When it comes to entrepreneurship, Aaron Walker is a veteran. At the age of 18, he started his first business, which he sold to a Fortune 500 company 9 short years later, but that was just the beginning. Over the past 35 years, he has started, bought, and sold 8 successful companies, all while enjoying a wonderful marriage with his wife Robin.
As you can imagine, Aaron has acquired a tremendous amount of knowledge and wisdom in business and in life in general. We are truly privileged that he took some time to share his journey with us, and reveal some of the valuable lessons that he has learned from his dynamic career as an entrepreneur.
Aaron was only 13 years old when he started working part-time at a pawn shop in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. It was a job that Aaron truly enjoyed and kept throughout high school, but despite his commitment to the business, the owner made it clear to Aaron that he would never have an opportunity to own the business because it was a family-owned company.
At the age of 18, Aaron was fortunate enough to meet the owners of the 21st largest insurance agency in the country at that time. These men frequented the pawn shop, buying diamonds and gold from Aaron as a way to hedge against inflation. Sensing an opportunity, Aaron approached these men and asked them if they would consider supporting his ambition to open his own store by partnering with him. It took a few months to solidify an agreement, but with the help of those partners, Aaron was able to obtain a $150,000 bank loan to open a new store.
Aaron’s previous experience, coupled with his determination to make his store successful, helped to ensure the success of that business. He was able to repay the bank loan within 3 years, at which point he and his partners decided to use the profits from the business to open a second store. That second store was also successful, and so they repeated that process several times. By the time Aaron was twenty-six years old, they had 4 stores that were doing extremely well, catching the attention of a Fortune 500 company in the process. That company, which was looking to expand into Nashville by acquiring other businesses, offered to buy their business. “Honestly, they just made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse. So at 27 years old, I was done.”
Selling his business placed Aaron in a unique position that he had never experienced before in his life. He suddenly had an abundance of free time, a significant amount of money in the bank, and he no longer had to get up and go to work every day. He had accomplished what so many entrepreneurs dream of one day accomplishing. He built a successful company, sold it, and he now had complete freedom. He felt successful, at least for a while. Unfortunately for Aaron, it didn’t take long before not having a clear sense of purpose triggered a downward spiral.
“In the next 18 months I gained 50 pounds. I became very bored. I was getting into bed in the middle of the day. I didn’t have any reason to get up. I didn’t have anything to do. So Robin woke me up one day from my nap and she said you need to do something. You need to go back to work. You need to get a job. You need to start something. I don’t care what you do but you need to do something. You can’t just lie around here at 28 years old.”
Heeding his wife’s words, Aaron decided to visit the pawn shop where he worked as a teenager. It had been over a decade since he worked there, and he now had a proven track record of success in the industry. He asked the shop’s owner to consider forming a partnership with Aaron, and after a few months of discussions, they worked out an agreement and started working together. With Aaron’s help, that business grew to 4 times the size that it had ever been in its history since it first opened in the 1940’s. Once again, Aaron was back on top.
A major turning point in Aaron’s life happened on August 1, 2001. He was driving to his office when a pedestrian, without seeing Aaron, ran right in front of his vehicle as he crossed the street. The collision resulted in a fatality, altering the course of Aaron’s life in the process.
After that event, Aaron decided to sell his business and take a break from work for a while. Over the next few years, he built a new house for his family, did some traveling, and spent a lot of time evaluating his life. It took Aaron 5 years before he was ready to get back into business, but when he did, he approached it with a new perspective.
“Don’t let a tragic event happen in your life before you evaluate your life.”
With his next company, Aaron didn’t just set out to make money. He set out to build something significant, something that would have more of an impact on the lives of others. He entered the construction industry, and over a period of 8 years built a company that became the #1 builder for 3 consecutive years in Middle Tennessee. Then, at the age of 50, he decided to retire.
Shortly after retiring, Aaron was invited by his friend Dan Miller to an event about coaching. At the event, Aaron sat at a table with other entrepreneurs and shared some of his experiences. After the event, he received a text message from Dan asking him if he noticed how much the other people at the event enjoyed listening to Aaron share his story. Sensing the potential in Aaron, Dan strongly encouraged him to consider coaching others.
After giving it some thought, Aaron warmed up to the idea of coaching other entrepreneurs. Over the next few months, he enrolled his first few clients, and in the process discovered that coaching others was very enjoyable and more importantly, very fulfilling.
Today, Aaron works 1-on-1 with clients nationally and internationally, and facilitates 3 separate mastermind groups in addition to an online community. His company, View From The Top, has become a premier life and business coaching resource for entrepreneurs all over the world. “It has been absolutely the time of my life. I stumbled into coaching, and now I’m having more fun doing that than anything I’ve ever done in my entire life.”
When Aaron sold his first businesses at a young age, he learned first-hand that achieving success, at least from a financial perspective, did not necessarily lead to a fulfilling life. It wasn’t until later in his career that he realized he only felt truly fulfilled when what he was doing gave him a sense of significance. Today, when Aaron speaks to other entrepreneurs, he tries his best to help them understand that success is about more than just making money. It’s about having a purpose. It’s about helping others. It’s about doing something significant.
“If you don’t have a reason to get out of bed every day, if you don’t have something to build, to grow, to inspire you, to help others, you get bored pretty quick and depression can set in.”
Having coached numerous individuals, Aaron has observed some pretty interesting behavioral patterns. One of the patterns he has noticed is that people will often set an objective, thinking that achieving it will make them happy. Then when they achieve it they experience a hollow feeling. So they set a new objective, thinking that the new objective will fill that void, only to experience the same hollow feeling again. They keep chasing new objectives because they haven’t learned to be content with where they are. They haven’t pre-determined what success means to them, so they keep chasing it, and the chase never ends.
There was a time when Aaron exhibited that same pattern. As a young entrepreneur he would set financial objectives for his business so that he could afford to live in a bigger house, drive a nicer car, have a vacation home, and so on. To Aaron, acquiring those things represented success. Yet even after obtaining them, there was still a void that could not be filled. From the outside looking in, Aaron certainly appeared successful. But from the inside looking out, he knew something was missing.
It took some time, but eventually he figured out that when you achieve goals that are all about you, you may appear to be successful, but you likely won’t be fulfilled. Fulfillment occurs when you have a sense of significance in your life, and significance comes from helping others. By achieving goals that serve others in addition to yourself, you achieve success and significance simultaneously.
Aaron has also come to recognize that success is a very subjective term. He can’t determine what success is for another person. We each have to determine what success is for us. For Aaron, success means having financial freedom, control over his schedule, an engaging family, meaningful relationships, a clear conscience, and being physically healthy. It also means to be content but not complacent.
“We can be content in every situation that we’re in, because we choose to be happy. It’s a choice not a trait. But I don’t want you to be complacent. I want you to be able to go forward, move the needle, continue on, but enjoy the now.”
One of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs is maintaining a sense of balance between their work and their personal lives. Business is tough, and it takes a lot of hard work to succeed. There will most definitely be times when your life feels out of balance, but you have to learn to embrace that imbalance. You have to learn to embrace the tension. There will always be another email. There will always be another sales call. There will always be one more of something, but you have to learn when to stop.
“People often ask me how they can get that perfect balance. I tell them you can’t. It doesn’t exist. If you’re trying to get it, forget it, it’s not going to happen.”
An unfortunate but common scenario for those who are not careful is they become tremendously successful in their career and they make a lot of money, but one day they go home to a house full of strangers. They don’t know their spouse. They don’t know their children. They don’t have an intimate relationship with either one, and they just hope that their family doesn’t pack their bags and move out. Remember, your office does not have a memory, but your family does. They’re going to remember when you miss those ball games and recitals. They remember that stuff.
You will never experience a perfect balance between your work and your personal life, but that shouldn’t stop you from purposefully dedicating time and attention to the areas of your life that are most important to you. Often, it is not the amount of time you spend on specific areas, but the quality of that time that makes the difference. Make a conscious effort to disengage from your work from time to time, and give your full attention to other areas of your life.
“If you win at work, and you lose at home, ultimately it’s the greatest sacrifice of all. You can always get another job, but you can’t get another family.”
Without a doubt, Aaron continues to be a source of inspiration to others through his leadership, mentorship, and consistent pursuit of excellence. We asked him to recommend some specific actions steps to take to achieve success, and more importantly, achieve significance in our lives. He shared two specific steps, and we highly encourage you to implement them into your life immediately.
Many people mistakenly believe that you have to become financially successful before you can become significant. In reality, you can achieve both at the same time. Don’t wait until you have more money before you do something to help others. Contribute on a percentage basis. Whatever you have now, commit to contributing a specific percentage of your time or income to helping others. If you’re not trying to live a life of significance now, the chances of you living that life when you have more money are slim. Make it a habit now.
No matter what business you’re in, a major contributor to your success and fulfillment will be the relationships that you cultivate with others, both inside of your industry and out. Make a conscious effort to meet new people on a regular basis, and do what you can to offer support and add value to those people on an ongoing basis. Aaron has been a part of various mastermind groups and accountability groups for most of his career, and the relationships that he built within those groups and the unbiased advice that he received on a regularly basis proved to be invaluable to his business and his life.
“We’re not created to be islands. We’re created to be in communities. It’s not really all about us. It’s about others.”
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