Money Isn't a Core Value: Evan Carmichael on Building Startups That Matter

Entrepreneur, speaker, and author Evan Carmichael might be a well-known business expert today, but his initial foray into the startup world wasn't an immediate success. When Carmichael and two of his friends started a biotech software company at the tender age of 19, they didn't rocket to success right away.

"We sucked at the start," Carmichael says. "We were making $300 a month."

But Carmichael and his friends stuck with it. They turned down jobs. They didn't want to walk away and end up regretting it.

Sure enough, they turned it around and sold the company by the time Carmichael was 22. Selling a business at such a young age thrust Carmichael into the spotlight. He became a venture capitalist, helping other companies raise money they needed to grow. He was invited to speak at numerous engagement. A lot of eyes were trained on him.

Carmichael decided to start a website where he could share advice with entrepreneurs. Then, he started a YouTube channel, which has since gone on to become the largest YouTube channel for entrepreneurs.

Things were going great for Carmichael – but he still had the nagging feeling that he could do more.

"I wasn't down on my luck or anything," he says. "But I felt like I had potential. I was walking through my life thinking I could do a lot more."

Initially, Carmichael decided he should focus on improving his marketing, but he quickly realized it wasn't his marketing strategy that was holding him back from his true potential. Rather, Carmichael realized he need to gain more insight into what he truly valued. That would show him the way toward fulfillment.

"At first, I approached it as a marketing thing: 'I need my tagline to be better; I need to explain what I do to more people,'" he says. "But that evolved into, 'I need a tagline for my life to figure out what I'm all about. I need the self-awareness to understand what my core values are so I can live a life and build a business around them.'"

This is when Carmichael came up with the idea for the "One Word," which forms the basis of his book, Your One Word: The Powerful Secret to Creating a Business and Life That Matter.

"I believe everyone has one core value that represents who they are at a deep level," Carmichael says. "The more you realize that – the more you build a life around it and, for entrepreneurs, build a business around it – the more success you'll have from a financial perspective, as well as the fulfillment of doing something you love."

A little while back, I had the chance to talk with Carmichael about the book, how he found his "One Word," and the connection between our deepest values and business success. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, minimally edited for style and clarity. Evan, your "One Word" is "Believe." Can you tell me a little bit about what it means to you and how it became your word?

Evan Carmichael: It started with me thinking about, "What are the things that make me happy? The highest highs in my life – what was happening at those moments?" And I was also thinking about my favorite songs and movies and what I learned from my parents and instructors growing up.

My favorite movie is Seabiscuit. It's about this horse that is undersized and a jockey that is too big and an owner that has no money – all these things that, on paper, make it look like they would never win, but they went out and won a bunch. For some people, it's a super cheesy, sappy movie, but I like it. It's about belief.

My parents told me when I was growing up that I could do anything, and that's a message I've passed on to my son.

It turned out that everything positive in my life has been around that concept of believe.

When I first stumbled upon it, I thought, "That's too big a word. We need to be more specific. Other people have done this." But then I got to thinking: How many times do we talk ourselves down from a big idea? It's not even our friends and families and the people around us who talk us down, it's us. We have a big, bold idea, and the next day we wake up and say we can't do it.

So I decided to test it. The first thing I did was write a newsletter about "Believe" and what it meant to me. It was the best newsletter I had put out, in terms of response from my audience. My sister even wrote back to me and said, "I actually read your newsletter now!" I was proud of my content before, but this felt more personal.

Next, I tried a video, to see how it would go. Up until that point, the best video I made had 100,000 views on it. I was super proud of it. It was a good milestone, and it took me a year to get it there. So I made a video about "Believe." A lot of my advisors hated it. They said it was too long, it was never going to work. But I still put it up. It hit 100,000 views in a month, and now it's coming up on 2 million views.

What started to happen was, anything that touched the realm of "Believe" started to have a bigger impact. I started getting more traction. If you look at it just from a marketing point of view: Yes, we're getting more audience, we're driving more sales, we're getting more subscribers.

But then I approached it from an operations perspective: How do you hire based off "Believe"? How do you write a job description based off "Believe"? What's the onboarding process? What are the rituals and the culture you need to build? How do you bring on suppliers or work with investors based on your "One Word"?

I quickly found out it is not just a marketing thing. It's the lens through which you see the world. When you have that self-awareness, it allows you to do better things for yourself that are more aligned with what you want to do – and it also attracts the right people to you, people who can help you.

RC: In the section of the book dedicated to helping people discover their own words, there's a quote that I found really fascinating: "Money is a tool, not a core value." Can you say a little more about what you mean by this?

EC: A lot of people, when asked what their "One Word" is, they'll say it's "Money." They want to make money. But money itself is not a value. Money is just an exchange of value. I get money because I provide a value for someone else. Maybe I wrote a great article, or I produced a great video, or I made a great shoe. I get paid for that, and I use that money to go buy something else. So it's just a trade of value.

Money's important. I'm not the guy saying you should go sell your Ferrari and live a street life. Money is important in business. But there has to be something that is a step above money. There has to be one thing that is higher than money for you that you chase with all your money, and it's that that makes you successful.

The people only chasing money, they may get some, but they aren't ever as successful as the people who are doing something for a greater reason. Look at a guy like Steve Jobs, who was a multimillionaire in his 20s. He had all the money he'd ever need in his twenties. He didn't go off and sail the world or do the things you think you might do when you have enough money; he worked until the day he died to build Apple. And he built it to be the No. 1 most valuable company in the world when money was not his No. 1 goal.

Money is important to Apple, of course, but it's not the core reason why Steve Jobs did what he did.

RC: A central concern of the book is how entrepreneurs can apply their "One Word" to the building of a business. It's not just a marketing tactic, as you mentioned earlier. It's the basis of job descriptions, onboarding, vendor relationships, etc. Can you elaborate more on the connection between the "One Word" and a business?

EC: A lot of people who are entrepreneurs reading this book might think, "This is just for my business." What you need to realize is this is something for you first that you can then bring to your business.

It is not just a marketing thing for your company. It has to be authentic. People can see through you. If you say, "Our business is all about love," and you're not a loving person, then you're going to fall short. It's why we don't trust big brands a lot. They say they are for something, like "The customer is No. 1" or "We value service." Then you see from working with them that it's not something they actually value, it's just something they write on their wall.

I bet if you went to the CEO of most major companies and asked what their 15 core values were, nobody could actually recite them from heart. If you can't actually remember what your core values are, how are you actually living them?

That being said, the way I like to approach it at the start for entrepreneurs is through marketing, because it's the easiest concept to grasp and it brings in money for your business. Anything that generates ROI for your business is great.

So you start with your "One Word," and then you create your credo, where you explain to the world what it the word means to you. Most entrepreneurs — especially their websites — are super boring and impersonal. They are trying to be corporate and professional, but in the end they lose out to the corporations. If you look like a corporation, I'm not going to buy from you. I trust that big brand and its reputation. But who are you? You're some new startup. The only reason to buy from you would be price.

The real reason to buy from you should be your passion, your commitment, your story. Tell me why you're here. If I feel your passion and connection to what you're doing, then I'll buy from you. I might even pay more than I would at a big company, because I feel you're going to care more. You need both your credo and your founding story down to the point where it's something moving that you're really proud of.

Next is thinking about your audience. What is going to unite them? What rituals and gestures can you give them? What is it that your customers do that other customers don't do? Then think about the name of your business and the name of your products and services. How do they reflect the theme and your "One Word"?

You also want to have an enemy for what you're doing. If you stand for X, what's the enemy? It's good to have an enemy, because if you can articulate who your enemy is, it makes it easier to rally people around the cause.

And then you have to think about your logo, your font, your symbols. How does it all relate to the theme you put out there?