Internet entrepreneur helps others build businesses, wealth

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MINNEAPOLIS — Shortly after being laid off at an architecture firm in the 2008 recession, Pat Flynn wrote an e-book advising architects how to pass an exam certifying expertise in energy-saving design.

Within days, sales took off and he created Green Exam Academy, an online business, that built on the success of the e-book. Others started asking him how to build internet businesses and Flynn, who lives in San Diego, turned his living into helping them out. Called Smart Passive Income.com, his site and several others he built, along with podcasts, videos and books, now generate a huge income for Flynn. He posts monthly financial statements for all to see. At software company Leadpages’ annual customer conference in Minneapolis last month, Flynn talked about the hurdles entrepreneurs face. Some excerpts:

Q: This all started after you lost your job and wrote an e-book aimed at a very specific audience. Many people would stop at that. Why did you create a new path in your career?

A: That’s when this whole idea of passive income came into play, where you can set up these businesses in a way that’s automated, using the tools that are available to deliver content, to build trust, to provide value, to sell goods without having to be there in real time to do it. I discovered this world of not trading your time for money but investing your time upfront and reaping those rewards later. That business ended up making over $200,000 in a year with one little e-book with just information that I knew about the exam. In my eyes, I wasn’t an expert. But in the eyes of my customers, I was the expert. I worked for three or four years in architecture, for me at that age a long time. And I never got the recognition for the hard work I put in. And here I was helping people online with this exam and getting thank you notes.

Q: How did you change from selling expertise in architecture to selling expertise in starting businesses and doing business online?

A: I always looked at what are people asking me for help. That is where they can get advice and value from me. Even if I wasn’t an expert at it, I was at least a few steps ahead of them and could have something to offer. A lot of people who want to start a business feel like they have to have all these degrees and credentials when really the best credential is experience.

Q: How did you decide to go the extra step of sharing your financial results online?

A: Transparency and authenticity is really important to me. My next venture after greenexamacademy.com, which is still around today, was smartpassiveincome.com because people started asking me how did you do that? That’s where Smart Passive Income came from. I just started to document everything I was doing about that other site, all the lessons I learned, all the mistakes I was making, all the great information I was picking up and implanting from others. One thing I did in that first month when I created Smart Passive Income was I shared my numbers. That was the new thing to do back then.

Q: Can that work for many people?

A: When you give away information, you’re building trust. Trust is the most important asset when you’re building any kind of business online or offline … In the online world, it’s easy to see this law of reciprocity taking place, where if you give, people want to give back to you. It might be monetarily giving back. It might be giving you advice. It might be sharing you with a friend. That’s how it can be scaled.

Q: How confident are you that your career in the internet space will keep evolving?

A: The beautiful part about running your own business is you get to control your destiny. So if I fail, I know it’s because of me, not anything else that I’m letting anybody else control. That’s the motivational part. That’s what’s going to help me continue to look forward and be on the front lines.

Q: When have you failed?

A: Do you have two or three hours? That’s one thing I’ve learned. Failure is part of the process. Failing is good. … In 2010, a couple friends of mine were creating software for bloggers and I wanted to do the same thing. I immediately hired a developer, then I came up with the idea, which was the wrong way to go about it. And I kept it secret, which was a huge mistake. Even though we always worry about other people stealing our ideas, you get a lot more from others poking holes in it to help you understand what’s wrong. If I had done that, I wouldn’t have wasted $15,000 and six months of my life.

Q: Many people at this conference are running small businesses. What do they ask you?

A: Before the conference, I had a meetup at an area coffee shop. I just posted on Facebook that I would be there and about 35 people came. About half were conference-goers, half were other people in the area. I asked people to introduce themselves, share what they’re up to and what they’re struggling with. At the end, I pointed out that every struggle that people mentioned was related to their mindset. People talked about fighting procrastination and perfectionism. Or finding time. The other big thing is the fear part of it. People are just too scared to fail. … Perfection is just a form a procrastination. And fear is a sign. Whatever it is that I’m fearing is something that is worth doing.