MM: Every entrepreneur has a great origin story. Where did you start and what made you get into business for yourself?
LM: We got into business for ourselves because we didn’t want to work for anyone else. There is nothing wrong with a 9 to 5 but for someone like myself who thrives on the ability to be creative, the mindless and repetitive jobs I could get at that time were not how I wanted to live.
We started with the clothing out of my mom’s garage when we were in college. We started selling clothing out of the trunk of a car and just kept selling and selling until big stores started buying. We started with very little and seven years later, that grew into retail and manufacturing and then we sold the company. We had developed a fairly large client base in that time. We built another company during that period that was technology focused and we sold that as well.
We wanted to get out of the clothing business for some time but weren’t sure what to do with it so it actually worked out great for us. I moved onto real estate and construction and my partner moved onto restaurants and other ventures like beer and other investments. We both saw clothing as a stepping-stone and not a passion. We were just good at it.
MM: You have pretty much retired at 30. How can you do that? You also said you’d never have a partner again. That is an interesting statement. Why is that?
LM: Being smart with money. Not living beyond my means. I don’t waste money trying to impress people so you probably won’t see me wasting thousands at a club, wearing ridiculous amounts of jewelry or even brand name clothes for the most part. I’d be lying if I said I lived in a shack and drove cheap vehicles but I am not out here wasting money on anything that doesn’t reasonably hold value or return my investment.
I still do part-time consulting and occasionally invest in things but my main focus for my resources is in construction and real estate which both take a lot of capital. What I won’t do is ever work in an office again or work around the clock like I used to and that feels great but it takes some getting used to. I still wake up every 2 hours and check my phone and need to get out of that habit.
Regarding the partner statement, I see no real value in having a partner anymore. I have had partnerships in the past where they didn’t pull their weight and expected me to do everything, betrayed me, and I stopped relying on or expecting things out of people long ago. I don’t really think it is a secret that a few people I thought were close to me jumped ship when the waters got rough before and they only ended up sinking themselves in the long run. There are no hard feelings on my end and I wish them the best but I am not throwing any life rafts out anymore. People make their choices. I have been through it all and not doing it again if I don’t need to.
I ignore most requests for investment and partnerships. I really don’t want much to do with most people. I am somewhat anti-social like that and keep a fairly tight circle on a personal level.
MM: How have you been able to bounce between industries with such success? You have also mentioned “Not Caring” is crucial to your success. Can you explain?
LM: The odds are that one thing won’t pay the bills forever. You need to anticipate the future and move accordingly. Knowing multiple industries is crucial to success and you can’t keep all of your eggs in one basket. If times get tough you need something to fall back on. I enjoy learning and have been lucky enough to be given the opportunity to work across multiple industries, which has been key to making smart investments.
Not caring is crucial to success. What I mean by that is finding the ability to block out all negativity. If I cared what people thought or said about me, who I offended, or did everything the same as everyone else I would have never made it anywhere in life. If you fear the unknown and don’t take risks you wont do much. No textbook in school will teach you to be successful.
When you can grow a thick enough skin to shake anything off you will realize anything other than health, friends, helping others and family is irrelevant. Once you don’t care about anything external you can grow to your full potential and nothing can really hurt you.
MM: As a First Nations businessman, what adversities have you overcome?
LM: I have had to deal with all kinds of things from racism, lack of support and experience to even having my credit damaged in the early years trying to keep us a float. Some of the people I grew up with chose a different path and companies wouldn’t meet with me because of their reputations. Guys we grew up with were getting murdered, going to prison and all kinds of other stuff so there was a time I couldn’t even get an Email responded to but the main thing that I had to overcome was myself. I am always doubting myself and creating mental blocks.
It took a long time to reach success and prove that we were about business and get past these things though. It wasn’t an overnight thing at all and it has been very stressful but also a great experience and has opened up a lot of doors and opportunity for us.
MM: You have become more vocal about important First Nations issues such as water rights, policing and housing. Why now?
LM: I’ve always cared about First Nation issues as they are very real to me and have directly impacted my family. I have also seen some pretty heartbreaking things first hand in some communities. Now that I don’t really have anything to sell, need to answer to anyone or require corporate help for anything, I can speak more on issues that deserve everyone’s attention.
Politics and controversial topics don’t always have a place in business when building brands and when you have other shareholders you have an obligation to work on their behalf and not your own personal causes.
MM: You are known for having an aggressive business strategy and holding your own against large corporations. Can you explain how you do business?
LM: I don’t think I am aggressive at all and I think that perception comes from being so direct it throws people off track. I do not have time to deal with people and companies that dance around. The only times I have been aggressive is when we were starting out and companies would ignore me, not return emails and be dismissive of me in person, so, I made sure they listened and walked into boardrooms like I was 10ft. tall.
I have never been one for networking with everyone or sitting around and begging for business. Do business or don’t. It is as simple as that.
I think how I am able to do business with these large corporations is because I am that way. I don’t waste their time and I wont allow them to waste mine. I am straightforward and they know I don’t need their business or care to suck up to them and they respect that. They are so used to people trying to be so proper and impress them it is pathetic.
MM: You share a lot of business advice in your articles but what advice would you give to Indigenous entrepreneurs and artists specifically?
LM: The best advice I can give is that you are going to fail and you cannot let failure create mental blocks in your mind. Failure is an essential part of creating a learning atmosphere. Think of riding a bike for the first time. You probably fell off and scraped up your knees but you learned from that. There is too much pressure put on the youth to do things perfectly. Failure is part of success. I don’t know one successful person who hasn’t failed or looked stupid at some point. So being mentally prepared is probably the most important.
I would also suggest doing as much as you can on your own without outside investment. I have an issue with the funding options available to Indigenous entrepreneurs specifically and believe it sets them up for failure and we have all these groups that pretend to know business and be these great helpers in our community when in reality they are fairly useless. I think doing things on your own, at least at first, is extremely important. You shouldn’t go seeking investors when you’re not worth anything anyways as you’re wasting your time and theirs.
Don’t get into business if you aren’t mentally prepared, scared to take risks and hear the word “no” a lot. The main thing you need to do is have a product or service that people respond to and be willing to outwork everyone else. You also may not make money for a few years so always keep another source of income.
MM: How have you been able to find a balance between work and being a father?
LM: Luckily, my daughter is very young so as I have been winding down she is just starting to walk so the balance for me has not been a huge challenge and I get most of my paperwork done after she goes to bed. If she was born years earlier I am not sure what I would have done to be honest with you.
I love being a dad though. It is the most important job I have ever had.
MM: Now that you have more time on your hands, what will you do?
LM: Still keep busy doing a lot more public speaking and we are planning to visit a lot of reservations with the CAP Tour [Close and Personal Tour: Creative Entrepreneurship Series with Greg Selkoe, Divine, Liam Massuabi and guests] in the near future to hold panel discussions and workshops on entrepreneurship. I am also working on putting together a podcast that will be available on all major outlets by the end of the year.
I also have a column called “Money Talks” coming out on Inc.com.
One very important thing that we are slowly working on is a major project with custom homebuilders and groups that has to do with the housing crisis in First Nation communities. That however will take some time and I will elaborate more at a later date.
…Other than that, building, relaxing and travelling.
Liam Massaubi is a repeat entrepreneur, investor and consultant. He is a Mohawk activist and proud father. He blogs about First Nation issues at www.LiamMassaubi.com and on Huffington Post. His column “Money Talks” is available on Inc.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @OldManLM
Maria F. is a guest contributor for MUSKRAT Magazine. She is an Indigenous writer from the Wayuu Nation and a student now living in Toronto.