How One Founder Is Debunking Stereotypes And Landing Big Deals Along The Way
Maybe you’ve heard those stories about stereotypical Asian parents inflicting military like discipline on their children to produce perfect scores in school. They perform at the top of their classes, graduate with honors, and take on successful careers as doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. Typical, right?
Well, forget those stories.
Because we have a different story that’s defying that stereotype. It’s Kenny Nguyen, founder of Big Fish Presentations, a company that helps clients share their messages by producing quality presentations.
Nguyen, 25, founded the company as a student at Louisiana State University. When it took off, he was faced with a big decision. His dad, a Vietnam native, actually argued with him and pushed him to drop out and focus full-time on the company.
It’s a good thing he listened to pops. Five years later, Big Fish Presentations is growing (they just announced a merger with another company that will double their team and expand their reach) and is working with big names like GE, Raising Cane’s, and NASA.
But before you go off and ditch that diploma, and send your parents’ heart rate through the roof, keep on reading. It’s taken Nguyen and his team a lot of long nights and hard work to get there. We caught up with him to get the backstory on his experience starting and growing Big Fish Presentations. He says it hasn’t come without doubts and dark moments.
Q: Can you give me the backstory starting from when you decided to drop out of LSU aWhy did you start Big Fish Presentations?
I actually decided to drop out of LSU when one of my advisors suggested I work at my own company. She didn’t know that I owned Big Fish. She said I heard it’s a good company, you should go work there. I told her, you know I actually own it? She told me, I think you should drop out. You need to go and build that company. You’re doing something, and it’s something you would do after school anyway, so go ahead and build that dream.
“And it’s funny because as the son of an Asian immigrant, whose family is so focused so much on education, my dad actually fought with me. He said you need to drop out of school, and focus on the dream.”
And I was arguing that I wanted to finish school. It was just a battle where I was focused, but finally I listened to my dad and advisor and said, let me go build this company and make it something great and put my absolute focus in it. And sure enough, five years since then, Big Fish is still here. Thank God!
Q: So your dad encouraged you to drop out of college?
Yes, and he was always the one who wanted me to finish school. I left college when I was a sophomore. I remember I was walking out of LSU thinking failure is not an option in reality.
Q: That’s really interesting. I’m glad to hear you say that because a lot of entrepreneurs talk about how they embrace failure and that failure is okay. Tell me from your perspective why failure is not an option.
Failure to me is being able to fall and not learn anything from it. I’ve always believed that failure is not an option and that means giving it your all. If you don’t give it your all, that’s failure to me.
Q: Tell me how you felt when you decided that you were going to leave school and bet it all on Big Fish.
There was initial hesitation, but once I knew it was there, for example when Shark Tank called me and asked me to be on the show, I knew it was the right decision to leave because we were building something that was getting national attention. I had to trust myself and my team that this was something that I could see myself doing, and dying by. Also, I thought what if I did fail? So, I called all the people that I always wanted to work for and they told me I would hire you tomorrow for sales, and I said perfect. I could do something other than that.
Q: So you actually had a backup plan?
Yes, I had a contingency plan. And not every entrepreneur has to have that, I understand. But I like to have a contingency plan. Always have a plan B.
Q: Take me back to when you first started Big Fish. Can you tell me about your lowest, darkest point as an entrepreneur? A moment when you thought, what the hell am I doing and how am I going to make it out of this?
Ooooh. Every day. I’m just joking. haha When I turned down Shark Tank, for sure. And having all of our friends and family think “How are you so stupid, why would you do that?” Because these people were close to me, but I knew I trusted my gut.
Another one was a project where we were clearly out of our comfort zone. I’ve felt in the dark a lot of times, because I didn’t finish college. I didn’t have the full education I needed to complete the project and I had to overcome it. That happens a lot where I feel uncomfortable, but that’s a good thing because I always feel like I learn the most when I feel uncomfortable.
Dark moments happen pretty regularly, but I’m able to handle them pretty well. And to be honest with you, I think that’s the reason Big Fish grew the way it did. Because when you have so many dark moments when you you’re thinking how am I going to make it out of this, you succeed.
“I look for the problems that make me uncomfortable to solve. And if they make me uncomfortable to solve them, and I solve them, they’re going to get me somewhere. It’s gotten me to do some of the most exciting things of my life.”
If you surround yourself with situations that can bring you dark moments, and get clarification, and overcome it, you’re going to be one hell of an entrepreneur.
Q: I love that. When the dark moments bring you clarity. Because it’s almost like you need to go through the dark to get to the light.
“Yes. It’s like a relationship. You don’t really know how strong it is, until you go through some really tough shit together.”
With my team, when I feel uncomfortable, I ask myself, 10 years from now, am I going to say, I wish our company had done this. And I train myself enough to say yes, let’s do it then. You learn a lot through putting yourself through uncomfortable situations. You just have to follow your gut, if it’s the right uncomfortable situation.
Q: I love that relationship analogy. Because that’s something that I always say — that it’s easy to be in a relationship when it’s all good, and easy breezy, but what about when shit gets real? Then what?
Yeah, 100%. There are times in the company where I admit, I’m thinking, holy crap, I’d rather be on an island. But honestly, I love it though. Even in the darkest moments, I think to myself, if I overcome this shit, I’m going to walk out and say, I am better tomorrow than I was today. And to constantly be better. I would give anything for that. To constantly be better. Who would give up adversity for that? Like if you knew tomorrow that you are going to be able to do a lot more to impact the world, that’s such a cool proposition.
Q: What happened with Shark Tank, and how did you come out of that moment?
I was actually at a party. Our company was celebrating with a bunch of our friends for going on Shark Tank, and I took a phone call from my mentor and she gave me some advice and got me to really rethink my life. She asked me if my biggest entrepreneur heroes would on Shark Tank, and I thought, no. And I thought, she’s absolutely right. So, I had to go in the party and tell my whole team that we’re not doing this. Can you imagine how dark that is? It was probably everyone’s dark moment.
Q: How did you come out of that?
We only overcame that by being able to clearly articulate that we are a company that can say no to everything else and focus on what matters.
Q: What sucks the most about being an entrepreneur?
Sacrifices. 100%. I can’t see my girlfriend as much. When you’re in the business, you lose communication. I think that’s one of the toughest things. You can take relationships for granted. You have to make sure to make the sacrifices to make your vision come true. There is an immense amount of sacrifices that you have to make as an entrepreneur. Not only financially, but emotionally, psychologically, and even physically. It takes a toll on you. You have to be sure that you’re able to take it. If not, entrepreneurship is not right for you.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?
“That life is great. I say that with no hesitation. I’ve had some people ask me, do you ever work? I see you always doing cool stuff on your social media. Last night, I worked until midnight. The night before, midnight. I kid you not. Night before that, 2 a.m.”
We have a book coming out, and it’s been one of the most stressful things ever, but it’s been one of the most rewarding too. We had to work our ass off, and the public thinks we’re just cranking things out, but we have to work for this, Summer. It’s tough. You have a lot of moments where you’re working really late, and you ask yourself, in the short-term, what is this going to accomplish? But you realize in the long-term, that it’s going to make a really big difference. But it’s tough.
Q: How many hours a day do you usually work?
Today, I’ll probably work about 15 or 16 hours. That’s because I have a big project coming in. Normally, I work about 10 to 11 hours and I get some time in to read or go take a walk. I like to refresh and take a nap. I don’t sleep enough. It’s always above 10 for sure. If I have an 8 hour productive as hell day, and I still wouldn’t feel like I did enough. It’s hard for me to be truly satisfied, because I know there’s someone out there who needs their messaging being better told, and I wish I could find them. How can I find them? How can I help them?
You know that keeps me up at night too. I’m always thinking, what stories out there are waiting to be told?
That’s how it is when you have a purpose.
Q: What is your purpose as an entrepreneur?
For people who are afraid, or who don’t have a voice, to make sure that their big idea is heard.
And that’s through everything that I do. At Big Fish, it’s to help people through their presentation. In the future, whether it’s through investing, or doing conferences. I want to help those people have a platform to be seen by the world. That’s what I’ve always felt was my purpose as an entrepreneur. I’ve always prided myself in being a good connector, and helping people meet the coolest people ever.
Q: What do you tell yourself when you’ve just finished working a 15 or 16 hour day, maybe you’ve slept for 5 or 6 hours and you wake up in the morning. What do you tell yourself to get up and get going?
I woke up super beaten and tired one Monday after a Saints game. I woke up and was so tired, and thought aww man, I would love to sleep another couple of hours, but I always tell myself, If I sleep another hour or two or three, my competition gains an hour, two, or three on me. And I can’t let that happen. I think if someone’s trying to kick my ass out there, I’m not even going to give them a chance. I want to outwork them.
It’s interesting you say that. I’ve been thinking about that concept. I think that’s something to explore. It’s almost like you need an internal light to be an entrepreneur.
If you start a company while you hate the world, how will others believe in you? People can sense that energy. They want to be able to feel that. And it’s important for me to be able to make people feel that. You have to have that internal happiness. My passion is cooking. I find time to do that. I find time to hang out with my girlfriend and travel. There are times when I do grind, but when I take time off, I enjoy it whole-heartedly.
“I also believe that there’s no true balance in entrepreneurship and personal life. It’s just a happy medium.”
You don’t just turn it off immediately. I think it should be an integrated part of your life. It’s a part of who I am. And here’s the trick, let’s say your business fails. It’s important for me to make sure that it’s not me as a person, but me as a company. I’m still a great person, I know I’m a great person. But maybe my pitch wasn’t the best, or my company wasn’t where it needed to be. And it’s really important for entrepreneurs to realize that.
Q: What do you want to change in the world as an entrepreneur?
It’s to redefine how we experience things in the digital world. I want to create a new standard for presentations. And now, I want to rid the world of boring experiences. How can we bring a lot more fun into the world? That’s my biggest why. My big, hairy audacious goal is to create a global leading authority on physical and digital experiences. I actually had to sit down and think that one through, and ask what is my why? That’s a simple why to me. I can roll with that.
When you find your why, it’s very fulfilling. I’m more purpose driven than money driven. Let’s say if I’m financially driven, then money controls my happiness. If you’re purpose driven, you allow yourself to control your happiness. As an entrepreneur, you want control. If you have a great purpose, and you execute on that person, money will come flowing in. That’s what I’ve learned.
Q: That’s something I’ve noticed through observation, that entrepreneurs want control. They want to control every element of their business and their environment. So, how do you manage that innate quality as you grow your company? Because inevitably with growth, that means you can’t control every single element.
My executive coach Karen tells me that you have to be able to let go. It’s important to know what’s critical and it’s also okay to say, this is not how I imagined it, but it still serves its purpose.
“It’s something that you have to develop in your own mind. You have to be able to ask yourself, can I let this go? Is this necessary for the vision? You have to look at it for in a really deep way.”
For example, is a color palette necessary to grow the company? Do I have to be involved in all of those decisions? You have to learn how to let go of certain things. Everything is important to you as an entrepreneur, but is it critical?
Q: If I had to make an educated guess, I would say that that control is something a lot of entrepreneurs struggle with?
Yeah, it’s not an equity issue. It’s a psychological issue. You want to be in control of your own destiny. They want to be in control of what they do with their life, what they make, how they live. OF course you want to be in control of that, but if you try to control everything, you run the risk of being a lot unhappier. Just like a relationship.
Q: What’s some real advice you would give to an entrepreneur. Something you wish you had known.
- Vet your partners. Make sure your partner shares the vision. Definitely make sure you see eye-to-eye. And where you want to go 2-3 years from now, make sure it’s the same for them. Because you can’t do it on your own. I believe in going into business with partners. It’s much more comfortable that way, there’s more skin in the game. There’s more brilliant minds around you. Find the right partner.
- Trust, but verify. My dad always says verifying is very important. Always make sure it’s on paper. You gotta make sure you know exactly what you’re getting.
- Don’t give up. The best entrepreneurs in the world just don’t give up. That’s why they are who they are.
Q: Can you tell me about The Big Fish Experience?
The Big Fish Experience is a book all about our presentation process. Content + Design + Delivery = an experience. We go through and tell you all of our case studies for successes and failures of some of our clients, plus insight from some of the best presenters in the world. We break down speeches from Malala Yousef, Jim Valvano, Steve Jobs. Ultimately, if anybody picks up this book, they will learn how to produce a full-fledged experience, from the content, to designing it themselves, to even delivering it. This is the Presentation 101 book that I’ve always wanted to read and when it wasn’t available in the market, and McGraw Hill gave us the opportunity, of course we had to jump on it.
Summer Suleiman is a health writer and blogger who writes about her experience living healthy (or trying to) in a city best known for its fabulous (unhealthy) food and debauchery. You can read about her journey saying no to po’boys and Sazeracs, and yes to kale and juicing, at www.HealthySummer.me or on Twitter @summersuleiman.