What I Learned From My First Business, Part 1

Guys.  GUYS.  My first business has been sold.  It’s an incredible feeling.

It wasn’t the sail off into the sunset that my business partner and I imagined when we started.  But it was something.  And we learned a heck of a lot along the way.  Just like everyone reading this has learned a lot from their experiences over the past five years.  What I mean to say is, I don’t want to give the impression that I think anyone has a lot to learn from me.  These are just things I learned that I hope to benefit from.

First, some background info.  A great friend of mine came to me at the beginning of 2007 and said we should start a business.  I was a sophomore Latin American studies major at BYU, and was teaching Spanish to Mormon missionaries part time.  I was planning on going to law school, but had always dreamed of doing my own thing so I signed on immediately.  We decided we were going to make cheaper, better screen and full-body protectors for iPods and mobile phones.  We called it iWrap. (When I first ran the name by my wife, she thought I was proposing the name of our firstborn.  Nope.  I did not, in fact, want to name our kid iWrap Chaves.)

So here it is.

Choose the right business partner

First things first.  I once asked an accomplished entrepreneur what he looked for when choosing a business partner.  He simply said, “You marry ‘em.”  He was right—just like in a marriage, you better be sure, and I mean sure, you know what you’re getting into before you start a business with somebody.  Above all else, don’t go into business with somebody you are not 100% confident you can trust.  I couldn’t be more grateful that I had a business partner whom I knew would always act with absolute honesty.  There’s a ton of opportunity for a partner in a business to be dishonest, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that for most people, integrity takes a backseat to financial gain.  This could not have been less true of my business partner, who I never had to doubt would treat me fairly and honestly even when given opportunities to do otherwise.

I mentioned that he came to me with the idea to start the business—the question is, was I the right business partner for him?  I’m not sure.  I’m honest, so I met that first qualification.  But I have to wonder if he wouldn’t have done even better with a business partner who wanted to sell.  We both have unique and valuable skill sets, but neither of us are real salespeople, and I think that hurt us in the long run. Second only to the trust issue, make sure that when you choose a business partner that his or her skill set complements yours.  If you have a partner that’s just like you, what’s the point?  You’ve already got you.  Find somebody you can trust who can do all the stuff you don’t like doing or aren’t good at (and those things shouldn’t be too hard to find).

Debt is debt, even in business

It’s common (and in some cases, good) advice to go to friends and family for early funding.  It’s easier, and usually cheaper.  This is the path we took (straight debt), and never raised any other money.  It worked out fine.  But there were times that I didn’t know if it would work out fine.  And believe me, that can keep you up at night.  When you own a business, any debt you have hangs over you just like personal debt would.  I understand that there are differences, and generally the debt is offset by an asset (assuming your business has some value).  Just realize that you probably think that asset has significantly more value than potential buyers (or even objective observers) do, and that that money you borrowed has to get back one way or the other or it’s gonna get ugly.

Be careful about sacrificing “now”

I went through the ages of 22 to 26 thinking that I would just sacrifice “now” for a better life “later”.  Real life hasn’t started yet, said I.  So I might as well work endless hours and weekends and do stuff I don’t like for basically no pay because it’ll all work out in the end.  But you know what?  Real life has started.  I don’t care how old you are right now, don’t get caught thinking that you’ll change your habits later.  Enjoying yourself now, spending time with family and friends, and everything else that makes life sweet and gets a smile on your face may seem frivolous to some.  But it’s neither frivolous nor temporary.  The sum of your experiences make up who you are.  So make those experiences sweet.  ”Now” has a ton of value.

By the way, work can absolutely be a sweet experience in and of itself.  Just realize that the life you’re living now is setting a pattern for the future.

It’s OK to not be a startup person

I started out (at 22, cut me some slack) believing the incredibly naïve notion that anyone who didn’t want to be an entrepreneur/startup person was either lazy or shortsighted.  I am an entrepreneur, and most likely, I’ll be one forever.  But there is a ton of value in steady paychecks, time with family, and contributing to a large organization or even a small one that you don’t own.  Startups often don’t provide certain things that employment often can, and vice versa.  Entrepreneurship has pros and cons just like any career choice.  There’s a lot of upside, and there’s a lot of downside.

Thanks for listening.  Part 2 to come.

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Life is Long, or, I’m Not Mark Zuckerberg

Phenomenal, early success is rare.

It happened to Mark Zuckerberg.  He may be a genius, or he may be lucky, or it may be a little bit of both.  Credit where credit’s due: the guy’s super smart and has proven to be a very capable businessman.  Unfortunately, lots of aspiring entrepreneurs think of Mark Zuckerberg as what an entrepreneur should be.  I mean, that would be great, right?

But it’s so, so, so rare.

It seems like it’s not, because rarity and media coverage have this funky inverse relationship.  By virtue of something being rare, it gets blogged about, Tweeted about, posted about, and talked about endlessly.  This makes it seem like the standard.

The more common route to success, the life is long method, simply doesn’t get put on a pedestal like the Zuckerberg method.  What’s interesting about working, day in and day out, for years?  There’s no catchy headline.

I’m on the life is long route.  And you know what?  It’s fun.  It’s gratifying.  And it does pay off.  Chances are, you’ve got a lot of years left.  Work toward your goals, one day at a time, lots of days in a row.  You’ll get there.

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How to Have a Happy Birthday

Today is my birthday.  That’s right: I am now one year older than I was yesterday.
Birthdays, for me, are always great.  I feel loved.  And I like food.  And fire.  And especially food with fire coming out of it.  So the day itself is pretty much a win-win.

To me, the tough part of birthdays is getting older.

Well, scratch that.  The tough part about birthdays is getting older without achieving something I wanted to by this age.

Well… scratch that again.  The tough part about birthdays is getting older without achieving something I wanted to by this age when So and So has.

It’s not just what I wanted to achieve by the time I was x years old, it’s that I should have achieved it if someone else has.  It’s in my nature to compare myself to other people—in particular, successful people.  And, based on extensive research into my own opinion, I am going to say this is a slippery slope that all goal-setters (and that’s most of us) face.

When we compare ourselves to others, we’re bound to find someone who has out-achieved us.  In fact, we only have a 1 in 7 billion chance of being the best in the world at something (that’s 0.00000001%).  Extrapolating, if we compare, we have a 99.99999999% chance of finding someone that’s done better and then feeling crappy about ourselves. If we feel crappy about ourselves, we achieve less.  And when the comparison comes up again, we feel even worse.

Vicious cycle, right?  The way I see it, there are two escapes: either be the best (reminder: 0.00000001% chance), or don’t compare.

A couple quick thoughts that have helped me get out of the comparison trap:

  1. Refocus your comparisons on yourself.  Compare yourself to where you were a year ago.  If you’re better, then great!  You’re moving in the right direction and that’s a huge success in and of itself, bound to lead to more successes.
  2. Root for (or even go out of your way to help) the people you’re comparing yourself to.  Once you’re rooting for them, their success becomes your success.  It’s no longer a comparison.

I really believe that getting out of the comparison trap is a requirement for happiness (and happy birthdays)—I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on how to do it.

And on that note, Happy Birthday to me!  May you have great success during my coming year.

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You’re not being nice when you’re being Mr. Nice Guy

If only this dude had you as a friend…

Imagine this scenario: a good friend of yours approaches you and says, “Hey man, I’ve got an awesome business idea I want to run by you.”

“Sure,” you say.  People always come to you for business advice.

“Ok,” he says, “so the idea is this: you know how in the winter, you park somewhere, and when you go out to your car again, it’s freezing cold?”

“Yes…” you say.

“And you know how if you’ve been working out, you feel warm no matter how cold it is outside?”

“Yes…”

“So, what if there was a device that you attach to your car door handle—it has a sensor on it, right?—and it doesn’t let you into the car until it sees you working out, like jumping or jogging in place or something for like a certain amount of time?  Then you’d be warm!”

You wait for more.  There’s no more.  That’s it.

“I’ve been working on a prototype for the past six years and I think I’ve finally got something working.  So… what do you think?”  He waits expectantly, eyebrows raised, with an eager smile on his face.

And here’s where the conundrum lies (no pun intended, as your name is most likely not conundrum).

What do you do?  Do you you risk hurting the guy’s feelings and making the past six years of work he’s done feel futile?  Or do you take the easy way out, tell him it’s a great idea, and that you’re 100% behind him (you just can’t partner, invest, or in any other way associate yourself with the business due purely to time constraints).

If you’re anything like me, you might just go with number two.  It’s easier.  It’s friendlier.  Everybody leaves with a smile on their face.  You’re being Mr. Nice Guy.

But you’re not being nice.

Situations like this don’t just happen with business ideas, but it seems uncommonly common in the entrepreneurial arena.  A good friend, and a good business person, is honest with himself and honest with others.  Sometimes caring and being brutally truthful are the same thing.  There’s no reason to put him down, of course.  And no reason to use hyperbolic or hurtful language (don’t tell him his idea sucks).  But you wouldn’t want your best friend let you waste time on something that he or she could clearly see wasn’t going to work, would you?  If you care about helping others, the most important thing to you should be their long term success, not escaping an awkward moment or feeling a little deflated.

Don’t be Mr. Nice Guy.  Be nice.

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When Giving Up is a Good Thing

Seattle, WA. 1972. The Intel 8008 microprocessor has just been announced, and two young entrepreneurs have a big idea: using new microprocessing technology to process traffic data for city governments.  They bring in a brilliant programmer, get their sales on, and Traf-O-Data is born.

Traf-O-Data produces a few thousand dollars in revenue, and everything’s going swimmingly.  After a few months, the state of Washington announces that it will offer the same service to cities.

For free.

Before you assume the rest, let me tell you the names of these two young entrepreneurs: Bill Gates and Paul Allen.  What did these two brash, unconquerable spirits do?  Refuse to give in?  Fight to the death?  Make the world their oyster!?

Wrong. They gave up. Traf-O-Data closed its doors. And the defeated went and started a little company you might have heard of.

In our culture (and especially in startup culture), giving up has a terrible stigma.  The fictional great entrepreneur that many young people aspire to be has a few distinct qualities: he doesn’t back down.  He has an insatiable appetite for success.  He is always a step ahead of the competition.  He simply refuses to lose.

But you know what refusing does (makes a fuse… out of… r and e?)

I digress.

My point: giving up is not always a bad thing.  Giving up on your goals (assuming they’re truly worthwhile) is always a bad thing.  But strategically giving up poor methods of achieving those goals is always a good thing.  You have to have a method to achieve a goal, and sometimes it becomes clear that the what you’re doing is no longer the most viable method to achieve it.

So give up!  Move on!  This will be painful.  Change usually is.  But the second it becomes clear that the path you’re on isn’t taking you where you really want to go, you need to switch paths.  Your goals should be sacred; your methods should not be.

Those who achieve the most fail quickly. They find out what works and what doesn’t. They give up on ineffective methods and move on to better ones.  And they inevitably end up reaching their goals.

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Why Fear is Bad

  1. It helps you make terrible decisions.
  2. It gives you a pit in your stomach.
  3. It takes away your hope.
  4. It makes you lose sleep.

So, don’t be afraid.  If you want to be a well-slept, hopeful, healthy, sound decision-maker, don’t be afraid.

I know at least one way to banish your fear.  Take the thing you’re afraid of, and stand up to it.  Stare it in the face, and tell it you’re not backing down.  Give it the crazy eyes.  Tell it how it’s gonna be.  Then give it a wink and walk away.

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Thank you, Google

for helping us to answer some of life’s deepest questions.