20 Years In: Today is Your Day!
It's now June 2022. And I find myself in my home office on the 20th anniversary of my now not-so-new company, Ballistic Arts. Yes, I’m writing this in celebration. And yes, I’m writing this with immense gratitude.
June 2002. I find myself at my high school friend Russ’ home asking him to sign as a witness on the name registration document for my new company, “Ballistic Arts”.
“Wow,” he said, “You’re really doing this? You sure? You’re going to put your painting skills to waste!” LOL. I might have had an abstract painting phase in my early 20s. Regardless, he cheerfully signed and poof! My entrepreneurial journey began. At the time, I remember thinking “how hard can it be?!”
It’s now June 2022. And I find myself in my home office on the 20th anniversary of my now not-so-new company, Ballistic Arts. Yes, I’m writing this in celebration. And yes, I’m writing this with immense gratitude.
Moreso, I’m writing this in response to many a young agency owner who have asked me to share some of my personal insights running my own show as they embark on their own journey.
But be warned young padawans, I’m not so sure I would have blissfully gone down this path had I known all the trials and tribulations I would encounter being my own boss. Then again, yeah, I still probably would have.
So, read on at your own peril…
Just do it!
People have asked me where the name Ballistic Arts came from. Some think I’m into guns. Others think I served in the military, while a lot of people think it’s a nod to sci-fi. Nope. In fact, the name came from my lack of patience.
You see, many people who start a business fret too much about what the name should be, the logo, the brand. And while as a marketer, I’m keenly aware of the importance of a solid brand, I’m even more aware that until you start making money you don’t have a business, you have a hobby.
One of my co-founders had an email handle with something like “ballisticartz” as a prefix to their hotmail account. I said, “I don’t care, let’s just use that name for now. If we actually make something out of this, we can change the name later if need be”. Hell, our first logo was a shape with a Photoshop filter applied to it! I just wanted something so that I could go out there and start selling, and landing business.
Not a very creative origin story, but I’m sharing to let you know that sometimes, you just have to say “Fuck it!”, jump in and start swimming. If not, you’ll find yourself sitting on the edge of the diving board “planning” to go out there or “preparing” for the right time, when really, you’re just psyching yourself out, and never launching.
Success is nice, but failure can make you invincible.
I hate failing. I still do. I’ve been scared of failure, of humiliation, or feeling the whole world is getting ahead of me and I suck. So, I made sure I succeeded. Failure was not an option. And while those early success stories were nice, the pressure I put on myself to not fail was immense, and it drove me to some dark places.
And you know what? After all that I still failed. And failed hard, I did.
When I was dealing with nightmare ordeals a few years back, a friend of mine Sara told me to speak to her dad. Sara’s family fled Afghanistan in the ‘80s from the Russians and her parents have been serial entrepreneurs since. But the twist was most, if not all, of their businesses failed. From economic woes to city expropriation of land, her dad was in his late 70’s running his umpteenth business. When I asked “why the hell would I want to talk to your dad about failing?!” She replied, “Well, he just keeps going now. He’s kind of invincible. Nothing really stops him anymore.”
You will fail, fail, and fail again. Make sure you don’t let a good failure go to waste.
I didn’t get it at the time, but upon reflection, I now know what Sara was trying to tell me. It’s like martial arts training. You can train to your heart’s content, but no amount of training will prepare you for getting punched in the face, or being accosted in public. You have to experience it, and learn how to get back up.
I’ve been thinking about many of my abysmal failures. Failing to open in Calgary. Public speaking blunders. Partnership break-ups. Online shaming via former staff. Lawsuits. Dwindling bank accounts. Taxman knocking on the door. Staff stealing from me. Recession. Pandemic. Yelling (or worse) clients. So. Much. Fun.
Yes, those parts of running a business are no fun. But also yes, it was necessary for them to have happened. It was necessary for me to learn patience, to learn humility, to learn how to get punched in the face, and learn to get up with a sense of openness and acceptance, and to learn to keep going regardless of the dire situation du jour.
I started listening to David Gergen’s new book, “Hearts Touched with Fire: How Great Leaders are Made”. In the early chapters he talks about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The amount of shit that she had to endure was incredible. Just hearing her story was overwhelming, I couldn’t imagine living it. But going through all of that made her one of history’s most remarkable figures.
So, you will fail. And fail a lot. So use it to learn to get back up with an open and curious mind, if you can.
“That sucks” is all about context
Tony Robbins tells his listeners in his audiobook LifeForce to imagine a scenario similar to this. You have a really bad day at work. You drive home but get stuck in a large noisy traffic jam. How is your bad day at work now? Then your engine fails and you are stuck on the hot summer highway with no AC waiting for the tow truck. How is your bad day at work, or the traffic jam now? When you get home you find out your partner is leaving you to live with their lover. Now, are you thinking about your bad day at work, noisy traffic jam, or broken car? Then the doctor calls and tells you have cancer and you only have a month to live. Does your bad day at work, the noisy traffic jam, your broken car, or your partner leaving matter as much?
One of my coaches Rachel would always say that “context is key”. Meaning it’s not about you changing the world to fit what you want. It doesn’t work that way. But if you can change the way you see the world and be present to what is happening in the moment, then you have power to choose what you do next.
Find out why you do what you do
I’d like to say that I run my own business because of some great altruistic motive. That I love the industry, that I want to have a business that employs creative people, and that I want to help those who need marketing. While those are all true, it took a lot of soul searching and some professional help to find out really why I do what I do.
I even asked my dad recently if, when he was raising me, he thought I’d be running my own business. His response was “No… I just knew that you wouldn’t be able to work for someone…”
“What?!”, I half-chuckled. “So, it was either be homeless or an entrepreneur?!”
He responded with a shrug and half a smile, “I guess so!”
Not everyone can be an entrepreneur. But not every entrepreneur can work for someone. I guess I fall into the latter camp. I joke with my friends that I’m “certifiably unemployable”. When I went to see a counselor, his professional feedback was that I had to run my own show. Autonomy is something that gives me happiness.
Ultimately I don’t want to work for someone else. I want to call the shots. Flat. It might sound selfish, but it’s what I want more than anything else. I talk about this as a guest on this podcast episode The Road to a Successful Career in Marketing with Ted Lau | The Small Business Storytellers with Seth Silvers.
Find out what else is important to you. For me, that’s family.
My daughter Charlotte once said “so, you’re the boss during the day, and then Mommy is the boss the rest of the time?” LOL. Yes, kid, that’s pretty much it. Early on in my career, one of my clients Dave once advised me to have more than just my business, to have other things that matter in my life, independent of the business. When I asked him why, he said, “Because if business sucks and that’s all you have, that means your life sucks”.
Having a loving marriage, a healthy and happy family, idiot friends to laugh with, and a nice home is very important to me and my wife Marisa. It’s something that keeps me grounded and grateful even in trying times.
Accepting the one constant in the universe: Change
When I was in high school, we had one of those career counselors tell us that in our careers we can expect to change jobs and industries at least 7 times. 7 TIMES?! That’s a lot. But now that I reflect upon it, even running the same agency for the last 20 years, we have changed industry focuses at least that many times. We went from focusing on mom-and-pop shops to junior mining companies in the first 5-6 years of the business. Then the Great Recession happened, and we focused on professional services, and then health care, associations, and for most of the last decade real estate development marketing.
Today we focus on B2B lead generation digital marketing along the west coast from Vancouver to San Diego! Our staff complement has ebbed and flowed from 2 dudes in the room above my parents' garage to almost 30 people and now around 20-ish. Along the way, I went from having two co-owners when we started to being a sole owner a few years back and now to having a mom-and-pop business myself as Marisa is now not only my life partner but my partner in crime!
So yeah, I guess I’ve changed industries at least 7 times already, and my career isn’t even close to being over!
If there is one thing that I’ve gotten stronger over the last 2 decades is learning to accept change, because change is inevitable. Who knows, maybe in a few years we’ll be doing marketing for companies in the metaverse or building some kind of young entrepreneur accelerator or starting a foundation… Ha! You never know.
Be here now. Meditation: Awareness of what we can and can’t control
And while change can be overwhelming at times, I’m learning to stay present in the moment, regardless of what my feelings are telling me. I’ve spoken about my gratitude exercises, but one thing I haven’t touched on too much is meditation.
If you are working through depression or anxiety like me, a book that really helped me is Pema Chödrön’s book, “When Things Fall Apart”. It talks about “leaning into the sharp points” and “Hopelessness and Death”. Sounds ominous, but it’s anything but. I’ve had it on repeat rotation in my car and have listened to it at least a couple dozen times.
Meditation has allowed me to see that I can’t control much. But of the little things I can control, I can do something about that.
Remember to thank the folks who got you here
Firstly, I’m eternally grateful to my parents, Mariana and Wing. For not only their support in those early days, but throughout my journey so far. They’ve been there through thick and thin, and I feel very blessed to have them in my life. Thank you Mom and Dad for being there for me.
Thank you to our daughter Charlotte who has taught me about patience, grace, silliness and that fancy things don’t matter as much as hugs and time spent buying junk food.
I also want to give shout-outs to my former business partners and co-founders Tak Kawana and Chris Bone for starting this adventure with me. A special thank you goes to Tak. For 17 years we were two punk kids from the ‘burbs taking on the world, and it was comforting to have you as the Yin to my Yang. (What? We’re Asian, I can put that in…). It was quite the ride while it lasted.
Thank you to all the folks who have worked at Ballistic Arts and chose to spend your time honing your craft at our little humble shop. We wouldn’t have gotten here without your contributions.
Thank you to all our partners, my mentors and friends who have supported Ballistic Arts. Your advice and counsel have not gone unnoticed.
Thank you to our colleagues in the industry who have made us stronger and wiser.
Thank you to our clients. Thank you for taking a chance on us in those early days, for staying on to grow alongside us, and for those of you we have yet to work with.
If you’re so lucky, have a partner in crime
Thank you to Marisa Woo. The love of my life and now my partner in crime.
It’s funny, people have mixed feelings when I tell them that Marisa and I run the business together now. Some project their own thoughts like “oh, I’d never be able to work with my spouse!”, and others think it’s the best thing in the world.
For us, it’s been great. Not saying everyone should go out and start a business with their spouse. But if you can, it’s actually a lot of fun.
Oh the Places You’ll Go
So, there you have it. If you got all the way to the end, good on you. Thank you for sharing your time with me. My hope is that my contribution here will help you as you walk your down path, be it running your own show or not. Thank you for being a part of our journey so far…
“And will you succeed?― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go!
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)
KID, YOU'LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!
be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
you're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So... get on your way!”