What does it take to leave your corporate marketing job behind to create your own app? In this episode of Career Relaunch, Aniefre Essien, a former Consumer Goods Brand Marketer turned music streaming app Founder shares his thoughts the importance of conviction and being authentic to who you are. I also share some thoughts on how you can define what matters to you.
- Find what’s meaningful in your life, and determine the mark you want to leave on the world.
- Clarify your values to evaluate which actions and decisions serve you, make you happy, and lead to fulfillment.
- Give yourself permission to pursue what you really want. You will be more at peace with yourself and your career path.
Tweetables to Share
Free Tool: Clarify Your Values
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked about the importance of clarifying what matters to you in your life & career. To help define your values, you can download my “Values Questionnaire” Worksheet
About Aniefre Essien, Founder & CEO, Vaytus Media
Aniefre Essien has more than a decade of marketing experience, across a wide range of industries including Food & Wine, Home Cleaning, and Social Media. After spending years honing his craft at major corporations, Aniefre decided to leave the perceived security of the corporate world to launch his own start-up. He is the Founder/CEO of Vaytus Media LLC, a media streaming platform that enables convenient discovery of premium independent music.
Vaytus is a new, independent music streaming app, with hand selected, curated content from artists who create for the love of music. “Vayt-us” means elevate us, and is built on the premise that good music makes life better. At Vaytus, we’re a bunch of musicians and music lovers that know that the best, most honest music is being made by indie musicians not heard on the radio—so we built an alternative. The app is in testing now, and will be released soon. People can pre-register for an account at vaytus.com and follow Vaytus on Facebook.
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Episode Interview Transcript
Teaser (first ~15s): No matter what you do, you will never make 100% of the people happy. There’s always going to be someone that’s going to disagree with every decision you make, so then it’s about understanding what really matters for you and then making that decision and being comfortable with it.
Joseph: Aniefre, welcome to the show. Thanks so much for making the time to speak with me today because I know you’ve been a busy guy lately. I know you’ve just moved from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida. You’ve just given a talk at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, where we both did our MBAs, on managing risk in your career, which I definitely want to come back to.
First, could you start by briefly telling us a little bit about Vaytus, the independent music streaming app company you founded, and what you’ve been working on there lately?
Aniefre: Absolutely. First and foremost, thanks for having me, Joseph. It’s always good to talk with you, and I’m happy to share what we have going on with Vaytus.
Joseph: Thank you.
Aniefre: Vaytus, it’s a made up word that stands for ‘elevate us’ kind of smashed together. The basic premise is that music makes life better.
For a while, I was one of those people who subscribed to the fact that good music was dead, and if I wanted to hear good music, I have to listen to old stuff. Then, I got turned on to the underground scene or the independent music scene. I found there was really great music that’s being made by amazing artists all over the country who decided, ‘I’m going to make art based upon what I like.’ The idea of Vaytus is there are millions upon millions of people across United States and even more across the globe who love great, independent music, and they want this type of content I’m calling theistically authentic.
I have a team of curators who are industry professionals. Some of them are DJs, some are artists, and they go and they curate great music across different genres, and we pool it together into our player. So instead of a listener having to go and search all over the internet trying to find great music, they can come to Vaytus, and it’s kind of like a curated watering hole for great music that you’d never hear in the mainstream.
Joseph: What are you guys working on there right now?
Aniefre: We’ve just finished the first version of the app, and it’s in alpha testing.
Aniefre: I appreciate it. I’m kind of working around the clock right now because I’m totally obsessed with this thing. I’m getting emails and texts at different times of the day and night with people who are experiencing and playing with the app and want to provide feedback. We’re trying to make sure we catch all of the bugs that may be there so we can release a pretty quality beta release here for the general public.
Joseph: You’ve not always been in the start-up world, right?
Joseph: I got to tell people – I got an email from you recently that was two sentences. I don’t know if you remember this, but it said, ‘I left the corporate world for good this time.’ Can you just share what was going on for you and your career before you launched Vaytus?
Aniefre: There was kind of a false start in this leaving of the corporate world. I went and got my MBA, and when I graduated, I took a job. I primarily took a job to make a good living while Vaytus incubated and was being developed by the long. Then, I left the corporate world and went to do Vaytus full-time. We needed to go back to step one. We needed to scrap what we had been doing and rebuild from the ground up.
I needed to then go back to making a living, so I took another job going back into the corporate world, and that definitely was like eating spinach for a child. I knew that the time had come and gone. I went into the corporate world originally to learn some things, and it has a lot of value working for major corporations, and I learned a lot there, but I had a pretty good sense – I was 80-90% sure that I shouldn’t be trying to build a career there, but there’s something to the stability of direct-deposited pay checks.
So I went in, I worked with integrity, and I felt like I brought value, but I just really dreaded going to work. It wasn’t just Mondays. It was Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. I went in to work one day, and I was like, ‘This can’t go on any longer.’ That’s when I decided to go ahead and put in my resignation and take the leap.
Joseph: When you say, ‘This couldn’t go on any longer,’ what are you talking about in terms of the things that were just eating away at you?
Aniefre: It’s about the work. There are three potential paths. We can go X, Y, and Z. You go and you do your due diligence, you do your analysis, you run your numbers, you talk with your cross-functional team, and you figure out, ‘Given our particular strategic goals and given our strengths and weaknesses, the category and dynamics, etc., we probably should do X or even X or Y,’ but ultimately, somebody in the bigger chair had a lot of passion for doing Z, so you find a way to try and deny gravity, deny that water is wet, deny that fire is hot so that you can do Z – I’m not that personality type. Why did I spend a month working with my team to try and figure out what we should do to get the optimal result if, at the end of the day, we’re just going to do Z? There are certain personality types who are fit for that. I’m just not one of them.
Joseph: When you had your original stint in the corporate world, how many years was that before you launched off and worked on Vaytus?
Aniefre: All in, I’ve done 10 years in the corporate world as a marketer. I worked for bear companies. I worked at major CPG companies. I’ve worked in the wine industry.
Joseph: You mentioned the steady pay check earlier. What was that like, that moment when you decided to leave that behind and pursue Vaytus?
Aniefre: It’s definitely difficult because you have the perpetual tension between long term versus short term. I think most people get caught up in the short-term practical compromises that one needs to make to live in the society versus what’s really going to be meaningful to their life and what type of mark they want to leave in the world. It definitely was really difficult to figure out how to make that jump and have the conviction, especially—I don’t want to turn this to a sad story, but—I’m not a rich kid, and so there’s not some rich uncle or a trust fund mother who’s sitting behind me and saying, ‘Okay, chase your dreams. I’ll be able to float all your bills.’
Joseph: ‘I’ll catch you if you fall,’ right?
Aniefre: Taking that leap required some soul searching, and to be honest, it’s really helpful to have really strong supportive people in my life, from my girlfriend to my family members to my close personal friends or I count as chosen family. That really was instrumental in my going in and deciding to take that leap – knowing that there would be people there to help in some way if I needed it.
Joseph: In your talk at the University of Michigan, you talked about five principles, and one of them that stood out to me was take the calculated leap. How did you manage the personal risk in your own life, in your own career, making this leap into the unknown?
Aniefre: You referenced the five principles, and I will just rattle them off really quickly from the talk that I gave. First, you need to know yourself. Second, you need to have conviction. Third, you need to be more curious than afraid. Fourth, you need to take the calculated leap. Fifth, you need to enjoy the journey.
If you go back to the first principle that I believe anyone can use to leverage managing risk in their career, it’s understanding who you are and what you are and what you’re not. I’ve always maintained that I’m somebody who is in this world, not of this world. I’ve never really bought into ‘I need to go get a job and a title from some Fortune 500 company, and I need to be the VP of whatever to find value in my life.’ I’m opposite of that. I’m into authentic human connection. I tend to be the type of person who is more concerned with what’s going on with the least fortunate in society as opposed to the most fortunate in society and trying to be a part of that elite crowd.
Understanding that those are the things that ultimately matter to me in life, making the choice to go ahead and take that leap and to leave it behind wasn’t that tough because I felt like I was sacrificing who I was and my integrity every day, going in and trying to find ways to agree with something I fundamentally didn’t believe in. I’ve had to sacrifice my personal integrity to do it. That was just a price that was entirely too high.
When I looked at the mark I wanted to leave in the world and the life that I wanted to lead in general, going back to knowing myself and what really mattered to me, I knew that I needed to just go ahead and take that leap because I wasn’t going to be happy. I wasn’t going to find happiness chasing the next promotion.
Joseph: You and I both spent quite a bit of time in the corporate world. If you’re like me, you run across other people in the corporate world who are thinking about launching something or they’re not happy with their jobs, but then they stick with it for months or years. Having gone through this yourself, what do you think keeps people from making this sort of leaps, even if it means being able to pursue something that will be a lot more meaningful to them?
Aniefre: I would say the concise answer as to why people stay is they become beholden to the material benefits. People like to have disposable income, especially at the levels in which you and I worked in Corporate America. It’s a pretty good salary, and so the lifestyle you’re able to lead from a material standpoint is a pretty comfortable lifestyle. I think that’s why people stay.
Then, I think the other piece is fear of the unknown. I like to invest in myself, and I have a large amount of confidence in myself and my abilities, and so going back to those five principles, it’s understanding who I was, then I put conviction around it by saying, ‘This is who I am, but I need to align my actions and behavior around it.’ Then, I really came to understand what it took to create, grow, and sustain a company, not just to have a job function but to holistically build a company, pull a team together, pool resources together, and then lay out a growth plan and be able to manage and lead that.
It became less of a black box. It became less mysterious, which then took away a lot of that fear that I think most people are talking about, like, ‘I hate this, but what else will I do?’ People don’t know what to do. It’s kind of abstract. ‘I would like to start a company,’ or ‘I would like to do this, but I don’t know exactly how to do it,’ and so they end up trapped.
Joseph: You mentioned money. Has there been anything surprising to you about the experience of letting go of your cushy corporate income?
Aniefre: To be blunt, I think where I’m at advantage is having grown up with very low income. I always say that my floor is a lot lower than most people, and so what I can be comfortable with is a lot lower than most people. So it wasn’t necessarily a surprise. I mean it is nice. It is nice to have that direct deposit every two weeks, but ultimately, it got to the point to where the price was too high.
I think early on in my career when I was within Corporate America and I was learning, that compensated for what I’d call the cubicle life. When it got to a point to where there was diminishing returns in terms of my learning curve and what then remained was an increase in scope of responsibility, I wasn’t really interested in what came with the increased scope of responsibility. So then, it was time to go.
Joseph: Did you run across any skeptics along the way in terms of, ‘What are you doing?’ or, ‘Why are you leaving this cushy job behind?’ Did you run to any sorts of people like that?
Aniefre: I did. I think one of another area in which I’m really blessed though is the people who are closest to me have a really keen understanding of who I am and what I value. They were able to see the toll it started to take on my once the learning curve started to diminish and I slowly have to deal more with the politics and jockeying for increased scope of leadership. They were all very supportive in terms of people in my inner circle. The folks who were skeptical, I got a good gift of being able to block out people’s opinions who don’t really matter.
Joseph: How do you do that? What’s your secret to doing that? Because I run into so many people who want to make a change, but they say, ‘I don’t know. In my social circle, people are saying this is crazy,’ or, ‘My parents think it’s crazy for me to let go of such a great job.’ How do you manage that?
Aniefre: I think that can be really difficult. One of the things I was taught growing up is that there’s the classic, ‘If other people were jumping off a cliff, are you going to jump off a cliff too?’ like your parents tell you when you’re a kid growing up. One of the things I internalized is, as an adult, when you figure out right from wrong, you need to have the conviction to stand up for it.
There’s these plethora of things from my background, from being an athlete, from also being a former martial artist, from growing up in a pretty tough community and having to navigate my childhood and adolescent years. A lot of those things reinforced courage in different ways. Ultimately, when I got to a point as a young adult and moving from my early 20s and from my mid-20s, it became really clear that you’re not going to make everyone happy. No matter what you do, you will never make 100% of the people happy. There’s always going to be someone who’s going to disagree with every decision you make, so then it’s about understanding what really matters to you and then making that decision and being comfortable with it.
There have been people who didn’t agree with a particular person. Like when I left at a post-MBA level job prior to business school, but I still left and went to business school, there were some people who didn’t agree with that. They’re like, ‘What are you doing? You have the job that people get after business school. You have it now.’
Joseph: Everybody wants that.
Aniefre: But they didn’t see my long-term vision and where I was going, and I knew it was the right thing to do – to go back to school. There were certain skills that I just was not going to learn as a brand marketer: developing an idea, building a company, and growing it throughout all these different phases. I took that leap, and I think now that they see the Vaytus app is a tangible thing and exists, they’re like, ‘I get it. I get where you’re going. I get what you’re trying to do.’ I think ultimately it comes down to having that ability to believe in yourself when no one else does.
Joseph: One of the things that you alluded to just now was conviction. I know you mentioned it as one of the five principles you spoke about before when it comes to managing risk in your career. What do you mean by ‘conviction’ and how has that served you along this journey?
Aniefre: If you don’t believe in what you’re saying, no one else will. If I want to say that I really want to get in better shape, but I go buy a dozen of donuts a couple of times a week and I never go to the gym, that’s not really conviction. You need to start aligning your actions to what your priorities are.
I think it’s doing an audit of what it is that you really want in life and what really matters to you and then doing an audit of how you are spending your time. Of the things you are currently doing in your life or in your career, which one of those things are moving you towards your goals? When you recognize that there’s a gap, that there are things that you’re doing that will never lead to the life that you want, then it becomes incumbent upon you to alter how you’re spending your time. That’s what I mean by conviction.
Joseph: I see. What’s been the toughest thing about launching your own business?
Aniefre: I would definitely say it’s the conviction piece and keeping the faith, because inevitably, you’re going to hit hurdles. You need to have this deep reservoir of belief in yourself, and you need to understand what it’s going to take to be successful and where you’re at in the journey. When you run into obstacles on Day 3 out of a 30-day journey, don’t get upset about getting to Day 30 and saying how far you are away. You’re in Day 3, what can you solve today to get to Day 4? It’s having this deep belief that, when everyone thinks you’re crazy, when everyone thinks your foolish, when things seem bleak, break it down into bite-size chunks and say, ‘What is it that I can do today to get over these hurdles?’
The hardest part for me has been getting to what I call Day 1, which I think we’re at Day 1 now that the app is built, taking something from this idea and getting it to where it actually exists. How do you get people to believe in something that doesn’t exist? It’s just an idea.
When obstacles arise and you’re still in just an idea phase and you’re trying to bring this thing to life, it’s very easy for people to walk away. It’s finding very passionate, very smart, and very talented people to come along on this ride, getting key stakeholders, like my girlfriend, like my brothers and different people in my family to say, ‘We believe in you. We support you,’ getting early angel investors to say, ‘We’re going to put a little money behind this.’ It’s, when things start to go array, to not get flustered, to not be overly dramatic, and to actually become calmer when things get chaotic.
That was really difficult because there were some bumps definitely along the road. During that phase, in going from idea to Day 1 and having an actual physical product, it’s difficult to persevere when obstacles arise.
Joseph: You mentioned enjoying the ride or coming along for this ride. What makes that so important for you?
Aniefre: My fundamental belief in life is that relationships are what matter. Titles are ultimately not going to make you happy in life. Your pay check also is not going to make you happy in life. It’s how you spend your time and who you spend it with, so ultimately, me chasing after things that aligned with who I was and my convictions is where I find my rewards.
As I’ve been navigating through and when I think of all the obstacles that the Vaytus team has overcome, they’re all happy memories for me. I’ve enjoyed the journey even when things got rough and bumpy and looked like we had no idea how we’re going to get over next hurdle or the month or two where there were blockages, and we can’t figure out how to get to the next phase, and then we’d figure it out. That whole journey, in and of itself, I enjoy.
I do watch the show ‘The Walking Dead.’ It’s like, every time they solve a problem, there’s some other catastrophe that’s right around the way, and that’s what starting a startup is like – there’s always a problem to deal with, and I enjoy it. If I didn’t, then I probably should be back in the corporate world collecting my nice, safe pay check, but I enjoy this process and the people that I’m working with. It’s very important to work with people you respect and that respect you.
Joseph: It sounds like you’re enjoying the ride there, Aniefre. I just wanted to thank you for sharing your journey with us because it’s just really cool to hear, first of all, your experiences in the corporate world but then also how you made that pivot into launching your own business. That’s super exciting, and I hope it all goes well for you.
The final principle you talked about was curiosity. Just to kind of wrap things up, if people are curious about learning about you or about Vaytus, where should they go to find out more?
Aniefre: They can go to Vaytus.com. They can follow us on Facebook.com/vaytusradio, or they can follow me on Twitter, which is @Aniefre. There’s going to be a lot of content being pushed out over the next few weeks and into the next few months as we launch Vaytus. You definitely will be able to download the app.
Joseph: Super exciting, Aniefre. I’m looking forward to checking out the app and listening to the music, and I hope it all goes well for you. I’m sure it will.
Aniefre: I appreciate it. Cheers.