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7 Lessons From An Out-of-Whack Entrepreneur

Eric T. Wagner, Founder, Mighty Wise Media

As seen in Forbes.

32 years.

Been nose to the grindstone — chasing the dream.

What dream?

Well, the dream of an entrepreneur.

You see, I really started when I was 14 years old. Hauling a bunch of glassware down to the swapmeet, all purchased at a discount.  Going to resell it and double my money.

Of course, at 14 years of age, your mom or dad is playing taxi driver. But there I was, standing behind a folding table, pitching my wares to anyone passing by. Could hardly believe I could do something like this. You know, playing little entrepreneur. What a thrill.

And now, 32 years later? It’s still a thrill and yes, I can hardly believe I get to live the dream of an entrepreneur. But, has it always been a dream?

No way. No how.

Back-breaking, earth-shaking, hard-core lessons along the way. So, in memory of…. well, 32 years of being an entrepreneur, I give you 7 stories with 7 lessons…

Lesson 1: Living in my car in L.A.

Man, I remember when I first arrived in the land of milk and honey. Otherwise known as Southern California. Being from Colorado, I dreamed of the riches of this place. You know, reading all those books of gold in the hills. Watching all those episodes of Beverly Hillbillies. Just had to get there.

So I did. Dropped out of college, loaded up my little Fiat X19 (if you can even call it a car), and headed out.

Well, 4 months after arrival, am I sitting in the cat’s meow seat soaking up the wealth of California? No. That’s me, standing outside the 7 Eleven convenience store, asking if you have any change you can spare.

Can you imagine? Starving my buns off, hadn’t eaten much in 3 days, and just at the end of my rope. Standing there asking for spare change. Lord help me.

It’s hard for me to even look back on those days. No money, no opportunities, no chance. Basically, couldn’t catch a break.

But did I give up? No. I didn’t. I kept pressing on.

Lesson: It’s not always going to be easy. But you can do it. Your resolve to rise above mediocrity is stronger than the forces pushing you down. You simply cannot give in to negative outcomes, negative thoughts and negative feelings. How? You just get your tail up the next day and try, try again. Your break may be just around the corner.

So don’t quit. Don’t give up. Will you need to change things once in awhile? Yes. Now days they call it a “pivot”. So what. Run into a wall? Just do a pivot and go the other way. Winston Churchill uttered this infamous line years ago:

“Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

Yes — that’s 8 times of “never” giving in. Yes, even if you’re standing outside 7 Eleven begging for money and don’t have a dime to your name. Keep going my friend.

Lesson 2: Stole my first client.

So hungry to get something going in business at age 20. How hungry? Too hungry.

You see, I was helping a guy with his business; someone who trusted me, and what do I do? I steal one of his clients and run off to start my own business.

Ridiculous.

My drive for success combined with my strong type-A personality turned me into a monster. So obsessed. So driven. So greedy.

Why was I this way? I think looking back on it now, 26 years later, I was consumed by the idea of wealth and success. You know, watching “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous”, reading in Forbes about guys with Ferraris driving beautiful women around and dropping big bucks on boats, airplanes and mansions.

I wanted that. All of it. And to me, at the time, it didn’t matter what was in the way.

Funny thing is? If you look around, this is happening today for many entrepreneurs. No integrity, driven by pure greed and willing to run people over to get there. Well, not me. This one time was enough. I was young and not very bright. Sorry Paul.

Lesson: Seriously, have some integrity will you? It is simply not right to lie, cheat and steal in business. Solid companies are built on integrity, honesty and respect. These are core values ingrained from the start. Who ingrains them? You do. You’re the entrepreneur, you’re the leader. So build out your core values as a company, carve them in stone for all to see, and live by them. You, and everyone around you, will be better off for it.

Lesson 3: Lost one of my best friends.

It’s fun to imagine doing business with people you like. In fact, I wouldn’t do business with anyone else at this point in my life.

However, getting into business with family and close friends has its hidden death trap. An ugly door in the floor you don’t see until you stumble right in. Head first. Face plant. And most times after you’ve taken that fatal step, it’s too late to turn back.

In my late 20’s and decided to get into business with a good friend. We’d grown up together, gone to school together and basically hung out together. Sounds easy-peasy right? I mean, who wouldn’t want to do business together with a friend?

Yeah. That’s what I thought.

Three years later, we’ve got attorneys shuffling divorce papers back and forth. Talk about ugly. Ugly words; ugly environment; ugly mess.

Did I make a lot of money from this deal? Yes. Plenty.

Was it worth the destruction of a friendship? I’ll let you answer that.

Lesson: Be extremely careful about doing business with your family and friends. Money changes things. The more money on the table, the more things change.  Yes, Bill Gates and Paul Allen were friends who founded Microsoft. Um, do you know how long that arrangement worked?

And ever heard of Steve Wozniak (okay techies, you can’t answer this)? Well, he was friends with Steve Jobs when they founded Apple Computer together. Mr. Wozniak was quoted in 2006 saying he and Steve Jobs “were not close friends”. Yes, I looked it up. See, things change when you do business together.

So be in business with people you like, but be extremely careful about doing business with close friends and family. And if you do, be prepared to lose those relationships.

Lesson 4: Had a crazy idea people said wouldn’t work. I did it anyway.

1996. Early years of the Internet. Got my first email address — light bulb exploded in my head. People are going to want to check their email while away from their home or office computer. You know, like at the airport, or in a hotel lobby, or other public locations. (Remember, this was WAY before mobile Internet. In fact, weren’t we still using the Motorola brick phones? Oh, right. That was in the 80’s.)

The idea? Stick computers in kiosks; allow people to slide in a dollar bill or swipe their credit card; and voilà: access to the Internet.

What did some of my family and friends think of the idea? Well, in a nutshell, they thought it stunk. “No way will that ever work” was a common response.

Boy, talk about disheartening. Man can’t even get some encouragement around here. But you know what? I did it anyway. Started an Internet Kiosk company.

Lesson: You’ve got to reach for your dreams and not let other people hold you down. Well meaning people can dampen your spirit with their negative viewpoints.

But here’s the thing: You’re an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs see the world differently. They do not think like everyone else. So, when you start talking about your far-fetched idea, expect people to say “no way” or “that’s crazy”. It’s okay, it’s not their fault. They’re just not wired like you. Which is why you’re an entrepreneur, and they’re not.

Taking advice from well-meaning worker-bees who have never risked stepping out on their own is a bad idea. Yes, you need wisdom and counsel. But get it from other entrepreneurs and mentors who think like you do.

Lesson 5: Burn rate giving me heart burn.

First, what does burn rate mean? For those of you who know, bear with me a moment. Burn rate is the amount of cash you are “burning” through every month. So, if your income as a start-up is zero, but you have cash expenses of $5,000.00 per month, your burn rate is, well, $5k per month.

Okay, so back in 1999, I was funding my own company. Yes, using my own money. Bucks I made previously, all going into my new start up. How much every month? Well, my burn rate at the time was $50,000.00 per month.

Now, yes, I had money. But, my wealth was in the 7-figures, not 8 and 9-figures. So, during the peak of growing without revenue, (now remember, this was dot-com boom days where revenue was simply not perceived to be important), I was waking up every morning at 4:00am in a full-on panic attack.

Pounding heart ready to burst from my chest; cold sweat down my spine; and just flat-out feeling sick in the pit of my tummy. Yuck. Hate even thinking about it now.

How in the world did I get myself into such a mess? Well, in one word: Greed.

Yes, Gordon Gecko kind of greed. Except in the movies he plays with hundreds of millions, and me, well, not as much. Oh, but “Wall Street” was a fairy tale movie and mine was as real as a hard paddle slap on the butt.

Lesson: Simple. Don’t be so greedy as to put yourself in this position to begin with. Yes, you need to go for it. And yes, there are certain risks involved. But, be smart too. You can take chances with calculated risks behind them. Try not to bet your entire farm (or nest egg, or whatever you want to call it) on one thing.  Spread your risk around. And goodness, don’t be so crazy in the head with greed. Period.

Oh, and if you don’t take the advice and go for it anyway? Get ready for Xanax to be your best friend…

Oops, one more thing: Am I still a greedy entrepreneur? No. Everything changed. You’ll learn why in…

Lesson 6: Yellow Ferrari Spyder, 7 bedroom house, ain’t life grand.

Oh yeah. Finally made the big time. Driving my F355 Ferrari Spyder down the road. Just sold my 8,000 square foot house, and hanging out in my new pad in Southern California. Got the beach house to boot, and a little townhouse in Lake Tahoe. Hanging at the Country Club, flying first class all over the place, and a 850i BMW on the side. Man, life is good. No, wait a minute, life is GRAND.

Um, except… I’m miserable. Seriously. Hurting in my heart, shattered by divorce, sitting in a big house all by myself. Wow. This stinks.

Lesson: Be careful what you wish for. All those dreams of fancy cars, big houses, and a fat wallet might just come true. And if they do? Are you going to look around and find yourself alone because you’ve killed all your relationships by working too much?

Yes, entrepreneurs need to work hard. But, you and I have to strive for balance. If you’re married and have kids, you cannot outsource that. You must fight just as hard for your relationships as you do for your business. So please, if you learn nothing else from my words here today, learn this: Don’t screw up your most important relationships because you failed to spend time nurturing them.

Now thank God I was given a second chance. Some guys and gals never get one though. Don’t be one of them.

Lesson 7: Yes, I’m afraid. So what?

So here I am. 32 years later. Just started a new venture called Mighty Wise. Aiming to help entrepreneurs build forever strong companies so they can live their dream.  More money. More freedom. More influence. Whatever it is for you.

Oh, but wait: I’ve got a home to pay for, a wife and 3 kids to feed, and goodness, starting a new venture at age 46? Unthinkable.

And there’s more: Here I am on Forbes — writing to you. Reaching out in my nakedness. Stepping out once again and putting myself on the line.

Am I going to fail in my new venture? I could. Am I going to lose money? Maybe. It’s happened before. Are you going to reject me and my writing? I hope not, but you very well could think I’m the worst writer on the planet.

And so am I afraid of all these things? Of course. I mean, who likes having their business fail and being rejected by others?

But you know what? I don’t care. I’m moving forward anyway.

Lesson: Yes, fear is part of life. And some say you need to learn how to “get over your fear”. What if you can’t? Well, just do it afraid. Think there is any bit of nervousness or fear when a guy goes to try that 50 yard field goal in overtime to win the game? You better believe it. Can you imagine? “Um, coach.  Can you give me an hour or so to try to overcome my fear of kicking this field goal?  Really would appreciate some time here.”

Yeah right.  No, you have to just go ahead and kick the ball while being afraid.

Oh, and one more thing: Is everyone on the face of the planet going to like you and your company? No. You will get rejected. It’s just part of life. So get over it.

But you know what? Some people will love you. They will love your stuff, your ideas, your products and your company.

Sometimes we just have to do things afraid. You’re not going to lose the fear of rejection, since it’s part of our human DNA. So just be afraid and do it anyway.

See? Just like I did here.

So that’s it. 7 Lessons From an Out-of-Whack Entrepreneur. Still think I’m out-of-whack? Oh wait, don’t answer that…

Oops, one more thing. Are you and I connected yet?

If you don’t know me, I’m Eric.

Husband, father & entrepreneur… (oh, and a writer on Forbes too.)

If you’re an entrepreneur, let’s hook up.  Seriously.  Here’s a killer formula:

Your Wisdom + My Wisdom = More Success.

My email is: eric at mightywisemedia dot com.  Shoot me yours right here and let’s connect, okay?  Together we can really nail this thing.  :-)

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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. Eric very inspiring post.

    There is no such thing called failure in life it is all about feedback and we all do mistakes but successful people don't do the same mistake twice.

    Also, it is alway good to have the family & friends affair separate from the business affairs -:)

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Rana. Yes, no such thing as failure. Just pick yourself up; dust yourself off; and keep trucking.

      Easy to do? No way. One of the toughest things you can do after being knocked to the ground.

      Ah, but it's a new day with new opportunities. So there's always hope my friend... :-)

  2. Lesson 6 - wow! It's better to live in a tent with the person you love than in a mansion all by yourself.

    Can't speak enough about the importance of personal and professional balance. It's easy to get burnt out, stressed out, and let things slip by at home. It's hard to get everything back once you've burned all your bridges.

    Glad to hear you got your second chance and you're helping others to avoid the same pitfalls.

    All very poignant lessons to learn here, Eric!

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Jason. Yes, this lesson was the hardest. Ouch. It hurt. Had everything I had always dreamed of and worked for, but wow, not a soul in sight to share it with. Talk about being distraught. Yuck...

      You said it best: "It’s hard to get everything back once you’ve burned all your bridges."

      So the key? Don't. Don't burn your bridges. Thanks for sharing Jason... :-)

  3. Wow! Great post Eric! I think I've learned something from every one of your lessons! #2 & #3 stood out to me the most at the moment I think.

    As for #2 - Integrity defines you... & your business. Integrity lasts & people see that. They trust it & if you show it in your business, then they trust you. It's funny to me how many businesses use the word "integrity" in their mission statements yet many times you never see it exercised in their actions. Sad I guess.

    As for #3 - I definitely needed to hear that. Business is tough & time consuming. There have been plenty of times where I've thought that I'd like to have someone to do it with. I get tired of handling everything on my own & I think how great it would be to share it with a like-minded friend. But I guess that's not the best thing for me. I too have a Type-A personality & I like to be in control. I know what's best you know! LOL. So until I learn to be more laid back & not have a say in everything, it seems that partnerships are not for me. Thanks so much!

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Meagan. Appreciate your feedback. And you're right, SO many companies think they stand for integrity, but then you watch them do all kinds of stuff that flies in the face of this principle. Hate that.

      What's that old saying? If you're gonna talk the talk, then walk the walk?

      And to your point on partnerships, it's a shaky ground. Yes, having partners and bringing in co-founders can be a very effective strategy for growth. But, you just have to be aware of the pitfalls. Especially with close friends and family.

      Thanks for sharing Meagan... :-)

  4. Great stuff Eric!

    This is something they never taught me in business school - yet this is essential reading for any entrepreneur (well, at least for any aspiring entrepreneur like me :)

    Cheers,
    Timo

  5. I admire your willingness to be so frank here, Eric. Kudos to you.

    Regarding #7, instead of striving to eliminate fear, I think our emphasis should be on making sure that we don't start to define ourselves by our fearful thoughts. Like you said, recognize it as just a feeling, not a solid piece of data that proves much of anything.

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Annika. And good point -- just knowing "fear" is a feeling and not really anything real is a HUGE piece of it. We only make fear real by acting (or not acting) based on our "feelings". :-)

  6. Vulnerable, personable, and utterly badass. Love it, Eric.

    And I've been through a very, very similar journey. From what I've studied, it's the journey of all inspiring, successful people. They're eerily similar, across the board.

    They all involve, bold steps, leaping without nets, the sloughing off of close relationships, intense 'lesson's, and deep compassion.

    They just do...

    It's the mark of the 'successful' :)

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Jason. Appreciate the support. Sometimes tough to just put it all out there, but you know what? How else are people going to really learn from what I have to share?

      You're right: Sometimes you just have to leap without a net... :-)

  7. Eric,

    Love the authenticity of your message...thanks for sharing.

    Robert
    http://OvercomingRoadblocks.com

  8. Well written. I like it. But I have questions. Such as: what were you doing in the past few years? before starting the blog? And why now this new venture?
    Just curious.

    Your seven lessons for aspiring entrepreneurs - well aimed. Ever critical as I am I need to point out that there are a lot of successful businesses that have very little integrity.. but may be that's just me, the obnoxious European dissing the American Dream ;-)

    And 46 is by no means to old for anything yet..

    Congrats on being on Forbes!

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Hi Kitty. Thanks for your note. The last few years? Own a couple of "lifestyle" businesses. Just running them with my wife and kids from a building on our property. Goal? Spend as much time with family as possible while the kids are young, and expose them to business ownership. Just a different strategy on combining work + family.

      And you're right. A lot of businesses seem successful even with no integrity. But you have to ask -- What is the true definition of success? If it is cheating people for gain, then I would call it a big failure. They may think they are getting away with something, but in the end, it all comes around.

      Thanks Kitty... :-) Eric

  9. Thanks Eric - What a wonderful, honest reflection. And it couldn't come at a better time for me personally. Regarding your Lesson 3, I have had the opposite experience. I have been in business with my brother, and currently work with my mother and I couldn't imagine better colleagues. Our working relationships have made our personal relationships that much stronger as we experience new and exciting things together. I can imagine with friends where the bond is not as strong, people may be in trouble. Anyway, thanks for sharing!

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Cigall. Appreciate your comments. And yes, amazing things can happen when you work with family. You're blessed in that regard. Most times this type of arrangement ends in a big mess with damaged hearts.

      Thanks for sharing Cigall. Great to hear from you... :-)

  10. Thank you for your article. It's not Hollywood and that's what makes it so special. In a lot if ways like "in pursuit of happiness".

    Will visit your website. I'm tired of working 14-18 hours a day and extended working weeks in making others money.

    I want to work for myself now.

    Cheers to you for extending your hand out there.

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Afi. Appreciate your comments.

      And yes, you should go for it. It has never been easier to start a company than it is today. Access to technology, plus instant access to customers makes it possible.

      Let me know if I can help... :-)

  11. Eric,

    Very nice post. I've experienced or am experiencing some of those same things that you talk about. Luckily my earlier business partner "break up" didn't completely destroy our relationship but I swore never to have a full partner again.

    I've managed to pull out of my worst tail-spins but my highs haven't been as high as yours. Looking forward to getting there! Thanks for writing a very inspiring and helpful post for people like me who are navigating this entreprenurial path.

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Hi Tom...

      Thanks for sharing. Keep going my friend. Being an entrepreneur is not a destination, it's more like a long journey. Over the hills and through the woods, with a lot of downed trees and scary monsters in the path.

      Let me know if I can help you navigate it. I've got an extra compass and two big baseball bats to fight off those monsters.. :-)

      Best... Eric

  12. Hi Eric,

    First of all: Thank you. This is by no means the first post about the troubles of entrepreneurship I've read, but it just might have made the biggest impact on me. In a good and getting-my-feet-to-the-ground kind of a way :)

    I'm just starting my latest venture. Just a couple of months in so far and things are going okay. And I'm not jumping head in first as my instincts told me to ;) Instead I'm taking this slow and steady. Being careful not to run out of money, and to keep going the right direction.

    Anyway, I can't quite pinpoint why your article made me so happy with my choice of starting something new, but it did. Maybe it's that I feel I've already learnt many of the lessons you described; I have that many fewer troubles ahead :D

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Peter. Appreciate it.

      Awesome to hear of your new venture. Nothing beats the excitement of the startup stage. Fun, fun, fun.

      And good for you. Being calculated in strategy and risk is a wise move.

      Do me a favor? Keep me posted on your progress. Love to hear back from you.

      Thanks again Peter and talk to you soon... Eric

  13. Epic...

    What rang through in that post is your willingness to reflect on the decisions you've made.

    You're legacy will be, not what you've learned, but what you do from what you've learned.

    As someone I've traded ideas with even if just through comments, I wish you best.

    Ryan H.

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks Ryan. Appreciate that.

      Love your line: "Your legacy will be, not what you've learned, but what you do from what you've learned".

      This rings true for every one of us.

      Again, appreciate the encouragement Ryan...

      Eric

  14. gennesaret damaris Ajuka says:

    Wow! I am so excited and inspired to hear these words at this point of my life.
    As a social entrepreneur running my foundation(Awakening Destinies Foundation), sometimes it could be really tasking to strike a balance especially in this part of the world where I come from.
    I draw so much strenght right now, knowing that there are lots of people out there who believe in the world of possibilities and also believe that anyone can achieve success without cutting corners.
    God bless you Eric!

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Thanks for your kind words. Appreciate it. You can do it Gennesaret. Just keep strong as an entrepreneur... :-)

  15. Lesson 6 - I find that most people think that way...the bigger the better! I, on the other hand do not. I like balance (maybe its because I'm a Libra? ha ha) I do work hard but keep time for me. As a coach, I am the tool, I need to keep myself in check in order to provide the services people need. I learned this a long time ago in my brick and mortar business. When everyone was telling me to get a bigger place, charge more, etc. My answer was No! Keep my overhead small and keep the cash in my pocket.
    "But this little place won't impress people" was often said to me. My answer was I impress my clients, not the space not the bells and whistles. It doesn't matter to me.
    Now, on the internet I'm growing organically and that to me is the best way to keep close to my clients. It is like word of mouth all over the place and I do believe it works.
    I look back now and see my friends who had those McMansions and had to walk away from them. I have everything I need and more. I am comfortable, balanced, have a great marriage and wonderful people around me that are of the same mindset. I can honestly say, I am not a type A personality, but rather a peaceful soul that is Grateful!
    That's my two cents!
    Donna

    • Eric T. Wagner says:

      Good stuff Donna. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Bingo on #6. So many entrepreneurs driven for more, more, more.

      Unhealthy in my opinion if you're out of balance.

      And hey, thanks for your 2 cents... :-) Eric

  16. Eric, you're my hero! I could have written that article, every word of it :-)
    I am an entrepreneur in France and it is not different here, same lessons!
    Cheers.
    Emeric

  17. i am really overwhelmed from the above mentioned seven quotes ,which i am sure,every budding entrepreneur has to go through,but do you really think that for an entrepreneur is it necessary to start up with a new idea,i think we could use the existing plateform with a creative way to maker the best out of it........

  18. Wow! That was awesome even the other peoples comments, i think there are more than seven lessons in this. Thanks Eric and your followers too

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