Paul Rush | Three Unexpected Areas to Focus on to Create Your Business

You build a business quickly… and then hit a wall. No more growth. You flatline. Paul Rush, Founder and CEO of Substantial, is a veteran entrepreneur who’s faced that problem more than once.

He shares how he pushed through. And it turns out that there are three key strategies to overcoming those obstacles and pushing on to the next level. One thing to realize is that failure isn’t failure – it’s actually opportunity.

We also talk about…

  • How to find your REAL purpose – and act on it (it’s not always obvious)
  • Techniques to make real connections when technology separates us
  • Why you must create a vision and mission – and how to do it
  • The 3 key things he’s doing when creating his next business
  • And more

Listen now…


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Welcome to the Unstoppable CEO podcast. I’m your host Steve Gordon and I’ve got to tell you this is going to be an exciting interview. I am talking with Paul Rush. He’s a lifelong creator. He’s an entrepreneur and a technologist who launched the products studio Substantial after many lessons learned building his prior startups. And then, while found Substantial in 2006 Paul vowed to create business that had longevity and significance in the world. Since then he’s gone on to work with, he and his team, with companies like Amazon, Mercedes Benz, and the Wall Street Journal and they’ve incubated and launched their own products like Hello Epics. So, Paul is a true serial entrepreneur. He’s passionate about solving real problems for his clients and going out and solving big problems in the world. And so, I’m excited to have him here. Paul welcome to the Unstoppable CEO.

Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Well, you’ve got a really interesting background and I’m excited to learn a lot more. And I’m hoping that you can kind of fill in the gaps for us with what was in the bio because everybody, we all put the best stuff in the bio, but I’d love to hear a little bit more about your journey and what got you to this stage of your career.

The Musical Entrepreneur

Yeah, it’s kind of a strange question to answer because I don’t know if I have a typical path but it certainly is a path. I never really had an intention to do anything other than entrepreneurship since I was young. For some reason I just kind of latched onto the idea when I was, I think I was still in high school and started experimenting with interesting ways to try to put two and two together from a business perspective. I did have one job after college that lasted a total of six months and then ever since then for the past, what has it been, 20 years. That’s a crazy number. It’s just been trying to figure out how to start one business after the next. And the other interests that I’ve had have been kind of compatible with that in a strange way.

I studied computer science and music at the university. Music winds up being I think very entrepreneurial too. Anyone who’s a creator, an artist, musician, winds up in a I would say a very entrepreneurial head space because you have to figure out how to make a living from nothing. I mean society does not want to support you doing that necessarily. There’s no built in ways for making money so you have to hustle and find a way to make money. And I think there’s a lot of similarity between entrepreneurship and art and I love thinking about the parallels there both from selling the products that you’re making as well as from the creation standpoint of building things. So yeah, that’s a roundabout way of saying it’s been an unusual path just forced into by my own interest in entrepreneurship of just making one thing after the next.

And so, you’ve started a series of businesses. Tell us a little bit about what types of businesses you’ve been through, and how you ended up with creating Substantial, and why that business, and what that business right now?

Yeah. The first thing I started out of school was a company that did consulting work and product development work for the music industry specifically. So, we were looking at all kinds of new technologies and helping record labels try to innovate which wound up being an interesting path in trying to think about the music industry and its progression at the time. And so, it sort of resisted innovation and change. But the work was super interesting and I got to work with a lot of really interesting people and learn the music industry well.

And then, I did the music full time for a while. And then, I started a digital music retail company that was before and around this time when iTunes launched to sell MP3’s online and it was for DJ’s. And out of that business wound up with a great team and we practically wanted to get more products launched but we decided that doing some consulting would be a great way to spend some time while we were thinking about what to build next and it would up just exploding. So, it was a practical business and the demand was there for the level of talent that we had. So, we just followed the success of it and it grew pretty quickly. Year over year we were doubling in size and we were self-funded, so it was an interesting ride. The ups and downs have been huge and the lessons have been huge getting the company off the ground to where it is today.

I’m sure. I mean we all go through those things right? I don’t think there’s any business, just that sort of straight, up and to the right arrow and growth. There’s just always something that happens in there and you’ve got to deal with it. So, as you think back over your experience when things have gotten difficult what are some of the ways you’ve found to stay persistent and keep moving forward?

What You Do When You Hit a Wall

Yeah, I mean it’s super relevant over the last couple of years because I was able to grow the company to something north of 80 employees and then we really flat lined for a while trying to figure out the next phase. And I know that anybody who’s been through the different sort of phases of the growth of a business knows that you eventually hit some kind of wall that you’re not going to be able to figure out how to get around. That whole, there’s a book on … What is it called? What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. We’re all making it up as we go along for the most part.

And then, you reach a place where you can’t figure out how to get around the next obstacle and that can be huge. That stops a lot of businesses. A lot of people wind up going out of business after that. It’s a delicate time. You have to force yourself to learn new things or find people who are more appropriate for the stage that you’re in and it’s a major major challenge. And especially after you’ve experienced a lot of growth you’re wondering what you’ve suddenly done wrong. The answer is there’s nothing that you’ve done wrong you’ve just hit a place where you’ve run out of runway for what you know how to do. And I was lucky enough to have some mentors and help that helped me become aware of that and realize that there’s work that you need to do to change yourself and change your perspective of where you’re going.

And so, we went down for a while and it’s been a rebuilding process to get back from there. I think the things that help the most are, I always come back to this proverb, there’s a whole story about it, which is this too shall pass. There’s a great story online you can look up that goes along with this but the idea is that at any moment in life you’re in a place where whatever is present for you is not permanent and that is both humbling when things are going well, realizing that this is not a permanent state of existence. It’s equally helpful and that helps you check yourself about where you are. And also, when things are not going well this too shall pass just helps you realize that that’s a temporary state of existence too and it’s just a matter of being patient and trying your best to get through it and to wait for things to change.

And maybe the other thing that’s been really helpful is I like to think of everything including all of the difficult moments in life as education where when you lose money on something. I like to think about it as tuition that I’m paying for the grand school of life where hopefully the loss that I have incurred is something that I can learn from and that’ll avoid some bigger loss in the future or give you some wisdom that you can use to take advantage of. Because they are kind of inevitable and if you’re just upset about them I don’t know exactly what that gets you.

Yeah. You know I share similar views on that. I call it tuition in the school of hard knocks and sometimes it’s expensive tuition I’ve got to tell you.

Oh absolutely.

You know the trick is just not paying it twice for the same thing.

We hope you get there but you don’t always get there.


Making those mistakes a couple of times.

Exactly. So, first of all I think that those are great thoughts, the idea that whatever situation, whatever circumstance you’re in now is merely temporary. When you’re in it sometimes is not the easiest thing to convince yourself of but nonetheless it’s true. And then also, kind of understanding how to frame losses and use them as education. Because I really think for folks who are listening to this, they aren’t necessarily beginners in business, they’ve been around for a while, they’re going to be around for a while. And of all of the people and all of the interviews we’ve done now the theme that I’ve heard from really everyone is that once you get to a certain stage in entrepreneurship you’ve got scars. There are skeletons in the closet, there are mistakes that you’ve made, but that’s really all part of the process.

It’s Okay to Talk About Failure

And what’s really interesting is that when I first got in business out of college in the mid 90’s with that generation of people that I was working with and working for you didn’t talk about the mistakes. But today I feel like we’re a lot more open, it’s okay to come out and say, “Yeah don’t do what I did. I bombed here and here. But here’s what we’ve learned and here’s how we’ve been successful.” Which I think is a much healthier way to do it and frankly contributes more. But it’s been really interesting to watch that change. And the thing that I’ve learned through all of these interviews and I appreciate you sharing what you have is that everybody goes through this. There’s no way around it.

Well, I wonder how people back them survived? Because you need other people to commiserate with and to learn from. I mean I wonder what’s changed in the culture that shifted us towards more, to be more open about our failure?

Well, I think a lot of that has to do with the internet and with this massive growth of information. We’ve gone from a … Really when I came out of college that was the tail end of the industrial model where it was very scarcity based and competition focused. And if another firm won you lost. And the change that I have seen is yeah there’s still competition but there’s also a lot more collaboration than there was before. And I think the technology has made that possible and I think just some changing dynamics in the economics of the world have made that possible where it really wasn’t before. And so, I really chalk a lot of it up to that. But it’s really stark to see those two differences.

Yeah. Well, whatever has changed I’m deeply grateful that this is the culture we’re in because I can’t imagine doing this without the invitation to connect with other people about the problems they are having. Such a great way to help you get over them and to make it valuable, to make it something that you’ve learned from.

Well, I will say a lot of that did happen but privately whereas today someone will fire up their WordPress site and they’ll write about it or they’ll go on MeetMe and do a 10 thousand word post on all of the mistakes they made and the lessons they learned. And you just didn’t have that. There wasn’t a good way to do it frankly.

Yeah. It’s hard to remember what that world was like but it was out there.

Yeah, no kidding. Well, I want to take a break. I want to come back and when we come back I want to pivot a little bit and talk about your thinking around connection, and purpose, and building meaningful connections. I think it’ll be really valuable for everyone who is listening. So, we’ll be right back with more from Paul Rush.

Hey everybody. Welcome back. This is Steve Gordon and today I’m talking with Paul Rush. He’s the founder and CEO behind Substantial which is a product studio. And Paul I know you spent a lot of time thinking about this idea of creating meaningful connections in life and how that translates to business. And I would love for you to kind of walk us through that idea and where your thinking is with it.

Yeah. This is obviously a huge topic for me and it’s something that I feel like I’m learning more about all the time. But this question of what is one’s purpose in life I think is a deeply fascinating one and it makes sense at an intuitive level that the more you understand your purpose the more powerful you can be in the world, the more you can serve the world and people around you and feel connected to something bigger. And most people don’t have a great answer for this question and I was wondering this for myself for a long time. And thinking that I had answers but they weren’t the strongest answers and how do you get to a more powerful answer to that. And I have been doing a ton of introspection over the last couple of years, connecting to what we’re talking about having missteps. You start examining things and start thinking about what’s important in life. And I think I’ve found a couple of things that I really connect with and I am still on my path to purpose personally. But some of the things that I’ve learned so far are that I’m very interested in creation which is why I have a company that makes things. So, that’s why I love that process and I want to learn more about it and get better at it.

I’ve very interested in connection. I think a lot of business is about personal connection and relationships. And it’s fascinating to me why connections form between people and how they either become meaningful, or lightweight, or fade over time, and how you build strong ones. It’s just everything about how people connect to each other I think is really interesting and super important because that connection is actually what binds teams together and teams are responsible for doing everything that humanity has produced that’s great. So, everything around how people connect. And then, the last one has been around purpose because I feel like over the work that I have been doing lately I have been able to help people unlock their potential and put them closer to the path of finding a meaningful purpose that allows them to be more powerful in the world, to unlock their potential. So, those three areas are things that I think are coming together for me with the next businesses, and services, and products that I want to build is how do you create connection, create purpose, and then how do you get better at making things in the world. And I know that’s a bunch of vague abstract things at once but does that make sense? How does that feel to you?

Yeah, it does and I would imagine. I mean if we start to unpack that the logical place it seems you would want to start is with finding purpose. As you approach this is that the beginning point for this and then that informs the other things that you begin thinking about and pursuing in terms of connections after that? Or, I could also see it working the other way where you begin to build the connections and that reveals a purpose. How have you found that working?

I think the way I’m thinking about this is one of the most powerful things I can affect in my world and Elon Musk has this famous narrative around how when he had exited PayPal, ex .com he was looking at what are the technologies he thought would have the biggest impact on humanity moving forward and he picked the areas that he wanted to go into and he’s pretty much gone into all of them which is amazing. And I’m thinking of this problem from the meta level of how do we improve human beings on earth and how do we become more productive and more engaged in what we’re doing. And so, if you look at the highest level things that we need to be effective and to be feeling engaged in the world I think purpose is basically at the highest. The same thing when people talk about corporate vision. Vision and mission are things that are very tricky to define but when you get them right you can see it from a mile away. You can see organizations that have this well-defined. I think the same thing is with purpose.

I was really stunned when I started learning about Tony Robbins. And whatever you think about his work and what he’s doing, leaving that aside for a moment, it is clear when you listen to this man talk that he is connected with his purpose. He is incredibly powerful and incredibly motivated and engaged to do this work. I mean the guy stands on stage for 10 to 12 hours for his seminars two to three days in a row and finding that, a lot of energy it’s just crazy. Imagine if we could all do that, if we could all become, cultivate an obsession with something in life. The two most important things you can think about in life are what are your goals in life. Everybody just stops there, they think about the goals, but I think the most important thing compared with goals is the why. Why are those you goals? And if you think about it the goals are where are you going and the why is what’s your purpose for going there. So, if you can pair those two things you become a lot more powerful and that’s the sort of beginning of this exploration. And then, the next steps for me are thinking about how I can help people with that, how I can build a business around that. But it’s been really fun to explore that territory.

Well, when you look at … Gosh, there’s so many different places that this shows up. When you look at retirees who have had a purpose during their life then they retire and they have that purpose removed. Often that’s a fast path to death. It’s as if the signal has been sent to the body that, “Okay we’ve got no more purpose. There’s no more reason for us to be here so let’s wind things down.” So, I do think there is this really close connection between how we exist as people and what we define as purpose. But I think it’s a really difficult thing for people to get to because when you put that word purpose on it it’s like, “Oh gosh there’s pressure now.” It’s like, and you mentioned Elon Musk so he’s got I guess this purpose to take us all to Mars or something. Well, what if my purpose isn’t that big? Does that invalidate it? And I think a lot of people struggle with this idea of defining the purpose because once you do you feel like, “Oh well, now I’ve got to, now this is real. I’ve got to live up to this. And is it good enough? Am I good enough?” It comes with all of these other things. As you thought through it how do you deal with some of those practical things that come into it?

Yeah, I feel like we’ve gotten to a point in our culture and I’m certainly subject to it myself where everything would just become too intense or more intense than we needed it to be. Every company has to have a vision to save the world and every person has to have a purpose that’s super meaningful and those are the people that get broadcast the most. But I don’t, I mean I don’t know if that’s true and I don’t even know if the people that we idolize or tell these stories about are even in that place. The other narrative from us could be they could just found the top three things the most fascinating and just went in that direction which felt like a natural direction to go and it wasn’t some huge pre meditated I must do this or I have failed in life. Following your nose towards things I think is just as important in the process and I don’t think that it’s a process that ends.

What Is Your Real Purpose… and Why? Are You Sure?

A path to purpose is the path of finding the most important direction to go at any moment in one place. The more I have been thinking about this and talking to people about it the more I realize that it’s a continual process. It’s not something that ends. And so, that takes a lot of pressure for me off of it because you just have to know where you’re going in a moment and move towards an ever more powerful state of being in your life. It’s not like you need to get there all at once. I felt like that when I was younger. I don’t know. What’s been your path of purpose?

Well, first I think this, the idea you just shared is an important one, it’s a key distinction. I’ve gone through times where I felt like … You read a book about purpose, or goals, or any of those things they almost all cover this topic to one degree or another. And of course, if you’re writing a book about this and you want to sell a lot of these books it’s got to be inspirational. And so, it shows examples of people who have these save the world sort of purposes as if that’s the model to follow. I don’t necessarily agree that that’s always the model to follow. I think you can have a very compelling and dynamic purpose that has a small footprint on the planet and it’s no less important.

I think it’s a very personal thing and I love that you put this time limit on it which not only takes some of this global pressure off of it but it also gives you permission to change. Because I think one of the things that really locks people in and I know early on in adulthood for me I can remember feeling that sort of pressure around it. “I’m going to pick this purpose and that’s going to be it forever, that’s my life.” Well, now that’s a big decision right? But I think if you bring that back to, “This is my purpose now”, or, “This is my purpose for this season of life”, it really can help focus you. That’s what I’ve found is that it can really kind of bring things clear. And in my mind it’s not so much about what you’re ultimately going to do but it’s really just a lens for decision making.

Time is this resource that is really in I think all practicality it’s the only limited resource that we’ve got. I think everything else can be scaled but time cannot. So then, the most important skill to have as a human is discernment. How do I determine with this time that I have that just expired because it’s gone now, now, now, what am I going to do with that time? And so, having the purpose to me gives you that lens to see it through for decision making.

Yeah. No, it’s a fascinating question and it gets pretty philosophical pretty quick but I think trying to overload also purpose too much is a path that can be very frustrating. Because while we do have a limited amount of time we also need to be peaceful in our existence and not have every moment be about achieving something great or taking steps towards goals. A lot of life is just experiencing it. I guess it depends on what your view of what life is all about. But I want to find a way to help people get to a better sense of purpose that is at the same time powerful and light. Because I think making it too intense doesn’t really help you it just makes you feel more frustrated that you’re not moving fast enough or you’re not accomplishing enough by society’s standards or your own standards. I think that’s something that a lot of entrepreneurs struggle with. When you can do anything in a day and you control your own schedule it’s almost harder to know what’s right to do. And another great reason why understanding your purpose or at least your purpose right now helps you make those decisions.

Finding Real Connection in the Age of Advancing Technology

Yeah absolutely. So, I know you tie this idea of connection and I think the language you use around it is building meaningful connections and you tie that together with purpose. Talk a little bit about the relationship between the two and how they work in your own world.

Well, I think there’s … How can I approach this? The purpose of life on a basic level is to feel like you belong I believe and I think connection is one of the most primal ways that we feel that we are social creatures. We need to feel like we connect with other people and that we belong where we are. So, I think as our cultures move to a more and more connected world we’ve felt ironically less and less connected to each other and that’s why I believe that you’re seeing a resurgence in conferences, and events, and festivals, and social houses like on the rise. Because this is a need people have and we’re being disintermediated from it by the technology that we’re surrounding ourselves with.  And I believe that if you think of us as evolutionary creatures we’ve been evolving slowly. The technology has been moving very fast and we certainly have not caught up to it. We have a deep need to be connected to other people. That’s how we existed for a long time before technology has come around and split us into atomic families and the sense of individualism is on the rise.

So, I think it’s really important to satisfy a deep need in a deep intrinsic purpose that we all have to be connected with other people. So, I’ve been exploring that and I’ve been doing a series of dinners. I’ve done something like 50, 60 of them now where I gather people from sometimes people who know each other, sometimes people who don’t, to have meaningful conversation and we get together and talk about one topic for a couple of hours. And it’s a great way to get to know people and skip the small talk that we’re all over exposed to. Diving into something meaningful as opposed to just staying on the surface. And then, I’ve also been doing a series of weekends for entrepreneurs where we do these retreats and they’re somewhat structured and somewhat free to go through exercises about better getting to know each other and to connect with our own purpose and sense of meaning. And they’ve been incredible.

It’s unbelievable what you can do in two days with a group of people going from at times complete strangers to nearly best friends. We have such a hard time, busy schedules, etc. of making new relationships in life because typically when we get together with someone it’s for 45 minutes for a coffee or for a drink and it’s six months apart from every time that you’re hanging out. You spend two concentrated days with people. I would encourage those people to do this with their family or with their friends even. It’s amazing what happens in that time. It’s just it’s really great what you can accomplish and for me that’s the meaningful connection that I want, I want more of in my life. And I’m picky about making these weekends something that I do a side business, something that would be interesting to do and fosters meaningful connection, and something I certainly want more of in my life.

Yeah, I think it’s something that is harder and harder to find these days. I think because in large part the way we’re operating with technology. You see it within communities. I think you see it with the entrepreneurial community probably done more thoughtfully then in a lot of places. But things are certainly different than what I recall of life before the internet as we talked about at the beginning. It’s fascinating stuff. So, Paul if folks want to find out more about what you’re working on now and projects in the future what’s the best place for them to find you on the internet?

Yeah. So, you can find me at Paul Rush on Instagram. And then, I’m relaunching my website which is hopefully soon, hopefully by the time this is out. And I’m working on, I already have the first ones ready to go, a newsletter that helps that’s a entrepreneurship creation and the purpose connection thing to help people find more meaningful connection in their life and to help move them down the path towards purpose. So, go there and check it out and sign up if you’re interested.

Very good. Well, thanks for investing a little bit of time with us today. A fascinating topic and really enjoyed the conversation.

Yeah likewise. Thanks for having me. It was great to be here.

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