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What The Concept Phase Really Means To Alex Van Tonder

Wanting it all is one thing — making it work is another. Alex van Tonder manages to balance her work as a brand expert, a social media doyenne, and a gutsy thriller writer.

Monique Verduyn

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Alex van Tonder
  • Company: The Concept Phase
  • Claim to fame: Author
  • Other endeavours: Alex van Tonder worked as a senior creative in advertising for more than 11 years. She has created work for clients such as Johnnie Walker, Levi’s, Allan Gray, Microsoft, Virgin Active, Sanlam and Woolworths.
  • Visit: alexvantonder.com

Time is one of the biggest constraints we face. In an endless race to achieve our goals, it’s often a lack of time that hinders us. Alex van Tonder is determined to squeeze so much into life, that mastering time is an essential skill.

She speaks so fast it’s difficult to keep up with her. Her sentences are succinct and clever, often quotable. It’s not difficult to understand why she has the ability to do many different things at the same time, and to do them well.

She started out as an advertising copywriter, and worked as a senior creative for more than ten years. An early adopter of social media, she is a powerful influencer and has created viral and social content for some of the country’s biggest brands.

She’s also well-known for her satirical blogs, My Branded Life and Cape Town Girl. In 2011, she was named one of South Africa’s most influential women on Twitter by Memeburn. In 2013, she won the Woman & Home short story competition with a thriller titled The Drive. Two years later, her debut novel This One Time was published. There’s another in the pipeline. She’s got a lot on the go, and it would be easy to let things slip through the cracks or remain unfinished. Instead, she’s meeting every one of her goals.

Related: 5 Lessons From tashas Founder Natasha Sideris

How did it happen?

Where does this rare ability to do so many different things at the same time, and to do them well, come from?

“South Africans like to box people,” she says. “But I’m a true millennial, and I see myself as a creative polymath. Someone who knows a lot about a lot and does a lot. I’m at my best when I turn my mind to many things.”

When Van Tonder entered the ad industry, the social media phenomenon was in its infancy. Her bosses weren’t interested in this new fad, but she was fascinated and read a lot about how brands were using it overseas.

“I started developing that stream of my career independently,” she says. “At just 25 I was promoted to creative group head, mostly because they thought I was a weird copywriter who liked Myspace, and they let me get on with it.”

It’s a powerful lesson for anyone with ambition — never stop learning. In her own time and at her own expense, Van Tonder made sure she was becoming a master in something that was still in its infancy. She made time to read and watch online videos when she could have been relaxing and watching TV. It’s a dedication that has
paid dividends.

The power of words

Alex-van-Tonder-author-

Image credit: alexvantonder.com

She’s a fiction addict which has always added to her skills as a creative person. It took a decade for her to find a publisher interested in her writing, but she didn’t let how long it took her to achieve this goal derail her plans. In a sea of ‘no’s’, it takes just one yes to achieve success, a lesson that many successful entrepreneurs have learnt over the years.

She used her experience in the social media world to craft a psychological thriller about a man who creates an online persona that represents everything awful about social media — revenge porn, trolling, machismo, fake celebrity — until he gets his comeuppance.

“I’ve had a particularly unconventional career, but all these different perspectives and contrasting insights have added to my expertise, allowing me to continue to develop my creativity.”

She cites Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, as an important read on self-actualisation. To live creatively, Gilbert says, does not necessarily mean “pursuing a life that is professionally or exclusively devoted to the arts,” but “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear. Creative entitlement,” she adds, “simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that — merely by being here — you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.”

She talks about reaching consumers through all social touch-points by means of storytelling. “In the past, an agency would launch a three-month campaign to get a brand out there. Nowadays, with mobile, the brand’s story never ends, and people are carrying it around in their pockets.”

That’s why she’s recently launched her own business, The Concept Phase, which focuses on writing, copy, social and storytelling solutions for brands.

Related: 27four Investment Managers Aren’t Afraid Of The Big Boys

“As an archetypal millennial, the stories I am most interested in telling are those about genuinely good causes, such as creating awareness about the critical importance of sustainability.”

One of her most recent projects was Woolworths’ ‘Are you with us?’ collaboration with Pharrell Williams, which saw the superstar and the business align their values and actions to make a difference in the lives of people, and the planet. “It was great to be part of an initiative that encourages people to change their behaviour,” she says. The initiative was all the more powerful because it wasn’t just Woolworths telling a story, but inviting a community to join that story, share it and even own it themselves.

Ways to build a personal brand

“I have never passed myself off as a ‘brand expert’,” says Van Tonder. “What I love is building brands online and understanding what works, and what doesn’t. As I moved from project to project, I gained traction in the market and that is how I built my own brand. I never set out to become a brand, but by applying the principles of branding to my online persona, I did.”

Adding that she is a ‘serial auto-didact’, Van Tonder says she learns something new every night. How to run a business, how to start a blog, how to do basic accounting — these are all topics she has explored online. “I find key mentors and then I watch every interview they do and devour everything they write.”

It’s this approach that has allowed her to develop a signature image. “The more you learn, the more you create your unique voice — one that your fans, readers, and customers can recognise.”

Remember this

Wearing different hats isn’t easy. Success often lies in being able to compartmentalise. When working on a specific task, you need to be really focused on it. If you can’t give something a lot of time — give it your focused attention when you do work on it.

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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Lessons Learnt

15 Wise Insights From 15 Entrepreneurial Icons

Here are 15 wise insights from entrepreneurial icons.

Josh Althuser

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Starting your own business is harrowingly hard. In fact about half of all businesses fail within the first five years. You may feel paralysed from the amount of freedom, responsibility, failure, and success concomitant with business ownership.

Luckily, you’re not alone in conquering these fears. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs have plenty of wisdom to share to help guide you.

Here are 15 wise insights from entrepreneurial icons:

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GetSmarter With Sam Paddock And Rob Paddock

Brothers Sam and Rob Paddock believe there’s a lot of luck involved in building a great business – but you need a clear strategy, great people and strong partnerships as well.

Nadine Todd

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sam-paddock-and-rob-paddock

Vital Stats

  • Players: Sam Paddock and Rob Paddock
  • Company: GetSmarter
  • Launched: 2008
  • The Deal: Sold to NASDAQ-listed company 2U for R1,4 billion
  • Visit: www.getsmarter.com

How do you build a business that is not only the leader in its sector locally, but attracts the attention of an international, listed company, concluding in a R1,4 billion deal? Brothers Sam and Rob Paddock believe there’s a lot of luck involved in building a great business – but you need a clear strategy, great people and strong partnerships as well.

This is their story

Here’s the fascinating thing about truly successful businesses: Speak to founders that have secured investments, sold their businesses or built high-growth organisations, and you’ll notice they have two things in common. First, they have a strong purpose other than money motivating them. Second, their focus is on building a robust, high-impact business, and not on how they’re going to find a funder or sell their company. Interestingly, by not focusing on these factors and working on the business instead, funders, buyers and success are often the end result anyway.

GetSmarter is a perfect example of these laws in action. Co-founders Sam and Rob Paddock’s purpose is to improve one million lives through online education by 2030, and even though they’ve just concluded an incredible deal (believed to be the biggest in the South African edtech landscape to date), they actually had no intention of selling until Christopher ‘Chip’ Paucek, CEO and co-founder of 2U, contacted them in 2016.

“We’ve been approached by interested parties over the years, but we’ve never seriously considered selling the business,” says Sam, CEO of GetSmarter. “It’s flattering, but we were focused on achieving our internal goals, and didn’t see the value in selling some or all of the company.”

Related: How GetSmarter Got Smarter

So why was 2U’s offer different? In a nutshell, because the deal will actually help the brothers accelerate their objective of improving one million lives by 2030. In other words, it directly taps into their purpose — and it’s that purpose that made the business attractive to 2U in the first place.

“It was a chance meeting,” says Sam. “Chip was surfing Facebook and came across an advert for an MIT course we were running. It was our first international programme, and since 2U is in the online education space, he immediately wanted to know who we were. He called me, and when we realised how aligned our businesses and philosophies were, it kicked off a series of face-to-face conversations around what we could achieve together.”

“Both of our target markets are working professionals, but while we offer non-accredited short courses, 2U offers fully-fledged degrees,” says Rob. “So, while in many ways the businesses are almost identical, they are also not competing with each other. 2U offers degrees from highly ranked institutions such as Yale, the University of California Berkley and New York University. We offer short courses from UCT, Wits, Stellenbosch, MIT, Harvard, UChicago, Oxford, Cambridge  and the London School of Economics. We realised that if we worked together we could service both ends of the market, and our combined reach would be incredible.”

Sam and Rob have built a solid, sustainable business that has enjoyed incredible growth over the past few years, but what really attracted 2U was a shared sense of purpose. “

There’s real cultural alignment between our two businesses,” says Rob. “Culture has given us a real competitive edge, and it’s the guiding force behind the principle and values we’ve built the business on.”

The lesson is a simple one. If your values and purpose are clear, you’ll naturally attract like-minded people to your organisation, from employees to investors and even potential partners and buyers.

Strong partnerships

A shared sense of purpose gets the conversation started, but it doesn’t secure the deal. 2U is an international company that’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NASDAQ), and has a fiduciary duty to its shareholders to purchase businesses on more than an emotional whim.

GetSmarter had to go through a rigorous due diligence process before the deal was concluded. The foundations that Sam and Rob have put in place over the last decade have ensured that they’ve created more than just a vision: They’ve built an asset of value that isn’t dependent on its founders, and offers a strong value proposition to a listed business.

That value proposition began in 2008 when the brothers got their first partners on board: The University of Stellenbosch and UCT. The partnership with UCT started with Rob and Sam’s dad, Graham Paddock, one of South Africa’s top sectional title lawyers. Graham had collaborated with UCT’s Law Faculty to build an online course that could be accessed across the country, with a final in-person workshop component. The course was one of the most profitable activities that Paddocks, Graham’s law firm, was involved in.

Sam had designed a virtual campus while completing his degree in business science, and the success of Graham’s online course cemented the impression that there was a real business opportunity in online education that could also add real value to the South African market place.

“I love tech and marketing, Rob is passionate about education, and has a background teaching music, and Paddocks already had a great partnership with UCT’s Law Faculty,” says Sam. From the beginning, both he and Rob clearly recognised that the success of any online education venture lay with the partnerships they could secure.

“Our courses have been successful because they combine affordability with an attractive institutional brand that adds value to people’s skills and CVs,” says Rob. “We built partnerships with UCT, the University of Stellenbosch and Wits based on this ideal.

“In our sales and marketing collateral, the academic institution’s branding is front and centre, not GetSmarter’s. Our job is to give students the confidence and competence to advance their careers. We do this through high-touch courses that support them throughout the learning process. Those courses are designed with career advancement in mind in collaboration with our partners.”

“The real success has come in the value proposition we offer the universities we work with,” adds Rob. “Essentially, we take on the vast majority of the commercial risk. We take on all marketing and sales activities, course administration, learning technology, student support, technical support, but the courses are very much led by the university in terms of IP, and they have full quality control over the course at all times. The commercial model is that the university receives a percentage of revenue share.

“The biggest lesson we’ve learnt since launching this business is that you need to understand who you are partnering with and what their objectives are. The relationships we have with the universities we work with is at the heart of our business model. How we serve our university partners, students and employees is the foundation of our success — and pulling all three together is what creates an offering that the market both wants and needs.” 

Success is the greatest precursor to further success

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Building up trust doesn’t happen overnight. For Sam and Rob, it’s been a ten-year journey focusing on delivering exceptional online courses that add value to learners and their university partners. This dedication to creating the right formula for online courses has had two distinct results. It’s built solid relationships with the local academic world (and a valuable network that the brothers could tap into when they started investigating international partners), and it’s resulted in an 88% completion rate, which is exceptionally high in the world of online learning.

“We’ve very carefully structured and developed the high-touch style that differentiates GetSmarter courses,” explains Rob. “We focus on the holistic needs of our learners. They need to put in ten hours a week and to help them do that, and get the most from the course, we have success managers who guide them through the process, a 24-hour tech support team, and everyone is placed in small tutorial groups, which creates an intimate and personal learning environment, even if there are 1 000 students taking that particular course. Our learners constantly get the sense that their learning is being nurtured and facilitated. We believe it’s this level of support that has resulted in such a high completion rate.”

Related: 10 Things Successful People Tell Themselves Every Day

Compare this to the extremely low completion rates of MOOCs, often in the range of 3% to 15%. The New York Times named 2012 the Year of the MOOC. The world believed these Massive Open Online Courses would democratise learning, and render higher education institutions obsolete. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon, and some of the most revered names in the higher education space added their courses to the mix of content that anyone in the world could access for free.

And then two things happened. First, although the idea was to find a business model that could monetise MOOCs, while still allowing people free access to the content, this has not yet happened. And second, the completion rate of courses is incredibly low. People sign up for MOOCs, but they don’t finish them.

“We absolutely support the idea of free open content for the world to access,” says Sam. “But we don’t see MOOCs as fundamentally disrupting higher education. A vast majority of the people accessing MOOCs are already highly qualified individuals in the US and the UK.

“More importantly though, making content available gives people access to it, but there’s a big difference between starting a course and completing it. This has been a huge focus for us — how do we get people to complete online courses? These are working professionals with a lot of responsibilities, and our courses typically require an additional ten hours a week. We’ve found that a high-touch framework supports our learners in their journey, guiding them through the content, and resulting in our 88% completion rate.”

This was the value proposition that Sam and Rob were able to present to international universities when they started focusing on international growth in 2015. “Our local growth drives were to increase courses within the verticals we focused on, so that learners could keep increasing their skills, and to build on the number of courses we offer. The greater our portfolio, the bigger the market we can appeal to, across industries and professions,” says Sam. The next step was to go international. “When we started the process, we had a seven-year track record of success in partnering with the top three institutions in South Africa and a high completion rate. We also offer our university partners significant financial returns,” says Sam. “We believed that our proven capability to deliver high quality courses as well as financial returns was a value proposition that international partners would respond to.”

The brothers knew it wouldn’t be a simple process however. “There are a lot of start-ups in the edtech space. Harvard is approached weekly by companies claiming to be the future of education. We needed an additional ‘in’, and that came from the partnerships we had built in South Africa,” says Rob.

“We sweated our networks hard. Luckily, the world of higher education is small and connected. Our networks were able to introduce us to the right people in the UK and the US, and then we worked harder than we ever have in our lives. We did a roadshow in 2015 where we had five meetings a day for three weeks in a row. I checked my passport recently — I travelled to Boston 19 times in 18 months. It takes time and energy to establish the right relationships. The introductions were just a foot in the door. We needed to take that gap and really make it work.”

In February 2016 GetSmarter’s first international course launched in collaboration with MIT. This was followed by courses with Harvard, Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cambridge. Today, GetSmarter’s team of 400 service a pool of learners in 140+ countries from their offices in Cape Town and London.

Using your differentiators to make a difference

Over and above the trifecta of systems, operational support and pedagogy that has made GetSmarter courses so popular in the market, is the strong sales and marketing focus that has been integral to the brand’s growth strategy since inception.

“We have a hybrid sales and marketing strategy that uses Facebook, LinkedIn and Google AdWords to generate inbound leads,” explains Sam. “Our target audience is in their mid to late 30s, midway through their career and upwardly mobile, and we reach them via their digital network. Our inhouse digital marketing agency uses analytics, maths and stats to understand who is likely to sign up for our courses, and what conversations we need to be having with them to make that happen.

“Once a potential learner has shown an interest, they are signed over to the sales team, who begin high quality conversations around whether the course is right for them or not. The process is high touch and very people focused.”

This same high-touch sales and marketing process has also helped GetSmarter to successfully enter international markets. “We’ve learnt a lot from marketing in Southern Africa,” says Sam. “Working professionals in South Africa, while culturally distinct, are similar to working professionals in the EU and US. Local guidelines are also working in those markets.”

The business’s acquisition by 2U will increase this reach even further. “We can now apply 2U’s advanced marketing analytic capabilities to understand how to reach a larger audience. The big markets for us are the US, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Middle East and of course South Africa, which is still currently our biggest market base, although this will shift in the future.” Interestingly, while the inclusion of international courses to GetSmarter’s portfolio has triggered international growth and the deal with 2U, South Africa’s growing appetite for international programmes is driving local growth.

“In a recent Cambridge business sustainability management course that we ran, 10% of the students were from South Africa,” confirms Rob.

Building on great foundations

The key factor behind the international growth and the acquisition, is the team Sam and Rob have built around them over the past five years.

“Culture has always been a competitive advantage for us,” says Sam. “Our people are GetSmarter’s life-blood. Four years ago, the business’s strategy lived in corridor conversations with ‘Sam and Rob’. We were the funnel that everything in the company ran through. If we wanted to achieve next level growth, that needed to change.

“One of the lenses we view business through is that human performance precedes operational performance, which precedes financial performance. That means in order to achieve any success, you need to first build a higher human capital base. We started by expanding our executive team, bringing people on board who were better than us in their respective portfolios.

By the time we were prospecting with international institutions they were running their divisions without our daily input. We were able to focus on international growth and strategies because we had the right team in place.”

“Without that foundation, none of this would have been possible,” Rob agrees. “We could focus on travelling and building international relationships — and even on the 2U deal and due diligence, because of our executive team.”

Over and above the executive team are 400 highly capable people based in Cape Town, serving students from around the world. “We work with awesome people,” says Sam, “and that’s helped us build this business and work towards achieving our purpose. You can’t impact one million lives by yourself. It takes a strong, cohesive team. We’ve built a company around that, and now we’ve joined an international industry leader based on the same principles.”

Related: 15 Scientifically Proven Ways To Work Smarter, Not Just More

Choosing to Sell

How do you know it’s the right time, and what should you do if you’re considering the sale of your business? Sam and Rob offer the following advice:

  1. Make sure you like and respect the acquirer. Everything starts here. It’s a long, slow, complex process. You need to like each other.
  2. During the acquisition process, you need to rapidly develop a new set of skills, and that’s not always possible. You need a team of professionals to help you navigate the deal. This includes deal advisors and attorneys. Deals of this nature are complex, and you want to set everything up for potential success in the future.
  3. Make sure there’s real synergy between the businesses. What do you offer each other, and how will the acquisition help both businesses grow? If you can’t answer this, you probably shouldn’t be doing the deal.

 


Listen to the podcast

Matt Brown

Matt Brown interviews Sam and Rob and discusses the strategies that have supported GetSmarter’s international growth and sale to 2U for R1,4 billion.

To listen to the podcast, go to mattbrownmedia.co.za/matt-brown-show or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.

The Matt Brown Show is a podcast with a listenership in over 100 countries and is designed to empower entrepreneurs around the world through information sharing.

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10 Gary Vaynerchuk-Approved Success Strategies

The VaynerMedia founder gets real about drive and ambition.

Nina Zipkin

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Gary Vaynerchuk

Perhaps the best way to describe Gary Vaynerchuk is “nonstop.” The founder of VaynerMedia, VaynerSports and Vayner/RSE is also an author, host and vlogger who records just about everything he does.

He is known for being relentless in his pursuit of the hustle and has a loyal audience of millions (2.4 million on Instagram, 1.58 million on Twitter and 2.3 million on Facebook) who take his advice to heart.

We took a deep dive into his blog archive to find some of his best tips and advice for making it as an entrepreneur.

1. On why failure shouldn’t scare you

“It’s the lack of fear of failing that has allowed me to make decisions so quick. People don’t make decisions because they are scared to lose. I make decisions because I want to know what’s going to happen, and then I use that information to help advise what I do next,” Vaynerchuk writes.

“The one thing I know for sure, is the outcome of what happens if you don’t decide. If you never make a decision, or deliberate for too long, all the upside or potential opportunity could be lost.”

Related: 5 Vital Keys To Success From The Likes Of Tony Robbins And Gary Vaynerchuk

2. On the value of patience

“The game is LONG. There’s so much opportunity. Optimism is the secret to capitalizing on this opportunity and that’s where you need to live. You need to figure out how good it really is and how much opportunity you have,” Vaynerchuk writes.

“Patience is practical. I push patience because I know life is long. Everybody around here is running around like it’s not. 24 year-olds running around like it ends tomorrow. Like they need it now. What’s wrong with being 26 or 41 or 73?”

3. On why age has nothing to do with ability

gary-vaynerchuk-entrepreneur

“The youth are the future of everything. They are the future of business, of society, of law and of government. We better pay attention, and empower them to be the best that they can be,” Vaynerchuk writes.

“My hope is that we lose the sentiment of age makes a difference in skill. There are plenty of 22 and 24 and 26 year olds in my office right now that work harder and smarter than some of the 50 year olds I know. It’s just the truth and we are going to continue to see this trend adopted in the marketplace. You can’t deny results.”

4. On how to build a lasting legacy

“I think my actions map to my ambitions. Because my ambition is to have legacy. I treat it that way. I treat everybody I interact with, with kindness and respect. These days, as my notoriety has grown, I still treat people just the same. I look them dead in the face and I’m just in it with them for that one minute or two or three or 10, and really care about they have to say! Because I am very appreciative and humbled for their attention. I will never get over it. I will never get over the fact that people actually care.”

Related: 8 Pieces Of Sage Advice From Ernest Corbett of Tintswalo Safari Lodges

5. On the importance of an open door policy

“I don’t think one can win in business without having the proper teammates and empowering them to play their role. Ideas can come from anywhere but the fact of the matter is you need an offensive line, you need a receiver, you need a quarterback, you need them all and I think any leader that doesn’t recognise that will ultimately not succeed in the long term. Obviously you can have a company that runs for six months and you sell it but over a 10, 20, 40 year period, there is no other strategy that will actually work.”

6. On why you need to prioritise your own happiness

“To truly be selfless, you have to give without expectation. It’s the mindset of giving with expectation, which kills everything. It just doesn’t work at all. Being selfish is the gateway to selflessness, because you learn to take care of your own personal needs first in order to use that as collateral later so that you can really, truly help.”

7. On why you shouldn’t think about how things “should be”

gary-vaynerchuk-entrepreneur-quote

“Navigating our society and our lives with the hope of how it ‘should be’ versus the way it actually is, is the quickest and least practical way to create success. This is something I say to myself every single day,” Vaynerchuk writes.

“I am in control of my destiny. Nobody else. I get to decide how I react and how I respond, and the greatest motivator to inspire perspective is the simple statement ‘What’s the alternative?’”

8. On why you must value the perspective you bring to the table

“Why are you taking somebody else’s opinion about yourself greater than your opinion about yourself? It’s the single greatest mistake that will keep you from finding happiness and confidence in who you are,” Vaynerchuk writes.

“And it’s not that their opinions don’t matter. You have to have an equal amount of respect for yourself as for others. It’s a democratic society and everyone gets a vote. So beyond the thought leaders, and politicians and school systems you have to have respect for yourself. You need to put yourself on your own pedestal and then start weighing the opinions of others proportionately to how you actually feel about yourself.”

9. On why the competition doesn’t matter

“I am and always have been consumer focused. The reason I don’t pay attention to my ‘competition’ is not because I’m brash or cool. It’s because it doesn’t matter when you’re obsessed with the end consumer,” Vaynerchuk writes.

“Because it starts and it ends with the end consumer and where the attention actually is. I will always do actions that bring you the most value because then I get value in return.”

10. On why your goal should be to keep working

“I didn’t need to get mine at 25. Heck, I don’t even need to ‘get mine’ at 41. This is the long, long game. I’m driven by the climb. It could be because I’m an immigrant and I just have this chip on my shoulder. Or maybe it’s in my DNA. I don’t like winning. I like losing. I like the struggle. I like people telling me that I can’t,” Vaynerchuk writes. “I don’t give a shit if my payday comes tomorrow. I want the game. The game is my life. There will never be a moment to quit. There’s no dollar amount. Nothing you can do to make me stop.”

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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