Interview with Chris Williams – from homeless to running a successful business
Cristian: Hi Chris and welcome. When you contacted me to have a look at Aginto Solutions I told myself, yeah, that’s going to be the typical interview with a Web design and online marketing company. Then, I had a look at your Youtube channel and realized that’s going to be much more interesting. But first tell us a few words about what Aginto does.
Chris Williams: Aginto was started as a website design company only, and has evolved into a full service digital agency, representing some great brands across the country.
Cristian: As I was looking at one of the first videos on your channel, at some point you said something it was game changing for the interview. Were you really living on the streets before becoming an entrepreneur?
Chris Williams: In 2010/2011, I had just moved back to Florida. I came back to the area for the sole reason to be close to my only child. My daughter was newly born, and I had recently made some really dumb financial decisions. I wound up with no income, nowhere to live, and no friends in the area. I spent more than a few nights in my car before scrounging up enough cash to buy one week at a motel room. I’ll never forget my first night in that place, it was disgusting in there.
Cristian: I bet being homeless brings a lot of negativity in anyone’s life and it’s hard to wake up one day and just start a business. Not to mention that most people are afraid of starting a business of their own being in much better situations. How did you “escape”?
Chris Williams: I’m a Christian man, so I definitely said many prayers those nights. I think it was my third night in the motel, and I just had a breakdown. I remember sitting in the windowsill just sobbing. When I woke up the next morning, I realized that I had so much riding on what I chose to do next. But, I also realized that I could do this, if I put in the work. In my mind on that morning, it literally couldn’t get any worse.
I had already decided I wasn’t going to leave Florida because I didn’t want to leave my daughter behind. I had some HTML knowledge, a super old laptop (but functional), and a few pairs of dress slacks. So, I remember cleaning up, and getting dressed, and heading out into the area. I must’ve walked into 40 businesses that first day before someone gave me any time.
But, I made the most of that first client, a simple website for a BBQ restaurant. In a few days, I had money for food, and another week of rent at the motel. I started to piece together that if I spent time every day going business to business, I could make a go at this. I honestly didn’t feel that I was starting a “business” until a few months into it. I just wanted to eat. I wanted to provide for my daughter. I wanted to send funds back home to my Mother in Ohio.
I’ve been asked how I “escaped” things over the years, and the truth is I was simply faced with the alternative. It was almost like a switch in my brain went off – that I was going to eat, or I was going to starve, literally. Most entrepreneurs have a calling, or a passion that gets them started, and obviously that’s what I’d recommend. Me… I just wanted dinner.
Cristian: How did you get your first customer and get an office? This sounds impossible… for most.
Chris Williams: The first office was a real blessing. I was in my fourth week at the motel, and just making enough to make ends meet. I was beginning to become passionate about marketing and wanted to continue trying to make this idea work. The motel was bad, but I knew that realistically, if I had one bad week selling websites, I could end up back on the street. I checked out Craigslist for jobs and found one at a local Goodwill location working the night shift. I ended up getting that job, but while looking through the ads that day – I found this commercial real estate agent that owned a building a few blocks over from this particular Goodwill location. The agent; Steve Rider; had this building full of office suites and wanted to trade a free office in exchange for someone to sign for packages once or twice a day. He needed someone in the office from 9am-2pm; four days a week; and I needed a place to meet with clients where they would feel I was legit (and that had wifi). It was a perfect match.
Cristian: They say do what you love and it’s not going to feel like work. First, I have to ask, was this something you were always good at or loved?
Chris Williams: I was always creative growing up, and took a few HTML classes when I was in high school. But it wasn’t something that necessarily loved. Thinking back, I’d say that I fell in love with it as the business evolved. The passion that I have for marketing today has come through learning the industry, studying the craft, and becoming better in the process.
Cristian: And secondly, most people only get to see and hear about entrepreneurs when they are in their happy phase – playing golf after they sold their businesses for millions. But you mention that entrepreneurs get to do all the dirty work for their business. What does this mean, and is there a message for all people out there not having the courage to start a business?
Chris Williams: I think it can take courage, sure. But I also think it’s a drive, and that drive can come from anywhere. Lots of successful people are just that way, they’re driven. And they’re courageous, absolutely. And lots of people have probably started in a way similar to me – by being fed up with their current situations.
The dirty work is what it takes. I mentioned earlier that I took a nightshift job to make ends meet while I started this company. I sold my car the week before that, so my average day looked like this:
I’d wake up around 9:30pm. Clean up/eat, pack a bag, and take the bus to the Goodwill for my midnight to 8am work shift. I’d clock out at 8am, walk the few blocks down to my office, and work there building websites and meeting with potential clients from 9am-2pm. Then, I’d take the bus back toward the motel. I’d get off at different locations most days, so I could walk the last mile or so and stop at businesses on the way. I’d get home around 5pm and go straight to sleep so I could do it all over again.
That’s what I mean by the dirty work. All of those entrepreneurs on the golf course had to do what was necessary during their journey. Maybe (hopefully) most people didn’t quite have the days that I did, but they still busted their asses on a daily basis to get to where they wanted to be. And most of that work, is probably done when nobody is watching and nobody cares.
My “message” would be to do whatever it takes. Look at your industry, and your competitors. How did they get there, and what aren’t they willing to do? Is it cold calling, or going business to business? Is it going above and beyond for clients? Those are the things you need to do in order to compete, and there’s no way around it. But, if you’re willing to work for it, the door is always open.
Cristian: I noticed on your site that right now you have some people employed. Which means you are in the position to actually pay money right now. Is this something that looked possible when you were out on the streets?
Chris Williams: Not at all. I never imagined that I would be in a position to provide jobs to people. Right now we have a small staff and we’re adding team members pretty regularly. And they’ve helped me tremendously. There’s no way that we grow at the rate we’re growing if I didn’t have such great team members alongside me, willing to work hard every day.
Cristian: What were your feelings when you got your first employee? And your first customer?
Chris Williams: My first employee was really a learning experience (as is so many other things in this game). My feelings at the time were that I needed help, but my feelings afterwards were that I needed to become a better leader. I couldn’t lead others by expecting them to work a million hours, and not investing the time to train and improve their performance. This was a few years ago and we parted ways after 6 months or so unfortunately. But, I learned so much from the experience, and have become a better leader because of it.
Cristian: So what kind of services does Aginto currently provides?
Chris Williams: Aginto is a complete digital marketing company. So we offer everything from website design and video marketing, to social media and content writing.
Cristian: What makes it better than other online marketing businesses in Sarasota, Florida?
Chris Williams: We do things a little different from our competitors. When I look around I see SEO companies, or inbound marketing companies, or purely website design companies. I see social media marketing companies, and video productions firms. What we do combines them all, and we work as a partner for our clients.
For example, the marketing strategy for an insurance agency will differ from that of a marketing strategy for dog trainer. An insurance agency needs to capture leads in the moment, quickly. It’s about converting a lead right when they’re looking for a quote, and then evolving the customer relationship.
A dog trainer is a personal industry, and requires a big trust factor. Customers in that industry want to develop a small relationship with the trainers that they’re going to trust with their dog. The customer journeys are so different, and it’s our job to develop a strategy that will bring the most results and return on investment for our clients. Each industry is different, and needs different methods to maximize results.
Cristian: What would be your elevator pitch?
Chris Williams: Every small business reaches a point where they need a full time marketing staff. They’ve reached a point where they’re working their business, but have no time to develop new potential business. At the same time, they may not be in a financial position where they can pay a web developer, a videographer, a social media marketer, a writer, an Adwords expert, etc., all at the same time. So, they can partner with us, and we become the marketing department for their small business. As if we had an office down the hall from the owner, we’re their marketing department.
Cristian: Giving back to your community is a big part of what you do. While I feel that I know why this is important for you, why is this important for any entrepreneur? Considering that time is the most valuable asset for any entrepreneur (it takes time to understand that usually money are not the most important issue when starting a business, but time is)?
Chris Williams: It’s very important to me, because I’ve been there before. I actually spent Thanksgiving in the motel back then, and I had made a friend who brought me Thanksgiving dinner from her family’s house. I remember that food being like the fuel I needed in that moment, so I try to do the same through the Salvation Army. And with the time I invest, you’re exactly right. I mean I could donate a few bucks but then what? I feel like the investment of time is so much more because it’s something so valuable. This community has been good to me, and I’ve grown a business here. The least I can do is try to give back to the community and potentially help others who are in situations that I’m very familiar with.
Cristian: Any word of advice for people say past 50 that have a hard time finding work? And what about teens finishing school?
Chris Williams: I think that anybody in this country can start something special. People over age 50 can certainly do it, there’s no question. And they’ll likely have many more connections at that age that can help them to get rolling in whatever they’re passion is in.
But teens finishing school are in such awesome positions. I mean anyone at any age can start a business, but teens have so many more opportunities. Most of them are childless, able-bodied, and not tied down yet. Young entrepreneurs can start a business in nearly any industry. They just have to get started now. If they wait, they’re letting competitors get a jump on them.
Whatever you do; at whatever age it begins; do right by as many people as possible. When you do right by others, it literally comes back to you. And when you combine those opportunities with hard work, you’ll thrive at what you choose to do.
Cristian: If there is something to remember from your journey so far what would it be?
Chris Williams: Two things: First, I work today like I did when I was hungry. I tell people all the time that I’m “still hungry.” I find that by working with the same energy, the same commitment, and the same drive that I had back then, the more success I find. Don’t kick the feet up and bask in triumph. Roll up the sleeves and keep pushing.
Second, don’t get discouraged. My first year in business, I made less than $15k ALL YEAR. Not a lot of cash. I lived in that motel or in my car for most of that first year. But I gained a ton of contacts, a solid reputation, and the confidence I needed to continue. Don’t look at shortcomings or failures in your first year (or any) as simply failures. Learn those lessons from everything you experience, and get stronger from them. Keep pushing, don’t stop, and stay hungry.
Christian, thanks for the opportunity to write this out. It’s taken me a little bit longer than I expected, but I really enjoyed it and took my time. I hope someone takes something from it or finds value in it.