I’d like to share with you the story of how I went from a poor Asian kid to aspiring doctor, to aspiring actor (synonym for unemployed), to a world traveller and successful entrepreneur & CEO of a million dollar company in less than four years. Truth be told, I don’t like to talk about myself. I grew up with Asian parents that told me to be modest, to be humble, and to never tell people too much. (Meanwhile, they bragged to all their friends every time I got an A — which was less common than they liked.) However, it is important for me to share my experiences that led to success in order for you to see that I am no different from you.
I hope that by my sharing these details of what worked for me, you can learn how to break the status quo, bust through the bamboo ceiling, and be successful in anything you do — even if you end up becoming a doctor. Over four years ago, I set out on a path to make a difference, become a role model, and show people, no matter the background, that you can have a non-traditional career path or don’t want to be a doctor, you can still be extraordinarily successful and happy. Finally, I feel that I’ve gotten to a point where I have a little more experience, some accomplishments, a bit of wisdom, and some tips to now share back to someone once in my position.
For Asian-Americans in particular — we don’t need any more Asian doctors. Don’t get me wrong doctor friends, I love you guys. But, I also don’t think my Asian doctor friends would disagree with me when I say we also need more young people who will break the status quo and become CEOs, world leaders, politicians, writers, actors, athletes, inventors, innovators, and more. We need more Eddie Huangs, more Jeremy Lins, more Steve Chens and Alexander Wangs.
I created my blog site WhyYouNoDoctor.com simply because I wanted to share what I’ve learned with you — all the young, smart, and passionate people who don’t quite know what they want to do yet. And that’s okay. Don’t just go into a traditional career like being a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist unless you truly and honestly love it. You should explore other paths as well — the world is a place full of opportunities. As long as you have drive and motivation (and I’m assuming if you can get into medical school, you have it), then you will be successful.
Personally, I truly believe that my early success in my career was not left up to luck. It took a lot of hard work, optimism, and even mistakes for me to carve out a career path that I love and still is continually adapting.
In our society, so many college graduates are worried about finding a job — any job that will give them security and comfort. There’s a lot of concern about entering the real world and having real responsibilities. My view on this is that the real world is infinitely more fun than the artificial bubble within a university institution. In a university, no matter how hard you work, you’re still constrained within the limitations of your academic setting. In fact, as one of my favorite writers, Seth Godin, says in his book Stop Stealing Dreams:
“If all we do with these tools is teach compliance and consumption, that’s all we’re going to get. School can and must do more than train the factory workers of tomorrow.”
We’re taught to obey, to not speak up, to be uniform through standardized testing, to not talk back. If you do these things, you will be successful and have excellent grades. Then if you’re lucky, you will get a good entry level job which leads you to climbing the traditional corporate ladder. You become a modern day factory worker where you sit in front of a computer all day instead of operating machinery in a factory.
However, once you graduate, there is no one path to success. Even better, you’re actually able to create something tangible, something influential, something world-changing, and most importantly, something you’re very passionate about. Of course, this is easier said than done because at the end of the day there are risks involved — but I want to ask you to ask yourself: what truly are the risks at hand?
In fact, the risks are a good thing. I believe that we push ourselves to work our hardest and best when our back is against the wall. When that need for success is as great as your urge to sleep, to eat, to party, to socialize, then you’ll find yourself finally making progress in achieving it.
It’s never too late, however, I hope I’m catching you at the right time. What I mean is that you’ll have a much easier time building lifelong successful career(s) if you start early when you don’t have obligations in your life such as a family to support or relationships you have to balance. The best time to experiment is when you’re fresh out of college and have the freedom to literally get up and leave whenever you want. The freedom to just do you.
As a freshman in college, I selected engineering as my major, but within one semester I had decided to shift to pre-med. I told everyone I was going to become a doctor, without having any idea why besides the fact that it seemed like society had told me that was my destiny. I should mention that it was also because engineering classes were hard, I wouldn’t have to take Calculus II, and there were virtually no girls in my engineering classes. In those classes, I’d be the dumb kid trying to figure what the Auto-CAD software was. Meanwhile, over there in the biology classes I could be the “smart Asian” study partner.
One last thing before we get started: If you ever have questions, comments, or just want to chat, drop me a message below or feel free to email me. I’m here to support you in achieving your goals in whatever ways I can.
A river of sweat streamed down my face as the midday sun beat down on my body. And when I say river, I mean literally — it was like I was standing under a shower that was halfway turned on with water from the showerhead lazily dripping on my hair. My back was killing me so I readjusted my thirty-pound backpacker pack. I was wearing it in front of my body now. In retrospect, I probably would have invested in a better quality backpack with more back support had I known that I’d be trekking the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas for two weeks, eight hours a day. In my backpack, I carried my life possessions. Some of the highlights included a Macbook Air, a white tank top with Bruce Lee on it that I bought in Thailand, a shirt that says “Good Morning Vietnam,” a knockoff Northface rain jacket, another knockoff Northface longsleeve shirt, a pair of Adidas soccer sweatpants, and a pair of waterproof pants. I think I had about a pound of almonds in that bag too and some dark chocolate that was completely melted over my belongings.
If you’re not familiar with the Annapurna Circuit, it’s widely considered the most beautiful hike in the world. The most common starting point is in Pokhara, Nepal, and from there you start in the jungle at around 1,500 meters elevation and ascend up to almost 6,000 meters. Obviously when you begin the hike, it’s humid, hot, and dusty, but as you ascend in elevation, you end up below zero trekking through the snow. Moreover, you’re carrying a heavy backpack as you hike from sunrise to sunset.
Okay, I admit, they say you should start the hike at sunrise because it’s cooler, and you can arrive before sunset when you might get lost, but trust me, it’s really damn hard to get up at 7AM when the day before you just trekked for a solid eight hours.
The key to this hike is to pack light, and pack in layers. What I mean is that you should carefully craft your clothing options so that you can essentially add on one more layer per couple hundred meters of elevation. Therefore as it gets colder, your bag gets lighter because you’re wearing the weight. Of course all said and done, the trek is physically strenuous, unless you hire a local porter to carry your belongings for you — but I think that destroys the feeling of accomplishment you get from busting your ass and getting sweaty and dirty. Like most things in life, often times the struggle is the most fun part of any accomplishment, and there’s nothing like hiking a full day, getting to a village rest stop for the night, and ordering every single dish on the menu plus an ice cold beer for a total of $10 USD. The way I saw it, it was guilt-free carb loading — I earned it.
Suddenly, I heard a familiar “ding” and felt my pocket vibrate. I stopped moving and pulled out my iPhone. On the top left, I saw one bar of Edge (E) data service, and a new mail notification. Prior to embarking on the trek, I bought a local SIM card with the hope that I would be able to check my email and maybe send out a couple iMessage photos to my friends. I was assured by the Nepalese man in his self-owned hole-in-the-wall-store that I definitely would have full broadband internet while I was hiking in the Himalayas.
Well, for the past seven days on the trek, my phone had constantly displayed “No Service,” so clearly he was misinformed. Normally for most people this wouldn’t be a problem, but for me… I was running a internet business and for all my clients knew, I was just waking up and on my way to the office (my office is actually my bedroom) in Los Angeles, California. I didn’t anticipate that I’d be out of cell phone service for a week, especially because I’m generally expected to respond to emails within 24–48 hours. I wasn’t panicking per se about not being to check e-mails and respond because I was working for myself, but I generally do pride myself on being there when my clients need me. Therefore, you can imagine how ecstatic I was to find that I had one bar of internet service. Quickly, I took off my backpack, sat down on a rock, and whipped out my MacBook Air which was securely wrapped around with a bandana and placed into a gallon-sized zip-lock bag with a bunch of those moisture-absorbing packets that you find in beef jerky packages. I turned on my personal hotspot so my computer could connect to the WiFi. At a rate of about 1 per 15 seconds, all of my e-mails began to roll in. Business e-mails requesting quotes for my services began to populate my screen as well as existing clients with questions for me. One email in particular stood out, though. The subject line said “Re: Contract Agreement Signed.”
I had just closed a lead that I followed up a week prior when I was in Thailand. A smile began to creep across my face as I took a sip of water and looked around at the vastness of the Himalaya mountain range around me. I just made $15,000.
Nepal was the last leg of a work and backpacking trip that lasted over four months and brought me across seven countries, starting in Los Angeles. I began by spending a month in Hong Kong working on a $100 million dollar movie as an acting coach and translator for the Michael Mann film Blackhat.
Then I went off and got to see first-hand the 4th most populous country in the world, Indonesia, and the immense history there including the world’s biggest Buddhist temple in Borobudur, and the chill environment of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia.
Afterwards, I flew to Singapore, then backpacked up throughout Malaysia and spent a week in the Perhentian Islands where I scuba dove for a week in the clear blue waters. After that was motorbiking down parts of the coast of Vietnam from Hanoi to Saigon and learning about the Vietnam War before spending a month in Phuket, Thailand, to learn Muay Thai, a form of the largely popular Thai kickboxing.
Less than one year before my backpacking trip, it was the summer after college graduation, I was sitting in the living room of my friend’s apartment playing Diablo III, and pondering what my next step in life would be.
My father has his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology, my mom is a nurse, my brother is a California bar-certified lawyer, and from the day I was birthed, naturally I was supposed to become a doctor. Coming from an Asian-American family, this was the norm. I just accepted the fact that I was going to become a doctor and didn’t even really try to resist it.
In my senior year of high school, I applied to all my top university choices and got waitlisted to them all with my measly GPA. I spent most of my time playing Counter-Strike and Final Fantasy XI. When I wasn’t playing computer games, I was assembling computer parts and overclocking my desktop to be able to play more computer games. With a bit of luck, I ended up getting accepted into the University of Wisconsin — Madison.
I didn’t want to get caught in that situation of being rejected by all my post-college plans again, so in college I studied my ass off for four years and graduated with a 3.9GPA, Phi Beta Kappa at the top of my class. I worked at a lab, volunteered at HospiceCare, took the MCAT, and had a wealth of extracurriculars I could toss on the resume for medical school. I even volunteered on a medical mission trip in Costa Rica to try to make myself passionate about a career in medicine.
The closer I got to submitting my medical school application, the more I began to have a few thoughts:
Did I really want to spend my 20s, possibly the best years of my life, buried in textbooks, memorizing a lot of stuff that I probably wouldn’t ever apply in my life?
Was I really passionate about being a doctor and helping people, or was I more passionate about the idea of it?
If I was so passionate about helping people, then weren’t there better ways to help people than what I would probably end up doing, helping one rich person at a time who could afford American health insurance? Wouldn’t being an engineer and building better infrastructure in developing nations or providing clean drinking water or health awareness be more impactful?
How was I ever going to compete with some of the other kids in my class, like my Chinese-American friend Brian, who simply learned faster than I did? (He got a 42 on his MCAT and now is an MD PhD at Columbia.) At best, there would still be so many people in medical school that were just going to memorize faster than I could. I’d have to overcompensate and spend even more time just to keep up…
Did I want to more or less plan my life for the next decade by enrolling into medical school? What else would I do if I didn’t become a doctor? (I actually started studying for the LSAT after I took the MCAT, lol.)
Then I got very lucky.
The decision made itself when I got a 24 on the MCAT. That put me in the bottom 43 percentile and pretty much hopeless to attend any halfway decent medical school. In my head, I was planning on applying to schools like Harvard Medical College which requires a 36–37 MCAT score which is in the top 97 percentile.
I went with option #2. I packed my belongings in my suitcase and shipped it home. I kept the bare essentials and packed them in a backpacking backpack.
I asked the production to send me on a one-way ticket to Indonesia instead of Los Angeles. I would begin my journey alone working my way from Indonesia to Singapore to Malaysia to Vietnam to Thailand to end with hiking the famous Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. I didn’t have set dates on when I needed to come home — I just wanted to take my time, read, adventure, and be alone.
I was 23. I had no girlfriend, no job, no rent, no obligations, and I wanted to see the world. My goal was to continue to grow as much as I could, to learn as much as I could, and try as many new things as I could. Some of those things terrified me. Scuba diving was one of them.
One night at a club in Ubud, Indonesia, another backpacker was talking about how amazing it was to go scuba diving off the coast of Malaysia. He talked about diving down to 30 meters, which is almost 100 feet.
I imagined being that deep in the water with only oxygen tank as a lifeline. It scared the shit out of me and made me feel claustrophobic just thinking about it. At that moment, I also knew that I would have to get certified. Confronting fear was my mission. It was the way to success, and as long as it didn’t kill me or seriously injure me along the way, I let fear guide me on what I must do next.
A few weeks later I had made my way up the coast of Malaysia to Pulau Perhentian, and had enrolled in my Open Water PADI diving course. What had I gotten myself into? I hate water and I hate the open ocean and I hate the unknown.
“Okay, now dip your head in the water and breathe,” said the young Asian instructor.
Here goes nothing. I submerged my head into the water and instantly felt like I was suffocating. I shot back up.
The instructor reassured me. “Just relax and try to breathe. If you breathe too fast the respiratory won’t be able to deliver oxygen fast enough so you’ll feel like you’re suffocating.”
Wow, that’s just great. Okay, here we go. I dipped my head underwater again.
Now let me tell you, the act of breathing underwater is very strange. It essentially breaks the human mind. I started hyperventilating again and was just about to quit when I started to become aware of my surroundings.
It was like I had just teleported into another world. Fish were swimming everywhere around me. Clownfish were playing in their anemones, triggerfish were getting ready to attack me if I crossed into their territory, and schools of barracuda gracefully swarmed around. I stopped focusing on my breathing and let my anxiety die down while the underwater world blew my mind.
A few months later I went ahead and got my Advanced Open Water Certification allowing me to dive to 100 feet.
My trip spanned many months and my days generally were packed with sightseeing, eating, working on my laptop doing freelance SEO for a few American companies, and reading books.
The trip itself warrants its own post, but below are just a few photos and cliffsnotes of my time.
During my time backpacking, I started to focus more and more on my online business which would ultimately bring me back to Bali many more times over the next few years.
By the end of three months, I was starting to get anxious. I felt complacent. I felt that traveling was just another means of procrastination. After the first few temples, the first new historical sites, the first few mountains climbed, it all started to become similar.
I felt a false sense of productiveness. To me, traveling is a means to an end. It is a way to soak in as much knowledge and experience as possible to later use in other aspects of your life. But it seemed as if most people I met just wanted to travel forever, and hated the thought of “going back to the real world.”
This perplexed me. I didn’t want “going back to the real world” to be a symbol of something I dreaded. In fact, I wanted to “go back to the real world” and take what I’d learned and make a difference. It sounded easier said than done.
In the Himalayas, Motorbiking down the coast of Vietnam, Visiting Prambanan
Muay Thai at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, and Partying in Ko Phi Phi
So many people have the desire to just go and travel the world. It’s a valid dream, but once you have that, what’s next? Is that all that is? Don’t get me wrong, the first temple is beautiful, the second beach club is still exciting, the third museum is very interesting, the fourth meaningless hookup is still fun, and traveling to the 30th country still has its appeals. You learn so, so much and have so much fun. But at some point, diminishing returns are a real thing.
The trickery of perpetually traveling is that it keeps you busy. You’re always moving, going somewhere, doing something. Because of this, you don’t feel complacent on the surface — but deep inside, I felt like I was.
Half the problem was that I felt like a leech. A privileged leech of a tourist providing marginal value to my clients while exchanging money earned for quick highs. As Mark Manson put it perfectly in his novel, “It was a strange life, replete with horizon-breaching experiences as well as superficial highs to numb my underlying pain.”
I wanted to do more. To make an impact. To create something. To deliver value. Experiences during my travels gave me the means to an end.
During my travels, I met quite a handful of digital nomads. Similar to myself, these people bounced around country to country while working online as developers, graphic designers, digital marketers, accountants, consultants, writers, and more.
I always hear so many people envious of others being able to work location independent. Well, honestly, it isn’t hard to do. If you can make $1,500/month online, you can live fairly comfortably in Southeast Asia. Your lifestyle would be equivalent to making around $5,000/mo in many other parts of the world, but due to low costs of living, each dollar goes much further.
The jobs that can be done online now are endless. Go to Upwork.com and search for all the potential online jobs that you can get. There is no shortage and there will only be more and more.
Backpacking gets lonely often. You meet people and then you go your separate ways. You feel small in the world, and insignificant. And it’s a great feeling — if you learn how to embrace it.
In her book Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert said:
“When I get lonely these days, I think: So BE lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.”
Now when I’m alone, I start to enjoy it. Loneliness forces you to acknowledge the thoughts in your head and have uncomfortable moments of reflection with yourself.
I moved back to Los Angeles. One of my other roommates moved out so this meant that I could now upgrade to the master bedroom and afford to pay a bit more for rent due to savings from the film and my SEO business.
I was eager to apply the experiences I had while traveling in a practical way. I hoped that my acting ability would be improved as well since my worldview expanded. It didn’t go that well though, considering my first scene study class back I completely and utterly bombed.
I went out for a number of auditions, but from an auditioning perspective, honestly no one really cared that I worked on a large film as part of the crew, even though I had a substantial role. Some of the most promising roles that I went out for, such as a supporting role in American Sniper called “Asian,” were cut from the film all together. Other auditions, such as for the lead role of Wes Gibbins in How to Get Away With Murder, I knew I had lost before I even opened my mouth, being the only non-Black person auditioning.
Instead of letting these early failures bring me down, I decided instead to put my energy towards creating something for myself. I heard about an Asian-American Film Fellowship sponsored by Sundance Institute and figured that it would be a good goal to submit something for it.
There was a 24-hour Starbucks down the street in nearby Westwood. I would end up going there every single night until 3 or 4AM to work on my script called All-American Kid. After months of hard work, I finally submitted it to the Sundance Institute.
It was a major buzzkill to have worked on something so hard but to not see it come to fruition. Regardless, I looked at the positive and decided that I would keep working on the script and eventually make it into a reality (and almost 3 years later, last week, after countless revisions, my team and I finally have a working draft to use for our pitching).
Aside from a few small bookings (including a role in Love Arcadia that starred at a few film festivals), overall things looked more and more bleak. I decided to leave Los Angeles and enroll in a summer Shakespeare program in London, England. Once again, I packed all my bags and moved overseas.
London was a magical place full of incredible theatre and beautiful architecture. It was unlike any place I’d been before and to be attending the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art was a thrilling, yet intimidating experience.
I was surrounded by passionate, young, and talented actors and actresses. I was also the only Asian person in the entire school, which was interesting. At the end of the day, drama school is about being open and uninhibited.
In case you were wondering, your typical day looks like this:
Okay. In all seriousness, you get out of drama school what you put in. If you want to take the games and exercises seriously, you will learn a lot.
These months were full of new growth and learning, especially with the opportunity of viewing world class theatre every weekend with friends. But as fast as it started, the semester passed and I found myself back in Los Angeles again, without substantial acting jobs, and with no great direction. I was back at ground zero.
And then the phone rang.
Spending every night alone at the library or coffee shop working on my screenplay (which amounted to nothing thus far) wasn’t a waste of time. In fact, I learned valuable skills in writing, storytelling, and more. The experience forced me to read books like Story by Robert McKee, On Writing by Stephen King, and more. To this day, the screenplay has not been made, and I’ve invested hundreds more hours into it. It still isn’t perfect, it still is a work in progress, but I’ve had a great deal of pleasure in creating something from just an idea. I loved the process of writing.
This principle applies to everything in life. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, you may have a goal to become a blackbelt after a decade, however that end result isn’t what gives you happiness. Instead, it is the ups and downs along the way which create happiness.
Don’t sell yourself short by taking the easy way, or hoping you’ll win the lottery, or that you’ll get lucky in order to achieve something. You lose the most fun and fulfilling part: the process.
In drama school, one of the most important things you’ll learn is about opposites. It will change your life if you can understand this concept and apply it to your own life.
“In all of us there exists love and there exists hate, there exist creativity and an equal tendency toward self-destructiveness, there exist sleeping and waking, there exists night and there exists day, sunny moods and foul moods, a desire to love and a desire to kill. Since these extremities do exist in all of us then they must also exist in each character in each scene.” — Michael Shurtleff.
Think about a few scenarios:
If you need someone so much, the opposite is probably true — you probably resent that you need that person so much.
So often we say we don’t want something, when in reality we want it so bad.
You crack jokes to cover up a situation with humor when there is so much pain inside that you’d be crying otherwise.
We bully other people because we are insecure within.
Life is interesting because from one moment to the next, it is never dull. Emotions can go from joy to pain and crying in a second’s time. This also separates beginners from professional actors — the ability to understand the opposites in every moment, the conflicts between the two, and how to never have a dull, predictable moment in their acting. Life is unpredictable.
“Actors must have the soul of a rose and the hide of a rhinoceros. You must continue to let the rose become more sensitive; you must also increase the thickness of the hide. Translate criticism for yourself; see if it’s apt. If it is, don’t deny it, learn from it. If it’s not, move on.” — Larry Moss
Being vulnerable perhaps is the most applicable thing I’ve learned from acting. Without being vulnerable, you cannot build deep bonds with people, you cannot let your guard down and take constructive criticism, and you cannot grow by truly understanding yourself.
Too often we try to protect the soft parts of our soul so much from being hurt by others, but we must realize that at the same time we are also shielding the good out as well.
By being vulnerable, you will instantly start being liked more by others because you can bet when you are self-conscious and vulnerable, many others feel the same way but have been too afraid to voice it. You exposing yourself first allows others to relate on a deeper level and they will gravitate to you because of it.
In acting, the audience pays to see your vulnerability. You must be figuratively naked in front of your audience. They want to see your raw emotions, your pains, your vulnerability because in their own lives they are too afraid acknowledge them or show them to others. The same thing happens when two actors fall in love on screen: the audience falls in love too because they are getting the same feelings of pleasure through imagining that they had that in their lives.
You must be able to make fun of yourself, to be silly, to show love, anger, jealousy, lust, and everything in between in order to be fully uninhibited and open.
Too often in our lives we have a conversation and just wait to say what we have to say without truly listening. In acting, this is a problem because we pre-plan how we are going to say a line before listening to the other person and reacting appropriately.
Truly listening doesn’t just mean just listening to the words someone is saying. It means listening to the subtext of it. In acting, the words are the clouds and the subtext is the ocean of murky truth below. Rarely do people say exactly what they want, and sometimes they don’t even know how to. It is up to you to hear what they really mean and identify the subtext.
This will aid deeply in your relationships with people, whether it be communicating with your significant other, understanding the needs of a new sales prospect, or marketing to people (and their subtext).
Hitler was responsible for one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. He was responsible for killing an estimated 19.3 million civilians and prisoners of war. He is one the greatest villains of all time for the atrocities he commited.
However, Hitler did not see himself as evil. He saw himself as a savior of the German people, helping the poor, bringing prosperity to his people from the invading immigrants and Jews. As an actor, you must understand that human beings always justify themselves. Even the greatest villain of villains doesn’t wake up in the morning saying he is evil. He has a justification, an explanation for how he is making the world a better place or whatever else. Think of any superhero movie.
Actors often judge their characters, but if you judge them from your lenses, then you’re missing the point. You haven’t gone deep enough.
In life, sometimes there are people who come off as jerks. How do you get to these people? You must be able to relate, to understand how they justify themselves and think on the same wavelength. Then you’ll be able to connect deeply and understand why people are the way they are.
The next time there’s someone who you don’t like, challenge yourself. Step into their shoes. Try to understand. Get them to like you. You might find out that they have a viewpoint that you never had before.
When legendary acting coach Uta Hagen was writing one of the greatest contemporary acting books, Challenge for the Actor, she did a direct comparison with a close psychologist friend on her notes about human behavior through her study of acting.
Needless to say, her notes on human behavior were very closely correlated to academic studies on human behavior, including fundamental needs, wants, and more.
One of the most important keys to acting is that every single person at every single moment of their life has an objective (a want) as well as an action to get what they want. If you can identify what your character wants at any given time, then you will add a vital element of truth and direction in your work. The same applies to life.
Airport Example: Your flight is delayed and your objective is to get home to your family. First you reason. Then you beg. Then you guilt. Then you harass. Then you threaten. Those are your actions.
Once you can always identify what you want at any given time and the actions you are taking to get what you want, then you can also start to see clearly other people’s wants and how they are trying to achieve those wants.
“Hi Dominic, it’s Daxing. I’m helping to produce a film and wanted to know if you’re available to coach a famous Chinese celebrity, Zhang Yuqi, on her next English-speaking role.”
Just like that, I was brought onto a Chinese-US co-production called Lost in the Pacific to film in Malaysia at the Pinewood Studios for three months.
The cast was composed of a number of working actors from popular TV shows like “The Walking Dead as well as Brandon Routh who previously starred as Superman in Superman Returns. The top billed actress was Zhang Yuqi, who was a star in her country, China.
The Chinese film industry had been exploding over the years. The Chinese studios have been buying up stakes in American film companies like none other. For the top 6 movies of 2017 that premiered in China, China brought in $983 million out of a $1.69 billion total.
I wanted to be a part of this phenomenon. I was initially asked by Zhang Yuqi’s team to teach and coach her on all of the dialogue in English, but on the other hand, I didn’t feel like wasting 3–4 months of my life in order to be someone else’s English teacher. Instead, I provided the condition that I would be happy to help if I was also given a role in the film.
They agreed, we signed the paperwork, and I was flown to Malaysia. Just like that, once again I had left the United States. Little did I know at that time, I would not be coming back any time soon.
Working on the film was a lot of fun, and I was able to meet many talented friends from the China side including Sunny Wang 王阳明 as well as from the U.S. side like Vincent Ward from The Walking Dead.
I decided to make the most of my free time during filming. Whenever I wasn’t working, I poured energy into my internet business. I decided I wanted to grow the company and rose up to the challenge. At this point, I had already hired two other contractors to help me balance my workload, and ended up hiring one more person, a British guy based out of Bali, Indonesia. This was perfect because it gave me an opportunity to travel back to Bali after the film wrapped and meet up with my team, now four people.
Hiring people meant increased costs, and as a result, this also meant we needed to generate more sales to support our growth. My good friend ADHD Eric gave me the advice that I should pour my heart and energy into scaling the business for a good six to eight months. Then afterwards, it would set me up for a stable agency that would generate enough revenue to support my lifestyle. This made sense to me, and I figured it would be as good as an idea as any to spend more time on my business because I had some great opportunities to grow as well as learn Chinese and establish myself in the Chinese film industry in the meantime.
I flew over to Bali and met up with my friends and colleagues. We began working together every single day, and even managed to scale Mt. Rinjani, an active volcano in Indonesia, along the way. Life was good working out of coffee shops and co-working spaces, most notably Hubud in Ubud, Indonesia.
I took meditation classes and attended yoga classes at the Yoga Barn as well. There wasn’t much of a party scene in Ubud, which was actually advantageous to me because I wouldn’t have any urges to go get drunk. Instead I could just sit down, focus, and do the work.
Working with Leigh, now my company’s VP of Digital Strategy, was a great learning experience. I’ve rarely met someone so passionate about self-growth and learning. I didn’t have much extra money, but I paid him a cut of revenue to help manage some clients that I had. This ended up being something like $1,500/month, which was just enough to get by comfortably in Ubud. Ben, a new hire, helped me build a simple new website for the company which cost about $500, and we were well underway. Now I had to learn how to scale.
Scaling a business is tough in many ways, but ultimately the goal is to dissociate my time from profit. Generally, the more time you spend, the more money you make. However, time is finite. It’s when you can make money when you sleep that you finally have a scalable solution. This is what I set out to do. If you’d like to learn more about this in detail, I’ll be sharing in another long-form post how to get from zero to one.
After a productive few weeks in Bali, I set out to make the move finally to China.
Looking back, I realized how important the team is to the success of any collaborative project. In the building of an agency, it’s incredibly important to hire the right people. Noah Kagan puts this perfectly in one of his blog posts. The absolute only people you should hire are people that are Great Teammates, but Underdeveloped Talent. The early team was composed of mostly great teammates, but highly underdeveloped talented. As a result our costs were low and this allowed the business to grow through re-investment of funds into the business. The team was not perfect though — one of the first major hurdles we ran into was due one awful teammate. He had heard of the book The 4-Hour Workweek and without reading it, decided he would work for 4 hours a week. As a result, we lost many of our top clients and drastically stunted growth. I had to learn this the hard way, and I also was learning to become a better manager of others.
In the beginning, our offering wasn’t anything special. We were good value for the price we charged, but nothing more. However, we continued to grow, mainly due to the fact that we organically ranked extremely well for top keywords that our target audience searched for. If you’re starting a business, the only sustainable way in my eyes is to have organic leads.
This means that you aren’t paying extra for advertising — instead you’re taking advantage of targeting people who are already looking for you and what you offer. Even from the start, no matter how shitty our own website was and how unprofessional everything looked, the website got us leads. And we converted those leads into revenue.
How did we rank so well? It all starts with niching down.
In today’s market, there is no shortage of people who can do digital marketing, who can build websites, do SEO, or make designs. So how do you get the attention of potential customers and stand out from the crowd? Be a specialist in your industry. For us, we specialized in the life science sector given my background as an undergraduate and research experience. I was familiar with the products and services that my audience wanted to market. I had a story that was consistent with this niche — that I worked as a lab manager and handled the ordering of life science reagents for my lab. Instantly this gave me a huge one up on all my competition who didn’t specialize in any particular industry, and instead had a “we work with anyone” approach.
This niche carried over to SEO and inbound marketing as well. We held and still hold top positions for all of the keywords that our prospects were searching for. And to further back up how important it is to niche — at one point we decided to actually ‘un-niche’ and open up our services to any target audience and, well, it didn’t go great.
What happened in those months was a large influx of leads from all sorts of industries, and even though we ranked #6 for “SEO Consulting Company” worldwide, our close rate of new leads went to 0. We lost our comparative advantage and unique differentiator. Our services became commoditized and we lost all pricing power. Quickly, we decided to go full on to dominate our industry niche. Today I can confidently say that I truly believe we provide the best digital marketing service offerings in our entire industry.
Pollution, guanxi, diarrhea. These three words sum up my experience living in China.
The pollution in Beijing is like a mystical thing if you haven’t experienced it firsthand. It’s godawful. People complain about the weather in London and how the rain and cloudiness gets to you. Well, in Beijing it’s about 10x worse. It is cloudy, but not because of the clouds, because of pure dirty, toxic smog. Even if it’s a beautifully sunny day, the layer of smog blocks out the blue sky and instead what you get is a drowned out, gray, fumey type of day that smells like car exhaust.
Some days the pollution gets so bad that they have to shut down roads like some sort of post-apocalyptic world where the air is so dense with yellow fumes that your visibility is 10 meters.
This had a dramatic impact on my mood, and combined with incredibly slow and firewalled internet made me constantly tired and unproductive.
Oh, and I forgot to mention: Diarrhea.
The first week I was in Beijing, I went out clubbing and ate street food. The next morning, I literally died from food poisoning and diarrhea. During my time in China, I got food poisoning multiple times and so often that essentially I didn’t have a solid poop for the entire year. I checked with my friends and they told me that’s just how it is in China.
Now, I don’t want to make this post about China-bashing. In fact, China was a very special place despite the complaints.
Everything in China operated on guanxi, which means relationships. I knew this before getting to China, which was also one primary reason for going. Building relationships was one thing that I was very good at. I could grow my business in China and hope to enter the Chinese market, and, in addition, I could become a working actor purely through connections and networking rather than auditioning.
As a major life goal, I also decided I would finally learn to read Chinese and be able to have a fluent conversation in Mandarin. I promptly signed up for online Chinese classes at $7/hr and started putting myself in as many rooms as possible to network and meet the community in the entertainment industry.
I had niched down my acting career to being the best Chinese-American actor in Beijing with fluency in the language. Quickly, I began to meet a lot of people in the fast-growing yet small community. My next door neighbor, a record producer named Jon Yen, introduced me to his friends in the entertainment space as well.
Everything moved fast, and I started booking some roles, exactly as I predicted: through my network. No auditions, just straight to set. The problem though was that productions in China were absolute shit. There’s no unions which means that actors are virtually unprotected from getting completely abused and ripped off. You work extremely long hours and get fed the worst possible food you could imagine. There was no glamor in the local Chinese productions.
Actors are regularly getting injured, overworked, scammed, and unpaid. This is the nature of the film industry in China. However, on the flip side, money flew around and investors wanted to make content no matter how bad it was. For an actor, at least you can be working. As a result, I ended up booking a number of smaller roles in bigger productions, and also bigger roles in smaller productions.
During my time in China, I also further grew my online business working long nights every night, staying up until about 2–3AM. I brought on a number of people and in just two years my company went from a total headcount of about 6 including contractors to about 15. With every dollar earned, I reinvested in hiring and improving our process. Our revenue doubled year over year with about 300% growth from 2016 compared to 2017.
Today as I launch this blog, it’s the end of 2017 and our team is now around 25 people. Our growth has seen no slowing down, and we continue to own more and more market share in the life science digital marketing space. We continue to learn, to improve, to change, and to develop ourselves internally.
10. Why? And what’s next?
I started this blog to just give you a real glimpse into my journey and what it took to build a 7-figure business from scratch, star in a few films, and travel the world. I wanted to share the hurdles I encountered in my journey thus far and how they were a necessary part of my path. Some of the highlights include failing the MCAT, getting fired from my dream job, and all the other endless rejections.
Kanye West said it the best, “Everything I’m not made me everything I am.”
Meanwhile, business continues to grow, I’m pitching my latest film project both in the United States and China, and I’ve finally launched Why You No Doctor (WhyYouNoDoctor.com). I’ve gotten so used to being busy, tackling the next challenge, pursuing the next goal, that I don’t see an end in sight. But that’s because I’ve fallen in love with the process. As soon as I accomplish one thing, it’s on to the next, and that’s how it should be. It’s what makes me happy. I can only imagine where my business will be in 2020, what successes I’ll have in the entertainment industry, and how many lives I can possibly impact through WYND.
Hopefully you found this post to be helpful. Currently I’m bouncing around London, Berlin, and will be planning my move to Shanghai in the next few months.