Being an entrepreneur is hard. Being a successful one is a long shot. The stress makes you feel like you’re fighting everything at once; regulations, red tape, employees, vendors, customers, even family and friends sometimes. But what about yourself? All too often, entrepreneurs become their own worst enemies, designing systems that keep them stuck without even realizing it. When that happens, it’s really easy to blame the lack of progress on other people. They are not helping you, they’re the problem.
Mike Malatesta’s new book, Owner Shift aims to show you how to take back your power, evaluate your business objectively and claim the future you want. He shares his losses, failures, sacrifices, and hurts, and the life lessons learned from them, including how to be a better leader, how to attract new levels of success, and accomplishing more than you ever thought possible.
Hey, listeners. My name is Drew Appelbaum. I’m excited to be here today with Mike Malatesta, author of Owner Shift: How Getting Selfish Got Me Unstuck. Mike, thank you for joining. Welcome to the Author Hour podcast.
Mike Malatesta: Well, Drew, it’s my pleasure to be here. I’m really, really excited to talk about the book and whatever else you want to talk about today.
Drew Appelbaum: I want to talk about it all, but kick us off with just a brief rundown of your professional background.
Mike Malatesta: Sure. Well, I became an entrepreneur when I was 26, so in 1992. It was a little while ago. I became an entrepreneur sort of unexpectedly. I got fired from the job that I thought I would one day become the CEO of the company and it ended. I was like, what am I going to do now? When it happened, I was in a really, really bad spot, like I just couldn’t figure out what to do. But anyway, it kind of was like, when I was four years old, I was sitting on the curb in front of my parents’ house and we lived across the street from a construction company. I just fell in love in the summer times watching the trucks come back from their day out. Just the smoke, and the dust, and the noise and the drivers and it was all just so cool to me. It put a lot of the trucks in my mind way back then, but then I kind of lost all that as I was going to school and the whole thing.
When I got into the career, I thought, okay, this is going to be my life. It was in the waste business, in the trash business and I got fired. Like I said, I was lost and a friend of mine who I’d worked with very briefly and hardly knew said to me, “Hey, Mike. If you want to start a business, I’d love to do it with you and be your partner.” I was just so blown away from that. But when he said it, it brought me back to the time when I was on the curb dreaming about owning trucks and running trucks. That’s what got me started. There was just that push from Butch, who became my partner.
We started, as I said, in 1992. Over the next 22 years, we had a lot of good stuff happen to us. A lot of bad stuff happen to us, but we were on the entrepreneurial journey, and it was quite a ride.
Drew Appelbaum: Yeah. You’ve been on this ride for a while. Why was now the time to share the stories in the book? Was there something inspiring out there for you? Did enough people tell you that you needed to tell your story and it was sort of a mass education fashion? Was there an “aha” moment?
Mike Malatesta: So, an “aha” moment maybe. When I sold the business in 2015, one of my goals that I had developed while I was in this program, called the Strategic Coach was to write five books in my lifetime. I’d started and stopped, and started and stopped, and started and stopped, and I just wasn’t going anywhere with it. Time was ticking by and I had the time now, Drew. I finally made a goal in 2019 for 2020 to write and finish the book. It was a very, very long process of me getting started. But I think the timing was perfect because, not only had I had my own entrepreneurial career, but I have been around many, many, many entrepreneurs in all kinds of organizations over the years.
There was this story that I kept seeing and it reminded me of mine, where you’ve got this journey that’s sort of chunked up into different stages. One of the stages is the break stage, where you just feel like quitting. I thought, “Well, I need to— I owe it to myself, and to the world, to talk about how getting to that break stage is very common but how getting out and getting past it is less so”, and I want all entrepreneurs to go as big as they can go. I thought the combination of the timing and this message that I thought was important made it the right time to write the book.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, you talk to a lot of entrepreneurs— you are an entrepreneur yourself— but when you are writing this book, did you have any major breakthroughs or learnings? Maybe just by digging a little bit deeper, not only to the subject of entrepreneurial— being an entrepreneur— but just by digging into yourself and reevaluating your own story?
Mike Malatesta: Yes, many times. One of the things that was great about working with Scribe to write the book was that that was a question that got asked of me a lot, “Is this what you really want to tell? Is there something deeper that you want to share?” It was really a great push for me to really look hard at my experiences and try to write them not only in a way that challenged me but would challenge the reader too. Because what I found, and Scribe helped me with this too, but what I found is that we tend to like sugarcoat our past sometimes and we tend to just kind of gloss over stuff that’s kind of important. We think, “Well, people will get it because I have it in my mind, it will come through on the page”, and that’s not always the case. It was, yes.
The introspection that I got out of writing this book— and not just the introspection, but the challenge, and just to go places I didn’t want to go and I didn’t want to tell was really hard, but liberating. I’m glad I did it, even though I’m not glad everything that I wrote about is part of my life, I’m sure.
Drew Appelbaum: Yeah. Now, when you said you were going to write the book again, you had five books you wanted to write. You nail this one, you got it out. But in your mind, as you were writing it, who are you writing it for? Was it for a current entrepreneur who’s struggling? Is it someone who’s always dreamed about starting their own business or is it somebody further along the road?
Mike Malatesta: Yeah. I think it’s for two groups of people. One is the entrepreneur who’s had some success, Drew, and outwardly, everything looks fine. But inwardly, they’re really stuck and they don’t know what to do to go further. There’s a lot of retreating, mindset retreating I think, that goes on in that group of people where you kind of get to a point and you’re like, “Wow! Is this really what I signed up for? And if it is, I don’t like it very much. How do I fix that? How do I create a future that’s my property, that’s better than what this is?” That’s one group.
Then the other group is the people who are out there who want to be entrepreneurs but don’t really understand what the life’s going to be like. And so, I feel like by giving them examples of the stages that I described— which is dream, grind, break, and breakthrough— I can lay out for them what to expect from the experience. Hopefully not to scare them from the experience, but just say, “Hey! You can go into this with the dream, but the dream is probably not going to be what you realize and experience every day along the way, and it’ll be okay. That’s okay to do it, because you learn from that from not being the case.”
Drew Appelbaum: I’m glad you brought that up because it’s how you start the book in the intro, you talk to us about the real entrepreneur story out there and that most people don’t become that unicorn. There are not a million Elon Musk’s out there. There’s one. Especially in the early days, it’s really tough going. Can you just talk to us about what the average or the real entrepreneur story really is out there?
Mike Malatesta: Yeah. The real entrepreneur story is 10, 15, 20 years of really hard work before you even get noticed. Before anyone even cares about you as an entrepreneur. Now, your clients can care about you, and your team can care about you and all that, but the world caring about you? Not really. I’m glad you brought up the intro, because I just wanted people to understand that being an entrepreneur is not pizza and Red Bull one day and billion-dollar valuation the next. I mean, that happens, and it gets written about and everyone looks at it and goes, “Wow! I want to be that.” I think it’s great to want to be that, but I’d be prepared not to be that.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, what did you see as just the major pitfalls? If you had to say, I’ve seen this so many times in the early days for entrepreneurs, this is why people don’t survive, or this is what’s holding folks back from that major success that they see in their dreams?
Mike Malatesta: Well, there’s always bad ideas, and there’s always bad execution and there’s always lazy entrepreneurs. Nobody wants to talk about lazy entrepreneurs, but they’re out there. There are lazy entrepreneurs out there. For me, I’m going to say, I’m going to get past all of that and say that you’re not lazy, you don’t have a bad idea. What it comes down to, in my mind, is you design a system that’s perfectly suited for where you end up. What I mean by that is— and this was definitely my experience, Drew— I designed a company to operate the way that I thought a company needed to operate, which in my case, for a long period of time meant that everything needed to come back to me. I needed to touch everything. I didn’t need anybody’s help. I could work harder, longer, all of that trash you tell yourself.
When I ended up in what I call the Valley of Uncertainty when I was in the break stage. I was just feeling entitled and I felt like the world owed me a different outcome than the one that I was experiencing. While I was in that valley, through introspection, and actually through getting in touch with other people, I realized that this was nobody else[’s fault]. This was no one’s fault. This wasn’t something that someone did to me. What happened to me is exactly what I sort of built and designed to happen. Then I figured, well, if I built that, and it worked perfectly to get me where I am now, which I hate, can I build something different and build it just as well and get to the place where I actually want to end up? That’s what I think happens most of the time, is you get what you build, you get what you design. If you’re not happy with it, you often don’t want to look right in the mirror and say, “Ah! Darn it. Yeah, this is all on me.” If it’s all on me, now, how do I change it?
Battling Your Worst Enemy: Yourself
Drew Appelbaum: I’m glad you brought that up, because I kind of want to talk about you a little bit and dig in. You do describe yourself in the book, at least, again, early on as your own worst enemy. Why were you your own worst enemy and then how did you actually find that out?
Mike Malatesta: Why was I my own worst enemy? Well, because I didn’t know any better. Ultimately, there were a lot of reasons why probably, but I think the biggest was, I had this chip on my shoulder that I’m better than everybody else out here. Whether it’s my competition or whatever, I’m better than them and I’m going to prove it. The way I’m going to prove it is, I’m just going to take it upon myself to do whatever I needed to do to at least, convince myself that I was better and deserved more and would win no matter what. What caused me to change my thinking about that was when I ended up in this Uncertainty Valley, which happened after my partner Butch passed away in 2003. He passed away in a fire that occurred at one of our plants. He was burned very badly and he ended up dying a couple of days later. That was the worst thing, of course, that ever happened to me in my life and happened to the business. But it wasn’t the only thing. There were lots of things before that.
When that happened— he was my partner, my friend, my confidant, he’s the one who gave me the confidence to start the business in the first place and now he was gone. I just didn’t know why that happened and I didn’t know what to do about it and I didn’t want to go on. I just wanted to shrivel up and have somebody take care of me for the rest of my life, my entrepreneurial life, at least. I realized that I couldn’t stay there or if I did stay there, it would be a miserable way to go through the rest of my life. It just occurred to me that nobody was going to put their arm down in this valley and grab me and pull me out of there and tell me everything’s going to be okay. I needed to do that. I needed to find a way to figure out how to do that. Or I was just going to quit and walk away. That’s not the message I want to share with the world that I quit and walked away from something.
I just needed to— who I was needed to change. Who I was around needed to change. Who I listened to, who I paid attention to, all of that had to change. Mostly what had to change is I had to start doing my job. I’m supposed to be the leader of this company. I’m supposed to be the visionary. I’m supposed to be the person that’s leading us to the Promised Land, and I don’t even know where the Promised Land is. I don’t even know what it looks like, so I had to figure all that out and I think we all do.
Drew Appelbaum: When you decided that you learn, you wanted to change, you were transitioning. You had to learn to get help from others as well, that it can’t all be on you. Did you rely on other people and who did you rely on? What happens if you don’t actually reach out into the world to, like you said, help kind of pull you out of something like this?
Mike Malatesta: Well, if you don’t reach out, at least in my experiences, the walls that you build around you just keep getting higher and deeper. You can’t climb over them, and you can’t burrow under them. You’re just stuck. For me, what happened was, my mind was open to this dilemma that I was in while I was in the valley, and I went to a breakfast meeting that the local Chamber of Commerce was putting on and they had a speaker there. His name was Johnny Vassallo. And Johnny was and still is one of the— a great restauranteur, and he had one of the best, and still has, one of the best restaurants in Milwaukee. Johnny was talking about his experience and growing up in restaurants with his family and all of that stuff and I was kind of like, “Ah, okay.”
Then his voice got really quiet, and he started looking down at the ground and he started talking to us about this advice he got that changed his life as an entrepreneur. It was, there’s a program out there that he could get involved with that would double his income or triple his income and give him all the free time or the time off that he wanted and needed. He said, the program is called the Strategic Coach, which was what I mentioned earlier. When he said that, I felt like I was the only person in the room at that time, like that he was talking directly to me. I’d never heard of the program, I didn’t know anything about it, except what he said, which was a paragraph. I wrote it down, I went back, and I looked it up and I signed up right away. Because, one, it sounded interesting, right? Like he’s saying, “Hey, this is what you can expect.” That sounds like that hand reaching down into the valley that’ll pull me up. That sounded like the easy way out. I was like, “Okay. I’m going to sign up for that.”
Two, when your mind’s open to something and your eyes see it or your ears hear it, it’s just something you have to act on. That’s how I felt with it. I signed up for the program and that was my first step to getting outside of my walls and actually learning that there is a different way that got me started.
Drew Appelbaum: How hard is it for an entrepreneur to make any progress before they really admit the truth to themselves? I know you had a tragic thing happen to your life that led to this but are there any questions either from— and you talked about in the book. As you just sat down, you wrote down on a legal pad your problems, and you had to look at that list. So, are there questions in there that people can ask internally to really find out the truth about not only themselves, but themselves in business and about their business itself?
Mike Malatesta: I think it takes— for a lot of people, not everybody— but for a lot of people, it takes something hopefully not tragic, but something really unpleasant for them to be willing to really, really take a look at themselves rather than – I don’t know if blame is the right word, but rather than deflecting responsibility for where they are. When you do that, like I write in the book about responsible versus responsibility. I think the problem I had for a while was that I made myself personally responsible for everything that happened, which means I internalized everything that happened and said, “Well, this happened because of me” as opposed to, “I have responsibility for everything that happens.” That’s not the same as me being personally responsible. At least in my mind, that difference made a big difference to me.
When I could sit down with, what you mentioned, which was my problems, and I really just started writing out all of the things that I thought either got me where I was, this perfectly designed system, or were things that were holding me back from my potential and from the company’s potential. It was very cathartic for me to admit these things to myself, because once I admitted them to myself, I could admit them to other people. Before that, Drew, I would never admit anything like that to anyone.
Drew Appelbaum: Right? Yeah. Let’s go back to the extended version of the title. You decided to be selfish. Tell us what selfish means to you or what it meant to you in the way you’re using it? Can actually being selfish still be a positive thing for others around you as well?
Mike Malatesta: Well, I know “selfish” is a horrible word. It’s not something that most people want associated with them or part of their description. But I thought it was kind of important to use the word “selfish” and I’ll tell you why. When I always considered myself to be a selfless leader, when I read Jim Collins, Good to Great book, and he talked about a level five leader. I so wanted to be a level five leader. I wanted to be that person that everybody talks about as being sort of the humble, consistent, selfless, but extremely successful leader. I recognized over time that I was using selflessness or my pursuit to be what I thought a level five leader was to not do my job, to put everybody else first and be the hero in a selfless way, if that’s possible, but not really doing the job that a leader needs to do in an organization, which is to lead to a destination. I didn’t have a destination anymore. I didn’t have goals anymore. I just used what everybody else needed as sort of fuel to say, “Hey! I was productive today. Oh! I did good today.”
As part of going through, not just Strategic Coach, but other programs and meeting other people, it started to dawn on me that if I don’t know where I’m going, there’s no way that I can possibly lead people there. There’s also no way that I can ask them for their help. I discovered that for me, I needed that selfish time. I needed to focus on myself for a while before I could focus on everyone else. That’s what I mean by “Getting Selfish Got Me Unstuck.” Once I was able to understand what I wanted my future to look like, not exactly how to get there, just what I wanted it to look like, then I could start telling people about that, sharing it, asking for their help. And then, like I should be doing, providing the resources, providing the support and just keep thinking bigger as we make every step forward.
Drew Appelbaum: Speaking of steps forward, what impact do you hope the book will have on a reader once they go through it? What are some immediate steps that you hope that they’ll take?
Mike Malatesta: Well, I think the biggest thing that I would love people to take away from the book is one, if you’re going to get into the entrepreneurial game, don’t get into it with small thinking. Get into it with big thinking. I’m not talking about dollars here. I’m talking about capabilities. I’m talking about building the biggest and best thing you can build because— and I believe that, it’s the right way— because people are attracted to people in organizations that think like that. I think too many get in and they think small, or they run into a roadblock or something. The reaction isn’t to figure out, “Oh! It’s just a roadblock on my way to getting big.” Instead, it’s a real obstacle that’s keeping me small. I think that’s number one.
Number two, the book title is Owner Shift. I think “shift” is a very important word. You need as you go along your journey, you’re going to need to shift a lot, both from a business standpoint and from a personal standpoint. I think of “shift” as being different than “pivot”. “Pivot” is a word that’s used a lot now. I don’t think it really applies to what I’m talking about. I’m talking about shifts where there’s an actual movement in one direction or another. The book cover, it’s kind of interesting the way it’s designed because “shift” is sort of italicized and pulled as if you’re being pulled to shift because sometimes you don’t shift on your own. You have to be open to it and then be pulled a little bit by your team, or by the circumstances or whatever. That’s the shift part. I guess, the third thing is, just be prepared for the journey. There’s sort of a natural flow to things if you keep going and I want people to realize that that’s okay, not to get discouraged by it. Not get all hung up on the responsible versus responsibility thing, but just keep moving and get around and be with people who support that movement forward.
Drew Appelbaum: You also have a companion website with the book. Can you tell us what that website is and what readers and listeners can find there?
Mike Malatesta: Yeah, it’s mikemalatesta.com/book. If you go there, you’ll find— well, I mean, it’s my website as well, but you’ll find a way to download a free chapter. It’s actually a chapter plus some bonuses. If you’re not interested in buying the book, or you want to test drive a portion of it, you can go there and check it out and you can learn all about me and my journey and how I might be able to be helpful to you with your journey, or the journey of someone else that you know.
Drew Appelbaum: Mike, we just touched on the surface of the book here. But writing a book like you did that’s aimed on helping entrepreneurs in their journey, and just being really vulnerable and telling your own story. It’s no small feat. I know this is a conversation one of five that we’re going to have when you continue on your book writing journey, but congratulations on having your book published.
Mike Malatesta: Thank you. It feels really good and I’m so happy to have had the chance to talk with you today, Drew.
Drew Appelbaum: If readers could take away only one thing from the book, what would you want it to be?
Mike Malatesta: I would want it to be that you’ve got to get selfish before you can be selfless.
Drew Appelbaum: Perfect. Mike, this has been a pleasure and I’m excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called Owner Shift and you can find it on Amazon. Mike besides checking out the book, besides checking out the website, is there anywhere else where people can connect with you?
Mike Malatesta: Sure. LinkedIn is a great spot. I’m active there and I’d be happy to connect with anyone on LinkedIn.
Drew Appelbaum: Well, Mike, thank you so much for coming on the show, and giving us some of your time today and best of luck with your new book.
Mike Malatesta: My pleasure, Drew.