First in a series on my entrepreneur-lawyer journey. I was an entrepreneur before I was a lawyer.
I’ve always liked computers; my father has been in information systems, first through his career in military intelligence in the army, and now at Cisco Systems as a systems engineer. Despite being around computers in the 1980s and 1990s, however, I wasn’t that into them beyond that entry-level video game addict stage. I didn’t seek out computer studies in college, it happened because I asked the collegiate counselor: “Which major can I choose whereby I do not have to actually attend class?” The answer was computer engineering because if you passed the exams, you passed the classes. I had always been bored with school while being great at tests, so this suited me. The counselor warned that it was impossible to pass the exams without attending class, but I learned that a great friend of mine had also selected computer engineering, and I knew that he would attend and make good grades and warn me about tests.
First Business Venture
As a computer engineering major at the University of Alabama-Little Rock, I caught the entrepreneurial bug.
My first business came by noticing all the sorority girls around campus wearing new, trendy jeans that cost $100-350 a pair. I wondered how I could get some of those jeans cheaper.
I called around until I got someone on the phone from New York that had an exclusive deal with Macy’s to buy overstock of these jeans and resell them to boutiques. I talked this guy into sending me a few samples, and then, a few boxes. We grew the business from one box to a company with more than $500,000 in revenue and over 20 employees, mostly volunteers among my friends. You can imagine the popularity of a job that consisted of going to sorority houses to watch girls try on jeans and have them ask you, “Do they look good?” and the like. That business closed after the manufacturers of the jeans cut off my supplier because they decided that selling the overstock of the previous seasons jeans was “against brand policy.”
Short term, this company, “Denim Addiction,” was a great success and a huge learning experience when it came to human resources, corporate structure, taxes, branding, marketing, and product sales, and all before the advent of Facebook or social media.
Moving to Finance and Investments
After graduating with decent grades, I applied and was offered a few jobs at the big information technology companies at the time, namely, Acxiom and Alltel. But, during interviews, I walked around the cubicle farms full of the anti-social “computer nerd” types and Dilbert comic strips and decided that the computer engineering life was not for me.
A few months later, I did what any smart kid that hates the academic system does: hit the books. I had a friend that was in finance and told me that I would be great at investments. I had a minor in Mathematics that came with only one extra course from my engineering degree and I’ve always excelled in math, so I set out to study for my Series 7 & 66 (investment accreditations). My intention was to work on Wall Street, “Boiler Room” style.
After passing the tests, I headed to New York City and interviewed with some Wall Street firms, including Oppenheimer and John Hancock. It was just like the movies. The room was filled with 20-somethings yelling into their phones and using every sales technique in the book, many of which seemed similar to those reserved for used car salesmen. I was sold. I loved the intensity, the “survival of the fittest” mentality, eat what you kill or be killed. But, after a few short interviews, I learned that it didn’t matter that I already had my license. All firms required that I start from the bottom and get coffee and make minimum wage for many months. Given that I knew no one in New York City that I could shack with and minimum wage couldn’t buy a closet to sleep in, my dreams of Wall Street ended as abruptly as they began.
However, my career in finance did not. I moved back to Little Rock and found employment at Ameriprise Financial for a short stint and then broke out as an independent financial advisor for Lincoln Financial under the tutelage of a small firm in Conway. This is where I learned the true meaning of “sales.” The only assistance that I got from my boss was a desk, a phone, a closet full of “dead leads,” and a phone book. I spent hours every day cold calling people and trying to convert strangers hanging-up to people trusting me to invest their life savings, using nothing but my wits.
If you are considering law school, here’s some advice: spend a year in a true sales position. The legal industry is virtually allergic to the word “sales” despite the fact that a large part of any solo or small firm attorney’s job is selling his or her services. The stigma that attorneys have placed on the word “sales” is an archaic premise and should be immediately set aside.
Law firms can benefit from the techniques, principles, and best practices of leading sales teams more than any industry I’ve come across. Ever. I am more thankful for my gut-wrenching experience with sales than I am of any other experience I’ve had and I continue to use the skills I’ve learned. It’s not just learning how to sell, but also learning how to interact with people, communications skills, customer relations, follow-up and persistence, and work ethic.