Turning Guilt and Anger Into Hope and Success
Steve Ramsey (one of RelyLocal’s founders) was recently asked to share his thoughts on launching a new business along with any tidbits that he felt might be helpful to the next generation of entrepreneurs. Below is an excerpt of that discussion, and we hope that it might help readers along their own paths to starting their own business…
I’m not the typical character in your average modern business success story. I don’t have an MBA from a fancy school, I don’t come from an influential family, and I don’t have a resume filled with Fortune 500 companies. In fact, I’m a high school drop-out with lower-middle-class roots, carrying a resume that is peppered with an odd pot-pouri of seemingly unrelated jobs. It wasn’t until after I had failed at trying to fix someone else’s struggling business model that I realized how much more successful I could be running my own. I found myself at an emotional and financial crossroads with a crisis of conscience. That’s when I decided to take a chance and co-found RelyLocal.
Entrepreneurs need to be compelled by an almost overwhelming force of some sort. Call it passion, or drive, or even a calling. It is different for everybody and every business – innovation, greed, tradition, ego, even just plain old “fun”. To be brutally honest, in my case, the original motive was mostly anger.
I had recently been involved in the shut-down a once-successful 60 year-old international non-profit, costing the jobs of dozens of my faithful staff and I was angry to have let it happen on my watch. To “start over”, my wife and I returned to our once-idyllic hometown in Oregon, only to find the effects of the growing recession rearing its ugly head. As the news of the day seemed to be filled with stories of business closures and related suicides, I found my anger growing, as I screamed at the radio, “That never had to happen and they can’t just keep blaming Wall Street! It’s what is happening on Main Street that’s the bigger problem!” In the midst of it all, I found myself in a new position – unable to find a “day job” of my own, being rejected for everything from executive roles to fruit smoothie maker. Depression was no longer just an economic term – it was starting to become personal. Not wanting to let my anger get the best of me, I decided to find a way to fix it – for myself, for my neighbors, for my country. If Main Street couldn’t help me, it was my job to help Main Street.
However, compelling passion isn’t enough to make a business take off. Entrepreneurs also need to be willing to take risks. RelyLocal was actually born completely out of risk when two complete strangers met at a coffee shop. Within an hour, a general idea had evolved exponentially and a partnership was formed: One stranger to be the “front man”, in charge of the strategy, sales, marketing, and support. The other, to work behind the scenes, in charge of the legal work and finances. Within a week, a business model and test market had been launched and we made our first dollar literally three days before my house was scheduled to be foreclosed on. Within the first year, over 120 RelyLocal chapters had launched across the country, creating over 300 new jobs in about 550 cities, supporting tens of thousands of local businesses. Somewhere in the midst of that success, the anger that was originally fueling my fire has turned into hope and optimism.
All of this success despite the very considerable risks! Looking back, I barely knew this stranger (and he barely knew me). There was no venture capital to get us started. There was no established brand to drive awareness. There was no proven business model to follow. There was no paycheck, or health insurance, or fringe benefits. Not to mention the fact that our business model was dependent on sales to the very businesses who were feeling the worst effects of the economy. There was no guarantee for either of us – just a bunch of giant risks. Looking back, it was complete insanity!
So, if it was so insane and so risky, why did it work at all? I think that at the end of the day, the success of a any business is directly related to its authenticity. And, I’m not talking about authenticity in the sense of the over-hyped uniqueness of the widget they are selling – I’m referring to character. I don’t care if your business is selling lattes out of a parking lot kiosk or developing a new high rise in Chicago, if your message doesn’t match your product, you will be seen as the fraud you are, and you will fail. This begs the question, if you are having to “fake it” to get by, why are you doing it in the first place?
I think what has made my success possible is that I wear my heart of my sleeve. My partners, my clients, my vendors, and even my critics know where I stand and why I am in business to begin with. For me, it’s not just about money – it can’t be. (Heck, 90% of our revenue stays in the local community!) I think that if you were to look closely at what drives someone like Donald Trump, you would see that he is driven more by the thrill of capturing opportunities, the challenge of solving puzzles, and the good old “fun” of building things than just being slave to the dollar of every deal that hits his desk. At the end of the day, he and I are more alike than different (and I’d love to have a beer with him some day to chat about it…).
Lastly, for me, the most important thing of all is the ability to just work – hard! To work on your own, or as a team. To work with partners, vendors, and clients. To work long hours, odd hours, all hours. To work to fix broken ideas, work to build new ideas, and even work to kill flawed ideas! Just work! We receive hundreds of applications a week, and to me, far too many of the next generation seem to have lost the understanding of what real “work” looks like. They appear more interested in when their next coffee break is or the company’s dress code than what they can contribute to the company, to the cause, to their own lives… It is a deep frustration of mine, and one that I hope to help find a solution for. In short – if you aren’t willing to put in the work yourself, you will fail. You can’t expect someone else to build (or live) your dreams for you.
While I may not have an MBA, or even have a high school diploma, most would consider me a successful entrepreneur. I’m not angry anymore, just driven. And dreaming…
- Steve Ramsey
Stay tuned for more details on an upcoming book that will include this essay and more from other like-minded young entrepreneurs like Steve.