What's the best business-related advice you received that you would pass on to young entrepreneurs?
A lot of people ask me, "How did you get started in business?". Other questions are “Why did you get started in business? How did you make the leap? Wasn't it scary to start your own business?” What I tell people is, if you have something you really want to do and you find that it is not something that you can do within the context of a larger organization, go for it. But most people are not going to be happy owning their own business. I love my business but I run my business 24/7. Even when I'm on vacation, I'm running my business.
Starting your own business sounds very sexy, and it's the American dream. But make an assessment of what your skill sets are, what your needs are, and figure out if there is an opportunity to pursue that and if you can do that within the context of the organization that you work for or you might be able to work for—I think for most people that's the right advice. Most people in this country can find a career that is challenging, that allows them to express themselves and really grow in context of a larger group, whether it's IBM or Urban Adventures—within a family that's not necessarily yours.
Opening your own business is rewarding, but it is what it is. I always counsel people [who say things along the lines of] "I always wanted to start my own clothing line." There's a way you can express that creativity within an organization. Maybe you won't make as much, but it will give you a sense of security; it will support your family; it will give some consistency; it will give you a home base; and if you like the people, isn't it also about the people you go to work with? When I go out to work, 80 percent of what I do is the same routine, boring stuff that everybody else does every day; 20 percent of it is different. So much of what all of us do at work during the day is consistent with what everybody else does, no matter what company they're in. So it's really who you work with and what's the environment that you work in that really matters. So [ask yourself] do you really need to create your own company in order to have that experience or to fulfill the specific type of vision that you have?
Most people who really do have a passion don't start their own business because of money and because of the conversation they're having in their head about failure. So what I tell people is that if you can envision, think through, and come to grips with what your life will be like if your business venture fails, then that will allow you to focus on it succeeding, rather than it not failing——and that makes a big difference in the decisions you make. If you're worried about it not failing versus if you're focused on making it succeed, there's this paradigm shift; it really frees you up.
I remember when I started my first business. I was thinking what my life be like. I'm not going to have a paycheck. The fear is that I'm going to fail, and I was waiting tables, bartending; I didn't have a mansion. I had nothing. For me, it was understanding that I would be OK if I failed. That allowed me to start my own company. This is why I ask people, “Do you really want to start your own company or is it your boss you hate and you don't like getting up 8 a.m. in the morning? And is what you are passionate about something you can only do on your own?” Cause you know what? I have partners. I'm a majority owner, but I have [a] banker and the banker is so into my business, because they've made so many mistakes on lending that people like me who are good borrowers and never defaulted on a loan have to say “OK fine, thank you.” I've given so much paper work in the last six months, just to make sure that I'm OK with them.
So there's so much about having your own business that people aren't thoughtful about. So many businesses fail, and I think people go into a business for the wrong reasons.
Did you ever feel like you were losing your passion or were overwhelmed? How did you stay motivated?
Never felt like I've lost my passion. I think passion is like love; love is a really simple embodiment of emotion, but there's so much more to it than just love—commitment, sacrifice, etc. It's in context of bills, partners, law, and government. Passion is something that has never and will never die.
But yes, I've been overwhelmed, especially this summer. To show you that I've grown up, I don't have any big commitments in 2012 or 2013. The idea was to give us time to digest this growth.
When you walk into Vida [upscale gyms in D.C.], it's a really cool place and I'm proud of it. When a real estate developer walks into Vida, they think “Wow, this will make my development cool.” So I do get regular calls from developers who want me to be part of their project. And I hate to say no to an opportunity. I hate [to] give someone else an opportunity that I think I can make a success at. So if I see a building that I think would be a good Vida, I don't want anyone else to have it because I think I can do it, but I think to myself "let go of that David, it's OK." I'm definitely focused on rational growth but also cognizant to answer your question: Yes, I was overwhelmed.
So David, what do you do when you are overwhelmed?
I go to the gym; it's such a centering thing for me. People think I'm unapproachable at the gym, but it's only because I think about work. I don't think I've ever left the gym in a bad mood. It feels like church. For me, it is a very emotionally pleasing, cleansing, balancing thing. No one wakes up in the morning and goes, "I can't wait to go to the gym and sweat and get sore,", but there's that endorphin and emotion and that physiological release that's really important.
A lot of startup companies go the venture capital and investor route. You have had success convincing people to jump on board with your ideas. What advice would you give someone wanting to do the same?
Remember, I told you about trying to decide if starting your own business is really what you want to do, and if that's the right thing to do for you as opposed to a great way to get away from what you're doing now? You have to decide that first. The second part is raising the money. It's true that you go to your friends and family and people in your church. You start with the people who trust you and believe in you, and that's generally not enough, but it's where you have to start. Sometimes you need $30,000 to start your business, sometimes you need $3 million to start your own business. But start with what you know.
My first business was a night club, and I had to raise $1 million in 1986 and I was 29, so that was impossible. I had $20,000 of my own money, and that's what I put in and what I was told to do was to write a list of everybody that I knew and anybody that I knew who knew anybody, and put an amount based on what you know about them that they might be interested in investing, and don't stop that list until you have twice as much money on your potential list as you need; cause if you even get half of it, you're lucky. But it helps you to focus on how hard it is.
[For example] If I was trying to get you to invest, this would be the first of five conversations or more. Banks don't finance new businesses; they don't finance start ups.
It's really that effort of trying to identify those people and if you can't; work for a company that allows you to create and be who you want to be as best as you can, and don't give up on the dream. Just realize that this is not the right time for it, and that's OK.