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Ryan Levesque: Starting Your Own Business… The Right Way

We are talking with Ryan Levesque. He is an Inc. 500 CEO of the ASK Method Company and the number one national bestselling author of Ask, which was named by Inc. as the number one marketing book of the year. His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, Entrepreneur and has over 250,000 entrepreneurs subscribed to his email and newsletter offering business advice. He is also the Cofounder and investor in Bucket.io, a leading marketing funnel software for entrepreneurs.


In this episode, we talked about a lot of different things. If you are fascinated and interested in marketing, you will love this show. We talked about how to start your own business the right way. We also talked about marketing strategies.


We discussed the four types of people or four types of entrepreneurs that want to start their business and you will discover which one you are.


We talk about the five characteristics for choosing to enter the marketplace. If you ever wanted to start a business but weren't sure what is the right business for you to personally start and what is the right market to go after, you're going to love this show.


One last thing that we talked about is how life insurance saved Ryan's life. You have to hear this story.

Dustin
From the outside, everything appears to be perfect for young Ryan. You went to Brown for undergrad and Princeton for grad. You studied neuroscience and Asian Studies. You got a job on the Street with Goldman Sachs and then AIG, but you decide one day to give it all up to start your little own business out of a 500-square foot apartment. Ryan, I have to ask this question, why?
Ryan
You sound like my parents. I had a very similar conversation with my parents about this point in my life. They said, “Why are you giving it all up to sell eBooks online teaching people how to make jewelry?” I had a very long conversation with my parents about this as well. The reality is I was in my mid-twenties and I had what I call a quarter-life crisis. I graduated from college. I was the first in my family to go to college. My parents grew up very blue-collar. My dad worked nights his entire life and my mom cut hair in the basement of our house to make extra income. I didn't have a paradigm of what it meant to be financially successful.
I knew the usual suspects. You could be a doctor, you could be a lawyer or you could go into business. That's what I knew. I didn't know what that meant. It took me a little time to figure out what I thought I wanted to do in life. When I was in my mid-twenties, I was working for AIG in China and I was responsible for AIG’s expansion across China. What that meant is I was managing a local team and we were opening up sales offices in city after city. I was flying to a new city every single month and every single week. I was living in hotels. I was on the road all the time and I had this moment where I said, “I don't want to spend the rest of my life doing this. I don't want to spend the rest of my life working for somebody else and making somebody else rich.”
I feel like I've got more to give. I felt like there is this huge potential inside of me that I wasn't taking advantage of and I wasn't doing it. It felt like the clock was ticking. I reached this point where I woke up one day and I said, “I'm not going to be young forever. If I'm not going to do this now, then when am I going to do it?” It led me down this path to wanting to start my own business. I read about this in my book, Choose. The thing that holds people back is something that held me back for many years and that's this. I was afraid of giving up good to go for great.
I was afraid of screwing up my already good life to go after something even better. That's the thing that I see many people held back by. Most people that I talk to are not living in a cardboard box on the side of the road. They have a home, career and family. They have nice things. They go on vacations and they eat out at restaurants. The fear of giving that all up to go after something better is what holds people back from doing something that is far more remarkable than maybe they're even aware that they're capable of. That was my situation. I decided to do the things that lit the fire under my butt.
Many of your audience will remember this and relate to this. In the middle of the world financial crisis in 2008, I woke up one day and went to my office and the Wall Street Journal Asia Edition have the headline that read, “AIG to file for bankruptcy.” That was how I learned that the company I was working for was about to go under and I was about to lose my job. I called up my wife that day and I said, “Take a look at WSJ.com and check out what it says.” She said, “What does that mean?” I said, “I don't know and I'm not going to stick around long enough to find out.” Before I could let that courage that has overtaken me disappear, I typed up a resignation letter, printed it up in my office and signed it. I remember the adrenaline was still pumping. I walked over to my boss' office, knocked on the door and said, “I've got some news that I want to share with you and you're not going to be happy to hear this.” I turned in my resignation letter and fourteen days later, I had sold everything that I owned except for what I could fit into a suitcase. My wife was in grad school. She was making no money. I gave up my income and we were living in student housing and that's where I launched my first business.
Dustin
I want to get into that first business but before I do, I have to ask this. You have a degree in Neuroscience and Asian Studies. They don't seem too far apart, but they do seem apart. How did you come up with those?
Ryan
I've always been fascinated with the brain. I had a conversation with someone and I was asked the question, “What is marketing to you? How do you define marketing and why are you so passionate about marketing in business?” I said, “To me, it is the intersection between language, psychology and math.” Math was always my best subject growing up in school. I’m very good at math. I’ve always been fascinated with psychology. I’ve always been fascinated with language. If we take these two things, neuroscience is the study of the brain and it was my way of pursuing that interest, that fascination with how the brain works. Asian studies were my way to make Mandarin Chinese a focus of my time at Brown. I studied Mandarin Chinese. I studied neuroscience and I took a fair number of math classes. I was able to find a career that has allowed me to pursue all three of those things at the same time: psychology, neuroscience, language and math.
Dustin
Is someone in your family Chinese or did you say, “This is a smart move for me to do, to understand Chinese, so I can go anywhere in the world?”
Ryan
This feels like a lifetime ago when I take you back to the beginning. The reason why I wanted to study Chinese is that I was very fascinated with the neuroscience of Eastern medicine. I was very fascinated with the mechanism behind acupuncture, herbology, moxibustion and all the different forms of traditional Chinese medicine. That's what originally inspired me to learn Chinese. In a previous life, I have medical research on the brainstem development of premature preterm infants. I was very deep down this path of going into medicine. In fact, my best friend at Brown, Charles Kassardjian or Dr. Charles K, is a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic. The most prestigious medical institution in America. He pursued this to its end point. I disappointed my parents by deciding to sell eBooks online and teaching people how to make jewelry. Two roads diverged in the wood and I took the one less traveled by.
Dustin
Thank you for sharing. That's a perfect segue back to talking about that first business. How do you come up with teaching people to make jewelry?
Ryan
When I had that quarter-life crisis, I said I want to be my own boss. I want to start my own thing. I never want to have to go on my hands and knees and beg for raise as the only way to make more money. I want to have an unlimited income ceiling and I want to build a business on my own terms. The only problem is I had no idea what that looked like or what that was going to be. There were many dinner table conversations with my wife where I would bring up some harebrained idea like, “Here's what we're going to do. What do you think about setting up a cupcake shop in Shanghai? We can introduce cupcakes to China. How about that?” All sorts of crazy ideas, “Import, export company, let's teach Chinese all these different things.”
Until finally she said, “We’ve got to pick something. You've got to pick something and go with it. How about this?” This was in 2007, 2008, she showed me this website. It was a brand-new website at the time. She said, “Check out this website.” It's like eBay for handmade products. It's called Etsy.com. Etsy.com is huge now. It’s a multibillion-dollar company. At the time it was just a little startup. My wife was in that space. She said, “Check and look at this website and look at this jewelry that's selling like crazy.” It's a scrabble tile jewelry, which is made with scrabble tiles from the game and origami paper. She said, “We're in China. We have access to all the origami paper in the world. We have access to inexpensive labor. We can set up a little factory in Southern China. We can manufacture this jewelry and we can import it into America. What do you think about that?” My initial reaction was, “That's a terrible idea,” for so many reasons, the least of which being I don't want to be chaining myself to a factory in polluted Southern China. We want to build this business so we can travel the world, have freedom, have location independence and all of these things. We closed the book on that idea.
A few weeks later, it’s the same thing. We're at dinner, we're talking about different ideas and she said, “I want to talk about that scrabble tile thing again.” I said, “I thought we closed the book on that idea. We're done with that.” She's like, “No. Time out. Take a look at this woman's shop.” She showed me her computer and she said, “This woman is not selling the jewelry. She's teaching people how to make the jewelry and check it out, she's selling this tutorial for $30.” On Etsy, what's cool is you can look at a shop owner’s sales history so you can see exactly how many sales they made yesterday, the day before and the day before that. You can reverse engineer their income. We found that this woman was making about $10,000 a month selling this little PDF, this tutorial, with no overhead. It has virtually no costs. It’s a digital product. She was taking home $10,000 a month.
My wife bought that tutorial. She said, “It's not very good. It has spelling mistakes. It's homemade. It's made with Microsoft Word. I think I can learn how to make the jewelry and we can build better tutorials.” I said, “Let's give it a shot, whatever.” Before we know it, we're making $200 a month, $2,000 a month, $5,000 a month, $7,000 a month, $8,000 a month. I said, “We're going to be rich like others. This is awesome,” but then the next month, our income fell off a cliff. At this point, I quit my job. My wife was in grad school. She wasn't making any money. We had burned through a good chunk of our savings. I learned one of the first lessons that I share in the book, Choose, which is the importance of choosing the right market.
What I thought was going to be the sustainable business turns out it was just this fad. It was a flash in the pan thing. The scrabble tile jewelry was like Beanie Babies, fidget spinners, Pokémon, any one of these things that goes huge, explodes and then disappears overnight. We had this moment where we’re back to square one. We looked at each other and we had that moment where we said, “What do we do now?” We're back to ground zero again. We thought we were going to hit it big and this was going to be our big winner. My wife finished grad school and she said, “Let's move back to the States and I'll get a job.”
My wife got a job. Her degree is in History and Architectural Studies. She went to school to be a museum curator. If you know anything about the nonprofit world, that job does not pay very well. She got a job as a museum curator in Texas that paid $36,000 a year. We sold everything that we owned in Hong Kong, moved back to the States, had a suitcase each and we started over. We moved to a 500 square foot apartment. There are bars on the windows, Brownsville, Texas, and the poorest ZIP code in America, with two lawn chairs in the living room, a mattress on the floor. I drive my wife to work in the morning, pick her up in the afternoon and the time in between, I got to work on our next business. That next business, I learned that lesson not to go on a fad market.
I looked at the list of the longest lasting oldest hobbies in America. I found that for the last hundred years, there was one hobby that was number one or number two every single year. That hobby is gardening. I said to myself, I don't want to go into a business that's going to disappear in months. I want something that's going to stick around for decades. I started researching niches in the gardening market and we ended up settling on the orchid market, orchids as in the flower. We built a business that we took from nothing to $25,000 a month in about eighteen months. At that point, my wife quit her job to work in the business full-time with me. We then grew the business to about $500,000 a year.
We moved to Austin, Texas. We launched another business in the memory space to make my parents happy because they're still giving me a bunch of crap about, “Why did you go to Brown and get an Ivy League education and now you're selling orchid eBooks? What is this?” We built another business called Rocket Memory, teaching people how to improve their memory using what I learned in school. We took that business to $500,000 a year. Over the next five years, we entered about 23 different niche markets, one right after the other, building what's now become a business that passed $10 million a year and landed on the Inc. 500 list of the fastest growing companies in America. We started with very humble beginnings. It was a bit of a rocky start out of the gates. Now I get to look at my parents and say, “See? I told you it wasn't that crazy.”
Dustin
I'm on the edge of my seat through this. I want to ask you this because I remember being part of the community and I’m still part of the community. I remember when Ask caught fire and the book and this whole concept. I'm curious what are your thoughts on why it’s sold over 250,000 copies and had such a big impact.
Ryan
I had no idea the book was going to take off the way it did. My original plan for that book was very modest. I wanted a book that when I went to a marketing conference or an event and someone asked me, “What do you do exactly?” I would have something that I could say, “Take a look at this book. This is exactly what I do. Let me know if you'd like to chat.” At that point, I had spent the bulk of my career entering all of these different niche markets. I wasn't a teacher. I wasn't an educator. I was just a practitioner. I was a doer. I'd always had this tension around this phrase that many of us have heard, which is, “Those who can't do, teach.” It’s the saying that if you're incapable of doing something real in the world, those are the people who go and teach. I was reluctant to teach for many years, with that in mind.
I had this life-changing lunch with a woman, her name is Karen Anderson, who went on to serve as one of my editors for the book, Ask. I told her my story of how I grew up super blue-collar. I grew up in a very blue-collar town, the first in my family to go to college. I told her the whole story that I told you in more detail. I told her the part of the story that when I turned 30 years old, I almost died after the birth of my first son. I applied for life insurance and was denied coverage. When you apply for life insurance, you can be a smoker, you can be a drinker, you can be morbidly obese, but my lab results were off the charts and all indications pointed out that they were off the charts for years. I was one of these guys living in China and being in college, I hadn't gone to see a doctor in a very long time. It turns out that I had slipped into a state called DKA, diabetic ketoacidosis. At 30 years old, my organs were shutting down and I went to the doctor.
The next day after I got that life insurance application and my wife was freaking out at this point, we have a six-month-old baby at home. I remember it like it was yesterday. I went to the doctors. We got some labs done and the doctor said, “Stick around in the waiting room. We're going to order the results stat. I don't want you going anywhere.” He walked out of his office and I remember he grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me in the eyes and said, “Mr. Levesque, you should be in a coma right now. We are rushing you to the emergency room.” It turns out I was an undiagnosed juvenile Type-1 diabetic. My organs were shutting down. I spent the next ten days in ICU, in intensive care. That was the moment that I decided I wanted to make this book something huge. None of us is promised tomorrow.
It sucks that you have to have one of these wake-up call moments to shake you out of your daily life and say, “If I'm going to do something with my life, now is the time.” I decided to reveal my secret family recipe. I said, “I'm going to reveal exactly how we went into these 23 markets.” The reason why this is relevant to your question is I decided to include this entire story. I decided to include the story of when I was 25 years old and having that quarter-life crisis. I wrote this 30-page letter to my parents telling them, “I'm not a crazy person but here's what I'm doing and here's why.” That letter was never meant to see the light of day by anyone other than my parents but this woman, Karen, convinced me to include it in the book and so I did that. Karen convinced me to tell my story about the undiagnosed type one diabetes and how I almost died when my boy was six months old at home. She incorporates that in the book.
What's interesting is that telling my story is simultaneously the most loved and the most hated part of that book. If you look at the reviews on Amazon, there are two things that people complain about in the book. I was a first-time author. I had no idea what I was doing. The first one, rightly so, is people said there are too many upsells into my other programs and products. I took that feedback and I agree. Having re-read the book with more wisdom and perspective, I agree with that criticism. It's a valid criticism. The second criticism is that people either hated the story and said, “This is irrelevant. Why did you waste my time with a story?” or said it's the single-most important thing that they've ever read. They’ve identified with that story more than anything else that they've ever had. They're incredibly grateful. It's a very divisive part of the book.
I've learned a phrase that one of my mentors has said. He said, “There are Boy George people and there are John Wayne people, but never between shall they meet.” That was something that Gary Halbert said. What he meant by that is you're not for everybody. Dustin, your show is not for everybody. When you try to be everything to everybody, you end up being nothing to nobody. Because I had some polarizing elements in the book like telling my story, people were either turned off by it or they resonated with it in a huge way that caused them to share the book with their friends, to buy multiple copies and to spread the message that was in that book. I would encourage anybody in your business, whether it's your book, your branding, your messaging, whatever, to inject yourself into that thing, who you truly are. There are going to be people out there who hate you. There are going to be people out there who love you. You might as well be yourself because no matter which version of yourself you try to be, that's going to be the case no matter what.
Dustin
I agree with you and if only that story moved one person, then for me that's worth it. That's how I look at it. What prompted you to get life insurance? Is it the birth of a son?
Ryan
My son was six months old. At the time, I was working so hard like many of us do. I was tired all the time and I was not in good health. I weigh about 180 to 190 pounds. I'm pretty low body fat. I had dropped down to about 130 pounds. The story I told myself was I was a dad not getting good sleep at night. I'm working hard building my company and I'm not taking care of my health. That's what I thought was going on in my body. I didn't realize that there was something much more severe. My wife had a bit of a spidey sense and she said, “You’ve got to take care of yourself. It's not just the two of us anymore. There's another life you're responsible for. If something were to happen to you, we need to make sure that the little guy's going to be okay.” My wife prompted me to apply for life insurance and what turns out quite possibly saved my life. You never know when these things happen.
Dustin
You walked us through why you wrote Ask. You've got another book out. I'm always thinking, as a marketer, you had a mega success and now to tackle that beast again and write another book and then market it, that's a big process. Why did you write Choose?
Ryan
When I wrote Ask, I like to tell people you're only a first-time author once. What I mean by that is it’s like doing your first ever podcast episode. You’ve got to get that first one out of the way and you've learned so much in your journey in building your platform and your show, so much that if you go to look back at the lessons you've learned along the way, you probably need an entire book to explain them all. I've learned so much along the way. One of the things that I’ve learned after writing my first book is that I was teaching in Ask the equivalent of Algebra when I needed to be teaching pre-Algebra to a huge segment of our readership. What I mean by that is when you read a book like Ask and you sell hundreds of thousands of copies, you get lots of letters, emails and messages from people that come in the mail and all forms. A lot of them are to tell you that the book has transformed their life and it's been a huge impact. Those are some of the most cherished letters and messages I've ever received.
When you write a book like Ask, you also get a lot of letters from people who say, “I read your book. I've followed exactly what you teach and it didn't work.” When you get letters like that, it's like a sucker punch in the gut because you're like, “What did I miss? What did I do wrong?” You start to second guess yourself. You start to question yourself, “Maybe what I'm teaching doesn't work. Maybe it no longer works. Maybe it's not universal.” All these thoughts are entering your brain. It spawned what ended up becoming a three-year research project to understand what was it that separated people who applied Ask and were successful from those who tried to apply Ask and failed. I was inspired by the work of Jim Collins. Anyone who's familiar with Jim Collins’ works: Good to Great, Great by Choice and Built to Last. Jim Collins' works center around studying the most iconic companies in the world. They look at what separated the companies that have been successful for decades and have stood the test of time versus those that were successful for a season but have fallen off a cliff or disappeared over time.
I was very curious to identify what was it that was separating the readers, students and customers of ours who are successful from those who were not. Everything kept pointing down to one thing. Those who were unsuccessful were choosing bad markets. There's this metaphor that I use in the book that is helpful. When you start a business or do your own thing, it’s like you decide to toss your boat in a river. You could have the absolute best boat money can buy. You can have the best equipment. You can row eighteen hours a day and bust your butt. If that boat is pointed in the wrong direction or worse yet, you tossed that boat in a river that has no water in it, you're never going to get to where you want to go.
That's what I saw people doing. They had the best boats. They had the best methodology. They hired the most capable crew. They get some help and yet their boat was in a river that was never going to take them to where they wanted to go. I thought, “What if I could teach people how to find the perfect river? One that's not too big, not too small but one that has current at your back that propels you forward to your destination that’s exactly where you want to go.” That was the impetus for writing Choose. I took a look at every single one of the 23 markets that we went into. I have access to all this data. I know exactly how much money we've made in each of these markets over the last decade. I know what our traffic has been. I know the traffic and results of my students and my inner circle clients.
I have this amazing laboratory to look at these data points and identify what is it that separated the most successful businesses, niches and markets from those that never reached that level of success. What I found is that there are seven factors that these three years of research have uncovered and that is the subject of this book. The book is all about how to make the single most important decision before you start your business, which is what river you're going to toss your raft into. Most of the conventional wisdom out there is all about what, “What should I start? What business should I create? What should I sell?” The reality is it's not about what. The first question you should be asking is, “Who? Who are you going to serve? Who is your niche? Who is your market?”
Dustin
Ryan, my understanding is before we get into the actual who of the market, you should understand what kind of person you are. You've classified or identified four types of people to start a business. Is that correct that we should focus there first before we get into the who of the market?
Ryan
You bring up a great point. There are two pieces. There's the external piece, which is identifying the factors that are going to make or break the market you've chosen. Is your market a green light market? Meaning is it worth pursuing or is it a red light market or is it a yellow light market where you pursue it, but pursue with caution? That's the external side of the equation. There's an internal side as well, which is a journey of self-discovery that I take readers through in the book. It identifies which of these sixteen different possible combinations do you represent to determine what type of business you should start for you, based on things like your personality, goals, resources you have access to, and things like what type of entrepreneur you are. What I found in the research is that there tend to be four different types of entrepreneurs, four different types of people that are starting businesses for different reasons. Each of these types comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities. As I talk through each of these four types, I encourage anyone reading this and even you, Dustin, to think about which of these four you feel best represents you or some combination of these four.
The first type of entrepreneur is what we call a mission-based entrepreneur. Mission-based entrepreneurs tend to have a mission, a cause that they are fighting for, a cause that they would die on the hill for, some wrong that they want to make right in the world. An example of a mission-based entrepreneur that I talk about in the book is Kristi Kennedy. She had a son born with autism. In elementary school, her autistic son was bullied by other kids. She had to get involved with the school and she had to change the way things were done at the school. It led her on this path to want to eliminate bullying from elementary schools around the United States. She built this entire company around this where she works with schools and administrators around America to institute programs to fight bullying in elementary schools. She served thousands of school districts around the country just on the back of this mission.
Mission-based entrepreneurs are very much in contrast with the second type, which what we call a passion-based entrepreneur. Passion-based entrepreneurs are very different. Mission-based entrepreneurs want to move people away from something negative in the world. Passion-based entrepreneurs want to move people toward something positive in which they love. Oftentimes, passion-based entrepreneurs have a hobby that they want to transform into a vocation, whether that hobby is playing the guitar, watercolor painting, gardening or something that they absolutely love and that they want to find a way to make money from that thing. There's a third type of entrepreneur that's very different, which is what we call the opportunity-based entrepreneur. There are a lot of people out there that don't have a mission or a passion that is burning inside of them and that they need to get out there in the world. They're more of the type of person that looks around and sees opportunities and say things like, “Why is it that nobody has solved this problem before? How is it that no one's created a solution to this thing?” They find one of these opportunities and make it into a business.
It's the entrepreneur in the most classic sense of the word. That's the third type. The fourth type is the bucket that I fell into myself when I was starting my business. I alluded to this a little bit earlier when I was sharing a bit of my story, which is I was one of the undecided entrepreneurs. The undecided entrepreneur is a type of person who knows they want to be their own boss. They want to start their own thing, but they are not sure what that should be. For each of these types, there's a light side and a shadow side to each one. As you think about which one best describes you, be aware of what your shadow side might be. For example, for the mission-based entrepreneur, the big problem that mission-based entrepreneurs run into often is that they're so tied and drawn to their mission that they struggle to make money from that thing.
In other words, they're so focused on helping people that they make making money a secondary goal in their business and oftentimes struggle on the financial side. Passion-based entrepreneurs need to watch out to not transform their passion into something that they become dispassionate about. There's no better way to take something that you love like playing the guitar when you transform it into your job where you have to do it to pay the bills. Opportunity-based entrepreneurs need to watch out then they create something that fills their bank account but doesn't fill their soul. They create something that ten years later they wake up and say, “Why am I doing this?” It's a way to make money, but how it is tied to my mission, my impact, the legacy that I want to lead? Undecided entrepreneurs need to be careful not to stay swimming around in that dreamer wantrepreneurs space where it's safe, cozy and warm.
We're thinking about the next idea and the next idea after that, but never taking action on any one of them. For that type of entrepreneur, that's who I was. What I prescribed in the book is to start with what we call practice business. A practiced business is a business that isn't necessarily your forever business. It’s much like when you learn how to drive a car. The first car that most of us learn how to drive in probably isn't our dream car or our forever car. It's a vehicle on which you learned the skill of driving. That's a skill that you can now take with you for the rest of your life. In the same way, your first business, in many cases, isn't going to be your forever business, but start something so you can learn the skill of setting up a website, selling something online, writing emails, setting up Facebook and all the things that are involved in building a business. Start a side business or a practice business to learn those skills. Dustin, I'm curious to know, of those entrepreneurial types, if there's one that strikes you or stands out to you more than any of the others.
Dustin
I have to play a little tennis with you. I completely resonated with everything you said, including the practice business. I feel like I started off in this world undecided. I found an opportunity and got behind it. I woke up one day, as you described many years later and my life had been like I no longer had passion for that business. I’m no longer moved. Now I feel I'm passionate about what I'm doing here at Get WealthFit and WealthFit. I feel like it's passion. Do you see that? Were you evolved over time?
Ryan
What's interesting is I see people follow different paths where they do change and evolve over time. I have some people who come in with a passion and realize that, “I get to get real. I'm going to keep this passion as my passion, but it's not going to be my vocation.” I see the same thing with a lot of mission-based people. They say, “I'm tied to this mission but what I realized is that my mission is something that I'm going to support, but I need to find a way to pay the bills. In order to do good in the world, I need to do well financially. I'm going to focus on doing well financially in my business so I can take that wealth that I'm generating and use it to support my mission.” They might set up a nonprofit or support a nonprofit or a charitable organization through the income that they derive from their business. There are different paths that people take. There's one thing that's constant and that's this. We all tend to evolve as our entrepreneurial journey unfolds. That's cool to hear how things started with you and how things have changed for you over the years.
Dustin
Once you understand or identify who you are as a person, the big core or the high concept is going after the who. It's not the, “What are you going to do?” especially if you're starting a business, it's the who. I'm curious, how do you look at a market? You mentioned those 23. How do you determine, “I'm going to go focus on the who. Is this a good market? Is this a bad market?”
Ryan
There are seven tests that I take people through in the book. The overarching process is this: brainstorm, test, choose. The brainstorming process is where you're identifying possibilities. I take people through a number of exercises to identify what are possible candidates to consider testing. Once you've identified a series of possible candidates, you then take those candidates and run them through a series of tests. Everything is based on a green light, yellow light and red light system. I followed the same system myself. We do this to this day in our company. You start with a test to identify is something worth pursuing further or should you start over and go back to your list of brainstorm candidates. It's all designed, by the end of this process and by the end of the book, to set yourself up for success.
If you have the best boat, the most capable crew, you bust your butt eighteen hours a day, but there's no water in your river, it doesn't matter how hard you work. You're not going to get there. You can have the best river in the world, but if you're not willing to put the work in, you're not going to get there. I don't want to mislead people and imply that choosing the right market guarantees your success. It doesn't guarantee it, but it is a necessary requirement to be successful. If you choose a bad river, it doesn't matter. Everything else does not matter. When we look at markets, we go through this same process. I'll talk about one of the tests. It's something that we call the five market must-haves. This is a simple checklist that you want to look at to make sure your market checks off these five boxes.
I mentioned a little bit earlier that we looked at the most successful markets, compare them against the markets that were failures. What we found is that every single one of the successful markets checked off these five boxes. Every single one of the markets that was not successful was missing one or more of these criteria. The first criteria, the first market must-have is what we call being in an evergreen market. An evergreen market is one that we defined as a market that was relevant ten years ago and will be relevant ten years from now. I mentioned the scrabble tile jewelry market. I told you the story of how our income dropped off a cliff. I learned that lesson the hard way that you don't want to go into a fad market.
The next market that we went into, a sub-niche within the gardening market was in the niche of orchid care. Orchids had been around forever. They had been around since the time of the dinosaurs. There are renaissance paintings with orchids in them. People have been growing orchids for hundreds of years. Chances are they're going to care for orchids for hundreds of years into the future. It’s a market in contrast to the scrabble tile market. It’s a market that would stand the test of time. When we moved back to America and my wife had that job making $36,000 a year, I was starting my business. We built a little business called Orchids Made Easy. That little business teaches people how to care for their orchids. We took that business to $25,000 a month in eighteen months, $500,000 a year, a little bit after that. That business, over a number of years later, pays for all of our living expenses in this tiny little obscure niche market.
That's the power of being in an evergreen market or a market that never goes away. That's the first criteria, but it's not enough to be in an evergreen market. The second market must-have is what we call an enthusiast market. An enthusiast market is in contrast to a problem-solution market. A problem-solution market is a market where someone comes in, they've got a problem, they solve it, they move on with their life, and never want to be in that space ever again. A perfect example is something like wart removal. If you've got a wart on your pane or your foot, you want to remove the wart. You'd never want to think about that thing ever again. Another example would be the flood repair business. If you've got a flooded basement and you get to call up one of those companies like Servpro to clean up your flooded basement to do all the repair, you never want to think about that ever again. I think Servpro’s slogan is, “Like it never even happened.”
These are examples of markets where you constantly have to chase after new customers. Compare that to an enthusiast market. An enthusiast market is one where you can sell to the same customer over and over again. In many cases, you have a customer who buys from you for weeks, months, years and in some cases, decades. Orchids is an example of an enthusiast market. Playing the guitar is an example of an enthusiast market. Weight loss is an example of an enthusiast market. People think weight loss is a problem-solution market. I've gained weight. I need to lose it. How many people in your life do you know who have struggled with their weight their entire life? It's a market that people stay in for years and years.
The market you serve is an example of an enthusiast market. Financial independence, wanting to do your own thing, wanting to grow your wealth, all of these things are enthusiast markets. Here's the thing. It's not sufficient to be in an evergreen and enthusiast market. You have to factor in market must-have number three, which is solving an urgent problem in the context of that enthusiasts and evergreen market. One of the classic examples I talk about in the book as an enthusiast market is the dog markets. One of the markets I've had success in. Dog owners are enthusiasts in the sense that if you have a dog or you know anyone else who has a dog, oftentimes you're a consumer in that market for ten to fifteen years for the life of that dog. For many people, they have not one dog but more than one. After the dog passes, they often bring another furry friend into the home.
They might be a consumer in this market for their entire life but you can't go into that market and sell something like doggy Christmas ornaments, doggy rugs, doggy mug or something like that and expect to make a killing because none of those things represent solving an urgent bleeding neck problem. In other words, you’ve got to find what the bleeding neck, what would I call in the book is a $10,000 problem that people need to solve immediately. It's a problem that has high intensity and high urgency. We are dog owners. We brought in a little puppy into our home, a Chihuahua rescue. She's four and a half pounds. We wanted to bring in a breed who would offer home protection. Naturally, we went with the Chihuahua.
What I learned very quickly as we brought her into our home is that as cute and cuddly as Blue is, it's her name, she caused some problems for us. She would not stop peeing on the rug. She's peeing on the rug, the sofa, the laundry, the floor, the bed, she's peeing everywhere. We need to potty train this puppy. Potty training your puppy is an example of an urgent problem in the enthusiast’s dog market which is evergreen and never going away. That's a great example of an urgent problem. That's market must-have number three. Market must-have number four is you also want to have what I called future problems. What I mean by that is you want to be in a market where you can solve the first problem for someone and when you do so, set yourself up to become their trusted advisor for life.
In the book, I talk about Dana Obleman and her husband Mike, who built a company, a business called Sleep Sense. Dana and Mike had an infant who they brought into their home who is not sleeping at all. If you've got young kids, you remember the days when you've got a young kid who's like when someone's not getting sleep in the house, it is not a pleasant place to be and no one's getting any sleep. She started doing research online. “How do we get our kids to sleep? None of the other kids had this issue.” She’s doing all this research, looking everywhere and couldn’t find anything. She starts diving into medical research and scientific research around sleep.
Eventually, she starts finding some methodologies that she decided to experiment with and they worked. Soon enough, she had a friend who came over and was having the same problem and Dana said, “Let me see if I can help you out.” She helped them out and got that kid to sleep. That led to another mom saying, “You’ve got to talk to my friend,” and before you knew it, she had started this business called Sleep Sense. She's been featured on Good Morning America and The Today Show. They've helped hundreds of thousands of parents around the country with this burning urgent problem of how do you get your newborn infant to sleep through the night so parents can get a good night's sleep. That set things off for her to become the trusted advisor of parents with young babies.
This underscores the importance of being in a market with market must-have number four, which is future problems. You want a market where once you solve that first problem, the success of solving that problem leads to wanting to solve the next problem. In the dog market, you potty train the puppy. The next thing that you want to know as well is, “How do I teach my dog to sit? How do I teach my dog to stay? How do I get my dog to stop barking, stop biting, come when she's called?” It’s all of these things that you want to know as a dog owner. In the baby market that Dana and Mike are in, how do I get my baby to sleep? How do I get my baby to eat? How do I teach my baby to crawl or to walk? It’s all of these things that they help parents with young infants and toddlers do in their life. That’s future problems, market must-have number four.
Finally, market must-have number five, which is absolutely critical and I learned this lesson the hard way, is you need to be in a market with a high concentration of what we call PWMs, which stands for Players With Money. What I mean by that is not necessarily a market filled with billionaires and millionaires. You want to be in a market where people have demonstrated that they will spend a disproportionate amount of their income in that area of their life. Dog owners are perfect examples. You don't have to be wealthy to be a dog owner who spends thousands of dollars on things like doggy vacations, doggy spas, doggy toys, doggy treats, pet insurance and $10,000 dog operations when the dog is sick. People will spend crazy amounts of money to take care of their furry friend.
Golf is another great example. Golf is a classic example filled with players with money. People spend crazy amounts of money on golf. This is the first green light, yellow light and red light test. The first thing you can do right now as you think about the market you're in is do you check off these five boxes? Is your market evergreen? Is it an enthusiast market? Are you solving an urgent problem in the context of that enthusiast market? Does your market have future problems that you can solve down the road after you fixed the first thing for your customer? Do you have a high concentration of PWM, Players With Money, in your space? That's the first test. Do you meet the five market must-haves?
Dustin
Should everyone go through the market tests and take a look at that? Are there other areas or other things that they need to be conscious of or thinking about when entering a market?
Ryan
I'll give you a couple more in the time that we have. We'll talk about market size. A big question I get a lot of times is that people want to know, “Am I in the right size market? How do I know if my market is too small or too big?” People want to know, “Do I niche down? Do I niche up? Do I expand? Do I go into sub-niche? How do I decide what my niche should be and the size of that niche?” I was curious around this question as well. One of the things that we looked at is the 23 niche markets that I've gone into, as well as the markets my clients and my students have gone into. We started studying and we did this pretty exhaustive study of the size of every single one of those markets based on keyword search volume.
We looked at how big our most successful markets were compared to the markets that weren't as successful. What we found was pretty striking. Using a free tool that anybody can get access to, which is called Google Trends. Trends.Google.com is a tool that Google has put out and made this data available to the general public for free. You can look at the search volume for your keywords in your market. What we found is that every single one of our most successful markets, the keyword search volume was all within a very narrow range. In fact, it was one of these discoveries when we went through it. I remember my colleague and I looked at each other and it was like one of those things where the hair on the back of your neck stands up and it's like, “This is really happening.”
For months, we debated, do we reveal what our most successful keywords are to the public. Because in many ways, it's our secret sauce. This is what's made our business successful. We went back and forth and back and forth and in the end, we decided to reveal what those keywords are in the book so that anybody can go through the same process we went through. Take your keyword for your niche, for your market, compare it against these reference keywords to see is your market outside the sweet spot? Is it too big? Is it below the sweet spot, too small or is it right inside? That's another test in the test that I walk people through in the choose process is what we call the market sweet spot test, which identifies the size of your market. If you need to niche up, niche down or if you're right in that perfect place.
Dustin
Ryan, you've been giving us wisdom and nuggets here. Thank you big time. I know we're running short on time, but I wanted to ask you this and I want to give people the opportunity to get the book. The ASK Method company, your company, is a two-time Inc. 500 winner, which shows to me that you know a thing or two about scaling and growth. Can you share any wisdom there in terms of how to scale, how to grow and things that you've picked up along the way that's allowed you to hit the Inc. twice?
Ryan
We are a company that is patient zero whenever we roll out any new teaching framework or methodology. What I mean by that is we eat our own dog food. We use and practice what we teach. In our business, we have adhered to the choose process. I'm not going to reveal what it is, but in our ASK Method company, we have our bullseye keyword. I have what we teach and choose, which is identifying your bullseye keywords. We know what that keyword is and we make that the central focus of our entire business. It all starts with choosing. Then from there, if you are a subscriber of my business advice newsletter, you'll see that we apply the ASK Method in our business in a very deep and profound way. Every single week we are asking some form of a question of our audience to understand what we're missing. Where can we improve? What do we need to focus on next?
Every single one of our events, we do a post-event ASK campaign. What did you like? What did you not like? It leads to a do different-do again process that we follow where we take that feedback and say, “How can we improve based on what our users, our members, our readers, our customers are telling us?” We follow the same process that we teach. If I were to say, “What's the catch?” The catch is just a little bit of work. If you're not afraid of a little bit of work and if you're not afraid about doing what I consider to be the right thing, then it's a playbook. It's a blueprint that any business can follow. It all starts with choosing the right market. Once you've done that, asking that market the right questions to figure out what you should build so you can build a business that achieves the goals that you set out for yourself.
Dustin
I love the simplicity of which you present information. There's a lot to it but it's simple to grasp. People get it at a high-level and it's all in the details. You’ve got to eat your own dog food, you have to execute and you've got to do some work. I am excited to share this. How can people find out more about the books that you have mentioned and keep tabs with what you're up to these days?
Ryan
Here's what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something super special for all your audience as a way of saying thanks for the opportunity to share with your audience. Here's what I'm going to do for anybody who's interested. I want to hook you up with a free hardcover copy of the book, Choose. I'll ship it to you anywhere in the world. All I ask is that you pay a few dollars shipping and handling to cover the postage and I'll get it into your hands no matter where you are in the world. I'm also going to hook you up with over $200 in bonuses on top of that. The first bonus is this. If you're like me, you probably like listening to audiobooks as well. I decided I'm going to hook you up with the audiobook for free. I'm going to include it absolutely free.
The second thing is this. One of the biggest questions I get from people is they hear all these tests to identify which markets check these boxes and our greenlight markets. People always ask me like, “What are examples of markets that meet all these criteria?” What I'm going to do is I'm going to hook you up with my private list of the top 25 niche markets for 2019. These are the exact markets I would be going into if I wasn't so focused on this book and getting it into as many people's hands as possible. It's my personal list. These are the exact markets I would be going into. I've gone into 23. These are the next 25 on my list. I'm going to hand that list to you on a silver platter.
The third thing is this. We talked about the fact that in school, my academic background is in neuroscience. I've always been very obsessed with psychology and neuroscience. I found that when it comes to starting a business, starting your own thing and becoming your own boss, there's a lot of head trash that we all struggle with. I put together my top seventeen mental hacks for overcoming things like analysis paralysis, fear of failure, overcoming self-confidence, self-doubt and so on and so forth. I'm hooking you up with that training which we normally sell for $199 for free, plus a whole bunch of other bonuses, but you have to go through a very specific link to get this. You're not going to see this on our website. The link is ChooseTheBook.com/gwf, which stands for Get WealthFit. I'll hook you up with a free hardcover copy of the book, ship it to you anywhere in the world. Just pay a few dollars shipping and handling. I'll hook you up with over $200 in bonuses in addition. That’s my gift to you.
Dustin
Ryan, thank you big time for being on the show. Thank you for making that amazing offer. I encourage people, especially those that want to start the business or if you're already in the business, you can benefit big time from all of the processes that Ryan has to share. Ryan, thanks for being on the show.
Ryan
It's been awesome to be here. It's been an absolute joy and pleasure. I want to say thanks so much for letting me share with your audience, Dustin. I look forward to doing this again sometime soon.

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