What Selling Drugs taught me about Entrepreneurship

my past greatest asset

 

Editor’s Note: this is not satire, but rather one of those true life events that shaped who I am today

Entrepreneurs quickly discover that mistakes often present an opportunity to learn and to grow—if we do not repeat those mistakes.

I struggle with the word “mistake” because when we knowingly do something wrong, chances are we did a pretty good job breaking the rules. So, in my case, my “mistakes” were really “on purposes” that I regret.  I’ve learned from those wrongs, but I have also learned a lot while doing those wrongs—skills that made me a successful entrepreneur. So while two wrongs don’t make a right, it is possible to make something right of wrong.

Hurt people hurt people.

And broken people break rules.

I broke them all because I was hurting.

Desperately trying to kill the pain of a childhood that had gone very wrong for me, I began drinking alcohol at the age of 12. I was sexually victimized at the age of five, and forced to watch my little sister get raped. My sister and I were molested by several babysitters, tortured by one, and abandoned by our father who should have been there to protect us from these monsters. And though he wasn’t a pervert, our stepfather, whose name I unfortunately bear, was both physically and psychologically abusive.

I spent nearly every day of my teen years gacked to the nines on marijuana, meth, cocaine, LSD, and other hardcore drugs. My self-esteem was so damaged, I could not be with friends unless I was inebriated, for fear they would hate the real me. After all, I hated myself.

To insulate myself from negative feedback, I should right now, right here denounce drugs, take a stand against substance abuse, and declare myself forever clean and sober.

But I am who I am and that’s not who I am. Hypocrisy is a horrible lifestyle and I never again want to go back to that place. The fact is, drugs gave me a warm safe place to run. A place where I could escape the pain for a little while. And a place that kept me from killing myself.

I’m an addict whether on a binge or sober for 18 years, as I now am. Give me anything and I just get addicted fast and hard. I will forever have a love-hate relationship with drugs. Be honest, if you ever been to the other side, you know it’s not fair that life doesn’t always feel so good.

But the first fact of life is that life doesn’t always feel good. And while it feels good to break the rules, there’s always a toll collector to pay at the end of the highway.

While I’m not proud of this, the fact is, through dealing drugs I learned various components of running a business, how to leverage the ebb and flow of supply and demand, and how to develop entrepreneurial skills. And the irony of having this shameful background is that I would not have years later sold millions of dollars in public relations services, helped so many impoverished children and victims of violence through my work, and with my family’s history, and with the overwhelming pain in my teenage heart, I would have killed myself.

So, making good out of bad, here’s what I learned from my “on purpose” mistake I made while I was a teenaged minor.

Planning

I learned early on to plan my days ahead of time. Doing so kept me organized and ensured that I kept the commitments I made. Drug addicts are not known for rising early or punctuality. But to succeed, I needed to plan my days and stick to it. If a dealer is late to picking up the goods (usually in a supermarket parking lot or some back road) his connection might get paranoid and think a bust is going down. Plus, he or she has other appointments. Time is money.  If the dealer is late to meeting a customer, the sale could be lost. Competition was fierce and the wolf is always at the door.

Entrepreneurial Lessons Learned

Regardless of the line of work one is in, being dependable and consistent builds businesses. Not being dependable will catch up with you and it will hurt the bottom line. Dependability and consistency are rooted in planning. Though planning seems obvious, it is obvious that many entrepreneurs fail to plan, as I have seen time and again. Begin each day, week, month, quarter and year with a solid strategic plan.

Goal Setting

Every good plan is supported goals. As a teenaged minor, I could barely earn above the minimum wage, which was $3.35 an hour. With a drug addiction that was eight miles high, I knew I needed to supplement my legal income. So, I had to set goals in order to create the steps within my plan that would enable me to earn enough to pay my expenses and make a profit.

Entrepreneurial Lessons Learned

Goals are necessary to stay in business. By establishing goals, we go beyond the wish list and create actionable steps to achieving what intend to accomplish. Once we accomplish or fail to accomplish those steps we can determine if the problem was in the goal itself (too aggressive, wrong timeframe, etc.), in any of the steps, or with those involved in the process.

As the CEO of a public relations agency, I can attest that when I get lax and do not set goals, chaos or failure follow. When we do set goals, we don’t hit our target 100% of the time, but we are far more successful than when we don’t.

Customer Service

Even the rough and tumble underworld of drug dealing is not immune from customer service, at least on the lower level where I played. Customers in need were friends indeed, but let them down once, you could lose their business to the competition. Mistakes happened, but when they did, I quickly learned to communicate what happened to the extent I could, ask what I could do to make it right, and if necessary, provide a discount or even freebie. Moreover, keeping in contact with my client base was essential to understand their expectations and discover what other opportunities to serve them might exist.

Entrepreneurial Lessons Learned

Customer service goes beyond fixing problems or answering online complaints with a canned response. Keeping in touch with your customer base is essential to determining how others perceive your business and its performance, identifying new opportunities, and spotting new trends. Many costly yet unprofitable advertising campaigns could have been cheaper and more effective had the business paid attention what their customers were saying, and just as importantly, what many were not saying.

Play the part, but be yourself

Even in the jungle of drugs, I learned to act like a knowledgeable professional. But over time, and in the environment I was in, I learned to allow my unique personality to shine through. It was during this process that I began to fix my shattered self esteem.  I also found that being myself, while being professional earned trust. And I found people do business with people they trust.

The business world is froth with fakes and frauds. In fact, I have found it to be a rougher world than the streets. Time and again, I’ve seen betrayal, cheating, and broken promises just so one person can get ahead, be accepted, or make the deal. And I think a lot of this is the result of seeing others as objects, not fellow humans with needs, emotions, and dreams. Many of my customers in the drug world were broken, damaged people. I learned quickly to accept them as they were, share a little bit about me, and just be myself and let them be them. This resulted in trust, which made it easier to stay in business regardless of mounting competition.

Entrepreneurial Lessons Learned

Keep in mind we’re all in this together. Each of us deep inside wants to do a good job, help others, and go home to a loving family…or pet. Care about your customers and take genuine interest in your prospects. Be professional and let a blend of your true self shine through.  Respect those who compete with you, especially if they are in your own company. You may take a few hits doing so as there are those who will take advantage of you. But, evil always tells on itself and in the end, good prevails. You will come out ahead as people who trust you will become loyal clients.

Do what you Love, not what makes Money

There is a lot of glamour in the drug world. Everyone wants to be your friend or companion. Money is easy and the party seems as if it will never end. For a season, I had the time of my life.

But the party has to end sometime. I didn’t get busted or overdose, but there was no question I was imprisoned in my own mind and no more than a walking dead man. I got tired of living a lie. So, eventually I quit. I made radical changes to do so, which included enlisting in the army and moving far away. But that decision changed my life. Today I’m alive, I create jobs, I serve a purpose. I own a public relations firm and have sold several millions of dollars in services during our twelfth year in business. And there is nothing I love more to do than what I’m doing now—writing for an audience I do not know and touching the hearts of those I may never meet.

Entrepreneurial Lessons Learned

Are you happy? Do you really love what you do? Or is it misery? Are you doing it to make a living? If you’re not happy, you’re living a lie and need to get out. It may take time to make the change, but get started doing that one thing to get you there today. Then take the next step tomorrow. Another step the next day.

I’ve had to ask myself the same questions even as CEO of my agency. I had to consider if I wanted to sell, get out, and take an executive job somewhere. There were times I felt I was going insane, especially when I was the only one committed to the company rather than just committed to a paycheck. Moreover, there were times I felt like I was again living a lie, but now it was legal. I remembered the life of a hypocrite and just didn’t want to go back there again. So I took steps. And more steps. And am even taking steps now…but I’m getting there. You will too.

Summing it up

The goal of this story is to convey no matter where you may have gone wrong in life, you can make something right out of the wrong. Don’t just learn from your mistakes in order not to repeat them, but learn some good stuff you gained while doing the bad. Perhaps you chose the wrong path, made the wrong deal, or were, like I was, out on the street scratching to survive.  Life seems to offer forgiveness and second chances for the asking. So get up and start walking the right direction. In so doing, you will ultimately reach the right destination.

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