You need to create a memorable and remarkable experience for those you serve (customers, vendors, partners, employees, etc.) When others are talking about their experience working with you and for you, they are either describing a good, bad, ugly, or memorable experience.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Otis.
Jeff Otis is the founder and CEO of Project OTY, an online platform offering a unique, personal leadership training experience for business and organizational teams to boost focus, confidence, performance, productivity, and efforts in reskilling the 21st-century workforce. Before founding Project OTY, Jeff led two companies to be ranked on the Inc 5000 Fastest-Growing Private Companies list for 14 years, while also being voted a “Best Company to Work For” in Oregon. In connecting with over 180,000 business leaders around the country, he has discovered what has since become the cornerstone philosophy behind companies and individuals that thrive, rather than survive.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in a supportive community full of great leaders, mentors, parents, and coaches. I was fortunate to play baseball and pitch for Oregon State University back when it was the Pac-10 and I have always been fascinated with people, process, and “the game”, whatever the game is. I’ve been surrounded by great leaders and have studied great leaders my entire life. I’ve always admired those that are at the top of their game. There’s unique confidence, focus, and belief that things will turn out well.
I spent 15 years in the employment staffing industry. I watched thousands of people struggle with transformative moments in their life. Many demonstrated “victim” type behaviors (pointing fingers, blaming others, making excuses, etc.) for the way their life was turning out. I saw the impact this was having within teams, organizations, and communities. I saw others demonstrate accountable behaviors but still struggled to consistently be the leader in their life.
The problem that stood out to me is that nowhere are we consistently teaching individuals the skills to leverage their unique strengths and get the most out of life. Nowhere do we consistently teach people how to be the leader in their life, and nowhere are we consistently preparing people to play today’s game of life. We know that when we lack consistency, the best we can hope for is inconsistent and unpredictable results.
Shortly after the events of 9/11, I started piecing together the framework for an organized, transformative, and educational process designed to build personal leadership skills, confidence, and accountable cultures. I felt we could do better as human beings.
I believe you cannot solve individual, organizational, or even big world problems until you develop personal leadership skills that are in alignment with creating an accountable culture and definition of success. You have to define the game you are playing to play it well.
Another cornerstone belief of mine is the concept that you cannot lead others until you learn to lead yourself. And, if you can help someone to live their best life, they will help you, your team, and your organization to do the same.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The “Aha moment” was in 2012. I’m the President of an online marketing company. I’m sitting at my desk and an email comes in. The subject line says “I’m off to chase rabbits”. It was from a 25-year-old woman who worked for a company vendor and was quitting her job. Her email was vague so I replied and asked, “what rabbits are you off to chase?”
She replied and said something about going to LA and working in the health and fitness industry. Her reply was vague and then some time went by. About six months later, I received a call from her. We caught up for a bit and she said, “I need help, I think I have QLC”.
I had no idea what she was talking about. I had never heard of a QLC. She described it as a “Quarter Life Crisis” and said it was a real thing and encouraged me to look it up on the internet. So I did. It means that when you get to your mid-20’s you start questioning who you are, what you are doing, why you are doing what you are doing, what you are going to do in the future, etc… You know, what you want your world to look like.
I’ve seen this many times. This young lady was at a Transformative Moment in her life and she was spiraling so I asked her if she would be interested in going through the educational, leadership process that I’d been steadily and quietly honing since starting to piece things together in 2001.
She went through the process, charted out 20 bullet points that represented what she wanted her life to look like in 10 years when she’d be about 35 years old. She identified fears she would need to manage, people she could enroll to help her, goals to measure her performance, and immediate next steps she could take. She essentially built herself a “Roadmap”. It was her definition of what success looked like for her.
She went to work on her plan and in less than two years, she had accomplished 18 of the 20 bullet points she had listed. She doubled her income, bought a house, started traveling more, landed a dream job, etc.
After years of refining the process, this was the “Aha Moment” that led us to work toward sharing the Project OTY process and experience with others at scale.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
I’m a big believer that we all develop Unique Strengths based on our personal experiences, moments, and influences in life. I’ve learned that there is never just one person who helps. This is the same mentality I applied as I started the journey of building Project OTY. I kept asking questions, sharing the vision, and learning what I needed to learn from people that I perceived to have Unique Strengths that would complement my own.
This is a hard question to answer. Many people have inspired me, ranging from my parents and the local community to various athletes, coaches, business leaders, educators, and so forth. I’ve always paid close attention to those that are at the top of their game and how they go about their business.
All of that said, if I had to name one person, it would be two people. The first is my daughter, Sammy, for the ongoing inspiration to be a good human. The second is for my wife Cheryl who said, “go for it”. The people that believe in you are the people that motivate you to confront your initial fears in starting whatever journey you start.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
As we initially shared the Project OTY experience with hundreds of young professionals, executives, and leaders, the number one comment we heard was, “Why didn’t I learn this in school?”. The challenge is what they were learning and the process they were going through isn’t taught in school or in business consistently, but I think it needs to be.
I believe what stands out most for people is they are introduced to fundamental skills and a process that is 100% focused on them. The experience nurtures the core instincts of a human positively. The process and exercises intentionally lead an individual to critically think about their future in a personally accountable manner. Additionally, the process leads an individual to be optimally organized for sustained success. Individuals consistently report feeling more safe, secure, peaceful, happy, and confident about the future they are building for themselves and those around them.
After hearing comments from a variety of business professionals, we spent a few years testing and sharing the Project OTY experience with thousands of high school and college students representing multiple demographics. We saw remarkable growth in the students. Over 90% of the students who finished the Project OTY experience reported feeling more confident about their future. A teacher named Katy Robinson summed it up best when she said, “This could have a massive global impact.”
Our passion is empowering individuals and organizations to “own their success” versus gravitating to victim-type behaviors (ie. making excuses, blaming others, pointing fingers, etc.) We’re providing a structured methodology based on best practices, but the process is fluid and flexible enough to be tailored and applied uniquely to each individual. This personalized flexibility within a consistent structure helps us to stand out.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When you can impact one individual and help them develop clarity in terms of who they are, where they are going, and why they are going there, this results in making the world a better place. Collective confidence goes up while anxieties and fears go down. Bringing goodness to the world is what we focus on every day and what I always aspire to do.
When we’ve shared the Project OTY experience with business leaders, educators, and curriculum directors, the reaction has been that this is exactly what we need to be teaching the coming generations. In regards to the big picture, I believe what we are sharing with the Project OTY experience is a foundational framework that leads to developing accountable cultures, personal leadership skills and will help our world connect with an aligned purpose.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Empathetically Calm: When I was in the employment industry, it seemed like we tested every predictive behavioral assessment. We were always looking for the best tools to help us connect job applicants with potential employers. I won’t tell you which one we used the most, but all of these tests and exercises produced a very similar description. The test results consistently described me as “self-managing” and the “calm” in the storm. I attribute this calmness to my days playing baseball as a pitcher. You have to be focused on each pitch and keep the game in control. I believe calmness helps you manage yourself and keep everything in perspective which has allowed me to focus on building and promoting great teams around me.
- Curiously Creative: Ok, that might count as two but I think they go together. I think curiosity leads to creativity and innovation. I’ve always found myself looking at things from different angles to understand how it works, why it works, what it is, or what it could be. Whether it’s people or something else, I believe when we are naturally curious, we find creative ways to connect solutions to problems that move things forward. A wise person once said to me that… “If you are not growing, you are dying so grow a little every day.” To this day, I constantly question what’s possible and stretch to look at things differently. As soon as we stop believing in what’s possible, what else is there to do?
- Humbly Grateful: Nobody does it alone. At some point, there is always somebody who helps you or influences you to become who you are. Early on, I was taught to say “thank you” for every moment, influence, and experience that came into my life. I was taught that there is a lesson to learn in every moment when you look for it and I developed the habit of saying “thank you” for everything. I think practicing gratitude fills everyone with confidence and the competitive spirit to keep moving forward, which is paramount in business and life.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
To be honest, I am grateful for every lesson learned. Early in the process of building Project OTY, I was prompted to outsource video production. In the excitement of creating professional videos, valuable time and resources were taken away from building out our core infrastructure at an early stage. Essentially, it was putting the cart before the horse. Our team obtained great video content and we learned a lot about our messaging, but it was not our biggest priority for our bottom line at that moment. In hindsight, we could have worked with self-produced videos and held off for a year before going down this path. The takeaway here is to not worry about the flash or sizzle before getting yourself ready for the market. Live and learn.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Like everyone, I had to go through the four stages of the learning process. Stage one is you don’t know what you don’t know. Stage two is that “oh shoot” moment when you realize you don’t know what you need to know. Stage three is that moment when you know what to do but still need to think through things. Stage four is that moment when you operate on a reflex because you’ve seen it or have experienced whatever it is thousands of times. In today’s world, I think less about hard times and more about what it is we still need to learn. After years in business, it’s clear to me that learning never stops.
I think every entrepreneur and individual faces these learning moments in their growth process. Like everyone this last year, as the pandemic hit, we had to pivot multiple times. We shifted some of our focus from education to businesses, organizations, and teams while the world of education works to get back in a rhythm. For us, the pandemic kicked us into gear to learn what we needed to learn.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
Having the patience to go through the stages of learning (the hard times) is probably the internal battle I have most often with myself. My drive to continue is fueled by my competitive spirit, my love for people, and my willingness to face challenges no matter how large the obstacle. My satisfaction comes from seeing people achieve more than they ever thought possible with Project OTY.
Daily, I practice gratitude and remind myself how far we have traveled through the evolution of our business and the lives we have impacted. I think setting the bar high for our vision and what we define success to be is what keeps us moving forward. I’m not afraid of hard work and I don’t give up easily. Through all the phases of our growth, I never hesitated to ask others for their input and I’d listen intently to figure out the good advice from what felt like noise.
I intentionally called this business a “project” because we don’t ever see the work we do coming to an end until we have a global culture of personal accountability.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
To me, baseball, life, and entrepreneurship go hand in hand. What I always loved about the game of baseball is that there is no clock. It’s one of the few games in which time is irrelevant. It’s a game that is focused on “situations” and the “next step”. It’s the same thing in life and business.
We have no idea when the game will come to an end. We only have control over whatever it is we are focused on today. I try to remember and channel what it felt like to be a pitcher in control of the game. I try to focus on removing the emotional extremes from the equation and look for the lessons or magic in every moment.
What I’ve learned and witnessed thousands of times is that we generally do not feel stress in our lives until we are trying to control time, or when time is controlling us. You can find the element of time in just about every stressful situation.
I’ve always focused on being calm in the storm, removed time from the equation, and looked for the lessons to learn in every moment. When it is time to celebrate a victory or a win, I focus on applauding those around me who helped make it happen. I’ve found that sharing gratitude and celebrating others helps keep me grounded and consistent.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
When your vision of success is clear and you have defined what a “win” looks like for you and those you serve, the answer to this question is easier to answer. I don’t know if one or the other is the right choice for everyone. Money simply helps you move faster. It allows you to buy time. However, sometimes you are not in a position or ready to move fast. Sometimes, there is still more to learn first.
I think time is the commodity that you are truly after and need to pay attention to. The questions that run through my mind when considering this question are things like, is your product or service needed in the market today? Are you solving a problem that you see coming down the road? Who are you competing with? Do you have enough time or runway to develop your product or service before the window of opportunity is closed? Are you under time constraints to perform? Is your team and are your processes ready to run, or is there still more learning to do?
I believe that when you look at this question from the perspective of time, the answer will easily appear for you.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- You need a good idea. Ideally, it’s a “purple cow” kind of idea that can stand out from the crowd. Whatever it is that you are going to do should be focused on solving a problem rather than just an inconvenience. When people can see your solution as a “no-brainer” and relate your solution directly to a problem they are experiencing and need to solve, they are more likely to buy. Focus on being of service to others and you will find that you have a winner.
- You need a good team. Nobody can do it alone. It doesn’t mean that everyone on your team is on your payroll. Your team is those people in your life that can support you, encourage you, and give you the type of positive energy that fuels you to keep going. Surround yourself with energy givers and people who have unique strengths that complement your own. Focus on developing and enrolling leaders around you.
- You need a willingness to learn. Life is constantly evolving. A growing business is constantly evolving and the world is constantly changing. The day you think you know it all is the day you are done. Look for the lesson to learn within every moment.
- You need to create a memorable and remarkable experience for those you serve (customers, vendors, partners, employees, etc.) When others are talking about their experience working with you and for you, they are either describing a good, bad, ugly, or memorable experience. Focus on creating a memorable and remarkable experience and the reputation of your business will travel through word of mouth and referrals which are paramount as you are getting started. Keep asking yourself, how do we create a more enthralling experience for those we serve and those we work with.
- You need clarity in your vision. This is probably the most important. You need to define what success looks like for you and your team. You need to define the game you are playing. The better you can articulate this to yourself and those around you who make up your team, the easier it is for everyone to make choices and decisions that are in alignment with your vision. You need to figure out the fears you will need to manage, who you can enroll to help you, set goals to measure performance and progress, and identify immediate steps you can take. Equally important is understanding the vision of others on your team. When you can create a win-win scenario, your team is more motivated, confident, engaged and you experience fewer “people problems”.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I think the most common mistake I see is overlooking the process of learning the key elements/basics of effectively understanding, communicating, and organizing information.
Keeping the communication productive and focused around a common vision is probably the most important role of the CEO/Founder. Understanding how that vision is relevant, and in alignment, with those on the team is the second most important role. The greatest mistake a CEO/Founder can make is forgetting that it always needs to be a win-win for those they serve.
Everybody wants to feel like a winner. Everyone wants to feel like they are succeeding. A CEO or Founder may have spawned the original idea but it’s those around the leader that help make winning a reality. Getting your thoughts, information, and plans optimally organized so you can clearly articulate the vision to the team is what sets the team up for success. This is what empowers a team to make choices and decisions that are in alignment with the vision of the company.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
I believe the number one thing is to find a routine that works for you. I’ve seen a lot of founders that develop a vision for their business but forget to create a vision for how they want to live their life as a whole. I believe when your choices, decisions, and routines are out of alignment with a vision for how you want to live your life, you run the risk of falling into unhealthy habits.
Starting a business is a lot of work and no two days, weeks or years will ever be the same. It’s important to identify core values that are important to you regardless of what it is you are working on. I have found that when I do this, I will find time to work these values into my daily, weekly, and yearly routines.
For example, I intentionally save Fridays for planning and practicing gratitude. This is my time of the week to create a “Plan A” for the following week and express thanks to those who are helping our team move forward. When I look back over a week and see how much was accomplished, it provides me with a sense of peace that we will get through a lot more in the coming week. Creating an intentional plan on Fridays also allows me to roll into a weekend with a relaxed mind and creates space for some of the best ideas to present themselves.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would do exactly what I am doing right now. I believe Project OTY is the framework for helping people live a peaceful, productive life. I believe that building personal leadership skills, accountable behaviors, and accountable cultures are no longer an option. Today, it’s the difference between a world in which people merely survive and a world in which people thrive. The same is true in a business.
I believe when a person lacks optimal self-organization, a vision for their future, and the confidence to manage transformative type moments in life, they will fail to succeed. I believe empowering individuals with the confidence to live their best life possible is the greatest gift we can share.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’ve always been a fan of Dave Matthews. I think some of his lyrics are uniquely special and the passion delivered within his performances is unparalleled. It would be cool to get inside his head for a little bit and better understand how he sees the world and the impact that he’s making on it every time he takes the stage.
I’d also like to spend some time with Oprah, Matthew McConaughey, Will Smith, Mark Cuban, Prince Harry, and Obama. I had Kobe Bryant on this list for years. I was looking forward to seeing what he was going to do next. These individuals all strike me as deep-thinkers with a passion for making the world a better place. I’ve got some questions that I would like to ask them about what they have learned in their journey.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I invite you to join the newsletter on our website (ProjectOTY.com). You can also follow our progress on Facebook (@ facebook.com/projectoty), Instagram (@ProjectOTY), Twitter (@ProjectOTY) and LinkedIn (@ linkedin.com/in/jeffotis).
I recently had the opportunity to share a TEDx Talk. (An awkward experience during a pandemic.) It’s available on the TEDx YouTube channel and titled “How to Create YOUR World — Jeff Otis.”
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thank you for the opportunity to join you in this interview. Great questions!