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How to start a business like a Ninja

I promise it was an accident. It wasn’t an elaborate plan. It just started with a need. I needed a test-prep book for my students to prepare them for a state math exam. I probably put in 4-5 different searches on Google over the span of 3 months, and I could not find what I wanted. Every time I would type in the specifics of what I wanted, Google would pop up with “No results found.”

Finally, one day it just hit me: why don’t I make what I want? Why don’t I just write this book myself? I had already conducted extensive research into the exam, I had spent 5 years in a classroom teaching remediation classes, and I have an irreversible tendency to do things before realizing how hard they will be. I was sitting in a rocking chair on a Saturday morning, and for five hours, I stared out the window and thought about what this book would look like and whether or not I would make the commitment. Suddenly, I made a decision: I decided to write the book. I arose from the rocking chair, went to my computer, bought the domain name for the business, and then I opened a Microsoft Word document and started writing.

It is important to note that I had never started a business and I had never written a book. I have no business background. I studied environmental science and theology in college, which means that I memorized the periodic table, played in streams, and studied ancient texts. This is not your standard foundation for business. I was just a crazy math teacher.

As it turns out, being “crazy” helped immensely. Starting a business is crazy. I am crazy. It was a good match.

From the very beginning, I had a deep respect for cash. I am a mathematician, and I can do addition and subtraction very well. Addition and subtraction told me that if I spend more money than what comes in, I won’t have cash. If I spend less money than I have come in, I will have cash. Cash is king. Cash : Business :: Oxygen : Human. You can’t have a functioning business without cash. No cash = death of your little pipe dream.

I also have a massive dislike for debt, so I resolved to run my business debt free. Why? Read the above paragraph. I care about cash. I started this company in the winter of 2008-2009. Remember that time? I do. It was when businesses were being shut down left and right because they didn’t have cash. They had plenty of debt, but no cash. I learned from them. Too many businesses pay for their stupidity by using debt. They borrow against their ignorance. That’s dumb. These companies borrow all this money, the product fails (or at least doesn’t recover enough money to pay off what they borrowed), and then the company loses cash and collapses. I wasn’t interested in my business collapsing, so I decided not to use debt.

I went to the bank and opened a separate business account, and I put $5000 from my savings into this account. I have not put in another dime of my own money since then. If that little $5000 couldn’t grow to be something greater, then my business was a bad idea, and I would only have to pay $5000 to find out. My business wasn’t a bad idea. How do I know? Because I have cash and no debt. Sure, this account hasn’t hit a billion dollars, but it also has never hit zero either. It is a continually revolving door with money going out AND money coming in. Many businesses forget the latter.

My account is a scorecard for my business. And guess what? I don’t care about the score. I just want to stay in the game. When you are a young business, survival is more important than the score.

I started my company during “the greatest recession since the great depression”. A recession is a great time to start a company. Why? Everything is on sale. Shipping is free. You can get two for the price of one. People are desperate for customers with cash, and I had cash. I leveraged that $5000 in cash to gain about $10,000 worth of goods and services. Companies are willing to make a deal if you have cash while everyone else has debt. Cash is king.

I never wrote a business plan. My business plan was this: DO NOT RUN OUT OF CASH. There. That was my plan. I had to find a way to turn $5000 into something more. I did.

There were so many hurdles to this business that it is hysterical to look back at them. I overcame every hurdle, not by reading a “how-to” article or by getting advice, but just by busting my ass (it’s not a swear word when it is true). I got after it. I faced up to reality when something was a problem, and I worked to fix it. If I needed to stay up until 4am to fix something, I did it. Two hours later, I would wake up and go teach all day. I never committed to this thing because it was easy. I committed to it. Period. Come hell or high water, I was sailing this boat to the end.

I broke my right hand 3 days into writing the book. I couldn’t use it to type, so I bought voice recognition software and became good at using a mouse with my left hand. (P.s. voice recognition software is not very effective for a math book. Words like “polynomial equation” and “Quadratic function” are not easily picked up by the software.)

The graphics were all messed up on the first (and second, and third, and fourth) proofs. It turns out that we had a whole book in a format that was incompatible with the software being used by the printing company. Oops. We printed out the whole book on a junky printer at school, put it through a copy machine that turned it into a pdf, and then sent the pdf file to the printers. It doesn’t get any more unprofessional than that. But it worked.

I built a website that required people to put their information into a web form so that I could send them a free copy of the book. It turns out that the web form wouldn’t work (I screwed it up and couldn’t fix it), and I had already dropped $1000 on a massive mailing inviting people to go to the website and request the book, and the mailing had already hit the mail stream. Translation: In 12 hours, I was going to get a ton of traffic to my website, but I wasn’t going to be able to catch the customers and deliver them my product. Their first exposure to my company was going to be trash.

The web form problem gets solved (thanks to some late-night hacking by Matthew Komar), and in 24 hours, I had 180 people request a free copy of the book. Wow, that sounds great! Yeah, it’s great, until you actually have to do it.

Have you ever labeled 180 large envelopes, stuffed them with a math book, taken them to a post office, and then stamped each one with 4 different stamps? I have. I left school at 4 pm (I am still teaching, mind you. I didn’t quit my day job for some crazy idea I got while sitting in a rocking chair) and then I spent 12 consecutive hours printing labels, stuffing envelopes, and putting on stamps. It took two months to recover from the paper cuts, but I got the books out.

The next day, I go to the post office to send out even more copies of the book. I put the book on the scale, and the lady says that I need more than 4 stamps. I tell her that I just sent out 180 yesterday exactly like this. She tells me that the person working yesterday made a mistake. Translation: I sent out 180 math books, and now they are telling me that it was insufficient postage. The schools were not going to get the books unless they paid the “postage due” for the book. At this point, I’m really glad I didn’t borrow money for this “business” because it is looking like a disaster.

It all worked out in the end. One year later, I’m still standing, and so is the business. It’s not on Wall Street. I don’t have an office, a secretary, or even a “business phone”. You won’t pass a company sign while traveling on the interstate. But it just chugs along in the background, slowly making money while also keeping people happy.

I have no interest in growing my company. I don’t want to write more books for other math exams. I don’t want employees. I don’t want an office. The strength of my business lies in its specificity, and it will stay specific. I’m focused on what MUST happen here, not on what COULD happen elsewhere.

I confess that I do have a strong desire to grow one thing: profits. The more money I make, the more that people are being helped and the more I can spend on delivering things that matter. Every dollar earned is like a vote of confidence. Every dollar that comes into my bank account is like a thank-you letter from the customer. This letter says, “Thank you for making this product. Keep up the good work.” I like thank-you letters, especially when they come in the form of cash.

What do I spend money on in my business? I invest it. Almost every penny in my business gets reinvested. I send flowers. I buy books to read (TONS of books, actually). I purchase new tech tools to learn about them and see how they can be integrated with learning. I develop websites. I go to conferences and workshops. I learn, learn, learn, and I meet, meet, meet. If I haven’t met you, I want to get to know you. Why? Because I will learn something from you. Can you give me some wisdom about cash? About making a better business? About delivering products that matter? Then I want to talk to you.

This company is not my life. It is a reflection of my life, and it is a part of my life, but it is not my life. I run my business; I don’t let it run me. I control the business, it doesn’t control me. I refuse to be 28 year-old, overworked, overstressed man who is a grumpy S.O.B. Sorry, I don’t care about this game enough for that. I am just fine with answering my 10 emails per week and helping the people who care about my product.

My marketing “plan” looks something like this: remove barriers for initial use, and if the idea sticks, people will want more. If the idea doesn’t stick, then I can just close things down and know that my idea sounded great but really wasn’t. The idea has stuck.

In three months, I sent out over 500 free copies of the book to over 400 schools. I guess I did a good job of removing barriers for initial use. People said, “Well, aren’t you worried that people will illegally copy it?” Yes, I was worried. Within one week of releasing the book, I found out that a school was copying the book for all their Algebra I students. That’s a lot of copying, and it also happens to be illegal and an infringement on my copyright. So, did I call my lawyers? Nope. If multi-billion dollar record companies can’t stop copyright infringements, then Tony Hollowell was not going to stop it either. It is very easy to get angry when people don’t pay for something that is yours, but that is tiring. It is hard to run around being angry all day. You need some real stamina to keep that up.

I was too lazy to be angry, so I took an easier road. The easier road is to realize that if people are using your product, you will eventually get paid. Maybe they will pay for you to come and talk about the product (happened). Maybe they will buy the book later after having used it all year (happened). Maybe the principal of the school will get mad at the teacher for making so many copies at the copier machine and just decide to buy a bunch of copies (happened). If it is useful, money will follow.

And so what if I never get paid? So what if a teacher doesn’t have enough money to afford my book and she makes hundreds of copies all year long? I wish they would pay for it, but I am not angry. I am happy that students are being helped by my work. I am happy that people find so much value in my book that they would break the law to try to get it. Isn’t that great? I think it is.

A final point: this all began with my passion to teach, a passion that has been burning within me since the age of 21. This whole business, the book, the conferences, the opportunity: it all began with my passion to teach. I spent five years in the furnace of the classroom, constantly trying to be a better teacher before I began to even think about a book. Behind this book are years and years of honing my ability to teach, painful Monday morning drives, angry students after class, 2-hour math remediation classes with seniors who couldn't add while sitting in a 98-degree room without air conditioning, going to math conferences around the country, taking online classes, listening to great teachers, observing, studying, and working. Without this passion, this would all have been straw. My ultimate lesson from all of this: first comes the passion, then comes the opportunity. Too many people look for the opportunity first. They search for “top 5 highest-paying careers” or “top 10 most wanted jobs in 4 years”. Do you know anybody in medical or dental school who are there because they think it is an opportunity but don’t have the passion? I do. However, Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Winston Churchill, and my Dad reveal a different pattern. They found their passion first, and then the real opportunities, the ones worth pursuing, came after.

My business is one year old, and I am very proud of it. I am proud of making a business run in a way that works just right for me. I am proud of starting a business during the “great recession”. I am proud of having a product that matters. I am proud of all the people who helped with it from the beginning. I am proud of the students who use the book and actually try to do better than they have done before. I am proud of the teachers I meet in workshops who work so hard to make a difference in the lives of their students. I am proud of everyone who owns a business and works their hardest to make it a reality. Most of all, I am proud of every person who wakes up every morning to go to work and tries to make a difference for their family and their community.

My business is one year old. Happy birthday, business.

I can’t believe you made it this far. You really should stop reading this blog and go do something better with your time.

Well, if you want to read more, or if you are interested in starting a business, I put together this list of my four business mentors. Don't start a business without them.


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