Tips From The Top: One On One With Solomon Choi

I spoke to Solomon Choi, founder and CEO of 16 Handles, about his best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Solomon: I’m very passionate about technology and digital innovation. I’m definitely an early adopter. I like to go to digital and technology summits just to surround myself with other leaders in the space trying to apply new technology to their businesses. Growing up, I was always the one that would be sold on infomercials, and even now I’m easily targeted on Facebook and Instagram ads to buy the latest gadgets.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Solomon:I’ve always been a big risk taker; I believe that those that take the greatest risk deserve the biggest reward. In my case, I certainly took a risk in the sense that I left sunny Southern California to pursue selling frozen dessert in the Northeast with the seasonality. Something that really carried me forward here was the fact that New York City, by far, is the most global city in the world, and I wanted to build a global brand with a global reach. In terms of failures and setbacks, I try not to look backwards, which, I think, is a positive characteristic. I’m always looking forward – I don’t have time to look backwards. Certainly, I make a lot of mistakes, but I don’t look at them as failures. If I could go back and change something, it would be building a team and an infrastructure that could support the growth as opposed to chasing it and trying to keep up with it. Looking back at when I started my business, that was probably the biggest challenge and where I had to work the hardest and not necessarily the smartest; I had to take on three of four different roles because I didn’t have the support team in place.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Solomon: I try to attend a lot of leadership forums and training programs, and network with other leaders in order to gain diverse feedback for how people exude their leadership. I think there’s certainly not one way to go about being a leader. What’s worked with me is I try to create an environment where people are willing to take risks. I myself am a risk-taker; I believe that innovation comes from taking risks, which involves making plenty of mistakes. If we were all able to get that perfect idea on the first go-around, then everyone would be successful. I am anti “paralysis by analysis” and my leadership style is definitely more of a “Let’s go, go, go, and if we make mistakes along the way, let’s not repeat those mistakes, because then, there’s an issue,” but I try to reward good intent. I also try not to micromanage, as that’s something I hated when I had my first job. I believe that you allow people to develop themselves as professionals and individuals within an organization and to grow when they feel like they have the room to spread their wings. When you are constantly having someone look over your shoulder and micromanage and breathe down your neck, it makes you feel more like a turtle, where you want to hide in your shell and do the least so that you don’t get noticed. With me, I like creating an environment and leading by example – let’s spread our wings, let’s try things – that’s what keeps things engaging and will ultimately lead to the best ideas.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Solomon: The three tips I would share are:

1. Being able to take risks.

2. Don’t take yourself so seriously. A lot of times, we’re in the public eye, whether it’s at the organization, or in media, or to our constituents. We feel so worried about trying to look and act the part and be perfect that it can come across as inauthentic or disingenuous. I believe people want to follow someone who is authentic and who “believes” in what they actually believe in and does what they say they will do. When you’re in a leadership role, you don’t have to be something incredibly polished and something that you’re not.

3. The third tip would be to really acknowledge those around you. Not everything has to be your idea. Surround yourself with people who feel that they can excel and celebrate all the small victories – celebrating those victories and acknowledging those things is very important.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Solomon: The single best piece of advice I have ever received was during my first college internship working for a media ad sales company. I remember a sales consultant whom I really looked up to (mainly because he drove a very nice car, he had a very nice fancy watch, and seemed very polished). He would take me out to lunch and really took me under his wing, even though he didn’t have to. I remember asking him, “How did you get to reach this point?” of what to me, seemed like success. “How do you have this confidence where you look like a) you really enjoy what you’re doing and b) this is the real you. You seem very consistent. How do you maintain that?” I also noted that sales is very competitive, and I wanted to learn how he was able to maintain success after all these years. He told me that his longevity of success has been through forged relationships; that, no matter where he goes or what company he works for, he was able to reach out to his rolodex of previous clients and companies he has worked with.

In sales, it’s a tug of war, and people want to get the upper hand. Generally speaking, when you are on one side of the sales spectrum, going to buy something, you want to get the best deal. The person trying to make the sale is trying to maximize the return on their sale. What he told me was that he was ok with having 49%, and giving the other person 51%. I pointed out to him that this meant losing every time, but he said, “No, in the long term, those relationships will yield dividends and will yield so much more business because they will trust you, and people want to work with people they like and trust.” He said this was the best way that he was able to grow his rolodex and remain highly successful and desired in his profession. I’ll never forget that. Rather than trying to win every single time and be pennywise and pound foolish, sometimes it’s better to forge that relationship, give up a bit more, and have a much longer relationship. That’s the winning combo.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Solomon: Something everyone should be doing to pay it forward is to mentor and provide guidance to someone else. I like to give back by giving speeches or doing speaking events at schools. They’ve ranged from high schools, middle schools, colleges, student organizations, professional executive organizations – I believe there are so many people out there who can benefit from just hearing someone else’s story. Any time you’re able to put yourself out there and be vulnerable and transparent about your journey, I think it gives confidence and perspective to others, who can pick out nuggets from someone who deals with a lot of similar challenges.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Solomon: I love to travel because I love to learn about other cultures. This has been ingrained in me since I was young. I’m fascinated by cultural differences. I have a knack for picking up languages. When it comes to traveling to new places, I love trying the food. That’s probably one of the reasons I’m in this industry. Whenever I travel anywhere, I like to see how food plays into the culture and I love going to where the locals go. I like to try things that maybe most Westerns might be deterred by. I strip myself of all the preconceived notions and throw myself out there as a nomad in their land, and I want to experience things from their lens when I’m there and have a different perspective. I find that, culturally speaking, through language, food, and entertainment, I get a deeper understanding of the culture.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Solomon: I believe in taking the time to pursue your passion. I always tell students that it won’t feel like work or mundane or repetitive if you’re constantly doing what you’re truly passionate about. It doesn’t mean that there’s a perfect job where you only get to do what you’re interested in, but you need channels to be able to express yourself. If you can give back by inspiring others with your story and your interests, I definitely would encourage people to do so. If you’re unhappy, just stop what you’re doing, press pause and reevaluate. Make a list of what makes you happy and find a way to connect to that, whether it means a new job, a new set of friends, reading or learning more about those things – life is too short. We’re so much more digitally connected now and it’s difficult to get quiet time to reflect on the things that make us happy. Determine what makes you happy and incorporate it into your life in a daily basis, be it within or outside of work. Make time to do those things –  make time for the things that are important and the people who are important.

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