How to Build Your Calling
A Flyby book club field report
This post is the field report for the 2nd edition of the Flyby Book Club - How I Built This by Guy Raz. This got a bit delayed as I ended up with just too much to cover. After chopping most of it out, I’ve left only the stuff that fits a singular theme. If you like this post, I might cover the rest in a future post or two. Please let me know what you think after reading it!
This post is about an 8-minute read, so grab a hot drink and sip in.
The previous post was about following your heart, or in other words, your calling. The book starts off by describing the same approach but in a slightly different way. Here, it starts with passion.
Passion is at the heart of many great businesses, especially when building something new. The more you have for the product you are building, the more you’ll be motivated to keep going when the going gets tough.
But when you simply follow your passion without any intention of turning this into a business, that is known as a “hobby.” If you take your hobby and turn it into a product that scratches your own itch, that would make you a “tinkerer.” You are adding value to your own life, but the market isn’t aware of your inventions (yet). If you take that product you’ve been tinkering with to market (or plan to), you would then be in the territory of entrepreneurship. This can become your calling.
For example, Lisa Price had a deep passion for fragrances and essential oils. This became her hobby, and after a bunch of experimentation, she began tinkering with turning these into the perfect skincare products that would match her skin type. Eventually, she thought about taking them to market but wasn’t sure if anyone else would be interested. There’s only one way to find out. With a gentle nudge from her mom, she started taking her lotions to a local flea market. It was a success, and they always sold out. From there, it expanded beyond the neighborhood, a lot in part due to word of mouth and repeat customers. Ultimately, her company Carol’s Daughter, was acquired by L’Oreal. Seems like the market was interested after all. In this case, passion became the calling, just like the baker in the previous post.
As the book says — “the intersection of personal passion and problem-solving is where good ideas are born, and lasting businesses are built.”
The first two phases of hobbyist and tinkerer can be quite calm and enjoyable, relaxing even. The last step of taking your product to market can indeed be a roller coaster. The book showcases many examples of this. But if you hear the call, the best way to experience it is to get on the ride yourself. Depending on the type of product, though, you might also need a bit of capital to fund your venture.
Where do you get this form? If, like me, you are using the bootstrapping approach, this can be anything from personal savings or using income from your job to invest in yourself (and your business). With a top-quality revenue-generating product and some word-of-mouth advertising, you might just be able to create a self-sustaining business without needing any external funding. See Flying Solo - How to build a high-growth tech startup (all by yourself) for more details from a tech-based angle.
Daymond John (the shark) continued his job as a waiter at Red Lobster for 6 years into the process of launching and scaling his company - FUBU. The founder of Sam Adams Beer used savings from his consulting job to start his business and invest in himself. He realized he could always go back and get another job at any point, so he decided to go for it. There are many ways to go about this. Whatever makes sense for your situation is the right one for you. Check out The Three Pathways to Entrepreneurship for more insight on this.
There’s also another not-so-obvious approach, however. Creating a side hustle to fund your primary business. This is what the founders of Airbnb had to do to keep their business alive. The bnb part of the business was deep in credit card debt, and they needed a way to get out of it. The business wasn’t generating enough revenue, and investors weren’t interested at the time, so they had to take things into their own hands. With their back’s against the wall, they created an Obama-themed cereal called “Obama-O’s” to sell to hosts. This was a hit with the elections going on at the time. They decided to spin this off into a limited edition product and built a website for the range of themed cereals. This allowed them to generate $20k to pay off their debts and also piqued the curiosity of their first investors. Of course, it can also be that the side hustle takes off, and you decide to pivot and make that the primary business altogether. Had they gone all in into the cereal business, though, Airbnb, as we know it, might not exist today. But… the market was still interested, and the bnb was their calling, so they kept going.
No wrong answers. It’s totally up to you and your vision. See Deja-Vu - A short story about looking up, for a few more ideas about side hustles.
The book talks about raising capital from external sources and investors as well. This isn’t my go-to approach, and I haven’t needed to look into that as of now, so I skipped that part. But check it out if you are interested or in that position.
Once your product is out, you are in the territory of iteration. You launch your first version and get as much feedback as possible to get a read on the market response. Are people enjoying your product, are the reviews positive, and most importantly, are they sharing it with their friends?
This was indeed the case for Five Guys—an unconventional burger joint off the beaten path. The location they found was underwhelming. You’d have to travel outside of the main streets to find them. But.. people loved this, and combined with the focus on quality, gave them an edge over other fast-food restaurants at the time. This resulted in a word-of-mouth form of growth, which caused them to be packed every day by lunchtime. The founders used their savings to bootstrap the business and didn’t have money for advertising. So, this was really the only approach they could use. And it worked. We discussed this in How to be Remarkable—in short, build a unique product worth talking about.
Iteration can be in two stages— private and public. Prototyping in private is when you are still in the hobby or tinkering stage. This lets you firm up your vision and hone in on what it is that you are trying to build. If you are scratching your own itch, then the goal is to maximize the value you add to your own life with your product.
For example, the founder of Allbirds started out wanting to make leather shoes, but then he visited a tannery and realized it was really quite gross. So, he decided to make the shoes out of Merino wool which was famous in New Zealand instead. At that point, this was the only brand doing shoes like these. All this prototyping was done in private and took about 5 years. The founder was also part of the national football team of New Zealand, so this was, in a way, a side hustle. Once the shoes launched, they were an instant hit, and now you can find similar-looking training shoes at almost every major shoe brand, whom you could say were “iterating” in public.
When you iterate in public, you get live user feedback and improve from there. Sometimes, you might even need to pivot completely. This can make the distinction between your passion and your calling more clear. You might start off with one passion, but if your goal is to build a successful business and the market is telling you to go in a completely different direction, then that might just become your new calling and overtake your passion.
For example, Stewart Butterfield had a passion for massively multi-player video games. His first company Flickr was a spin-off of a video game he was building. Once it got acquired by Yahoo, he decided to use the windfall to create another game called Glitch. After months of work and effort into building it, it turned out it had no traction. So he decided to shut it down. After announcing this, however, he realized that the tool they had built for inter-office communications was better than the game itself and worth sharing with the world. This became his calling, which spawned from his passion for video games. They took the product to market as what is now known as Slack—a multi-billion dollar messaging app.
In this case, he started with a passion and went all in. Once the market spoke and told him it had no legs, he followed his calling. Entrepreneurship. Instead of going back to the hobby or tinkering stages, he decided to power through and follow the winds.
Which begs the question... What if your passion is simply to build a successful business... And you just want to make THAT your calling from the start? Well, in that case, you can use the scientific approach of serving the market at scale.
This is what happened during the Gold Rush in San Francisco around the 1850s. Everyone was rushing to mine for gold. While most failed, the ones who were much more likely to succeed were the ones serving the rush of miners as they tried to find their gold.
Domingo Ghiradelli moved to San Francisco from Italy just to mine gold at first. He didn’t succeed at that, as the competition was fierce, but he decided to think outside of the box and serve the source instead. He started selling mining supplies and sweets straight to the miners, eventually pivoting to chocolates. The bank Wells Fargo launched in San Francisco simply as a place for the miners and merchants to store their funds. With all that gold flying around, there would surely be demand for a place to store it. Another such brand was Levi Strauss. The founder started by creating dry goods, fabric, and mining supplies, specifically to serve the miners. A few years later, he pivoted to Denim Jeans. All three brands are still in business today, more than 150 years later.
While none of these founders were successful in mining for gold directly, they definitely found it. This adjacent, somewhat scientific approach of serving the gold rush can also be a viable approach and have less competition. Think of what the current trends are and what everyone wants to do, i.e., what’s hot? E.g., AI, Newsletters, Social Media, etc. Build something which serves those industries and creators instead. If you are looking for definite problems needing solutions, you can simply serve the source and do it with a passion.
Next month’s book will investigate this concept in more detail. I’ll be revealing it soon. Stay Tuned.
Whether it’s your passion, calling, or both, the process is really the same. There’s a quote in the book which sums it up well and applies to everything we looked at above—
“Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it, they will want to come back and see you do it again, and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.” - Walt Disney
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