How an Injured Ex-Pro Athlete Went From Being Broke to Owning a Million-Dollar Business

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All-American athlete Lewis Howes dreamed of one day playing in the NFL and becoming an Olympian. He was on track until a wrist injury ultimately ended his career.

Howes, then fresh out of college, found himself broke and living on his sister’s couch, trying to figure out the next step in his career. After years of feeling depressed and lonely, he eventually found the next best thing to fulfill his drive to compete: business.

With no experience in social media, Howes discovered LinkedIn and made the decision to master it. In just three years, he was able to build a seven-figure business by selling online educational courses teaching people how to leverage social media to build their businesses.

Today, Howes has used what he’s learned as an advisor to brands including Hootsuite and GoToWebinar. He also hosts “The School of Greatness,” a highly rated leadership and personal development podcast. He’s currently on the U.S. national handball team and still aspires to compete in the Olympics.

Recently, Lewis Howes sat down with NextShark to share the story of how he got himself off of his sister’s couch to build his lucrative career, his secret to building quality relationships and what he’s learned through entrepreneurship.

How did you go from professional athlete to successful entrepreneur?

[pullquote]there are a lot of athletes that never developed the mindset on how to generate wealth and then continue to build wealth. They can make it, but they don’t know how to save and make it work for them.[/pullquote]

Curt Schilling made a hundred million dollars as a baseball pitcher and went bankrupt. Mike Tyson made, I think made $30 million a fight or something but he went bankrupt. So there are a lot of athletes that never developed the mindset on how to generate wealth and then continue to build wealth. They can make it, but they don’t know how to save and make it work for them. I remember after playing professional football and being injured and sleeping on my sister’s couch for a couple of years feeling so depressed, and so lonely and just unworthy that I didn’t know how to make money, or if I was ever going to learn how to make money. So I was dedicated and committed to figuring out by associating myself with people who were good at making money and building a business and offering value to the world.

[…] Originally, I was so scared of losing it, because I didn’t have any [money] for a long time, that I just saved every penny. So I was just like, ‘I’m just not gonna spend anything. I’m gonna live frugal, and not invest in a car or anything.’ I would walk everywhere. I had a $495 apartment for about a year and a half, ‘cause I was just like, ‘I’m gonna have the cheapest things and just stack my money in the bank. I want that feeling.’ I got out of debt, and then I realized I have all this money but I’m not letting money work for me, and I’m not putting them back into my business. So as I continued to understand about money by finding mentors and hiring coaches on how to multiply my money, that’s when I slowly learned and made a lot of mistakes and probably wasted a lot of money figuring things out, but slowly it got better and better. I’m still learning today on how to grow a business.

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Was it ever about the money for you? When did you make that transition of focusing on adding value to the world?

[pullquote]”If I wanna build a business that matters, I have to add a lot of value to other people.”[/pullquote]

When I was 21, I just wanted to be rich, probably. I was playing football, and it was all about my ego, being famous and having a lot of money. When I was broke on my sister’s couch, it was a slap in the face. I came to the realization that I gotta give value to people if I wanna make money. If I wanna build a business that matters, I have to add a lot of value to other people. I didn’t know how to add value at that time. I didn’t have a college degree. I didn’t really have any experience or business skill, so I didn’t know what I was going to be able to do in exchange for money at that time. All of my 20s were a learning process of letting go of my ego and figuring out how to add value to people and how to capture that value in exchange for money.

I think there are a lot of people who add value but they don’t know how to capture it. They don’t know their worth to say how much they should charge and how to receive it, and that’s a challenge.

There’s a lot of ego in sports and business. How do you prevent ego from consuming you?

[pullquote]”You gotta have the energy and belief in whatever you do. Whether you believe you’re right or wrong, you are right, whatever it is. But you don’t wanna have the ego at the same time.” [/pullquote]

I think ego is a dance, because you gotta have so much belief in what you are doing in order to be successful. If you are playing poker, you gotta believe that you are gonna win even when you don’t have the right cards on the table. You gotta have the energy and belief in whatever you do. Whether you believe you’re right or wrong, you are right, whatever it is. But you don’t wanna have the ego at the same time. So there is a confidence and a belief, but also there is humility and a balance between being gracious, graceful, vulnerable, intimate, and not just thinking you have all the answers. So it’s a dance. I’m constantly learning how to be in that dance so that I don’t come across as ego. I have great support, friends, my team and staff who are constantly checking me if it’s about my ego. They’ll say, what is it really about? Is this about your mission or your ego? So it’s constantly being in that dance but also having the confidence to go in the front of the stage and speak in front of people, and believe in myself at the same time.

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How did you become so successful on LinkedIn?

[pullquote]”I think in order to be successful you have to be obsessed about something for a period of time to master it.”[/pullquote]

I became successful for a couple reasons. One, I got in there early when there was about 15 million people on there — I think there’s almost 300 million people on there now. I came on there when almost everyone was looking for a job during 2008, 2009 when the market was down, and people were freaking out about finding the next opportunity. And no one else was talking about LinkedIn. A mentor said, ‘You should go on here because I think you can find your own opportunity,’ because I was looking for something after being injured from football.

I don’t know, I just get obsessed with things sometimes. I think in order to be successful you have to be obsessed about something for a period of time to master it. So for about a year, I was on there for about six to eight hours a day obsessing about how to master it, and researching as much as I could figure out about LinkedIn, looking at other people’s profiles, seeing what I liked and didn’t like, testing and applying things. And then I started sharing it with my friends and showing them what they could do.

So I started to really explore for a while on it and master the craft of understanding LinkedIn, I guess, which is not that hard a craft. Just like anyone, if you wanna be a great photographer, you gotta obsess about it for a period of time and then you constantly refine and learn more as you go. You are reading all the books you can read, blogs, articles; you’re practicing; you’re trying crazy things, interesting things, you’re mixing it up using different lenses to see what captures the best image and offers the most value and gets the best response from people. I think the thing that worked for me was that I wasn’t afraid to take a lot of action. So I was just like, ‘I’m just gonna do this, and I’m gonna put it out there, and if people don’t like it, then they don’t like it, but I’m gonna keep doing it until something works.’ But I think [LinkedIn] is still relevant today; it’s not as relevant as some other sites, but if you put your time and energy into it, you get out of things what you put into it, so it just depends.

What’s your secret to building quality relationships?

[pullquote]”…in networking, people don’t care what you know, they care how much you care. They care that you look them in the eyes and that you listen.”[/pullquote]

My challenge growing up as a kid and in school was that I was always in the bottom of my class. In private school, on the grade card, every semester they would give you a ranking on the top of the card, which was the worst thing for a stupid kid because I was always in bottom four. My goal was to just get out of the bottom four, and it never happened. Sometimes I was dead last in my class. Now these kids are really smart, and I just always struggled in comprehending things at school. It was just never interesting to me, so it was really challenging for me to test well and remember things from school.

The key that came from this is the understanding that, in networking, people don’t care what you know, they care how much you care. They care that you look them in the eyes and that you listen. So for me, it was perfect because I never felt that I was intelligent enough to say things that people would think were intelligent from school. So I said, ‘I can use my heart, and I can ask people interesting questions and listen and let them share what they are most excited about, what they are passionate about, what inspires them, what their biggest fears are and open up their heart not just talking about what I wanna talk about and act smart.’ And so for me, I really learned that my challenge was actually my biggest gift in that I could be a warm listener, that I could be someone who cared, and someone who follows up, and someone who adds value by making introductions to whatever their biggest needs were. So I would constantly ask people, ‘What’s your biggest challenge right now? What are you looking to achieve?’ And if they were like, ‘Well, I’m really struggling with my web design presence,” or ‘I need some new design.’ I’d say, ‘I’ve got three of the best designers that I met last week or I know. Let me get on the phone right now,’ and I would introduce them right on the phone or in an email intro right there. And I’d follow up and always make sure they were achieving whatever was a struggle for them, making sure they were moving past it. So being that support for those individuals and higher influencers, thats why I’ve kind of done the podcast is to allow people to share their stories and give them a platform to get it out there to an audience as well.

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To be successful in life, how much luck and hustle does it take?

It depends, because the internet changed the game for a lot of people, so if I was born 50 years ago, then I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now based on the reach of the internet. So the timing of where things are at in the world, and being born when I was born, I was able to seize this online opportunity. But everyone’s got that opportunity right now so I guess it’s not really luck.

But I’ve never really been talented at very much my whole life; I always had to be figuring out and working so hard, so much harder than everyone else. I’ve never, ever been on a sports team where I was the best athlete. Never. I was never the fastest, the strongest, or could jump the highest but somehow I figured a way to win. And I figured out a way to be the most valuable person, and it’s because I worked really hard. Early on, it was driven by a lot of pain, so I would just work, work, work, because I was never accepted. I wanted to be the best so that people could recognize that I had a gift and I had a talent, because I never felt talented. So I would say that it was 80% hard work and believing in myself and having the confidence, being willing to sacrifice and go through so much pain in order to achieve a result where others were not willing to make sacrifices. I was just willing to deal with more pain.

What do you do when bad things happen to you?

[pullquote]”Everything that happens in my life, it’s feedback.”[/pullquote]

When I was younger, I used to beat myself up and get depressed or be in denial and be like, ‘I’m gonna be fine’ or ‘It’s all gonna work out.’ So what I tell myself now is that ‘There’s a lesson here,’ because I wouldn’t give advice from when I was 21 years old because I didn’t know anything.

When I get injured now or when something happens, I love myself a little more. I don’t beat myself up as much, because beating myself up is not gonna accelerate the healing process of me getting to where I wanna be. So maybe for 24 hours I get frustrated, and I’m pissed and angry, and then I let it go. And then I start looking at, where’s the lesson, what can I do to improve here, what can I be focusing on. I look at as feedback. Everything that happens in my life, it’s feedback. Why did I get injured? Why did I pull my groin, or why did I break some ribs? I wasn’t on track with where I wanted to be in my mind, or maybe I’m not being honest in my relationships, maybe I’m holding something back, and it’s putting a burden on my body and that’s where the pain is caused. So I look at what is not working for me, at what relationships have I not cleared off. Have I been out of integrity in my life? If so, I need to clear that with someone that I’ve been out of integrity with, so that I can move forward with a clean slate and start the healing process of moving forward.

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What do you notice a lot of young entrepreneurs struggling with?

[pullquote]”…a lot of people aren’t willing to sacrifice and do the work; they just want the easy, quick fix. You gotta look at it as a marathon, not a sprint.”[/pullquote]

Everyone is focused on money, not value. I think it’s important to have a goal to make a certain amount of sales or how much money to make. I think it’s important to have that so that you can track it in business. But a lot of people aren’t willing to sacrifice and do the work; they just want the easy, quick fix. You gotta look at it as a marathon, not a sprint. Coming from a sprinter’s background, it’s the complete opposite of what I wanna do. When you’re 23, unless you figured out something that’s so valuable to people — you’ve created an app or you’ve learned how to drive a lot of traffic or you’ve created something that can add value to people — you gotta keep adding value. It’s gonna take a few years until you build something, unless you’re a whiz and you can figure something out. Building relationships and adding value to people, this is the key in my mind. The more value you add to the world, the more money you’ll make when you learn how to capture it.

Check out Lewis Howe’s “The School of Greatness” Podcast. 

Photography by Melly Lee

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