What I Learned From Building 3 Companies in 5 Years

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I’ve started three completely different companies in the past five years: BlogDash, Feast and CMX Media. Each one has taught me a great deal. I’ve learned a lot about myself, about building a company, about other people, and about the world.

When exploring and moving quickly through new terrain, we often don’t stop to look back at what we’ve learned. This post has allowed me to see some of the bigger epiphanies that have changed how I think about startups and life. Let’s dig right in.

You don’t have to raise money.

There’s this unspoken belief in the Valley that in order to build a successful company, you need to raise money and grow it to massive scale. That’s just not true. Many companies have been able to build something massive without raising money, either by being scrappy or by building revenue-first companies. We haven’t had to raise any money for CMX because we started with a product that makes it organically (conferences).

If everyone is trying to build something massive, who’s going to take care of the smaller problems — the problems that are very real, but may not have a massive market size? Build what you believe in. If it happens to be something that needs investment, then great — raise money. If it’s not, that’s OK. Don’t build something to raise money. That’s a backward mentality. Almost every major business started with something very small and focused.

You can ignore most advice.

Other entrepreneurs love to give advice, but usually aren’t very good at it. People don’t want to give bad advice. It’s just that they often don’t have enough context to really understand your problem.

What’s worse than taking advice from entrepreneurs is taking advice from most investors. Whenever I speak to investors, they tell me what I need to do in order to succeed, which is usually for their benefit only. They’ll tell you what you need to do in order to be worthy of their investment. This may or may not be in line with what you believe in.

Of course, there are some investors and entrepreneurs who give great advice. From my experience, they’re the exceptions. What makes them great is that they ask a lot of questions and help you come to your own conclusion.

Just remember, no one knows your team and your business as well as you do. Use advice as a source of inspiration or to gain new perspectives, but never let it drive your direction. That decision has to come from yourself and your team.

Your worst-case scenario is better than you think.

Most entrepreneurs fear that they are taking on more risk than they actually are.

We never really address our worst-case scenarios. They remain this dark, ominous concept looming in the back of our minds. Is our company is going to fail? Are we are going to be broke — living on the street, ashamed, ridiculed and depressed? It feels like a nightmare and it can prevent us from really going for what we want.

But when you actually think about your options, you will realize that you have a much better worst-case scenario that you might think. If your company fails, you can get a job (entrepreneurs are very hirable), live with a friend or family while you get back on your feet, try a unique profession like working on a farm or working at a library, travel on an extreme budget, consult, join a friend’s company, etc. There are so many options, all of which are far from the depressing end that you might imagine if you don’t address the idea of your worst-case scenario.

Do what you believe in.

Do you believe in what you’re doing? It’s the single most important question for any entrepreneur. If the answer is no, nothing else matters. If the answer is yes, then nothing should stop you from moving forward. As long as you believe in what you’re doing, you stand a chance of defying the odds and succeeding.

Don’t compare yourself to others.

We get so caught up in the success and failure of other companies, and it can really mess with our emotions. Their success is not your failure. And even if it were, success itself is relative. People define success in a number of ways. So don’t get caught up in what other startups are doing. Focus on what’s in front of you. The only thing that matters is executing on your vision. At previous companies, I’ve made the mistake of looking too much to competitors to guide certain decisions.

Competitors can become friends

Startups change frequently. Someone you consider a direct competitor can one day become a great partner. A great partner can one day become a competitor. The best thing you can do is treat everyone you meet with respect and be helpful to competitors and partners alike.

Create space for honest reflection.

It’s easy to have your head down for long periods of time and never come up for air, talk to your team or see the bigger picture.

When I was working on Feast, my co-founder Nadia Eghbal and I often worked remotely. We made it a habit to meet every week just to talk. We shared our feelings. and our fears. We gave each other brutally honest feedback. We talked about the direction the company was moving and whether or not it felt right. The hardest and most important decisions we made for Feast came from those talks. They led to some of the most successful strides and always left us with greater clarity.

If you can do it in person, then leave the office, go for a walk, or sit in a park. Create physical, mental and emotional space where you can have an open and honest conversation.

Ask customers to pay as soon as possible.

If you plan on selling a product, it’s never too soon to ask customers to pay.

It’s too easy to continue building great things while gaining an audience and delaying the uncomfortable task of asking for money. But you must do it. It’s the only way you will really know if your business is real. If you ask for money, people will either say yes or no. If they decline, you can learn what you really need to build in order to solve a problem worth paying for.

Grow your culture organically.

I used to try to think strategically about what a healthy culture would look like for the companies I started. I’ve since learned that great cultures form on their own. They aren’t planned. They start with the founders and translate to the team. You can find culture in everything from the subtle interactions and habits that form amongst the team.

I think that’s why it’s difficult to develop a real culture when you hire too many people right away. I’ve seen that happen too. As a result, the company will try to manufacture a culture instead of growing one naturally.

You have to take care of yourself in order to succeed.

The startup world is so focused on speed. You work hard. You work long hours. You work late. You might fail, but it certainly won’t be for lack of hustle. That’s all good and commendable, but I’ve found it to be completely unsustainable and inefficient.

There are some really successful people who are workaholics. But there are also a lot of really successful people who build daily routines so they can take time for themselves and their families. They make sure they’re emotionally, mentally and physically healthy. If you want to help the world, you have to help yourself first.

At CMX we encourage members of our team to travel, work on their own schedule, and build their daily routine around what will make them healthiest and most productive.

Learn from personal experience.

You won’t truly understand what I’m sharing until you experience it yourself. So if you take one thing away from this post, continue to experiment. Put yourself in uncomfortable positions. Take risks. If you don’t know anything about fundraising but you think you need to do it, just start. You’ll learn quickly. Just take that first step and you’ll learn along the way.

A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

David Spinks is the CEO of CMX Media, hosts of CMXSummit and CMXHub, the world’s largest conference and online publication for the community industry. 

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.

When Getting Fired is The Best Thing Ever

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David Meerman Scott recalls, “I jumped into my own thing 14 years ago after being fired from a corporate job for having too many radical ideas. Today, I deliver speeches, write books, and serve on advisory boards for startups.” It doesn’t take a deep thinker to realize that sure does sound like a better gig.

Listen to our full interview with David Meerman Scott (part 1 and part 2).

The tried and true playbook doesn’t work.

David goes about his career by “trying to not do what everyone else does.” He thinks by business people fail themselves by focusing on what everyone else does while it’s been his experience time and time again that “the tried and true playbook doesn’t work.” Instead, he advises founders to “go agile, do things differently. Focus on what’s interesting to your buyers, not what’s interesting to your venture capitalists.”

“Focus on your buyers” is a very similar message to what John Lee Dumas told us about “listening to your audience.”

David notes how many VCs might have built up their money 20 years ago and since they were successful in that way they think the business playbook hasn’t changed. David knows from his own experience that simply isn’t the case and he challenges founders to be nimble and get out there and not use the old playbook.

I focused on what worked, not what someone wanted me to do.

David tells us, “I kept getting fired from the corporate world. I would focus on what worked and not what someone told me to do. In the early days of the Internet [1995] I was trying to shift budget spending from print and direct mail to online marketing.”

“[My boss and I] had a difference of opinion and in that organization they valued the boss’ opinion more than the people who were actually doing the work. I like organizations where bosses listen to people who have tested their opinions and know what they are talking about.”

“I thought for sure I’d be a corporate guy for another 10-20 years. Getting fired was the best gift I was ever given in my professional life. I did think in the back of my mind that I could go out on my own.”

David tells us his wife and one of his trusted colleagues made the difference for him and encouraged him to get out there as a professional speaker. We’ve heard similar messages about using mentors to push you forward. “They supported me to live on my own wits and that made it a little bit easier.”

I hustled business from my parents’ friends.

Going back to the earlier days in his life, David recalls cutting grass, raking leaves and shoveling snow for neighbors.

“I hustled business from my parents’ friends; I negotiated prices. What that taught me is that I could live by my wits.”

It’s a great lesson for founders. Many of us can think back and realize we always were entrepreneurs with lemonade stands, mowing grass, or “hustling” business like David recalls.

It might be terrifying to leave that corporate gig, but if you do the right planning, build your content footprint, and keep plugging away at telling your story, you’re very likely to be able to make it.

How Jen Laska Bootstrapped a National Brand in Her Spare Time

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Jen Laska of Jen & Joes Cookie Dough is the power behind the company. The business is already successful with Jen and Joe’s Cookie Dough being stocked in over 150 major retailers across the country, including places like Gelson’s.

Jen wanted some advice on taking the business to the next level. I met her for the first time in the studio, a lovely person and like a true entrepreneur, was very open to some mentoring about her business, her website and to other people’s ideas .

As those of you who listen every week know, I have always had mentors and every entrepreneur should surround themselves with people who can provide advice on a range of issues. It has saved my bacon more often than I can remember. Jen is the perfect guest for this show, she created a product, bootstrapped it to the point where they have widespread distribution, and she has done all this while being fully employed in a day job. That sounds like the Modus Operandi of most of the entrepreneurs I know.

WHY IS INTEGRATED MARKETING SO IMPORTANT?

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In spite of the internet’s popularity, which really goes without saying you would think, there are still businesses relying on traditional media exclusively for marketing. At the same time, most businesses are using digital marketing in some way, but treat it like a separate entity.

No matter which medium is being used, it’s important to use both offline and online channels and create an integrated marketing campaign. Combining both mediums can increase the results of a marketing campaign for all kinds of businesses from startups, small businesses, to established companies.

How Prospects Follow Up With Businesses

There are several reasons why going with an integrated approach is so important. Prospects that come across ads through offline mediums such as magazines, newspapers, radio and TV often turn to the Internet to find more information about a business. This is especially the case for companies that favor branding campaigns more than direct response campaigns.

Surprisingly, the same thing applies to Internet businesses. Prospects try to see if an Internet business can be found offline, have phone numbers they can call, and have a real office location. This is to ensure that the business they are about to deal with isn’t some fly-by-night scammer that’s only interested in taking their money. This is one of the key reasons why it’s important to have a presence in both mediums.

Where Prospects Spend Their Time Looking Online

To be specific, people use the Internet to look up the reputation and reviews of businesses they’ve come across offline. Today, there are a large number of platforms to find information about businesses. There are search engines, review sites, social media sites, and community sites that can all be used to determine if it’s worth doing dealing with a business.

These platforms allow businesses to appear where consumers are searching after they’ve been exposed to their offline marketing, but only if they jump on that opportunity. One of the best ways to integrate offline and online is to build a SEO campaign. Your business will show up in related search terms about your brand, products and services. This puts you in control of your reputation and allows you to stay competitive in your industry.Digital Marketing Opens Your Business Up to a Bigger Audience and Increases Sales

An integrated advertising effort can really open up your business to a bigger audience as well. A large portion of your market will spend more of their time online, so investing in online ads can only extend your reach. In fact, many businesses find online campaigns to be more cost effective if not just as effective than offline campaigns.

Using display advertising and retargeting via pay per click can help maximize the effectiveness of your offline campaigns. It will help continue the conversation from your offline efforts, exposing consumers to more of your marketing. This increases conversions and your ROI because consumers tend to go with businesses they are more familiar with, and also because consumers are more likely to buy after multiple engagements.

The Integrated Approach Is Ideal When Gaining Momentum Is the Goal

Businesses that are trying to create buzz about their business or any kind of viral campaign need to go with an integrated approach. In one example, the Athens tourism board used offline info points to get locals to share their viewpoint of their city while also getting tourists to spent time with locals. The whole case study can be read here.

This was followed up by an online social media campaign where local submitted photos of events, special locations and the architecture that could be found in Athens. This user generated content turned viral and soon thousands of submissions were being sent in. The result was user generated content being used to create buzz and market tourism for Athens.

Conclusion

Going with an integrated approach is necessary to stay competitive in today’s market. Both mediums complement each other in many ways. Whether you’re a digital agency or a business that strictly uses traditional media, it is worth the effort and investment in building a campaign that combines and takes advantage of both mediums.

How Crashing A Trade Show Saved Helprace

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Startups can greatly benefit from attending conferences, especially if they are fighting tooth and nail to build awareness. That’s what founder Gregory Koldirkaev had to resort to when he decided to take on Zendesk and Getsatisfaction with his own customer service platform, Helprace.

After getting a small investment a decade ago, a small group of software engineers were recruited to develop a knowledge-based software. In a year, the client base grew into the hundreds. Then came the market crash, reducing the team to virtually zero.This forced a pivot into the customer service software market. Enter the need to leverage trade shows to pitch the new value proposition and get clients. There was a little problem, however. Cash flow had ground to a halt and there was a $1000 in the bank.

It was time to make a gamble. One of the world’s top customer service conferences was approaching fast. Every minute lost sitting idly in the IT industry means digging your own grave, but with the cost to register as a visitor in the prestigious Atlantic City conference priced in the thousands, it was time to get creative!

How to crash the conference without paying those pesky fees?

Staring at potential failure of his startup, Gregory had a Eureka moment. He called and called the organizers, explaining how he was a tech entrepreneur and unable to afford the ticket. Luckily, he was able to squeeze out the guest invitation he so desperately needed. (If that doesn’t work for you, think of people you know who are exhibiting and ask them to get you a free pass.)

“After hearing the news, I began dissecting my visit right there and then,” laughs Gregory. “I realized I’m going to be around people who paid all that money, who were meant to be there.”

Make the Conference Work For You

Being on your feet and pitching your product for 10 hours straight will exhaust you, so get enough sleep and plan out every move the night before.

“I made sure to have my phone ready to show relevant videos or demos before I even walked up to the booth,” recalls Gregory. “It was a great way to refresh my memory and and recap relevant discussion material.”

Large trade shows can seem overwhelming, and you can waste a good chunk of your day wandering around without getting much done. Make sure to divide up your time between the exhibitors and leave a window at the end to visit the booths you might have missed.

So Was It Worth The Risk?

Gregory booked a flight from Chicago to Atlantic City. He checked into a cheap $40 motel room 30 minutes away (to save money, of course), and was in first when the doors opened.

When all was said and done, Gregory netted hundreds of high quality leads and networking prospects. This enabled Helprace to get going with the new model and has led to many great clients and growing success.

As startup founders we always have to be willing to push the envelope, take educated gambles and be willing to fail. We can’t always control the outcome, but we do have to be ready to seize opportunity when it comes our way!

In situations like this, I, for one, can’t think of a better way to invest $300. Can you?

What is Helprace anyway?

helpraceHelprace is an emerging provider of cloud-based customer service solutions. It consists of a helpdesk ticketing system, community and a knowledge base for end-users. Users can ask a question, share an idea, report a problem or give praise. This data is seamlessly integrated into the admin interface, and support agents can directly participate in conversations. Learn more at http://helprace.com

 

How to Know if You’re a Born Entrepreneur

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My guest  Hana Abaza is the Director of Marketing at Uberflip where she combines a metrics driven approach with an unwavering commitment to creating an exceptional brand experience. Hana has a knack for communicating inspired tech solutions to mainstream audiences and, with over a decade of experience in digital marketing, she gets results.

Hana is also an energetic speaker and contributor to the Huffington Post, Marketing Profs, Content Marketing Institute and other industry publications. Find her on Google+ or follow her on Twitter @HanaAbaza.

 

Staying Focused is The Key to Success

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The early years of a startup can be chaotic and desperate. Even a great idea needs capital to get off the ground. In the beginning you need cash, so you chase every opportunity. You say “yes” to anything and everything because you need clients; you need investment; you need to turn your idea into an actual business. You are excited and you want to grow, so everyone who offers you money is a potential client, a potential investor, someone you need.

Unfortunately, every thoughtless “yes” leads you further into a trap. Too quickly you’ll take on too many things. You’ll have differentiated into too many products, options and services in an effort to please anyone who shows even a hint of interest in your company. In a few years, your company is just okay at a whole bunch of things instead of great at a few.

Saying “yes” disrupts your focus.

When you started your business, you probably had one great idea. You knew what you wanted to do, what kind of business you wanted to have. There was a central product, a main service, a particular methodology. You had focus and you were determined. In the rip tide of those early years, hold on to that focus. Keep it in front of you. To be successful and stay focused, you’ll need to do the following:

  1. Choose a business model. Obviously, as a startup, you are going to have to make changes. Adjusting to the environment is a skill that you’ll acquire quickly. But once you have the lay of the land and have seen the various possibilities, it’s time to put together the business model that works for you. Figure out who you are trying to market to, why they’ll want your product, how much they’ll pay for it and how you will get it to them. You might have to do some experimenting, but when you find something that makes sense to you, follow that course.
  2. Pick one or two things to be good at, and stick with them. To be the best, you have to learn and build on your experience. If you keep changing what you do and moving with the whims of potential clients, you’ll never get good enough to be at the top. People will ask for products or services that are just one step away from what you already do. You’ll be tempted, but don’t give in. The slippery slope quickly degrades your business and takes away from your ability to develop and invest in that one thing you know you can do better than everyone else. You believed in your idea enough to start a business; believe in it enough to see it through.
  3. Fire your bad clients. Of all the challenges to focus, this one is the hardest. Once you take on a client, you may feel obligated to continue working with them. But bad clients will suck you dry. They will take advantage of your need for cash; they will cling to you in the hopes that you can do what no one else can: fix them. Look at the ROI. Consider the advantages or benefits to working with these people. If you can’t find the upside, get rid of them. You’re going to survive a lot longer if you don’t let people suck your blood. Focus on your product. Don’t trade excessive time commitments for a little money.

The more opportunities you say “yes” to, the more you lose the value of what you are trying to accomplish. When you are wide-eyed and money-hungry, coach yourself to say “no”; to turn things down when they don’t fit or if they won’t bring in a significant return. Do not take on every opportunity. Stick to what you want to do. Imagine your end goal — what you want your company to look like once you have made it. And above all, stay focused — after all, it’s your business.

 

Ty Morse is the CEO of Songwhale, an interactive technology company focusing on enterprise SMS solutions and Direct Response campaigns, both domestic and international. Since the company’s 2007 launch, Ty has grown Songwhale from 2 people to over 100. A two time Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist, Ty has been featured in the NY Times, Wired, NPR, PBS, and Discovery Channel and published in Forbes, the NY Report, and Geek.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.

Entrepreneur, You May Be Crazy But You’re Not Alone

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A lot of people say that entrepreneurs are crazy. We give everything we have to build a business, including our health, money, time and relationships.

And, for what? Most businesses fail, and many of the ones that “succeed” never reach their full potential.

Yet, if you’re anything like me, that fact motivates instead of scares you. That’s the crazy part. If you’re a lifelong entrepreneur, you look at long odds, grin and say, “Damn right I can beat those.”

Because entrepreneurship saves us.

If you’re wired to be an entrepreneur, you just can’t help it. The act of building something from scratch, of seeing your vision come to life is your driving force. You live and die by every swing of the entrepreneurial pendulum.

And it’s not just the successes. The obstacles and failures drive you, too. That moment when you have to tell yourself to go one more round, when you have grit your teeth and give it everything–that’s when you feel most alive

The ability to create is what sets mankind apart from animals. Throughout the centuries great artists and creators have all been seen as a little unstable, but the beauty they put into the world was worth it. Or, at least, they were so driven to create they had no choice.

In 21st century America, many entrepreneurs are the modern day artists. Which is scary because

Entrepreneurship also kills us.

There’s a reason there’s a constant debate over work/life balance in entrepreneurial circles. It’s because we’re all so obsessed with what we’re doing, we can’t stop. We don’t eat well. We don’t sleep. We don’t nurture deep relationships that make a real difference in our lives.

And, in extreme cases, we think death is better than failure.

There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. That’s why so many great artists and writers suffered so much internal pain. Entrepreneurs, unfortunately, are no different.

I wish I had an answer to the problem. I wish I knew how to pull back, how to care less about what I’m building.

I wish I knew the answer to work/life balance and had guarantees that it would all be worth it in the end. That the things I’m choosing to live for will really matter–to me or anyone else one day.

But I don’t, and neither do you.

Instead, we can take comfort in the fact that we’re not alone, at least. You aren’t the only who feels like the crazy entrepreneur, and if you make smart bets and wise risks, it’ll be worth it in the end. Let’s face it. Without people like us, shit wouldn’t get built.

So keep building.

But also get some sleep.

The Harsh Reality Of Launching A Startup

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I recently came across an article talking about how startups should hit the panic button when they only have 6 months of overhead in the bank. This premise stunned me, especially since it came from someone who invests in startups.

What world are they living in?

Having built multiple companies and invested in several more, the idea that any startup should freak out with only six months of overhead left in the bank is just absurd. Most established businesses don’t have that much.

So let’s discuss the harsh realities of launching a startup and how to overcome them.

Rushing Your Dream

Before diving into this, let me first state that you should never hold back your drive to launch a company. But prior to making the giant leap into the unknown, make sure you have looked for as many pitfalls as possible, and been brutally honest with yourself about how much money it will take to stay in business and keep the lights on at home.

In the early stages of any venture your family and friends will be on your side. But the second you start needing to borrow money, can’t cover your rent, or begin worrying about putting food on the table, most of them will tell you to stop. If you quit your job they will tell you to go back to the 9-5 world. The encouragement and belief in your dream will suddenly dry up.

If you have a good job and this is something you can start to build on the side, then don’t just quit. Keep your personal expenses covered until your new venture can. Then make the full jump. It may not be as cool, but it can greatly increase your chances of success and save personal relationships that truly matter.

Prepare For Cash Flow Heart Attacks

Now let’s assume that you’ve gotten the company going and you are growing. Generally, growth requires an increase in overhead. New employees, office space, resources etc.

While you may be getting new customers and growing your accounts receivable by leaps and bounds, reality is you will lose clients, have ones that don’t pay you, an employee that quits at a bad time, or have an unexpected expense.

One day everything looks fantastic. The next you’re having a heart attack because that big check you expected hasn’t come in…and it’s payday tomorrow.

To be honest, there really isn’t a way to avoid these kind of obstacles. All you can do is prepare for them mentally, and make sure your gambles on growth and new expenses are well thought out. Then get ready to rise to the occasion at the eleventh hour.

Getting Investors Is Hard

In spite of the idealistic thought that you will be able to raise capital to get off the ground, cover your business and personal expenses, hire a great team; the reality of this happening is very unlikely.

Not that your idea isn’t a great one. It’s just hard to convince investors to back you. What if your idea is only worth $5 million if successful and you need $500k to get going? If the opportunity to make a 2.5 million ROI (5x investment) isn’t reasonable, many are out by default. If they even take the time to let you pitch.

Let’s be real, many investors lost that much at the craps table in Vegas last week, and don’t want to wait 5-7 years for potential return.

My advice, do everything in your power to make it possible to achieve success without an investor. Even if that wouldn’t be as big or quick as you would like. This approach will give you sound direction in your planning and give you a leg up with potential investors. A basic rule of sales is creating “fear of loss”. When you’re presenting, if it’s reasonable that you don’t NEED them but would enable faster return, interest will be piqued.

No Pain. No Gain.

The harsh reality is that becoming successful is never easy. We often look at all the success stories and forget about failures. This causes so many entrepreneurs to put on blinders and refuse to account for these realities.

In my opinion, it’s much better to accept that it will be tough. Put heavy thought into your plan and get ready for the rollercoaster that is entrepreneurship. There will be pain and heartache, but if you can overcome, it will be worth it when you achieve control of your life and enjoy the freedom it brings to be the person on top.

I hope this article provides both snap back to reality thoughts and encouragement. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section and don’t hesitate to reach out to me personally!

Julie Morey on Travel, Sex, and Train Wrecks

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What does it take to be an Entrepreneur? Join us as Julie shares her Entrepreneurial mindset and an inside glance at her journey to becoming a successful Entrepreneur.

Julie is the Author of the edgy non-fiction travel memoir Travel, Sex, & Train Wrecks, as well as a Travel Coach with her business A Life More Traveled. She has spent the last seven years teaching and traveling in over 60 countries.

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  • Julie was about to embark on an epic 9 day trip with her husband. Alcohol, yelling, and the D word all happened the night before, threatening to crush Julie’s world. She was left crying on the floor. Find out what Julie did next…

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  • Julie shares the inside scoop of what it’s like to go on a 10-day speaking fast. Fascinating revelations here!

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