To succeed in building the Straight-A Guide program, I would need to find a different source of support. My Socratic questioning convinced me that I didn’t have sufficient experience to accept responsibility for $3 million worth of investor money. But that didn’t mean I would have to abandon the idea altogether. Instead of raising money necessary to hire a staff, lease office space, fund travel, marketing, and advertising expenses, I decided to venture into the market and get more experience.
To validate the concept and build the business, I knew that I’d need to continue efforts I’d been making since I concluded my prison term eight months previously. Yet those efforts required me to spend money on airfare, on rental cars, on hotels. I had to travel frequently. Further, I needed more resources to pay for services like web development and marketing. I wanted to attend trade shows, purchase display booths, and interact with administrators who would consider purchasing my products. I didn’t have enough funding to launch those plans.
Since I felt passionately about inspiring people who lived in struggle to work toward reaching their highest potential, and I believed that a market existed, I made a decision. Instead of asking for investors, I’d go out into the corporate sector and ask for sponsorship.
During my time in prison I became acquainted with many men who ran successful business ventures. For one reason or another, authorities charged them with crimes, juries or judges convicted them, and those business leaders went to prison. When I was confined in Lompoc, I built a friendship with leaders like Lee, founder of a company that employed several hundred people. When I was confined in Taft, I built a friendship with Greg, leader of a publicly traded technology company worth billions. When I was in Atwater, I built a friendship with Andi, founder of several companies that generated hundreds of millions in revenue.
When we were together, those men had an opportunity to assess my work ethic and character. I didn’t only consider them as some of my closest friends, but they were also business mentors for me. Whereas I lacked experience in running businesses, they had built track records of extraordinary success. I decided to reach out and ask them for guidance.
I hoped to find 10 different corporate sponsors that would pledge $10,000 per year for three years. Those resources would provide me with $100,000 per year that I could use to fund expenses. If I succeeded in raising the capital, I would be able to work fulltime toward building a business while not being stressed out about paying travel costs and marketing expenses. By working on this venture fulltime for three years, I anticipated that I would gain traction in the marketplace. More purchase orders would come through, leading more people to use the program. The program would then grow organically, through word of mouth and referrals. In time, I’d have a self-sustaining business.
In the spring of 2013, I began my search for corporate sponsorship. My first call was to Andi, an entrepreneur with a successful track record of building business that exceeded $10 million in annual revenues. I have incredible admiration for him as a person and as a business visionary. During his senior year in college, he launched a venture that saved money for customers and generated substantial profits for his firm. Andi leveraged those profits to launch numerous other ventures that proved equally successful while he simultaneously helped his family and friends. His combination of vision, ability to plan, and capability of building teams that could execute brought results of a modern-day Midas. He didn’t begin a venture that didn’t have the potential of generating massive revenues. And if the venture didn’t stick, he abandoned the idea and moved on to the next one. His approach to business and life inspired others to want to work harder, smarter.
Andi met with me in his boardroom and he introduced me to several leaders on his team. As I told him about ambitions I had about creating products and services that I could sell to the billion-dollar industry of “corrections,” he questioned me.
“Why would people who operated prisons care whether the people inside came out successfully?”
“What makes you think they would buy products that you created?”
“How long do you think it would take before you started generating purchase orders?”
“Can you really build a business around these ideas?”
His questions prompted a lengthy discussion that we carried over as we
went to lunch at Houston’s, a trendy restaurant in nearby Irvine. The parking lot was filled with Mercedes Benzes, Porsches, Bentleys, and Teslas, like Andi’s. Toward the end of our meal, Andi made his point by suggesting that I look at the others in the restaurant.
“What do you see here?”
Houston’s catered to a crowd that dressed well, drove high-end cars, and didn’t flinch at lunch tabs that easily topped $100 for a table of two.
“The thing is,” he said, “you and I know the prison system is messed up. It’s great that you want to improve it. But the reality is, no one in places like this really cares about either the prison system or the people serving time inside.”
“It’s my job to change those perceptions.” I wanted more people to realize that our nation’s commitment to mass incarceration influenced every American citizen.
He shrugged. “I guess you need to ask yourself a question. Do you want to change the world or do you want to make money?”
My response was that I thought I could succeed on both fronts, earning a good living while simultaneously working to empower and inspire others.
“Maybe you can, maybe you can’t” he said. “But you’ve got a lot of passion for this stuff that no one really cares about. If you could translate some of that energy into business, you could come work with me, start making some money right now, and build products to change the prison system on the side.”
I asked what he had in mind. Andi suggested that I join his team as a fulltime employee and contribute as needed. He was offering an opportunity of a lifetime.
“The thing is, I invest in people. I know you work hard. Keep at this thing, you might build something. If you do, we’ll carve it up in a fair way. If not, we’ll build something else together.” Showing that he wasn’t a guy who made empty promises, Andi offered to cover my housing expense for the first year and pay a $100,000 salary while we figured out what I’d do.
- What’s the lesson here? Was I lucky? Without a doubt! But if I hadn’t sown seeds early on during my prison term, Andi would not have believed in me. As he said, he invested in people. He wouldn’t invest in a person unless that person made a massive investment in “self” first. What investment are you making in yourself today? What types of investment can you make in yourself right now that will influence other people to want to invest in your future?