Tom has been a serial tech entrepreneur for more than 10 years and shares his experience with Joe and the audience. Tom was born and raised in Poland. He emigrated to the United States at age 10. He has been an entrepreneur, online and offline, with ideas like a coffee shop or his own music label. His current ventures include online courses.
Find Tom and some of his current projects here:
- Smart Brand Marketing Podcast https://smartbrandmarketing.com/
- We Create Online Courses http://wecreateonlinecourses.com/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/TomLibelt
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomlibelt/
- And here is an overview of all of Tom’s ventures: https://smartbrandmarketing.com/tom-libelt/
Tom and Joe talk about Jamba Juice and McDonald’s. You can learn more about the story from 2010 here: https://www.thestreet.com/story/12806946/1/jamba-juice-mcdonald-s-smoothie-showdown.html
- Chicago: Deep Dish Pizza: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago-style_pizza
- New York: The New York Pizza Tour, Joe took once: https://www.asliceofbrooklyn.com/
Announcer: Welcome to startuprad.io your podcast and YouTube blog covering the German start-up scene with news, interviews and live events.
Joe: Hello and welcome everybody this is Joe from startuprad.io your start-up news and interviews podcast and YouTube blog from Germany. Today I am connected to Tom who’s right now in Chicago, hey Tom how are you doing?
Tom: Hey, how are you Joern?
Joe: I’m doing great, thank you. How are you?
I’ll think they just understand how much prep you do with the people
Tom: I’m doing good. I’m good just want to see where this interview leaves me because I’ll think they just understand how much prep you do with the people. You know usually it’s like a few minutes you jump on but with Joern you’ve got like thirty minutes and you got a call before for an hour. Like there’s a lot of prep so I’m curious where this is going to go.
Joe: Yeah, let’s see so can you tell our listeners just a little bit about you what you’ve done so far and how you ended up in the startup world and for everybody who’s curious about you. We will link your LinkedIn profile as well as your Twitter account in the show notes so go to www.startuprad.io and search for the interview and you can find Tom there.
Tom: Okay. How big of a biography do you want?
Joe: Best would be like five to ten minutes.
Tom: Okay, I’ll try to keep it as short as I can.
Joe: Okay, go ahead.
Tom: So I lived in Poland when I was little. And I think it was still communist back then so my parents weren’t sure what’s going to happen with the country and I think they timed it wrong. Because my dad was going for a German citizenship and a US one and we decided to come to the U.S. like right before the European Union open right. So I was around ten-eleven and I spent time in the US since, went through the college stuff, got a lot of corporate jobs and I just wasn’t a good fit in the corporate world. You know I don’t like being a number, I don’t like anyone looking over my shoulder, I don’t like not being able to make any decisions and I started messing around with my own company. And I did a couple of things, I had a record label, I was a D.J. before I had a clothing store and a coffee shop. Yeah, I think that was the name the brick and mortar stuff before I got into the online world. The main thing like this idea came to me that what if I could make money in the U.S. and then go back to where I actually want to be which is you know Asia or Europe or somewhere else right. So this was this whole plan and it’s funny because I spoke with my dad about this and he’s like yeah that’s what everyone’s dream was. But I was like you know what but I can actually pull it off you know I can actually do that, I can set up companies here and get all my clients from the richer countries. And then just you know just live wherever I want, so I have complete freedom over what I’m doing. So a few of the businesses which I’ve done online were publishing, SEO creation, and marketing of online courses. And some site projects, I made a lot of them like we created a movie called Your own way out and a couple podcasts I mean there’s a lot of stuff. Like any online person you’re going to have a lot of stuff in the resume so it’s just you know whatever you want to talk about we can go into but you know the resumes big.
Joe: I was actually smiling a lot when you told me that especially the moment when you said you had a record label that’s not the typical CV. How did you end up there?
Tom: So when I got out straight from college right, the first college. I wanted to be in the music industry super bad so I was at a house party in Chicago super drunk and I overheard some people saying oh, man you know there’s this school called “Full Sail” in Florida. And they can teach you how to become an engineer and I don’t know how this happened but I ended up paying forty thousand dollars to get into this school, it was in Florida for a year from overhearing a drunken conversation. Then found a teacher that worked at a studio in New York before and I bugged him so hard until he finally got an intro for me. So when I moved to New York right after school I was able to intern at that studio, I realized that those studios I was not going to make any money. Because you know a lot of internships, the engineering gigs were on and off, studios were shutting down so I found my own artists and created my own record label. We put out music, we did concerts and I just… so I took that phrase you know when someone doesn’t want to let you in through the front door just go in through the side door. And that was my entrance into the music industry, I mean I’ve worked with a lot of big stars in the regular record labels but I just didn’t see a future in it. So I just did it that way and I saw the record label and I…we went pretty strong for about two, three years. But then I thought you know what if I really want to make good money and they want to deal with constant gigs and not getting paid for stuff and things like that I got to get out and you know… But I accomplished what I wanted to in the music so I never have any regrets like I’ve done what I want.
Joe: Going a little bit off topic, I would be interested in what you were as a former owner of a studio think about music screaming and Spotify. What are your thoughts on that?
Tom: Yeah, that is a bit off topic. I think Spotify and music streaming well, I’ll tell you from a perspective of a user you know because that’s how I always thought about everything when I was in the music industry. And even back then the software’s I had on my laptop or Napster and I think it was like eDonkey or something and the IRC. Like this is a long time ago so I can push these names because this was quite a while back. And the reason was like I’d wanted to get samples of music from all around the world and the only way for me to really do that quickly and without going insane was to just go for free. Like you couldn’t just go and pay for things you know and obviously you know when you people are streaming things you know it’s making money which is not good for the industry. So these companies like Spotify and you know same with the video and Netflix and stuff when they just can actually lock people into a subscription and pay licensing fees. But you’re still streaming and getting everything you want in one place you know I mean that was the natural way to go. Like ever since I was maybe eighteen I didn’t have any cable T.V. or anything because even back then I hooked up my laptop to my T.V. you know it wasn’t as simple as now. Like I had to use like converters and different cables but I just you know I’m not watching commercials, I want to watch what I want to watch and listen to what I want to listen to whenever I want to do it. So as a user it was a no-brainer for me like it had to go in that direction.
Joe: Interesting. Interesting, I got to admit I also had problems when I was coming back from the U.S. I went to college in Texas, the few country artists I really like, like Sugar Land and it was really, really tough to get there CD’s at all in Germany. And so I also had to get creative there. Getting back to topic again you said you started online companies in the United States, what did you actually do and how has been your experiences so far? And how does it tie into your traveling working all over the world?
Tom: So, in the beginning, I started just looking up ways to make money online and I found someone that created a lot of niche websites with Ad sense on it which is the Google advertising platform. And you pretty much-created websites around small products that people would buy right, so we would go to a big department store and just look at different things like beach tables or storage bins for kids. Like different little items right and you would create these sites around them so you would rank really high and really fast because they were super niche. Then you would put ad sense on them which is the Google advertising platform so when people go in and click through you make a couple bucks right. And after you create three or four hundred on these websites you know you cannot anymore but back then you could easily make a couple thousand dollars. And that was my whole play in the beginning you know it was more like. I just went crazy with creating a lot of sites then I started playing around with different traffic. We created some career sites and things like that, we saw a lot of traffic from LinkedIn and some of the sites were making like seventy thousand dollars per month no problem like it was super easy. But I knew it wasn’t long-term right so the one skill which I developed by ranking all of these websites and with the traffic were SEO. So I started going to the people around the city like my mechanic and stuff and I was like hey look let me make you a website, let me rank you in Google, let me set up the Google places. I’ll bring your traffic, you pay me monthly and everyone’s happy then I got a whole bunch of clients that way. Some of them kept on asking me like hey if you’re so good in SEO why don’t you have a website, I was like well I never needed one like I’m one of those people.
Joe: That’s actually a very good question, your ranking websites on search engines and you don’t have your own website.
Tom: Yeah, because it was niche websites right but I had none of like I didn’t have a company website. But I’m one of these people what you know… so some percentage of business people will you know to create nice offices and business cards and all those stuff. And then go sell like I am one of those guys like I’m going to sell first and then when I have downtime and I feel like I need it I’ll create those business cards, right. Because what do I need those for? So we had some funny conversations right I think. But you’re not anywhere here, I’m like trust me when I’m here you’ll see me like I just had no need and then I did create a company and I ranked high for you know Atlanta SEO because I was in Atlanta at the time. And Atlanta SEO so you know all those queue ranks like I was ranking so we were getting leads constantly but you know in my beginning I didn’t have a website, a business card, anything. It was all word of mouth like the mechanic would tell like this guy is good, I’m getting more people coming in and then they’d ask me stuff like ‘what do I need a website for?’ You need a website, I’m not having any problems getting sales you do.
Joe: Okay, that’s pretty impressive and I got to admit I’m right now on YouTube and everybody thinks YouTuber they make such a lot of money but actually if you have like thousands of users every month you earn like a few dollars in revenues just from that. So I do believe it was a little bit back in time when you could actually make a living from that and then do you think the same applies for AdSense right now?
Yeah, I think that AdSense is dead
Tom: Yeah, I think that AdSense is dead. It’s like I spoke with… he’s a German guy so you might know him. Alex Khan, I think that’s Kahn … he’s like the most popular social media person in Germany. And you know he started I think, how many years ago but he started on our Periscope when it first came out, he put up a couple videos. Periscope had no content so they put him up as a featured person and he drew his audience that way. You know these days there’s no way but I’ll tell you this about YouTube, how I think of YouTube so I let all the people that want to create thousands of videos create their content. And then when I want to get YouTube content I will simply pick my top competition, pick their best video and just put ads on their best video leading people to my website. So I’ll let them do all the heavy lifting and I’ll just very cheaply jack all that traffic.
Joe: That pretty much sounds like you used Judo, taking the weight off your opponent and make it work for you it always reminds me of this story of Jamba Juice you know Jamba Juice versus McDonald’s?
Tom: I know Jamba Juice and McDonald’s I don’t know how they fit together though so you can tell me.
Joe: Well Jamba Juice for everybody who’s not from the U.S. It’s a company and they do like smoothies or fruit drinks and all of this healthy stuff and basically McDonald’s also want to get into the business. And hand out a lot of vouchers and basically wants to squash them and then Jamba Juice or the branches of Jamba Juice at the same. They put out a sign in front of their stores, we also accept McDonald’s vouchers.
Tom: That’s hilarious, I like that.
Joe: That was really amazing. So basically you’re using the same strategies there and what are you actually doing right now? How do you because when we first been writing you’ve been in Thailand now you’re in Chicago by the way awesome place, love deep dish pizza. And then you will be back in Thailand and all over the world again so, how do you actually right now make a living?
Tom: Okay, before we get into that you know in the U.S. I’m not sure if you know there’s always been a battle of who makes the better pizza is it Chicago or is a New York? And I know you’re going to be a New York soon right.
Joe: Totally. But I got to admit I love both so there’s…okay I’ve been a usual tourist there something called New York pizza tour and I’ve been to a few places in New York and they make awesome pizza. And of course, the deep dish pizza in Chicago is good as well so I like both even though they are a little bit different but actually none of those pizzas is good for your shape.
Tom: No, I mean none of them are but it’s just funny like always people always argue about what it’s like the main thing. You know who makes the better pizza? And it’s a big argument between the companies which you know they are a little different but I just wondered if you had both to see which one you like more.
Joe: Hard and I don’t have the absolute favorite yet but Deep Dish is very high up there as well as New York star pizza so they’re both pretty good.
Tom: Okay. So back to my business, the things which I do now for the most part and those are the things I’m really good at. I have a publishing company which I’ve been running for the last five, six years and we have a lot of ghostwriters it runs on its own and we create thousands of books on different topics. And that’s one of the most passive income streams I’ve ever seen, it’s got its own manager, it’s got, graphic designers. And we do help some other people to write books but it’s a very quiet company because it’s like with my other things some things just don’t need to promote their work on their own. So that’s one of the stable income streams I’ve had for a long time right so a lot of the things I can try, I can do because of that main income stream you know. Like it’s sad when you read someone’s book like The Four Hour Work Week or something and they’ll tell you you can just do all this stuff but they forget to mention oh you know I just sold a company for twenty million or something else which gives them the ability to do that. So I do have that ability and I… The way I designed the publishing company is back when S.E.O. was going really strong and we were creating all of these niche sites I had a lot of writers and we would write blogs on websites. Which we paid for to create backlinks to all these websites right that I was running so someone else’s websites links are coming back to our own to help them rank better than when Google destroyed that whole system I had about seven writers or maybe more. It was a while back, it was a good team of writers a solid one and I did not want to fire them so we found a Kindle just coming into play and I said you know what like you guys just start creating books on that platform and just use your time that way. Like I don’t care what you do, just you know do it right make sure that it makes sense, it’s helping the reader. Create good graphics, original content and six, seven months later the content they created was already paying for the team. So I’m like okay, let’s create a whole company around that and you can keep running with it you know and you know it’s been growing strong. We’ve moved much more into creating space now which is paper books, not just digital books but it’s the same thing. So that business has been running for a while, now what I’ve really been getting into our online courses and membership sites. So I have a couple of revenue streams with other people like other experts like one of them is askchike.com which is a Muay Thai champion who is creating content online. It’s like an online course slash membership site and I’m doing all the marketing and we’re splitting revenue, now I have clients who I only do the marketing for and I only create the ally courses for. So we have a team that creates online courses and we have a team who can market them and I have different clients and I still have some S.E.O. clients, small business clients that you know came through referrals from that business. So I have a lot of different income streams and all of those I can run on my laptop.
Joe: That sounds pretty impressive to me. When was the point you realize you want to do what you’re doing right now? And when was the point when you actually thought okay this is awesome I’ll just keep going and doing that and let’s see what the world will bring to me again? So basically, the moment when you make a decision to run your businesses completely online from your laptop.
Tom: It wasn’t just one moment, there are three different times that I can always go back to if you want to hear about them. Which they all played a part in this.
Joe: Yes please, go ahead.
Tom: So the first one was I was sitting in a car in New York, I was doing outside sales for about four or five years for different companies. And one of the companies I was sitting in a car and I just read the four-hour workweek and you know once again you know a lot of it was nonsense you know the way he did it. But there was a seed that got planted in there and I’m like wow, I can take back my time you know because right now I’m just sitting like an idiot here. Waiting for the next sales call you know I have no control over it you know, not really I mean I got to make these sales, I got to do stuff whenever the customer does. So this was one thing, I’m just sitting in a car and this was like one of like thousands of times when this was happening me driving out somewhere and waiting for a sales call. The second one was when I went to get hired for Poland Spring, Nestle as a sales guy and I spoke with them and one of the main reasons why I wanted to work with them is because they said oh we can ship you to a different country. And then you can work there and I was like oh that sounds great especially if I can make money you know U.S. money and live somewhere else. That’ll be amazing, once I got the job I asked them about this again you know and they kept pushing it off and you know after three, four months I realized it was all bullshit. Like they can’t really move you or they won’t it was just you know…? They just said whatever they want to do to hire you so that was one of those things and when I worked in an insurance company I remember I sold life insurance. And then the company would take residuals right, so I would sell it once and they kept on getting paid for things over and over and over and over and over again. And I was like whoa you know if you can sell something and set it up in that way yourself like I actually calculated it, I would just need to sell like ten of these policies and then just from the residuals I could live without ever having to sell again. And a lot of the cold days too you know during blizzards when I was working, I think that kind of help solidify all this like I cannot do this for much longer you know it would be like a complete snow day. The roads are undriveable in New York you know it takes you three, four hours to dig your car out from the snow and you know the second you leave someone else is going to park in your spot and you’ve got to go to work. And walk around in the blizzard, half the businesses are closed or empty but the companies making you do stuff right and like when you combine all of this it was just one of these like you know it’s enough. And when I quit one of the company’s… the way I quit it was kind of funny too I basically stopped showing up. And I started looking for other ways to make money and I made so many sales before they kept me on the payroll for like five or six months after I’d never showed up to work again and paid me a full salary. Then they asked me because the boss was like Tom what’s going on? But I was already starting to do the online thing. And he’s like maybe you should quit you know and I was like no, no, no I don’t want to quit fire me, if you can fire me I’ll get unemployment. I can keep doing this like I have a runaway for about a year so he did and by the time the runway finished, I already had enough income to do my own thing. So it all kind of worked out but it was a lot of shitty situations, a lot of shitty situations which sort of when you pile them it’s like some people just snap and say that’s it. And that’s what happened.
Joe: Well I have to smile in certain areas of what you’ve told me especially since the company kept you on payroll and you didn’t show up anymore. That was really funny especially… We never met in person but I just try to imagine the moment when you told your boss hey why don’t you fire me.
Tom: Well you know and I’ll give you another thing which you would really enjoy so the boss would call you sometimes right during the day. It’s like you know where are you? And you’re supposed to be out there selling so I was working on my… I think it was in Brooklyn or Queens maybe in my Queens apartment and what I would do I would see a call from the boss. I would quickly open the windows so it became super loud from the outside and I’m like boss can’t talk right now I’m about to go into a sales call. And I would just hang up and go back to work on my laptop.
Joe: I’m just trying to imagine this okay. That is really cool but right now you don’t have a boss, you don’t need to do that anymore right?
Tom: No but it’s you know it’s a part of what makes the now possible right like those things had to happen you know. We go through things which sometimes you know there’s usually not a straight path to anything worthwhile you know you’re going to go through all of the shit when you you know try to make anything happen. And it happens now like I have a different type of problems now you know like I have visa problems and other things when I want to you know stay somewhere long or stuff like… We always come with some problems but it’s you know it’s worth it in the end.
Joe: And you’re right now one hundred percent digital nomad and I would be a little bit curious because most people know it and just from Instagram and they get like thousands of euros for each posting and stuff like that. But how is your life actually like? I realize you spend a lot of time on the beach in Thailand where else do you spend your life? How is the average year for you? Like I go there, I go there, I like to do that. What is your life like?
in Chiang Mai that’s in Northern Thailand. And there are a lot of digital nomads but don’t let them fool you Joern they don’t make a thousand from one post, most of them don’t even make a thousand dollars per month
when you talk about the normal digital nomad the ones that I see they’re clueless
Tom: So, the way I try to design it now. I don’t really like the term digital nomad much because I don’t actually like to travel, I do like the arbitrage of making money in one place and being able to live great in a different place but… So my home base I guess right now because I hold a lot of my stuff there is in Chiang Mai that’s in Northern Thailand. And there are a lot of digital nomads but don’t let them fool you Joern they don’t make a thousand from one post, most of them don’t even make a thousand dollars per month. You know they’re freelancers, they come to Chiang Mai, they want to make some money and most of them are broke and leave broke so that crowd is you know of course there are people making money. But when you talk about the normal digital nomad the ones that I see they’re clueless, they have no money and they’re living from savings and just doing some garbage freelance work. Now when I’m not in Chiang Mai, so during the smoky season most people don’t know about this about Thailand. I didn’t know it before but between February and May they burn the fields so the smoke and the pollution is out of this world in the Northern Thailand. Especially in Chiang Mai, so that’s when I do some of my traveling right, I like to spend time in Crabby down south by the beach, this year I decided to head up a couple conferences in the US and do some shopping because stuff is much cheaper in the US than Thailand. In the summer time, if I feel like it, I might go to a different country in Asia or go to Europe while the weather is nice and then the fall Chiang Mai beautiful so I stick around there. Then yes, for the most part when I leave it’s you know the smoky season I’ll just follow the weather a little bit like Europe I don’t really want to go to Europe unless it’s like July, August. I just don’t it’s not nice so I have the ability to thankfully go whenever I feel like it so I can kind of follow the weather when I feel like escaping for a bit.
Joe: And I do get the impression you wouldn’t go back to Chicago for Christmas.
Tom: No, even now… I came here for well I came to San Diego first and Austin and a couple other places but I’ve been here because my parents are around Chicago and I’m telling them like you guys got to leave. When you retire you got to go it’s cold here, it’s still cold it’s like where is… it seems like January’s got one hundred and twenty days in this city.
Joe: And for everybody who’s not been to you Chicago there is a reason it is called the windy city. So basically you always have wind from the Great Lakes from Canada and I’ve been there only in the fall but actually, when you are imagining it in the winter it’s really snow there. And it’s freezing and then you add the wind, it can get quite chilly but actually from time to time I do like cold temperatures not like my wife but anyway that is… That is pretty interesting, I hope to hear back from you and just to wrap it up a little bit I would have two questions for you. Number one if you could be the C.E.O. of any given company in the world for just one week. Which company would it be and why?
Tom: Oh, wow that’s assuming I wouldn’t want to be the C.E.O. of my own company so I like what I’m doing.
Tom: Let me think of any company. The way… can I still meet the C.E.O. of the company?
Joe: Yes you can. You actually replace him for vacation.
Tom: I don’t know, I think Tesla would be one of the companies. I think Elon is one of the smartest people on the planet then you know those teams they’re doing things which almost seem impossible. Like it took the whole U.S. government I think ten years to send someone to the moon and Elon with this whole team is like sending people into space. I mean they haven’t went to the moon yet I don’t think but you know they’re getting close like they’ve already made it cheaper to get into space than the whole U.S. could and I don’t know how many decades. So I would love to see like what is…just strategy as with this team and how to make them do things that seem so impossible. I don’t think I would want to see his personal life because it seems like a mess but work wise I think he’s a top one I would want to sort of maybe shadow. If not even replace just shadow him for a week, I would love to see that.
Joe: And the second question would be if you would describe your life either as a combination or a single title of either a book or movie what would it be and why?
Tom: Oh, wow. Joern you’re coming up with some pretty creative questions here at the end.
Joe: I’m sorry.
Tom: No it’s good, it’s just you just hitting like left fielders you know this is not like you’re throwing the ball straight to me here you’re just like oh look like it’s one coming from the side, catch it.
I totally didn’t understand that and then it must be related to baseball, right?
Joe: I totally didn’t understand that and then it must be related to baseball, right?
Tom: It’s a baseball thing. [Crosstalk 30:11]. Just imagine I would say Joern look left, there’s a ball coming right there that’s what you’re doing buddy. Let’s see a book title, I think to Simplify that would be it, that’s my whole goal in life. Is to just simplify things and make things easier for myself and for others in my organization or in life so just simplifying things. And I think when I left all my stuff in the US when I first moved I think it helped a lot too you know I realize just how little I need. But then I also realize the stuff that I do need and are super important to me you know so which might be counterintuitive but like I figured out I don’t need to spend a lot of money on clothes. Because I just need a couple of like really good pairs of clothing but I will spend a lot of money on like making my bed comfortable to sleep you know. Like I would spend six, seven hundred dollars on a pillow without even blinking an eye if I know it’s the most comfortable pillow on the planet, so it just changed some of the relations like you know all the things I would need to just live comfortably anywhere. But I think that’s a good thing for anyone you know the more you simplify the more options you have.
Joe: I really know what you’re saying because I was living in China for five months then came back to Germany for like two weeks then moved to the US to Texas for a year then came back to Germany. And basically in the whole time I was living out of one little bit bigger suitcase, that was it nothing more and it actually worked out admittedly I have to have the books on campus, the college books. And… but I could resell them so that was no big thing and actually when you move in China and when you move out in China you’re not really thinking about moving a lot of furniture with you.
Tom: Yes. So, you know one of these things like the furniture I could care less for most of it and you know and that’s where people spend most of the money right like furnishing their house. Like I just want to get into a furnished house, I don’t even want to think about this, now yeah you know clothing I want some super quality clothing, I don’t need a lot of it though because I always think like well how many do I wear? What if I want to move? But you know like bedding stuff and just like the laptop, I need a super quality laptop, like a really good workspace so I actually travel with my monitor you know. I have a super big and flat monitor goes into a suitcase like there are a couple things which I need but a lot I don’t and it’s made things super easy for me in a lot of ways.
Joe: I’m not there with the monitor yet but I really know what you’re talking about when you talk about a high-quality laptop. I also have to do a lot of video editing and all this stuff and I have a workstation here where I can just put in my MSI laptop, a docking station and then I have several screens and everything works fine with this laptop. And I just love it, really know what you’re saying there. Tom, it was a pleasure having you here and at one point in the future, I would like to get back to you and talk to you again. What you’ve learned so far and what other important stories you could share with our listeners.
Tom: Anytime, I’ll try to be as entertaining as I can for you buddy.
Joe: Awesome, thank you very much. It was a pleasure having you here.
Tom: Yeah, take care.
Joe: You too. Bye, bye.
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