Carl Nordgren: Solo Entrepreneurs - You're Not Alone

Carl Nordgren: Solo Entrepreneurs - You're Not Alone
Carl Nordgren is a creative consultant, entrepreneur, teacher, award-winning novelist, radio host, and speaker whose passion is to help entrepreneurs grow their creative capacities, develop their entrepreneurial instincts and behaviors, and find great success in their business adventures.

Denali: Welcome to the Creators and Experts podcast! Today, we have Carl Nordgen on. Here's a little background on him: he's an entrepreneur, author of books such as Becoming a Creative Genius and "The 53rd Parallel," and a former Duke professor, where he taught entrepreneurship. And, not for nothing, he was a fishing instructor in Ontario and Arkansas. Welcome!

Carl: Thank you. How are you today?

Denali: Very Good.

Getting to Know Carl Nordgren

Carl: Good. The one thing that I wanted to add to my introduction really quickly, was at that time as a fishing guide in Canada and Arkansas, I was a teenager, I went up there to learn how to be a fishing guide. I had no idea that what, in fact, I was committing myself to was just a wonderful, wonderful, internship as an entrepreneur. Because the gentleman that owned the fishing camp was extraordinarily entrepreneurial.

He did a wonderful thing, he didn’t just tell me tasks, he told me how. He told me why these tasks were important to the organization, the relevance that these tasks have in the whole value proposition that he was delivering to his guests, and he was just a wonderful, wonderful instructor of all things creative and entrepreneurial. And when you are a 16-year-old kid sitting in the back of a boat guiding 50-year-old bank presidents, you have to be creative and entrepreneurial to get the authority that you need to lead them through their wilderness adventure.

What I learned there was the power of being a servant leader - the better care I took of these people, the more authority they granted me, and the more authority they granted me, the better care I took of them. That caused them to give me more authority and pretty soon I was in charge of all these 50-year-old successful businessmen as a 16-year-old kid.

So yes, I just wanted to elaborate on that, I know we're going in a different direction, we aren’t here to talk about Nordgren the fishing guide, but I wanted to make sure people understood the profound entrepreneurial and creative lessons I got to learn as a young kid.

A Creatively Entrepreneurial Journey

Denali: That's wonderful! I think it's not too off-topic from some of the questions I wanted to ask. So, a good one that I like to get into is how you got started with being an entrepreneur and creative, and it sounds like it was 16 that really helped to kick it off.

Carl: It did for sure, and then I stepped away from it. I was not a very good college student. Well, one thing that happened while I was a fishing guide was all these 50-year-old men were turning around after about the second or third day of being in my boat and saying, "Nordgren, you're so lucky. Don't you ever have a business career! Don't ever be somebody who puts on a suit and goes into the nine-to-five."

I mean, every single time. I mean, I must have heard that 50 times in the three summers I got it up in Canada. So, I graduated from college and decided I'm never going to have a business career. I was a blue-collar guy. I was a bartender. I was working in the factory, and then finally one day, I thought, "Well, what the heck? Let's see what that other life was like."

Well, the only company that would hire me was a startup. This was the late '70s, and the only company that would hire me was, you know, I didn't have any business experience except for being a fishing guide, but most folks wouldn't have seen that as business experience. I was a lousy college student, so I had no reason why anybody would want to hire me except for a startup there in Chicago, a startup publishing company.

The first time I came up with an idea that resulted in the founder saying, "Hey, that's a good idea. I think we need to hire somebody to take that on," and what I said to myself on the train going home that night, "Oh, that means I just created a job."

The thought and the idea just created a job, and I've always been a bit of a romantic, so I was able to say to myself, "Well, maybe the person that gets hired is going to be a step closer to their lifetime ambition because of this job I created," and then I was hooked.

I was just hooked from that point forward, that wonderful creative experience of being an entrepreneur that serves people, not just customers. Of course, you need to serve them, but that you serve a whole ecosystem when you launch a new business. I just found that to be a marvelous thing and just decided I was going to participate in that dynamic for the rest of my life.

I have, so that was 30 years ago, 40 years ago, and I've made that commitment to entrepreneurship, and it's been a marvelous ride.

Starting Businesses

Denali: That is a really interesting kind of journey up to that point. Following that time, that kind of epiphany realization you had, did you immediately turn and start churning out more ideas, starting more businesses?

Carl: Yeah, that was up in Chicago. I married a lady from Southeast Texas. She just didn't want to live in Chicago, so one of the most creative and entrepreneurial chapters in our married life was when we just threw everything we owned in a car with our nine-month-old baby and drove down to North Carolina.

I decided to live our life down here, but we've been here ever since. I was fortunate, it wasn’t an entrepreneurial gig next, it was an advertising agency that was in trouble, and they hired me to be the new business guy to help turn them around.

A client that I got was a newly licensed company that had just been licensed to bring cellular service to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Market. Young listeners of your podcast may not know that cellular service was introduced to the United States as a local market business.

There were two companies licensed for every Metropolitan service area. So, in these days that I'm talking about, this would be the early '80s going into the mid-'80s, there were hundreds and hundreds of cellular telephone companies. Every market had two.

While I had the opportunity to move from the advertising agency to the client that I had gotten for the agency as the agency was going away, I took over the running of the first cellular telephone company in the Triangle, Cellular One of the Triangle.

We were so successful that our investors and owners got us 23 more licenses, local market licenses. From 1985 until the end of that decade, my team and I launched 23 cellular telephone companies across the southeast. We learned something really important, and that is that our customers were much more interested in their story than they were in our story when we first started telling them about cellular service.

The only way we could get them interested in hearing about this brand-new technology called cellular telephone service was by first focusing on an audience. Like in Raleigh, we first focused on the real estate profession. These phones cost $5,000, and airtime was four or five times more expensive than it is today. Our thought was, with limited startup entrepreneurial resources, that we were going to focus, focus, focus on a market category.

So, we focused on the real estate profession first. When I would go out and tell the story as our network was being built and I would go out to recruit these people to be fans of my company, they weren't interested at all in what I had to share with them. But boy, they were interested in talking about what they had done as real estate professionals and real estate leaders in this community.

This community was just becoming, the Triangle was just becoming, what we know it is; it just was reaching the critical mass of being this awesome community. I was talking to the people who had been responsible for helping this occur, right, that were leading this.

So, I realized, "Oh my gosh, the way I can get their attention so that I can tell them my story is to come back and tell them their story."

To talk to them about how awesome “you guys” have been here in the Triangle, the wonderful work that they're doing, how important this work is, and how they're putting the Triangle on the map. My, oh my, you're doing such amazing work here in the Triangle, and we're going to become the cellular telephone company that's going to be worthy of your business. You are going to inspire us to become the best cellular telephone company we can be, to be exactly the company that you need.

Against Sprint, we wound up with a 68% market share because people love to be flattered. People love to do business with somebody who respects them, who shows genuine appreciation for what's important to them, has a deep understanding of their story, so that the service provider, the cellular company, can use their story to promise to make the customer's story an even better story.

And so, that was next. We spent a bunch of years in the cellular world. The cellular industry was discovering that it was interested in marketing. It wasn't at all interested in marketing the first two or three years, which is the reason why our company was so successful. We were one of the very few marketing-oriented cellular companies.

So, I started a marketing and advertising company called FGI., which served just the cellular industry.

Here's another quick little example: we owned the market by creating the market. We were the only company in the United States that offered a broad array of marketing services for only one customer category, the cellular telephone industry. That meant there were a lot of people who weren't interested in what we were offering.

If you were a jeweler or a bank, you weren't interested. But if you were a cellular company, we were the only ones who had this product right - 100% commitment to your industry, and a wide array of marketing services.

And for every cellular company that we pitched, we got at least some of their business because we were in the market with them, we were investing in the market with them. And we were on Inc Magazine's list of fastest-growing companies two years in a row. We went from 14 people to 140 people in two years, which is remarkable growth for a professional services business - for an ad agency.

Then, what did I do?

I spent a big part of the '90s helping solo entrepreneurs launch their businesses as a consultant and coach to them. Then, Duke asked me to teach. I love teaching at Duke. I spent 14 years there teaching entrepreneurship and creativity. Boy, I've been talking so let me stop, and you can point us in the direction you want to go next.

Stories of Content Creation

Denali: Yeah, that's wonderful, and I think it gives people a phenomenal background for kind of who you are. As a little bit of a pivot, but honestly probably not really as far as content goes, how did you start looking at creating - be it written, be it video - and using that to bolster yourself in the creative space and help others along as well?

Carl: Well, I've always been a writer. When I was nine years old, I wanted to grow up to be a novelist, a fishing guide, and a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. And I think I've finally given up on being a shortstop for the Cubs. I did get to be a fishing guide, and I've published some novels, so I've always been a writer.

Story is so powerful, isn't it? I mean, our brains are storytelling devices. I mean we love to understand the world through stories.

So Story has actually been, and I’ve been invited back to my alma mater a couple of times to speak to the creative writing folks up there about how Story will serve them in so many ways.

As, for instance, a creative entrepreneur if you control the narrative of a marketplace, you have extraordinary authority going on in that marketplace.

So, Story led me into the entrepreneurial, creative content development world because I'm a storyteller I believe that I've learned some things that are worthy of sharing with folks.

I'm an experienced writer. I'm learning how to do videos. I love being live in an audience because you get all that immediate feedback. So, to deliver content to a live audience, boy, that's just, I don't think there's much that makes me happier than doing that.

I get a little too serious when I deliver videos. To deliver content via video, and all of a sudden, I can hear in my voice it becomes sort of professorial because I'm serious now in front of a video.

So I'm getting better at that, I'm getting better at that, but I do believe, I am a creative populist, that each and every one of us, and I'm not being hyperbolic, I can tell you about the research that validates each and every one of us are born with remarkable creative qualities, and there's nothing more important, living in a world where we have no idea what the future is going to be like five years from now, let alone 50 years from now.

You're going to live to the end of this century. And so the only thing I can do as a responsible adult living in this world, forget about any other label you want to give, just as a citizen of this world, the most responsible thing I can do is help folks become as creative and as entrepreneurial as I can so that whatever we find in the future of unknowable unknowns, you'll be best prepared to create advantage if you're your most entrepreneurial and creative self.

So that's what brought me into content creation, I mean, I want to be an entrepreneur in that world as well. I'd like to offer it in a way that at times generates revenue, but I'm a missionary. I'm Johnny Appleseed, man.

I just need to get this message out as frequently and as passionately as I can. And so, it's my calling. Denali, you know, about 20 years ago, it hit me as a call, and prior to that, it hit me as an interest, and then about 20 years ago, it hit me as a calling, and it consumes me.

Challenges and Obstacles

Denali: That's wonderful. Yeah definitely. I think that one question I have as a follow-up that would be really helpful for our listeners, as a lot of people that we have talked to and are going to be talking to are early in the stages of developing content, is what has been your biggest hurdle to this point?

[For many of our other guests there is] a much shorter jump, so it's something that has come up as they're just getting started. I think you have a unique perspective in that you have not only done this in the 2000s, but you've also done this in the 90s and seen this in the 80s, and I think that's really helped add a lot of perspective for yourself.

Carl: That's a good observation. That's exactly right. I have incredibly high regard for the younger generations. I believe they're going to save us. There was a while when I was promoting the millennial generation as the first great creative generation, and I still believe that. I just don't spend a lot of energy promoting that idea anymore.

Yes, I appreciate the value of my experience. I hope to have the opportunity to help younger people gain from that experience because I like that energy. If I can teach a lesson or two to you guys, you younger folk, and that lesson or two might trigger learning, let's remind ourselves that you construct your own education, you don't consume it.

So, when I share it with somebody with the understanding they may not exactly absorb exactly what I'm saying, find an aspect of it that works best for you. If I can do what I can to support younger generations, it's just, I'll go away happy.

Denali: Definitely, I think to that point, what would you say has been the biggest hurdle from a content perspective, from let's say writing or even video more recently?

Carl: Yeah, the biggest hurdle for me, because I love doing this, right? I know there are going to be some content creators who do it because I recognize it as strategically important for their bigger mission, but this is something I love to do.

Four or five years ago, I've made the claim to myself that I was never going to do anything but create content, and I was going to look for platforms that could share the content for me. So, that's the hurdle. The hurdle is I so much love doing the content that I don't have the energy or the psychic bandwidth left over or really the inclination to then go be entrepreneurial in finding ways to share it.

Instead, I need to find folks like Kahana who are building platforms that will make it more likely that sharing takes place. I mean, I'm fairly active on some social media, but really not... I'm not, so that's the biggest hurdle for me. Is to be committed to understanding the social media landscape in a way that I can gracefully navigate it myself, and I ain't that guy, and I'm just not that guy, so that's my biggest hurdle is getting it delivered after it's created.

Strategies for Being Creatively Entrepreneurial

Denali: That makes sense. I think everyone has maybe their specialty, what they're best at, and maybe learning to focus on that and having other people kind of help you elsewhere is the best way to go. I think you spoke to this a little bit, but are there any good strategies you've come across for content creation for when you hit a wall here or there?

Carl: Well yeah, there are a couple. One for sure is to take a walk. I’m going to guess that as people hear that they are nodding their heads, people get that, they may need to be reminded of that. That is a big part of my work, we are all so creative that much of the time I help people with things they already know deep down inside. They may not know why, so let me tell you.

Research from Stanford shows that when you're walking, and you hit your natural stride, the two hemispheres of your brain become more integrated.

And while early neuroscience told us that our right hemisphere was the creative hemisphere and that the left was analytical/logical, now we know that to get into your best creative state, the two hemispheres have to be integrated.

So when you walk, you have the logical dancing with the imaginative, you have the linear playing with the non-linear. That is just going to, much of the time, as none of these are guaranteed to work all of the time, put me into the mindset that I need to be in to take that idea that I have been struggling with and have it start to grow.

The other is, and I know that we are talking to an audience of solo entrepreneurs, is that you can’t be solo.

You can’t be solo.

You need to find friends who are going to be interested in what you're trying to do, what you're trying to share (the content you're trying to share) and to have somebody that you can call. I find time and again that if I try to explain the challenge that I'm having to somebody else, I now better understand that challenge that I am having with what it is I am working on.

Also, they will also give some good advice, on the challenge that I am having. But, very, very often just organizing my thinking so that I can explain to you why I am having a problem with this, and then hearing myself share that with you.

So those would be the two first that would come to my mind. One would be to take a walk and the second would be to find that companion that person that is holding you to this, somebody that you are talking to about what you’re doing because you know they will hold you to the commitment that you want to make to your work. So ask that person about the problem that you are having, and often you will find that it will have some impact on the log jam that you are facing.

Building a Hub for Solo Entrepreneurs

Denali: That makes great sense. Now, to pivot a little bit, what is your next project? What are you kind of excited about that you're currently working on?

Carl: Well, you know, that is a great question because it's this wonderful, wonderful echo that I've been listening to since the late 80s or early 90s when I was involved in a marketing services company. We were launching businesses from it, from FGI, and there we were seeing the emergence of something called home-based businesses.

These were people running their businesses from their homes, and I was immediately attracted to that emotionally. This is good for our country when there are more and more people making their way, not following established paths, but making their way.

How can that be anything but outstandingly important for our nation? And so, I tried to start the Home-Based Business Network, a membership organization back then, and I am being silly here, but it was just the day before the internet. If we had just waited another year almost, we would have had internet.

Pre-internet, in the analog days, it was just too clunky to send them the value packages that we wanted to send them to help them run their businesses. We couldn’t charge enough to send that out to people so after a while, that went away, but I've been aware of that emergence, whether we call them solo entrepreneurs or creators. I'm just in love with that whole dynamic.

So, when I learned about Kahana, I learned about Kahana because I am a part-time advisor to the company.

I saw the emergence of this wonderful, wonderful dynamic of this hub. This hub where you can take your expertise, you can bring your service, and quickly and efficiently bring it to the marketplace.

It’s probably come across in this podcast that while I've started technology companies, I'm not really adept with technology, but it is so simple that even I, a 71-year-old guy like me could use it.

So, I'm starting a hub called "Solo Entrepreneurs: You're Not Alone" on the Kahana platform.

When I was doing the home-based business work, I was doing some focus groups with the owners and I was really struck by a phrase that one of them said. He said that he was very aware that he was the only one peddling his bicycle.

So, the minute he stops pedaling his bicycle he loses all of the momentum that he had previously earned. So, I want to help people save that momentum. I want people to understand, for example, that a story will help people maintain that momentum, even though they have stopped pedaling their bicycles.

I'm bringing a lot of content, videos, and coaching to this hub. Solo Entrepreneurs: You Are Not Alone, I love this category.

I love it again as an entrepreneur and I love it as a citizen of this country and so I'm committing myself to refresh that Hub, having just a wealth of content. I am pricing it low because I want to serve more. I want to make the price a non-issue for people.

I'm getting great support from the Kahana people in the creation of this hub. So, that's what I'm working on now, Solo Entrepreneurs: You Are Not Alone.

And I'm just excited as I can be to help as many solo entrepreneurs as I can.

Solo entrepreneurs: You are not alone

Over 35 years of experience helping Solo Entrepreneurs, Creators, and Homebased Businesses is distilled into proven practices that will help you start and grow your business.

Check out the hub

The Creator Economy

Denali: That is awesome. I want to be respectful of your time, so I'll just start to bring this to a close. I kind of wanted to leave you if you had any other thoughts about Kahana, about the Creator Economy. I think, you know, it's already been going for a little bit, but I still feel like we're just on the cusp of it.

Carl: Yes, I do. I would like, and if I could do something else, I always want to share a very specific tip. I've been talking in my workshops about how important it is to be intentional in the language that you use, right? Of course, our thoughts shape our words, but let's be mindful of how our words shape our subsequent thinking as well as the thinking of others.

And the example I've often used about that is the following:

If you're working on a project as a solo entrepreneur and your work is coming together, it's a work in progress, and you do want to share it. You do want to share it with that friend of yours who you've been cultivating. There is a profound difference, ladies and gentlemen, and folks. There's a profound difference if you were to ask for somebody's advice versus if you were to ask for somebody's opinion. When you ask for somebody's opinion, research shows, people take on a critical mindset and they tell you what is wrong with your idea. If you ask for somebody's advice, people take on a more partner-like mindset and they help you improve your idea.

And what a profoundly different response that is from just a one-word choice. So, be intentional about your language. Here's a great example because it's going to pay off for you, maybe even every day!

Oh, and, oh, by the way, research also shows that the more you ask for advice, the higher regard people have for you, and the more respect they have for you when they see you as somebody who is willing to ask for advice.

So, don't ask for opinions. Ask for advice. And don't be shy about doing it. And I hope I have a chance to serve you with the Hub. And, Denali, thank you very much for this opportunity, and, uh, um, I hope we covered the ground you wanted to cover.

Denali: Definitely. I mean, we'll probably have to do this again. I've got a list of more questions I will ask next time. Thank you so much. I appreciate your time. Carl: Thank you. All right, all right. Well, that was fun. Thanks!

Brought to you by Denali Keefe - Denali is a creator focused on the intersection of Mental Health and Technology based out of Chicago.
Produced and edited by Adam Kershner
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