I’ve found you need to seek this pain out.
In my personal experience, those who have gone all in have scars that can help a startup guide their way through the a”maze”ing minefield. There will most definitely be personal attrition along the way, but a true sense of support will extend no matter what the circumstances may be, and the removal of some will be better going forward. Many of the close family and friends I had when I held a big corporate paycheck have completely gone silent. I was prepared for this, and my belief is anyone who has truly been successful in following their own dream will share this same story. Just be prepared for the ones you never thought would walk away. It will hurt!
Keep a daily journal of every meeting and conversation you have with those you are choosing to share your dream with at such an early stage. (I’m personally terrible with this as I’m concentrating on pitching the dream. My partner is dead-on with this and truly shines during our recap sessions.) These notable notes may be your lifeblood, and like a transfusion, could be the jumpstart on the next leg of your plan.
Have a solid partner that you trust to be faithfully honest with you even when you’re feeling the glory of perceived support
Lastly, keep your “why” firmly out front, rock solid and bulletproof! As you grow in your venture, your support groups are strategically bragging your “why” for you. Like a songwriter hearing a crowd of thousands sing his song back to him, it’s the most amazing part of the dream! Look at every aspect of your business plan, pitch deck, presentation or coffee conversation, and ask yourself, “Does this venture continue to answer the ‘why?’” This shouldn’t stop once the doors open, either. You must be financially sound, profitable, and prove that you can scale, yet my belief and experience has shown if you put people before profit, all of the above comes naturally. Your venture’s culture is the modern-day sustainability when it comes to people!
Less Certainly is More
Finally, I have surrounded myself with a “less is more” group of transparent supporters. My many years of corporate leadership gave me a sense of false confidence as if there was a hammer waiting somewhere if a vendor or client relationship went south. I now look to my business partner and a select group as a tool to keep me balanced and on track. My “why” goes back to Richard Branson’s quote, and I get up daily with the commitment that our venture will make a difference in people’s lives. That is the most transparent reason why I went all in and chose to go down this road. It was not for money, fame, or fortune. It is because my passion and drive in life has and always will be about seeing that child smile, that awkward teenage couple out on their first date that could use a lift, that weekly book club that just lost a woman to breast cancer, that only child with dreams far past the surrounding cornfields, and so many more.
This venture will make a difference not only in one person’s life but will help propel a community in a forward-thinking direction. The life of a founder is not easy. Yet we stay focused and are not afraid to keep communication open and honest with the few that honestly support our dream! They will be your first marketing team!
It only makes sense that this journey to making a difference in people’s lives started with making a difference in me first.
Why conform when you can transform?
Article written by TK Kelly, Fortitude Founder and Co-Founder Lucky Dog Books and Bistro