If you have ever so much as Googled the word debt you’ve probably heard of national radio host, TV personality, author and money management expert Dave Ramsey. The no-nonsense CEO of Ramsey Solutions is on a mission to get American families out of debt.
He has a popular story: The young bankrupt husband and father rebuilds his life and starts a business that grows from a church Sunday school class into a 500+ employee media empire. Along the way he wrote five New York Times bestselling books, grew his audience to 12 million weekly listeners and has had more than four million customers go through his flagship program, Financial Peace University.
I jumped at the chance to join him at Ramsey Solutions in Nashville, Tenn., recently and ask him how he bounced back and built his mission into a massive success.
1. Put food on the table first
Ramsey started growing Financial Peace, but it was as what would today be called a “side hustle.” It’s popular in entrepreneurship to want to go "all in” -- but Ramsey advises prudence. He grew his real estate business back up to six figures and using that as his income, grew his financial counseling business slowly on the side, for four years.
“[My wife] Sharon and I said, 'Okay, now that we've [cleaned up our finances] we can probably live on about $60,000 a year. We were making about $120,000,” he shared, adding with a laugh, “So we stepped out on that, and sure enough, we made $62,000 the next year.”
2. Say yes to everythingOver those four years Ramsey built a small Sunday school class, advising friends and family, into seminars with over 300 attendees. How did he do it? By speaking to anyone and everyone that would listen, on every platform he could.
“I took every speaking engagement, anytime anybody let me talk anywhere, whether they paid me or not. If I could just go talk to the Kiwanis Club, some little dinky Sunday school class . . . I'd go talk,” he explained.
He also said yes to random radio appearances, which eventually led him to become one of the most popular radio hosts of our time.
3. Put in the hours
In every single one of my interviews, this comes up. There is simply no substitute for long hours at the beginning. Ramsey shared that his beginning was “ridiculous.” His day began early at office, followed by driving “100 miles an hour" to the radio station. The three-hour show was followed by more time at the office, then personally setting up chairs and a projector at a local hotel for a Financial Peace seminar that evening. Then, he explained, he would go home to shower again and then “go back over [to the hotel], teach. Lead the small groups. Pray with a single mom who's scared to death, and it's 11:30 when I'm taking the screen down.”
4. Figure it out as you go
I appreciated Ramsey’s honesty as he shared the beginning of his story, during which he said “we didn’t know” five times. He openly shared that he and his now 20-year-employee and producer, Blake Thompson, didn’t know how to do radio, he and his wife didn’t know how to do live seminars, he didn’t know how to start hiring. They figured it out as they went, because they believed in what they were doing, which brings me to the next lesson from Ramsey . . . .
5. Have a mission
“We just knew we were going to change the world,” Ramsey explained about those early years.
If you want to stick it out through years of small turnouts, rejections, bad hires and more, you need to focus on something larger than yourself.
6. Create a culture around that mission
Ramsey explained that he, a devout Christian, is often viewed as “weird” -- as is his business. As an employer, he does not claim to be a great fit for anyone and everyone. The mission comes first, which is how he and his employees formed their company culture over time.
“[It was] just a little bit at a time,” Ramsey said. “We started recognizing, okay, here's a behavior we're not going to sanction. And we'd start talking about it. And talking about it became a value."
Weird or not, he must be doing something right, as Ramsey Solutions has been voted one of the best places to work in Nashville nine times.
7. Focus on mission over method
Ramsey is passionate about iteration, which explains the longevity of his products and programs. Publishing and radio, Ramsey’s primary industries, are both being turned upside-down. However, the 56-year old assured me he’s not concerned, as he rattled on about iHeartRadio, Spotify and iTunes. Other than the mission itself, nothing is sacred, he says.
“You [don’t change] your principles, but change your processes. You have to kill the sacred cows every morning. You have to hear them mooing, and shoot them. Eat them for breakfast.”
Ramsey recommends entrepreneurs follow the trends but remain conservative, not putting all of their eggs in any new platform basket. He gave the example of satellite radio, which was predicted to take over. But Ramsey “didn't go all the way to satellite when satellite radio came out, thank goodness.”
8. Stick with it“We had seats for 135 people for [the very first] Financial Peace University,” Ramsey shared, “and four people came. Four people. Sold three of 'em, but only four people came.”
Ramsey has faced his fair share of setbacks over the years, but he believes failure is not really failure unless you quit.
“If you don't quit, it's an experiment,” he explained. “Some of them break your heart more than others because you're invested emotionally into the experiment, and so it feels like failure . . . . But if you look at it as 'I'm going to fail forward,' as John Maxwell's book says, then you will.”
9. Separate work and life, even in family business
Ramsey believes families in business and family business can be -- and statistically in America are -- very successful. A family business is going to be as functional or dysfunctional as your family outside of business. The key is to know your roles, he explained.
“We wear hats. At dinner, I'm Papa Dave with the grandbabies. And when I take that hat off and I put the CEO hat on, that's who I am. And so one of my kids does not need to sit in a meeting and roll their eyes like they might about Papa Dave,” he shared.
“You gotta stay in your lane. If you can do that and if you've got a fairly functional family, you can have a great time at business.”
10. Don’t fear success
Ramsey gave me a very unexpected answer to one of my staple questions: What is your number one piece of advice for beginner entrepreneurs and aspiring business owners?
“Don't be ashamed of making money. If you got your heart right and your business is there to serve, really serve, you're not being manipulative, you're not being a jerk, but you really want to help people.”
He explained that making money is one’s report card in business, quoting Ken Blanchard, ""Profit is the applause that our customers give us,' and so I want to hear my customer doing that. I'm not only not ashamed of making money, I'm ashamed if we don't because it means we didn't serve well.”