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Do you consider yourself a non-conformist? If not, do you have the desire to be a non-conformist?
Either way, according to Kevin Hong, author of The Outlier Approach: How to Triumph in Your Career As a Nonconformist, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Kevin shares his personal experiences and those of others he interviewed to help us moved beyond the status quo.
I had a chance to talk to Kevin and I think you will be interested in what he has to say. His wealth of knowledge and experience can go a long way into helping you build a better life and legacy for your family.
And, now here's Kevin.
I would consider myself a serial entrepreneur. My mini-claim to fame was building my startup Dealflicks up to a $15M valuation while living and working out a van with my sales team over a course of 2 years. I ended up getting ousted from my company and leveraged my experience to become a C-Level executive of a subsidiary of a publicly traded company (Vista Group, NZE: VGL)
Currently I spend my days writing and advising startups and entrepreneurs. (All of them who have exited or built companies to a $20M valuation or more) while working towards my MBA at Booth.
Absolutely. When you are making ends meet, you have nothing much to lose. You are in a position to take extreme risk. My first business experience was network marketing. I sold beepers, refurbished cell phones, and long-distance phone services in Compton and Inglewood. I was 18 and had just moved back from Korea a couple of years earlier.
With broken English, I doubted any respectable American company would hire me. Furthermore, my college was not highly-ranked and having gone to a high-school which had a study body of 40% Koreans, I didn’t have much “exposure to America” until college. (I was insulated in a Korean bubble back in high school)
Strangely enough, and possibly because I moved so much as a kid, I was good at sales. I started to make nearly $10,000/month and soon discovered my talent for sales. I ended up discontinuing my business as I thought many of the sales professionals lacked professionalism and didn’t have the best ethical practices. (Also, the move was triggered to please my parents who really wanted me to have an American education.)
However, when I went back to school 6 months later, I realized how much taking a non-conformist approach can be an advantage when competing in a conformist world. I tackled problems differently and my exposure to the real world at an early age, made me realize the benefits of developing strong communication skills and building technical skills to enhance my approach to business.
Being a conformist/non-conformist are not mutually exclusive. You can become both. In my book, you see me swing back and forth between the corporate world and startup world. Each change, I am able to bring something new to the table.
There are many stories in my book that I share. I interview individuals from all walks of life from finance, to tech, to entertainment. And as I progress through the book, I intertwine my stories with these professionals. However, in the earlier stages in the book, I share more of my experience to explain how I developed the approach.
I begin the book by sharing how I opposed my parent’s desire to attain an American education. I wanted the American dream. Coming from a Korean background, this was rough since academia is highly regarded in my culture and my parents both have advanced degrees. I become a Korean parent’s worst nightmare by dropping out of college and choosing a network marketing business that sold “stone-age” communication devices in Compton and Inglewood over school and somehow make it work despite speaking butchered English.
I then share my story of taking a detour and trying to launch a hedge fund with a client who had $75M dollars despite having a promising career in finance. I fail miserably but during this time, we were in the Great Recession and I knew if I didn’t take a risk, there was a chance I could get laid off any time. At the time, I surmised the risk would be worth it.
I then share my story on how as a non-technical cofounder who didn’t know a single line of code, I was able to bootstrap, scrap, and use my sales skills to build my company Dealflicks up to a $15M valuation. Of course, most of the time, I was building it from my van with my team.
I then candidly share on how I was able to reinvent myself on the fly as a corporate executive for a publicly listed company. While many startup founders, especially non-technical founders, fail to return back to the corporate world after a failed startup attempt, I was able to pull this off thanks to the connections and reputation I built in my industry. The best part was living to share the story in media publications such as CNBC, Inc, Forbes, etc and finally my book, The Outlier Approach.
Too often in Silicon Valley or in the world of business, the same people are quoted – Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Paul Graham, etc. As someone who lived in a van for 3 years (2 years with Dealflicks and 1 year afterwards because I was so used to the van) I had a lot of time to read books in the van and got tired of the same old stories. It seemed like everyone was being the same, by quoting the “same person/book” that was supposedly “different”. Every networking event, I hear the same Paul Graham said x and Steve Jobs did y.
I wanted to write something that encouraged others to carve out their own unique path to success. For example, by the age of 32, I had worked in finance, tech, entertainment, media/journalism as an entrepreneur and as an executive. Each move I was able to make an impact while learning some new moves. I did this with very little connections, having immigrant parents, and with broken English when I started off. If I can do it, anyone can.
Time and time again, I was not only able to adapt but also flipped my weaknesses into strengths. I had to go through this route, not because I wanted to, but because it was the only ladder I saw to success for “me.” If I used some of the advice many of the books provided, I don’t think I would be where I am a today.
In this day and age, this adaptive mindset is needed while finding your own strengths and weaknesses to maximize your potential.
No matter the circumstance, always focus on the opportunity. Adversity is a great chance to show the world how talented you are. As I share in my book, the greater the fall, the higher the bounce. The biggest setback in my life, which was getting fired from my own company, became my best career move.
Instead of feeling ashamed or disappointed, I quickly turned the situation into a tremendous opportunity to exemplify my character. While some suggested that I can legally go after my firm for “wrongful” termination, I used it as a life-lesson and showed to companies how I was fired for not willing to compromise my values.
Whether you were my friend, investor, employer, or customer, you were hearing the same consistent story. I believe my brutal honesty and the way I dealt with the situation, won many people over. This helped me land a job as a C-Level position for a publicly listed company.
I also took the time to reinvent myself as I interviewed for companies. At the time, I had a journal which I kept for more than 16 years. I had started this when I moved back from Korea to improve my English. I wanted to share all the lessons I learned with the younger generation. This interest in writing allowed me to enjoy a “side career” as a journalist and columnist.
During the midst of all this, I also managed to squeeze out some time to apply and get accepted to a top business school (University of Chicago)
In about a little over a year, I was better than ever, I had a great career as an executive, started at a top business school, had my own column for Inc. Magazine and became a contributor to many other media outlets (Forbes, Inc, CNBC), finished my book, and was still the second largest shareholder of my previous company.
If I didn’t have the mindset of seeing my failure as an opportunity, I would not be in the same place I am today.
Steve Jobs – Because he made getting fired from your own company sound super cool. I appreciate and respect what he had to go through because I had a similar experience at almost the same age.
Nelson Mandela – I could only imagine what he had to go through. It takes courage and character to do what he did.
Man Van Teammates – It’s already hard to live and work out a van. To do that and sleep and work next to other nonconformists in the van is not an easy task at all. Thanks for sticking it out with me!
Tom Brokaw – "It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference."