It’s been a while since my last post.
Since then, the self-funded weekend business I started in my living room in 2017 has grown to a full-time business with full-time team members and over 500 active clients we support each day.
With the holiday season, I thought it was important to create time to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned being a founder, a CEO, and a young leader.
These are the nine lessons I learned in 2019 that I hope will help other aspiring or current entrepreneurs grow their businesses and avoid the mistakes I made this year.
And also to serve as a reminder to myself if I ever forget these lessons.
If you help others achieve their goal, they will help you with yours.
When a customer, client, or user turns to you, it is because they have a problem they want to solve.
They might be a user buying a Netflix subscription because they want to cure boredom or they might be a client at the dental clinic who wants to whiten their teeth.
Whatever the reason, that person is coming to a business to have a problem removed, a dream fulfilled, or a goal accomplished.
The goal of your business should be to help them solve their problems/reach their dreams.
And in the process, you will hit your goals as well.
When I started My Consulting Offer (MCO) in 2017, it was to pay off medical debt by taking 13 students who paid me to help them get interviews and job offers in management consulting.
We didn’t have the systems, team, and support we do now, but I knew I wanted to make their dream of working at a consulting firm come true.
I did everything from editing their resumes, practicing mock interviews, and drafting emails for them to send.
They had my email, my Facebook, and my phone number, and I trusted that they would use it as needed.
After a few months, these 13 students each ended up with at least one job offer from a consulting firm, and I paid off my medical debt.
We’ve grown a lot since it was just 13 students and I and one of those ways is the partnership we have at universities (something I couldn’t have imagined possible two years ago).
These partnerships are responsible for a lot of our revenues, profits, and growth today.
But where did we get these relationships?
Our past students referred us to their universities.
Over the past two years, clients who were happy with what we provided happily (sometimes without asking) introduced us to their universities’ career services and other organizations.
Help others achieve their goals, and they will help you with yours.
There is another number in your business besides profit that matters.
Compared to a lot of people, I am new to managing teams so 2019 was a huge learning for me moving from being responsible only for myself and my clients to adding an entire team.
When I started having a team this year, I needed a way to keep everyone focused on what matters.
We have weekly goal meetings and such, but beyond that, I wanted my team to know what mattered – a single question they could ask when they weren’t meeting with me to make sure they were on taking the right action when more than one option was presented.
While profits are an essential metric and we do measure it, the problem with profit is that:
- It is a lagging measure (we don’t know how it is until the month is over).
- You can’t tell at the moment if what you are doing will drive up profits.
During my time at Bain, I spent projects thinking about how to measure a company’s success, and at Bain, we had several considerations including
- The number of leads – you can’t measure profits right away, but you can measure how many people could potentially become customers/clients/users.
- Net Promoter Score (NPS) – how likely is it that someone will recommend your product or service to others.
The problem with both was that “number of leads” can be gamed (what if I just signed up a bunch of high school students who can’t even work in consulting yet?) and “Net Promoter Score” was like profits slow because we don’t know people’s NPS until they have started working with us.
And I didn’t want my team to be overwhelmed by tracking numbers so many different numbers (man…I do not sound like a great former management consultant right now).
To keep it simple – I gave our team this year one number that stands above all else, “Will this increase the number of video reviews we have?”
For context, we have a page of video reviews left by former clients (optional, but people love doing it) – My Consulting Offer reviews
To understand the significance of this, we don’t allow people to leave text reviews (I always thought that companies would make these up so I was never a fan of them unless you were Amazon).
So when I started MCO, I wanted my clients to give actual reviews with their voice in it – while you can fake one or two, no one can “fake” a hundred or thousands.
What makes this such a great metric that is “getting video reviews” means a lot of other metrics need to be hit:
- People must REALLY LOVE us; otherwise, why would they put their name to be searched and contacted? (Similar to NPS right?)
- If they love us, it means we must have in a way helped them hit their goals (see Lesson 1)
- They have to think of us more than as a commodity and something worth promoting with a face. How many people do you see actively promoting Comcast?
If our number of video reviews goes up, then I know the other metrics, such as profits, NPS, and growth will take care of itself.
So that became the metric we cared about.
It took us a few tries to make this happen and I could feel the change before where everyone felt siloed to now where there is a clear focus across the team to get more reviews.
Your metric will vary.
Don’t make decisions when there is any emotional discharge
If there was one pattern of actions that cost me more money and time than any other mistake I made this year, it has been making decisions when emotions are running high.
Part of this, I realize, is moving from a one-person company where I did everything and knew what was going on every moment to having a team owning the operations of departments that were once entirely me.
So when I find out someone has done something that I wouldn’t have or a mistake was made because someone didn’t do it the way I would have, I can feel the blood rushing across my body.
I think I get a lot of this from growing up around my family.
Growing up, when there was an issue, for example, my grandma saw the front door was unlocked, she would yell at everyone from the moment she saw the lock removed and tell us what would happen if someone broke in, only for my grandfather to walk in and say he was getting the mail and left the door unlocked for two minutes.
I find that I have a lot of that knee-jerk reaction to problems.
Instead of allowing the responsible party to debrief me or propose a correction plan, I jump into my firefighter mode with a full extinguisher in hand.
And the consequences of making these knee-jerk decisions that is I end up deciding to undo many of them later wasting time or worse, causing the team member to feel they aren’t trusted.
The worst part is once the emotions evaporate, realizing the cost of my decisions.
The post-feeling is so bad that I thought about creating an app that monitors my emotional levels and warns me (or better shuts off my access to my computer) when my emotions will affect my decision making.
I noticed this wasn’t just in my business life but also in my personal life.
When I am of sound mind, I realize that a lot of the decisions I need to make could have waited half a day or more when I would have been of sound mind.
So now I ask myself – “can this wait at least 12 hours before I jump in?”
If there was one development point for me to work on to be the leader (and just overall human being), it is learning not to let negative emotions affect my response to what is happening in front of me.
I admire the people who can do this already.
The First Business Plan Should Take No More Than 2 hours.
What I am going to say is going to sound pretty bad coming from a former management consultant, but I think initial business plans aren’t worth spending more than 2 hours on.
The truth is when you are starting a business you don’t know what you don’t know.
My first business plan for MCO back in 2017 was created at a business conference during a 1-hour block we had as attendees.
I was supposed to be attending a breakout session, but the speaker made my accounting professor in college a candidate for “Most Entertaining Speaker of the Year.”
So, I left, grabbed a table at the hotel we were at, and wrote out the first plans for MCO.
It had three items
- Get the rubrics from Bain, McKinsey, and BCG about how resumes are screened
- Make a list of the most common case interviews
- Message people on reddit on r/consulting to be my first clients
I ended up skipping the rest of the 3-day conference, and I spent the rest of the conference doing those three items.
I was tired of talking about business and just wanted to do it.
Today we are more evolved than my first business plan with 3 bullets.
For example, we have a former McKinsey Recruiter who updates the rubrics for how the resumes are screened down to the city preference and a former McKinsey Manager who wrote the interview cases to write our prep material.
I couldn’t have foreseen having either of them on the team when I first started, so it would have been useless to spend hours thinking of how I would find them, hire them, pay them, what benefits I would provide, etc.
When you are a new company you are running against the clock so don’t waste time.
This year as we grew and plans became more elaborate, I found myself needing to go back to the basics and starting small and fast.
I started feeling why big companies move slowly, I was scared of losing what we had.
As a result, I think we spent too much time thinking about a project rather than doing it.
When we did start, a lot of thinking we found was invalid and we could have saved so much time just moving forward earlier instead of being stuck with analysis paralysis.
A cheat code for business is to learn from those who have already achieved what you want
As a kid, I loved video games.
So when I saved up enough money to buy a new game, I would go on the internet and search up “[NAME OF GAME] cheat codes” or “[NAME OF GAME] walkthroughs.”
I just wanted to know the most efficient way to achieve a goal, and I found no better way than to learn from other people who had done the same.
It is also what got me into Yale.
So when I started MCO, I was always on the lookout for people, whether mentors or peers who were already where I wanted to be.
In video game terms, they had gotten past the level I was on, and I wanted to learn how.
Last year, in October 2018, I attended a business conference in Bangkok, where I was surrounded by entrepreneurs who mostly all had businesses that were at the top of their industries, and most of them were self-funded.
I had this idea – “what if I could convince 5 of them to move to stay in Thailand with me for about two months, and we have weekly dinners and push each other?”
During the conference, I reached out to people who were where I wanted to be – those who were managing remote teams, were ranking #1 on Google for their industry, etc.
We decided to move to Chiang Mai, Thailand, together for two months (January – March 2019), and each week we met for dinner and shared our progress, discussed our obstacles, and asked the group for help.
The topics ranged from hiring a COO to how to run a team retreat.
Each week, this group challenged me on my assumptions about my business, my limiting beliefs, and became a support system for me.
Ideas that I thought I wouldn’t start on until December 2019, they asked, “why wouldn’t you want it now?”
I attribute a lot of MCO’s growth this year to them.
I wish I had this group when I started in 2017.
Allow Others Who Are Better Than You to Take Over
When you are starting a business, you do everything.
For example, when Amazon started, Jeff Bezo was packing the boxes himself.
When MCO started, I did everything from marketing to operations to coaching, and I thought I was great at it all.
Until the business grew, and I couldn’t do everything myself.
And I was faced with either declining quality (if I did everything) or finding people who could help me.
Slowly I started hiring people who were better than me at the job.
It took a while (for example, our operations manager took 6 months, over 200 candidates, and 2 firings), not because I’m so superhuman, but I truly wanted to find someone who cared about MCO as much as I did but was better than I was at the job they were doing.
That way, the role would grow, and along the way, I knew our clients would be taken care of (See Lesson 1).
It was a taste of humility when I realized how many people were better than me at the jobs I was doing.
For example, our current head of resume coaching, Leah Frank is so much better than me at improving resumes and cover letters.
Suddenly, I realized I wasn’t the best person for the jobs I previously started and held.
That is okay, too, because I started this business to make dreams happen, not to inflate Davis Nguyen’s ego.
If starting a business is about protecting your ego, you are going to get in your own way.
MCO would have grown faster had I learned to let go sooner.
People buy services because of what you stand for, not only what you can provide
Back in January, I was at dinner with an entrepreneur who was able to sell his company.
And the topic was on how he grew his business so quickly.
Instead of answering the question directly, we asked me – “Davis, do you know the reason people choose to work with My Consulting Offer?”
“Our success rate is almost 90%,” I replied.
“Anything else?” he replied.
I didn’t know what he was getting at, but he suggested polling people who enrolled, asking, “why did you choose to work with us?”
Given he was so much more successful than I was, I took his advice and sent out a survey.
To not get a biased answer, I didn’t include people already in our community and only those who were new.
And once the results came back, I knew what he was getting at.
While people did put our success rate as one reason why they worked with us, other reasons came up as well.
I knew our audience was smart, given their goals of being management consultants, but I learned how much research they did on my company and me.
For example, some people were convinced they wanted to work with MCO because they came across my TEDx Talk that I did before MCO while others watched our review videos and saw how passionate people were talking about our program (see Lesson 2).
What I learned was instead of just talking about the process of how MCO works and what clients get, I would also talk about the people on our team as well as about myself.
During future talks with potential clients, I mentioned more about our values, how we train our coaches, and even where we donate our profits.
This resonated, and our enrollment percentage went up.
I learned since January that people choose a service not just for what it does but also for what it stands for.
So when our team speaks with potential clients, I encourage them to talk about why they left a place like McKinsey to work with us, what it is like having Davis as a boss, and anything they think would give a more unobstructed view of our process.
Sharpen the saw, sharpen the brain
I’m a workaholic.
I’ve been this way since high school, in college, at Bain, and every job I’ve had.
So it is no surprise to my friends or family that for the first two years of MCO, I didn’t take weekends off.
I worked every day because I thought “recharge” only applied to my laptop and my phone.
I was so scared that taking a day off would cause me to “get behind” or “lose what I created,” but the opposite happened when I did take time off.
Back in May, I was feeling tired (and likely burning out), so I traveled back to San Francisco and spent time with my friends for the summer.
Because my friends worked Monday to Friday, the weekends were my only time to see them, and I wasn’t going to pay $2000 in rent a month to work and not see them (I could do that in Atlanta for free).
So my friends positively forced me to take Saturdays (and eventually Sundays) to spend time with them and thus get my recharge.
When I came back on Mondays, I felt more refreshed, my thinking was sharper, and I had more motivation than I did that previous Friday.
As entrepreneurs, I think we are so used to slogans such as “Grind” or “Hustle Harder” but taking time to rest will help you in ways you can’t see when you are working on limited sleep.
Reflecting on my time when I was working on limited sleep, and no days off, I realized how badly I made decisions that could have been so much better (see Lesson 3) had I just taken a break to “sharpen the saw.”
When I was working at Jumpcut and doing MCO (which didn’t have a name at the time) on the side, it was okay to work weekends (since that was the only time I had), but when I went full-time, taking at least one day off I believe would have made us get to where we are today faster.
The Hardest Battle isn’t with the clock or the changing market, it is with your mind
When I started, I thought what would crush me was keeping up the long hours to keep our business going or dealing with changes in the market.
This year, I realized that what is tougher is maintaining your mental resolve as an entrepreneur.
Which is why I don’t recommend starting a company to everyone.
While the hours come and go and the market changes anyways, the battle between your ears is a constant one that doesn’t shut off when you turn off your laptop.
Your mind and mental wellness can start as durable as bulletproof glass, but every failed plan, each bad hire you need to fire, or setback either in your business or in your personal life is like having someone take a crack at the glass.
Bulletproof glass is strong but eventually, it starts to lose its firmness with each shot, and if it is not cared for, like bulletproof glass, it too will eventually shatter.
It took me two years to realize this (part of it was taking days off, see the previous lesson), and I hope any entrepreneur reading this will care for their glass before it shatters as well.
These were 9 of the lessons I learned this year.
I’d love to hear your thoughts or if you want to chat, drop me an email me (at) davisnguyen.com
I always love connecting with readers.
What a great, informative read on your journey, Davis! Thanks for the insights!