If there’s one thing entrepreneurs all agree on, it’s failure. Some of us fear failure so much that it stops us from ever taking the first step in business. For others the promise of success is enough to get us over the line. In this podcast you’ll hear from founders who have looked failure in the face and lived to tell the tale.
Anou Khanijou is the Managing Director of Anouconcept, but she created her first business before the age of 18. Starting with a successful Thai restaurant, she then created another restaurant, followed by a nightclub. Then came an almighty failure, one she’s determined to never repeat.
William Du & Carolyn Wong are co-founders of giftware retailers Short Story. Growing from market stalls to department stores, this couple has seen success and failure — often in equal measure. William and Carolyn share are enjoying success, but share their failures in the hope that you won’t suffer the same fate.
Disclaimer: Transcripts may contain a few typos. Similar sounding words that can lead to them being deciphered wrongly and hence transcribed likewise.
Serpil Senelmis: For WeTeachMe this is the Masters Series where industry professionals share their secrets to business success. I’m Serpil Senelmis from Written and Recorded. When it comes to starting a business, there’s one thing we can all agree on. Nobody wants to fail. In fact, fear of failure is what holds many of us back from leaping into entrepreneurship. But you’re about to meet three people who have not only looked failure in the face, but they’ve lived to tell the tale. William Du and Carolyn Wong are co founders of giftware retailer Short Story as business and life partners, they’ve shared the success and failure of business together ever since they were in school.
William Du: To come the next year with our hey, we did 80,001 store that’s open 7 of them. 7 times 80 thousands, like half a million dollars. Let’s do it.
Carolyn Wong: We’re gonna be rich.
William Du: Yeah, millionaires. Um, so that was an epic failure. So we will learned.
Serpil Senelmis: We’ll hear from William and Carolyn shortly. But first, Anou Khanijou. She’s a bit of an inspiration. She ran away from an arranged marriage in India, and shortly after arriving in Australia in her teens created her first business. Then she went on to develop the famous carousel restaurant on Albert Park Lake, as well as several other businesses. And this fireside chat with WeTeachMe’s Wayne Lewis, Anou says after many years in business, she had an epic fail and now advises keeping a close eye on your cash flow.
Anou Khanijou: Okay, so we start off with the journey I am going to give you present day. So present day. I’m the CEO of a corporate apparel business, inclusive of a new concept. This business does corporate uniforms for the healthcare, school uniforms, and corporate industries. A new concept has been a business that’s been going on now for 21 years. And this is my new venture, flashback some 30 years ago, how did I start my journey? I came to Australia and I ran away from home. I was arranged to be married. You know, as you see, I’m of Indian heritage and Thai heritage. It’s a very common practice. I was sent to some very good schools. And when my parents mentioned to me that I was going to be arranged to be married. I went, hmm, I’m not sure you sent me to great schools. I’ve got a great mind and I’m not sure I can deal with this. So I then ran away from home and then went and worked at Club Med. At Club Med, I was under age, I was only 16. And I started working with them in their programming division. So I had a really keen interest in coding and they had small workshops that the French would come to and they would want to learn some basic programming. Because going back that time, there was nothing like this. So that was really fun for them. And for me, it gave me a job and a place to be. I learned so much being a club med because every week there would be thousand new people that would come in, they would holiday for a week and they would go and I learned very quickly how people behaved, what perked their interest what they like to do. And I started to build on that. I then came to Australia after having followed a very nice Australian gentleman that I met there. Much to my mother’s absolute disbelief. My father had then passed away, and I found myself in Australia, got through immigration started in the hospitality industry. Opened up a Thai restaurant in Brighton just a few months shy of turning 18 was my first business venture. In 1988, the stock market crashed and the health of the economy was really bad no one was traveling. And that restaurant became very successful. Now we can talk about that being lucky. Or we can say I took the opportunity scared as I was, with $49 in My Pocket, I went, okay, I paid everything, bought all the equipment, bought everything, got the chef from overseas, migrated him and went, hmm, if this fails, that is the end. So it was a good venture that I started and from then on, went into carousel and the redhead nightclub, which were very successful ventures. The hospitality industry taught me really more about people and how they behave and what they like and what they don’t like. And being able to remember their names, being able to engage with them being able to fulfill their needs on a regular basis, and a quick format. You know you come to a restaurant, you sit down, you actually come in for a nice meal, you want to be entertained. So that taught me how to actually please and really understand what the customer needed.
Wayne Lewis: So when you were at the Club Med phase and did you always believe that you would have your own business? Was it a dream of yours to be self-employed?
Anou Khanijou: At that point, I don’t think I had a dream of anything except for just being away from the environment that I was at. But my father was an entrepreneur. He came from no money and sold newspapers and then fabric to the veterans of the Vietnam war. So he would go across the border, he would sell fabric, come back, he would support the family. So he was an entrepreneur and he grew his business from nothing to something very large. I feel somehow I followed in his footsteps even though he’s not here today.
Wayne Lewis: And was he encouraging of you? So obviously sent you some nice schools. But was he ever encouraging and say, right you can go out and do this yourself?
Anou Khanijou: Not necessarily because we’re actually raised to get married. We’re not raised to have a business of our own. So it was a really difficult time. Everything that I learned I had to bank into my own mind so I could use that in future. And even when I was young, I didn’t know that that’s what I was doing. I just did it. I just continued to put myself out there, put two feet in, kept trying different things, learning as I went, capturing the information, taking it to the next level, and proceeding from there. My life journey is a little bit like that. I’m now into my sixth business. And having gone from, I suppose the Thai restaurants into the nightclub businesses. I then started at Kirby marketing and then launched a new concept. A new concept started off as the promotions and incentives agency to Saab and a lot of the companies that were out there, we worked with Urban Land Authority, we worked with Shell, we worked with some really big companies, and did Eastern Energy. We launched mp3 in Australia with ICT. So we did a lot of that work. The hospitality industry exposed me to the entertainment world as well and all of the promoters that are currently in Australia today. At a new concept, I then had my first baby and my baby came along and I thought to myself, oh, okay, you know what services industry very tiring got a baby trying to handle it all when I think I’ll go into the layout industry. Why don’t I make baby clothes? Why don’t I start to package this up for women and Ruby Fantastic. Well, that was an epic fail. I lost everything I’d earned all through the years. And to a point where I got married and my husband said in three months, you don’t turn this around, you’re going to stay home because I can afford to have you at home and well, I wasn’t going to have that. So, okay. And in like four months, I turned that business around, I went to Oshkosh and I said, I’m doing these layouts, would you like them and after persisting and being at their door, they went, actually your cotton’s really good, what you’re doing is fantastic. We’ll start ordering from you. So that business then created a turnaround and a new concept at that time because I’d lost all my money, I’d lost all my key stuff. So like, okay, what do I do now? And at that same time, a friend from the entertainment industry needed somebody to pull out a red carpet and do location services and went, why don’t you call Anou you know, she knows everybody in that space. I’m sure she can help you when that started, what we have today at Anou Concept, we currently look after most of the major films that come out, so we will do the film marketing for it, do the red carpet and invite all the media. So that’s the business that currently is in operation with clients such as Disney and Reja films, and we’re also doing the Thai Airways. So that’s Anouconcept.
Wayne Lewis: So you also mentioned about opportunities and that’s presenting itself. So what value do you place on seeking the opportunities? And just saying yes to opportunities that come your way?
Anou Khanijou: Opportunities is a very interesting question. And I say that if you put yourself out there, the opportunities come. People say you have to be at the right place at the right time. And I’d say if you take the opportunity, the right place in the right time happens. If I sat at home and when I’m not going to do this today, I wouldn’t have met the person that said, Can you help me with my pets? If I didn’t put my treatment in and said, You know, I’m going to take every opportunity as it comes and just learn from it. Even if nothing comes from it. I’ve learned I’ve engaged I’ve met somebody that has actually helped me in my journey. So very much is about putting that effort in, when you can say, you know, I don’t think I can take it right now. So the opportunities for me has been very much about taking every chance that I can and converting them as they’ve come along in my life.
Wayne Lewis: What did you take into your next businesses that you thought you know, that is the core thing that I’ve learned from this massive failure?
Anou Khanijou: Keep a really keen eye on your business. Keep a keen eye on your cash flow. Make sure you’re monitoring. Make sure you actually look at it and always have something in your pipeline. And when you’re young and you’re starting up, you think it’ll come; it’ll be okay. But the planning that you now need to put towards that and making sure that you have some discipline around it is the biggest learning that I think I took away from that.
Wayne Lewis: How much of your time now is spent around the planning phase? So are you in the day to day operations? Do you have your head in that quite a lot? Are you able to take a step back and be more strategic into your thinking?
Anou Khanijou: I’ve put a sign on my door that says redundancy in progress, and that’s mine. And I’m working very hard. And I’m focused really hard and making sure that I can make myself redundant. So the really great people that I have can come through. The other thing that’s been fantastic in a learning sense is hiring the right people for you. And there is hiring the right people that have the skills and have the space but hiring the right people around you that have the skills that are smarter than you, that can do the job better than you, but actually suit you as a person is really important. Because we’re Different, we all have our own ways of doing things. But finding that and understanding that has taken many years of learning, I think.
Wayne Lewis: Do you try to instill your values in these people? Or is it something that presents itself naturally when you are hiring?
Anou Khanijou: That is such an interesting question. My team virtually hire the next person. So we have a very, very strong culture in our business. The biggest comment that comes out of our businesses, there is no politics. And I run a team of 38 here and about 160 in Asia. So if it’s in Asia, we teach them English, they will go out and say, This is the best company to work for. They play soccer with us on Saturdays, they come and teach English to us, you know, and that’s an opportunity for them. Our team over here, it’s all about growth. It’s where you are, what can you do? What’s the next step? How do you proceed to the next area? So I learned that I try and instill that and I think it kind of works.
Wayne Lewis: And then on the flip side, how do you celebrate the successes obviously within that culture, is there anything that you do when you guys are doing very well.
Anou Khanijou: You go out to spook nights, we’re just booking ourselves in to go out for Halloween as a group. We do a lot of activities as a group. We sit around, we have lunch, we ask each other what your superpower is, we do fun things like that we engage with our team. So we celebrate success in that way. We share in it, we know that we are all the team and everyone has had to contribute to that success. And that team commitment is very strong in our business. So we do spend a lot of time with each other and just understanding everyone’s needs and making sure that they can be the best player. They are in our team.
Wayne Lewis: What I’ve got from this talk, as well as that you’re very good at building relationships, networking. So is there any tips of how you can build the best relationships?
Anou Khanijou: Listen, enjoy the conversation, engage with people, everybody has a story. I’m sure each and every one of you has a story, learn and observe and apply. I think applying is important and networking is about remembering the story and when we engage with people to remember about them because we all feel we have a, you know, be kind be caring. It helps. It’s what helped me.
Wayne Lewis: Excellent. Can we have a round of applause for Anou Khanijou of Anouconcept.
Serpil Senelmis: What an amazing journey. I’m glad Anou got to unlock a bank of knowledge and the key takeaway from her. If you do the right thing in business, the money will come. In a moment, we’ll meet William and Carolyn who live together, work together, succeed, and fail together.
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Serpil Senelmis: William Du and Carolyn Wong from Short Story drew inspiration from an unlikely character, the shouty mouthy antiques of Gordon Ramsay before they launched their own business. After some monumental epic fail. They grew to celebrity endorsements and were picked up by international galleries. Here’s their story.
Carolyn Wong: What we do is we do meaningful giftwares and so we believe that if we create meaningful gifts that actually hold stories, they can actually help connect the world together and promote understanding and just make the world a better place pretty much. So we did that through the medium of giftwares. And that’s a little bit about Short Story, but really where it started was, I was very privileged to be able to born in Australia. My dad came from China when he was very young to start his own restaurant. So I had a beautiful childhood. I’m the youngest of four.
William Du: I was actually the youngest of seven, and we were immigrants or refugees from Vietnam, we escaped the war, and we’re lucky enough to end up in Australia where we are now.
Carolyn Wong: So I just really wanted to share with you the early days of Short Story and how I guess we even began our business. It really started with Uni, so I had a very set out life I was going to be a dental therapist. I studied really, really hard to get into one of the greatest unis in Melbourne and what happened was, it would take me two and a half hours to get to uni every day through sort of public transport. And every day when I got to the front door, I actually felt sick. So I would literally feel sick to my stomach. And I’d wake up at six and get there nine. And I would actually turn around and do the same journey back home, or go to a library waited out till 5 pm. And then I would go home and I did this for about three to six months lying to my parents because I just didn’t feel fulfilled or happy. And I didn’t know what was wrong. And I felt so lost because everything was set out and everything was perfect. But something was missing.
William Du: So I’m a little bit different. I’ve always been a bit of a failure my whole life. So I hated what I was studying and I was working a retail job, and something was missing. And then I was a manager of a store. And I hired this amazing girl like wow, this girl’s amazing. She’s bubbly. She’s energetic, she’s amazing mindset, and turns out she’s an entrepreneur, and she gave me a book that changed my life. And here I am.
Carolyn Wong: So during this period where we’re both a little bit lost for dating by now, we started watching this TV series Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares where he actually went around, swearing at everyone and telling them how to run their business. And I thought that’s a pretty cool idea. So me and William thought we’ll do that to my dad’s business. And we started doing that. And I think within three months, my parents fuses burnt down. So it was a business around for 30 years, and one of the staff had left the flame on and the whole restaurant burnt down. But by then, we both got a little bit of that business bug. And so we started a six-week entrepreneurial course and at the end of it, we got a $12,000 grant each to actually start our own business journey and we actually started Short Story. So our first product before ours to make and we priced at $60. And it would never work the idea of our first business was actually to revolutionize school photos because they’re very boring, to be honest. So we wanted to make these really beautiful scrapbook frames, and we wanted to win government contracts around all the schools and we’re like if we could get 1% of them would be millionaires and all this kind of stuff. I remember we called visited, cold-called, we stood outside kindergartens, we held our little frame, and we would go there about three o’clock to try to catch parents leaving and hopefully entice them to come by. And we did that. It was horrible, gut-wrenching.
William Du: Was telling our souls it was, it was terrible.
Carolyn Wong: And then we took our product to craft markets. It was about $80 to set up a little stall. So we talked a little jazz. I remember the very first one. We set it all up, we had four frames. And then we saw all our competitors, erect, massive gazebos, and they had branded bags that had shelving that had all these incredible things and we had one bunnings type with four frames. We looked very desperate for a sale on and it was horrible. So given that it was Melbourne where they started pouring rain as well, so all my artworks got ruined. They were all rippled. And then me and Will just looked at each other and I think we just laughed because we’re in such despair. At that point.
William Du: We cried as well. Probably.
Carolyn Wong: There’s a silver lining. This was one year into starting our own business. I was very lost. And I felt honestly very defeated. I had quit uni, your parents’ business have been burned down. I didn’t really know what I was gonna do for the first time if I really felt like a failure. And so my friend actually bought me a little box of origami paper. And I used to fold 15 years ago when I was a little girl. And I hadn’t folded for 15 years because it’s craft, you know, you don’t do craft. You do serious things. You do science and things like that. So I started folding and I started folding these little origami paper butterflies that I used to do as a little girl and Will actually saw and you can start seeing incredible, that’s amazing. We had all these artwork frames leftover from the previous product. So we’ll guess why don’t you put them in a frame. And so we did.
William Du: So we launched this at the market. And it was amazing. I think the first day we did about $500 in sales, which is a lot of money for us back then was incredible. It was amazing. So one day I saw a newspaper, there was an ad for an art exhibition. And that was at Melbourne, 2010. I inquired about this site, because I thought, Hey, you know, we’re kind of doing artworks. And there was one spot left, two weeks before the show opened, and it cost about $5,000 just for the stand, which is pretty much all the money that we had saved up. So we asked all our friends and family like hey, guys, should we do this art show? And they were like, No, you shouldn’t you should wait, wait another year. You know you don’t know when you’re not experienced. So Caroline and I knew in our hearts, we’re gonna do it anyway. So we did it. And it was amazing
Carolyn Wong: In 2 weeks guys. 2 weeks.
William Du: 2 weeks, 2 weeks to dive into the world of art of which we knew nothing about. We’re like, what the hell is art? We never been to an art exhibition, we didn’t know what prices to make our artwork. So we’re walking around before the actual opening, we’re like, oh shit, we’re gonna go home and change the prices because everything was too cheap. So we shouldn’t sell actually. But he actually upped the prices and realize, you know, that’s what the art world is and people pay for what they believe is art. And so come the opening night. We couldn’t believe it. Our stand was so busy, Caroline, and I actually had to step outside. And we’re standing on the opposite ends of each other and we looked at each other and like, in our minds, like holy shit, is this real? like is this happening? It was so surreal, and we pretty much had a sold-out show and we made about just shy of $25,000 which is amazing. And then from that show, we picked up a lot of celebrity clients. We got commissioned artworks, you know, from Mrs. Gandle maker because Medicaid do actually did the installation for my extreme windows was Spring Fashion Week, and also picked up by international galleries from London in New York and all this other stuff. So it was it was incredible. So we thought, hey, we’ve got the art world that we’re selling to let’s try and sell to the public directly. So we actually did a pop-up shop in our local shopping center Knox city. amazing place if you guys have been. And the rent was astronomical, it was this was 2011. This is sort of Christmas period is about $3,000 a week for rent. We basically had enough money to survive two weeks if we didn’t sell anything, and that would have been it. We thought to ourselves how the hell we’re going to sell $3,000 plus worth of goods without products, you know? $30 $50 Yeah. But it was what it was amazing. So within that six-week period, I think we met about $80,000, which is incredible back then. And we were approached by Eastland and they saw our beautiful stand, which it really wasn’t. And we decided to do Eastland as well and sort of double up and thought hey, this is amazing. So come the next year we thought hey, we did 80,001 store that’s open seven of them. Seven times 80,000 is like half a million dollars. Let’s do it. We’re gonna be rich. Yeah. So that was an epic failure. It was it was so bad. It was so young in our business were inexperienced logistically It was a nightmare. Staff wise it was a nightmare. Stock wise it was a nightmare.
Carolyn Wong: I think just management wasn’t there. I think we’re way too early. And I think we didn’t realize it’s not just seven times, it’s like 50 times when you’ve run seven different shops, then the whole thing imploded. I don’t know what we’re thinking, actually.
William Du: So we learned severely from that. So the year after we probably did like two tops. So here we have the oops list, which is all the shit that’s happened basically, the first one being we’ve ordered some products from China trying to save costs. We received a beautiful sample. And then I thought, okay, let’s do it. Let’s order it and we ordered $60,000 worth of the stock. It came in and none of it worked. There were beautiful string lights and there was shimmery they’ll flickering because the power conversion wasn’t right. And so we tried to pass it off as shimmering string lights but…
Carolyn Wong: Hahaha, we couldn’t do it. Horrible. Horribly epic. So we have to try one. We couldn’t do anything with them. So for 60 thousand dollars just gone down the drain was a massive detriment to our business. But you learned from it.
William Du: Yeah. And there’s numerous other things like we ordered $20,000 worth of frames from China. Again, they sent a sample that had something called Plexiglas, which we thought was just the fancy name for glass. And when they sent the sample that was plastic, the glass was like odd. They probably just sent this because the glass would break in transit. But it wasn’t. It was really plexiglass, which we know now is plastic and we had $20,000 worth of stock that year.
Carolyn Wong: I think we held on to that for four years because I didn’t want to throw it. Hopefully, you can learn from our mistakes but make no assumptions check everything don’t assume something new something like we did because it costs us a lot of money.
William Du: So they’re happy pills, if you guys haven’t heard of, is a product that we created. Little smiley capsules with a message happy message inside a child managed to get hold of these. They’re not intended for children. And then he took it to school. And then his principal found it and then it was a slow news day and then all the news channels caught wind of it. And in the morning, I got a call from Channel 9, Channel 7, Channel 10 asking me to share my side of the story. I’m like what story. What are you guys talking about? And so apparently, we were drug dealers, and drug dealing to children. And then so I thought oh Channel 9 wants to hear my side of the story. That’s amazing. That’s great. Let’s do it. So I did an interview. I told my side of the story for 10 minutes, and then I was excited to watch the news told everyone to watch it. My part of the interview probably went for like 10 minutes, but then they only broadcasted like five seconds where it made me sound like I was a drug dealer. They zoom the camera straight into my face or literally, it was terrible. so bad.
Carolyn Wong: Even I thought you were a drug dealer.
William Du: Yeah. I was starting to believe in myself like, am I?
Carolyn Wong: It was terrible.
William Du: But then the products cleared saying it’s fine. Yeah.
Carolyn Wong: So you know, I think it’s just a matter of making do not ingest on the sticker like making it bigger, you know, in writing you have repeatedly on the top on the side on the bottom, just little things like this. We learned, the hard way. But it was a really scary experience. I got the psychologists involved and we got bashed by everyone. Social media went crazy. So it was very scary at the time. But if it happened now, I would probably market it. Yeah. And then of course, when we opened, had some pop-ups store, it looked very proper, looks like we had a very established brand. And so we attracted a little bit. People trying to take advantage of that. So we had one lady come into our chats and store on the last day of our pop up store and she tripped on something inside the store and straight away cops got involved and we basically got sued for medical expenses damage, be damage, you name it, you know, and so, we were fined because we had public liability, but it was still a scary experience. You know, when you do establish and grow, you will be met with bigger problems like this. And so luckily for us, chest and cameras had caught her shopping quite happily for many hours after she fell. So that got cleared and we were fine.
William Du: The other thing is really, really watch your cash flow. Even to this day, it’s still really, really tough. Just this year, we paid something ridiculous over $20,000 worth of credit card fees, and all that sort of stuff, because you’re just not watching it, and you’re just not keeping an eye on it. So you can be really, really diligent on that,
Carolyn Wong: So, even though this, this may have problems, you know, I’m really happy because we’re in department stores, we’ve worked with a lot of great brands, such as Necker and Clues Stores known internationally and it’s great, but it’s also very important to actually celebrate that success with our staff. So one thing that I’m really, really proud of is actually our culture. I love talking about the failures, but also the successes as well is very important to share that because it’s together. It’s not just our vision, it was our vision. And at the beginning of each year, we actually sit together with our team members and we actually map out sort of all our values and what they want and what we want. And we build on that together. So when we achieve milestones we celebrate. And this year earlier, we actually took the staff to Japan. So we went to Japan, and we went to look at how the beautiful papers were made in Japan, we got to experience the culture. And we just got to have fun because we spend so much time with these people. It’s almost like a family, you create yourself. At the beginning of our journey. I think someone told us that it will take 10 years for you to build your business for a successful business. And I was like, no way I’m going to do three years, I’m going to retire. You know that was what I thought, and years later I’m still here. So, it’s slow, and there’s no point in putting that much pressure on yourself. So just slow and steady. It’s not the way I wanted to do at the beginning. But now I’ve learned to just appreciate the journey or appreciate the moment because it flies, eight years has gone just like that. I can’t believe how long it’s been. And if we could slow down I just learned to appreciate every outcome, success, or failure. The team you have around you to help you realize your dreams. I think the whole journey is really really beautiful and fulfilling, which is pretty much what we’re here for.
William Du: Yeah. So I guess it kind of comes to two things you want a lifestyle business. So if you want to build a business and exit so we’ve now chosen a lifestyle business where we enjoy what we do we love going to work every day. We have amazing one-hour lunches with our staff and craziest conversations. So it’s really just about deciding what you want to do in which way you want to head in the direction. Yeah. And that’s it.
Serpil Senelmis: I love the fact that William and Carolyn live together, work together, and present the Masters Series together. Too cute guys. And I can’t believe they took their staff to Japan who wouldn’t want to work for them. Thanks, William and Carolyn, and thank you Anou as well. Next time on Masters Series how to create a podcast with yours truly, alongside Corey Layton from podcast toasting platform Whooshkaa all outlined the beginning, middle, and end of the captivating story of podcasting. Until then, I’m Serpil Senelmis from Written and Recorded and for WeTeachMe this is the Masters Series.
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