I’ve had an unusual life.
My path was not a straight and narrow entrepreneurial journey, but rather a series of labyrinthine twists and turns that have taken me all over the world and back. Throughout this incredible journey, I’ve had my fill of ups and downs, belly laughs and heartaches, and everything in between. Overall, I can say that it’s been a life well-lived. However, when I sat down to write this book I was unsure of where I should take you, where to begin, and how to explain everything in a concise little business book. I looked at the big, trapezoidal shape that is my life story and just couldn’t make heads or tails of how I would fit it inside the nice neat box of a “How to Grow Your Business” format.
So I didn’t. I tossed that idea right out the window.
The stories you are about to read are not your everyday run-of-the-mill business lessons. There is no Bob and Sally by a watercooler in a skyrise office talking politics or company metrics. I don’t know too much about that. It was never a part of my own story. Instead, I set out to tell the truth - the good, the bad, and the ugly. Over the course of my career as a solopreneur, I’ve been privileged to earn a fortune, silly enough to blow it all like a madman, and then wise enough to work like hell and get it back for my family. My journey has taken me from the continental United States to the far reaches of Eastern Europe and Asia, and just about everywhere in between. This book contains some of the biggest life lessons that I’ve learned along the way, particularly as they relate to professional business-to-business (B2B) relationships.
My hope is that you will see that the archetype of the entrepreneur is far broader and more widely inclusive than what we are typically shown. The people that are crazy enough to wear the title of entrepreneur do not fit inside a single definition – we are, by nature, trailblazers, rule breakers, creative thinkers, and unorthodox heretics of the business world. As such, not everyone founds their first company at twelve years old or learns how to build mainframe computers in their basement as a hobby. Some of us don’t stumble upon our ideas until later in life. Some of us have to go out there and get the experience, cash our ticket, and ride the ride. Some of us had to live the story first, before we could come back and tell about it.
At the end of the day, this book is about communication, tapping into your strengths, challenging the status quo, going against the grain, and exploiting every possible ounce of your creative energy to make the life you’ve envisioned a reality. To aid in the learning process, you’ll find a section at the end of each chapter titled Putting It Into Practice. Here, I review what I believe to be the biggest takeaways from my unique experiences in the business world. I encourage you to keep an open mind; find what works for you, and discard the techniques that don’t. I can only explain what has worked for me, and in that same vein, I can tell the story in the only way I know how…
Welcome to my journey.
Mind Mapping Childhood
“I bet you have beautiful eyes,” I said, in my best impression of a seductive purr. There was a sharp inhale on the other end of the line. I could hear the buzzing of innumerable telephones in the background, the crackling, popcorn-like sounds of dial tones and receivers picked up and put down. The female operator was trying admirably to do her job, to find out and direct the purpose of my call.
“Thank you. Now, how can I–”
“Tell me something about you, do you have kids?”
A momentary pause. I could picture the wheels turning in her brain.
Strictly speaking, operators weren’t allowed to have personal conversations on duty, but everyone loves to talk about their kids, I reasoned. She cleared her throat a moment. “Well, yes, actually I do. I have….” Hook, line, and sinker.
It was 1974; I was fourteen years old.
Leadership Development: Operators and Alcohol
When I look back on my childhood, there seems to be a peculiar white void before and after the years surrounding my thirteenth through sixteenth birthdays. It’s as if everything that came before and after was shot in black and white, and those three years were pure, saturated technicolor. Not to say I enjoyed them immensely; I didn’t. But they stick out in my memory as being particularly formative, the beginning of a transformation or change that was starting to take place in me.
My childhood home was a cramped little thing in the spectacularly unassuming town of Taunton, Massachusetts, about forty miles south of Boston. There were five of us – my parents, my grandparents, and me - sharing a three bedroom, one bathroom floorplan. My father worked like a madman, splitting his time between three jobs, and my mother, busy with her own responsibilities, was also more or less absent. Usually, I found myself in the exclusive company of my crotchety old grandparents, or altogether alone. It was certainly lonely, but more than the lack of company, I remember the stupefying boredom.
The only real privacy I could find in that shamble of wood and shingles was the dark, dimly lit basement. Sporting small, rectangular slits near the ceiling for windows, it had a pronounced smell of mildew, which wasn’t without a certain charm. Among its dubious trophies were my father’s various medals from Korea, my grandfather’s whipping belt (exactly what it sounds like), a fish tank, and a telephone. Let me tell you, loneliness and boredom can be one hell of a heady cocktail. It’s amazing the things you can come up with to pass the time.
In my case, the game was telephonic journalism, or “The Art of Seducing an Operator.”
In a very real way, the phone was my only link to the outside world. I was almost never allowed to go out into the neighborhood to play or have friends over at my house. So, instead, I’d pick up the phone book and scan through the list of hotels and department stores, dialing them up by region. “Hi, this is Steve Ferreira,” I’d say, in my most official adult voice, “I’m an independent journalist and I’m conducting a survey of your working conditions. I was wondering if I could take a few minutes of your time…” The game was as much about keeping them on the phone, as it was about getting them to reveal personal details about themselves. Of course, at the end of every month I’d catch hell for the massive phone bill, but it was always worth it.
Eventually, it got to the point where I was on the phone so often I even developed a regional preference for these operators. For example, I learned that the ones in the Midwest were incalculably friendlier and much more willing to sit on the phone and chat with a polite stranger than the fiery women of the East Coast, who were about as amiable as a stepped-on snake. (This would come in handy later on when I started my business, as I immediately sought out customers from the Midwest who were on the whole, more likeable and easier to talk to.) My favorites, however, were the women in New Orleans who entranced me with their beautiful accents – I could listen to them yell at me all day. Standoffish as they were, it was always worth the call just to hear them talk for a while.
At the time, I didn’t put much stock into my silly games. I was just bored and wanted someone to talk to. But gradually, little by little, I started to gain this immense confidence. I was discovering the power of my own voice. With that little kidney-shaped receiver in hand, I felt like I could reach anyone in the world; I was the velvet-voiced star of your favorite morning talk show, or the buttery voice of Sean Connery in James Bond. I had discovered the gift of gab, and as the saying goes, I soon realized I could sell feathers to birds.
As my confidence continued to grow, so did my boldness.
Bored as I was, cooped up in that house, I began an exhaustive search for even a modicum of excitement. I’ve always had a talent for finding and exploiting patterns: in numbers, languages, or human behavior. This is, to a large extent, what I credit for my success in business. But before that talent was translated to the likes of ocean freight shipping and invoicing, I first tried it out on my parents.
Perpetual creatures of habit, my parents visited Tony Parker’s Supper Club every Saturday night. They’d eat, drink, and dance away the workweek in a greasy little speakeasy from 9:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. After months of veiled reconnaissance, I worked up the courage to try sneaking out. Given that it was my grandma and grandpa, both in their 80s, taking care of me (allegedly), it wasn’t exactly like sneaking past the Gestapo. Drunk on teen bravado, I said to myself, “Hey, I’m gonna sneak out, walk to the end of the street, order myself a cab and I’ll try and get some alcohol from a bar.” It was a thing of beauty, really, the way it all worked out.
By ten o’clock, I’d be in the back seat of a yellow cab, cruising along to the bar. I’d spend my time tentatively sipping Jack Daniels and Coke for an hour or so, chatting easily with ladies of the night and bartenders. I looked much older than fourteen and easily passed for eighteen, the legal drinking age at the time.
Little did I know, this type of measured risk-taking was exactly the attitude I would bring to my future career. Between the telephone calls and the nightly “prison breaks,” I was learning the value of coming up with a good plan, and more importantly, how to execute it flawlessly. I’ll admit it was an unorthodox way to develop leadership qualities, but I’ve never lost sight of the value of those memories. During that period of my life, I discovered the power of my own voice: in an esoteric sense, but also very practically. Speaking to full grown adults in a bar at fourteen years old, it was confidence or potential jail.
Experience has taught me that one of the main reasons people fail in business is they fail to plan three or four steps ahead. You’ve got to map out the objective, formulate what possible setbacks you might encounter, come in with your big guns, two or three things that are going to rock the world, and a few little provocative grenades to help restyle or reset the conversation if it gets off track. Most importantly, you have to recognize the checkered flag and know when it’s time to jump ship and cut your losses.