…Taking responsibility for where you are. I wholeheartedly believe we have an environment that’s built for success, but we as humans don’t know what to do with being so interconnected. A lot of conflict comes from people not taking responsibility for their life and blaming somebody else. And I get it! I’ve done it, too. It wasn’t till I took a good hard look at myself in the mirror and realized I wanted to be someone I could look back at with pride that I realized the need for personal responsibility. I needed to do it for myself. Not for my parents, not for any sort of narrative reason. I’m responsible for where I need to be. And if I were to start a movement, that’s what it would revolve around.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Butler. Jeff is a keynote speaker, entrepreneur, author and workforce consultant who helps leaders optimize their organizations. He’s perhaps best known for showing companies how to build a cohesive, multigenerational workforce.
Thank you for joining us Jeff. Can you tell me a quick story about what brought you to this career path?
It’s really bizarre. In college, I used to never raise my hand in class. I was extremely introverted. You’d probably be shocked to hear that now, because I do between 50 and 100 speaking gigs every year.
It all started when I was 24 years old. I had just founded a tech company and realized pretty quickly that wasn’t what I wanted to do long-term. After leaving that company, I took a look at my bucket list and said, “What do I want to do?”
Number seven on that list was public speaking.
I joined a branch of the Toastmasters Club, and from the first moment I spoke there, it was completely clear: this is what I wanted to be doing for the next 10 to 20 years of my life. It only took four months to break into TED, and it was early on that I found the niche that I’m pursuing today.
See, my original entry point was talking about how to use smartphone technology in an organization, but it didn’t take long to find out that there wasn’t much of a market there. At one of my early talks, someone in the back of the room gave me the idea that I’ve run with ever since. They raised their hand and said, “Hey, you’re a millennial — why not talk for millennials?”
I hadn’t ever thought about it before. But thinking about it then, it was a logical choice. You look at organizations and they have a huge range of ages in there, and it can cause conflict. Or if you’re trying to recruit and retain younger individuals, you have to know how to do that. From that point on I focused everything on that angle.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Can you think of a time you had to overcome something really difficult on your entrepreneurial journey?
Absolutely. You often hear about entrepreneurs leaving their day job and immediately making a success of themselves from there.
When I was 23 years old, I was working and making six figures a year in my day job. I decided to give up my very lucrative full-time job and pursue my side business, which at that time was only making a few thousand dollars. It was just enough to pay the bills. I was relatively young, but I’d grown up in a family of entrepreneurs — that’s the natural trajectory.
What I found out rapidly was that I hated the company. That was when I jumped to Toastmasters and began the public speaking.
I had literally no income. I burned up my savings. I went into massive credit card debt. It got so bad that I had to go back to being a software engineer. At that point I began to build up my savings again and pay down my credit card debt. But just as I started to get back to solid financial footing, the company that I was working for collapsed. I was out of money again.
I lost literally everything, including respect for myself, and I had to go back to the regular workforce and say, “I guess I’m not good enough for this dream.” But I still continued hustling hard on the weekends. I’d work all week, then fly out over the weekend and go halfway across the United States and back in the same day to do a gig. I was working beyond what people thought was possible.
It wasn’t till I spoke at the leading conference for the software industry I was working in at the time that things started to click — there were five or so people I worked with in the crowd saying, “Why is this guy we work with giving the keynote?”
The business took off after that and I wound up leaving the company. It no longer made sense for me to keep doing my day job when my speaking was going so well. But the road that led to it was really hard, and I thought about giving up often.
What do you think that experience taught you?
Having to go through such a hard time, I learned how to survive on nothing. And being able to have that sort of determination out of the gate, saying, “OK, this is my full-time job,” I’ve been able to have 25 to 30 percent growth each quarter. That’s with a strong team and a lot of other help in there.
But if I didn’t have to lose everything at the start, I would never know what it’s like to lose. It was very empowering in that sense. When you lose all your money, you go in debt, and you’re sinking, you realize pretty quickly whether this dream is that important to you. You know whether you want it enough.
Where do you think that drive came from? How did you keep going?
It started 3 weeks into my first job.
I was just starting out on my first full-time job, and I saw that the guy next me was making like $170,000 while I was just hitting the $100,000 mark. In that moment, I suddenly realized that he was fifteen years older than me — 15 years from now I’d be right there.
Is that really what I want written in the book of my life?
One of my biggest fears is not living life on my own terms — or at least trying to realize who I am as a person. That really scared me seeing that in the company. Working for an employer is a great thing for some people based on temperament, but that was when it clicked for me.
If I go down this route, I’m going to be working a job that I have to have, never really trying to offer the world something unique.
Can you share a a funny story from your entrepreneurial experience?
Oh, you’ll enjoy this one …
I was doing an A/V check for a talk and they didn’t have the screen on. There was this video that I was using for my talk that had millennials behaving badly, and one part of it was this girl just sighing over and over — you see where this is going, I’m sure …
There was no sound, and the screen was black. I was just up on stage testing, and people began to come into the room. Then suddenly the sound came on full blast and all you could hear was this loud sighing, which sounded like moaning … they can’t see my screen, and I’m in front of everybody.
I just had to say, “Sorry everyone! That was not what you think it was.”
I’ve never blushed so hard in my life.
What do you think makes company stand out? How do you think that will help people?
A lot of people when they talk generally speak about “the younger generation.”
I try to make it more specific — I only talk about “millennials.” That’s refreshing, because usually thought leaders, experts and keynote speakers are older individuals who have left their corporation, have free time and want to share their experience with the world.
But when they talk about generations, they can’t talk about younger people comfortably because they just don’t know. I have firsthand experience. That’s one of the reasons I don’t focus on Generation Z at all. My job is simple: how do you get people in the workplace to get along across generations?
What would you recommend to your colleagues to help them avoid burnout as an entrepreneur?
That’s a difficult question. I feel like burnout comes when you don’t care enough about the company. But fair enough, a lot of people do that.
If you’re part of the group that cares, here’s what you do. You write down all the activities in your business and see which ones you care about the most. A lot of entrepreneurs get bogged down in the little things.
For me, something that’s super important is meeting with and talking to potential clients personally. I didn’t feel comfortable sending someone else to represent me and close the deals. But when I passed that off, it opened up the schedule. When you can pass things on to other people, you have time to take care of yourself and do the important things.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My dad told me when I was very young that everyone should have the goal to leave the world a better place than they found it. I’ve always kept that as a core tenet of what I do. I’m trying to bring ideas forward that will help people who are in the position I was when I was in corporate America. That will let them achieve success in their own way.
The other thing I try to do is help companies create great environments for their employees so people actually look forward to coming to work. Whether people’s path takes them into being an employee or being an entrepreneur, I want to help them have the happiest, most fulfilled life possible.
What are five things you wish someone had told you before you founded your company?
First, don’t leave your day job if your company’s not making money.
Don’t believe all the hype of Silicon Valley — make sure your company is able to produce sales.
Be able to let go of things in your business. Anything in your business, including you, can be outsourced.
Become comfortable with the uncomfortable. There’s a negative stigma when you start becoming more successful. You lose friends, become a target, and if you want to move up there’s a lot of friction that comes with that.
And finally, the hardest thing in entrepreneurship isn’t hardship or failure. It’s when you succeed. It’s the people you lose along the way. By far that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. I lost a lot of close friends, and that bothers me a lot.
You’re somebody who has a great deal of influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most good to the most people, what would that movement be?
Taking responsibility for where you are.
I wholeheartedly believe we have an environment that’s built for success, but we as humans don’t know what to do with being so interconnected. A lot of conflict comes from people not taking responsibility for their life and blaming somebody else.
And I get it! I’ve done it, too. It wasn’t till I took a good hard look at myself in the mirror and realized I wanted to be someone I could look back at with pride that I realized the need for personal responsibility. I needed to do it for myself. Not for my parents, not for any sort of narrative reason. I’m responsible for where I need to be. And if I were to start a movement, that’s what it would revolve around.
Thank you so much for your insights!