Category: How Did You Do That

An Interview With Paul Armstrong

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Paul Armstrong

Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”

I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.

HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.

To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.

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Name: Paul Armstrong
Location: Bend, Oregon
Profession: Senior Software Engineer for Twitter Lite


Lots of people dream about working for cool tech companies like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Google. But you actually made it happen! You’ve been working at Twitter for a couple years. How did you get hired?

One of the previous startups that I worked for in San Francisco, tenXer, was acquired by Twitter about a year and a half after I left. At the time of the acquisition, tenXer was only 3 people: the CEO and two software engineers. The CEO transitioned into a Senior Director position within Twitter, and as he was trying to ramp up he was having a bit of difficulty getting his initiatives going.

One day, out of the blue, I got an email from him, that was more or less along the lines of, “Paul, Come work for Twitter? – Jeff”.

That sounds like a fairytale situation, and I suppose in some ways it was, but like anything that seems to happen overnight there’s always important backstory information to consider. For me, it revolves around an unfortunate streak of leaving jobs on bad terms and burning bridges on my way out, and the notable fact that tenXer was the first company with whom I left on truly good terms.

It was never my intention to leave things poorly with past employers, it’s just that I struggled to find the right time to walk away and could never seem to communicate with my coworkers and everyone involved in a way that allowed me to leave and remain on good terms.

With tenXer, I really cared about the company, people, product, and vision. I actually cared too much, and that was part of the reason I felt I had to move on. I spent day and night thinking about work, frustrated that I couldn’t make things the way that I wanted, feeling depressed that we weren’t attracting enough customers. I spent a lot of time talking with Jeff, my boss, letting him know where I was at, and discussing where I was going within the company and its ever-changing vision—which was pretty much nowhere.

Add to that the fact that I was newly married, and that my wife was planning a five month adventure project that would take her (and me, as her support person), away from home, and it felt like the right time to move on from tenXer. Seeing as how we were a team of only a few people meant that it wouldn’t be sustainable for me to be gone for so long, and I wanted them to have the best chance they could to get someone in my place.

I was able to communicate effectively with Jeff, who understood and didn’t take it personally, and we both moved on in our professional lives. Until a year and a half later when I opened that ever-so-short and to the point email (“Come work for Twitter?”) and I figured, “hrm… why not see what they’ve got to offer?”

Wow! That’s a pretty exciting email to get, out of the blue!

I know it sounds like a fairytale situation, and I suppose in some ways it was. But like anything that seems to happen “overnight,” there’s always a long backstory leading up to that moment.

My backstory included… teaching myself how to do software engineering (I’m completely self-taught, I never studied it in school), followed by a series of stressful jobs at various startup companies, working crazy 80+ hour weeks, burning myself out, and questioning where my career was going.

It took a fairly long time for me to realize that the “startup culture” wasn’t right for me, which, in a roundabout way, is how I eventually ended up working for a big, established company like Twitter.

Did you have a job interview with Twitter in person, or on the phone? What was it like? Did you feel nervous going into it? What, if anything, did you do to prepare?

My interview process was a bit different than the process Twitter uses today.

The first step was a phone screen, which I did with the hiring manager, who used to be a software engineer. He asked a few technical questions. Nothing out of the ordinary or particularly memorable at this point.

The second part, the part Twitter doesn’t do anymore, was a “take-home problem.” I was given the task of creating a small application, and I remember it being very open-ended. There were a few requirements, but I honestly felt it was too broad. I could have worked on that assignment for months, but they expected it would take about half a day.

I did my best, and actually ended up writing a pretty long discussion against the requirements of the application itself and including it in a README file. I wasn’t sure how they would feel about that, but I felt that I needed to explain what I was getting hung up on that was preventing me from doing my absolute best work. It turns out that I wasn’t the only person with these concerns, and this sentiment was reflected both with candidates like me and employees alike, eventually leading to the removal of this task altogether.

After that, to my surprise, I was called back for the last part of the process: the in-person interviews. These took the better part of a day in which I sat in a small room with a table, four chairs, a laptop, and a whiteboard.

I’d heard that most of the bigger companies in the tech arena drill interviewees with really complicated questions regarding algorithms that they’d never actually use, but only study in school. Or that they’d ask questions with no real answer just to make candidates fumble around and feel uncomfortable.

At first, I was pretty worried, because I’m self-taught in this field and didn’t have the time before the interview to brush up on algorithms that I had never taken the time to learn.

But before getting started, I took a moment to look at this entire process from another angle: Yes, they were interviewing me, but I was also interviewing them. I was steadily employed and I wasn’t desperate for this job. So I gave myself some criteria like: if they ask me questions that are completely irrelevant to what I knew the true job would entail, would this actually be a place that I wanted to work? Definitely not.

The first hour was spent discussing some nonspecific problems with open-ended solutions, like those you’d typically find in a software engineering interview. To my surprise, they weren’t focused on algorithms at all, but just generic problems that I would likely face on a day-to-day basis. I breezed through those and was feeling pretty good.

The second hour was lunch with one of the people that I’d be working with. It was mostly a “culture fit” thing, and we just chatted and got to know each other. It was good, again, to remind myself that I was also interviewing them as much as they were interviewing me. If I truly didn’t get along with these people, would I really want to work with them every day for 8 hours a day? Thankfully we did get along, but it was helpful (and a big stress relief) to remember that I just needed to be myself and see what happened.

After lunch, I was brought back to my tiny interview room. Two new people entered and had me add a feature to my initial take-home application. It was fairly easy, since I had anticipated this interview tactic ahead of time and had a good recollection of what I had written. I knew that they were looking to see how I actually work with a real-world problem.

The very last part was the most nerve-wracking portion of the interview. Two managers came in with my résumé and asked me questions about it from my first job all the way to my most recent. Details like, “What was your manager’s name?” “What would they say about you?” “Why did you leave?” “What did you hate about that job?” So many questions, one after another, for one long, grueling hour. It’s weird to go through years of history like that. I was definitely caught off-guard by how sterile it all seemed. But, in the end, I must have done a good job, because I received a job offer just a couple days later.

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Twitter is headquartered in San Francisco. But you live in Bend, a small city in Oregon, and you work from home. Did you have to ask your boss, “Is it OK if I work from home?” Or did they give you that option right away?

Working remotely is a bit of a hot topic at some companies. I actually started working remotely partway through my tenure at tenXer, so having a reference to get hired for another company was a big help.

Going into the interview with Twitter, I made it clear that I had recently moved to Oregon and had no intention of leaving. Thankfully, most departments at Twitter are pretty open to having remote employees and distributed teams. I’ve even had the pleasure of helping a few other employees transition from working full-time at the San Francisco headquarters to being remote in different parts of North America.

Looking back on your career, what’s been one of the most challenging or discouraging moments you can remember? Like a time when you made an embarrassing mistake, or felt really unhappy at work, or… something else? What was that moment, and how did you get through it?

The absolute hardest moment in my career was when I finally had to admit to myself that startup culture was not the right fit for me.

In early 2010, I moved from Minnesota to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue working in tech startups. I was pulled in by the fantasy that I could be the one to create “the next big thing”—the next AirBnB, the next Instagram, the next Lyft—and that any sacrifice made in service of that goal was worthwhile.

Like I mentioned earlier, I worked 80+ hour weeks, spending a majority of my evenings and weekends grinding away in the office or at home—usually on something that I didn’t even really believe in, because I thought that’s what “success” looked like.

Because of these types of working hours, I ended up without much of a social life. Work was my social activity. I didn’t know anyone outside of the office and many of my coworkers were the same way.

The common denominator between me and everyone I knew was… work. We were always either working or complaining about work. It was a toxic culture that didn’t place meaningful value on anything other than productivity. It was the kind of environment where it became a source of ego-stroking—almost like a badge of honor—to “complain” about how many hours per week you were working, or how terrible the project was.

I’d like to say that I had one life-changing moment where I realized how unhealthy all of that was for me, but the reality was much more gradual. First came the change to working remotely when I left San Francisco for Los Angeles, to be with my now wife. Getting physical separation from that world helped me gain perspective. I realized that what I wanted most was to do work that I was incredibly proud of during the day, but then be able to shut my computer at 5pm and truly be done. I wanted time with my wife and I wanted to pursue cycling more seriously. I wanted a life outside of work, and in order to do that I had to be willing to walk away from the startup world and redefine success for myself.

So, the job opportunity at Twitter actually came at a perfect time. During the interview process, it was clear that employees at Twitter are encouraged to have a life outside of work, and accepting this position gave me the incredible opportunity to experience what I really wanted: the chance to work hard during the day on a product I believe in, but not let it take over my life. And so far, it’s working!

You mentioned a moment ago that cycling is a big part of your life. In addition to working full-time at Twitter, you’re also an athlete, and you compete in cycling races in Oregon and across the country. How do you make time for all of your training? What does a typical weekday look like for you?

I wake up around 5:30am every day. Partially because that’s just when I wake up, but also because if I don’t, our cats will start crying to be fed and force me to get up anyway.

Most days, I try to eat a good breakfast and catch up on the news. Once or twice a week, I’ll skip reading the news and head to the gym for an hour.

By 7:30am, I’m typically in my home-office, at my desk, getting work done. Most of my co-workers don’t start work until 9am, so I’ve found that having an hour and a half to work before the rest of my team starts settling in is a great way to get some zero-distraction work-time in. I’ll work straight up until noon, at which time I have lunch with my wife. She’s in culinary school right now, and she’s always testing out new recipes for school projects, and I am more than happy to be her #1 food-tester!

After lunch, once I’m back at my desk, I’ll catch up on emails and do other short “housekeeping” tasks. Then as time allows, I usually try to sneak in a quick 15 minute nap. This is a great way for me to get back into work-mode, especially since I’m usually pretty tired by this point, having been awake for about 8 hours and concentrating at work for at least 5. After a quick nap, I’ll push to get one more big block of work done. I usually finish up my workday by about 3:30pm, and then I head out for a long bike ride, sometimes up to 3 hours. This works out great, because I’m usually able to get my bike ride in during the warmest part of the day, before it gets dark.

Most cycling races happen on the weekends, so those don’t interfere with my Mon-Fri work schedule too much. I think it’s like anything else in life. Whether you’re passionate about cycling, or baking, or watching cat videos on YouTube, if there’s something you really care about, you just carve out time to do it!

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Paul Armstrong

3 Things

If someone is interested in becoming a software engineer like you, what are the first 3 things they should do?

1. Learn by doing stuff and fixing stuff.

There’s a mountain of open source software available on the Internet. But don’t just use other projects because they work—understand why and how they work. Read the code, help debug issues, and submit patches to fix them. Even if for some reason your patch isn’t accepted, at the very least, you will have learned something that you didn’t know before you started.


2. Don’t hesitate to walk away from problems.

Software development is just problem solving. There are many ways to do it, but sometimes, the best way to solve a problem is to step back, get away, or work on something else for a while. Often times, my best solutions come to me while I’m away from the computer.


3. Figure out your own definition of “success.”

You don’t have to work 80 hours per week to be successful—and you don’t necessarily need to invent the “next big thing,” the “next billion dollar app,” or whatever.

Startup culture can seem glamorous, but it’s not right the environment for everyone. Everyone has their own personal definition of success.

For me, success means showing up to work, getting things done, feeling proud of my work, and then being able to shut down my computer and spend time doing other things that matter to me. If you’re going to spend the majority of your waking hours at work, make sure you’re pursuing something that actually feels like real “success” for you.


ONE MORE THING…

Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Paul? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)


YOUR #1 CAREER GOAL: ACHIEVED

Do you need some encouragement to help you achieve a big, daunting career goal? Would you like to have a career coach/strategist in your corner—feeding you ideas that you’d never considered before, helping you figure out who to contact, and what to say, and checking in to make sure you don’t procrastinate? If so… click here to find out how we can work together. I’d love to coach you!

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An Interview With Gary Cassera

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Gary Cassera

Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”

I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.

HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.

To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Gary Cassera

Name: Gary Cassera
Location: Los Angeles, California
Profession: Dog trainer & owner of Balanced Dogs LLC, a dog walking, training, daycare, and boarding company


How did you become a professional dog trainer? Was it something you always wanted to do, ever since you were a kid? Did you have a totally different career prior to working with dogs?

Before becoming a dog trainer, I actually worked as a tennis instructor. By the time I got to my mid-twenties, I’d spent more time on a tennis court than any human probably should. My knees were sore, and my mind was ready for a new challenge.

I’ve always been interested in dogs ever since I was a little kid. Growing up, my dad had a German Shepherd named Gretchen who was my best friend in the world. I felt a great connection to her. She was the only reason I went to visit my dad. Often, if I got in trouble, Gretchen learned to come to my defense whether I was guilty or not.

Recently, my mom gave me a project from 1st grade that said I wanted to work with dogs as my grown-up job. So obviously, I’ve always loved dogs! In my mid-twenties, when I was considering my next career move, doing “something with dogs” just felt like the right choice.

Lots of people fantasize about quitting their job and doing something outdoorsy, exciting, and fun—like dog walking or dog training. But you didn’t just fantasize about it. You actually did it! Walk us through the sequence of events. How did you become a dog-entrepreneur?

After my wife and I rescued a dog named Sammy, we realized—very quickly—the Sammy had a lot of “issues.” He was kind of like the “bad boy” character in a movie that you want to root for, even when he’s doing all kinds of naughty things. Sammy had a rough past, and he was pretty tortured and anxious. He’d snap at people, bark, and exhibit all kinds of hostile behavior.

We tried to “fix” Sammy, but we didn’t know what we were doing. No matter what we tried, his behavior just seemed to get worse.

Then one day, I was watching The Dog Whisperer TV show, and I had an epiphany. “Maybe Sammy’s not a ‘bad dog’. Maybe the problem is… me. Maybe I’m not giving Sammy what he needs in order to feel safe and happy.”

Through the graces of a higher power, later that week, an old friend asked how Sammy was doing. I told her the truth. ”Not good.” As luck would have it, she knew a woman who’d trained with Cesar Milan, aka the Dog Whisperer. It felt like fate! I hired her, and I learned a whole new way of “being” with dogs. My wife and I learned how to give Sammy the environment he needed, and how to communicate with Sammy in dog-language, not people-language. In no time, Sammy’s behavior totally changed.

The change was so dramatic that our neighbors started getting curious. While walking Sammy around the neighborhood, they’d come up to me and say, “Sammy seems different. What have you been doing?” Pretty soon, they started asking, “Well, can you help out with my dog, too?”

One thing led to another. First, people started asking if I could walk their dogs. Then they started asking for training tips. Then they started telling their friends about me. Meanwhile, I continued studying and absorbing as much information as I could. I signed up for more training with top dog professionals—including a guy named Michael Ellis who trains police dogs to do drug-sniffing and tracking. I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could. Eventually, Michael asked if I’d like to move out to California to join his team. I said “Yes,” and that’s probably the moment when my career in the dog industry felt “official.”

I don’t work directly with Michael anymore—that was a couple years ago. These days, I’m completely self-employed, which I love!

Let’s talk about self-employment for a second. Can you remember how you got your very first dog-walking client? How did you get people to hire you, back when nobody knew about you?

My very first client was one of our neighbors. Most of my initial clients were neighbors and friends—people I already knew, people in my immediate social circle.

I’ll be honest: in the beginning, I didn’t have any kind of “marketing strategy.” I just loved being with dogs, walking dogs, and talking to people about dogs. When I walked down the street with a pack of 5, 10, or even 20 dogs, wearing flip flops and a big hat and smiling, people would stop and smile back. They’d start chatting with me. They’d ask for my info and often, they’d call me up and hire me. Also, I’d pass out flyers and I’d drop business cards on every poop bag station I saw. All of my “marketing” was really organic. I just did what felt right.

Over the years, I’ve gotten more organized with my marketing. These days, I’ve got a website, a newsletter, a podcast, all that kinda stuff. But in the early days, it was just me, a bunch of dogs, a handful of business cards, and positive word-of-mouth referrals from clients. That was enough to get things going!

If someone wants to become a yoga teacher or fitness trainer, typically, they’ll enroll in a program, pass an exam, and earn a certification. Is it the same thing with dog training?

The interesting thing about dog training is there’s no real method, school, or certification that is “the industry standard.” It’s not like you go to college and major in “Dogs” and boom, now you’re a qualified dog trainer. Every dog trainer has their own unique career path.

The best advice I can offer is to study dogs—not just textbooks. Learn and grow from your fears, and always be compassionate for your client’s situation. I mean, nobody sets out to ruin their dog. People make mistakes with their dogs, but it’s usually not because of any malice. They just don’t know what they’re doing.

As a trainer, you can provide information and guidance—but then it’s up to your client to make changes. Changing means being uncomfortable. Dogs are OK with change. Humans, not so much. Humans like to do what they know and some struggle to change. I sometimes joke that “dog training” should really be called “human coping skills,” because that’s what my work feels like most days.

Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, has become one of your mentors. How did you manage to get a celebrity mentor like Cesar? How did you get in touch with him?

When you’re looking for a mentor, the most important thing is to figure out why you need them right at that moment. I’d been walking 20-30 dogs a day, and my dog walking business was going really well, but I was ready to “level up.” I wanted to learn more–and I wanted to learn from the best.

Google was my best friend. I researched every article that Cesar had ever written, every interview, every assistant and former employee. Eventually, I learned about a program that Cesar was leading at his center in Los Angeles. To attend the program, you had to apply. Like thousands of other people, I filled out the questionnaire and submitted it along with a short video where I introduced myself and shared what I was hoping to learn. I never heard back. Not even an automatic email confirmation.

But I really, REALLY wanted to meet Cesar, so I didn’t give up. I did some more Googling, and I found the name of a guy who worked closely with Cesar. Then I did something a lot of folks don’t do–I just called him up. He answered, and I was nervous, but I just started talking. 45 minutes later, he invited me to Cesar’s dog psychology center for a week of hands-on learning. SCORE!

Spending a week at Cesar’s center allowed me to hang out with his team, and they invited me to come back again. After several visits, I was offered a full-time position there. Cesar has taught me many things about myself, Mother Nature, and working with clients. So, to sum up how I connected with Cesar, the answer is: Googling, more Googling, and then finding the courage to make one phone call that changed my life!

What’s your favorite thing about your work?

It causes me to be constantly compassionate. When I’m working with a troubled dog, I have to take a being who has been abused—mentally or physically—and teach them that it’s OK to trust humans again, and that there’s a human who is willing to help them. Developing this kind of compassion has helped me in my business, in talking to strangers, even in my marriage.

Most importantly, I get to help create happy human-dog relationships. I get to keep dogs alive and in their homes, not in shelters or on the streets. That feels so good.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Gary Cassera

3 Things

If someone is interested in becoming a professional dog trainer like you, what are the first 3 things they should do?

1. Respect the language of dogs.

Dogs think like dogs—but humans often expect them to think like humans, and to understand what we want, in our own language. If you look at a “problem dog,” you’ll find that the real “problem” is a human owner expecting their dog to act like a human.

2. Understand that you’re going to be working with people, not just dogs.

You can’t solve an emotional problem with a physical solution—like a special leash or collar. Those are just temporary fixes. To create real change, the human owner has to learn how to “be different” with their dog. They might have to learn how to be something that feels uncomfortable—being more confident, more patient, more self-aware. Getting people to change is much harder than getting dogs to change.

3. Create a list. Keep checking things off. Don’t stop.

If you want to start a dog walking, dog training, or dog boarding business, start with a list. Write down all the steps you need to take. If you don’t know what to do, then write down the name of someone who can teach you, and make an appointment to talk to them. (Google is your friend!)

Make a list and check a few things off every week. Don’t allow yourself to get discouraged and overwhelmed. Just keep taking steps forward.

Email a few friends today and ask if they need some dog-walking help. Print out some flyers tomorrow. Sign up for a dog behavior class next week.

All of those incremental steps add up, and before you know it, you’re officially a dog-preneur… and you get to have one of the funnest, coolest, most rewarding jobs in the world.


ONE MORE THING…

Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Gary? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)

And, if you want to learn more about becoming a professional dog trainer from Gary, check out his amazing resources or sign up for his newsletter.


YOUR #1 CAREER GOAL: ACHIEVED

Do you need some encouragement to help you achieve a big, daunting career goal? Would you like to have a career coach/strategist in your corner—feeding you ideas that you’d never considered before, helping you figure out who to contact, and what to say, and checking in to make sure you don’t procrastinate? If so… click here to find out how we can work together. I’d love to coach you!

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An Interview With Vanessa Van Edwards

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Vanessa Van Edwards

Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”

I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.

HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.

To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Vanessa Van Edwards

Name: Vanessa Van Edwards
Location: Portland, Oregon
Profession: Human behavior researcher


You run a human behavior research company called the Science of People. You analyze data and then you create articles, videos, and classes on all kinds of topics—like how to detect if someone is lying, how to detect if someone is attracted to you, and how to tweak your body language to become more charismatic and memorable. Totally fascinating! I’m wondering… how did the Science of People get started? Did you wake up one morning and decide, “I’m going to study human behavior and start my own company”? How did this all come about?

I feel like I’ve been studying human behavior my whole life, because “people skills” never came naturally to me. When I was younger, I was always the quiet, chubby kid in the corner reading a book. I was very awkward and painfully shy. I wanted to make friends, but I didn’t know how. I started to observe people from a distance—trying to figure out what makes people tick, how friendships are formed, and why some people always seem so effortlessly confident and magnetic, while others don’t.

Many years later, a professor in college said to me, “Why don’t you study people like you study for your exams?” It was a concept I’d never considered before, but it intrigued me! I started making flashcards that I could use for conversation starters, and I started memorizing facial expressions and what they meant. Basically, I started studying people like I would study Mandarin or chemistry. That’s when I started to feel like I was finally understanding the people in my life.

I loved doing mini-experiments with the people around me, and creating surveys to collect data from people, and then I’d record my findings on my blog. As time rolled along, I started getting emails from readers who liked what I was sharing. I began to realize that there’s this whole niche of people who want to become more confident and charismatic, and who want practical, research-driven tips on how to do it. My company, the Science of People, was initially born out of that blog and the community of fans that it attracted.

You’ve been hired to do presentations at big companies like American Express, Dove, and Comcast. How do you typically line up those types of speaking engagements? Do you reach out to those companies and say, “Hey, I’d like to do a seminar for your employees—here’s my proposal for you”? Or do they reach out to you? Or both?

In terms of speaking engagements, I actually started out by doing presentations at schools. I’d go into high school auditoriums and PTA groups and teach kids about people skills, social and emotional intelligence—basically, everything I wish someone had taught me back when I was an awkward teenager!

Occasionally, there’d be some parents in the audience, and they’d come up to me afterward to chat. I think the first parent who came up to me was a lawyer, and he said, “I work in a law firm here in town, and I have attorneys who could use your presentation because they are very book smart, but not very people smart.”

I’d never considered doing events for grown-ups before, but it sounded interesting. I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to adapt my presentation to make it work for adults.” We scheduled a date, and that was that. I ended up doing several presentations at local law firms, and one presentation led to another. Sometimes, the lawyers would refer me to their clients, and then those clients would recommend me to other clients, and so on.

So, from the very beginning of my business, getting hired has always been driven by word-of-mouth marketing. Basically, one happy client talks to a colleague at another company and says, “Vanessa’s presentation was great. You should consider hiring her, too.” And that’s how it happens. That’s how I lined up my work with American Express and most of the other big-name companies—good old fashioned word-of-mouth referrals.

Of course, creating online content helps too! I still have a blog, and I also created a YouTube channel for the Science of People where I share science-y information but in a fun, entertaining way, with lots of terrible jokes! A lot of event coordinators and conference bookers will Google or search YouTube where they’re looking for speakers to book. They’ll often find my videos, and that’s helped me to line up presentations, too.

Let’s roll back to the very beginning of the Science of People—the first couple of months. How did it feel to launch a brand new business? Did you have fans right away? Did you have clients right away? Or did things feel “quiet” and “empty” and discouraging at first? Describe what those early days felt like for you.

My story of entrepreneurship is somewhat unusual. I started my business from my dorm room in college, and then it was fully launched by graduation day. I’ve never had a “normal job.” Being self-employed is the only type of life I’ve ever known.

I credit my mom and dad with giving me the inspiration to start my own business. Both of my parents are lawyers, and one day, they said to me, “We like being lawyers, but we don’t love it. And we get paid by the hour.” My mom said, “If I could give you one piece of financial advice, it would be to understand the concept of passive income.” She sent me to a financial seminar where I learned about passive income—which basically means, figuring out how to earn money by selling products, classes, and programs that people can purchase anytime, instead of having a regular type of job.

Using what I’d learned in that seminar as a blueprint, I set up my blog so that I could eventually create passive income revenue streams. I know, it sounds really nerdy, but to me it felt like a big adventure. I felt completed lit up and excited about the process. Plus, working on my blog felt a lot more exciting than studying for my final exams.

Throughout college, I worked on building a fan base for my blog, and then I started reaching out to local schools to see if I could speak to their students. And then, as I mentioned earlier, those school presentations often led to doing presentations for grown-ups. One thing led to another. I never really experienced a time period where I was desperate to find clients. I’ve just focused on blogging, making videos, and speaking in public as often as possible, and as a cumulative result of those efforts, clients always seem to find me.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Vanessa Van Edwards

You have a new book that was just published!  It’s called Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People. In addition to hitting the Wall Street Journal bestseller list, Captivate has been named the #1 New Release and #1 Bestseller in Popular Social Psychology & Interactions on Amazon. That’s amazing! How did you get a book deal? Did a publisher approach you and ask if you’d like to write a book? Did you write a book proposal and contact lots of literary agents? How did it happen?

I self-published a couple of books in the past. I’ve also released books through traditional publishers, too, including a book for parents and teenagers. So I was pretty familiar with the publishing industry, and I felt pretty “done” with it, actually. I didn’t want to write another book.

But then I was approached by Niki Papadopoulos at Portfolio, which is part of Penguin / Random House. She was so lovely, and she understood what Science of People was trying to do. She understood my message. And she said, “Look, let’s work on the best, most amazing book for your audience. Your audience would love a new book from you.” At first I resisted the idea, but then I realized that she was right.

Once I committed myself to the idea of writing a new book, I went “all in.” I figured, “I need to put my entire heart into this and make this book completely amazing, or not bother at all.” After I decided to go for it, everything happened really quickly. Within a month, I had an agent, a book deal, and the paperwork was signed. My lesson from that experience is that when you find people who really “get” you—and really understand and support the work you’re trying to do—then projects can move along really quickly!

What was one of the scariest or most humiliating moments of your career, and how did you get through it?

The process of writing my very first book—many years ago—was a pretty disastrous experience. With my newest book, the entire process has been exciting and fast-moving. I’ve had a supportive team and everyone is totally invested in the project. But with my first book, it was the total opposite.

Everything about that first book felt awkward and forced. I pitched my book idea to so many people, but people didn’t quite get it. I kept pitching and pitching, and I kept changing the concept based on people’s feedback. My book proposal got changed, the title got changed, the cover got changed—basically the entire book got changed into something I didn’t even like. And everything moved along at a painfully slow speed.

By the time that book hit the shelves, almost two years later, it did horribly. No one bought it. I wasn’t excited to promote it. I actually felt kinda embarrassed about it. Also, the publisher ended up using a cover design that looked very similar to another book in the same genre, so it looked like I’d plagiarized them, or they’d plagiarized me. The whole thing was a disaster.

That was such a disappointment because I really wanted that book to help people—and I didn’t achieve my goal, ’cause no one wanted to read it. That’s why I told myself I’d never do a book again unless the circumstances were completely different. Meanwhile, I did some soul searching. Reached out to friends. Put together some masterminds of people I trusted to help me with next steps. It took about 5 months to find my bearing and get through the fog of sadness and grief from the death of the book.

Ultimately, my lesson was… if you have a clear vision for a project, you can’t sacrifice your vision and change it a million times. Listen to people’s feedback, sure, but stay committed to your vision. Otherwise, you might wind up with a finished product that’s nothing like what you imagined, and it might feel really gross.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Vanessa Van Edwards

3 Things

If someone is interested in becoming a human behavior researcher like you, what are the first 3 things they should do?

1. First and foremost, be yourself. Don’t try to copy anybody else.

In the early part of my career, I tried to mirror and mimic other experts. But that didn’t work. Eventually, I found my own voice and my own way of talking about science—which is silly and goofy at times, with lots of puns and jokes! When I finally started doing things my own way, that’s when my blog, my YouTube videos, and my presentations really started taking off.

2. Come up with a clear vision of how you want to help people.

If you want to study human behavior, run a science-focused business, or any type of business for that matter, ultimately, it’s all about helping people. How do you want to help people? Start there.

Do you want to help people find true love? Do you want to teach people how to succeed in negotiations and earn more money? Do you want to teach awkward, shy kids how to build confidence and make friends? Do you want to help people overcome addiction? You don’t necessarily have to choose just one specialty. Maybe you’ll have a couple specialties. But you need to have some type of mission driving your work.

3. Pick your favorite mediums.

Some people love making videos and speaking onstage—like me! Other people love working with clients 1-on-1 or in small groups. Other people love podcasting, or building online communities, or developing programs for companies, and so on.

You don’t have to do everything. Choose the mediums that feel exciting to you and that will serve your clients best. Stick with those. Again, it all circles back to being yourself. With any type of business, it’s only going to work if you’re having fun and if you’re tapping into your natural strengths.

Don’t force yourself into a box that doesn’t fit. Make your own custom box.


ONE MORE THING…

Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Vanessa? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)


YOUR #1 CAREER GOAL: ACHIEVED

Do you need some encouragement to help you achieve a big, daunting career goal? Would you like to have a career coach/strategist in your corner—feeding you ideas that you’d never considered before, helping you figure out who to contact, and what to say, and checking in to make sure you don’t procrastinate? If so… click here to find out how we can work together. I’d love to coach you!

ELLEN_SIGNATURE

An Interview With Naomi Shihab Nye

Ellen Fondiler | Naomi Shihab Nye

In a 50 cent handmade shirt from my favorite Honolulu Goodwill
Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”

I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.

HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.

To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.

Ellen Fondiler | Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi (in center) with great librarians at Kaneohe Public Library, O’ahu, after a wildly successful community poetry workshop this past summer

Name: Naomi Shihab Nye
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Profession: Poet, Anthologist, Educator


You’ve written three novels, about a dozen volumes of poetry, and you’ve won a number of wonderful awards, including the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. Millions of people dream about building a career as a professional writer—but you’ve actually done it! Were you always certain that you’d become a writer? Was that always your plan, even when you were very young? Or was writing a career ambition that materialized later in life? Walk us through the sequence of events.

During first grade at Central School in Ferguson, Missouri, I had an experience which marked me, and which stayed with me to this day. My first grade teacher (who did not like me much) allowed me to post my first poem on a bulletin board in the hallway outside our classroom. An older girl, perhaps a third-grader, came up to me on the way to recess and asked, “Did you write that poem?”

“Yes,” I said proudly. The poem was about Chicago. She said, “I went there too. I know what you mean!” and ran off.

An electrical happiness rippled through me. My four simple lines were understood by someone older, whose name I didn’t even know. What a joy! Till that moment first grade had felt somewhat dull and slow. But now I knew I could keep writing poems in the margins everywhere, and I felt like a writer from that moment on.

In second grade, my school librarian urged me to start sending poems to children’s magazines. She said, “You’ll have to be patient. You might have to send out 20 poems before one gets accepted.” I said, “That’s okay. I have 28.” I think I sent out seven or so, before one about my cat Cricket was accepted by a children’s magazine called Wee Wisdom from Unity Village in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.

My beautiful, interesting parents were always supportive, but they never pushed me to do anything. They also did not make a big deal out of my writing. No pressure. No inquiries. No corrections, although they were both grammar and spelling hounds—so was I. They read to me all the time before I could read—this was crucial and gave me a strong sense of how many voices were out there. And my Palestinian father told me so many stories about his childhood and homeland, so in my family we developed a sense of “living in story” very early on. Officially he was a refugee and came from a refugee family, but I think he felt more at home in the wide world than many people ever do. He made a home in languages too, as a journalist, he was hungry to tell other people’s stories as well as his own.

Writing was never my career ambition. To this day, I don’t even like the word “career.” Or “ambition” either, though I know ambition is important. Writing felt more like a devotion, a practice, a necessary habit.

By the time I was in college, I knew for sure I was a writer and would continue to be, no matter what other jobs (working in restaurants?) I might have.

The publishing industry can be fraught with so much rejection. I’ve heard stories about writers pitching their work to 20, 30, even 40 different publishers and hearing “No thanks” every single time.It sounds like you’ve dealt with plenty of rejection, too. What’s your advice on dealing with that type of discouragement?

Sure, I get rejected all the time and always have. It’s not a big deal. I reject myself, too! You just keep working on your writing and sending it out again and again. Or, writing something else.

I think when you start sending work out very young, as I did, rejection just becomes part of the process. Don’t give rejections (or acceptances either) too much power over what you do. The main thing to remember is that it’s so important to get your work out there—pitch publishers, post it online, share it somehow, even with a circle of writing friends. “Each thing gives us something else” is my motto. After all, publishers rarely go prowling in anyone’s desk drawers to find their manuscripts. It’s up to you to send them out.

I’ve worked with the same amazing editor, Virginia Duncan, in the field of books for young readers and children for more than 25 years. She still rejects some of my ideas, though! She has to. It’s her job.

Ellen Fondiler | Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi with son, Madison, at Kailua Beach, O’ahu
You’re such a prolific writer. Do you ever experience writer’s block? Do you have low-energy, distracted, slumpy days? What helps you get out of a creative slump?

I think I heard Kim Stafford, one of my favorite writers, talk about having a lot of little pans and pots going on the stove at the same time. When you make a dinner, you don’t just cook one thing exclusively, then start the next thing. Simultaneous action! Baking and chopping and prepping and stirring…

Sure, I have slumpy days. Distraction is now the hardest thing—thank you, Internet. To get focused again… Take a short walk. Dig in the dirt. Do some weeding or trimming outside. Clean your kitchen. Answer a real letter in a real envelope. Read something you love. Write to someone who’s not expecting to hear from you. These simple activities, or any others you dream up, can be very helpful in terms of getting refocused. Don’t give the slump too much power, either.

Expect that the slumpy days will come, and trust that you can work your way out of them. Listening to good music and ironing for 30 minutes can also help. Sweeping is good, too.

I mentioned earlier that you’ve won several literary awards—four Pushcart Prizes, the Jane Addams Children’s Book award, and the Paterson Poetry Prize, just for starters. How does someone become an “award-winning writer”? Do you apply for those types of awards? Does someone nominate you? Does a judging panel select you and then notify you out of blue? What’s the process? How does it happen?

No, you don’t apply. Someone else (an editor, for example) applies for you, or submits your work for consideration. Many times you are notified out of the blue, yes.

I don’t think it’s healthy for a writer to think about it much. We don’t do what we do so we might win an award later. If our work manages to be cited in this way, it’s a nice, encouraging surprise. My book 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East was a National Book Award finalist. I guess that’s the biggest citation any book of mine has ever had. And it didn’t even win!

What was one of the scariest, most stressful, or most humiliating moments of your career, and how did you get through it?

ANSWER: Once I gave a poetry reading to a dog. This was not scary or stressful, however. No one else had shown up for the reading in a Portland, Maine bookstore, which surprised me, since the person I was reading with, Paul Janeczko, was FROM Maine, so where were his friends? (Just kidding, Paul.)

When a woman approached our stricken little vacant reading area before we were supposed to begin, and asked us to “watch her dog” after looping his leash to a chair, I insisted we read to the dog. Paul was dubious, if I recall. We read some dog poems from a new anthology we had co-edited, I FEEL A LITTLE JUMPY AROUND YOU. The dog was not very interested. He certainly did not buy a book.

3 Things

If someone is interested in becoming a professional poet like you, what are the first 3 things they should do?

1. Read all the time.

Read poems both like and unlike the ones you might write. Read widely, voraciously, open-heartedly. Read work by “others”—however you might define them.

If you are a young poet, read work by older poets and vice versa. If you are urban, read poems by rural writers. Obviously, read poems by writers of other ethnicities, religions, etc. Read writers from other countries—that’s one of my obsessions.

My editor Virginia Duncan and I made an anthology together 25 years ago—our first of eight—of international poetry in translation, THIS SAME SKY. It’s still in print and may be more important now than ever. It has a poem from Iraq on the back cover.

Read someone you once read and thought you didn’t like—try that person again. Subscribe to Poets.org and American Life in Poetry curated by Ted Kooser, and any such international poetry sites you can find. Banipal is a good one. Stay awake.

2. Develop a regular writing practice.

Tiny increments of writing time add up.

3. Speak your mind, your truth, as many ways as you can.

Find ways to share your work. We are currently living in a deluge of national delusion and discriminatory foolishness. We need everyone to talk about true, honest, simple, respectful things, to tell meaningful connecting human stories, everywhere possible—things you might have thought were obvious. Apparently to many people, they still are not. As I wrote a long time ago, “there are no days off.”

My father always said mutual respect would be the key to solving the Palestinian/Israeli ongoing conflict. A little genuine justice would help too. I love imagining what my father would say about the United States now, if he were still alive. One good thing about being a writer is that you can imagine more voices than your own, and what they might say. What a relief.

Ellen Fondiler | Naomi Shihab Nye

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – a rare and ancient book I was recently gifted by one of his descendants – used to read him aloud as a child – dramatically!
Woven by Air, Texture of Air

(In memory, William Stafford)

Some birds hide in leaves so effectively
you don’t see they’re all around you.
Brown tilted heads, observing human moves
on a sidewalk. Was that a crumb you threw?
Picking and poking, no fanfare,
gray huddle on a branch, blending in.
Who says, I’ll be an observant bird when I arrive?
Stay humble, belong to all directions.
Fly low, love a shadow.  And sing, sing freely, never let anything
get in the way of your singing, not darkness, winter,
not the cries of flashier birds, or silence that finds your
pen ready, at the edge of four a.m.
Your day is so wide it will outlive everyone.
It has no roof, no sides.

—Naomi Shihab Nye


ONE MORE THING…

Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Naomi? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)


YOUR #1 CAREER GOAL: ACHIEVED

Do you need some encouragement to help you achieve a big, daunting career goal? Would you like to have a career coach/strategist in your corner—feeding you ideas that you’d never considered before, helping you figure out who to contact, and what to say, and checking in to make sure you don’t procrastinate? If so… click here to find out how we can work together. I’d love to coach you!

ELLEN_SIGNATURE

An Interview With Danielle Cohen

HOW_DID_YOU_DO_THAT_DANIELLE_COHEN_1

Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”

I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.

HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.

To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Danielle Cohen

Name: Danielle Cohen
Location: Costa Mesa, California
Profession: Photographer


You’re a photographer and you’ve done all kinds of photo shoots—weddings, engagement parties, portraits of families and kids, professional headshots, photos of books, jewelry, and food, and more. How did you become a professional photographer? Did you wake up one day, buy a camera, and start teaching yourself how to use it? Did you study photography at college? Walk us through the sequence of events.

My love affair with photography began sometime in the late ‘70s. I was about 5 years old and I’d watch my dad make magic with his Polaroid. From there, like many lifelong loves, my relationship with photography went through multiple phases and iterations.

There were years of avoiding, flinching, and even running and hiding anytime a camera was in my general vicinity. Also, there were years where I felt an insatiable need to document everything and everyone around me. There have been lots of moments of photographing myself in secret so I could catch glimpses of who I was or who I might be—using photographs to see my own curves, lines, and marks. There were the single mom years of self-timer family pictures in the kitchen, and bartering photography services for baseball team fees and private school.

And somehow, through all those years and all those expressions, it never dawned on me to declare photography as a “career path.”

I always thought of myself as a healer, not a photographer. Besides, I never saw myself as “creative,” and the idea of being in a studio all day long sounded suffocating at best. I simply didn’t “see” it. Oh, the irony—haha! And yet, I always had my camera near by. I was always documenting. And then “suddenly” (note the sarcastic quotation marks) after years of gestating, one day I realized, “It’s OK if I call myself a photographer. Because that’s what I am.” And my photography business was (officially) born.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Danielle Cohen

You’ve been self-employed for quite a while. Let’s roll back to the very beginning of your career as a self-employed artist. How did it feel? Did you have clients right away, or was it difficult to find work? Did you feel excited and confident, or really scared? Or all of the above?

Here’s the truth: I’ve never seen myself as an “artist.” I see people as art, life as art, nature as art—and I am the voyeur, the documenter, the grateful witness.

As for how it felt in the beginning… I think the most challenging part was feeling so much doubt. Doubting my skills. Doubting my expertise. Doubting that I “have what it takes” to succeed. There’s always that whisper of doubt inside every human being, I think. It’s always there, but we learn how to manage it as we get older. At least, mostly.

The thing that always keeps me going is how good it feels to be with my clients—to connect with them, and see them, and reflect what I see back to them. It sounds hokey, but I’ve fallen in love with everyone I’ve ever photographed—and the love that I feel is so much bigger than all the doubt and mental chatter. Love is what keeps me showing up again and again.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Danielle Cohen

Many self-employed photographers have busy seasons and then slower seasons. There can be a lot of uncertainty, at times, and intensity at others. Is that true for you, too?

In the last couple of years, I’ve had some very, very busy months that definitely pushed my energy limit. Since then, I’ve tried to shape the rhythm of my year more intentionally. So this year, for example, I cut back on how many photography sessions I put onto my calendar. I also raised my prices. I’m also teaching, mentoring and writing more, because I can do those things without needing to drive through traffic, haul my gear across town, or get on a plane. I do love to travel and see my clients in their spaces, so I certainly don’t want that piece to go away, I just need to balance it out with home-based work.

Self-care has to be a priority, always. If I’m completely worn out, then I can’t be fully present for my clients, my friends, or my family. It doesn’t feel good. That’s not how I want to live my life. Even though my heart often wants to say “Yes!” to every business opportunity that comes my way, I’m learning to say “Yes” to my own vibrancy first.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Danielle Cohen

Imagine you could wave a magic wand and line up any type of client or project that you want. What would be your fantasy photography project?

My fantasy photography project would be a combination of documenting meaningful events happening in the world, photographing geographic romances, and writing well-loved books based on those adventures. Something involving international travel + love stories, basically.

What was one of the scariest, most stressful, or most humiliating moments of your career, and how did you get through it?

I mean really, it’s ALL scary! Whether I’m sending out a newsletter to my mailing list, inviting folks to check out a new project, or submitting an article for possible publication somewhere, it’s all pretty unnerving at times. And also it’s not. I mean, it’s all relative right?

But putting yourself out into the world can feel scary and vulnerable. This is one of the things I love so much about my clients. Most of my clients are creative entrepreneurs of one kind or another. The courage, intimacy and vulnerability of their work is so beautiful to me, and I know that part of my personal work is to try and grace myself with some of that same perspective. So, I don’t know if I actually do “get through it” but I am definitely devoted to staying in it.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Danielle Cohen

3 Things

If someone is interested in becoming a professional photographer like you, what are the first 3 things they should do?

1. Figure out why you want to do this.

Why do you love photography? Why do you think it’s important to document the world? Why are you drawn to this work? Are you passionate about animals, city landscapes, love stories, or…? Explore your “why” and then build your business around that theme. Figuring out why you want to be a photographer is wayyyy more important than defining your aesthetic, in my opinion. Knowing why you’re doing this work keeps you anchored.

2. Do the math.

When you’re figuring out what to charge for photo shoots, consider everything that goes into it: time spent scouting for locations, equipment, insurance, education, consulting, the actual photo session time, culling and editing and delivery. Figure out how much time goes into each client project, and charge accordingly. It’s dangerously easy to underestimate how much goes into a session. Then you wind up undercharging your clients, you get burnt out and resentful, and it’s not possible to sustain your business. Which ultimately serves no one.

3. Keep taking pictures for pleasure.

Never let photography become “just a business” or “just a way to make money.” Especially as you get busier and busier with client-related projects, it’s so important to make time to play and enjoy yourself. Take yourself on photo walks, or create still life’s, or self portraits. Let yourself continually be fed by the magic of your camera.


ONE MORE THING…

Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Danielle? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)


YOUR #1 CAREER GOAL: ACHIEVED

Do you need some encouragement to help you achieve a big, daunting career goal? Would you like to have a career coach/strategist in your corner—feeding you ideas that you’d never considered before, helping you figure out who to contact, and what to say, and checking in to make sure you don’t procrastinate? If so… click here to find out how we can work together. I’d love to coach you!

ELLEN_SIGNATURE

An Interview With Lisa Van Ahn

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Lisa Van Ahn

Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”

I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.

HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.

To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Lisa Van Ahn

Name: Lisa Van Ahn
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Profession: Kickboxer, fitness trainer, and founder of the I AM Initiative for Girls


You’re currently on the US National Kickboxing team and you’ve fought on an international level. That’s so impressive! How did you become a kickboxing champion? Did you always dream about competing at a pro level? Were you always an athletic kid? Or did you discover kickboxing later in life? Walk us through the sequence of events.

When I was 19 years-old, during a particularly volatile run-in with my boyfriend, I was pushed out of a Bronco and landed on the curb of a kickboxing studio. It sounds surreal, but it’s true. I walked up to the entrance of the studio and decided to go inside and try a class—and it changed the course of my life. That was the day that I decided to stop feeling like a victim and start moving down the path of confidence and self-love.

Up until that point, I’d been involved in a series of unhealthy relationships, and I was holding so much trauma and pain in my body. I started kickboxing to get out my anger, bitterness, and hurt, and to find my strength and confidence again.

After a year or so, I decided I wanted to try fighting in competitions. My first fight was a shock. I won, but I got hit so hard in the head that I thought, “I’m never doing this again.” But then three days later, I had a change of heart. I was soaring from the excitement of that first win, and I decided I wanted to move forward and keep training. I’d never felt so sure of myself and proud of what I could do.

I spent a number of years competing at an amateur level before taking on my first professional fight. After winning my first professional kickboxing match, I moved to Las Vegas. I boxed there for 3 years before moving back to Minneapolis and joining the US kickboxing team. My time fighting on the US team has been incredible. They’ve unlocked opportunities for me to fight all over the world, and it’s been one of the best experiences of my life.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Lisa Van Ahn

You run LVA Fitness in Minneapolis, and you offer personal training, nutrition, and weight loss services for your clients. Take us back to the “early days” of your business. How did it feel to start a completely new business? Did you have clients right away? Or did things feel “quiet” and “empty” and discouraging at first? Describe what those early weeks and months felt like for you. (Also, describe how you got your first 3 or 4 clients, if you can remember.)

In 2003, I moved from Las Vegas, where I’d been boxing professionally, back to Minneapolis. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I was skilled at fitness and athletic performance. Also, years of training camps and cutting weight for fights had given me a great basis of understanding for proper nutrition and fat loss.

The first incarnation of my fitness company was called Santé Fitness. Santé is the French word for health. When I think back on it now, I laugh because I thought choosing a French word sounded so “fancy” and “official.” These days, I believe that simplicity is best, which is why I changed my business name to my initials: LVA.

Back in ’03, I created a website and found a local fitness studio that I could rent by-the-hour to teach classes and work with clients individually. In the beginning, I was bartending part-time and teaching fitness the rest of the time. Working in that studio really helped to build up my confidence. The studio owners introduced me to new clients and I taught some of their bootcamp classes, too. After awhile, I stepped into more of a “partnership” role with the studio, which also helped me further my client reach.

My first long-term client found me through my website. She contacted me on the phone, we chatted, and I invited her to come to one of my bootcamp classes. She was really unhappy with her body. After taking my class, we talked again. She had a lot of weight to lose, and I gave her an achievable plan that promised better fitness, nutrition, and comfort in her body.

Over the course of one year, she lost 75 pounds with me. She also left her marriage and stepped fully into the light of being herself. Working with that client gave me so much confidence in my abilities as a trainer. It also helped me to see, very clearly, that I want to help people truly love their bodies—and that means working on more than just fitness and nutrition. It requires taking a deeper dive into people’s beliefs and stories, and helping people to release the emotional weight of past trauma and pain.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Lisa Van Ahn

In addition to working with grown-up clients, you also run the I AM Initiative for Girls. You work with girls to help them build self-esteem, confidence, and a positive, “I CAN DO ANYTHING!” mindset. What inspired you to start this program?

I was exploited, bullied, and victimized when I was growing up. I didn’t know what it felt like to have confidence and belief in myself. It wasn’t until I was 19 years old and started kickboxing that I was able to start releasing the trauma and false beliefs that had haunted me.

I met two women in the kickboxing community who could see my strength and power, even when I couldn’t see it myself. With their support and encouragement, I was able to grow into a confident young woman. Eventually, I knew I wanted to pay it forward and share that same type of encouragement with the next generation of women.

My mission with the I AM Initiative is to teach girls how to love themselves, believe in themselves, and protect themselves from negative influences—people who want to hurt and take advantage of them, as well as their own inner critics.

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What did it feel like to start the I AM Initiative? Did you have lots of interest and sign-ups right away? Or did it take a lot of effort and patience to get things in motion?

The I AM Initiative is my passion project, and from the moment I first presented the 3 rules of self-protection to a group of forty 10-13 year old girls, I knew it was my purpose on this planet. After that first class, I sat in my car shaking and crying because I knew with such clarity that the reason I went through the trauma I did was so I could teach girls how to navigate their teens with a different result.

It took me a couple years of refining the curriculum, branding the company, and leading events before it started to grow. My first big break was becoming an approved resource for the Girl Scouts of America. Once that happened, I began booking more workshops. I realized I wanted to offer more than a one-off workshop for girls. I teach girls that self-protection is a daily practice, so it became important to me to be a continued voice in their ear, rather than someone who motivates them once and then disappears. I started leading longer retreats and traveling to speak at other retreats.

I also wrote a guidebook and created a superpower card deck for girls. It took me nearly one year after development to launch my Kickstarter campaign for these products. Though the Kickstarter was a success, this portion of my company is taking patience. I have a vision for empowering products that help girls practice confidence and self-protection daily—and programs that leaders can teach to girls in their community—but it takes financial resources to develop these things, and time to organize the business foundation so it will be a successful endeavor. I’ve been telling myself: “Slow and steady wins the race.”

I continue to be motivated by the incredible feedback I get from the girls and their parents. I really believe that doing this work is the reason I’m here on the planet, so giving up isn’t an option.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Lisa Van Ahn

What was one of the scariest or toughest moments of your career, and how did you get through it?

When I was boxing, I had a big match at the Arco Arena in Sacramento. There were thousands of people in attendance, and I was knocked out about 30 seconds into the first round. It was the only knockout of my career, and it was extremely embarrassing. I had to pick myself up and move forward. It took me awhile to decide if my heart was even in fighting anymore. Ultimately I decided to retire from boxing and follow my first passion: kickboxing.

I see stressful times in life as an opportunity to test my dedication and commitment to the path I’m following. I believe that if your heart is fully engaged in the work you’re doing, you can get through any obstacle. If you’re not “all in,” then disappointment and frustration can become overwhelming. I realized that my heart wasn’t in boxing anymore, and I was able to let it go and focus on the things I truly cared about.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Lisa Van Ahn

3 Things

If someone is interested in becoming a fitness trainer like you, what are the first 3 things they should do?

First, it’s important that you’re passionate about fitness and helping others. If that’s the case, and you have a history of being an athlete, you can probably start training clients without getting a Personal Training (PT) certification first. If you don’t have a background in athletics, then it’s usually a good idea to get a PT certificate so that you’ve got a basic understanding of how to train people effectively. Either way, if you’re considering a career as a fitness trainer, I recommend doing the following 3 things:

1. Connect with a trainer in your area that has a successful business and is well respected and skilled at what they do.

They might own a small studio, or teach at a studio, either way works.

2. Take some classes from them and make sure you enjoy their teaching style.

Then ask if you can shadow or intern with them. Study how they run their business and how they work with clients. Soak up as much as you can.

3. Offer your friends and family the opportunity to train with you free of charge.

Build up your confidence and develop your teaching style, and take people’s feedback. Continue to develop your style and stay true to your personality while training others. In the end, your clients will work with you because they like YOU—your personality, your story, your attitude about life—not because you’re really good at teaching squats.


ONE MORE THING…

Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Lisa? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)


YOUR #1 CAREER GOAL: ACHIEVED

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