Last week I sat down with YouTube star Antonio Centeno, founder of Real Men, Real Style. His YouTube Channel, with roughly 1.8 million subscribers, deals very straightforward, easy to follow fashion advice.
But of course, when you dig into the backstory of most successful people, you find a few things: Lots of hard work, and lots of failures along the way. Centeno is no different. While on the surface, Centeno seems like a huge success, his path to that success includes failed business ventures, job firings and plenty of uncertainty.
I interviewed Centeno for my regular job at the City Pages, but while that story will focus on him being an international YouTube star buried in a small Wisconsin town, where most people have no idea who he is (many think he must be some kind of tailor, Antonio tells me), I wanted to share here some of my favorite takeaways from the encounter:
- Failure is crucial: Antonio might seem like a success now, but he’s had plenty of failures along the way. The whole reason he moved to the small Wisconsin town is to take a job, and he was fired from that job in very short order, he says. Instead of moping around and wallowing in self-pity, he decided the small town with low expenses was the perfect place to launch an online business. He started an online clothing store, with custom tailoring. That went well, until some big name businesses picked up on it and entered the market. His company had grown, but not enough to compete with these well-established competitors. He was out.
- Adaptability: Centeno didn’t let despair stop him from trying his next venture. He started the website and YouTube channel, starting with a 200 videos in 200 days challenge. By the time he finished, Centeno found himself with over one million views. The channel snowballed from there. When one venture didn’t work out, Centeno moved on and tried the next one, until he found what worked.
- Don’t be afraid to charge: Creative types struggle with charging for their work, Centeno says. This has been one of my own struggles too. Early on, a shoe company sent Centeno a pair of shoes to review. Centeno did so, the company loved the results, and asked for another. He put it off, Centeno says; after all, he can’t pay his bills with a shoe. One of his mentors told him to send the company an invoice. Centeno sent a bill for $3,000 and it was paid within an hour.
- Diversify your income: I asked Antonio if YouTube’s changes to its advertising payouts affected him, and he said not really, mostly because his content is very PG, and very advertiser friendly. But more importantly, he says, is that he isn’t dependent solely on that ad revenue. It’s only part of how his company earns money, and a drop off in ad revenue would be offset by his other revenue streams (now clothing companies pay him to be the exclusive company for that category, such as shoes, ties, pants, etc). If a new source of revenue sounds like it will work and not take up too much of his time, he will try it, Centeno says.
- Ideas are worthless: There’s a sign in Centeno’s studio: “Ideas are worthless without execution.” He points it out specifically. All the ideas in your head have no value until you put them into action. In a sense, an idea might seem great, but until you actually try it you have no idea how well it will actually work. There’s a common phrase amongst would-be writers: “I think I have a novel in my head somewhere.” Everyone surely does. But until you put the work in, there is no novel. It doesn’t matter what’s in your head.
- Hard work matters: I asked Cenento if he ever has to pinch himself about how well this is all going. Not really, he says, because most people don’t know the hard work he put into this. He says gratitude is important, of course, but he put in 80-100 hours per week getting Real Men, Real Style off the ground. He sacrificed time with his family and leisure to build his business into the success it is today.
- Work-life balance: So it probably seems contradictory to the last point. But once Centeno built his business into what it is, he learned how to delegate along the way, and started partnering with people to improve efficiency. Now Centeno will take month-long travels with his family, vacations with a little bit of work thrown in. His work week is down to a more reasonable 40-50 hours, and some weeks less.
- Partner with the right people: Antonio was able to change his worklife balance by finding the right people. He’s careful who he works with, and likes to start by working on a project together. That serves as tryout of sorts for both parties. Antonio works with two videographers and assistants and other employees all around the world. A good employee helps solve a problem he has.
- Remember that you’re always solving a problem: Whether you’re an employee working for someone else, trying to sell a product or even just entertaining, at the very basic level you’re trying to solve a problem someone has. The key to success is to be able to first describe the problem to your customer better than they can themselves. Antonio says this applies even to his beloved Game of Thrones: it solves a problem of fulfilling his needs to reconnect with his childhood fascination with medieval lore and dragons and knights. Thinking about this is a crucial business lesson for wouldbe entrepreneurs.
- The real life MBA: I asked Antonio to elaborate when he marginalized earning his MBA. It doesn’t really teach you about business, he told me. Sure, it’s a nice basis of knowledge, but he didn’t really learn about business until he tried and failed, and tried again. Which goes back to our earlier point about not being afraid to fail.
I’m not sure this even covers everything I learned from Centeno. I’m sure he didn’t mean to give me a de facto business lesson, but it’s hard not to pick up on his energy and knowledge. I recently mentioned to a mutual friend that I’d finally interviewed him, and my friend replied “didn’t you find him inspiring? I sure did.”
I think the length of this blog post answered that question better than I could.