I woke up one day to a phone call that changed my life forever. The date was February 4, 2008. In the months that followed, I experienced total financial loss and went $3 million into debt.
Just a few years before, I’d been on an absolute high. I was building a successful, multimillion-dollar company and living the lifestyle I’d dreamed. Up until the moment I received that phone call, I was enjoying a picturesque view of semi-retirement. Afterward, I watched my house disappear. My cars were repossessed and my bank accounts were wiped out. Slowly, I sold the furniture I’d put in storage and used the money to buy groceries.
So what happened? And how am I here now, to share the lessons I’ve learned?
In high school, I was the average kid. I didn’t get straight A’s, and I didn’t have perfect attendance. I floated under the radar. My name didn’t appear on the Top 10 list of most likely to succeed at anything. I was still bussing and waiting tables at my local restaurant down the street from my house. As a child of addition, I never felt that my parents set a high bar to strive for success. The one benefit? I developed a skill set to survive and adapt to any situation.
After graduation, I initially wanted to pursue my passion for photography. I’d been interested in the subject since age 7, when I purchased my first camera. But some corner of my brain didn’t truly believe I could make it work as a full-time job. That summer, I dreamed I was a failed photographer, reduced to shooting pictures of the Easter bunny at the mall. I decided to take a small risk on a career in real estate. In my mind, this 99-hour class was the only thing separating me from success. Meanwhile, all my friends were heading off to college.
By the end of my first year in the business, I’d sold 23 homes and made more than $48,000. I was 19 years old. From that point, I never earned less than six figures annually. In 1997, I took an opportunity to purchase half-ownership in my company. We had one office and 16 agents. A year later, I become the sole owner. Between then and 2003, I grew the business to greater than eight offices, with more than 200 agents doing approximately $8 million annually in gross commissions. Not bad for someone who was a busboy a few years before.
I had a knack for marketing and sales. Looking back, I think it must’ve been my survival instinct. My company’s success put me on the industry’s radar. In 2002 — the year before I made my first ownership move — the National Association of Realtors named me one of the “30 Under 30” in the world. I became a national trainer and speaker for our real-estate brand, teaching tens of thousands of salespeople across the United States.
As the years passed, I put management into place and became an absentee owner. One of my biggest mistakes was trusting key positions to family members who didn’t have my best interests at heart.
During my absence, a close family member acted without my knowledge to play with bank accounts and launder money out of my company. Fast-forward to that day in February 2008, when I received the phone call that changed everything. Someone from a law firm was on the other end of the line. A large check from our escrow account had bounced.
Everything I’d worked so hard to build began disintegrating before my eyes. Within less than a week, the doors at all my offices were closed. Unfortunately, there was no money in the bank and everyone needed to be paid. In an instant, I went from being on top of the world to being more than $3 million in debt.
The immediate life hit took a heavy toll. I sunk into depression. I wasn’t working, and both my personal and professional reputations were tarnished. I tried to use some of this unproductive time to reflect on what I truly valued.
While I’d built my business, I’d become caught up in the nice house, flashy cars, and world travel — all the finer things. But at my lowest, I realized none of those things fulfilled me. I remembered my love and passion for photography. Even during my streak of success, I’d found myself returning to it time and again to feel complete. It’s interesting that in the pursuit of “success,” we have a tendency to push aside the things that bring us joy.
I learned some harsh lessons along the way. When we find ourselves in a negative cycle, we must break the pattern. I decided to flip the story. Instead of focusing on why this happened to me, I asked myself how I could be happy again and feel fulfilled. I picked up the camera and kept looking for ways to connect the two.
I gained some important insight about risk-taking, too. I realized that when we come from nothing, we have nothing to lose. That mindset helped me achieve success in the real-estate world. And it inevitably led to my success in a new venture: creating a thriving photography company.
Life and business are all about taking risks and separating yourself from the crowd. The same marketing, sales, branding and negotiating techniques I learned in my previous industry could apply anywhere. Business is business. I gained confidence that I could duplicate my success.
Keys to reinvention.
My experience taught me four valuable lessons that have helped me reinvent myself. Odds are, they also can help you rise above challenges you’re facing.
Every small-business market already is oversaturated. There always will be plenty of people selling goods and services at low or discounted prices. The strategy doesn’t make sense for long-term success, so stop focusing on them. Stop blaming them. You will succeed only by differentiating yourself from your competitors. A segment of the market always will be willing to invest in a product or service, so long as they perceive the value is aligned with their lifestyle choices.
Go after your target client. You need to define your ideal client. Find out where they are, and integrate into their natural world. After my real-estate crash, I began spending time in the same places as other young professionals. These were the individuals who needed professional photography services, and I needed to be seen by them. People do business with people they like, know and trust.
Get rid of your instant-gratification attitude. Long-term success is a marathon. Understand that becoming top-of-mind for a particular product or service happens over time as you slowly build influence. This is key because most of your competitors will give up well before they’ve built up the relationship capital it requires to persuade a client. I’d been involved in another industry for so long, it took some time for others to identify me as a professional photographer. I had to be patient as I re-established my credibility with the general public.
Be consistent. It’s so easy to sabotage yourself when you’re self-employed or rebuilding your life. You need to show up every day. Work as if you have a boss leaning over your shoulder and you must make every hour count. The disappointment of my previous failure was so strong, there were days I didn’t want to put in an appearance. I realized that if I really wanted a successful life, I had to take consistent action — especially on those days I didn’t want to do anything at all.
I believe it’s a blessing to experience a major failure and draw on abilities to reboot for a second time around. We move forward with knowledge and expertise we didn’t have the first time. The key is to tuck ego away and to apply knowledge gained the hard way. This leads to smarter choices that enable us to more purposely control the business and life we deserve.
Now, I’m in a much better place in life. I feel happy and fulfilled in a new way. Less than eight years ago, I’d never taken photos for money in my marketplace. Today, we average more than 800 headshots a year, coordinate branding shoots for major corporations and photograph greater than 30 weddings a year. I’ve learned to appreciate life more, and I treasure the time spent with my fiancee and my son. I’ve realized life isn’t all about the nice things.
Interestingly, this journey has revealed my true passions: teaching and helping others succeed. It was a natural progression in my first career and has become my driving force within the photography industry. My fiancee and I influence and teach thousands of photographers annually. This past year, we created an online community called PROFITographers, which has grown to more than 10,000 photographers worldwide. I’m excited once again about the opportunities I have to help others grow and reach their true potential.
Success doesn’t take a straight line. There often are many twists, turns and bumps along the way. Life can change in an instant. What is most important one day could totally change by the next. Look at each challenge in your business as an opportunity, and you’ll realize some of today’s biggest failures will provide the greatest foundation for future success.