Startup, raise money, cash out, repeat. That’s the narrative that Silicon Valley feeds you.
Problem is, that approach is not only statistically rare, it’s rarely successful. Most venture-backed companies fail, plain and simple.
On the other hand, we have the narrative of the typical small business owner. Long hours for long years in order to create a meaningful business and an enduring legacy.
But what if you took a different approach? What if you started a business that supported you while you walk away to enjoy life?
And when the urge strikes you to start the next thing, you do it — simply because that’s what you want to do. Sounds liberating, right?
That’s the approach taken by serial entrepreneur Sol Orwell, co-founder of Examine.com. Rather than positioning himself as indispensable to the organizations he creates, Sol works to make himself redundant, and then trusts his second-in-command to run things while he pursues other adventures.
We’ve talked about this issue in the past Unemployable episode Why Freedom is More Important Than Money or Status. Today you’ll hear from another person who lives that attitude, with tips for making it happen for yourself.
Listen to Unemployable: Advice for Freelancers and Entrepreneurs below ...
The Show Notes
How to Build a Business That Sets You Free, with Sol Orwell
Sol Orwell: Hi. I’m Sol, and I love cookies, hate raisins, build businesses around things I like, and I’m 100,000 percent unemployable.
Voiceover: Welcome to Unemployable, the show for people who can get a job, they’re just not inclined to take one, and that’s putting it gently. In addition to this podcast, thousands of freelancers and entrepreneurs get actionable advice and other valuable resources from the weekly Unemployable email newsletter. Join us by registering for our free Profit Pillars course, or choose to sign up for the newsletter only, at no charge. Simply head over to Unemployable.com, and take your business and lifestyle to the next level.
Brian Clark: Hello, and welcome to Unemployable. I’m your host, Brian Clark, founder and CEO of Rainmaker Digital. Unemployable is brought to you by the Rainmaker.FM podcast network. Head over to Rainmaker.FM to discover great content that helps you build your business.
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Okay, onto today’s show. It’s all about start up, raise money, cash out, repeat. That’s a narrative that Silicon Valley feeds you. Problem is, that approach is not only statistically rare, it’s rarely successful. Most venture-backed companies fail, plain and simple. On the other hand, we have the narrative of the typical small business owner — long hours or long years in order to create a meaningful business and an enduring legacy.
What if you took a different approach? What if you started a business that supported you while you walk away and enjoy life, and when the urge strikes you to start the next thing, you do it simply because that’s what you want to do? Sounds liberating, right? That’s the approach taken by serial entrepreneur Sol Orwell, co-founder of Examine.com.
Rather than positioning himself as indispensable to the organizations he creates, Sol works to make himself redundant and then trusts his second-in-command to run things while he pursues other adventures.
We’ve talked about this issue in the past on an Unemployable episode called Why Freedom Is More Important Than Money or Status. It was very popular. Today, you’ll hear from another person who lives that attitude with tips for making it happen for yourself.
Well, it’s good to have you here, man. Thanks for being on the show.
Sol Orwell: All my pleasure, Brian.
Brian Clark: You have an interesting story. I remember Sonia, my business partner, tried to get us together at one point. I think I screwed that up and dropped the thread in the email. Then we found each other again on Facebook.
I have been subscribed to Examine.com for a while. I knew you were the founder, but I didn’t know all that much about you. I started looking into it a little bit. Obviously, through our interactions on Facebook, I got to know you a little better, but you’ve had a fascinating counterintuitive entrepreneurial journey compared to the get money, get big, sell for a billion dollar-type narrative that we keep running into lately.
Not Working for ‘the Man’ and Why Your Business Doesn’t Have to Be a Unicorn
Sol Orwell: Absolutely. I’m an immigrant. I came to the states when I was 14, and now I’m a Canadian citizen. To me, entrepreneurship was always just a way to not work for the man. It wasn’t about being rich. It wasn’t about being famous, cool, sexy, trendy, or whatever. It was more just, “I can do my own thing. I can make my own money, and then I can enjoy my life.” That’s all entrepreneurship has ever been to me.
Brian Clark: Yeah, and that’s pretty much this show, and it exemplifies my motivations over the years. Again, just like you, I’ve never taken investment money. The few times I’ve flirted with the idea, it was always a more mature business, and we still said no. It’s something that you say, which is, “Isn’t that just going back to the man?” as you will. I think I saw a quote by you that said, “Why would I want to work with an investor? Isn’t that just giving myself another form of boss?”
Sol Orwell: Yeah. At the end of the day, who actually calls the shots? If you bring in investors, it’s your board of directors who usually does. You may have a seat or two, but they control that. I am so fiercely independent that I legally changed my entire name because I was like, “I didn’t get to choose my name.” Just this idea of taking external money — which there is that upside, you can do $100 million, $200 million, a billion dollars, unicorn, whatever — but no one every talks about the fact that what companies, never mind the failures, even the ones that got bought out, the founder doesn’t do that well.
I have so many friends who have had companies that have had eight-figure exits, and they’ve maybe pulled half a million dollars, which sounds like a lot to people. But if you work for five years and you’re just busting your ass day in, day out and you make $100K a year, but the average Facebook or Google engineer are starting at $100K to $125K a year, why would you exhaust yourself for the slim possibility of maybe making a big payoff when you can quietly and easily do it … not easily, but quietly do it with your own volition right there?
Brian Clark: Yeah. Absolutely, I’m with you. The stories we hear about really are one percent of one percent, and yet everyone thinks, “Oh, this is how I have to do it.” Guys like you and I are much more common and probably much more happier.
Sol Orwell: Yeah, even when Inc analyzed their Inc 500, the 500 fastest growing companies, they found that over 50 percent used less than $50,000 to get started. I think it was 78 percent self-funded it completely. It’s like all those things where it’s the reality, but we’re not as sexy or as cool as a unicorn.
Not to make us sound like heroes here, but we’re the kind of guys that are plugging away, hiring people that have great jobs that love their jobs. I think us small business owners do a lot more than just trying to get that big cash or that big IPO and then hope for the best from there.
Brian Clark: That’s absolutely true. Let’s go back to your college days because that’s when you started building websites. You got so caught up in it you almost didn’t make it out of school.
How the Economic Potential of Virtual Goods Almost Derailed Sol’s Education
Sol Orwell: Yeah, yeah. I actually started off in high school, my first website was actually around QBasic programming, but it was in ’99 when I was in grade … what was it, 10 then, that I started company, not company. It was a website originally for online games, like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, and we soon realized that virtual currency was a huge, huge industry.
When it came time to go to university, my parents being as traditional immigrant as you can imagine, they’re like, “You either become a doctor, or you become an engineer.” There’s literally no other option. I actually had to argue on behalf of my younger sister, who is seven years younger than I, to let her get a business degree because they thought it was the most ridiculous thing ever.
Anyway, I went in with a full scholarship. I lost that in the first semester because my grades weren’t there. You need a 60 percent average to pass each semester, and one semester I had a 60.3 percent. Incidentally, the only reason I even passed was my one art elective I had, the final exam was on the Five Pillars of Islam, and me at the time being a practicing Muslim, that was the most perfect, easy question I could’ve ever imagined. There was definitely a little bit of luck involved that I actually ended up getting my degree, but I think it would’ve worked out in itself anyway.
Brian Clark: It’s amazing to me that you recognized the legitimate economic possibilities of virtual goods that early. I think some people probably still don’t understand that, but to me it was really five or six years ago that I was like, “That’s amazing.” What do you think’s going to happen with virtual reality? This is what I’m thinking in my head, where everything business becomes transacted in a virtual space, which makes you think possibly that spill over from the gaming world would come into the normal business world? Any thoughts on that?
The Future of Virtual Reality
Sol Orwell: Let me ask you. Have you experienced the Oculus Rift 2 or some of the newer VRs?
Brian Clark: Not yet.
Sol Orwell: It’s fascinating. I have a few friends that are really into it. One of my friends, he’s a medical marijuana business, and he’s hoping to connect the VR world to patients who are in severe pain and let them explore the world. For those who haven’t tried it, it’s very trippy, I think is the right word.
I remember this man had built a house inside this VR world, and I was walking up stairs and it’s steer of sound, so I hit the fire right on the right. There’s a fireplace there right on the right side of my ear, and I see the bright red in the bottom right vision right there. And I actually, for a split second, felt heat on my face, even though obviously there was no heat. It’s really trippy how immersive it can be.
It’s funny you mention VR. Actually just tonight my girlfriend and I were going to this thing called VIVID VR where they have three separate films, short films, like 20, 30 minutes long recorded in VR. I’m actually really curious to see how that pans out as a form of entertainment, but going back to what you originally said, I’ve got to be honest, I’m still befuddled by it.
Virtual currency was already a billion-dollar industry in the early 2000s before World of Warcraft even came out. The idea that people were paying $500 for a digital sword in some video game they were paying $20 a month, it was befuddling then, and it’s still befuddling today.
But I think I’ve accepted that I really don’t know much, and if people want to buy this kind of stuff, why wouldn’t I help them make it happen? You know what I’m saying, right?
Brian Clark: Oh, absolutely. Humans are not rational, but you have to deal with that and roll with it, I guess, is a better way to put it.
Sol Orwell: Exactly. I wasn’t even trying to understand it. I wasn’t even trying to figure it out. I was like, “All right. This is happening. How can I work with this?” That’s kind of been always my viewpoint. VR I think is going to be interesting, especially as it slims down and becomes a lot more portable, and also different VR versions are coming out. There’s the higher DPI ones, which are more immersive experience, then the smaller ones that are possible with video gaming, so you can take them around. I’m definitely keeping my eye on it.
At the same time, I have to admit I’m a bit of a Luddite. I don’t even have Instagram, much less Snapchat, so I don’t throw myself at the forefront. I do things that are of interest to me. Online gaming was an interest to me. It happened to have a world of virtual currency, which is still mind-boggling, so I work in that realm. If it’s interesting to me, we’ll do it.
Brian Clark: I’m with you. I don’t play video games. I don’t jump on the latest thing. I’ve always been that way. But the adoption rate of VR will be fascinating to watch because whether you or I spend our days jacked in, if you will, a lot of people will, and that means there’s a lot of opportunity there. The entrepreneur in me can’t help but look at it.
Sol Orwell: Oh yeah, it’s fascinating to watch. One of my buddies is the founder and CEO of BodyBuilding.com, which sold for nine figures, and he’s now investing this money into fitness VR. Especially for people to really gamify the process of getting fit, he’s a big believer in it. There’s all these different realms that people are taking, and I think it’s also cool that we’re in a position where we are at the forefront of stuff. You and I have the luxury to see what’s going on and enjoy it for what it is, a crazy ride.
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. Okay, let’s go back. You’re graduating, you did graduate from college. You pulled that out. Then you decide to sell several websites. Is that correct?
Starting Businesses and Sol’s Mission to Make His Employees Famous
Sol Orwell: No. My original one, as I said, was in ’99. It became a seven-figure business around online games. Then in 2002 or 2003, I moved into a new neighborhood in Toronto that, at the time, had no residential component. Basically, my now ex-wife and I, we walked around, and we just took pictures and information on every single business in that neighborhood. We popped it online. It did well, and we expanded to all of Toronto. This was before Google maps even existed.
That one also blew up. It did really well. That’s when I had maybe 11 or 13 VCs wanted to invest in the company, but I said, “No thank you. That’s just not the kind of person I am.”
By the time I graduated in 2005, both of them were functioning really well. One of my things with my employees is that I make them famous in their industry. That’s my mission almost. I had guys who were running it, who were doing really well, and I essentially retired. I kept ownership of the company. In fact, I still have them, but to me, again, it goes back to my immigrant roots or just mindset that you and I have. I wasn’t here to get rich. I just needed enough money to enjoy my life. I basically traveled and lived around in the States and Argentina, and then finally in Manhattan before I finally came back to Canada seven years ago.
Brian Clark: I got you. Then somewhere along your travels, you came up with the idea for Examine.com?
Identifying a Niche Through Your Own Interests
Sol Orwell: Yeah. It was just after I got back to Toronto. I was a lot, lot heavier, and as I started losing weight, I realized that the supplement companies are ripping us off. You totally know what I’m talking about. These companies say that … even guys like Dr. Oz, “Garcinia cambogia is going to do this, and raspberry ketones are going to do that,” and it’s all garbage.
What I realized was there was no trusted source for information on supplements or even nutrition. Everyone was either selling these supplements or selling you coaching or consulting, or selling ads. There was no website you could turn to and say, “These guys aren’t selling me anything here. I know what they’re saying is the truth.” That’s how it originally spawned.
I’ve been on Reddit now for over 10 years. I was in Reddit Fitness. My co-founder was there, too, and he used to write about creatinine and kidney and this and this. He was going to go do his PhD in nutrition. And I ‘remember’ this. I said, “Dude, (beep) your PhD. We have a chance to do something really cool.” Five and half years later, here we are. It gets almost two million visitors a month. We get quoted all over the mainstream, not just in health and fitness, but in general mainstream. Obviously, there was a need for it. Again, it was driven by my own desire, but it worked out really well that way.
Brian Clark: Yeah, so here’s the interesting thing to me, and I really want to drill down on this. You started these two websites initially when you were still in school, and then you stepped away. Then you came back and you had a new idea, and you and a co-founder got it running, then you stepped away again.
Building the Right Mindset to Avoid Identity Crisis Once Your Business Is Established
Sol Orwell: Correct.
Brian Clark: Now talk about that dynamic. Again, it’s not the narrative that people hear. It’s more like you grind it out, you show up every day, but why? When you think about it, if you like your freedom, number one, and number two, you like doing new things, well, that means you can’t restrict yourself to maybe just one company or one project.
I’ve been fortunate over the last 10 years in that every year felt like a new startup to me. Now we’re getting into the phase where it’s really just, “Nope. This is a company. This is what it is, and we have to grow,” and I catch my mind wondering.
Sol Orwell: Oh, 100 percent. I’ve known about your website for years and years, and it’s been funny watching you guys evolve, Rainmaker.FM all that kind of stuff explode. My viewpoint is pretty simple. I think a lot of people have a bit of identity crisis. They associate the business with themselves, whereas to me, the business has never been about myself. It’s been something for me to learn and explore. It’s akin to picking up a good book or even writing a book, if you wish. Eventually you finish, and you’re like, “You know what? I’m ready to move on.”
Part of that identity crisis I’m talking about is that people associate this business, it kind of gives them their infamy, but I never wanted that. I’ve been pretty much low key for the first 16 years I was working online. No one really knew who I was. I never publicized my name. Even on the About page on Examine.com, I’m the seventh person listed.
My mindset from the start was just, “You know what? I’m using this in a way as a means to an end,” but when I say ‘an end,’ I don’t mean to make money for me, but to scratch an itch, to learn something. Once I’ve learned it or once I feel it’s good enough … I was just talking to someone on the phone a few hours ago, and I was like, “Listen, you have any question about nutrition, just ask. I legitimately have 20 plus PhDs or MDs I can ask any time I want, and they can answer my questions.”
I think a lot of people get caught up, and they think that their business and themselves are the same thing. How do you extricate yourself from this position? It’s not that easy. Even Copyblogger, I knew about Copyblogger. I didn’t necessarily know about you or Sonia or anyone else.
Brian Clark: Yeah, and that was by design because I have the same philosophy as you, but there are a lot of people that do associate it mostly with me and also with Sonia and some of the other early people. So you never quite get away from it if you’re taking a front seat from an educational standpoint, like if you’re the writer or you’re the teacher, and I get that.
Let’s talk for a second about how you actually did this, to the extent you feel comfortable. You have a co-founder. Is it 50/50 or … I don’t need percentages, but it was only you two?
Building a Partnership That Plays to Both Your Partner’s and Your Own Strengths
Sol Orwell:Yeah, okay. I can put this out. I own the majority of the company. The way I set it up with co-founder was, one, he already knew about my past, so he knew I had the experience to do this correctly. He knew I had done this before. Basically I said, “Listen, your only job is to research. You don’t have to worry about anything. You don’t even need to worry about editing your own words. I will take care of that, or I’ll have someone else take care of that.”
That was our original relationship. He just did the research, and I dealt with, let’s say, the hosting, customer service, marketing, selling, any other headaches that were all under me. Even the editing was me. My approach internally is everyone has this hierarchy, right? They have that org chart. They’ve got the VP of sales, HR person, and all that kind of stuff — whereas my solution has always been, “Listen, I’m going to map out the entire user experience on our website, and I’m going to treat that as a system of cogs.”
For example, let’s say the overall system of content generation is under my responsibility. If I view it as a system of cogs, it’s basically Curtis, who’s my co-founder, he does the research. Then the next cog is he writes up the research. Then the next cog is I edit up the research, and then t goes back and forth a few times. Then once it’s edited and acceptable, then the next cog is we publish it. Then the next cog is we promote it. Then the next cog is feedback and then loop it back.
Instead of worrying about this org chart of, “Who’s VP of sales?” my thing is, “Okay, which cogs am I part of, and how can I get rid of myself from these cogs?” I brought in the director of operations. Actually, the first person I brought in was an editor because I used to be the cog of editing. Instead, I brought in someone who was great at English who knew fitness and health. He became our editor. Then the next cog was I brought in my director of ops, and I taught her how to publish the article properly. She took over that cog. Next I taught her how we promoted it.
Once she took over that cog of promoting it, I was like, “Listen, this entire cog of content generation, it’s now under your control.” Subsequently, we had that editor leave, so we had to bring in another editor. But again, we’re not worried about titles. We’re worried about cogs — what is your role inside the organization? We brought in a new editor, put him right in that middle cog right there, and it kept functioning.
My goal always is how do I replace myself in every single cog? How do I slowly but surely weed myself out? In a strategic sense, because it’s your company, at the end of the day, the grand vision in a way will always be locked up a bit in your head. All the possibilities will be locked up in your head. I’m still involved in this strategic oversight kind of manner, but as I brought in other people to take over these cogs … for example, we realized that Curtis, my co-founder, is not the right person to be the front man. He’s not comfortable publicly speaking. He’s a little bit too nerdy. He can’t always relate with people.
When we tell a story, you want to tell analogies and stuff like that. We brought in Kamal, who actually now runs the company. Kamal is essentially the editor-in-chief. Curtis is the one who’s my co-founder, and then I’m the third guy on the side.
Again, Kamal’s has got his cogs under control. He’s got the entire research digest, which is how we generate the majority of our revenue. He’s in charge of that, and then he’s got his own internal cogs. That’s always been my approach — not to take an org chart, but, “Here’s a system of tasks we do. You will now be put in charge of this task.”
Brian Clark: Yeah, so it’s an exercise in team building with just a very laser focus on eliminating yourself.
Building Teams and Giving Them Responsibilities to Free Yourself Up
Sol Orwell: Exactly. The other thing that always boggles my mind is people hire people and then don’t give them the full responsibility to do their job. Why would you hire somebody if you don’t trust them to do their damn job? That just means you failed at some hirings. That you failed as a manager. I’m a big, big believer in not only giving my employees the responsibility, but then giving them ‘the fame’ that comes with it.
Every time someone asks me … anyone in nutrition because I know a lot of people in the fitness space, any time they ask to interview me, I’m like, “No. A better interview would be Kamal.” Kamal knows that at the end of the day he’s not just some GM to me. He is legitimately the de facto head of the company. He is legitimately the person that everyone else associates him with.
We get 600 emails a day. We send out a welcome email just saying, “Hi. Hit respond if you have any questions or concerns,” and I find it very entertaining reading these emails that everyone thinks Kamal owns the company, and part of it is I’m okay with that. I’m really okay with Kamal having that responsibility that everyone thinks it’s on him, so I can go around gallivanting wherever I want, whenever I want.
Brian Clark: It’s interesting because I’ve taken a similar approach, kind of a mentorship. Originally it was Sonia, then Robert Bruce — and again, these are all known people, like you said, make them famous — and now it’s Jerod Morris. He’s the latest right-hand person in a string of them, but it never replaced me. It replaced parts of me that allowed me to go upstream in sophistication and strategy. You know what I’m saying?
Why It’s Not Your Job, as the Boss, to Be Busy
Sol Orwell: Absolutely. I think one of the best little tidbits I’ve ever read was from Derek Sivers, initially famous for CDBaby. He said he had gotten an email from a friend saying, “Hey, I know you’re busy, but blah, blah, blah,” and he’s like, “Listen, as the boss, my job is to not be busy. My job is to have the time to be strategic, to have the time to think. It’s my employees’ job to be grinding or working, whereas it’s my job to have the downtime to think of the bigger picture.”
I’m huge, huge believer in that where I’m like, “Listen, you guys all have your responsibilities. You can do it. I don’t need to be involved in it.” That way I have time to think, “What can we do next, what is something we should be doing that we haven’t done, or is there a competitor that’s doing something great that we should also look at?” Yeah, I totally agree with your mindset right there. You go more upstream.
Brian Clark: People don’t understand that. I see people who fill in every available minute on their calendar for meetings and calls, and I’m like, “When do you think?” I always say my job is to make hard decisions, and you have think about those decisions. I’m down with that 100 percent.
Sol Orwell: I think there’s a reason why there’s the meme of shower thoughts. It’s one of the few times where people are completely disconnected. Even before sitting on the throne, that used to be a time to reflect, but now you’ve got your laptop or your cell phone on you. People don’t give themselves time to just disconnect.
Brian Clark: Yeah. With your co-founder … Curtis, right?
Sol Orwell: Yep.
Brian Clark: Okay. Did he know from the beginning that you were going to effectively weed yourself out? Was there any apprehension on his part?
How Sol Found the Right Partner
Sol Orwell: No. Curtis, and bless him for his personality, he is a nerd researcher. That’s all he wants to do. Leave him alone. Let him read through scientific papers. Done. He was never concerned about that. I will say, a big reason why I even wanted to work with him was I got to see his temperament and his personality via Reddit.
Anyone who’s ever experienced Reddit knows that within two minutes people will lose their sh*t and just start attacking you, going ballistic on you or accusing you of whatever, whatever. He had been accused of that so many times, but he had always kept his cool. I knew that Curtis was a reasonable person, and I knew what did he really want to do? He really wanted to get his research on. I knew that, “Hey, do he want to publish papers down the road?” Yes, he did.
As long as I facilitate what he wants to do, as long as the researchers and all the people who really follow Examine.com, they know that Curtis is, let’s say, the brains of it, they know that he’s the man, he’s happy. He’s getting his conditions met, and as long as he’s happy with his conditions, he doesn’t care about being famous. He doesn’t care if I’m involved or not. As long as he’s enjoying his life, he’s happy. I think that’s something we often forget about, what our motivations are.
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely, and being self-aware, both on his part and your own part, to realize that this is how it’s going to go down.
Sol Orwell: A hundred percent. I’m sure you’ve also had talks with your team about, “This is my role. This is my responsibility. This is what I want. What is it you want?” and you go from there, right?
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. I think of myself, at least these days, more of a coach than anything. You’ve got to just push people in the right direction, but they know what they’re doing after that.
Sol Orwell: Mr. Coach Clark, that was a nice alliteration right there. I like it.
Brian Clark: Right. One of the big themes — obviously I shared this with you before we went on the air — is exactly what you’re talking about, that freedom is more important than money and status. The other two come if you have the freedom to do the kind of work that you want to do. It sounds like you’ve been very good at identifying it.
The other theme of this show is that we’re always either looking for or working on the next thing, and that also seems to be something that you typify. Do you have a process for identifying where you’re going next, or is it more organic?
Organically Recognizing Where You’re Going Next
Sol Orwell: It’s completely haphazard. There’s literally no rhyme, no reason. It’s almost like, “What is an itch I’m having right now?” and I want to fix it. My next project is in the pet space. I bought a Pet.org a while ago. The reason I did was I read a few books on pet psychology, and I was like, “This stuff is fascinating.” Do you have any pets, Brian?
Brian Clark: I do. We’ve got two Rottweilers. They look tough. They sound tough. They’re not tough.
Sol Orwell: Rotties are such babies. Such teddy bears, actually, I think that’s the right word. One of my favorite examples is cats. We always want to put our human traits on our pets. You see your cat yawn, and you think, “Aww, my poor cat is bored. Let me go play with the cat,” whereas they actually found that research shows that, when your cat yawns, he or she is actually anxious. So your poor cat is there already anxious, and here come his or her owner trying to play and harass with the cat. The cat is just thinking, “Leave me alone, you asshole.”
It’s that kind of stuff that I was like, “This is fascinating. I think more people should know this.” That’s literally what’s going on in my brain. We’ve only talked about my three successes. I’ve had maybe a dozen ‘failures’ in the context of I build something on it, I learned a lot, and there was no traction — but I’m okay with that, especially as I become more and more established in that the financial imperative is not what keeps me going.
At the same time, obviously, running a business, you have to be pragmatic about it. You have to realize some of the top researchers we use on Examine.com, they’re like $900 an hour. We have to be serious about we still have to generate real revenue, but I think it’s also a little bit liberating where you’re not like, “I need to three X the business tomorrow,” or “I need to have 400 percent more signups tomorrow or the business is going to fall apart,” or, “Oh no, we’re in big trouble.” My entire approach is just, “What’s interesting? Is there something I could do with it down the road? Okay, let’s do it.”
Brian Clark: Do you think some of your failures came about because you had the wrong motivation or it wasn’t a good match for you?
Why Every Failure Is a Learning Experience
Sol Orwell: I think people just didn’t care. I did one on LCD monitors. I’m a computer engineer by degree, right, so I’m always fascinating by DPIs, E ink, and flexible screens. I thought it was fascinating. I put it out there, but crickets. Such is life. I learned from it. I learned a lot, and I just moved on.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I get you. That is a concern. I’ve talked about this in my own path. My first truly entrepreneurial venture was in the real estate field. It was innovative in the sense that it was all virtual, but I had no interest in real estate. I just needed to succeed. I think we all have that point where the fact that, “Hey, I’m doing this on my own … ” Now, the fact that you did it so young, I don’t know if it was a revelation to you that, “Wow. I’m making money without a job.” Did you get that thrill from it?
Sol Orwell: Oh man, the first time I made $100 in one month, I thought I was the man. I was like 15. I just thought I was so amazing. Then the first time I made $1,000, I was like, “Dear God, I’m making too much money.” That was literally in my head. I’m like, “I don’t even know [inaudible 30:27],” just like, “Ah, okay, this is kind of fun.” I think also the other thing to remember is we don’t need as much money as people think to want to live, and we don’t need as much money to start something new.
Even my monitor example I gave you, it was a failure in the context that it didn’t hit or no one really cared for it, but what did I spend other than my time? Yeah, time is precious, but I enjoyed it. I had fun. Nobody cared, but it’s not like I sunk $10,000 or $50,000 into it. I did my research. I wrote some articles. No one really cared. I spent time emailing people, contacting them, seeing if they were interested. No one really cared, and I was like, “All right, this is a ‘failure.'”
I think the other thing is people try to scale too fast. They try to get too big too fast. They think they need … I think it was HealthSpot or was it Buffer? Sorry. I’m getting one of them confused, but they recently posted about how they’re cutting down their staff by 10 percent.
Brian Clark: It was Buffer, yeah.
Sol Orwell: They were talking about how having 90 employees was a sense of pride where it’s just like that is an extension of having 100 Facebook fans or a thousand ‘likes’ on a post. It’s irrelevant. I think that happens a lot with entrepreneurs, they get caught up in these useless numbers that have no impact.
It’s like, “Are you enjoying yourself? Are you making enough money to cover your expenses? Are your expenses not crazy?” Done. It doesn’t matter. All the rest of it can come with time. You just need to get your base done, and people often misconstrue what constitutes having a strong base.
Brian Clark: Yeah. That’s great advice. Again, I think we struggle with the mythology that surrounds entrepreneurism so much that it’s refreshing. I think it’s been great, through the interviews I’ve been able to do on this show, for people to hear from different people over and over again the same thing — which is what you’re saying more than it is the mainstream media narrative that we’ve got out there.
Why the Mainstream Media Narrative Gets Entrepreneurism Wrong
Sol Orwell: Yeah. I understand that media’s got one job. It’s to generate page views because that’s how they get paid. To generate the page views, they need to sensationalize. It’s not that they’re left wing or right wing or anything. It’s they need to generate attention, and they need to sensationalize. It’s fun to talk about eBay’s founder supposedly doing it because of his wife’s Pez dispenser, which most people don’t know was actually proven to be not true later on.
Everyone has all these legendary startup … even TripAdvisor, their ‘story’ is that they were originally harvesting all these reviews off of magazines and trying to sell to B2B, and nobody cared. They were like, “You know what? We have an opportunity. Let’s do this B2C,” and they became big. But no one ever talks about the fact that they were the biggest link buyers on the Internet in 2002 to 2004, if not even 2005. They bought links everywhere.
Everyone is trying to make their story sound sexier than it is or more amazing than it is when the reality is, listen, there was a problem. You try to solve it. You hustle. You talk to customers. You develop the product more and more and more. You built up your distribution channels. Then that’s the keys to having a business.
Brian Clark: Yep. Where should we send people to find out a little bit more about your and maybe Examine.com as well, I guess?
Where to Find Out More About Sol
Sol Orwell: Obviously, Examine.com if you are interested in nutrition. I blog and talk about entrepreneurship over on SJO.com. My big thing about that is there’s no book, ebook, coaching, consulting, group, mastermind or anything like that. The moment you start taking money from someone, it’s a real responsibility. I talk about it because I enjoy talking about it.
And through them you can find me on Facebook and Twitter. I’m pretty active on Facebook. I love having ridiculous conversations, and obviously, you and I have conversed quite a few times on Facebook. It’s just a very fun place for absolute crazy shenanigans. If I may, have you ever looked into your other messages inbox?
Brian Clark: Every once in a while, and I’m always shocked at what’s in there.
Sol Orwell: I’m at times impressed by what people are thinking. We talked a little bit about how humans are so irrational, but you look into that stuff and you’re like, “You know what? This could be a potential target audience. This person could possibly buy something of mine from one of my companies down the road.” I can never overestimate the intelligence of people I talked to, which almost sounds jerkish, but it’s always entertaining.
Brian Clark: Yeah. I used to be very anti-Facebook, but now I go over there because, even though most of my friends are in the industry in one way or another, we don’t talk about business — or at least I try to have more humorous conversations. I’ve found that that’s been a lot more fun. Twitter was always my main thing, but that’s also a business channel for us.
Sol Orwell: You have a lot of followers on Twitter, too, a lot.
Brian Clark: Yeah. I remember when Chris Brogan told me, “You’ve got to get on this Twitter thing,” and it was 2006. I looked at it, and I’m like, “Chris, you’re insane.” It took me a year before I realized, “Oh, I get it.” If you look at the difference between Brogan’s follower count and mine, it’s that year, that first year.
Sol Orwell: Ah, I get it. All right, next time I talk to Chris, I’ll let him know that he should … maybe I’ll start in 2016, and we’ll see where I end up.
Brian Clark: I had the same reaction to Twitter that people have now about Snapchat or whatever, the flavor of the month. I think that response now is a little more warranted. I don’t think there’s ever going to be anything that just takes over like Twitter did at that moment, even though it was a fluke. That’s another thing. Talk about mainstream narrative. Those were rich guys who made something for fun and then decided to go get funding because they figured out what they really wanted to use it for was different than what it was invented for. Yet no one knows that story.
Sol Orwell: Yep. I’ve been following TechCrunch since … actually, Arrington used to be in the domain name space. He used to be the CEO of Pool.com when was in the domain name space, but yeah, I remember when Twitter was originally spun out from, what was it, Odeo?
Brian Clark: Yeah, they were a podcast company.
Sol Orwell: Exactly. They blew up and all that kind of stuff. The other thing I think also it’s a little bit harder and harder now to manage so many accounts. I’m not even on Instagram, much less Snapchat. I just find Facebook is relatively easy, and then Twitter you can kind of manage. But once you have three or four or five, six different channels that you’re dealing with — I don’t know … maybe I’m old, and I’m just a curmudgeon — but it gets a little bit too much at times.
Brian Clark: If you’re old, I’m in trouble.
Sol Orwell: Ah, dude, it’s all in the mindset. My god, I’m like a 90-year-old, but I’m okay with that. I enjoy it. I embrace it.
Brian Clark: Thanks so much, man. This has been great. I really appreciated getting to know you a little better, and I’ll see you over on Facebook.
Sol Orwell: For sure, Brian. This was an absolute pleasure.
Brian Clark: All right, everyone. A lot of things you’ve heard before. You’re hearing it again. I love the idea of building something up and then having the courage to say, “You know, the reason I’m doing this is to be more free and maybe do the next thing.” Keep that in mind. Thank you for listening, and keep going.