Forget the lightbulb moment: five stories of real life creative success

It can feel like an impossible feat to start your own business when the majority of stories we hear focus on the overnight triumphs or teenage prodigies. But the truth is, those are the exceptions and these one-in-a-million success stories don’t have a monopoly on creative thinking.

The majority of business owners have worked hard for many years to reach the top, yet these aren’t the type of success stories that are likely to be splashed across the papers.

If you hope to start your own company, find inspiration in these stories of everyday business owners. Some came from nothing and others simply sought to find a problem they faced in their own life. In the end, they became what once seemed impossible: the owner of a successful business.

The entrepreneurial dream: Kirk Williams (Owner, ZATO)

The first thing Kirk Williams told me is that he grew up the son of a Pastor, in a small midwest town. But that’s not the most interesting part: "I started my business while in seminary as I studied to be a pastor," says Williams.

In the last 12 months, his company hit half of a million in revenue, and they now have three full time employees. But it wasn’t easy reaching this milestone, which has come six years into owning the business. Williams explains:

"It's not an exaggeration to say 'we had nothing' when we started the business (we survived the early years by living in my in-laws' basement), but the timing made sense since I had recently decided I could do better for myself collecting clients than remaining at my current job and my current salary."

With no formal business training - or informal for that matter - he and his wife jumped into the business. What’s more, they started a search and social marketing agency, in Billings, Montanna, having never even worked in a marketing agency: "I wasn't even familiar with the term billable hours!"

They put in the work, networking through Twitter, writing PPC blog posts, and speaking at PPC conferences to build authority and attract clients. Now, with a revenue-driving client roster, Williams is still focused on the things that matter most in his life, like his children and happiness:

"While revenue and profit are a core measure of success, I also look to things like my own understanding of operations growth, my ability to spend time with my family (four kids under eight!) and church, and my own personal happiness as key marks of success."

This has driven this husband and wife team to focus on building a Lifestyle Agency: "I don't want to make it to retirement with more money, but either no memories or unhappy ones... we don't push too hard for client acquisition at the expense of our current clients, or employee unhappiness. In this way, I would count myself as successful in hitting my personal marks of success!"

The problem-solver: Sean Maher (Founder, Swyfft)

When I asked Sean Maher if he’d always been an entrepreneur, his response was: "Ha - no! I spent my twenties thinking I was going to be an academic; I started two different PhD programs in Neuroscience/Psychology and Computer Science. I took a leave of absence from graduate school to start an interactive agency circa 1998, and found that being an entrepreneur was more fun than being an academic. Haven’t looked back since."

When it comes to founding his current company, Maher was motivated by something that many other people have likely experienced: the frustration of buying insurance. In his case, he bought homeowners insurance and pet insurance within a few weeks of one another: "And the latter was a wildly better buying experience - I only had to answer a few questions about my pooch and had bought the policy within a couple minutes."


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Like any good entrepreneur, he asked the right question: Is it possible to make homeowners insurance as easy as buying pet insurance? The answer: Maybe. So he didn’t stop there:

"My sister lives in New Orleans and works as a teacher. Her homeowners insurance was $3,200/year, which is nearly 10 per cent of her annual take home pay. I realised that if we could find a way to save people like her a few hundred bucks or so, that would be very meaningful."

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A man with a problem found a solution and became is now the founder of Swyfft - and along the way learned how to develop proprietary data and analytics to further enhance the experience. The results of which we can all appreciate: "Improved user experience and lower prices to about half of homeowners in the US."

The Hungry 9-5er: Sara Morgan (Co-founder, Eleven Eleven PR)

Despite being a co-founder, previous to owning her current business, Sara Morgan was frustrated with her experience within the business she started. She had a background in journalism, and a good idea of what reporters and editors were looking for, yet their company hired an outside firm. "I was disappointed in the lack of transparency, accountability and creativity that I experienced working with this reputable, boutique PR firm. So, I started going back to doing it myself," explains Morgan.

On her own, she had to focus on driving clients - no investors or nice office space. "I never raised outside money. I worked out of my house. I hustled to make PR opportunities happen - I didn't have access to a PR database at the time or PR newswire (I couldn't afford it). I didn't even have a website for the first three years," says Morgan.

Now, she proudly shares that her client base is 95 per cent word-of-mouth, and, after five years in business, as of February 2018, she now has an office and a staff. But that doesn’t mean she’s lost her hunger.

"I still run it like a lean, mean start-up.. because we are one! And because I think you can’t lose that hunger or the feeling that it could all go away in an instant if you stop delivering (or worse, stop caring)."

The Hardworking Salesman: Sam Meenasian (Director of Operations, Owner, USA Business Insurance)

Sam Meenasian has paid his dues in the 12 years he’s spent in the insurance industry, starting as low man on the totem pole: "I started out with small personal lines sales, writing auto insurance for local clients," says Meenasian. As he learned the business, he did everything you see in the movies, from door to door sales to putting flyers on cars, "in the hopes of getting one call out of the hundreds of flyers passed out."

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Unlike most of the success stories you hear now, of quick success and fame, Meenasian struggled for many years trying to make his way to owning a successful commercial-based insurance agency.

So what’s the secret to his success? "My success has been associated with the hard work, knowledge and long hours I put in the office making cold calls no matter the time of day to get my clients the security they lacked."

At the end of the day, this hardworking salesman is grateful to have gotten where he is now, able to "help other individuals and businesses feel secure and safe knowing that their families and investments are well protected."

The Trailblazer: Thomas Sponholtz (CEO, Unison)

This former Managing Partner for a San Francisco investment group realised something was wrong more than a decade ago. "I could see that there were people all over this country who couldn’t buy a home even though they had good credit and a reliable income, simply because they couldn’t save up enough for a down payment. First time home buyers were frozen out of the market and forced to rent for longer periods of time," explains Sponholtz.


So this every day business owner did the only thing he could think of: "With this massive idea in mind, I gathered a team to build the initial consumer and investment product."

His idea was seemingly simple: "the world needed a large-scale platform that could efficiently connect institutional investors who want and need exposure to US residential real estate with home buyers who need capital to purchase a home, or homeowners seeking flexibility to pull cash out of their home without taking on additional debt."

He quickly realised, however, that they were going to face a wide range of challenges. As the first company to bring this home ownership investment model to to consumers, they needed to be trailblazers. "It was up to us to carve the path within the current residential real estate, regulatory, and financial ecosystems."

But that didn’t stop them. "We spent the late 2000s building the necessary investment structure, formalizing relationships with investors and lenders, hiring a world class team, and working with regulators and others on this revolutionary concept," allowing them to build the first large-scale operational capability for home ownership investments.

At the end of the day, Sponholtz’s outlook on the challenges is one of positivity: "What’s important is that we succeeded." In the end, what more can you ask for?

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