Often, we'll glamorize the life an entrepreneur, but what we don’t do often enough is talk about the challenges -- physical, mental, emotional and psychological -- intimately intertwined with this lifestyle.
I recently met Robby Berthume, CEO of Winston-Salem based Bull & Beard (which matches brands with agencies) and author of the upcoming Millennial Entrepreneur, and after hearing his story, thought it would resonate. Here is our interview, with key takeaways:
You got started at the tender age of 14, when most of us barely can juggle getting our homework done with an after-school activity. Tell me about your start as an entrepreneur:
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“I feel like I’ve always been an entrepreneur, ready to do business from birth. I guess I got my start selling lemonade and doing yard work, but when I was 14, I started my first business giving computer training, building websites and helping businesses market themselves. Soon enough, I had a bonafide digital agency on my hands.
By the time I graduated from high school at age 16, I had a thriving business and enough funds to get myself into school. This business carried me for the first decade of my career, which is longer than 94 percent of businesses last before failure.”
That's an impressive place to find yourself in, in your teens and early 20s. Tell me what this rapid growth period was like:
“By 21 I was married, had bought a house, decided to take on a minority business partner and even co-founded a high-end digital shop in Belgrade, Serbia. I was enjoying a lifestyle of freedom after seven years of hustle. I decided to move my focus westward after targeting the California market for several years and achieving top search positions for geographically related keywords.
My team and I literally caravanned out to Los Angeles, selling and giving away what we had before we went. It was early 2008. Four figure deals had turned into five figure deals, which were turning into six figure deals in L.A. Suddenly, seven figures arrived and with it the lifestyle of a successful entrepreneur in LA, driving a 650i Beamer and relishing the glory. At 23, I was named to Los Angeles Business Journal’s ‘Twenty in their Twenties’ and was living in a penthouse. I had ‘made it’ . . . or so I thought.”
You’re touching on the conundrum we face of appearing to "have it all" when in actuality, things behind the scenes look entirely different.
“In late 2009, I went through a lot of personal turmoil. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and the weight of my anxiety was beginning to take its toll. I spent a lot of money on things, experiences, and gifts to ‘pay myself back’ for the years of hard work I had already put in. I started to set aside time for cruises, European getaways . . While on the outside, everything seemed under control and put together, I was really suffering.
I remember being in Hawaii at a fancy resort, throwing up in the bathroom because I was so stressed. As an early twenty-something, my business was defining me. I had built my own prison of expectations in many ways. It took more and more to make me happy and I took things for granted. I felt disconnected from my family. By the time the recession hit and my business partner disappeared (leaving collateral damage) I was in existential crisis mode.
I know you’ve risen back up. Tell me about that journey.
“I rose back up by embracing my challenges and circumstances, head on. I never once ducked my head in the sand, as much as I wanted to at times. I went through all kinds of personal and business-related drama, from my business partnership crumbling, to tax audits, to losing our biggest clients in the midst of the Great Recession.
And I could have given up (I often wanted to). I had been so arrogant about my success for years and here I was, in need of help. I had to eat humble pie, and it turns out that this pie is what changed my life for the better. I did some consulting and ended up taking the helm of a few ad agencies over a few years and took some time to diversify my experiences, get a broader context of the ad industry and lay the groundwork for my current business.
I’ve taken my time this go-round. I don’t need to impress anyone or pull all-nighters anymore. When my oldest daughter was born nearly five years ago, it really changed things. My confidence became quieter, but stronger. Through my suffering came a thriving marriage, a new business partnership, new business, and financial restoration. And now I appreciate it. All of it.
6 takeaways from Robby Berthume's journey
There is no standard definition of success, nor a singular path toward it. “Success means different things for different people. If you build an empire and lose it, do you suddenly lose your 'success card' or is success something deeper? Through wins and losses, I realized success wasn’t a goal post, but instead, the ability to build and create something you love and are passionate about, one brick at a time.”
Worry and fear don't have to overtake us. “For the longest time, I felt that my anxiety was, in some ways, a ‘competitive edge.’ I could certainly out-worry my competition. But this behavior left its toll and I’ve learned how to become a more free and fearless entrepreneur.”
Friends, family and people are more important than anything else. “When I was a young entrepreneur, I worked hard and got attention and admiration. But I was so busy working and thinking about work, that I wasn’t aware and attentive. My first marriage ended up crumbling and my family and friendships suffered. I had to mature as an entrepreneur and learn how to truly ‘shut the door’ in a world obsessed with ‘the hustle.’ I have a wife and three kids and I’m not about to prioritize my business over them."
Take nothing for granted. “I took my life for granted back in L.A, wearing my obnoxious clothes and taking first class trips. I didn’t give enough away. I wasn’t rooted. I was working so hard that I felt I needed to spend money on things and experiences to make it worth it. Now, I’m the complete opposite."
We can overcome far more than we think. "I never would have predicted my life’s path. Yet I find myself, at the age of 30, looking back over the past 16 years of entrepreneurship and realizing the breadth and depth of my highs and lows. And I’m proud. I’ve been resilient."
Life gets easier with age, though the situations and stressors don’t. “As I’m getting older, I am finding entrepreneurship to be more comfortable. I seem to live in the tension better and better. Instead of being in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’ like when I was younger, I’ve learned to not absorb people’s negative energy, to not take things as personally and to not take myself too seriously."