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3 Startup Secrets from a Serial Entrepreneur

As seen on Forbes.

Packed in like sardines.

Brandon Mills and 90% of the population.

All headed down the same track preached since birth:  Go to school; get good grades, go to college; get a degree; go try to find a good job; live a decent life; retire with a gold watch in hand at age 65; pray you don’t drop dead at age 66.

Sound familiar?

Ah, but sometimes a miracle happens to change things.  Call it fate.  Call it the butterfly effect.  Pretty much call it whatever you want.

Brandon Mills had such a life changing experience at the age of 20.

Now before you go off expecting some miracle story of survival from a horrific car crash, stop yourself.  It’s not that.  But why does it have to be?  Why can’t a normal everyday decision make a huge impact on a life?  I mean that’s why we call it the “butterfly effect”, right?  A butterfly’s wings flapping in the wind can make a huge dent in the world.

And so it was for Brandon.

Jamming in school at the University of California at San Diego; Saturday afternoon workshop; some entrepreneur guru author named Robert W. Price on campus; and Brandon decides to check it out just for the fun of it.

You see, this is slightly off course for Brandon — he is going to school for an engineering degree.  So basically on a whim, he goes to this thing on a Saturday.

Ding-Ding.  Ten years later Brandon has an entrepreneurial resume to drool over.  Co-founder of a company named SocialVibe with 2 other buddies; raised $44.5 million in capital for their gig; exited recently and now starting his second company BlockBeacon; raised even more startup funds; totally connected in the SoCal startup scene; and all before the age of 30.

Nicely done Brandon.

So who is Brandon Mills anyway?  And what exactly happened on this Saturday afternoon?  And what are some of the secrets to his success?

Glad you asked.

I sat down with Brandon on the tele and we talked shop one Friday afternoon.

My goal?  To discover as much wisdom in this entrepreneurial kid as possible.  (Yes, kid.  I’m 47 and he could actually be my son.  Well… if I was having children right out of high school that is.)

First though, let me tell you this:  Brandon Mills is just like you and me.  Yes, he’s a smart guy, but he is no smarter than you and I.  And my point isn’t to discount Brandon in anyway here.  My point is to simply say this:  You can do the same as Brandon.  You can rock this world as an entrepreneur.  And that’s a key point for you to realize.

So read carefully because Brandon’s got 3 great secrets you can use to build your own empire…

Secret #1:  You’ve got to have an open mind.

Getting decent grades in school, Brandon decided to pursue being an engineer in college so he can land a big, fat juicy job in a big engineering firm when he graduated.

So why’s this guy heading off to some entrepreneur meeting on campus one Saturday afternoon?

Because he’s got an open mind.  You see, Brandon is willing to explore and learn.  He’s curious.  And every entrepreneur should be.  You included.

So he perked his ears up during Robert’s meet-up on that Saturday afternoon; listening to him talk about stuff Brandon never considered before.  In essence, Robert opened the eyes of Brandon to the world of being an entrepreneur.

After meeting Robert, and reading his book called Roadmap to Entrepreneurial Success, Brandon made an immediate decision:  He was going to be an entrepreneur.  No matter what it took.  No matter how long it took.

So did he scamper off to the dean’s office, declare he was dropping out of college, and run off to launch his first company?

No.  He didn’t.  And this is a very important part.

Brandon was very strategic and flexible in his moves.  Basically willing to be open-minded.  He decided to bide his time.  Just like our friend David Mayer of Clean Bottle.  He made a plan, and stuck with it.

Brandon decided to add a minor to his major.  Finance.  You know, numbers and such.  Smart move by Brandon because it turns out you really need to know your numbers as an entrepreneur.  In fact, I would say if you don’t, you’re toast and you don’t even know it.

So Brandon got a minor in finance.  But that’s not all.  He also made a strategic decision to get hooked up with a management consultant firm to get exposed to more entrepreneurial type stuff.

And he did.  Landed a job with Bainbridge.

So why was an entrepreneur at heart getting a job somewhere?  Well, he had an open mind and was being smart about it.  Getting paid for an education in how to negotiate, how to present, how to do due diligence, basically how to play in the sandbox with the big boys.

Brandon spent 2 years learning the space of “search” on the Internet while under the umbrella of Bainbridge.  He and his buddies lived it, breathed it, and came to love it.

And guess what?  He and these same buddies launched SocialVibe in this space and went on to raise a total of $44.5 million in venture capital.

Not to shabby for a first time entrepreneur, right?

Right.  And you know why?  Because the guy was willing to have an open-mind about the possibilities.

Here is what Brandon had to say about the importance of having an open-mind as a full-blown entrepreneur:

“One thing I think is pretty key is a lot of people are always at risk of being too wed to their own solution to a problem.  They’ve invested thousands of hours of their time or thousands of dollars of their money or they’ve hired a team of 10 to solve a problem.  And maybe they’ve learned along the way or there have been hints along the way either the problem didn’t exist or the solution they were building was the wrong solution.

But they’re so wed to that solution — they continue down a path and that path leads to failure.  I hate to use the word “pivot”, because it’s like a buzzword these days, but having an open mind and the ability to recognize a parallel opportunity and quickly shift and take advantage of the fact you’re small and nimble and agile is critically important.  There are so many companies out there that started out very different than where they ended up because the entrepreneurs were willing to have an open mind.”

So see?  Be open-minded and flexible.  It’s good for you.

Secret #2:  Know the space you’re in and have a passion for it.

Did you notice a little nugget of wisdom up there?  Stuck in the first secret of Brandon’s story?

Yes, know your space and have a passion for it.

The guy spent 2 years learning the space at his consulting gig; then built his first company in the space.  And after his success at SocialVibe?  He wanted to do it again — in the same space.  So he ran off to start his newest biz: BlockBeacon.

You hear this over and over.  But why do I come across so many entrepreneurs who mess this up?

Do you see what Brandon did here?  From even before he started his first company?  He got super intimate with a space in the market he was passionate about and then…

Wait a minute.  You know what?  I’m just going to let Brandon finish this in his own words:

“You may feel like you understand (your) space really well, but it will really hit home the first time you go out and try to raise money on an idea in this space because venture capitalists are incredibly insightful.  They’re some of the smartest people in the world you will ever meet and if you don’t really get it, it will come across immediately.  They will be able to spit off the name of 10 existing competitors and 10 people that tried this and failed, names you’ve never heard of.

So I think without being an absolute domain expert, your chances of success are very, very slim.  And to put it another way, expertise is just one piece of the puzzle, right?  You could be the world’s foremost expert on whatever, search engine optimization, but if you’re not passionate about search engine optimization, none of that matters.

You have to have the fire in your eyes this is a problem you’re willing to stake your career on.  I know a lot of really smart people that are really good at what they do, but I wouldn’t personally trust any of them to build a business around it nor would I invest in them if I can’t tell in the way they act; in the way they talk about it, that this is something they’re ridiculously passionate about today and are going to be passionate about for three to five years minimum to come.”

Got it?  Do you understand how important this is for you as an entrepreneur?  It doesn’t matter if you are raising capital or bootstrapping.  You’ve got to know the space you’re in and have a burning, on-fire, passion for it.  Period.

Secret #3:  You need help.  Double period.

Co-Founder, Partner, Mentor, Coach, Advisor, Your Mom, Your cat, whatever.

You’re going to need help.

Think you’re going to make it big all on your own?  Dream on my friend.

It won’t happen.  We live in a social world.  We live in a world with dependency on relationships with other people.  For love.  For support.  For wisdom.  For help.

You simply cannot do it alone. So now I will get off my soapbox and let Brandon tell you how it is:

“How important was it to have co-founders at SocialVibe? I would say it was probably the single largest factor to success.  Being able to share not just the responsibility, but I think more importantly it’s just like the emotional side of things.  I mean you’re working crazy hours.  You’re traveling.  You’re stressed out of your mind.  Being able to have someone there you can bounce ideas off of that can answer the questions you can’t answer when you’re standing in front of a big group.  And even the little things like being able to go out and grab a beer after work and just decompress and vent it to another human being is, I would say, critically important.  I don’t think I could have ever done it by myself.

Do you see how important this is?  Now you may not feel like going the route of a partner or co-founder, and that’s a-okay.  But at a minimum you need to find a couple of mentors, coaches or advisors.  Geez.  I’m clanging two cymbals together here.

If you’ve been around any block as an entrepreneur, you know you’ve heard this before.  So do it will you?  Stop messing around and find yourself a mentor, coach or someone else to help you.

You’ll be amazed at the progress you’ll make in your business.  Just like Brandon.

So there you have it.  3 Secrets from Brandon.

But really, are these concepts so secret?  I would say no.  But, they are key my friend. Brandon is in his second startup using these same ideas.  Why?  Because they work.

So go get ‘em tiger.  Go be the best entrepreneur you can be.

Oh, but first….

Bonus Secret:  Additional resources for you as an entrepreneur.

Love to learn even more tidbits and secrets from this serial entrepreneur?  Grab a peek at the complete conversation I had with Brandon. All the nitty gritty details with plenty more nuggets of wisdom.

Oh, and who is this entrepreneur guru named Robert who started it all for Brandon?

Well, he’s still rockin’ as a connected guy helping tons of entrepreneurs.  Hanging out in San Diego, Robert has an entrepreneurial program geared especially for those of you who are students between the ages of 18 to 35:

“The GCASE Global Scholars Program recognizes students who have excelled in their studies and have an ambition to develop a new business venture, or to help their local economy support entrepreneurship.”

Man, if I was in this age range as a student?  I’d be all over this resource.

So go check it out, will you?  Could be the butterfly effect to change the rest of your life.  :-)

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About the Author: Eric T. Wagner is a husband, father and life-long entrepreneur. After starting multiple businesses, Eric is now focused on helping other entrepreneurs find the path to success in business and life. You can also catch his gig on Forbes or connect with him on Google+.

Comments

  1. Very inspiring! Thank you! Will definitely head over to hear the full conversation, after all as you point out, we all need help and I often find listening to recordings of conversations like this helpful while I work :)

  2. Good job, Eric. I really like that you emphasized he’s not some super-human genius. It’s so easy to read the bio of someone like Brandon and feel dwarfed by what he’s achieved. It’s the proverbial “Yeah but he’s smarter/more charismatic/better connected than me, so I couldn’t do that.” But in fact, what he’s accomplished isn’t available only to him. I really appreciate that emphasis, Eric. A lot of these behind-the-scenes features make serial entrepreneurs appear to be gods with holy talents. Glad for a bit of honesty on this:)

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      You nailed it Annika.

      My hope is to show that virtually anyone can be a successful entrepreneur. You, me, Brandon…. Tom, Dick and Harry. All of us.

      We can do it Annika. Right? :-)

  3. I love how Brandon leveraged his time at Bainbridge to develop his skills.

    The discussion about having co-founders is something that I’ve actually been thinking a lot about lately for my business. It good to hear his thoughts on this issue since I’ve heard good things as well as nightmare stories with having a co-founder.

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Jeanne. Yes, proceed at your own risk with co-founders. Both enough horror as well as made-in-heaven stories to circle the earth.

      Either way, Brandon nailed it on the “know your space” bit. :-)

  4. Eric,

    Great article, as is everthing you take the time to share with us. I particulalry like, as the other commentors have stated, how Brandon levereged his time. I have studied my particular field for over 30 years, and I am currently working for my competition while my dream is being pursued. I feel that knowing my field as I do, and seeing what others do in my field gives me a distict advantage. I have a chance to see what the employee’s face on a daily basis, but also what the parents of the students I coach are expecting. I do feel bad about working for my nearest competitior, but I have never mentoned anything about my start up to any parents or other emplyee’s. Undeestanding my competition gives me the distict advantage of doing my best not to make the same mistakes. My competitor is over 20 miles away from my bussiness location. This business has the monopoly in regards to thistype of business, and I want to be as prepared as I can. I dont mind mistakes, those are oppurtunities to grow, I just dont want to make a mistake I am not able to recover from.

    With regards to Venture capitol, or partners, I view this with great caution. I dont want to share my entire lifes work and dream with someone who may have deeper pockets than I have. I worry that with the growth of my immediate location, 38th fastest growing county in the US, that my “Venture capitalist” could just hire someone else to run the business, then where does that leave me. Nothing in life is free, but I want to exhaust all my options before I seek outside help.

    I am SO CLOSE, just a few issues with permits, and I am able to get started. Despite the set backs over the last few years, It is MINE, and that makes it that much more worth fighting for.

    I love the article, and all that you have shared with your readers. I admire and understand the need for flexibility and an open mind. Just in the last few months I have had my eyes opened by my wife with regards to after school programs, something I had never before considered because “That’s not what I have seen in the past”. The reality is that it has opened the door for a potential enrollment increase of 35%. Who would not be intersted in that!

    I loook forward to you next informative article. Keep up the GREAT work.

    I appreciate you,
    Dane

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Dane. Appreciate you sharing like this.

      Stay strong and you’ll make it as an entrepreneur. It is not always easy, but I can tell you this: It is worth it.

      Nothing like owning and running your own show. Wouldn’t trade it for the world… :-)

  5. Awesome Eric – there is nothing I enjoy more than learning from the successes of others. Thank you for sharing Brandon’s story. My favorite part was “he’s just like you and me” That was my breakthrough moment – when I realized that there really was nothing “special” about these truly great and successful people. When I say special – I mean they were just like me. Brandon made it big in the “Internent Space” but he wasn’t always a master in this space. There was a day when Brandon used the Internet for the first time, everyone of us can have that “Day One” experience.

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Steve.

      Yes, crucial to each entrepreneur’s success is the confidence and belief they can do it too.

      Just got done interviewing another stellar entrepreneur currently CEO and Co-Founder of a $100m dollar company. Again, he’s a smart guy and definitely has skills — but no more than you or I.

      Thanks for the support Steve. Appreciate it… :-)

  6. Eric

    Love hearing these inspiring stories. It just goes to show that success follows principles.

    Learn your craft, pay your dues, gather support, and Rock It!

    Awesome stuff

  7. Hi Eric,

    Another valuable article :) I think open-mindedness is the most important one here; why else would many old huge companies be crumbling?

    It’s also a must to know your field. You need to offer something unique to your audience, something they don’t yet have. Or at least do your thing a lot better than your competition does it.

    Why would anyone become an entrepreneur (lots of hard work, responsibilities, and a lot to lose) if they weren’t passionate about what they’re doing? I know some people do that – even successfully – I just don’t get it. I guess the act of entrepreneurship is what they’re passionate about.

    And getting help. I have yet to meet an entrepreneur who doesn’t have the I’d-like-to-do-everything-my-way complex. But everyone has those things they’re not experts in, things they’d be better off outsourcing (away from themselves)…

    -Peter

  8. Great story Eric. I liked that part as well where you specifically emphasized that ‘he is no smarter than you and I’. I think that ‘Am I smart enough’ is a question that troubles a lot of entrepreneurs while venturing into the unexplored territory. I am sure that this post would inspire a lot of wannabe entrepreneurs to just go out there and do what they want to do.

    – Anant

  9. Eric,

    Great insights as always! I’m inspired by Brandon’s story and you were able to really distill the key lessons for us. I think going deep as a domain expert is so critical because when you get challenged it really helps to be able to provide an even stronger counter-point. Then those people will go around saying what an expert you are! Thanks for sharing.

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Agreed Tom. You have to know your stuff. Period.

      Thanks for your comments. Appreciate them my friend. :-)

  10. Eric,

    I always love to learn from those who are successful – thanks for sharing this interview :)

    Just recently I understood the value of a coach. It makes your journey much more stable than trying to figure out everything by yourself.

    Cheers,
    Timo

  11. Thanks Eric,

    Number 3 is massive, asking for help. Well, asking for help from the right people. Support is crucial for all areas of life, even more so in biz – it’s one helluva ride :- )

    Dawn

  12. Michael J. Stelmakh says:

    Thanks Eric for this story. I think it will inspire more people to the entrepreneur road:)
    I’ve read your conversation with Brandon and can say that $44 millions is a very good start for him (and he can do more in the near future:). My congratulations to him for his wedding and wish him luck in his business.
    Have a nice day, Eric:)
    ~~~~~~
    Michael

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Michael. Appreciate you sharing. Yes, Brandon hit a home run first time up to bat. Let’s see if he can do it again… :-)

  13. Eric, thanks for posting this information. Looong but extremely valueable.

    The main thing I see here is to be open minded and also seek for help when needed. VCs are there and the easiest is crowdfunding so what’s holding anyone from doing the right thing?

    Starting a business and growing it has been simplified – the only problem now is how strong an idea is.

    Sheyi

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