Think about what your obituary would say if you died today. For Russ Perry, that exercise was the motivation he needed to make major changes.
Russ, founder of Design Pickle and author of new book The Sober Entrepreneur, had addiction issues that threatened to unravel his life. But the way he overcame them - and went on to create breakthrough success - can be a great model for any entrepreneur, especially those in start-up mode.
For one, Russ has channeled the “power” of addiction (everybody is addicted to something, he says) into positive energy. And he found that the best way to serve your family, your business, and yourself…is to be selfish. He’ll explain how that works during this interview, as well as…
- Why you should double or triple your fees right now
- The “work out” for your brain that can interrupt destructive thoughts
- A strategy for ensuring you’re always enjoying your business
- How to solve a profit problem in one step
- Tips for handling the everyday stresses entrepreneurs face
- And more
Listen to Steve Gordon and Russ Perry now…
Russ Perry | You Have the Power to Overcome Success Roadblocks
We're talking with Russ Perry, the Founder of Design Pickle and he's the author of the new book, The Sober Entrepreneur. He spent eight years building businesses that yield zero in profits and now has in less than three years grown Design Pickle to half a million in monthly recurring revenue, 135 team members and a 150,000 design requests that have been completed. His recent success though almost never happened because he'd been hiding something. He was an alcoholic and it almost ruined his marriage, his business and his life. On October 22nd 2013, Russ stopped drinking, and in the years prior to that decision, his marriage had been one step away from catastrophe and his business had about burned down. Quitting alcohol was the catalyst that he needed to come back from the edge of disaster, both personally and professionally. Really excited to welcome Russ Perry here. Russ, welcome.
Thank you so much for having me.
Let's start by giving everybody a little bit of context. They’ve got some idea of who you are and where you're coming from in the bio but if you can give everybody some context for what got you to this point in your career.
I’ve always been driven to create and I think that has been something inside me for a long time. I always was attracted to art, problem solving and design and that's I think the epitome or the crux of design, whether it's visual design or designing a business is you're trying to create something new or better or solve a problem. That's been my driving force for all of these years and always has been at the tip of every decision is this allowing me to be a creator or not? We traveled through my history real briefly there in the intro. I can say without a doubt that when I was at my lowest points, I was the furthest away from creation and adding value out there in the universe and the world. I was only focused on consumption and taking. Balancing that I think has been my life's journey thus far. I'm happy to say that I'm on the other side of a lot of darker parts of that and realizing that my true happiness now always relies and surrounds myself when I'm in that creation mode. As an entrepreneur, I get to live that now every day.
As you've gone through this journey, clearly you've had some hurdles to overcome. What are some of the things that you were able to draw on as you were facing those big challenges to push through and to get to a place now where you are creating and adding value?
I wish I could say that I had it figured out from the beginning. My missteps started with thinking that what I had to draw on, the power and the focus that I was going to pull from was the business itself. Somehow that was going to unlock the other things in my life, whether that was my happiness in my marriage or the tangible things that I wanted in life. The house, the cars, all that kind of stuff and I went to the business as if it was this ATM of happiness and trying to withdraw and withdraw it only to realize that it was an empty place. That those things don't come from the business, those come from you and are enhanced by a business. A business amplifies whatever it is that is the goodness, the reason or the drive inside of you. That's what pushed me over the edge and I didn't know how to manage stress. I didn't know anything about things which I do daily now, which are meditation, fitness and exercise to manage the everyday challenges a CEO faces and entrepreneur faces.
I looked to substances which does a great job of hiding things and masking things at least for some time, kicks the can down the road more or less. When I got clear on that, it really started with the selfish desire to be the best that I could be and to fulfill myself first so that I could be the best person to fulfill in my marriage and my family. It's a selfish concept originally, but it's designed to be selfish so that you're at the highest version of yourself for others. Which that dichotomy was what I understood later in life and now is where I draw from and where I get my inspiration to wake up early, drive hard, push through the challenges so I could be the best for myself for others.
It's almost like the idea they tell you getting on the airplane, put your own mask on first before you help someone else.
I've never thought of that analogy. I've flown much, you're the second person to reference that, but it's the exact same thing. You're not going to be able to help your children on an airplane if there's a pressure decrease if you're suffocating or getting dizzy or you pass out. Same thing, you can’t help your family to grow and to provide for them if you're paying everybody else except yourself and suffocating financially.
With all the pressures, particularly the pressures around starting a business, once it's up and running and there's consistent cashflow. There are still lots and lots of challenges, but to me it's those early days when money's pretty tight and it's tempting not to pay yourself to put yourself in danger in other ways. The pressure I think can be so intense that it sends you in these other places. Sounds like you've found some better ways to cope with that now. What are you doing now? You mentioned meditation and a few other things. What are the key things you're doing now that are helping you deal with that? Because you're in a high growth business right now.
We are. Let me talk about business first because I could talk about meditation and wellness and all of that stuff. The one thing that I highly recommend if you're in that position and you're in the early days and things are tough, you need to charge more money. You need to build more and if you believe in yourself, if what you're doing is truly valuable, you can afford to double or triple your rates and that has a duality effect. It increases your confidence and it also increases your cashflow and what you take home, which allows you to do other things like invest in advertising, invest in a new gym for yourself, take your wife out on a nicer date because you've been on the cheap dates and now you want to go to the Ocean Club or whatever. That's a practical thing and I'm coaching four guys right now personally. One of the guys he is undervaluing himself in the consulting world, but yet he's pitching his services to multi-million eight figure, nine figure companies. I told him, “You just need a price tag that makes me squirm inside,” because he hasn't gotten that sales traction yet.
That's an easy thing and we always, from day one we're profitable because we charged enough and we knew that, “This is what we need to make.” That confidence was built after eight years of doing things wrong. It's not to say that I out of the gates my first business had that confidence. I was tired of being broke and I wanted to make sure I charged enough, but back to the other intangibles beyond just a pricing recommendation. Meditation is trendy right now. I get a lot of people talk about it. You hear about the apps that are getting these cool valuations of like calm, I think valuated at a billion dollars or something.
All is working out your brain, like a gym workout for your brain. That's the way I look at it. Can it be spiritual? Absolutely, but for me it's the best way to interrupt my thought processes which sometimes can be stressful and destructive and to be able to stop that cul de sac pattern loop that you can get stuck in about a topic or an issue and interrupt that with some mindfulness, gratefulness and whatever else goes on in the meditation practice people can choose. That is such a relief and such a stress release. It's cumulative, so anyone who's not meditating, you got to really do it ten to twenty minutes a day every day to feel the benefits over weeks and weeks and months and months. That's a pro tip too because a lot of people will do it for two minutes and say, “I don't feel anything, that took forever.” Neither does running, walking one lap around the lap, like you're going to move one lap. It takes a lot more to move the needle.
You're the first person I’ve heard refer to it or relate it to exercise. I think that's a good analogy. Everybody's got their different practice. Mine is very simple. I just try and clear my head of thoughts for about ten minutes a day and it's probably the most difficult thing I have to do all day because the brain is always running but to get the fleeting moments of complete quiet. Because it's never the full ten minutes. Maybe I'm not good enough yet, but it's never the full ten minutes that the brain is quiet, but it's for moments throughout but when you get to that point and have that piece, it really is restorative. We all have that voice going on and in business, particularly when you're going through stressful times that voice can be incredibly negative and work against you. I think being able to take that time and be able to get clear is really valuable.
It's valuable and it leverages you to have much more clarity through the rest of the day that it's an expediential gain on investment from a time standpoint. I'm a practical guy. I studied engineering for a year, didn't go down that path but I like science, I like technology, I like facts figures and for me. I'm rationalizing the time investment of meditation. I'm able to come out of meditation and be hyper focused for 90 minutes, maybe two hours, so much more that if I stopped my day at that point, I could literally bed one for the day, but it's only 10:00. That's what people don't realize; don't get me wrong, it totally helps with stress. Totally helps with you want to punch someone in the head or something's frustrating you. You can do it but it's like warming up your mind for then what can be the most productive hour and a half, two hours of your day and if you don't pause to create that gap in that space, then what do you do? You wake up, you get hit with the day’s stuff, everyone needs stuff from you and before you know it, it's 10:00 at night and you feel like you've gotten nothing done.
Russ is the author of the new book, The Sober Entrepreneur. Russ, thank you for sharing everything you did. I think excellent advice number one, about raising fees and two, about finding some calm and some peace throughout your day. I'd like to talk a little bit about the book and understand why you wrote it and who you think it's best for?
The book itself started as a personal project stemming from a similar auto-biographical slash biographical project my grandmother did. She's been passed for some time now, but she did a whole book on our genealogy. She was a daughter of German immigrants. Tracking that from before Arizona where I live was a state and all the way through present. At the time, present day when I had my first daughter, I was married to my wife. We didn't have our kids yet with me and my wife and I was reading this tale, this book and enthralled and it occurred to me because I hadn't stopped drinking. I was still drinking at the time that all the men in this book didn't necessarily have the most glamorous or flop in portrayals from my grandma. She was a pretty hard, straightforward lady as you can imagine, the daughter of German immigrants would be. She just said it and told it how it was, their addictions, their shortcomings, their challenges, their gambling debts and all the way up to cousins and uncles I knew. It made me stop and think what would someone write about me right now if I was to pass away? What would my story be? I was not happy with that. A lot of the things that could have been written were around the challenges that I had had around drinking and so then and there I decided to change my family treats, catch line of the book, the subtitle, but I decided that, “I'm going to live a different life where alcohol, substances and addiction is talked about, wasn't in my life, and it's eliminated to the best of my ability.” I'm not going to avoid everything possible. Not worried about drinking anymore, but there's realities where I can get addicted to something else, maybe a little more abstract, but I wrote this book to change the tide of the stories and have an asset for my own kids.
I have three daughters now to share my struggles and the journeys so that if someone else's out there in that same boat, they can realize that, “Addiction and the challenges that go along with it aren't just reserved for the homeless guy under the bridge. That there are high functioning entrepreneurs, married people who struggled just the same.” That's where it started and then it's leveraged beyond that into a teaching tool and now a whole platform where I want to open up this conversation because we're all addicted to something. The proof of this because you could say, “Russ, I'm not that addicted.” If you're an entrepreneur, you're addicted because you're addicted to your business and the idea that you have. Steve, right now, you're addicted to this podcast because you believe it can help people, teach people and educate people. There is that addictive nature inside of all of us and this book is to share what happens when that goes too far, but then also how to wrangle that and provide a practical toolkit and framework to manage that and turn that energy from negative habits into positive.
I think anytime you're creating something, you can become susceptible to that, to taking it to the extreme. Particularly when you're trying to create a business because it's closely tied to how you're going to eat tomorrow. It's, it's our livelihood. It's both creation and it's got this other visceral quality to it where it's putting food on the table for you and your family. I think it's very easy to become obsessed with focus on that and to the exclusion of other things in life. I'm sure you know a lot of other entrepreneurs; I know quite a few who struggle with different forms of addiction. I think it's something that's not talked about that much within our circles, but it's there. It's certainly there.
It's there and it takes all shapes and sizes. There could be people who are addicted to social media simply and putting out this image and this brand that's not accurate and they're hiding or masking things. When I was in the lowest point of my addiction, I was living this dual life and hiding what was reality and pretending to be someone I wasn't on so many different levels. That's what many people do on social media. They hide who they are, they pretend they're someone else, they create this false reality and so it doesn't have to be a substance, but the point is you do have to be crazy to be successful in business and why not take that crazy addictive personality, which you might be hooked on drugs, alcohol, travel, speaking or whatever things that give you that high. Why not focus that into another area of creation, of wellness, of health that can not only improve you, but improve your family and others involved. Things can go both ways, it's such a tough fine line sometimes. Even alcohol, I'm not anti-alcohol, I'm just anti-addiction. If that's your thing, great. One of my closest friends, he's easy in a one glass of wine a week and he loves it and it's fine. He's no challenge at all with alcohol, but maybe there's something else. He's a pretty square guy. He's a good dude. You never know.
In thinking about you putting this book together, I understand you had some personal motivation to do it, but it had to take a tremendous amount of courage to write about this and then put it out in public. I've written a business book and that took some courage to put some ideas out into the world, but that wasn’t personal at all, this is very personal. Talk a little bit about what it took to do that. I can't imagine the courage that it would take.
Let me preface this answer with the fact that I used to be the guy that was uncomfortable sending my restaurant order back if it was completely wrong. I didn't want to inconvenience the person who was serving me until I finally developed this courage and a big credit goes out to a program that I'm a certified trainer in. It's called Wake Up Warrior. It's a men's program. It's a leadership program. Those are the four men I mentioned I'm coaching. I'm coaching them under that umbrella. One of the core tenets of this program is that you tell the truth. You're completely and radically honest on all accounts. I don't have enough time to go into the intricacies of this. It's so simple, but it's so powerful and I knew the ultimate truth bomb that I could drop was writing a book about what I did. That at that point I have nothing else to hide.
I literally can talk to you about anything from my sex life to my affair to drinking to yoga this morning to whatever, and I'm OK with that. That gives me certainty and power that translates into my leadership, into my parenting and to being a husband and everything else. It did take a lot of courage. It took a lot of training too to gain that courage. It wasn't just one day I woke up out to took a massive amount of trust with me and my wife's, and she was the first person when I floated the idea and she was like, “You got to do it,” because there’s so many people out there who are hurting and you got to share this story and we knew that the heartache that we had, if we weren't allowing that to be leveraged to teach and educate others, then what a waste. What a waste I would have been of an experience that almost tore us apart, if we couldn't help others heal, get through that or avoid it altogether.
It’s difficult during the writing process, pulling all of that back up again to the surface?
It totally was and even my wife knew what was going on. She read some early pieces, but when I got the printed copy and I got it and I gave it to her, and she's reading it. I was so nervous. There weren’t any surprises in there but even still it was, “This is real now. You put this out there, there's no turning back.” I know the deep down the reason why I'm doing it wasn't like some sensationalized tabloid. It's to share this and say, “Here's where I was, here's where I'm going,” and one chapter of the book we talk about hitting rock bottom. In the book it's explicitly I said, “If this book helps divert you from rock bottom, I hope so,” because rock-bottom is a rough place and you learn a lot of lessons at rock bottom. There's also if you could avoid going down that low and start going up from wherever you're at, you're going to climb that much faster.
Why go through all the suffering if you don't have to? If you could wake up now.
I know the book is out now and it’d be great if you could share where folks can get it. I want to talk briefly also about a Design Pickle and what you're doing there. We may have some in our audience that would benefit from connecting with you there as well. First where can they get the book?
The book you could get a free chapter at SoberEntrepreneur.com and then if you're all in and want to get it, it's on Amazon. There's links from that site too, SoberEntrepreneur.com, but then you could search on Amazon Sober Entrepreneur and you'll find it. We’re the number one ranking for the search term Sober Entrepreneur.
I imagine there's probably not another book with that title, is there?
No, there is not.
Since you stopped drinking, you've created a new firm Design Pickle, which I think is this unique take on getting design work done. I'd love for you to spend a minute describing what the business is and who it's for.
In my clarity, obviously quit drinking, you have a little more time on your hands to think about life and post business failure. I thought to myself, we ended my creative career because my previous business was this creative agency. We did design, branding, websites, all sorts of stuff and I thought to myself, “When were our clients the happiest?”it wasn't when we were doing some complex multi-million dollar campaign. It literally was when we were designing their Facebook ads or a business card or a podcast graphic on a timely, regular basis. They were very grateful for those things and so we launched Design Pickle. It is a subscription based graphic design service. Its flat rate is $370 a month and you get to basically rent a designer. It's a dedicated designer, they’re your designer, they work with you and about ten other clients and then you just work with them every day on whatever you need. You submit them a request through an app, through our email. How much you could get done ultimately depends on the complexity of what you're needing and how well you communicate, but it was this attempt to provide simple value for businesses, entrepreneurs and marketers with a needed part of the business that's often neglected or costs so much time and money to get done, that often people skip it. “I'm not going to design this presentation because I'm going to have to meet with the designer, see if they're available, and then I get billed by the hour. Then there are revisions,” or I try to do it myself and I'm four hours into it more. We're trying to provide that dedicated resource without that full time salary or even a part time salary commitment.
It's a fantastic service and really innovative way to deliver that service. Having dealt with lots of designers over the years, having that kind of a model where you know what you're going to pay and you're going to work with the same person again and again. It certainly is unique and clearly it's popular because you guys are growing crazy. Congratulations on the success.
Thank you. At the end of the day, one of our core values is friendly and our mission is to be the most helpful creative company in the world. That's all it is. We don't want to penalize you for you to work with your designer, more to try to get to know them better. That's why we launched the model with this flat rate is its successful design, just comes with great communication and a good relationship. When you're getting billed by the project or by the hour, you're dis-incentivized to work with your designer more unless you have an unlimited budget. In that case, good for you.
Where can they find out more about Design Pickle?
You could jump on DesignPickle.com. Tons of information. Not to get too pitchy, but we have a no risk fourteen day trial. You could sign up, pay for your first month, but the first two weeks of that, you meet your designer and try it out. If you like it, great. If not, you get a full refund.
For the book, folks need to go to SoberEntrepreneur.com and if you want to learn more about Design Pickle, go to DesignPickle.com. Russ, thanks so much for being on the podcast. It’s been an absolute blast. Thank you.
Steve, thanks for having me.