I still remember it like it was yesterday.
I was 19, a broke college student at the University of Washington. My parents were having a difficult time financially and I made the choice to drop out. I found a full-time job as a bank teller making minimum wage – yet, I still didn’t make enough money to pay my rent and basic living expenses. I knew I needed more money and had an idea. It was simple and it had the potential to earn me some much-needed extra income.
I begged my dad to let me borrow $100 to deliver Korean tacos across campus. On campus, students studied late night, it rained often, and the streets were often dangerous – I saw an opportunity. Using the Korean BBQ recipe from my mom, I started posting on Facebook my offer to deliver $3 Korean tacos each night. The tacos were delicious, and I expected the orders to start rolling in right away.
They didn’t. For two months, not a single person wanted to buy a taco. I eventually ran out of money and reached a point where I had to skip lunch and resorted to peanut butter sandwiches for nearly every meal. Then, on a random Wednesday, I suddenly received orders for three tacos from two separate people. I made $9 that day and it was the happiest I had felt in a very long time.
One of the customers that had ordered the tacos sent me a text saying how it was the best taco he ever had. I knew this was an opportunity I had to take. I asked him to post what he had just said to my Facebook page and offered him a free taco next time for doing so (given my limited funds, a free taco was a hard sacrifice). But right after he made that post, over a hundred new followers started trickling in. It was 2011 and Facebook and hadn’t started customizing news feed yet or started sponsored ads. Once someone posted on a page, that post was shown to every one of their friends. The post went viral. I immediately saw the effects and asked the other guy to do the same and his friends started subscribing as well. Demand grew until I was catering to frat parties and weddings, and that $100 loan from my father quickly grew into $10,000.
I’m proud to say that this taco venture – my first, evolved into one of the most popular food trucks in Seattle and a $500,000 business.
Today my primary focus is Storm, the company I helped create from 2014. Storm is a pioneer in the blockchain space that helps people earn cryptocurrency anywhere, anytime, from any device. We now have an amazing extended team of over 50 talented individuals, all working to empower billions of people across 187 countries with our platform. We sold over $32M worth of Storm tokens recently and have some of the biggest brands on the platform today including Uber, Airbnb, NexonM, Hulu, and over 200 other clients.
Right now, you may be where I was at the beginning, holding onto a crazy idea, not knowing if it will work out. You know you want to start a business (and you want it to succeed).
If you identify with any of this, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, I share my best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs: real lessons I’ve learned on the journey from broke college student to thriving business owner.
I’ll begin with possibly the most important lesson of all: it won’t be easy.
1. Starting a Business is Hard
No one is going to give you permission to start a business. In fact, many people will try to stop you. You’ll need to have true courage to keep you moving forward when things get tough.
People love a good success story, but entrepreneurship isn’t anything like the movies. It’s not neatly tied up in an hour and a half. It doesn’t follow a perfect story arc. And it’s decidedly not glamorous.
Today our flagship app Storm Play is enjoyed by millions of people in 187 countries. But back in 2014, the controversies of Silk Road and Mt. Gox led the rest of the world to believe that blockchain and Bitcoin was only good for drugs and money laundering. We almost went bankrupt twice.
We had to persevere. We had to believe that the idea was going to succeed and that we could make it work. At the time, I took on 5 different jobs just to keep the business alive. The team worked hard to overcome every obstacle and keep the business growing.
The lesson is this: there’s no magic formula for business success. If you accept that it’s going to be difficult, you’ll be able to endure through the hard times. You’ll be able to believe in your idea and emerge on the other side of adversity with your own success story to show for it.
Besides, business is a lot about being in the right place at the right time. That’s why we need to keep our eyes open.
2. See the Opportunity
Absolutely anything can become a business if it provides value to other people. When I was a kid, I sold my friends’ soda. In college, I saw an opportunity in my fellow students’ huge appetites when I started my taco business.
And when the rest of the world could only see cryptocurrency as a dishonest cover for crime, we at Storm saw the opportunity to pioneer a way for people to earn money easily from anywhere in the world.
Seeing an opportunity when no one else can it is often the beginning of a successful business.
How to spot a business opportunity? Listen to what your friends and colleagues say. What do they complain about? What problem can you solve?
Or take a critical look at your surroundings. What’s something that everyone takes for granted that really should be improved?
Most people might think it’s a dumb idea. But don’t let the masses convince you otherwise, analyze the problems people have and execute if people would actually use it.
If you think something should exist, it’s up to you to bring it to life.
3. No Excuses!
You can always find a way to do what you want to do. As an entrepreneur, it’s crucial for you to have this mindset.
A lot of people don’t realize this, but we have access to a multitude of resources that the big names in business never had. Honestly, people don’t use Google enough.
I landed a full-time internship with Amazon during college because I cold-emailed someone at the e-commerce giant. My connections in the crypto world began when I simply walked up to someone at Consensus and started networking. In short: don’t wait for permission. Find a way.
Think about it: how can you leverage Google, local events, connections, and other resources at your fingertips to take the next step toward your dream business?
I can’t stress it enough: no one is going to hand you your success. When I was a broke student at UW, I eventually had to drop out because I couldn’t afford tuition. I didn’t want to give up on my finance degree.
Instead of giving up on school, I picked up a full-time job as a bank teller and maintained my studies with online courses every evening. For a solid 18 hours every weekday (7am-1am), I immersed myself in work and study. Eventually, I was able to pay tuition with earnings from my business and from having applied to over 200 scholarships. As difficult as it was, I kept working and interning full-time to support myself until graduation.
I don’t say this to brag, but to inspire you to work hard to make your dreams a reality.
Once you banish any thoughts of “I can’t because…” and begin to say “How can I make this work?” a whole new world of possibilities will open to you.
Sometimes, though, an idea just doesn’t work out as you expected. When that happens…
4. Keep Trying New Things
You never know which one of your ideas will pan out. Some of them may be successful, and some of them may flop. You might have success in one area and then move on to another. That’s what happened to me.
I never expected that my little $3 taco business would turn into a hugely successful food truck. At the time, I took my idea and ran with it.
I never thought much about Bitcoin, until I wrote a college thesis in economics class about Mount Gox. The idea of blockchain technology intrigued me, so I began to do more research.
I also knew, from my time as a bank teller, that banks charge an exorbitant amount of fees to transfer money. After some time, I began to think… could blockchain create better opportunities for people living across the world? Could it revolutionize global payments by minimizing the transfer fee to mere pennies?
It was a new direction. And like my mom’s Korean BBQ recipe, it was something I was truly passionate about.
5. Do Something You’re Passionate About
The reason why I love what I do is because I believe blockchain can be used for the greater good.
Storm’s flagship app, Storm Play, allows people from all over the world to earn cryptocurrency by completing easy micro-tasks. On the other side of the equation, it helps advertisers reach people who are interested in their games, apps, and products. Instead of intrusive ads that no one really remembers, users download and try out apps and games to earn a reward. It’s a win-win relationship.
I’m passionate about this project because:
- We can send payments anywhere, at any time, for fractions of a penny.
- We can create opportunities for people with no access to a bank account.
- We can improve the lives of the people who are struggling with their local economic conditions.
- We can provide opportunities to earn additional income to anyone with a mobile device.
Blockchain and cryptocurrency are changing the very fabric of society, and I’m excited to be a part of it.
If you’re going to spend your life doing something, you should to be passionate about it. If you enjoy it, it’s not going to feel like work.
And the best feeling in the world is knowing that your work serves others. No matter how big your profits are or how much success you command, nothing is more fulfilling than knowing that what you’re doing makes the world a better place.
When you follow your passion, it will motivate you to stay on the path to success. But at the beginning, you may find that the people around you don’t understand or support what you’re doing.
6. Ignore the Noise
When I started building my businesses, I faced a lot of criticism.
In Korean culture, there’s a strict hierarchy. There’s an idea that you have to pay your dues in order to get ahead. You’re encouraged to follow orders and obey your superiors at all costs.
But being an entrepreneur flies in the face of those conventions. This offended some people in my community, and they started saying negative things about me.
I could have gotten angry or defended myself, but I chose not to. I chose to ignore the noise. These people couldn’t see the opportunity that I could see, so their opinion didn’t matter.
My advice to you is to expect negativity and then decide, right now, that you will ignore it.
By the way, there’s no room for pride in business. Most of the time, running a business is not as cool as it sounds. You’ll make mistakes, spend all your energy on something that completely fails, and do a lot of grunt work without seeing the fruit of your labor. People will talk badly about you. If you try to save face, you won’t be able to get very far.
So drop your pride. It’s the biggest barrier to success.
The good news is, as you keep your head down and build your business, the right people will take notice and want to be part of what you’re doing.
7. Build a Winning Team
I attribute our success and longevity at Storm to the strength of our growing extended team of 50+ amazing, talented people. I’m so proud of our team for continuing to overcome challenges to empower billions of people around the world.
If you want your business to go far, you must carefully choose who you’ll hire and partner with to be on your team. I truly believe that the strength of your team will make or break your business.
My advice for hiring talent? Choose people that mesh well with your company culture and are passionate about your company vision.
The best talent will always choose the team over themselves. Always hire “up”. This means choose people who add more value than the last person who had the role.
Build a great team, and you’ll set your business up for success.
Starting a business isn’t easy, but the first step is just starting. I encourage you to create an action plan with the one concrete action you will take to build your business this week.