While the Internet has changed the way we do business, it has also changed the way we grow business. It's given way to the modern entrepreneur, one who doesn't fit a specific mold or who has a finite set of credentials. And it's opened the door for energetic, Web-minded whiz kids such as Raj Lahoti to achieve substantial success with just a few good business ideas.
A firm believer in creativity, Lahoti has taken some basic concepts and strategically molded them into lucrative businesses that have made the Inc. 500 and Inc. 5,000 lists in 2008 and 2009, and have landed him on Inc. Magazine's 2007 30 Under 30--America's Coolest Young Entrepreneurs.
As Chief Guru, chairman and co-founder of OnlineGURU Inc. and director & co-founder of AffiliateMedia, Lahoti attributes his success to his says his ambition is what's afforded him such success. It's enabled him to capitalize on his thoughts, changed his views on creating new things, and given him the confidence to test the waters beyond his comfort zone.
OnlineGURU owns and operates info-rich, user-centred Web sites such as The Unofficial DMV Guide and most recently, govGURU. The company aims to simplify the lives of the online community one site at a time. AffiliateMedia caters to the affiliate marketing industry and operates AffiliatePrograms.com.
Learn more at RajLahoti.com
* Hello Raj, How are you doing? Welcome to YHP.
Thanks, Joseph. I am well, and I'm excited to participate. Thank you for having me.
* When did your business begin?
I co-founded two businesses within three years of each other: AffiliateMedia and OnlineGURU Inc. AffiliateMedia (formerly Nebulant) opened its doors in December 2000. Today I serve as a Director on the Board, and leave the day-to-day operations to my partner and CEO, Warren Jolly. OnlineGURU launched in June 2003; this is where I spend most of my workweek as the "Chief Guru".
* What are your aims as the co- founder / founders/ members....etc regarding the business?
To create real value. That's it. I aim to do so for our visitors, our customers/advertisers and our stakeholders.
Over the years, I have found that you won't go far if you are motivated by money alone. In fact, anyone can turn a buck once. I've learned that money comes and goes, but that true value lasts. Therefore, I'm making every effort to deliver on this goal--whatever it takes to create a sustainable business that is profitable and provides real value to all parties involved.
* Has your business gone under any setback so far and how did you overcome it?
A couple of years back, I saw franchise guru George Naddaff speak at an event. He shared his mantra with the group which has stuck with me ever since: No business, no problems. No problems, no business.
I realized then that ups and downs must coexist. I embrace both with awareness, and I allow the rollercoaster of life to take me on this exciting journey! This philosophy truly dissipates any setbacks. It just takes a clear, beginner's mind and true awareness to get here.
* As an online guru, it must not have been easy to start. What kept you going?
I am moved by the things I am passonate about, rather than by the expectations placed on me by others. I know myself better than anyone else. Therefore, finding and doing the things I love is totally up to me. And only me.
I am really into Web design and architecture, and the companies I'm involved with today allow me to drive a number of projects in both areas. I might be the CEO, but my main job is more along the lines of a creative director. It's what really gets me going.
I also LOVE sales. I can sell anything that I believe in. In fact, I often find myself selling products, concepts, you name it of which I have no ownership. I do it to purely spread the word on quality products and services to the people I interact with.
* Why did you choose to dwell on Technology as a business?
That's like asking me, "why did you choose to walk with your feet instead of on all fours."
Ok I get it *Laughs*
I've been on a computer since I was four years old; I don't really see what I do as "technology." It's just what I've always done.
* Let’s say that the internet didn’t come into earth’s existent, what would you have used to start up your business?
I don't know. I've been online way too long... so I can't think of a world without the Internet.
Who knows... maybe I would have been the one to invent it!
* What else are you strongly interested in?
I'm really interested in connecting with people and nature. I love yoga, meditation, art and alternative health/medicine. Because I'm passionate about these things, I am also finding ways to integrate them into my business.
Pursuing my interests outside of business have allowed me to channel some of energy elsewhere. This gives me a nice balance to life. For example, there were times that I got so tunnel visioned and wrapped up in business, that I completely forgot and neglected other areas of my life. Today I am making a conscious effort to maintain the balance I have recently found.
* What inspired you to start such a business?
Well, I got motivated by the concept of making money for myself when I was 8 years old... and found out my father lost his job. I didn't know the significance of this, but I DID know one thing... my older sister was supposed to take us to get ice-cream, and she cancelled. I knew that something was bad... and I wanted to see how I could help the family with making money and not just be a burden, but instead, actually do something for myself. So from there, I kept my eyes open to opportunities, and eventually started selling baseball cards & comic cards to kids in the neighborhood and at school. I did this with my older brother.
Years later, I got into the web because I got passionate about making websites... and seeing my creativity come to life. With the interest in making money and a love for the web, I was able to put these two passions together and start my first Internet company.
* Where do you see this business running in the next 5 years?
I am not really attached to any one business. Businesses evolve as people do. All I know is that in five years, I'll still be active in business, mainly because it is a passion.
I will say that both of these businesses have a great future, especially because the culture we've been cultivating is one of sustainability and long-term value. But I'll accept whatever path they take. The ride so far has been awesome, and whatever happens next is something I will accept.
* Do you believe that gaining an educational background such as a degree is essential as being an entrepreneur?
Nope. But it really depends on what you want to do.
If you want to learn something that is only taught in school, then, yes, a degree is important. But for this industry, you don't really need a college degree. My only formal education came from the "School of Hard Knocks".
* As a young man, I believe you feel content with yourself regarding your success. By what age did you begin to think in an entrepreneurial manner?
I remember I was about eight years old when entrepreneurial thinking first set in. My brother and I were selling Marvel comic cards and baseball cards to the local card shops, shows and neighborhood kids. Back then, we knew success would come to us if we stayed on our toes. Persistence is key!
* What’s your favourite technology and why?
Without dependable and easy-to-adopt technology, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. Some of what I use includes:
• Laptop + Wireless Broadband — I don’t use a desktop anymore, and neither does my company. The portability makes things so much easier. You can be in the office working on something, and then if you need a change of scene or need to have some alone time to knock something out, you can be at starbucks, the deli, or a park, and still stay connected. Because you are on the same device, your work space and work flow isn’t interrupted when switching your location, thanks to hibernation/standby modes.
• iPhone — All of our employees stay connected with company iPhones, especially on days when they work remotely or outside of workweek hours. For mail, calendar and contacts our iPhones are imperative.
• Jott — This web site/iPhone app is amazing. When I’m on the go, if an idea pops up, and I want to capture the full essence if this, I can just open up the Jott iPhone app or call the toll-free # and speak my idea, task, or reminder and Jott will convert this to text, e-mail it to me, and will also attach the voice clip so I can listen to my enthusiasm/voice when I Jott’ed this note. Although their voice-to-text conversion, is not PERFECT, it is more than 90% accurate, and has never done me wrong, because the voice-clip always captures the note regardless of how the text is converted. A must-have for anyone “on the go” and very in-expensive!
• Video+Chat Conferencing via Skype — Each employee has ultimate mobility with a video camera and Skype (along with a laptop) for video conferencing. At the office, our conference rooms have Skype+Cam+LCD-Monitor combos integrated so I can attend any meeting from anywhere in the world.
• Google Docs — This allows us to have amazing amounts of collaboration with each other. Plus it ensures that our ideas are fleshed out, that we have the right people working together and that we don’t have to worry about the “who has the latest copy” nonsense. Google Docs versioning of changes is sweet because we can easily have lots of people working on the same stuff.
• G-Mail/Google Apps — We just switched over, and for corporate mail it has been great. Plus the interface is nice and sleek.
* Does this profession require a lot time being consumed? Is it ideal for a family man?
Well, that depends. It's all about how you prioritize things.
For me the fear of poverty, a common fear among entrepreneurs, kept me driven. Business came first before family, as if I was stuck on the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For some reason, I could never get above that.
As soon as I started getting over this fear, and realizing that there's so much support in this universe, things started falling into my lap and into place whether I asked or not. I started backing off my 15-hour work days and making more time for the things that are important to me, family especially.
My advice: check out Tim Ferriss' book The 4-Hour Workweek. It's an amazing read, very inspirational. I bought a copy for my mother-in-law, and here's what she had to say:
I am enjoying this book immensely, both the content and the way it is written.
It is sooo refreshing and entertaining. I have green highlights all over the book, several take-homes to implement (hopefully) :-)
I can almost see and hear you two talking as I read the book.
Gave me an insight into what makes you two kids act so "crazy" sometimes.
- P.N. (N. California)
I must say, it's a great book, finished reading it a while back but i am looking to pick it up again to read in the coming months.
* Does Entrepreneur as a profession run in the family? What kind of business existed in your family?
"We are noodle folk; broth runs deep in our veins."
- Mr. Ping from "Kung Fu Panda"
Absolutely. My parents ran several family businesses, mostly catering to the Indian community within Los Angeles. We had a grocery store and a movie theater all while my dad was working as a full-time aerospace engineer.
All 3 of my siblings are involved in their own Internet businesses! Funny how we all ended up in the same line of business.
Even my wife recently started her own website, Vidya.tv. I recommend her videos, they are unique and give you a window into some of our shared philosophies.
* Are family businesses a great foundation to start a business of your own from?
It depends on your family, and you. For me, it was great, but it has definitely been tough and a lot of work. It has been difficult for us to separate family relationships from business. I'm not sure I'd do it again.
* From experience, is it good mixing family with business? What are you advice to those who are considering such thoughts.
I’m not going to say, “don’t do it.” But I will say working with family isn’t ideal for everyone. The best way to pull it off is to:
• Bring fresh blood to the table. Meaning, add independent parties to the mix. That way family members are more likely to act on their best behavior, and the level of respect, responsibility and accountability improves. Ever since we hired our COO, Karen Baumbach, the perspective she offers has has brought the organization and our Board to an entirely new level.
• Make sure you already have a good relationship with these family members. You want the type of relationship that allows for deep conversations and even counseling and mediation. If you are working with family, it’s likely you’ll encounter some very interesting and challenging moments.
• Remember the bigger picture. The cool thing about family is that we have already spent many years supporting and honoring one another. In business, that dynamic is no different.
* Do you have any advice for those who are seeking to be within the same position as yourself?
If by "same position" you mean, doing things that you are passionate about, then my advice is to stop trying to be like others, and start doing what you love. Doing what you love will allow you to reach the heights you've always dreamed of.
Ask yourself, "What is it that I want" and "What is it that I love to do." Ask people around you what they think, but get multiple opinions. Other people don't know you as well as you know yourself, but their insight will help you get to your answer through the process of elimination.
If you had ALL the money in the world, what would you do now? If flying in a plane all day is your answer, then be a pilot. If putting food on the table for others is your thing, then work at a homeless shelter.
* Any advice for anybody starting a business of any kind?
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where.” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” said the Cat.
(Alice in Wonderland; Lewis Carroll, 1832-1898)
My advice: align your business interests with your personal passions. Any good business takes lots of tries, lots of persistence, and if you are going to stay in the game, you need to do something you love to keep you excited and willing to overcome any obstacle in front of you.
These are great tips, advices for any aspiring entrepreneur or anyone that wants to make the most out of their life, This is great raj, thanks again for sharing your thoughts and ideas.
Interviewed & Edited By: Joseph Ajilore