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32 Business and Life Lessons: What I Learned Running Companies on 4 Different Continents

This is my personal story of how I went from having a job I did not like at all, not knowing what to do with my life to building several successful businesses. I'll share my lessons I picked up along the way.

It all started in Dubai.

I came to Dubai to work for an international non-profit for a year. After the year was over, I landed a job as a sales person for a property portal in Dubai. The year was 2005, and the real estate was booming. I quickly proved myself and was promoted to head a small sales and marketing team (6 people) in the company. I was 25 years old.

I worked hard and was eager to kick butt. Even though I learned a huge amount on marketing, leadership and business development, the whole thing was slowly eating me from inside.

"So, did you sell anything today? I want to go on a cruise!"

These were the words uttered by my then-boss when he walked into our sales team room. That was the last drop. Is this what my life is about? Working my butt off so my employer could go on a cruise? I realized that this the true with any job. How can you ever get rich by being an employee (unless you're a CEO on the Wall Street)?

I decided that the ordinary life is not for me. I did not want to just go to work for the next 40 years or so (until I retire). Working for other people for the rest of my life.

What do I really want from life?

I literally took a pen and a paper and wrote down what I want my life to look like. I wrote down things like "I want to be able to go volunteer in Africa for 6 months when I want to. I want to be able to backpack through Central America for 3 months when I feel like it. I want to discover the world. I want to have enough money to do it all and then some."

I wanted to be free. In the sense that I only wanted to do what I wanted, I wanted financial freedom and freedom to move around the globe.

Maybe there is a job out there that would enable this lifestyle? But how many companies would give me 6 months paid leave? None. I also couldn't be just a volunteer for non-profits as you gotta live and flying to Africa is not that cheap + would have to worry about financial security. So this ruled out normal jobs.

The fact that travel was so important to me also meant that I couldn't be tied down to a single physical location.

The only possible solution: the income had to come from the internet.

My first project

I was so inspired by writing down my dreams, I felt everyone could benefit from it. We all have dreams, but we tend to forget them. It was then when I launched (along with my girlfriend) my first web project, called it Dreaminder.

It's a website where you can go and write down your dream, and send it to yourself in the future. You choose the date when you want to receive it, enter your email and it's done. It's kind of cute and it really is fun to receive emails from the past.

Key lessons learned:

  • Just because you have a great idea you love doesn't mean it will succeed.
  • The first dream I wrote down and sent myself said "I want to be 100% financially independent by 2009". I achieved this goal 2 years ahead of the "deadline". Writing down dreams has magic in it.

What should I do with my life?

This is a question most people ask themselves at some point. I had a degree in Information Technology, had worked as a web developer, tech support guy, account manager, sales person and a marketer. I was interested in saving the world (after years in the non-profit sector) and business and many other things.

How to choose? Which direction should I take? What's the purpose of my life?

I was very actively searching for the answer. I talked to a lot of wise people. Read a lot of books. The ones that impacted me the most were "Losing My Virginity" (Branson), "The Monk Who Sold the Ferrari" (Sharma), "The Alchemist" (Coelho) and "Now Discover Your Strenghts" (Buckingham). The last one changed my life.

Eventually I learned a ton, found the answers I needed and moved on.

In the process  of seeking my goal in life I discovered that there's not a single good resource on the internet on finding life purpose. Yet there are millions of people struggling with this issue. So I built the site I couldn't find myself. I called it The One Question.

This was in 2007. Now, 4 years later, it's still carried by the same mission, but has turned into a successful passive income business for me.

Key lessons learned:

  • You have to find what you love. If you haven't yet, stop everything and figure it out.
  • Solve your own problem. This enables you to truly understand your customers and to help them.

Know your talents, develop a skill people value

I had many conflicting interests, I found so many things that I was really into. I had been doing B2B sales for several years, and I was really good at it. I loved learning and practicing persuasion, negotiation techniques and networking. I had also been active in the non-profit sector for 5 years, doing fundraising and leading teams. I was (still am!) passionate about "saving the world" - I ran a blog on social entrepreneurship (even got mentioned in Guy Kawasaki's blog) and tried to get a job with United Nations.  And so on.

The world was my oyster, and I couldn't figure out which path to take. Which role should I pursue? What am I naturally best at? After reading "Now Discover Your Strenghts" and taking the online talent test that came with the book, I reached clarity. For those who've read the book, my talents were achiever, activator, input, learner, significance.

I basically made the conclusion that my natural talent set says I should be an expert at something, and I should be an entrepreneur.

Have a skill that people value

I read a story a few years ago told by a guy who went to a party in the Playboy mansion. There he met a famous millionaire, and used the chance to ask him the question, “What’s the single most important thing for becoming successful?” The millionaire replied: “Young man, have a skill that people value.”

People with skills never run out of work. The very best at something are always sought after, and get compensated handsomely for the value they provide.

I made a conscious decision to become the best in the world at something, specifically becoming the master of knowing what it takes to get products in the hands of customers. (It was several years later when I identified this as 'driving conversions' , which is what I specialize in today).

Key lessons learned:

  • Get to know yourself and identify what you're talented at, what comes naturally to you. It will make all the difference in terms of tall you can grow. Know where your biggest potential reserves lies.
  • Become very good at something (10 000 hrs and all that). It's a critical component of making it at anything. Aim to be the best.

My first location independent job

Through connections I made on LinkedIn, I was able to land a job for a British internet television company. The job was building relationships with partners and advertisers and to sell advertising. It was entirely internet based, over email and Skype. I could do the work from anywhere.

I decided to use the opportunity and bought a one-way ticket to Panama - I wanted to learn Spanish.

Key lesson learned: Take the chances you're given. They make all the difference in the world.

Losing the job

I had received my first salary, moved into a colonial house in Panama City Casco Viejo district next to the Pacific Ocean. Life was good.

Then it was eventually time to pay the rent again. But the salary hadn't been transferred yet. I sent an email after email after email. No replies.

Eventually, like a month later, they replied saying they have no money to pay me. Their main investor was the husband of Anita Roddick (the founder of Body Shop), who passed away. He was overcome with grief, and pulled out his investments. The board didn't allow employees to tell anyone they haven't got any money anymore. They asked me to keep on working and they'll pay me later once they find a new investor, but no promises.

This was a generous offer, and of course I declined it. So now what? The rent was due. Every now and then it's good to eat something too.

Key lesson learned: Relying on other people to provide your income is too risky.

Becoming an entrepreneur

I decided not to fly home to my family (defeated), and try to make it instead. I had strong experience in marketing real estate online. The real estate and tourism in Panama were booming. So I sent my CV to a bunch of real estate and tourism companies and got lots of job interviews.

I offered myself as an internet marketer (doing SEO, PPC and so on). They all declined. A part of it was that I didn't speak much Spanish yet, but the main reason they gave me was this: "we do need this, but we don't need a full-time person to do it".

Ding! I had a light bulb go off. Well, why don't I start a company and offer it as a service? That's what I did. I went and registrered the domain panamainternetmarketing.com, built a website basically saying "I'm a real company", described the services I offer and done!

I sent out emails to the companies that interviewed me, telling them I now provide a marketing service. That's how I landed my first clients, and grew it from there.

Key learnings:

  • Creating opportunities works much better than waiting for opportunities.
  • Don't waste time with the legal stuff, prove you have a product or service that people want first.
  • Go out there and talk to prospective customers. The answers and opportunities are outside your home and office.
  • Have a skill that people value. Expertise in something is critical.

Challenges with hand holding

Success came fast and easy. I was the very first internet marketing and SEO company in Panama. I walked into the Air Panama office and the CEO told me "we have been waiting for somebody like you". They still use parts of the website I built for them back in 2007.

Then things slowly got problematic for me. You see, Panama is a tropical paradise (look at the image above). Instead of sipping piña coladas under the palm trees, I was working in my office, AC cranked up. The more money I wanted to make, the more clients I had to take on, and the more time I spent working. Also, anyone who has worked in a B2B service business knows that it requires quite a lot of hand holding. And sometimes there's a customer from hell you have to deal with.

I am really bad at dealing with difficult, non-savvy customers who demand a lot of attention and understand very little. It created a lot of stress for me.

When you're selling your time, the only way to make more money is to sell more time. Or to hire more people (and deal with extra hassles and overhead related to that) and sell their time. I felt there must be a better way.

The same year Tim Ferris's "The 4-Hour Workweek" came out. I read it, and it opened my eyes. I decided to change my business.

Key learnings:

  • Selling your time is not a really good idea if you want to have a lifestyle business.
  • Service business is not scalable without hiring more people.
  • Outsource what you don't enjoy doing. Like hand holding and bookkeeping.

Going digital

I decided to kill off the marketing consulting business, and only work with a select few when I feel like it (to keep my pencil sharp). Instead, I decided to package what I know about internet marketing and build an online course for small businesses in Estonia (that's where I'm from).

While figuring out the details of my positioning and products, I just set up some simple landing pages and drove traffic to those pages via AdWords. The page had an opt-in form, and I offered a free ebook in exchange for their emails. I also started a blog.

It took me like 4 months to put together my first product. I had slowly built anticipation for it on my blog, and had built an email list of like 3000 people via my landing pages. I made $10,000 the day I launched the product. That was 2008.

The blog became the most read internet marketing blog in the country. I've developed a number of product since for that market and have organized many tens of training seminars.

Key learnings

  • You don't need to have it all figured out when you start. Just get going. The hardest part about getting started is getting started.
  • Start building relationships online, but also take them offline. You can charge way more money for offline products + it's really cool to meet people face to face.
  • Time matters. The longer you do it, the easier it gets. A year from now you wish you had started today.

Partnering for products

I used a similar model for my first English-language information product in the fitness market. I partnered with an expert, a former pro athlete. Fitness market is very competitive, so we were looking for a niche that had enough people in it, but not that much competition.

Based on the success of The Truth About Abs, we decided to focus on a specific part of the body. We wrote down all the possibilities, checked the searc volume for related keywords (e.g. "biceps exercises" etc) with Google Keyword Tool. If the volume was all right (30 000+ / mo), we googled the keyword to find existing products.

We found a niche that had only 2 products, made by the same guy. Bingo!

We created a free report, built landing pages, drove traffic via Google AdWords. On the "thank-you page", we asked them 3 additional questions and offered access to additional exercise videos if they answered them. Most people did. The questions were about their age, gender and their biggest challenge. This told us whom we were selling to and what's the key angle we should use in our sales copy.

The product consisted of a bunch of workout videos that we filmed over 2 weekends with a Flip camera. Once the product was done, we emailed our mailing list and made money day 1. We're not actively marketing the product anymore, but it's still on Clickbank and makes us money as affiliates pick it up.

Key learnings:

  • You don't need to be the face of your product. Partner with somebody who has the credibility and can put together the content. You do the marketing, and you split the money. A detailed agreement on who does what how often and how much is a good idea.
  • Market research doesn't have to be complicated. Identify the problems you might solve, see the related keyword volumes and gauge the competition.
  • You can build video products very, very fast.
  • Take advantage of affiliate networks like Clickbank. It really works.

Listen to your customers

A lot of my customers were asking me: "Hey, I want to build online courses too, but I'm no techie. Which tool should I use?" I replied - "let me Google that for you". I discovered that there was absolutely nothing available that I could recommend. All of it was too complicated to use and inadequate.

So... another opportunity found! I put together an awesome team, we worked months on a product and in April 2010 we launched Traindom. It was by far the easiest software around to build online courses and membership sites.

Shortly after we launched, a bunch of other similar services came about. Some with far more capital, connections and fame. The competition is tough, but we have a really good product on our hands.

Key lessons learned:

  • A good way to find business opportunities is to solve your customers' problems
  • If you spot an opportunity, there's a good chance many others have as well. Don't linger and mull over it, take action right away.
  • If you're up against powerful competitors, make sure you have a better product (or have some key advantages).

Execution is everything, and knowing what to do matters

When we launched Traindom, we knew nothing about lean startup methodology or customer development. I figured that with my experience in conversion optimization and internet marketing, getting it off the ground will be a breeze. I was wrong.

We built the whole product based on me, my personal needs and what I thought the users need. It took us like 7 months to build the first version. We hadn't talked to a single customer by launch time. Big mistake. Repeated it again pretty much with the second version. Sure, we did get paying customers and so on, but didn't manage to really get going.

In many aspects the product was far superior than others in the market, at least on par with the most successful ones. Sometimes it just doesn't matter. I'm a preacher for evidence based marketing, but I also believe timing and luck matter for getting a new business off the ground.

Failing with Traindom was a very humbling experience. I learned a ton about startup marketing, figuring out your target users, and the importance of getting the product right. It was like my second (unofficial) MBA in entrepreneurship.

Key lessons learned:

  • Don't just run with your idea. Talk to people smarter than you, read books, learn.
  • You are not your customer. Talk to people!
  • Use the build - measure - learn loop or die
  • You might not know what you don't know. Always be on the lookout.
  • Entrepreneurship can be hard

Built it if they want to come

I've been doing various kinds of online marketing since 2005. I've made many connections in those years, and I'm known in lots of circles. Over the last 3 years or so, lots of people kept asking me: "Hey you teach conversion stuff, where can I find a company that builds sites the way you say they should be?"

I never knew quite how to respond. I either said "I don't know" or sent them over to companies of my friends. Last summer I asked myself "why do I keep sending these people away? I might as well put together a team and start build conversion optimized sites". And I did just that.

Not much planning, no hesitation. I knew the conversions problems companies were having by talking to hundreds of them, and I also had a pretty good idea what the source is and how to go about solving it. So I founded Markitekt, and presented my philosophy for getting sites to convert on the landing page. And the business took off.

I learned my lessons with the agency in Panama, so I built it way smarter this time. I have other people manage the areas I don't want to be involved in, so I could focus on the stuff where I can add the most value (and that's most fun for me).

The scale issues are still there that I learned several years ago, but we're already working it and looking to disrupt this space. Big announcements coming before the end of the year.

Key lessons learned:

  • Pay attention to what people are asking you
  • Blog like your business depended on it (because it does)
  • Be very good at what you do, and they will refer you
  • Years of work pay off. Success begets success.

If you're considering starting a business

Are you working for somebody else right now, but dreaming of being independent? Let me tell you: you will forget what it's like for you today, very soon.

I was near sighted for most of my life. I had to wear glasses or contact lenses. In 2008 I had lasik eye surgery and my vision has been perfect ever since. I have forgotten what it's like not being able to see perfect.

It's the same with jobs. I haven't had a job since 2006. I don't remember what it's like to have a job or to work for anyone else. I know I won't ever have a job again, and sometimes I get nostalgic about it. But it passes.

It freaking rocks to be an online entrepreneur. Start building your business today. You don't need to have all the answers right away, having just some is good enough. You'll learn what you need to know on the way.

Key lesson learned: Life is a journey, not a destination.

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