David McKelfresh is a senior at Colorado State University, majoring in business and entrepreneurship. David is currently finishing up a study abroad experience at the University of Salamanca, coaches youth soccer, and is in the process of investigating a few opportunities to start his own business. (He’s also my brother-in-law, so we know each other quite well.)
Recently, David asked me a few questions about my transition to working on the Personal MBA and related projects full-time as part of a school project. As I was writing my responses, it struck me that you may be interested in reading this too, so here’s the entire interview – I hope you find it useful.
I graduated from the University of Cincinnati Lindner College of Business with a BA in Information Systems, with minors in Real Estate and Philosophy. As a sophomore, I began working for Procter & Gamble full time as a part of UC’s cooperative education (extended internship) program. I spent ~6 years at P&G doing online marketing, new business development, retail marketing, and online marketing measurement. I started working full-time on my publishing business, Worldly Wisdom Ventures LLC, which I started in 2005, in November of 2008.
I have a very non-entrepreneurial background – my dad is a teacher / former elementary school principal, and my mom is a librarian. My hometown (New London, Ohio) is extremely rural and agriculturally influenced – most of the community is employed at a farm, local small manufacturing, or the school system. In high school, I worked for the school system fixing and maintaining computer systems, and I worked for a very small local computer company in New London for a few years. Outside of that, I had very little exposure to entrepreneurship until I was in college.
High school and college were very enjoyable, but marginally useful from an educational standpoint – most of what I know and use on a daily basis I’ve taught myself, either via reading / research, learning directly from the experiences of other practitioners, or experimentation.
I am a huge advocate of self-education: in my opinion, entrepreneurs should spend less time pursuing traditional educational experiences and more time reading and trying new things. My most successful products / services are a direct result of self-education and experimentation.
The extent of my sales experience was working at the local computer store – people would come in interested in looking at computer systems, and I’d try to help them as much as I could. The sales approach was very soft – the focus was on educating the customer about what’s important and being as helpful as possible, which ultimately led the customer to trust your advice. That was a good lesson to learn at an early age – I still find that sales approach most effective today.
I came to entrepreneurship largely on my own. Making a living and supporting yourself and your family is a universal need – the question is how you go about doing it. The more I learned, the more I found that the happiest and most successful individuals ultimately started their own business. From a psychological standpoint, there’s a lot to be said for flexibility and the knowledge that you can support yourself by creating value for other people.
My first major success was the Personal MBA – a project devoted to helping people educate themselves about business. It started as a personal research project, but grew very quickly with a little help from Seth Godin, who was kind enough to encourage other people to check out what I was doing. There was a lot of positive feedback and encouragement from the people who saw the early versions of the project, so I kept working on it part time. Every year, the project grew, and ultimately I was able to leave P&G and work on my own small publishing and consulting company full-time.
I want to spend my time learning useful things, experimenting, and sharing what I learn with other people – that’s what I’m uniquely good at. Publishing is a wonderful business in the sense that you can spend your time doing these things with minimal start-up costs and overhead. The business education market is massive, and I view my “competitors” as friends / peers / sources of information – as long as you’re creating something that’s unique and valuable, there’s enough room for everyone to be successful.
Worldly Wisdom Ventures LLC was 100% self-financed: I took no loans or funding, aside from using a business AMEX to purchase some required infrastructure – my computer, recording equipment, and software. Now, all expenses and overhead are financed out of free cash flow.
My planning was focused primarily on experimentation – I had a few ideas about what I could create that other people would find useful, so I tested them as quickly and cheaply as I could. Some of them worked extremely well, and others flopped. Once I knew what worked, I tried to spend my time improving on that success and trying more new things. There was no “grand master plan” – most of my primary sources of revenue now come from projects I didn’t even think of when I started the business.
I started working on the Personal MBA part-time in March of 2005, and I went full-time in November of 2008. Time spent on the business each day ebbed and flowed – at first, the demands of my day job left little time and energy each day, so most of the research and business development happened on the weekends. Now, it’s not uncommon for me to spend 12+ hours a day “working” in some manner – reading, writing, researching, and meeting with clients by phone.
Since I bootstrapped the company, most of the capital requirements revolved around basic infrastructure: computer hardware and software, web hosting, and educational materials. In total, I’d estimate somewhere around $15,000, which I funded via my day job.
I don’t have any employees – when I need help doing something specific, I work with a freelancer or contractor. As a result, it’s possible to get things done while keeping costs low and maintaining flexibility. I wanted to keep the complexity of the business to a minimum – one of my major frustrations working at a large company was the fact that you spend more time talking about what you’re going to do than actually doing things.
I have a bias for doing things myself as a learning experience, which is very much a double-edged sword. I’ve learned a lot by doing things myself, but you only have so much time and energy each day to get things done. I’m getting much better at bringing in help to ensure I’m spending my time and attention on the things I can do uniquely well. (Example: I’m in the process of outsourcing my accounting and bookkeeping now.)
I also have a very strong network of peers, whom I’ve met mostly via reaching out to them via e-mail or phone. There are a lot of people doing interesting work in this area, and I try to meet as many people as I can.
Strengths: minimal overhead; maximum flexibility; significant revenue potential; fit with my interests and skills.
Weaknesses: too many good opportunities / ideas to explore by myself; personal productivity = business productivity.
I was very happy when a reporter from BusinessWeek called me up in 2006 and interviewed me for a story – people still find the Personal MBA via that article to this day. It was a tremendous validation that this is important work that people find useful.
One of the business’ most stressful moments was being featured by Lifehacker (an extremely popular productivity blog), which was thrilling until the tidal wave of visitors brought my website down for 2 solid days. I learned how to administrate Linux systems and optimize web servers in record time, but the pressure was intense. It was a great example of “too much of a good thing” – it was terribly frustrating to have so many people interested in learning more about the project, but not being able to reach them.
I’m actually facing my most difficult challenge now – learning how to build a team of people I trust to help me get things done, and creating the systems and processes that will ensure the business runs smoothly. Every business has a lot of moving parts, and it’s important to figure out how to get the right people involved in a way that allows you to continue focusing on improving the business vs. getting bogged down in project management.
I spend a lot more time on the business now, but most of that is a function of working on it full time vs. part time. I anticipate that my time investment will stay roughly the same over the next few years.
I’m thinking and learning new things all the time, so in a sense I’m “working” 365 days a year, but it doesn’t really feel like work. The trick for me is to capture thoughts and ideas in a form I can act on later, so I can still enjoy my downtime. I also intentionally schedule time to do research and writing, so I can focus and get things done more effectively vs. feeling like I need to be working all the time.
I only meet with clients 4 days a week – I need to set aside some time just to think and work on my next experiments. That seems to be working well so far, so I’ll stick with it. I’m also planning to take vacations / small breaks more regularly – there’s no reason not to take advantage of the business’ flexibility to recharge and explore new things.
In the beginning, there was a significant tradeoff between the time I spent on my day job and the time I could devote to the business – it’s very hard to work 50-60+ hours a week in a demanding corporate environment, then come home and focus on being productive vs. re-energizing for the next day. I’m ultimately glad I had the experience of working at P&G, but ultimately the opportunity cost of continuing to spend the majority of my time working for someone else overshadowed the financial benefits.
In terms of personal relationships, running my own business is actually easier – since Kelsey (my wife) works on Saturday and has Monday off, we can spend more time together now that my schedule is more flexible. The key is to schedule your work around your personal life, vs. scheduling your life around your work – constraining your work hours helps you make choices about what’s really important and what’s not.
I’m curious about many different things, which motivates me to learn as much as I can as quickly as I can. Once you learn something, it’s a relatively small step to sharing what you know with others, and doing so in a way they (1) find it useful, and (2) will pay you for the knowledge. I really credit Mom and Dad with my natural inclination to learn and teach – they’ve encouraged me to explore everything I’m interested in and help other people as much as possible.
Yes, although I might have transitioned to full-time entrepreneurship more quickly, given the response I’ve had on my new projects and offerings. There’s an old saying: “A year from now you may wish you started yesterday.” It’s absolutely true.
I think it’s mostly a shift of thinking: assuming something must be perfect the first time vs. experimenting and improving as you go. I used to be a major perfectionist – I’d get physically ill at the thought of doing sub-par work – and that was a major barrier to getting things done. Now that I’ve given myself permission to experiment, it’s a lot easier to try new things and improve upon the experiments that work.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the business knowledge needed to start your own company can be learned – that’s actually the focus of my next business education course, which is called Business Mental Models. The core set of concepts, techniques, mindsets, etc. that provide most of the value of business study is actually pretty small, and I’m currently focusing on teaching people (particularly people with non-business backgrounds) what they are and how they can use that knowledge to improve their lives and their businesses.
In my opinion, the people who will be successful over the next five years will:
From a skills standpoint, being able to communicate clearly in written and verbal form is absolutely essential. Learning how to write, speak, and have a productive conversation is mostly a matter of interest and practice.
I hope you find this useful – if you have any questions, leave a comment!
Did you know both of my books are available as audiobooks? Think of them as very inexpensive course versions of the book. They're perennial bestsellers on Audible.com, and The Personal MBA was recently honored at the Audie Awards, the "Grammys" of the audiobook industry.
Even better: you can get one of my audiobooks for free if you don't yet subscribe to Audible. Click here for details.
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