How do I build a million-dollar company? Better yet, how can someone build a multimillion-dollar public speaking company? Well, although I have done both of those things, I wouldn’t suggest anyone try to do what I did. I made every mistake in the book. In fact, every mistake showed me what “not to do.” Then, I’d use that lesson to get me closer to what “to do.”
By the way, the reason that I am not the best role model for building a business is that I’m pretty hard-headed. It is both a blessing and a curse. Hopefully, if you are a business owner and you are looking to grow, you can use my example to help save you time and effort. I spent 12 years putting everything back into my business before I crossed the million-dollar per year threshold. However, I was able to generate the second million dollars in less than six months after that.
Hopefully, a few of these lessons-learned can help you in your journey.
Learn from Experts Who Already Have “Fruit on the Tree.”
I was teaching a class in Boston long ago and was staying in a hotel out by Logan Airport. There were no restaurants in or around the hotel. However, the airport shuttle dropped me off in a little village that had three eating choices. One of the three was a barbeque place. Being from Texas, I’m pretty picky about my BBQ, but the line was out the door. While waiting to get a table, I began to read the press-clippings posted in the lobby.
It turns out that the owner of the BBQ joint was a Korean Doctor who came to the US to practice medicine. Shortly after he arrived, he attended a meeting where the caterers served barbeque. He loved it. A few years later, he was traveling to a different state and saw a BBQ place. Hoping to get a similar meal, he stopped in. However, he was shocked that although he had ordered the same type of meat, it tasted fantastic but totally different from what he remembered. This started a 10-year quest to travel the US collecting BBQ recipes. He experimented with Texas brisket and Tennesse pulled-pork. Then he perfected the St. Louis baby-back ribs.
When I was finally seated at a table, I ordered the brisket. I loved every mouthful. In fact, I felt like the food critic in the movie Rattatoui. The meal made me think of home. The point is that this Korean doctor didn’t invent Texas BBQ brisket. He just traveled to Texas and learned how to do it properly from someone who was already an expert.
That is what I did as well.
You Must Invest Time and Resources into Your Craft to Become the Expert.
For those of you who don’t know, my college degree is in the Oil & Gas industry. My first big break was with Atlantic Richfield as an intern. However, at the end of the summer, I had to give a presentation and I totally bombed it. I hated public speaking and knew I needed help. So I read books, attended Toastmaster, and took presentation classes. Nothing really seemed to work, though. That is until I came across an expert in the industry.
Eventually, I found a professional speaker named Mary Ann Smith who was offering classes to the general public. The fee that she was charging for a seat in her class was about what I made in a month. I was desperate, though. I had already tried so many things and nothing worked. But this coach had built a company that was generating about a half-million dollars in income in a city of about 89,000 people.
So I stopped eating out and stopped going to bars on the weekend. Every time that I made a decision to not spend money somewhere, I put the process in a shoebox next to my front door. It took me almost three months to save up the tuition, but I had the full amount by the time the coach started her next class.
I still remember the look on Mary Ann’s face when I walked into the back of the room, check in hand, just before the class started. She told me later, “A lot of people tell me they are willing to sacrifice, but you are one of the few people who ever actually have.”
Our Biggest Challenges Can Sometimes Lead to Our Greatest Strengths.
I joined the Oil & Gas industry when the price of oil was at an all-time low. Since I was the last person hired by the company that I worked for, I realized that when the “downsizing” began, I’d also be the first to go. However, I was terrified. I just spent four years getting a degree that I was beginning to realize was pretty worthless.
The highlight of every week was my coaching sessions. The class had about 30 people from all different industries. Some were professionals while others were blue-collar managers and leaders. A few, though, were salespeople. As I networked with them, I began to see a great opportunity. There seemed to be a ton of companies looking for smart salespeople. After talking to my dad, my coach, and a lot of praying, I quit my job. Within a week, I was hired in a starting sales position.
The sales training from the company wasn’t fantastic, though. So I just used skills that I had developed in my leadership class. It seemed to work. Within a few months, I was the top salesperson. Some of the more seasoned salespeople started asking me what I was doing, so I helped them. Then, a few months after that, my boss made me the sales manager. I still remember opening up the pay statement when I got my first bonus check… It was more than my entire salary at the oil company that I had quit less than a year prior.
How I Got into the Speaking Industry.
This was an amazing transformation. I was happy. I was making good money. People that I worked with started seeing me as a leader. Things were going pretty well for me. After a short time, a bigger company recruited me, and I increased my income again. My results were extraordinary, so I reached out to Mary Ann to tell her my good news.
During the conversation, I shared with her how a lot of the success actually came from me coaching my new coworkers to do the things she had suggested I do. Since I knew she had been looking for a salesperson for her company, I asked if she would hire me.
Just so you know, there is absolutely no way she would have hired me during the time she and I first met. At that time, I hadn’t really done anything to add value to her or her company. But I knew that she needed a good salesperson, so I spent three years gaining experience in sales. If she was going to take a chance on me, I needed to be able to show her that the potential reward was much greater than the risk. I guess my sales pitch was good enough because brought me onto her team.
Changing Careers a Third Time in Less than Five Years Was Not Ideal.
To be brutally blunt, my first year in the industry stunk.
Mary Ann gave me the entire city of Abilene, Texas as my territory. For the first few weeks, she showed me how to walk into a business and cold-call on the owner. She was so smooth and seasoned, that she averaged a follow-up appointment with about one out of every 10 business owners that she met. In addition, she sold her services to about half of these people.
The whole process seemed pretty easy. I used the same technique and visited over 100 companies in the first few weeks. However, when I walked into a business, all the owner saw was a wet-behind-the-ears kid with a few years of sales success. None of them were looking at me and saying, “Yeah, I want to be a success like that guy.” After a few months of little to no income, I actually got a part-time job telemarketing insurance in the evening.
A year into the process, though, I was flat broke. I had left a high-paying job to work twice as many hours for less than half of the income. What I didn’t realize at the time, though, was the law of delayed gratification. I was in the process of becoming an expert in my new field. This does not happen overnight. It is a process. There is no shortcut.
The Single Decision that Set Me on the Road to Wealth.
Because of that delayed gratification, though, I was very discouraged. Every day, I’d question whether I made the right decision. I had proposed to Laoise, and she and I talked a lot about the future and how to improve the circumstance. When I proposed to her, I had just become the new leadership guy in Abilene. My goal was to spend a year building up the business and have her move to Abilene. After that brutal year, though, I knew that would be a mistake.
Laoise was living in Dallas/Fort Worth, so on a weekend visit to see her, I left a day early and set up a couple of job interviews there. A copier/printer company offered me a base salary that would get me out of the financial hole I had made for myself. However, the thought of selling equipment to companies made me depressed. For the first time in my career, I felt like I was moving backward.
I called Laiose to tell her the news. She is a really good judge of character, and her response was, “Oh for gosh sake, go talk to him.”
I was a little surprised. “Him who?” I asked.
“Mary Ann’s counterpart here in Dallas.”
The moment she said it, I was like, “How did she know?” I really loved what I was doing, but I just needed a way to make a living at it. Perhaps moving to a bigger city was the answer. The next day, I drove to Dallas and “cold-called” on the Dallas manager.
The Habits I developed When I Had No Business Led to a Huge Business.
The manager in Dallas was a guy named Rick who was an icon in the speaking industry. He patiently and sympathetically listened to my story. I told him about cold-calling on over 1000 businesses in the previous year. About halfway through my speech, he started laughing. I wasn’t sure what to make of that so I just stopped talking.
He said, “Based on what you are saying, I assume that you are here for a job. If that is the case, you are hired.”
I replied with, “I don’t understand.”
“Doug, Abilene, Texas has about 100,000 people in a 50-mile radius. The office you are sitting in now has over six million people in a 50-mile radius. If you just put out a little of the effort you did there, you will generate more income than you know what to do with.”
He was right. Just as in Abilene, it was a slow start. The company had about 3000 sales reps and instructors worldwide. By the third year, I was number 30 of 3000 in total sales. Granted, I learned a lot from Rick and the Dallas team. However, I believe that my habits from the time that I struggled added more to that success. I did things that the other reps weren’t willing to do.
Prior to transferring to Dallas, my only exposure to quality teaching and training was Mary Ann. A few months after I transferred to Dallas, though, I attended an international instructor conference. Over 3000 of the top trainers in the world were there. I interacted with some of the best minds in the industry. Two years later, the organizers invited me to speak to the group.
Become the Expert Before You Create a Business to Share Your Experience.
As I stood backstage waiting to be called on to speak, it hit me. Less than ten years ago, I had been sitting around a boardroom table at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas, humiliated. Back then, I never wanted to speak in front of a group again. And now, I was just minutes away from speaking to a group of some of the world’s greatest speakers.
I know what some of you are thinking…
Good God, he hasn’t yet said anything about how he actually build the multimillion-dollar business. I did this for a reason, though. I didn’t just wake up one day and start The Leaders Institute ®. For almost a decade, I spent time learning and perfecting my craft. The struggles caused me to search for better ways to do things. If I had been successful right off the bat, the success would have been short-lived.
Your Speeches Are Only as Valuable as Your Experience.
I had a guy who came through one of my classes a couple of years ago. He wanted to become a motivational speaker. As I asked him about his background, he told me that he installed HVAC equipment. Apparently, he was very good at it. Based on his background, I suggested that he begin to create lessons or presentations about how to help companies save money on HVAC. It is a huge expenditure, so many companies will pay you if you can help them cut their costs. However, a grimace came over his face. He said, “I really want to help kids make better life choices.”
I asked him what kind of experience he had working with kids. He had none. “Oh, so you must have had a challenging childhood and overcame those challenges, right?” He paused and explained that, no, he had a pretty good childhood. When I asked him about his speaking experience, he explained that this was the reason he was in the class.
One of the most difficult things I have ever had to do is tell this man that he wasn’t qualified to “Help kids make better choices.” Then I added the word, “yet.” You see, you can become an expert at anything that you want. But you can’t just decide to be an expert and expect people to follow you.
That would be like me deciding to train Air Force fighter pilots. “Doug, have you ever flown a jet fighter?” “Well, no, but you should hire me anyway.”
By the time that I started The Leaders Institute, I had spent years apprenticing with some of the top people in the industry. I worked 100 hour weeks perfecting my skills. By the time I taught my first Fearless Presentations ® class, I had already trained over 1000 students.
Next week, I will share with you a few of the ups and downs after I started The Leaders Institute. Spoiler alert… I didn’t make a million dollars my first year.