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Success Lessons From Door-to-Door Sales, the Dotcom Bubble, and Alaska's Deadly Straits

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 13/10/2015 Maureen Hannan

My Unconventional Cousin (and the Slogan Our Granny Would've Loved)

We who came of age in the 80s were taught that the surest path to success and security was through stable corporate employment. If you started young on that 401K plan, no telling what freedom you might achieve by the time you reached 65. And who really needs more than two weeks vacation in a year, anyway? At least, that was the financial and career advice we absorbed from parents and grandparents, teachers and guidance counselors. It seemed solid, it put a high value on hard work and loyalty. It trusted in the unflagging power of the American economy over time--at least, the economy as our parents and grandparents had always known it.
So, as much chutzpah as it takes today for a 20-something to buck the 9-5 path in favor of bootstrapping entrepreneurship, it took even more boldness to do it 25 years ago. My cousin Paul Hannan is one of those interesting figures who jumped on the corporate path to career success, hustled in an exploding industry, achieved some big wins, and then very decisively jumped off that train.
Starting in the late 80s, Paul embarked on a really unconventional journey (even by entrepreneurial standards). I've always been curious about his path. And while life has taken my cousin and me in different directions, we wave to each other from Facebook in between graduations, shared Emerson quotes, photos of young adult children, and family milestones. Not long after Paul graduated from law school last spring, he asked me to "like" his political campaign page--and I noticed he had changed his job title to "Politician."
Turns out my cousin is making a bid for Alaska's sole Congressional seat. (His tagline, "We need a Hannan in the House!" is one I'm pretty sure our salty, ever-political paternal grandmother would have enjoyed to no end.)
Paul and I caught up recently, chatting about his political campaign, entrepreneurial risk-taking, ethics, and personal definitions of success. Because this column is dedicated to those navigating entrepreneurship and times of financial transition, I decided to invite Paul to share about his experiences here in a Q&A format.
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Can you tell me a little bit about what your goals were as you began your professional life? How would you have defined success at 25?

My unconventional beginning began quite early--and my success has always followed my willingness to march to the beat of a different drummer.
I was lured away from a career in the fine arts (I was an oil painter of landscapes and seascapes) by the promise of the money to be earned in sales. I then became, by the age of 19, the top producer in New England for Encyclopaedia Britannica. Thus, while I was still a teenager, I was leasing an oceanfront condominium just north of Boston. In terms of income adjusted for inflation, my earnings exceeded $75,000.
Yet this achievement didn't entirely satisfy my definition of success: While I was helping to facilitate the education of others, I was myself largely bereft of intellectual development.
You see, I was a high school dropout at the time, a consequence of preferring Jack Daniels over Algebra, in an attempt to cope with a family life strewn with upheaval. Indeed, I read more books over the course of one week this past year than I had over the first twenty-two years of my life. This dearth of education contrasted with my representing Encyclopaedia Britannica, and The Great Books of the Western World--and ultimately led to my decision to attend college.
Unsurprisingly, the life of a drunkard proved as disjointed to ethical development as it did to erudition. And having the sense that I would one day study law (and that my ethics needed some work); I chose to major in Christian theology to build a firmer foundation.

At the age of 25, success meant more than earning a respectable income. It meant having a spiritual--although not necessarily religious--life, seeking to live honorably, and contributing to society. In terms more appropriate to the political philosopher I've become, I aimed to serve the common good.

What was your experience like as a salesperson for Sprint in the 90s?

I went to Wall Street to make a killing and got beat up. I went to Sprint to make a living and made a killing. Significantly, the difference between these outcomes was a mindset of giving rather than taking. I've heard it said by great women and men of achievement that you have to give before you get. And I think there's a universal truth in that assertion. With a mindset of contribution, you naturally seek to benefit others before yourself. This outlook helps facilitate relationships that prove essential for success.
At Sprint, I sought to advantage several ethnic groups to whom I felt emotional ties. Being part of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a member of its St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington D.C., I had connections with bishops from Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine.

Early in my career at Sprint, the United States had just initiated a bombing campaign on the Serbian nation. Although my own heritage is largely Irish, I had numerous friends who were Serbian Americans, individuals calling back to the old country each day to discover whether their aged grandparents survived the previous night's bombing. Thus, your average Serbian family was spending close to $800 per month on international long distance calling. Here, I saw an opportunity to help my adopted Serbian brothers and sisters by saving them money on their long distance phone rates, particularly as Sprint had recently introduced promotions that proved highly beneficial to this target group.
I established a reputation among the Eastern Orthodox community for providing them with a considerable benefit, so I was looked upon as a contributor and friend to that community. It was this reputation as a "giver" that drove my success during that time. Before long, I had every Eastern Orthodox Archdiocese in the United States; Greek, Serbian, Russian, Bulgarian, Armenian, and Syrian (among others) as a client. Even Zsa Zsa Gabor's Hungarian Mercedes mechanic wanted on. Thus, I soon managed the lion's share of their long distance usage, not merely for these ecclesiastical jurisdictions and their seminaries, but also for the vast majority of businesses and residences of their heavily international calling members.
To create even more goodwill (and thus future business) I turned this into an affinity program, and therefore designated a charity to receive a percentage of the substantial profits generated from the revenue. Thus, a financially troubled school of theology received more than $100,000 in donations, as revenues burgeoned to $350,000 per month in today's dollars. This religious nexus made it difficult to get corporate approval for the program, however. During the program's nascent stages, for example, one manager, an ex-Catholic nun, dubbed it the "deal from hell."

While the sectarian nature of the sales may have caused Sprint some heartburn, the revenue projections for this program exceeded the profits of any other program in the company's history. Thus, the corporate lawyers eventually capitulated.
But achieving nearly 600 percent of quota had its consequences on my own career, both good and bad. My paychecks were considerable, approaching $35,000 per month. And Sprint rewarded me (and its other top producers) handsomely in other respects as well. One standout memory from that time was a private Beach Boys performance in Kona, Hawaii (along with a keynote from President-for-a-Day Alexander Haig).
But the great ride wouldn't last. Just before that Hawaii trip, Sprint informed me that they believed my compensation was too high. Indeed, they had not anticipated someone like me coming along and blowing up their commission incentive structure. Thus, I was faced with a dilemma. I could stay at Sprint--a corporation where I'd solidified my reputation as a marketing prodigy--with my compensation reduced by 75 percent. Or, I could take a leap of faith and go entrepreneurial.

I had the faith and took that leap. After all, I had been trained to think BIG. Earlier on in my three-year career at Sprint, I was exposed to the teaching of world-renowned success coach Anthony Robbins. And the adage, "Go big, or go home" was deeply imbued within my psyche.
Astonishingly, after learning of my accomplishments at Sprint, Robbins would interview me on television about the secrets of my own success. And I had the rare opportunity to tell the great man face to face that he had shaped my thinking and inspired me to strive for giant successes.

What did you expect to happen as a result of that success? What did happen?

Like most people, I expected massive financial success to bring a lot of happiness. However, earning copious amounts of money provided a priceless "teaching moment" for me. Once I obtained money, I found it failed to live up to its billing; it's simply not all that it's cut out to be. I wanted much more. The chance to make a difference, the quest for greater knowledge and education, the privilege of helping others, the opportunity to be a good and present parent. Indeed, it is the pursuit of these latter goals that has proven more fulfilling to me personally.

Was there a particular moment when you changed your thinking about work and success? Can you tell me about that?

In line with Einstein's assertion that "imagination is more important than knowledge," I would say that my attitude toward work has changed in that I now allow for sufficient time to imagine myself in the future position I desire. There is something called a "slingshot effect" that Anthony Robbins talks about. It involves envisioning yourself where you ultimately wish to arrive. By envisioning yourself in the end result you create a force that pulls you forward.
Naturally, being pulled forward is a lot easier than having to push yourself through countless boulder-sized obstacles, which are inevitable on any pathway to success.
Further, this forward-looking mindset may be contrasted to its less effectual alternative; being caught up with and sidetracked by countless mundane and superfluous events of the present. "Focus on your end game, and you will arrive their sooner than you think" should be a mantra embraced by all. This approach is based on neuroscience and a knowledge of the subconscious mind.
Carl Jung suggested that our subconscious mind is responsible for 90 percent of our brain's higher-level, "genius" activity. There's a story of a physicist who had a dream in which he solved a theorem he'd been working on for the previous three years. The dream was so exciting that it woke him up. Never doubting its significance, he immediately scribbled down the formula in the darkness and went back to bed. To his absolute dismay, he could not discern his own scribbling upon waking that next morning. In a state of utter desperation, he determined to force the impossible; to re-dream the dream. To facilitate this effort he meditated on the topic each night as he lay in bed prior to sleeping. Yet this time he was ready; the best recording instruments available to mankind were now at his bedside.
Amazingly, he re-dreamed the dream three nights later, and garnered a Nobel Prize in Physics for the effort. Genius resides in the human subconscious. Einstein learned to capitalize on it--so should we all.

What did you do after that early sales success?

Six months after leaving Sprint, I was struggling to gain traction as a real estate investor (The banks labelled me unemployed rather than self-employed). I set up my own long distance telephone company, which eventually generated upwards of $200,000 per month in revenue. Yet as the bubble prepared to burst at the end of the 90s, competition became fiercer than ever. Companies were starting up left and right, offering long distance rates so low that client attrition became our greatest concern. This compelled me to lower rates in order to bolster retention and remain competitive enough to gain new clientele. While these market adjustments were necessary, they caused a twenty percent decline in my startup company's revenue nearly overnight.
At that point in my life, however, time freedom was in copious supply. My employees took care of the day-to-day business operations, so I had the luxury of time to deliberate my next move. I presented myself with that quintessential philosophical question; "What would I seek to accomplish if I could do anything?" With increasing clarity, the answer began to surface: "Buy a commercial salmon fishing operation in Alaska." Ever since picking up a National Geographic in 1991, I'd been mesmerized by the majesty of Alaska's mountains and the allure if its ocean's beauty.
There was just one obstacle to my ambition, however; I had never been a commercial fisherman before.

Not too surprisingly, my Kodiak neighbors were skeptical of my prospects for success. Bets on my eventual demise abounded. Some gave me days, others no more than a month. Yet I wound up catching more prized sockeye than anyone else in the bay that summer. Perhaps the main reason for this, aside from sheer determination, is that I didn't fish in the Bay. In truth, my nets stared into the open waters of Shelikoff Straits -- one of the most treacherous stretches of water in our nation.

After I'd been running a commercial salmon fishing operation in Kodiak for three years, sockeye prices tanked. I decided to move up the maritime ladder and acquired a captain's license. From there, I operated my own charter fishing business out of the "Halibut Capital of the World" in Homer, Alaska.
Soon thereafter, I gave way to that great malady prone to men, the "Bigger Boat Syndrome." Thus, after acquiring additional Coast Guard certifications, I found myself at the helm of a vessel longer than a football field, battling thirty-foot waves and hurricane force winds on my sojourns out to Alaska's Aleutian chain. Pursuing the coveted goal of becoming a ship pilot, I sailed through nearly every one of Alaska's seaports in my effort to accrue the necessary "sea time." Regrettably, at least on the face of it, subsequent injuries at sea cut this dream short. After being advised not to risk further injury, I made the decision to attend law school.

What have you learned about success as a result of your experience of carving out a different path? What advice would you give to your 25-year-old self?

I was once given a plaque by a superlative uncle; which now constitutes the most prized material possession of my life. Encased within its frame lies the following quote from Thoreau:
If a man does not keep pace with his companions,
perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.
Let him step to the music which he hears,
however measured or far away.

All of us possess, at some level, an original voice. The first key to success is acquiring the ability to discern that voice. The second is to follow its directive. Yet to do this takes tremendous courage. And it is this all too prevalent lack of courage that keeps the vast majority of us from following that original voice. In the words of Herbert Otto,
Change and growth take place when a person has risked himself and dares to become involved with experimenting with his own life.

If I were 25 all over again, I would hardly do things differently. For I have long walked to the beat of that--at times indiscernibly distant--drummer. Yet I would, in retrospect, further embrace something I have cherished since my days as an oil painter. That is the use of my imagination. You see, I wholeheartedly concur with Einstein's assertion that "imagination is more important than knowledge." Indeed, when asked by a nine year old student visiting him on a field trip how she could become as intelligent as this world's finest embodiment of genius, Einstein replied, "Read a lot of fairy stories." When another student queried how she could become ever smarter than Einstein, the reply was; "Read even more fairy tales than myself."
Creativity is key. Risk is essential. Yet it is the payment of these, and nothing less, that the world demands from those who possess a determination not to settle for anything less than astounding success.

We all have unique gifts, but these gifts can only reach their fullest expression when we allow ourselves to become authentically us. And it is the voice within that constitutes our most accurate compass; a precious guide leading us to the harbor of our truest selves and to our dreams.
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My best advice? Renew that spirit within yourself, for your own benefit, as well as for the common good. Find your one true voice. And when you do, have the chutzpah to follow it.
If you want to follow Paul Hannan's campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, you can visit his website here.


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