When John Lee Dumas created his business podcast Entrepreneurs on Fire, today followed by more than a million people, money was the last thing on his mind. His only mission at conception was to provide free content that would be valuable to listeners. Thirteen months later he was generating six figures a month in revenue.
Dumas admits his relationship with money up to this point had been complicated. His fortunes only changed when he decided to stop chasing wealth and success and instead focused on the passion that drove him. He saw an opportunity for a podcast that shared his interest in entrepreneurship, and the accolades – and dollars – soon followed.
So how did Dumas transform a free product into a multi-million dollar enterprise? In this exclusive interview, the former Army officer relates his journey from feeling like a burden to feeling like a person of value, how he defied the experts who told him he would fail and why he believes that everyone has the ability to create a successful business and life that you love.
Celinne Da Costa: John, tell us about your childhood and how you grew up?
John Lee Dumas: I was born and raised in a very small town in Maine with a population of less than 2,000 people. I guess it was what some people might call a country bumpkin lifestyle. My father ran his own law practice and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. My parents’ thing was if I was playing sports and got good grades, I’d get an allowance. So I never really had to think about money.
I do however have a stark financial memory of something that happened when I was eight years old. One night my dad called me downstairs – he was sitting at the table with all of these papers and receipts in front of him because he was doing his annual taxes. He was not in a good mood. He made me sit down and look at all of the paperwork and he said, “Look at how much money you’re costing me”.
Before that, I never realized the concept of money or how I could be a burden on my parents and the stress and anxiety it caused them just to keep me alive. My attitude changed that day. From then on, I was constantly thinking about how I could be less of a burden on my family and what I could do to become financially independent. That also planted in me a seed that led to me making a series of bad decisions.
Da Costa: What were some of those decisions?
Dumas: After I graduated high school, I applied for a ROTC military scholarship so my parents wouldn’t have to pay for my college. I spent four years at Providence College and in my senior year, 9/11 happened. One year later I was commanding a tank platoon with four tanks and 16 men in Iraq. We were getting shot at and seeing death, and only 12 of us made it back. It was incredibly traumatic.
When I finished my active duty, I began what I call my “six years of struggle.” I still had these skewed beliefs of what I thought success was, which was a lot of money, so I made bad decisions searching for that. I was also struggling with PTSD.
I applied to law school because I thought it would make my family proud and because I saw that it had brought my dad financial independence. But I was miserable there. The PTSD made it difficult to focus and do the work, so I dropped out after one semester. Then I tried corporate finance, residential real estate and commercial real estate. Nothing worked.
De Costa: What caused the shift in your perspective?
Dumas: I was 32 years old and a commercial real estate broker in Portland, Maine. I had started listening to podcasts because I wanted to virtually surround myself with people I was inspired by. On one podcast someone quoted Albert Einstein and it changed my life. He said, “Try not to become a person of success but rather a person of value.” It was the first time I had ever thought about life that way.
I was floored by the idea that you shouldn’t just chase success, you should do something that’s valuable to other people. I looked in the mirror and said to myself, “What have you done for the past six years, post-military, that’s been of value to anyone?” The answer was nothing. I was doing everything for myself.
That was literally the day I said I’m quitting my job as a commercial broker. I didn’t know what I was going to do next, but it was going to be something of value. That’s the only requirement I had for my next career choice. That planted the seed for the podcast I would create three months later.
Da Costa: So tell us about how that podcast came about?
Dumas: I was listening to a podcast by Andrew Warner of Mixergy and when it ended, I realized I had listened to the entire catalogue, so I would have to wait two to three weeks for another one. I wanted more of this inspirational content every day, so I searched for a daily show interviewing entrepreneurs but couldn’t find one. I thought “How is this possible?” That made something click in me. To quote Ghandi, I decided to “be the change I wanted to see in the world.”
I knew I was going to suck at first and not be good at podcasts and interviewing but I was willing to put in the work. I hired mentors and joined mastermind classes. But all the leaders in the industry emphatically told me, “Do not launch a daily podcast, it will fail. You won’t be able to keep up with the content, listeners will get overwhelmed. You will lose in the venture.”
My attitude was to rise to the challenge. I realized there could be an opportunity there and that this was a chance for me to do something of value. I would offer a free daily podcast interviewing entrepreneurs and sharing their tips, strategies, tactics and knowledge with the world. I put together a plan and launched Entrepreneurs on Fire in September 2012.
Da Costa: How did you scale the business into a multi-million dollar venture?
Dumas: The first year I wasn’t thinking of money, just how I could be a person of value. I did about 400 episodes and a few coaching gigs, but didn’t really make a lot of cash. Then 13 months after launching, I had the idea to launch a course about how to teach other people to create, grow and monetize their podcasts. EOF earned six figures that month. Every year since then we’ve pulled in seven figures. It was only when I began creating value that success found me.
Da Costa: What is success to you?
Dumas: In 2015, I interviewed a gentleman named Aaron Walker. He talked about how he became financially independent at a young age, but how it became a negative for him. He had all this money, but it didn’t make him feel fulfilled. He said, ‘How do you go from success to significance?’ To this day that has stuck with me.
Money doesn’t buy happiness, but a lack of money makes it hard to be happy. If you can’t provide for loved ones, how can you be happy? I always saw the value in generating revenue, but now I also saw the significance of doing things that aren’t just about money. That’s when I got involved in philanthropy with organizations like Pencils of Promise, which builds schools in developing countries.
In 2016, I moved to Puerto Rico with my now fiancee Kate. Every month I work hard for about five days, then 25 days a month I can be in cruise control. We’re living this lifestyle where we’ve been at the $2 million mark every year since 2013. Our business has not grown financially because we’ve been able to say that we have enough. That’s the life I’ve created. I’m not willing to work 10 times harder to make two times more. That’s not the equation I want to live.
Da Costa: What advice would you give to others who want to build successful businesses and design their lives the way they want?
Dumas: Most people never identify what their version of success looks like. They don’t know what financial freedom means, what it means to be fulfilled, or what they want to do day in and out. They’ll never experience what it’s like to live in their zone of fire, which means doing something that lights them up and excites them.
In my first traditionally published book, The Common Path to Uncommon Success, I teach people how to find their next big idea so they can wake up every day and live in their zone of fire. One of the tips I give is that you need a combination of both passion and skills to create a successful business. Solve people’s problems by doing something that you love and are knowledgeable about.
Everyone has a buried opportunity inside them, no matter what point in your career you are or how much money you’re making. You can always put more of yourself into the equation to add value to the world and create the financial independence and fulfillment you desire.