In anticipation of the launch of my new book, Forever Employable, I’ll be sharing a series of interviews and stories from people from all different professions who have created a platform for themselves to make them forever employable. In this episode, I speak with Alden Mills, ex-Navy Seal, entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker.
Nobody defines you but you: how continuous reinvention and a relentless focus on servant leadership took Alden Mills from the Navy to the speaking stage with a few stops in between
When he was a boy, Alden Mills wanted to play basketball. Consistently supported by his parents Alden pursued basketball despite being called out explicitly for having “log legs” not conducive to a long-term successful basketball career and being diagnosed with asthma. Never one to give up easily Alden took up rowing in boarding school to propel him into an athletic career that landed him in the Naval Academy. As a member of the elite Navy Seals Alden took on leadership roles that he eventually translated into entrepreneurial success. Most recently he has turned all of that experience into motivational content he shares in his books and his motivational speaking.
During our chat, we initially discussed entrepreneurship. As Alden said, “there’s no gene for entrepreneurship.” If you’re building something of value that someone else will value, you’re being an entrepreneur. Understanding this key characteristic has enabled him to build a forever employable career. It’s a realization that you can provide value in any context — whether you’re building a company, leading a Navy seal team or sharing your experience and learnings with others.
A lot of people try to define you for you. In Alden’s experience this started with his pediatricians painting limitations on him due to his health conditions. Not letting anyone define him other than himself he moved out of the military and started a fitness company. In his own words, he “made many mistakes.” If you’ve read the other Forever Employable stories you’ve noticed a consistent theme with the folks who’ve successfully planted their flags and built themselves into recognized experts — perseverance. Alden is no exception.
Thinking through his various successes and failures in building companies, products and now a content-based business, he identifies three aspects of growth that can be applied to anything you’re trying to build, including a platform to help jobs find you:
- Improvement — how can you incrementally make something better? For this there is a reference point, a baseline, that you can use to promote the improvements you’re suggesting.
- Innovation — how can you take something that exists and recreate it in a new environment or delivery channel?
- Invention — can you make something completely new and unique?
As he shares the stories of his companies and transition into public speaking and writing, you can see where Alden improved on existing ideas, innovated on others and invented some brand new ones as well. Each of these efforts allowed him to build his platform and drive opportunities his way.
At the core of his success and as a focusing tool Alden always took a servant leadership approach. “How can I serve somebody else?” In doing so he was giving it all away as I discuss in the book. Whether it was entrepreneurs in Spain, his 4 boys or charitable organizations, every time he helped somebody else it ended up coming back to him in ways he never expected.
Check out Alden’s story in the video to learn how he became forever employable.
JEFF: It’s a pleasure to speak with you. I live in Barcelona now and you lived in Barcelona for a while. I believe we overlapped very briefly, like a month or two. We go here in July 2017 and you folks left…
ALDEN: We left July 2017.
JEFF: It’s a pleasure to connect here. Sadly, we never got to connect in person. I heard a ton about you and I’ve read a ton about you as well. Can you give me a brief bit about yourself and your career and what got you up to this point?
ALDEN: Cliff notes version. Went to the U.S. Naval Academy. I only bring that up because it explains why I ended up having to serve right after that. Served as a Navy Seal Platoon Commander for 12 years; 7 ½ active and another 5 years in reserve. I went to business school in between that service time and then came out and started my entrepreneurial endeavors out in San Francisco. I’m from Massachusetts originally. I eventually founded a series of entrepreneurial companies. One that I’m most known for is called Perfect Fitness which we’ve made the Perfect Pushup and lots of other fitness products, but also started businesses in security and pet food. We have a pet company. My real passion from Perfect was moving into what I call content entrepreneurship. That’s in speaking, writing, and coaching platforms. We are currently importing cat sushi from Japan, tuna bonito flakes.
JEFF: Three of the qualities I talk about in my book: self-confidence, entrepreneurialism, and reinvention are at least three things I see in your career so far. I want to look at each one of those separately. The first one I want to talk about is self-confidence. Can you share a story that really helped you develop your self-confidence? Clearly, as a content entrepreneur, there’s a lot of that coming forward and saying, “Look. I am an expert in this. I have these strong opinions.” What’s helped you shape your self-confidence over the years?
ALDEN: This is going to sound really disconnected but it all started because of my big thighs. I was the perennial thunder thighs, log legs, tree trunks, and I was terrible at basketball and I knew I was terrible at it. It was worse back then when I was at the YMCA wearing these YBA super short shorts. I couldn’t jump. Then I wasn’t fast and I was terrible with hand-eye coordination. The only basket I ever scored was for the opposing team. I was just so excited I had the ball. I ran off the court that day.
The reason I bring that up is I knew, for a fact, that I had big thighs. Everyone made fun of them all the time. Then I end up going to boarding school and the first day of boarding school, all these coaches line up all the new freshman. This one coach came up to me and he pointed at my thighs. He goes, “Those thighs; those are rower’s thighs. You need to try out for rowing.” I had no idea that my thighs were good for anything except not being able to jump and going slow on any kind of sport court. Sure enough, I got pretty good at sitting on my butt going backwards for long periods of time. That really built my confidence. I started realizing that I could use something that was a negative and turn it into a positive. It helped me row my way to the Naval Academy and then became the captain of the crew at Navy. Got recruited to Seal Team. Rowed my way to Seal Team. When I was in Seal Team, Seal Team led me to, if I can lead a Seal platoon, surely I could lead a company or at least try. It was a series of cascading of events and I credit my big thighs.
There’s one other person I would credit. I’ll just throw this in there because I think it’s even more important. I was diagnosed with asthma at the age of 12. The short version is the doctor says, “He needs to lead a less active lifestyle and learn the game of chess.” My mom saw immediately how dejected I was and she brought me outside and she’d say to me again and again, and so would my dad, “Hey, we’ll get you the medication but nobody defines what you can or can’t do but you.” Of course, I didn’t get it that day. When I finally decided to start out for a sport I was really interested in, they were full court press, “Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.”
JEFF: Turning that negative into a positive ultimately is what we’re talking about here especially as we’re looking at the world today. The second quality is entrepreneurialism. Entrepreneurialism is not a quality everybody has but I believe everyone can develop it or has likely done something entrepreneurial in their life. I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. I saw myself as an execution guy, not an ideas guy, but in looking back at my life, I played in a lot of bands growing up from when I was 16 until 26-27. All those bands I was in were entrepreneurial ventures. You can lean on that experience.
Before you started your company, what made you believe you could be an entrepreneur?
ALDEN: I have a lot of feelings about entrepreneurship and pretty much the same I have with leadership. That is I don’t believe there’s a gene, some genetic DNA code that says, “Jeff, Alden, you guys got it. Congratulations, you’re an entrepreneur or you’re a leader. You go over to this side and go through that door in life.” I’ve watched, as a father of four boys, everyone of my boys builds something. They’ll tinker with Legos or they’ll build a fort. They’ll build something. At the end of the day, entrepreneurship is about building something of value that someone else will value. Everything that I have built was something I personally valued. In the earliest days, my parents didn’t give me much of an allowance and I really valued that Sony jukebox that I wanted to have. Dad was like, “Well, go catch some blue crabs.” We lived out on the Cape in the summer and blue crabs come up there. I’d catch crabs and sell them. I was able to buy my jukebox because I could sell these crabs. It was more a sign of getting some independence to go and do what I really wanted to do.
Even in Seal Team and in the military, they value entrepreneurship; some units more than others. Special Operations and I know Seal Team, but I’m familiar with Delta and Green Beret and all the others. There’s a lot of entrepreneurship in all of that or maybe we call it intrapreneurship. The idea of creating something out of nothing so you can get something of value done whether it’s for you or for someone else, I believe is inside all of us. It’s just a matter of our risk tolerance of what we’re willing to take a bet on. Some of us didn’t have the self-confidence that swim buddy that I called out, that my mom and dad were, to keep whispering in our ears to say, “Come on. Go try it.” A lot of us had the negative one, “Why do you think you can do that? I couldn’t do it. Therefore, you can’t do it.” It keeps beating you down.
I think it’s very astute of you to bring the self-confidence and the entrepreneurship together because they go hand-in-hand. They’re like a port and starboard oar that you’re trying to row a boat by yourself. If you only have one, you end up going in a circle. They feed off each other. The more you feel you can do something, the more you’ll try and take the risk to get it done.
JEFF: Let’s talk about risk. How have you mitigated risk? There’s a lot at stake there. There’s your time, your effort, your personal brand, to a certain extent. Can you share a way that you’ve mitigated the risk particularly in entrepreneurial ventures that helped you to gain self-confidence that this was a good direction to go in?
ALDEN: I haven’t mitigated risk very well. I have made way more mistakes than I have successes. I’ve failed many more times. It’s just people get to know about my successes because as long as you keep getting up. There have been a lot of times where I was really close to just saying, “I’m just going to chalk this whole thing up to one massive failure and pivot completely out.” Then it became the darkest before dawn kind of scenario and then all of a sudden, the next time it worked.
My best story about mitigating risk would be dealing with what I’d call superhero teammates. They are absolutely exceptional at what they do. One of them that comes to mind was my head of design, Ian McCall, who had worked with IDEO and led their San Francisco office. He was this world-class designer. He and I would talk about risk and the risk of not taking the risk of designing something that you have no idea how it’s going to actually come out.
For people who are true artisans of their craft, you have to allow a certain amount of risk of something that you’re pretty much sure it’s going to fail, but they have to experience it and go out and do it. When we look at risk for the ideas of products, I talk about these three ideas of a product. They are an improvement, an innovation, and an inventions. Inventions have no reference point. That is the most risk and requires the most amount of education. Innovations, they have a reference point; like for every Pushup, it’s a handle, but now it rotates. An improvement, we’re going to reskin it and do something a little bit better. I just gave you 15 years of learning right there. I didn’t have that when we first started our company and we now have over 40 patents of things. A portion of our day was always spent on the bread and butter of an improvement of a product that we already know is working. Very low risk. We stay on a schedule and get that product out.
Another portion is then the once a year launch of the innovation. Those are important products and they’re sub-category gamechangers. The Perfect Pushup, Perfect Pullup. Then there’s the invention. That’s the one that enables everybody to keep dreaming, keep pushing, keep failing, and learning from those experiences. We had a couple of dramatic failures that we threw gobs of money at but we learned all kinds of amazing things. I was okay with that. Now the invention, that’s 10% of our time. That’s how we would split out the risk of things. There’s also and there always is a great risk to never trying. I’d rather have tried, failed many times, going, “Okay, I’m comfortable that this is just not the fit or this isn’t the way to go” and then move on. There is the risk of regret.
JEFF: Do you think this model of improvement, innovation, and invention in the product world, is it applicable in the career world? As you’ve transitioned to become a content entrepreneur, are those concepts applicable here as well?
ALDEN: I totally think so. I was bumping along in the improvement category of running my business. Now in the beginning, the business was a total invention. I had started with an invention. That’s how I got to know this and I raised $1.5 million and learned $1,475,000 worth of ways not to get this thing to market. Then the company became an innovation engine for me. Then over time, people who bought the company – we were private equity owned – they were much more comfortable with the improvements because you can model those out. “Oh, we keep doing this, we’ll get this many more.” You know what? This guy, not interested in that. What I was interested in and what my designers were interested in is, “Hey, let’s keep going and breaking the envelope and figuring out new things.” Eventually, I ended up creating my own risk, moving to Spain, taking a sabbatical, and saying, “It’s time for me to go and reinvent myself.” I had ideas of what it is and it’s still in the educational phase, but the one thing I know is the path that I’m on now, it doesn’t really matter how well it works. It’s that I’m always going to be a part of this regardless of this. I’m more patient now. This is something that is a much longer-term kind of vision quest direction. I think reinvention is critical to keeping things fresh.
JEFF: You’ve reinvented yourself at least four times. As you’re transitioning into this world of content entrepreneurship, the first step that I outline to becoming forever employable, in my experience, has been what I call to plant your flag. It’s where you decide, “This is the domain of expertise that I’m going to own. This is where I am going to plant my flag and be the recognized expert.” How did you decide to plant your flag as a team-building expert?
ALDEN: When I get stuck in anything that I have thought about in my life; in every reinvention I’ve had… Let’s talk about it from the Naval Academy. I got stuck in the Naval Academy and almost didn’t graduate. I got stuck in Seal Team. I got rolled back from one class to the next which sucked. I had investors tell me I’m basically embarrassing myself and I should go get a job because I’m out of money and my ideas suck. It’s over. Then I had my company and I had banks say, “We’re going to freeze your loan and repossess your house because you cosigned on it and we want it all in 30 days.” That was $8.5 million that we had outstanding out of $15 million. That was lovely. Then I did it again when I moved to Spain and people were like, “What? You’re crazy. You don’t have any experience.” In every one of those, every time I got stuck, I thought about who I could serve. Who could I give to? Who could I give, without expectation of return? In the early days, that was being a Special Olympics coach at the Naval Academy. That was working in Easter Seals in Seal Team. That was working with the Guardsman which is a nonprofit to help inner city kids go to camp in San Francisco and became the president of that, which was at the worst time. Every time I got focused on something else, serving somebody else, it came back to me 10-fold. When I was in Spain, I linked up with the local Venture Labs and inspired all these entrepreneurs to keep going and went to Menorca and gave all these different speeches and classes on things. Lo and behold, things just started coming back to me.
JEFF: How did you decide that planting your flag as a team-building expert?
ALDEN: When I got stuck, the first thing I’d look back to who do I really want to give to? If you look inside both of my books Be Unstoppable and Unstoppable Teams, it’s to my four boys. What can I give to them? If this fails, if this just totally craps out on me, I’m going to give them the gift of what I’ve experienced and how I’ve ever been able to succeed in anything. Two things: persistence and teams. Book one, Be Unstoppable, it’s all about persistence and how do you really persist? You’ve got to team up and that’s book two, Unstoppable Teams.
You call me a team-building expert, but if you look at the first chapter, it’s nothing about team-building externally. It’s about building your team internally. When you ask about team-building, I’d say I’m actually more specific than that. I’m really focused about helping you build your first team. That’s the team inside of you. That’s the team of your mindset and how to leave your mindset. Once you learn how to do that, everything else is a reflection of that.
JEFF: What are the activities you’ve put into place to make this the next successful venture for you? Publishing books is one of them. What else are you doing?
ALDEN: I ended up publishing Be Unstoppable in 2013 and that became the calling card for people, “We love what you’re talking about. You’ve got to come talk to us.” I love the public speaking realm and I love the coaching realm. What really gets me most inspired is being that swim buddy that’s never had the swim buddy; that’s never had what I had as a child in my two parents and a couple of wonderful coaches and a couple other mentors along the way. I’ve been blessed in that environment. I think it’s the worst thing that someone can do is here they are on death’s doorstep, at the end of their life going, “Oh my God, I finally see clearly now. I had all the gifts I needed. I just didn’t have the courage to get after it. I didn’t have somebody that believed in me enough so I can start believing in myself.” That inspires me and it inspired me first looking at my four boys and then every time somebody writes back, “Hey, your book really helped. I’m now off doing my thing.” Whatever that thing is. It doesn’t have to be creating an Inc. 500 company or leading a Fortune 500 company. It could be getting over your fear of giving a speech or jumping out of an airplane or losing 20 pounds. Each one of those then becomes like the thunder thighs. It becomes that little snowball of positive snowballing effect cascading to the next and to the next.
JEFF: All these activities you’ve been doing since you published your first books and transitioned into this content entrepreneurship reality, how are those activities helping you work, stay connected, improve? What are you seeing now in this new reality with the lockdown?
ALDEN: Any time I’m stuck, the first thing I ask is how can I serve somebody else? We were in the first four days of quarantine out here. We’re now in day 66. I was like, “Quarantine. Why does this seem so familiar to me?” I’m like, “Oh, I know. I starred in this movie in a submarine. I’ve been in a submarine for 50 days at a time and that’s like quarantine except we’re underwater and things can crush us down there.” Literally, at the time I was thinking about that, I got a shout out from the current president of the Guardsman and he said, “All our fundraising has gone to hell in handbasket. We’re looking for ideas and we’re trying to keep the funding going for our kids going to school.” I call him up and I said, “Let’s do a webinar and I’ll put together a speech called How to Thrive in a Quarantine. It’s going to be about the six essential actions. I built out a little acronym called REMOTE. Let’s ask for a suggested donation of $25.” Almost $20,000 later and the speech went all around the country and now I’m being asked all over the place, “Will you please come talk to us about the mindset of living remotely?” I went into that only with the thought of helping and remember this. I didn’t create this law. This is a law of physics. For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Take out the word action and put in uncertainty. For every amount of uncertainty, there is an equal amount of opportunity. When uncertainty happens, it’s like this massive fog bank that comes in and blinds us. If you were to ask a blind person if they’re blind, they’d say, “No, I just can’t use my eyes. I have to learn new ways to see.” That’s the same thing that happens in uncertainty. What we use to see every day, we’ve got to change how we’re seeing. It’s right in front of us. Now more than ever, people need to be getting control of building their internal team and help build their remote team. That’s how I look at it.
JEFF: Thank you so much. This is fantastic. I know it’s going to go over great with the folks watching.