Eder Holguin: From Being Homeless to Becoming a CEO
His childhood and how he came into business
I built a company called Iron Traffic in 2004 in which we did data acquisition for market research companies, and I sold that company in 2008. Then I went to build a company called On Demand Research, which was also a panel development, market research type of thing, and sold that company to Zeta Interactive here in New York. My latest company, Ideal Media, was a content syndication platform which I just sold in May 2015.
Now I am working on two start-ups. One is called Favored.by, which is a product discovery platform, and the other one is Live Vote, which is my full-time position right now, which is a live voting platform that captures real time sentiments from consumers by leveraging trending topics and content.
Not bad for a kid who grew up homeless during the 80s in Latin America.
My mother was an alcoholic and did drugs. I ran away from home when I was 13 years old. I lived in the streets of Medellin, Colombia for about seven years and I taught myself how to sell products. I started selling products door-to-door.
When I was about 18, I started recruiting teenagers to do the same thing, and I would buy products wholesale and we would sell them retail door to door. I managed to put enough money together and moved to New York when I was 19. When I landed here, I didn’t speak a word of English, came here with $20 in my pocket and did a lot of the menial jobs — waiting tables, cleaning hotel rooms, etc. Sales was again the conduit to get into marketing. First print, then digital, and then once I learned digital, that’s it. I wouldn’t say it was smooth sailing, but it was the springboard to get into digital, learn the business, and launch my first company.
I wrote a book about it, called Dreaming of Hope Street, which has been a best seller. It’s on my website and we are looking to make a film about this whole story. The book details my journey from being homeless to becoming a CEO of a digital marketing company.
His involvement with blogging
I’m an adviser in some tech companies, and I do write articles and I do some content. I’m more of an entrepreneur than a blogger, but I do write about business. I write about content and lessons for start-ups, etc.
How he turned his ideas into a business
It all starts with a very simple hypothesis and you build from there. With my first company, I got interested in the market research, because I was working at Equifax, which is a Fortune 500 company. I realized that a lot of the market research companies that we were selling data were calling people and asking them to fill out surveys or to mail paper surveys, to collect data for market research opportunities. I thought, “What a waste of time. It’s really expensive to pay telemarketers to cold call people and get them to take a 15 or 20 minute survey, and it’s even more expensive to mail pieces of paper and then gather that data.”
So, I found a friend who was an Israeli programmer and we started having a conversation like, “Can we build the surveys online and get people to take them on the web?” That was the hypothesis. We figured could do it cheaper. We could do it faster and we would be able to gather results quicker for market research companies. We were dead-on, very right on those assumptions.
There was no social media when we started in 2004, so we were doing email marketing and we were leveraging a little bit of content, articles, and some different blogs, but also doing a lot of paid media through all the other sources. We learned the metrics of pain to get consumers to fill out a survey. What is a survey worth? How much do we get paid? How much can we pay in reverse? You start building the formula, and that’s how you build a company. Every company has the same hypothesis: How do we build it? What is the idea? What is the problem that we’re solving? How do we get people involved in doing that?
That’s the essence of it. At the beginning, you’re kind of doing everything on your own. With my ex-partner, he was building product. I was doing marketing and sales and scaling from there. But it always starts with the basic hypothesis and idea, and you start tweaking it as you go along.
I think these people tend to think their start-up is a company and I like to tell people that that’s not really the case. I think a start-up is a kind of an idea. It’s not a real company per se. You start with an idea and you say, “Well, I think that I can do this and I think I’m going to be able to solve a problem doing this.” As you begin to prove your idea, you have to tweak it. You have to be flexible and as it begins to take off, then it really becomes a business after that.
But I see people raising lots of money and all on a simple piece of paper idea that is still not validated. It’s still not a real business and it happens all the time. You will be amazed how many people approach me with ideas, that they want to raise money when they haven’t even taken the first step to make sure that they are indeed right about that idea.
What he’s learned
I grew up homeless, so in my teenage years, it was all scarcity. I slept on the streets. I went days without having anything to eat. So my 20s were more about learning skills, and my 30s were more about money. So for me, if someone offered me a couple of million dollars, then great: “Where do I sign?” Coming from that particular background, it was about more money: a bigger house, a better car, more watches, better suits. It was kind of a race of how much money I could have.
Now that I’m just in my early 40s, I learned that it’s not about money. It’s about contribution. It’s about giving back and helping other people and helping those who cannot help themselves. One thing that I regret is that I sold too early.
If I would have kept the companies that I had, they would be so much larger today. There was still a lot of upside. Now I’m more motivated to create something larger that has a much bigger purpose, than just trying to flip it and make money out of it.
His favorite Cloud services
I like Bounce Exchange. Bounce Exchange learns from the behavior of your users and it helps you increase engagement. So for people that come to your site, usually bounce rate is measured by how long they stay and how fast they leave.
This platform on Bounce Exchange is a Cloud service. It allows you to interact better and provide incentives, such as additional content or coupons for e-commerce businesses. Different interactions that help maintain someone on the site longer. That’s one that I use a lot.
I use tools mostly for content syndication, whether it’s for social media or other types of products that allow me to syndicate interesting content, if I’m blogging, writing, or if I have people who write for content syndication. There’s Olanola, RebelMouse, and other platforms that allow you to increase reach, so you can start building an audience for your content.
Favorite business books
One of my favorite books is not particularly business per se, but it applies a lot. It’s called Awaken the Giant Within and it’s by Anthony Robbins. I’m a big fan of Robbins. In Awaken the Giant Within, he talks about personal performance, setting goals, and working on yourself.
There’s also the Startup CEO which is one of my favorite books. If you really want to run your business, Startup CEO is a must-read. It walks you through everything from raising money and building a team, to how to validate your product idea.
How to Master the Art of Selling is probably one of the best books in sales.
How he balances his personal life with his professional life
I try to disconnect. I just shut off my phone, I don’t look at it anymore. On Sundays, I usually don’t even answer the phone. It’s very tempting to just be on your phone 24/7 and get caught up in, “I have to check Facebook. I have to look at what’s trending on Twitter. I have to reply to emails and text messages.”
So, you need to set up time to disconnect and say, “OK, this is time for my wife or my kids or this is time for me to just relax.” You need to set those boundaries. Otherwise, I would never stop.
His advice to entrepreneurs
Never give up. That’s the best piece of advice I ever got. Even when things seem really, really bad in your life, keep going and continue to move forward, and eventually things seem to work out. It’s not really that the circumstances get better, it’s that you get stronger as you continue to move forward. So, you’re able to deal with anything that comes your way.