I left college early. I thought I had completed my fine arts degree at San Jose State University. But in fact, I would later discover, I had received an incomplete in silk screening. I needed three more units to graduate. I wasn't overly concerned, though, because I had already concluded that I wasn't employable. Life was too short to do something I didn't want to do, anyway. I would have to figure it out on my own.
Looking back, that's the moment when I became an entrepreneur.
Growing up, school was extremely difficult for me because I have a learning disability. I couldn't pronounce words that my peers could. In the second grade, as I struggled to read and express myself verbally, I grew terrified of being called on in class. It felt as if I couldn't get a word out without being made fun of. Every test I took, I failed. My severe dyslexia was not diagnosed until decades later.
My learning disability was an embarrassment to me. It was something I tried to hide. I could not have predicted that it would be an asset -- a great gift, actually.
Because I have difficulty recognizing the different sounds that alphabet letters make, everyday situations that most people wouldn't blink at can inspire fear and anxiety in me. From an early age, it was clear to me I wouldn't be able to get by the way most people could. Between studying art and my dyslexia, being hired to do a job I liked seemed improbable.
So, after college, I created my own. And I've kept on doing that ever since.
At first, I made things with my hands -- like plush characters -- and sold them at art fairs and festivals across California. I knew I wanted to create, but I had no money or experience. Selling what I invented on the street was the most efficient way of launching my ideas, because the feedback I got was immediate. I didn't have to invest much to test.
People don't understand how difficult that was! To create something that people want is not easy. I'm grateful, because what that experience taught me about selling was priceless.
If you don't create something people want, you will quickly fail.
At the time, I had no choice: I needed a win. Otherwise, I wouldn't eat or be able to pay rent. Since then, I've noticed I still tend to do my best work when my back is up against the wall.
After making a living this way for six or seven years, I felt confident I could create products people wanted.
Now I needed to scale up by bringing my ideas to retailers. But again, I had no money or experience starting a business. So I joined a startup, where I discovered it was possible to license an idea.
Licensing my ideas to companies solved my problem: They would take my ideas to market for me. Over the years, I've used the same strategy -- licensing -- to bring a diversity of ideas across industries to market.
It was always a numbers game, and I knew that. But I was also realistic about my strengths and weaknesses. I didn't have the skills to create prototypes. I couldn't even draw my ideas. This was another obstacle I would have to overcome.
This time, the solution was very simple. I found and partnered with an illustrator who could bring my ideas to life for me.
For most inventors, filing patents and intellectual property strategy is another obstacle to overcome. Most patents never recoup their filing costs. Putting an application together is time-consuming and expensive. I had a lot of ideas. Trying to patent each of them, especially before I knew they were marketable, didn't make sense.
I got around that obstacle by devising an intellectual property strategy that relied on provisional patent applications, which cost just $70 to file with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Nearly two decades ago, I decided that I wanted to help others license their ideas. I wanted to find my community and my voice. But I was very quiet. The Internet had made sharing knowledge easy. But I'm not a writer.
I didn't let that obstacle hold me back either. I had experience that I wanted to share, so I recorded what I thought and found someone to help transcribe my thoughts into print.
Since then, I've published more than 400 articles about entrepreneurship. In 2011, McGraw-Hill published my first book, One Simple Idea. Not knowing how to write? Why would I let a little thing like that hold me back?
My point is: You can always keep moving forward. That's what entrepreneurs do. We're never quite sure of ourselves, but we can get around obstacles.
Do not let an obstacle hold you back. Find a way to get things done. Being faced with an obstacle is the very most important time to harness your creativity.
There will always be obstacles preventing you from achieving your goals.
Here are a few tips to work through them.
1. Build a team. You do not have to do this alone. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses; everyone has them. Find others who can help you achieve your goals. Don't bring on team members who have the same skill set. All of the successful entrepreneurs I know have incredible support teams.
2. Look at obstacles as a way to get things done differently. Consider your options. Use your creative genius! The journey for an entrepreneur is never a straight path. Plan to go off-road. Prepare for it.
3. Read Ryan Holiday's indispensable book The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. I use it every day. Obstacles are just opportunities for greatness.
4. Keep an open mind. Be flexible. Your ideas don't define you. Gather as much information as you can from others. Your success starts with educating yourself. Because the more information you have, the easier it will be to overcome any obstacles in your way.