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How I’m Crushing It

Lewis Howes, School of Greatness

IG: @LewisHowes

Lewis Howes knows the sound of a broken dream. For him, it was the snap of his wrist as he slammed against a wall during his second game as a professional arena football player. An All-American football player and decathlete, Lewis at first refused to accept that the injury meant he’d never play professional sports again. For six months as he recuperated from extensive surgery in a full-arm cast on his sister’s couch in Ohio, he held out hope that he’d recover enough to resume his athletic career. But after another year of trying and failing to rebuild the strength he’d once had in his arm, he had to accept that it was over. For a lot of people, it would have felt like the end. He’d already survived childhood sexual abuse and been bullied in school, where he had struggled to keep up due to dyslexia. Sports had been his refuge and his salvation, and he’d dropped out of college to try out for the NFL. Now, despite all his efforts, he was left with nothing—no degree, no skills, and no money. And it was 2008, when even people with ample amounts of all three couldn’t find a job.

What Lewis did have, thanks to his athletic training, was a belief in himself. He started pondering the question, “What could I create if I could create anything in the world?” He already knew what it felt like to get paid to do something he loved, so there was no question of taking any old corporate job he could get. But he needed to do something, because after so many months of living on her couch rent free, his sister was getting impatient.

A mentor suggested he get on LinkedIn. Lewis realized that the platform gave him direct access to lots of successful people, people who might be able to lead him to opportunities or at least explain to him how they had gotten to where they were.

“All I ever wanted to do was be around inspiring people that I could learn from.” He spent the next year, eight hours or so a day, connecting with local business leaders, inviting them to lunch and conducting informational interviews to learn more about how they’d achieved their success. Thinking he might be a natural fit for a job in the sports world, he’d at first reached out to a number of sports executives. As one person connected him to another person, who then suggested he meet with another, his circle grew wider. As he learned more about LinkedIn’s possibilities, he optimized his profile, which then led to bigger and bigger influencers agreeing to meet with him. By the end of 2009, he had thirty-five thousand connections.

At the time, Tweetups—in-person gatherings of Twitter users around a common cause—were a popular networking venue.

“I went to a couple and I thought, Hmmm, I’m building this following on LinkedIn. Why don’t I do a LinkedIn meetup?” So he did one in St. Louis, where he had once gone to private boarding school. Three hundred fifty people attended, and thanks to selling a few sponsorship tables, he earned about a thousand dollars.

“So I was like, Hmmm, why don’t I see if I can do another event and charge five dollars at the door?” He did, and he made money off the entry fee as well as the sponsorships.

“And then I was like, Hmmm, I’m building a relationship with these venues. What if I asked for a 10 percent commission on the food and bar sales from these networking events?” They said yes.

In short order, Lewis was bringing in a couple thousand dollars a month, enough to finally get off his sister’s couch and move into his own apartment, the cheapest one he could find, a little one-bedroom for $495 per month in Columbus, Ohio.

People were astounded. How was he pulling this off? He didn’t have a real job, he didn’t have a college degree, and yet he was bringing big influencers together all over the country and being asked to speak at conferences. All through LinkedIn. They started asking if he could show them how to use the platform for their businesses, too. And Lewis thought, Hmmm.

Lewis started teaching other entrepreneurs and businesspeople how to optimize their profile and reach out to potential clients, investors, or whomever they needed.

“I think because I came with energy and passion, I attracted opportunities. I attracted people to come to these events. I became passionate about teaching, because no one else was talking about LinkedIn the way I was. I made it fun when LinkedIn is very boring for a lot of people.”

Not long afterward, he found out that an entrepreneur named Gary Vaynerchuk would be having a signing for his new book, Crush It!, in St. Louis. Lewis reached out and offered to help promote the event on LinkedIn.* Given that he was helping promote the book, it made sense to read it. It was a long time ago, and he remembers very few of the details today, except for one chapter: Care.

I never felt like I was smart. I never felt like I had the intelligence, or the skills, or the experience, or the credentials. I didn’t have any of that. So when I read that word, I thought, Yes! I needed to continue to deepen my level of care! When I would meet with these influencers, I would never ask for advice. I would just say, “I’m so curious to hear your story about how you became successful.” And at the end of that I would say, “What’s the biggest challenge you have in your business, or your career, or your life right now?” and listen. And they would tell me everything they needed. I said, “You need a sales guy? I’ve got three of the top ones right here. You need a programmer? I’ve got this person. You need a designer? I met one last week. He was great.” I just became this connector to all the most successful people. I never asked for a job. I never asked for business. That one-word chapter confirmed that when we show up and we add value and we care, then we can learn how to make money around it later. But show up with value first. That is how I built the last decade of my life.

Lewis was already teaching himself to be entrepreneurial and making a little money, but now, inspired, he really put on the gas. Crush It! said you had to be niche, so he decided he wasn’t going to be “the social-media guy” like everyone else in 2008–2009; he was going to be the LinkedIn guy. Crush It! said work fifteen-to-sixteen-hour days, so that’s what he did. “I was working my ass off.” He built up his expertise until every social-media conference was booking him as the LinkedIn speaker. He also got creative.

I started approaching venues, which were mostly restaurants and bars, and built a relationship with either the manager or the owner. I’d try thinking about how I could make my event valuable for them. How could I care for their biggest need, their biggest challenges? So I started asking, “What is the night you make the least amount of money?” And they would answer “Tuesday night” or “Wednesday night” or whatever it was, and I’d say, “OK. I’m going to bring you five hundred people on that night, because I want to make every night a profitable night for you, not just the weekends. And I’m going to bring new business leaders, a new audience of quality people to your business.” Lewis did, and what was once these venues’ worst night became their biggest night. From then on, they were willing to let Lewis host events any time he asked. He did, but he also started taking bigger risks.

“I just started to go for it and ask for what I wanted, even if I thought it wasn’t going to work. I started asking for 20 percent commission off food and bar, as opposed to 10 percent. I charged twenty dollars at the door instead of five. And I started charging more for sponsorships.”

Because Lewis was bringing so much value to the venues, the sponsors, and the event attendees, all were more than happy to pay a higher price for Lewis’s services. In one year, he hosted twenty events around the country.

He branched out into other service products, and in two years, the company was bringing in over $2.5 million in sales. But despite the success, after a few years, Lewis was ready to do something new. “I became less passionate. There’s only so much I can talk about how to add the right photograph and optimize your LinkedIn profile.” He sold his business and got started on his next project, School of Greatness, a podcast that shares inspiring stories, messages, and practical advice from some of the biggest athletes, celebrities, and business minds in the world.

Since its inception in 2013, School of Greatness has been downloaded tens of millions of times and makes a regular appearance in the iTunes podcast Top 50. In 2015, Lewis published his New York Times best seller, The School of Greatness. He continues to coach, attend speaking events, and contribute articles to major media outlets. And while Lewis still loves and uses LinkedIn, he has also focused his efforts on other platforms that drive the most traffic, downloads, and sales and help him continue to build his audience. At this point, the only thing holding him back is that he’s just one man, so he has hired a stellar team to help him run all aspects of the business, from podcast editing to Facebook ads to customer support.

“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I had to learn the skills I needed and become competent enough to match my confidence, but the thing that surprises me the most is learning that it’s not about how much you know; it’s about how much you care. We can create anything we want to if we have the passion, the energy, the hustle, and commitment to our vision. If I had been a jerk all along the way and I didn’t care about people, there’s no chance I would have been able to do this. If you show up with that energy and intensity every single day, good things are going to happen.

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