Many people are afraid to do the things they are most passionate about for fear of becoming a starving artist. Instead, they go on exhausting grinds that do not give them actual fulfillment. But for Ethan King, his success story began taking shape when he stayed the course with the things he truly loves doing. Joining Don Williams, he shares how starting a small graphic design business with his girlfriend (and later wife) became the standard for his biggest entrepreneurship achievements. Ethan also discusses some tips on maintaining a healthy marriage and breaks down the lessons he learned from a near-bankruptcy experience.
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Ethan King – Starving Artist To CEO
I have my very good friend, a super guy from Atlanta, Georgia, Ethan King. Ethan, welcome to the show.
It’s great to be here.
I am so thrilled that you came on and joined us, looking for your success story, proven entrepreneur’s success stories, and as we know, many times, a success story has a failing piece. In my case, many pieces didn’t work, but that’s the way it goes. I want to take you all the way back to young Ethan, from 5 to 18. I’m going to look all the way back. In the household where you were raised and some households are mom and dad and some are mom and some are grandma, whatever that looked like, was there an adult who was an entrepreneur who set an entrepreneurial example for you as young Ethan?
No entrepreneurs in the family. None at all. My parents are very practical people. At about five years old, it was around then that my parents got divorced. My mom got remarried. She’s a doctor. My stepdad was a minister and my biological father was a lawyer. They wanted me to get a practical job and go that route.
Young Ethan, I wanted to be an artist. That’s my background. No business or entrepreneurship. I wanted to be a fine artist like drawing, painting, and sculpture. My parents very kindly told me that, “Ethan, you know that artists don’t make any money until after they are dead, right?” I was a stubborn kid like most of us and I didn’t listen. I ended up majoring in Art. I went to college and majored in Art.
I was very serious about it. All throughout high school, I went to a magnet school that specialized in visual art. I had my work in exhibitions. I scored a perfect five on both of the advanced placements. I was highly focused on doing art as a career. As it turns out, my parents were right. It’s hard to make money as an artist. You have to do things like pay rent and that gets to be a bit challenging. For a time in my life, I was a starving artist. In college, I did use my artistic talent when I joined a fraternity, and I was the guy that was designing all the t-shirts, jackets, and flyers for the Greeks on campus.
Other organizations started asking me to design their materials too. I would do it for free because I love doing it. What I learned is that as an artist, the reason the word starving artists exists is because many times, we feel guilty about charging money for work that we love doing. There’s this internal conflict with artists. I did learn how to get over that in order to be where I am now, but I will explain that later in my story.
We haven’t talked about this. I released my 4th book and my 5th. I’m in midstream in book number five and probably I’m writing books and tell I cannot write books. In my next book, I’m pretty sure the title is going to be Release Your Inner Artist. I know we are brothers of different mothers on this. I believe that you do your finest work.The reason why starving artists exists is because people often feel guilty about charging money for work that they love doing. Click To Tweet
You may own a gas station and that may be your art. Whatever you create and whatever is in your zone of genius, that is your art. There’s more fulfillment, peace, contentment, and probably dollars if you practice your art. Embrace it, run towards it instead of away from it. I’m taking you back to young Ethan. Still, schoolboy, tell us about the first job, or maybe it wasn’t a job. Maybe you had a lemonade stand, but what was the first effort you did where you earned money in some way?
In my first job, I was moving furniture around at Emory University and that’s when I realized that I wasn’t cut out for manual labor. I needed to do something where I used my artistic skills and sat down. My first entrepreneurial venture was when I was in the computer club in high school. We had a LAN network in the computer club and I was big into gaming and I had an afterschool arcade and I charged kids money to come in play.
There’s this game called Doom. I don’t know if you are into gaming, but it was a first-person shooter, so we would all be sitting in this arcade where I programmed all the computers to have a LAN party, which was my first entrepreneurial adventure. That got shut down pretty quickly because the game was violent. I didn’t think about that at the time because I was a kid, but that was fun.
I know you are a parent. I’m a parent and a grandparent now, but when the boys were here, sometimes I would be confused. I thought parenting was to raise these perfectly well-behaved short people. The higher calling is to raise independent, caring, accomplishment-oriented adults. Part of being a kid is, “I didn’t think. I just did it.” That’s how that goes. Graduated from Emory and got your degree in Art.
I worked at Emory. I didn’t go to Emory. I have to include this part of my story. I want to be vulnerable and truthful here. In college, I didn’t make wise decisions. I was driven by the pursuit of money and found it hard to get. I turned to hustle and I ended up in jail twice by the age of nineteen. I even got suspended from college from UGA for a semester.
The actual president of the university, Michael Adams, called me to his office and suspended me because I was getting in so much trouble. I’m fortunate that he didn’t expel me. My parents were disappointed in me. I was super embarrassed. My name was all in the school newspaper. I graduated, but after college, I was dead broke because I had a bit of a criminal record and a degree in Art.
It was tough for me to get jobs. This was my starving artist phase, and one of the most humiliating jobs I had was I cleaned the bar at this very dangerous strip club in the South part of Atlanta. I took out the garbage. It was a night job. It worked with my schedule because I was learning graphic design and digital multimedia during the day. It was very humiliating, to say the least, but I felt stuck in that situation. Growing up in a household with a minister, you can imagine there was a lot of guilt there. I was working at a strip club, taking out the trash.
That’s not where it is and I have to tell you this part of the story. I ended up doing graphic design work for some of the DJs at the strip club once they found out I had some artistic talent. I couldn’t use any of that work in my portfolio to land a real job because it was obviously very raunchy. I was now earning some money in my field, but I still felt stuck in this world. Sometimes the universe gives you clues when you need to move from something. Sometimes we are hard-headed and we don’t listen to those clues, then we are pushed out of that situation. One night, on my way to the club. I was robbed. I was carjacked at gunpoint.
The guy took all of my equipment. I ran. I didn’t have any money. He was like, “Give me all your money.” I threw on my wallet and I ran, hopped over a fence. I could hear my car screeching away in the background. It was the scariest moment in my life. I saw that as a sign from the universe not to use my talents for that lifestyle anymore and to put that behind me. From that day forward, I made that decision.
Less than maybe 30 days later, things started to turn around in my life. I landed a full-time job as a graphic designer. I started booking some big-name clients like Tyler Perry, McDonald’s, and some local radio stations for my first business, graphic design. Around that time, I had a school project that I had started for the Greek paraphernalia industry.
The business that I was doing is called stuff4GREEKS. It started to get real orders from college students on the other side of the country. They wanted me to design their jacket, t-shirts, and so forth. Me and my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, were making real money. We started this business together with $700. I put in $350. She put in $350 and we started stuff4GREEKS. We are still one of the top companies that makes custom, personalized Greek paraphernalia for fraternity and sorority members all across the country.
Our business kept growing and growing. Of course, you win the awards. One of the awards that we won as we grew and we were opening store locations is the Bulldog 100. These were the 100 fastest-growing companies owned by UGA alumni. We have been fortunate to win this award four times in our company history. The first time that we won the award and we went to the awards banquet, and I was called on stage, guess who presented me with the award?
It was the same president, Michael Adams, who had kicked me out of college ten years earlier. I tell this story to illustrate that this was an inflection point in my life when I knew that I was finally on the right track. I was misaligned before, but now I felt like I was in alignment, and I saw that moment as certification. I don’t know if he remembered me, but I sure remembered him. I even had the photo of him presenting me with the award ten years later. That was one of those full-circle moments in my life and in my business journey.
There are so many times, even not startup entrepreneurs but entrepreneurs, that they view something that goes bad as this horrible, disastrous failure. Many times, if we allow enough time to lapse. It was not fun and I’m sure it was embarrassing. It was some uncomfortable conversations with your folks about sitting out a semester at UGA, but so many times, looking back, those challenges turn out to be, “Would you be on that same stage with the same president, ten years later winning the award?” If he hadn’t shown a little bit and the odds are it’s probably not.
I encourage all of our readers. Don’t let your past define you. Maybe hadn’t let it redefine you but don’t let it define you. I got to dig in. I didn’t know this. I didn’t know that your girlfriend at the time, wife now, started the business together. Two children. You have a busy house. You’re partners in business and in life. I’m going to ask you and I won’t get you in trouble or me in trouble. That’s much more important that will get me in trouble. Give us a positive about sharing not only your personal family, spiritual, mental, or emotional but also your business life with one person.
People ask all the time, “How do you guys work together and stay married?” This isn’t a popular answer, but I feel like it strengthens our relationship and bond. I don’t know if we’d still be married if we didn’t have our business together. Here’s how we make it work. Here’s the positive part of it and it goes all the way back to when we did premarital counseling.Sometimes, the universe gives you clues when you need to move from something. However, people are often hard-headed and don't listen to them. Click To Tweet
We were in assignment. We had a list of day-to-day tasks. Let’s say, taking out the trash, washing the dishes, changing the kids’ diapers, whatever. We have this long list, and then each person in the couple writes the name next to each item that they think is the person responsible for doing that thing. Then you compare your answers and you see where there’s alignment and misalignment.
For example, if I wrote down taking out the trash, Ethan, and she wrote down taking out the trash, Ethan, we are on the same page, but if it’s different, we have a discussion. We do the same thing. What that does is create it. You have your lanes. It sets expectations to where now I know for twenty years, I have been the one rolling the trash cans out to the side of the street because I know that I am the DRI.
I stole this term from Steve Jobs. I am the directly responsible individual for rolling the trash cans out to the side of the street. Sometimes she’ll do it if I’m out of town. We also have a young lady who helps manage the household that we hire and she’ll roll out the trash, so I can delegate it, but I’m the directly responsible individual.
That’s the household thing, but we apply the same thing to our business. She came from a background in Corporate America. She was an insurance broker. She handles all the HR, payroll, and insurance. As a creative guy, that stuff drives me crazy. She owns that. She’s the DRI for that stuff, and of course, she delegates it out to her people.
I’m more of the DRI for our business’s creative and marketing, and I delegate that to our people. We stay in our lanes and there is some overlap and we serve as sounding boards for each other. She also has her own business and podcast. She does her thing. I have my own ventures, but we are a support system for each other.
I truly believe the reason I say that this helps our marriage is I believe that if you take the metaphor of people in love gazing into each other’s eyes, that will only last for so long. I think that the bond is stronger if you have a shared vision of the horizon and the future and you two are fighting together. There are going to be battles and adversities that you have to face and overcome together. As you march toward that horizon together, your bond would go stronger and stronger, and that’s what it’s done for us.
I’m a firm believer that love is a verb. It’s an action word. It’s not a person, place or thing. If you listen to music and watch television movies, it’s portrayed as a noun, as a person, place, or thing, but true love is a verb. It’s an action. A couple of nuggets, you are providing me with answers to the question. I mean to ask you yet because I always ask everybody for a golden nugget. You are an overachiever.
A couple of nuggets in there that I loved, and I learned this at an event, or I went and listened to a sex therapist with a bunch of other people, there was very little about sex. As far as that goes, it was very tame, but the takeaway that everybody left with was this. In my opinion, all relationships stand on the pillars of communication and expectation because we all have expectations.
If we don’t communicate them to the person we are in that relationship with, we leave ourselves open to disappointment, and for people that you care about, being at your mate, spouse, child, parent, partner, vendor, prospect, or customer, probably best that you don’t disappoint them any more than we have to as humans.
The directly responsible individual is very important. I don’t care if it’s rolling the trash out or making the 401(k). That doesn’t matter what it is. If it’s important to you, somebody ought to be the DRI. You have been ahead of me. I’m going to ask you for a hard lesson and you’ve already given us a great one when you were at UGA.
Something that happened in your entrepreneurial career that at the moment was like, “This hurt.” In retrospect, it turned out that it was in fact, maybe the best thing that could have happened at the time, but at the moment when it happened, it was like, “I don’t know if we are going to make it. We are going to limp for sure.” Hopefully, we can. Do you have a hard lesson you can share?
We were in a business dispute that escalated into a lawsuit. I have to be intentionally vague about it for legal reasons, but it was a loophole in an agreement that another brand we were doing business with and we had a relationship with decided to turn the tables on us and go after our throats and it was very scary. Our legal fees started adding up to over $300,000, and this was at a time when we graduated from the ELs. We were over a million and very thin margins. We did not have the money to fight this. We had a new baby, a newborn, at home, and it was a disastrous moment.
Not only did this brand go after us, but they also decided to expose this loophole and go after a lot of our competitors. We saw some of our competitors go out of business. Go bankrupt. That got scary. That was the first time in my life and my business career that I entertained the word. Even though about it as a possibility. Should we file for bankruptcy?
What we ended up doing was we fired our lawyer because he was the one suggesting we go bankrupt. No. We are going to need somebody else on our team here. That’s what I learned and I leaned on my EO forum and people gave awesome experience shares as a go with big letterhead. Get the biggest lawyer you can afford. Even if you can’t afford the lawyer, you have to stretch yourself because lawyers are worth their weight in gold.
I didn’t know that at the time. I’m so glad I did it. We hired up a shark that was in our corner and he found a way to countersue the other party. We ended up settling for a fraction of what they were looking for. This is a funny side story. If you’ve ever gone through this type of thing before, a lawsuit is you are not sitting in a courtroom like you see on TV.
It’s a bunch of emails and letters going back and forth between lawyers. There’s a lot of waiting for the other party to respond. There’s nothing else you can do during that time while you are waiting. What is on your mind is causing you to lose sleep and you are distracted. You have to carry on the day-to-day work of the business.Let trauma catapult you into a transformation of success. Click To Tweet
I got so stressed out and burned out. I said, “I’m going to train for my first marathon.” How weird is that? People were like, “Are you serious?” Anyone who doesn’t know, for the benefit of your readers, a marathon is 26.2 miles. To train your body to run 26.2 miles, you have to run for hours every single day. Some days I was running three hours a day to train for this marathon. This is in the middle of fighting for my life. I’m going to get to tell you the logic behind this that was in my brain at the time, and I talked about this in my book. I believe that there are six dimensions of life and six areas.
I formed the acronym SIMPLE Spirituality, Intellect, Money, anything dealing with your career businesses in the money category, your Physicality, your Love in relationships, and Entertainment. That forms the acronym SIMPLE. Life is to throw some curveballs at you. Life is going to kick you and beat you up sometimes.
If you let it get you down in one area, you got to be careful not to let the suck you down in the other areas as well. This lawsuit was affecting my money area. It was affecting my business that my M level was way down. I could feel it causing a strain on my relationships. I started to feel resentment. We had a new baby at home. I couldn’t even enjoy my newborn son because I was fighting this thing, and in my mind, I was angry. It pulled all my relationships and entertainment.
I wasn’t traveling as much in doing things. It was pulling down on my spirituality and intellect. All I was reading about was legal-related stuff. I said, “I’m going to take control over what I can control in my body, and I’m going to have a win.” I feel like I was losing in all of these other areas. I needed a win. Me finishing that marathon was the mental win that I needed.
It may seem unrelated on the surface. I feel like that’s what drove me to fight harder for what I believed in and countersue the other party and prevail in the end. We also made changes to our business that catapulted our success to where we are. We have a different business model that we were forced to make during that situation. It was about eight months of a very tumultuous time in our business. Now I can look back on it and I’m thankful for it.
As a general statement, you have to be careful with those, but they have a tendency to overlook taking care of them. Entrepreneurs are very good about taking care of other people. Take care of my team, my spouse, my kids, or my customers. “What did you eat today?” “I didn’t eat today.” “How long have you worked?” “I started at 5:00 AM and it’s 8:00 PM.”
It’s unusual behavior for the average person. We all only have one body to get us from birth to death. Best that we don’t abuse it any more than we have to, and we take care of it. Plus, with all that gross physical activity, your endorphins are certainly helped to deal with everything else. That’s awesome. What about a golden nugget? You’ve already given us so many. I’m grateful that you came on, but something you know. Some piece of wisdom in the mind of Ethan King we want to know.
It goes back to something you said earlier, and you were talking about how traumatic moments can sometimes lead to success, like if you wouldn’t have made the changes that you needed to make. Whether that’s in your business, health, or relationships, oftentimes we wouldn’t make certain changes until we are in a situation where we are scared or it’s painful to the point where we are forced to make the change.
I have gone through a series of these traumatic moments. I have already mentioned the carjacking and lawsuit. I also had a health scare. When I looked at each one of them, it led to these inflection points in my life, but it doesn’t always do that. We hear stories of people who didn’t come out the other side. Either they ended up bankrupt, divorced, dead or whatever the worst outcome is for their situation. It doesn’t always have a happy ending.
I heard a story about this gentleman named Paul Cassell. He was a British real estate tycoon, a multimillionaire. At age 54, this guy would seem he had it all, private jets, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, every car. He even played polo with Prince Charles. At age 54, he stepped out in front of a subway train and took his own life. You have to wonder when you peel back the layers like, “What happened? What was going on here?” No one will ever know the whole story, but we did see that he was on his fourth marriage. He had some medical issues. He had been to the doctor a few times. He had some business deals that went bad. It got to be too much for him and he decided that was the only way out. I decided that I was going to catch myself early and not get that far out of balance. When I go back to those six areas, those six buckets are like all the simple success buckets.
If there’s a golden nugget that I want to share with people, it’s that let your trauma catapult in your transformation to success. How can we use trauma as a launchpad for positive transformation? Better yet, how can you make that change that you know you need to make without having to go through the trauma? Where can you mentally trick yourself into making that change? That’s what I have been exploring. I have the answer. I wrote a book about it. It’s called Wealth Beyond Money: Unlocking the 6 Dimensions of Success for Richness in Every Area of Your Life. I deeply explore the science of personal change in every aspect of life.
Look for that book. I have a pastor friend that he relates that he thinks people change due to 1 of 2 stimuli. They see the light, so they prevent going through that trauma. They can see it out there. They are like, “I’m changing now,” or they feel the heat like human nature is that most of us are more open to change. Change is hard and big changes are really hard. Most people are not the see the light changers.
They are the feel the heat changers, but the part to remember is this. Don’t quit. There are a lot of overnight, but twenty years success stories that I can tell you, there were many nights of macaroni and cheese and I didn’t quit. Maybe it would have been smarter to quit, but I didn’t quit. We got somewhere and that’s great.
We are into the final turn here. We are coming to the finish line. I can see the checkered flag out. I’m going to put you into a time machine and transport you back and you are going to get a couple of minutes to share the wisdom that you have now that you wish your twenty-year-old self knew. At the end of the time machine, you go back 60, 90 seconds of, “Listen to this. This will help you. It’ll ease your way. It’ll speed you on your path through life.”
What I would tell my younger self is that you create your own reality. Life is not happening to you. Life is happening for you. You are not a camera, soaking in what’s going on around in your life. You are more like a projector. You create the universe around you through the lens you have on. It’s how you are going to see and create the world.
Once you realize that you are the creator of your destiny, that can change everything. With the right mindset in tools, you can reshape every aspect of your life. You can have it all. That’s what I would tell my younger self. It was much more simple than you think. If I had time with my younger self, I would give an actionable, pragmatic tip that he implements. That’s what inspired me to write the book because my book is loaded with practical science-backed tips that anyone can apply and that I wish my younger self would have applied more.
The great thing about wisdom is that it’s good, and the bad side is you have to have some miles.
You have to have the wisdom to have the miles ahead of you. Apply the things and lessons that they teach you. That way, you don’t have to put on as many hard miles yourself.
A wise mentor or two will make a huge difference in whatever your endeavor is for sure. How would somebody reach out to you?
The best way to reach me is to go to my website EthanKing.com. You can find links to reach me on every social media channel. You can shoot me a message. You can book me to speak at your event. You can buy my book. You can do all of that at my hub.
That’s all for this episode with rockstar Ethan King. Thanks. See you next time.
- Ethan King
- Wealth Beyond Money: Unlocking the 6 Dimensions of Success for Richness in Every Area of Your Life
About Ethan King
Ethan King is an entrepreneur with businesses in apparel, fitness, e-commerce, and real estate. He is a dynamic speaker who shares his journey from starving artist to CEO of multiple 7-figure brands. He has been featured on the cover of Best Self Magazine, and specializes in coaching high performance professionals around the world. Ethan is the author of the forthcoming book, Wealth Beyond Money: Unlocking The 6 Dimensions of Success for Richness in Every Area of Your Life, and he is passionate about YOU truly having it all.
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