5 Lessons I Learned From Starting a Profitable Business in High School

September 1, 2014 — 2 Comments

When I was 15, I found out that my family could no longer afford to pay for my tuition, so I started a direct-response online marketing company which delivered leads and paying customers to clients. The company went on to generate 6 figures for companies including Netflix and Groupon. As revenue grew, I hired, trained, and managed full-time staff, including technical and design teams.

Clearly, opportunities can come in the least expected forms.

Here are five life lessons I learned from the experience:

1. Burning your boats instead of “dabbling” leads to massive growth and results

Before tenth grade, I experimented with a few different business ideas. Some showed promise and had moderate success, but because there was no sense of urgency, I “dabbled” instead of following through.

This time, I convinced myself that I had no choice but to make the money to pay for school. When I took this psychological “gun to the head” approach I became much more focused — all my energy converged on the task at hand.

If you don’t give yourself an escape route, you have to succeed.

When I reflect on the achievements that I’m most proud of, the common thread between them is an intense focus on one thing at at time, sometimes to the neglect of other areas of my life.

  • All four national championships in rowing came from making it the singular focus of my life at the time. I even moved out of my parent’s house and lived with a friend in order to be closer to my high school and our boathouse
  • My marketing business gained significant traction due to the fact that I had to make it succeed. I woke up between 5:30am and 6:30am each day of the summer and worked all day
  • The Model United Nations conference I ran massively exceeded previous years in number of delegates and debate quality when I treated it like my full time job

That said, there are some caveats:

  • Focusing on one thing to the exclusion of all else can be unhealthy if you derive 100% of your identity or sense of self-worth from the outcome. This is why some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs become suicidal. Therefore, you should fully commit to a course of action (don’t leave psychological escape routes), but if you don’t succeed, you realize that ultimately you can only control your effort and actions. You better make those count.
  • Sometimes you don’t have the option to focus on only one thing. Often in college you have to juggle many different pursuits in parallel. In this kind of a scenario it’s important to reflect on your goals and see if your are spreading yourself thin. If so, you can put yourself in a deep immersion environment during your summers (language, technical skill, internship, etc.)

2. Practice trumps theory

Once I committed and burned all my (psychological) boats, I was forced to take massive action. As a result, I learned that there is an enormous difference between theory and practice.

Since age 12 I read hundreds of articles about blogging and generating revenue online. The problem was that those articles were written by people who hadn’t actually made any money themselves. Instead, their job was to synthesize theoretical ideas about how to start a profitable business.

In practice I found that the articles were completely wrong. I realized that it doesn’t matter if you can regurgitate theory. The real test is producing results.

Once you have experience, then you can theorize.

Another benefit of practical action is that theory becomes more useful. Books you read are relevant to your daily life. Even seemingly abstract topics like philosophy and religion become useful and applicable.

This is one of the reasons I find the rigidity of college courses frustrating. When you are taking deliberate action in your daily life, constant reading and learning is complementary and becomes a positive addiction.

3. Get comfortable being uncomfortable

Taking massive action is certainly not easy. You have to get used to getting out of your comfort zone.

I heard once that people usually change either out of inspiration or desperation. In my case it was desperation. That summer I had to interact with adults double or triple my age, which pushed me out of my comfort zone. I went to bars and networking events and really had no idea what I was doing.

I was scared, but because I had a larger goal I was forced to take action.

And guess what? After a little while those calls were not so scary anymore. They actually became enjoyable.

In The Way of the Superior Man, David Deida writes about living just beyond your edge. Your edge refers to situations where you start to feel uncomfortable. On the one hand, if you live within your edge you will stagnate. On the other hand, if you push too far outside your edge you won’t be able to metabolize the experience.

I try to apply this principle to my life. If I’m scared to ask a mentor for advice on the phone, I’ll do it anyways. If I’m afraid of what people will think of my blog post (and I almost always am), I’ll publish it.  If I see a cute girl in a coffee shop and I start to feel nervous, I’ll go and talk to her.

You start to enjoy the nervous feeling you get. Learn to embrace it. Surrender to it, instead of resisting it.

Once you do this enough, the feeling of nervousness doesn’t go away. However, because you are always expanding your comfort zone it you get used to it. It’s just like sports.When you get to the start line you still feel nervous, but you’ve experienced the feeling so many times before and you know how to handle it.

That said, the best way to minimize the feeling of nervousness is to over prepare, and the best way to be comfortable is to have done the thing before.

“A great part of courage is the courage of having done the thing before.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

4. Traditional career paths are antiquated

When I got my first check for $1,000 I couldn’t believe it. I stared at it for a long time. Then I showed it to my parents.

That was the first experience of many, when I realized that you don’t need to follow a traditional career path.

On the surface entrepreneurship seems more volatile, confusing, and uncertain. You don’t learn how to follow this path in college.

But it’s not an all or nothing game.

You can validate your ideas before jumping in and see if people will pay for them. While at first it’s not a guaranteed salary, once you diversify your income you become far more robust.

When you work for a corporation your employer has most of the leverage. If there are layoffs or they fire you, your income disappears. You are intimately connected to the winds of macroeconomic trends and labor markets.

It seems hard to figure out how to combine your passion with getting paid but it’s very doable. A lot simpler than you might think. Your income stream does NOT have to be a scalable venture backed startup that you are trying to sell for enough money to buy an island. You don’t have to choose between ending up like Bill Gates or a ‘starving’ unemployed graduate.

For instance, if you like weightlifting you could start a community and charge people $x per month for access to a private community forum where you post more in-depth information and interviews. You can make a LOT more money than a traditional job out of college and spend your time working on something closely related to your passion. The key is to figure out how to combine your passion with value that people will pay for.

No, there isn’t a step-by-step blueprint that tells you exactly what to do like solving an equation. Real life (outside of school) doesn’t seem to work that way.

Ultimately you have to take action, fail several times, and then use your mentors (people you’ve reached out to who have already done it) for course corrections.

I’m not necessarily against working for a company, I just think that too many people work jobs that:

  1. They don’t enjoy
  2. Where they aren’t learning or intellectually engaged
  3. Don’t make a tangible impact on the world

That said, there are amazing companies – for example in Silicon Valley – where you can get all three.

Overall, the experience of starting my own business showed me that it was actually possible to create something from nothing. It gave me the confidence to know that if I had to start all over again (which did happen), I could and would build it all back.

It also made me question the out-dated information society and the education system impart about careers, instead of taking things at surface value.

5. Adversity is a tremendous opportunity for growth

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius

It’s a funny thing, adversity. Typically, it has a negative connotation, but the right dose of it can be a blessing. This was the theme of my essay I wrote for Princeton. I view all events in life as opportunities for growth. If you view experiences this way, you can handle whatever life throws at you.

Because it will throw things at you that you don’t expect.

For example, a tough breakup is an important opportunity to examine your self conceptualized ‘identity’, rebuild an ecosystem of positive emotions, and pursue your life goals.

In my case, having to start a business that summer was in fact an incredible gift. Sure, you can try to constantly push yourself outside of your comfort zone…

But it’s hard.

We humans like to take the path of least resistance. If you can find a goal that is bigger than yourself, it gets you out of your own head and pulls you towards it.

When you have a singular goal or purpose, you go beyond your means. Mine was to raise enough money to go back to school. I lived, breathed, ate, and slept thinking about that goal.

What will you make your purpose?

If you can find one, and work towards it you will surprise a lot of people with what you can do.

Especially yourself (and that’s what really matters).

Hafiz Dhanani