Connecting the Dots — Siamese Fighting Fish, Llamas, Life Insurance, and Science

(Note: Originally posted on Medium.com. From now on, Medium posts will eventually be provided here with a link to the Medium article.  Follow me on Medium to see article as soon as it’s published…link is below to follow me).

One of the best commencement speeches I’ve ever watched on You Tube was Steve Jobs’ speech at Stanford. In it, he talks about “connecting the dots” of your past, and it put him on his path to huge success. That speech was very inspiring, as most of what Steve Jobs talked about was. It is definitely worth watching if you have not seen it before and worth watching again if it has been a while. Slowly over time, my “dots” have helped me become self-aware about who I am, what makes me tick, and what makes me happiest. This article is about my journey. I hope I don’t bore you!

Though I was largely unaware that I had entrepreneur genes for the longest time, when I look back now, I can see how the events of my life are so clearly connected and have led me on the entrepreneurial path that I am on. The first “dot” was in middle school, when I would buy Now and Later candy and then sell the individual pieces to kids in the afternoon when they were hungry. I had a paper route and sometimes would pay another kid to deliver the papers for me, being careful not to lose a profit. In graduate school, I started getting interested in fish and was selling baby fish back to the pet stores where I purchased the fish to begin with. At one point I had more than 100 adult Siamese Fighting Fish (aka Bettas) in separate mason jars and was selling them online and sending them in the mail via Priority Mail. These fish have a special organ called the labyrinth organ that allows them to breathe atmospheric oxygen, thus allowing them to survive a 3 day mailing. Meanwhile, I was a student learning about molecular biology techniques in a lab. Not long after getting into fish breeding, I asked a fiend in the lab who was learning to code to make software to track the fish in jars. He did that, and we sold copies of this software called “BettaData.” (Dot 1)

A few years later I moved to Virginia and started buying llamas. After going to a llama show, I saw the prices of these llamas ranging mostly from $1000-$3000 and up. I thought that could be a pretty good business to run, so we started purchasing llamas and set up a farm. Tracking down quality breeding females was a chore. It required a lot of time researching llamas on the internet. I spent an entire summer looking at llama farm websites, waiting for replies and prices, before moving on to more farms’ websites. It was so tedious, that I just could not believe that there was not a website where quality breeding female llamas could not be found. So I decided to create a website to address this problem, called “LlamaSalesList.Com” in 2003. It was well received by llama owners, and it put me on the map. Before I knew it, I was running online llama auctions and making a profit from this website. I brought in a partner, a friend from college that was a web developer. He helped me take LlamaSalesList to the next level. Meanwhile, Animal Planet found my farm’s website, Burnt Mountain Llamas, and asked if we would like to be on a show called “That’s My Baby.” Of course, we said yes. We needed a pregnant female llama that was due to give birth, which we happened to have. Even better, this was the first baby llama being born on our farm. Our episode of that show aired in 2003 and continued to rerun for the next 5–6 years. I also started designing websites for llama farms and eventually hired a student to help with these designs too. Eventually, he did all the designing, and I found the jobs for him to do. (Dot 2)

Around this same time, I was unhappy with my day job at University of Virginia. It was the same unhappiness I had while working at Johns Hopkins. At this point of my life, I was still unaware that true happiness for me would only be found in creating my own business. I thought maybe the unhappiness was due to salary, and that a higher salary would fix this. I did wish that I could just run a llama farm and LlamaSalesList, but I did not think I could make enough income to live off. So instead I thought about becoming a pharmaceutical sales representative because they earn high salaries. They also need to be pretty knowledgeable about science and the way the drugs work, to explain to doctors. I had no real sales experience up to this point, but how hard could it be? (Dot 3)

Despite managing to get an interview with a small pharmaceutical company hiring for a sales representative, all the questions were sales related questions, so I bombed that interview. I started thinking I needed to gain sales experience first and then I could transition to pharmaceutical sales. So I left University of Virginia to go work for a life insurance company, which paid less money (with the promise of more money after one year). I didn’t care about salary loss, as I was thinking I was just there to get sales experience and then I would have a pharmaceutical sales position. But that is not what happened. Selling life insurance is hard, and to this day, I still believe that if you can sell life insurance, you can sell anything. I was in that job for a year and a half, before I became bored to death. I liked being my own boss (well, almost being my own boss), but I was not making much money selling. As it became so bad that I was making $600 for 2 weeks pay, I needed to jump ship and fast! (Dot 4)

I was then applying to jobs at different pharmaceutical companies to get myself out of a bad situation with the life insurance company. I did get a job offer and accepted it, which fixed my salary situation. Over a few years, it actually fixed the financial situation A LOT! I was happy for a little while but then that feeling I experienced before at other places I worked started coming back. Oh no! Higher salary is not fixing the unhappiness problem! What is the problem then?? Meanwhile, I still had the llama farm, LlamaSalesList, and AlpacaSalesList sites. I entertained some alternative thoughts for a while, such as going to law school. But I ultimately decided against that. LlamaSalesList was starting to slow down with the recession in 2008 and continued to slow a few years afterwards. When my partner came on board 2004, he promised to make an alpaca and horse site like the llama one, but he had yet to make the horse site. So we discussed this, and he suggested one new site to service llamas, alpacas, and horses. This prompted me to think about cattle, swine, sheep, etc. too, and thus, the idea for LivestockCity was born. Once LivestockCity began, LlamaSalesList/AlpacaSalesList ended. (Dot 5)

I am missing at least a couple other “dots” here, but I don’t want to bore my audience more than I might have. Let’s just say more opportunities have come out than I mentioned here. As I have become more self-aware by connecting these dots, what have I learned about myself? I have learned that good things have come out of all my experiences, even the life insurance job. What did I learn there? How to overcome “objections” to sales, how to build customer relationships, and how to provide customer service. That’s a lot to learn in a year and a half. Ultimately, and maybe I was a little slow learning here, I learned that I have 100% entrepreneur DNA, and I will only be my happiest in building my own projects. I cannot thrive working under someone else. I have a track record to support this. Now that I am fully aware, I am working towards that transition to full time entrepreneur. I am not too far away from this happening. Fortunately, I have a great work schedule where I am 15 days/month at the day job and 15 days off. This unique schedule allows me to work on my startups (I have a few projects of course!). Even if I make less salary than I do now, I still believe I will be happiest creating something from total scratch to solve pain points for others than working under someone else. What about your dots? How are they connected? Knowing this will also help you be more self-aware.

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About Jim 84 Articles
Co-founder of LivestockCity and Eshtar. Marathon runner. Non-practicing molecular biologist ( I know way more than enough to be dangerous :) ). Front end developer and back end developer pretender (still learning to code). @ejameswhite1.

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