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How to Rebuild Your Life and Business

Q&A with Entrepreneur, Mike Coughlin

After years of thinking about the idea and managing a successful digital marketing agency with no time off, Mike Coughlin decided to launch the Blue Ocean Life Company. He finally found a product-based business model that he believed he could use to reduce his stress levels, while helping others as he always sought to do.

What is your “backstory”?

The most interesting thing about the Blue Ocean Life Company is that I would have never founded it if I hadn’t gone broke.

Back in 2010, I left my full time job working for an NYC-based search marketing agency to join a former co-worker to start a new digital agency. Like many others, we were arrogant enough to think it wouldn’t be hard to go off on our own and start our own agency. We were certainly wrong.

After 3 years of working together for a minimum salary and struggling to acquire new business, a partnership dispute arose and I was told to leave the company. I fell into legal debt, my bank account hit zero, and I could no longer afford to pay rent. In the short term, this was a painful experience, something I often liken to going through a bitter divorce, but in the long term I think it will prove to be the best thing to ever happen to my career and maybe even my life.

As a result of financial setbacks, I reluctantly moved in with my parents who had moved from my hometown of Brockton, MA to Dennis, MA on Cape Cod. I always had the option of pursuing full-time work, but I refused to give up on my dream of becoming a successful entrepreneur and now pushed to create my own independently owned agency. Although my self-confidence tanked for having to have moved back in with my parents, the change in environment turned out to be the best thing for me.

Given my personal history of dealing with traumatic life events, such as the sudden and tragic death of my older brother, I had battled anxiety and depression for much of my life. I had sought treatment in the past, often refusing medication for fear of side effects, and nothing seemed to work. Furthermore, dealing with the stress of trying to grow a business only made it worse.

In seeking to solve my troubles, I started searching YouTube and discovered something called “guided meditation,” which is a form of instructed daydreaming that helps people heal from traumatic life events. This is something that professionals often use to help veterans and others with PTSD, and the interesting thing I noticed is that many of these videos or audio tapes have ocean sounds and visuals for the purpose of relaxation and healing.

So as I started to listen to guided meditation audio, I began doing this at the beach while overlooking the ocean and it seemed to have a positive effect on my physical and mental well-being. After years of self treatment and a lot of ups and downs, it seemed that I had finally started to win my lifelong battle against anxiety and depression.This period of time turned out to be what I believe as a turning point in both my life and career.

Beyond taking care of myself emotionally while living at my parents house, I continued to push forward and educating myself in the world of business. More specifically, I read the book Blue Ocean Strategy, which I believe led me to the place where I am now in my career. Without reading Blue Ocean Strategy, I would have continued down the same miserable path, mimicking my competition while fighting a losing and bloody for profits, instead of trying to create my own uncontested marketplace. While reading this book multiple times, I came to realize something that had never ever crossed my mind before: that business wasn’t a zero-sum game.

As I had always sought to build a lifestyle business, one whose purpose was to reduce my own stress and anxiety, I started to adapt the concept behind the book to new personal life view. As a now non-corporate outsider not living in the city, I started to see the corporate world through a different lens, one in which everyone was unnecessarily obsessed about outspending, outworking, or outdoing the other to the detriment of each other. To me, their thinking was flawed, and they were viewing the pursuit of wealth and of happiness as a zero-sum game. This is how the concept of Blue Ocean Life started to come about, but years of difficulty would still be ahead of me. I was still running a struggling advertising business.

Though things did improve somewhat and I had a little money in the bank to spend for travel, I never had a day off. The stress was endless, as I was still battling in a hyper competitive industry. The lifestyle benefits of my business, however, were huge. I was able to spend much of my time in warm weather climates because that’s where my clients were and because I could work anywhere. One of my early clients was an iconic surf clothing brand located in Southern California and another was a liquor brand in Miami. As I began to travel more often, I started sharing scenic photos of oceanside views on Instagram. One day while sitting on the beach in Florida during an otherwise freezing January day in the Northeast, I used the hashtag Blue Ocean Life to describe the life I had created for myself.

From there, I registered the website (theblueoceanlife.com), acquired the necessary social media profiles, started building a Shopify store, and found a drop shipping partner. I sat on the idea for years, however, unsure if it would be successful while still being bogged down by the agency business. As I continued to learn that building a company in the agency business was an uphill battle, I decided I needed a change for my own financial and mental well being. So I consulted with a trusted advisor and she said Blue Ocean Life had real potential. Since then, I’ve now changed much my professional focus to growing the Blue Ocean Life Company while maintaining my other businesses. In an interesting way, Blue Ocean Company is actually a client of my digital agency, Digital Blue Creative, as I am leveraging my signature “Digital Blue” approach to marketing to build the brand.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?

This may not be the funniest thing, but as alluded to previously, it’s probably the most embarrassing. Having to move back in with my parents at 29 was quite embarrassing, especially after having a pretty successful career in New York City. I think I had to learn this lesson though, as I learned a tremendous amount about myself, and I needed to be exposed to the sobering risks of going into business on my own. As many others will learn, the stable ground that is underneath your feet when you have a full time job erodes quickly if you’re ambitious enough to take the leap like I did.

I realize i was very fortunate to have moved to a great location right near the beach, so I will not complain much, as I know many people are not that fortunate. But in the end, I find it interesting that something that seemed like a really bad break in the short term may turn out to be for the better in the long run. If all the bad things hadn’t happened, I can assure you I wouldn’t be where I am today. Perhaps others can use my story to put themselves at ease if they feel they are currently in a bad situation that they feel they cannot recover from.

What makes your business stand out? Can you share a story?

In creating the Blue Ocean Life Company, my goal has always been to create more happiness and less stress and anxiety for myself, but beyond that, I want to promote that same way of life for other people. The better the mental health of collective society, the better for everyone. In fact, I would argue that the biggest problem facing the world today is the ongoing world mental health crisis. Everything is connected to mental health — school and workplace shootings, drug addiction, online bullying, suicide, depression. The list goes on. So to me, trying to create a world with better mental health, especially for people who have mental health issues, is the most noble mission I can pursue.

In the early years, I spent a great deal of my time meeting with business people, tech entrepreneurs, Wall Street bankers, venture capitalists, and others in places like Cambridge, MA and New York City. What I learned from these meetings is that many of those people were simply not like me. They seemed to view profits as the one and only priority, while not necessarily focusing on building companies that aim to improve the collective well-being of society. While there are certainly many great entrepreneurs that are improving society, I feel that the social media technology craze has us chasing a way of life that isn’t necessarily good for us. In fact, there are many studies that show that bullying, suicides, and depression have increased as social media use has increased.

To counter the trend, Blue Ocean Life is about returning to a way of life where things were less complicated, less stressful, and less superficial or materialistic. While we certainly want to make money and are leveraging tools such as social media and technology to grow our business, we realize that happiness comes with moderation. Whether that’s the pursuit of more money or more technology, we think that sometimes less is more and simplicity can actually make the mind at ease.

We prefer our time spent outdoors, not behind screens, or stuck in the office dealing with corporate politics or boardroom battles. To help people escape this potentially toxic lifestyle. our goal is to empower people to pursue their own dreams, as difficult as they seem, without sacrificing their well-being.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Ever since I was a child, I always wanted to help other people. More specifically, I wanted to help people who had gone through traumatic loss like my family and I had gone through, such as the death of a child or family member. In fact, I started building a website dedicated to my late brother when I had graduated from college and made it my mission in life to make that foundation a reality. So in a sense, I wanted to be a philanthropist before I wanted to be an entrepreneur.

While I did have to put the nonprofit on hold to establish my own career, I discovered the concept of social enterprise in my adulthood. I learned that you could pursue both profit and helping the greater good of society through entrepreneurship at the same time. As a result, I adapted my business model to pursue a larger mission that is certainly close to my heart.

As an example, I am building an ongoing relationship with the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation, which offers an “adaptive surfing program to assist individuals coping with mental and physical illness in accessing the ocean environment.“ As my business begins to grow, I’ll be donating to the organization while also providing ongoing in-kind services, such as marketing consulting. Beyond this, I am looking to build relationships with other similar nonprofits or even ones that promote conservation of the ocean or oceanic wildlife.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I Started my Business” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Don’t quit working full time too soon. I made the mistake of leaving a job with no steady income lined up. However, I feel that the departure from my job was warranted because the work environment was causing me tremendous anxiety to the point that it was hurting my physical and mental health. In retrospect, I probably should have taken another full time job and then started my own company on the side. Then, after saving enough money over a year or two, I could have quit and gone off on my own.
  2. Don’t get a partner unless you need the capital. If you’re trying to bootstrap a service business, or a clothing brand such as Blue Ocean Life, do not take on a partner because you do not need one. You can hire service providers or strategically partner with other individuals or companies with complementary skill sets. You can use these relationships to augment your service offering without having to become an official partner. Taking on a partner creates tremendous financial and legal risk, especially if you have limited funds to stand up for yourself if there’s a dispute.
  3. Don’t forget to do your due diligence. I’m sure I’m not the only one that didn’t understand the concept of due diligence before starting a company. Not everyone that starts a business has a business degree, and I was one of those people. When I look back, I didn’t have a clue as to what was going to happen in the digital marketing space because I simply didn’t have the education. I didn’t even understand market forces and how quickly marketing tasks were being automated. I also grossly underestimated how difficult it was going to be to acquire new customers in a saturated market. In forming the Blue Ocean Life Company, I have done my due diligence in that I’m aware of the risks/upside of working in this particular industry and have a plan for the future.
  4. You’re not as smart as you think you are.I’ll admit it but I’d say I was fairly arrogant when I left my last job. I knew I was always an outside-the-box thinker, and I was extremely ambitious. However, I was inexperienced. Many people with years of business experience told me I was fighting a winless battle in the agency space, but I failed to take their advice. I should have taken their advice years ago and changed paths sooner. I would say you should respect the opinions of more senior people, the ones that have many years of experience. You will learn a lot of you pay attention to what they have to say.
  5. Enthusiasm and drive don’t necessarily equate to success. I watch Shark Tank all the time and the most common thing I see is that people often mistake criticism of a business concept for personal criticism. It happens all the time. You’ll see someone on Shark Tank who is extremely enthusiastic and claims to have a great idea, yet not one of the Sharks believes the company will be successful. The person often gets angry and decides to stick through the pain of growing a business that likely won’t succeed. I was like one of these people years ago, except I Iater learned to channel my enthusiasm and drive into a business that has a much higher opportunity for growth. When I Iook back, the business veterans I came across didn’t really believe in my business, not necessarily as me as person.

What’s your best work-life balance tip?

I think one of the most important things you need to do is unplug your phone and leave it on the other side of your room so that you don’t check it when you’re in bed or when you first wake up in the morning. It’s sad but true, but technology companies are taking control of our minds by making their products addictive. Take time to unplug from work and will help reduce anxiety.

What’s your best growth-hacking tip?

The quickest way to get your feet wet in the world of entrepreneurship is to take the skill set you have from your day job and turn it into some part-time work. To acquire customers, I would connect with everyone you ever meet professionally on Linkedin throughout the entirety of your career. As you start put your plans into action, I would set up lunch meetings and have coffee/drinks with anyone who is open to connecting. These are the people that contributed to my growth in my business career, and I believe you could do the same thing in your pursuit. I would not recommend quitting your job though until you have some cash flow.

Be sure you have a plan A and a Plan B, before you quit and expect things to not go as planned. Lastly, If you decide to quit, you could possibly pitch your former employer(s) on hiring you as a consultant or freelancer. As you leave the 9–5 world, start planning for building a scalable business in the long term while leveraging your services business for cashflow.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Daymond John is probably my favorite entrepreneur because he has a true rags-to-riches story. I appreciate the fact that he came from a non-privileged background and he became a multimillionaire. Certain people in life have to climb uphill, and I realize many people often start at the bottom of the hill. It’s a lot easier to get rich if you come from a rich family, however, if you grew up in a poor environment it’s a lot harder or can seem nearly impossible. Achieving social mobility is extremely difficult in America it seems, although things are improving. I think now, because of the Internet, anything is possible.

I can relate to Daymond because I grew up in a middle to lower class community, which had a bad reputation for drugs and crime. Growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts was often frowned upon by outsiders, but I never let negativity keep me down. I take pride in where I was raised and it suited me well in the long term.

The emotional difficulties I faced in my childhood and adulthood were tremendous barriers to my own success. These emotional barriers are things that many other people that have lived through traumatic life events, such as war veterans or victims of violence, deal with every day. I view these people as underdogs in life, and those are the people I want to support and encourage. I’m someone that always roots for the underdog, and that’s why Daymond is someone I would love to meet.

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