Some people know how to quiet a crowd.
Conrad looked at the floor. He crossed his arms, standing lazily in the center of the stage. Subtle murmurs from the audience gradually died down. Slowly they focused their attention on him, waiting.
As he stood there, they looked more closely, drawing in their breath. Perhaps they were missing something. They moved their eyes slowly over his jeans and t-shirt. Why was he just standing there?
A few stray coughs echoed through the back of the auditorium.
The seconds ticked by.
Conrad could hear the audience’s breathing stop. Silence crescended through each row as they waited for him to say something – anything.
He looked up.
“How many of you are not where you want to be in your lives?” Conrad said. A few hands crept into the air.
“How many of you have started a business but are having a hard time making it a success?”
“How many of you want more users, or more revenue? How many of you want to raise money?”
“How many of you want to be independently wealthy?”
More hands raised. Conrad smiled knowingly.
“I can help you with those problems. You see, I was once where you were. Broke, fresh out of school with no money. Working on a few business ideas on the side.”
“In 15 years I’ve built and sold two businesses, both for more than 100 million dollars.” Conrad spaced out the words ‘million dollars’ for emphasis as he walked to the left side of the stage.
“I’ve been featured in pretty much every publication you can think of. I’ve done it all. And now I want to give it back.”
“So what I’ve tried to do is take everything that I’ve learned over the past 10 years and condense it into this talk.”
Conrad clicked the remote in his hand and How To Become a Millionaire flashed boldly onto the screen behind him.
“So in this talk what I’m going to cover is the specifics of how you can take your business, whatever stage it’s in, and bring it to the next level. I’ll talk about building something that people want, finding your first 1,000 customers, and then scaling to your next 10,000.”
“This advice has personally made me millions of dollars, and has also made millions for my friends and business partners,” Conrad strode to the center of the stage and looked down at the floor.
“Let me start with a story.”
“When I was young, stupid, and still in high school I decided to take Honors Chemistry.”
“Anyone who knows me, can tell you that this was probably a bad idea because I’m absolutely terrible at math. As in, I have trouble with basic addition. Just terrible.”
“But I wanted to go to a good college, and so I decided that this was a good idea.”
“And every night when I got home from school, I would break out my huge Honors Chemistry book and sweat over it for hours. It was grueling.”
“The way our house was set up, I would work at the kitchen table, hunched over this huge textbook trying to figure out stochastics, and chemical reactions. And my dad would be in the living room sitting on the couch.”
“Every night he’d sit with his feet up on the couch, laptop on his lap, half answering emails half watching TV, always drinking Diet Dr. Pepper.”
“For weeks we would do this. Me in the kitchen banging my head against this class, him in the living room.”
“He must have known I was struggling with it. I was working hard, and my grades were poor. But he never really said anything.”
“Then one day, between sips of Dr. Pepper, he yelled out to me something that I’ll never forget.
“‘Conrad!’” (That’s how he used to yell at me between rooms.)
“‘Conrad, my boy. The greatest instinct a person can have is knowing when he needs help.’”
“And that’s something that’s stuck with me all of these years. You see, there are a lot of people who think that business is done in a vacuum. That a great businessman (or woman) makes decisions on instinct alone. That they don’t need advice.”
“Let me tell you something. That’s fucking dumb. That’s a recipe for disaster.”
“Are you going to avoid every mistake with advice? Absolutely not. But you will avoid at least a few of them. And you’ll be able to better contextualize and understand what’s happening in your life and in your business if you talk about it with people who have done it before.”
Conrad paused and looked out at the audience.
“Luckily for you, if you’re in the audience you already know that you need help. That’s step one. So congratulations on that.”
Members of the audience looked around at eachother, enjoying their place among the elite few.
“But blindly following advice is a recipe for disaster,” Conrad continued. “Let’s talk about why.”
“The first problem, is where people tend to get advice. The most obvious places are the things they interact with every day: movies, books, TV, and the press. You would be completely shocked how many young people build their business in a certain way because that’s how they saw it done in a movie.”
“So the first most obvious thing I can tell you is don’t do things because that’s how you ‘heard’ it was done. Don’t be a dick because you ‘heard’ Steve Jobs was a dick. Don’t drop out because X tech billionaire dropped out. The situation is far more complicated than the press and the biographers make it seem. And you should never make decisions based on this kind of oversimplification.”
“That brings me to my next point: successful people do something with their stories that make them difficult to emulate. They connect the dots backward.”
“When they give advice they tell you about all the time they wasted and all the wrong moves they made in the early days of their company, and recommend that you try the one or two things that seemed to work for them in order to build your business.”
“Many of the people who offer to help you will assume that if you just skip to The Things That Worked you’ll experience the same success that they did. But they don’t factor in the journey they took to become successful as much as they should.”
“For example, you’ll meet a lot of successful software entrepreneurs who will tell you that at first their prices were too low. And that immediately when they raised their prices things started to take off. And so you should do that too.”
“But what they forget, is that often times having a new product in the market at a low price allows you to learn things that you might not otherwise. And that while you may have to start charging more money in order to build a big business, jumping right to high prices at the beginning deprives you of what could be a valuable experience. Sometimes the journey to the decision is just as important as the decision itself.”
“So try not to take advice from people who encourage you to skip directly to The Things That Worked.”
“But by far the biggest problem that most people face with advice involves trying to parse conflicting opinions. This is so hard, and so relevant, because anyone who has gotten help before knows that if you ask 10 people for advice about a situation you’ll get 10 different answers.”
“And what I see with a lot of young people is that their opinion tends to align with the opinion of the person who most recently gave them advice.”
“They flip-flop between decisions and ways of thinking every time they talk to someone new.”
“How many people in here do this?” A quarter of the audience raised their hands sheepishly.
“For everyone that didn’t raise their hands, either you’re lying or you could have skipped this talk.”
“For everyone else: Don’t do this. This is a terrible way to run your life.”
“In order to stop doing this, you have to understand what advice is.”
Conrad looked out at the audience expectantly. “Have you guys ever heard of the story of the blind men and the elephant?” He asked.
A few people raised their hands, a few people looked confused.
“Oh, you’ve definitely heard of it even if you don’t know what I’m talking about right now. It’s really quick,” Conrad continued.
“So basically, there are these 5 blind men and they’re all put into a room with an elephant. Don’t ask me why.”
“But these blind men are all asked to describe the elephant.”
“The first blind man grabs the elephant’s tail and says, ‘Elephants are thin and long with a tuft of fur at one end.’”
The audience laughs at this a little bit.
“Obviously, as far as elephants go that’s not a very good description. But it is actually true. It’s just only true for a certain part of an elephant.”
“The next blind man gets ahold of the elephant’s trunk and says, ‘Elephants are thick cylinders with two holes at one end.’”
“Now, this blind guy is right too. But he’s only right in the same way as the first blind guy who held the elephant’s tail.”
“And so the story goes on with each blind man touching one portion of the elephant or other and each providing his own description of what this thing we call an ‘elephant’ is. The fun part of the story is that these guys are all telling the truth and they’re all right but they’re only right within a certain context.”
“Business advice is similar. Everyone is totally blind, feeling around in the dark, trying to succeed at building this thing we call a ‘business’. And everyone who has war stories about entrepreneurship is telling the truth. The problem is, that no one has perfect insight and no one knows the whole picture. No one can possibly touch the entire ‘elephant’ of business.”
“So when you get advice from a seasoned entrepreneur like me, the question you have to ask yourself is, ‘What part of the elephant is he touching?’ ‘Is it close to my part?’”
“Looking at things this way will help you avoid the mistake of treating every piece of advice you hear as immediately applicable, and flip-flopping your thinking after every conversation.”
“When you understand this, what you’ll start doing is listening to advice in a different way. You won’t think about what people are saying to you. You’ll start thinking about what people are saying about themselves and how they think.”
“From that vantage point, you’ll be able to ask yourself if what they’re saying relates to you.”
Conrad flipped back to the first slide of his talk. How To Make A Million Dollars flashed back onto the screen behind him.
“The ability to ask for advice, and assimilate it correctly is the single most important thing you’ll have to do in your business life.”
“I can tell you how I made a million dollars. The real question is: how are you going to?”
“And that, you’re going to have to figure out for yourself.”
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