How a Failed Business Taught Me Everything

Not too long ago, MasterSelf celebrated its one year anniversary. The site originally came about during a phone call between Arda Cole and myself. At the time, I was living in a hotel room somewhere between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Arda had mentioned he was looking to start a fitness blog (he’s a record holding powerlifter) and I was looking to start writing about philosophy, the mind, and that sort of thing. The reason why I mention this all is that it’s about the time of the year where I start looking at where I was last year and how far I’ve come since then- and I’m sure I’m not the only one in that regard. I don’t really have a clever way to sum this one up, so here’s the story of how a failed business taught me everything.

I think this first part is funny. Whether you do or not is definitely going to depend on your sense of humor, but I digress. Anyway, when I dropped out of school about two and a half years ago, I joined two of my friends in the attempt to start a door to door trash service for apartment complexes (valet waste, if you’re familiar.) We lost one of the team members close to immediately, so it was down to myself and the other person to run Freedom Way Waste Valet. Over the course of the next year, we constantly redefined the business plan, did tons of research, created a kickass brand and killer marketing materials (if I do say so myself), and even joined a bunch of local business organizations to network.

However, there was a huge amount of internal industry knowledge that we could never have anticipated. To put it simply, our business model wasn’t even competitive until probably 9 months in. This was simply due to the fact that the only way we learned anything in the industry was by networking and meeting people who ran complexes and had dealt with our competitors in the past. There was one particular person who we had been trying to get a meeting with for the entirety of the year- she was the head of a property management company that serviced all the best complexes in town. If we had been able to sell her on one complex, we would have likely had sustained business for the rest of our lives.

Unfortunately, by the end of the year, nothing had happened, and we decided to move to Colorado. If you’ve been paying attention, you may have guessed that this is how I ended up living in that hotel room. I ended up getting a job at a microchip factory in the Springs, and the guy that trained me is the guy who suggested I apply to Tesla. Weird how things work out, right?

Now, I know this sounds like a bit of a lame story, right? All that hard work on the business and nothing to show for it.

Here’s the funny part.

After a few months at Tesla, I realized I wanted to get promoted at some point. As a result, I had to update my resume, and I ended up logging into LinkedIn for the first time since I moved to CO. There was a message from that exact person we had been trying to meet with:

Day Late and a Dollar Short - How A Failed Business Taught Me Everything

Needless to say, this sucked to receive. Should I have responded to it? Maybe, but after the abundance of emails, messages left to secretaries, and even the custom miniature trash can full of Christmas candy that we left without response, I didn’t really feel like it. For the record, the smallest complex that her organization was responsible for would have been upwards of a $200k/yr contract for us. But here I was, on the other side of the country and no longer in contact with my former partner.

Custom Mini Trash Can - How a Failed Business Taught Me Everything

There are a few important things that I’ve taken away from this experience. The first, and probably the most obvious one, is a deep sense of validation. We had spent many, many months filled with long nights of research, scheming, and re-re-redeveloping our business model with absolutely no positive reinforcement whatsoever. The closest thing we got was the occasional inconclusive meeting with a property manager here or there, and they were inevitably not the person capable of actually negotiating a contract with us.

This is lesson one:

You MUST be prepared to operate at the highest level of commitment that you are capable of without any desire for external validation. To rephrase, strive for excellence in action for the sake of excellence itself. I don’t believe in regret, and I do not wish that our business had ended up differently because of how much I learned from the experience. That being said, it is very nice to know that we were actually doing the right thing the whole time.

The second thing I learned from this experience is that if you are committed to a goal and willing to adapt accordingly, you will succeed inevitably. Our business did not fail because of lack of input, it failed because we gave up, and this is evidence that had we held out for another year, there was a very good chance we would have been making mucho bank-o.

This is lesson two:

If you are going to do something, commit wholeheartedly. Had we continued the business as we were doing it, we would have gotten the chance to pitch directly to the person we most wanted to. You may have heard these statistics-

20% of small businesses fail in their first year,

30% of small business fail in their second year,

50% of small businesses fail after five years in business.

Finally, 30% of small business owners fail in their 10th year in business.

Now, I don’t know what the specific reason for these statistics is, whether the businesses ran out of money, served a dying market, or whatever. What I am sure of, however, is that there is a sizable percentage of these that failed due to someone deciding to give up.

Imagine this- you decide to start writing a blog about some obscure topic, like vintage toasters or homemade parakeet cosplay. At first, you’re just going to writing for friends and family, and even they probably don’t give a genuine shit about it Who could blame them? This is the first stage you have to get through, and this is the stage that Freedom Way did not survive. You have to be able to operate without any kind of external validation. After a long enough time, though, you’ll literally have spent more time on the subject than anyone else, and you’ll be the authority on antique toasting devices.

The trick to doing this is to ensure that what you’re doing is something you genuinely enjoy and would do simply because you like doing it. Unfortunately for Freedom Way, I did not have a genuine interest in the sanitary arts, so it became increasingly difficult to maintain morale in the face of silence from the complexes we were harassing marketing to. This is where things started to turn around, though.

When I got to Colorado, I realized something- if I was going to have any kind of success in my life, it was going to have to be the result of my own ass-busting. After all, here I was, 2000 miles from home with no job, no degree, and a shit ton of debt accumulated from questionable life choices.

This is where MasterSelf came about.

As I was sitting in a god-awful hotel room at a dusty truck stop watching basic cable, I got the urge to call Arda out of nowhere. Within the next hour, we had a plan, and within the next week, we had a site.

Around that time, I wrote the first article, and I had planned on writing one a day until the site became successful. That lasted two and a half days, and I actually just managed to burn myself out until I started lifestyle camping. (Note to reader: don’t jump into insane challenges, work up to them.)

What was the difference between me trying to write in the hotel and me writing after I moved to Reno? I certainly had an abundance of free time and nothing to do in the hotel, so that wasn’t it. If you’ve ever binge-watched a terrible show on Netflix out of boredom, you’ll know this feeling. The difference turned out to be something that I was forced to do out of necessity, and continue to do today because it works.

See, something you don’t think about when you decide to live in a tent is the fact that there is not wifi in the desert. Well, maybe you do, I certainly didn’t. As a result, I started going to Starbucks every morning on the weekends, because A: there is nothing to do in the desert except sleep, and B, C, and D: wifi, coffee, and shelter. This gave me plenty of time to write, and because there is little else to do at Starbucks, I got in the habit of writing every time I showed up. I’ve actually honed this skill as a means to avoid writer’s block, because I have trained myself that being at Starbucks=writing.

The takeaway here: if you have something that you want to start doing, figure out a way to incorporate it into your routine. Unless I have something unusual going on, I go to either write or work on the technical aspect of the site every day of my weekends. As a result, I’ve managed to average 2 original articles a week for the better part of the year, and I believe that when this is published, it will be my 80th article. I hope to hit 100 before year’s end.

One thing I’d like to make note of is the growth of the site:

MasterSelf Site Stats - How A Failed Business Taught Me Everything

In October of last year, we had exactly 105 view in the entire month. Honestly, most of those were probably us looking at the site ourselves.

As I write this, it is October 2nd, and we’ve managed to get almost seven times that number of views in two days. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from SEO, better marketing, an increasing number of articles that get hits months after being published, continuous research and site refinements, and the simple fact that I’ve gotten better at writing articles. I would certainly hope so after 80 of them, anyway.

In the past year, we’ve gone from the original team of five to a peak of (I think) eleven, all the way back down to four: Arda, who now runs the server, Tia, who runs our Instagram, Will, who is an occasional contributor, and yours truly. Ironically, the site didn’t really start growing until most of the team left in May (for various reasons) and I retooled my approach to the site. That small bump in the graph in April was due to us advertising, but June and onward is all natural and all driven from the improvements I mentioned earlier.

What’s the moral of this story? Probably the biggest takeaway from this whole experience for me is the fact that you almost certainly cannot predict what the right way of doing something is until you’re already in the process. Freedom Way completely changed its model at least five times over the course of the year (at one point offering valet dry cleaning, of all things), and MasterSelf’s internal organization and general approach has nothing in common with the way it was when we started it. You cannot plan for the unknown, but you can plan on being ready to improvise when the time comes.

In short: whatever it is you want to be doing, whether it’s running a trash company, starting a blog about vintage toasters, or some other bizarre idea, stop thinking about it and start doing it. Don’t overthink that statement- I don’t give a shit how good you think your plan is or how you think you need to wait for the right time. No one is ever ready, there is no perfect time, your plan will fall apart multiple times in the process, and you will not know what you’re doing until you start doing it and fuck it up repeatedly.

Get started now.

When you’re sitting around at the end of next year, do you want to be thinking about what New Year’s resolution you’re going to be abandoning, or do you want to be looking at how far you’ve managed to come? Start playing that instrument, start writing your novel, start something and run with it. The things that you think are impossible now will be effortless if you practice them every day.

I’m going to end with some really cool videos of people learning skills over time that will hopefully motivate you. Here’s to where we’ll be next year, and here’s to another year of MasterSelf!

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