A few years ago, I was plagued with over $30,000 of student loan debt and had no idea how to pay it off. The last thing I wanted was to spend the next two or three decades in debt — I knew I wanted to pay my loans off fast.
Here are six valuable lessons I learned while tackling my debt and starting a business abroad.
1. The real currency you’re dealing with is trust.
With no ties to China, I knew that my dream of starting a business in Beijing would be full of challenges and surprises, but I still stepped up to the plate. I realized I would need to establish trust first. That was the real key to turning strangers into clients. I still remember my very first client back in 2014. At the time, I didn’t have an office, so we met at a coffee shop. An hour later, I received over a thousand dollars on the spot from this complete stranger. At the time, I thought it was all pure luck. In hindsight, however, I realize it wasn’t. It was trust.
Without trust, there wouldn’t have been a sale. Trust is the predecessor of any transaction, big or small. I can’t think of a single place in the world where this fundamental rule does not apply. Without being consciously aware of it, I was building trust with strangers and quickly showing them I was highly credible and reliable.
Two years later, I still continue to serve a 100% Chinese-speaking clientele. And, as ironic as it may sound, my biggest paycheck to date came not from the United States, but from the People’s Republic of China. But my entrepreneurial journey near the Great Wall was no crystal stair. I hustled to earn the trust of my clients, and the same is true for any entrepreneur who wants to create a lasting impact.
2. Be cognizant of how you spend your time.
Today is the youngest you will ever be, so it’s important to be mindful of how you spend each day. Think of your days in terms of minutes. There are 1,440 minutes in a day — one-third of which you spend sleeping. After that, you’re left with about 960 minutes. If you commute to work for an hour each way, then you lose another 120 minutes. Take away the time spent on an 8-hour work shift, and you’re left with only about 360 minutes. Oh, and don’t forget mealtimes. Now you’re left with only 180 minutes of free time per day. That translates to just 3 hours. So, how are you spending your precious time?
Your mindset will shift once you realize the instrumental value of your own time. I no longer watch endless hours of television, as doing so was a real drain on my time. Simple changes like leveraging technology to automate tasks and using a productivity planner have completely transformed the way I handle my daily obligations. Before I go to bed, I always plan out the next day in writing. I can even tell you my plans for the next few months. If you don’t leverage your time, growing and scaling a business will be an impossible feat. If you don’t give it all away, you’ll find that you actually do have enough time in the day.
3. Focus on activities that generate revenue.
As soon as you start your business, you’ll quickly start to identify which activities generate revenue. I found that live events and in-person activities focused on sales really impacted my bottom line. So, instead of focusing on the minutiae of creating a fancy website, I spent most of my days talking directly with prospective clients. Before long, thanks to my focus on revenue, I’d paid off all my debt and taken charge of my finances.
4. You are the average of whoever you associate yourself with.
Motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Those words definitely ring true. If you want to be successful, try to spend more time with people who you feel are successful. Join a community of people who have already achieved what you dream to accomplish.
The lesson here is to find a community where you can learn and grow professionally. Your vision should be propelled — not hindered — by the people around you. Don’t let others’ comments get in the way of what you want to accomplish. Instead of spending your time with people and things that hold you back, fire them and don’t look back. Uplevel your network by seeking out mentors, coaches, and peers who support your vision and goals.
5. Learners are earners.
For nearly two decades, we sat in a classroom, but the reality is that the streets of the real world don’t operate like a classroom. There are so many problems in life that can’t be solved on a blackboard. This is why the key to getting ahead and staying ahead is lifelong learning. Find a community where you can learn freely and think independently without fear of exploring new ideas. Create your own classroom.
Between 2014 and 2015, I read nearly 50 books because I was hungry for answers. I doubt I’ll need to go to that extreme very often, but I definitely needed to “un-learn” what wasn’t important and figure out what really mattered. I read everything from biographies of successful entrepreneurs, to history, business, and finance books. Warren Buffet, arguably one of the greatest investors of all time, once said, “The more you learn, the more you earn.” It’s true. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my income peaked when I became a voracious reader.
6. Begin with the end in mind.
Think about your legacy. Envision the impact you want to leave upon the world when you’re no longer here. What is the real impact you hope your business will have?
Write that burning reason down, and put it on your wall so you can look at it every day. It can be a daunting task to plan out years into the future, and that’s why most people don’t. When the going gets tough, look back at what you wrote down and remind yourself why you’re going after your dream.
If you aren’t clear on the reasons why you want to start a business, chances are you might lose hope and give up too soon. With a powerful “why” coming from a place of good intention, you’ll be fired up for your business for decades to come.
Lillian Okoye is a business strategist and coach for aspiring entrepreneurs. Fluent in Mandarin, she also enjoys helping others learn Chinese. Check out her free exclusive gift: “6 Steps To Launching A Business In China” and Exclusive Bonus Video.
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