The Jay Kim Show #55: Ryan Levesque (Transcript)
Jay Kim: Welcome to the Jay Kim Show. This is your host Jay Kim. I am an investor, author, and fitness entrepreneur. For the first time in Asia I sit down with the world’s most brilliant minds in business, investing, and entrepreneurship. You’ll learn all of the secrets, strategies, and formulas to becoming a successful entrepreneur directly from the masters. If this is your first time listening, thank you for stopping by. This podcast is produced every week with the goal of providing actionable insight to you, the listener, with every single episode. Now onto the show.
Today’s show guest is Ryan Levesque, author of the number one national bestselling book called Ask: The Counterintuitive Online Formula to Discover Exactly What Your Customers Want to Buy, Create a Mass of Raving Fans, and Take Any Business to the Next Level. Ryan has a super interesting backstory. After studying East Asian studies in college, he found himself working in a corporate job on Wall Street in Shanghai, apart from his wife who was studying locally here in Hong Kong. He was just miserable with his life.
So in 2008, during the global financial crisis, Ryan decided to quit his job, move to Hong Kong to be with his wife, and launch his first business, which was selling ebooks online on how to make Scrabble jewelry. So he turned that small business into something that was making 10,000 US dollars a month. So from those humble beginnings he developed what he calls the Ask Method, which has grown into a multimillion dollar business. Where he teaches business owners actionable strategies for asking their customers exactly what they want to buy first through various surveys before trying to sell them anything. Very interesting episode for you guys. Let’s jump right in.
Ryan, thank you so much for coming on the Jay Kim Show. We’re very happy to have you here.
Ryan Levesque: Jay, it’s awesome to be here. I am super excited.
Jay Kim: We are super excited to have you too. Particularly because you do have a little bit of history and background with Hong Kong, and the region. So why don’t you give us a quick intro. Who is Ryan Levesque? What do you do for a living? Then let’s get into a little bit of your backstory, because you have a really interesting backstory.
Ryan Levesque: Totally. Well my name is Ryan Levesque. I’m probably best known for writing a book called Ask. It’s a book that has sold over 100,000 copies, and it was actually just recently published in Chinese. I have the Chinese copy of the book right here in my office. Ask, the book is really two part book. The first part of the book tells a little bit of my story, and how I discovered something that we now call the Ask Method. Which is a marketing method to better understand your audience, and then put people into different buckets, so you can tailor your messaging to each of the different segments that exist in your market. The second half of the book starts to get into the actual how to, the step by step on how you do this. I first got started in this industry about ten years ago. It was actually in Hong Kong where I launched my first business before moving back to the United States.
Jay Kim: So I want to get into a little bit of your story, because I think that it’s going to resonate a lot with the audience here, and people listening worldwide. So Hong Kong, obviously the audience listening here knows the city very well, and knows that it’s sort of a transient place, a melting pot. A lot of expats come in and out. Obviously there’s a lot of people working in finance. I myself am in finance. I used to work on the sales side for a long time. Now I’m in asset management. But I know that you were working on finance for a while, and had found yourself over in Asia. So maybe we can dial the clock back a little bit, and you can tell us about your experience there. Maybe what caused you to want to pursue starting a business on your own, and how your life led you down this path of entrepreneurship.
Ryan Levesque: So in college I studied two things. I studied neuroscience, and I studied East Asian studies. At Brown when you study East Asian studies, there are three tracks. There’s the China track, the Japan track, and the Korea track, and each of which come with learning the language. So I took the China track. Originally I was really interested in studying Chinese, and Chinese culture, to study traditional Chinese medicine. I was really fascinated by the impact of traditional Chinese medicine on the brain. Things like acupuncture, and herbal medicines, and things like that. So I started down this path, and then along the way became really fascinated with China. I just got sort of obsessed with this idea of spending time living in China, living in the wild, wild west, and really going into business.
So after graduating I worked on Wall Street in New York City for a period of time. Then eventually I was offered a job by AIG, the insurance company, to run AIG’s expansion across China. So I left New York, moved to Shanghai, and my job was basically opening up insurance sales offices around China. I had a small local team that I was running, and I was just traveling from city to city to city. At the time when I was living in Shanghai, my wife, we got married right before we moved to China together. She’s also American. She finished her graduate degree in New York City, and decided that she wanted to pursue a PhD at HKU, at Hong Kong University. She studied history.
So for three years we lived this crazy bi-country marriage. Where I was in Shanghai, she was in Hong Kong, and we visited each other every couple weeks. So this is back in 2006 to 2008. In 2008 I just was exhausted. I had reached this point where I said, you know what, I don’t want to be living on an airplane, living out of hotels, tethered to my Blackberry, flying from city to city anymore. I want to go into business for myself. I had some friends of mine who were making money on the internet. I didn’t know exactly what that meant yet. But they had these nice little businesses where they could work from home.
So in late 2008. This is when the world financial crisis hit. I’m sure you remember this. I woke up one day to the Wall Street Journal Asia edition sitting on my office desk. The headline read; AIG to File for Bankruptcy. This is the company that I was working for. It was that day that I called up my wife, and I said honey, I think today is the day. I drafted up my resignation letter, I handed it into my boss, and I said, I’m going to leave. The excuse I gave at the time was, I don’t want to be living in a different country from my wife. I want us to live together. I’m sick of the bi-country marriage thing. But the real reason was I used it as the fire under my butt to finally quit and start my own business. So I sold and donated everything that I owned in Shanghai, except for two suitcases. I got on a one way flight to Hong Kong. That’s where my wife and I started our first business, in a tiny little apartment in Hong Kong.
Jay Kim: That’s incredible. Was your wife and family supportive of this entire thing? Because I think you were probably at the time in a fairly senior position, expanding, doing well in your career, all of this. For you to walk away. This is the classic Wall Street dilemma, right? I mean it’s like the golden handcuffs. How do you walk away from that nice big paycheck. You probably could have easily, even though your company was going through a bankruptcy, I’m sure you could have easily found yourself another comparable job at a competing firm, or something paying you just as much. So was your family supportive? How were you able to justify that in your mind, taking that leap of faith? Because I think there’s a lot of people that are in that exact position, may be very close to where you were when you took a leap of faith. They probably have some entrepreneurial tendencies, but they just can’t walk away from that paycheck.
Ryan Levesque: I’ll tell you Jay, it was the thing up until that point in my life that took more courage than anything else. The reason why I say that is because my family did not believe in what I was doing. I mean I went through what was really a seven year fall from grace. Where my family thought I was going to become the next great neurosurgeon. That’s actually what my college roommate is. He’s a neuroscientist at the Mayo Clinic here in the United States. He and I were best friends in college. He pursued neuroscience to the highest degree. I fell off along the way, and decided to go into business.
I’m the first person in my family to go to college. So it was a really big deal for my parents for me to be doing anything. It’s sort of like the entire hopes and dreams of my family was on my shoulders. So when I said, all right mom and dad, I’m not going to become a neurosurgeon, but get this, I’m going to work on Wall Street. They’re thinking, well all right, that’s maybe not as great as being a neuroscientist, but Wall Street, we can live with that. Then one day I have to call them up and say, hey guess what? I’m not going to work on Wall Street, I’m going to move to China, and do business in China. They’re like, well okay, we get that. Then one day I say, all right guys, so I’m going to quit my job, and instead of doing what I’m doing now, I’m going to teach people how to make Scrabble tile jewelry by selling $10 ebooks online. Really, it’s a thing, that’s what I’m going to do. So I went from neuroscientist to teaching people how to make jewelry using Scrabble tiles, as in the board game, and origami paper. That was the first business that my wife and I launched in our tiny little apartment in Hong Kong.
So Jay, it was a huge fall from grace. I think it’s only recently, to fast forward to today, I have a multimillion dollar company that I run. I have 50 employees. I have a full successful business from this. But it really took ten years from when I went, call it rock bottom, starting with nothing. Where I donated everything that I owned, and had no money, and was burning through our savings, no salary, nothing, to where I am today. But I’ll tell you what, those early days, for anybody who is at that point, they take a lot of courage. If you have friends who are successful, which I did. I had a lot of friends who were either in finance, who were lawyers, they went to places like Harvard Law, Harvard Business School. They were all looking at me like, that guy Ryan, he’s crazy. Something happened to him. He went crazy.
Now in retrospect I’m able to look at them, and they’re all jealous because I get to make my own hours, I can work from anywhere in the world, I get to travel, I do whatever I want. But at the time they were looking at me saying, why would he give it all up to do something like that? So for anyone who is in that situation, if you’ve been contemplating, I will tell you this. It is scary. The people around you who love you the most are probably going to be the ones that disagree with what you’re doing the most. Here’s the dirty little secret. Because at the end of the day they are jealous. Even the people around you who love you, they are jealous. Because in the back of their mind they’re saying, I wish I had the courage, I wish I had the balls to do that.
Jay Kim: You hit the nail on the head. People don’t like hearing that, but it’s actually the honest truth. Wow. I think at this point in your life you’re probably making more money than even if you had stayed on Wall Street.
Ryan Levesque: For sure. But if I were to add up all of the money between now and then. So this year, last year, the last few years, for sure. But those first few years when I was making next to zero dollars, it was certainly a cut in lifestyle. For anyone who is in that situation I’ll say this, that’s the thing that holds most people back. So especially in a place like Hong Kong, where people drive nice cars, people eat out at very nice restaurants, you have to be prepared for a period of time to downscale your standard of living. I mean when we were living in Hong Kong, we lived in a couple of places. We lived in Sheung Wan, and later on we lived in Malvan. We lived on Malvan. It’s an island. You could take the ferry to [? Tseng]. I don’t know if you know where that is exactly. So on Malvan there’s a little grocery store on the island, and we ate so simply. I mean it was tuna fish and noodles every day of the week. Very very basic.
But being on the island, as opposed to being on Hong Kong Island, or even in Tseng, or Kowloon, just being on Malvan was isolated enough that we didn’t have the pressure of having to “keep up with the Joneses” and spend money. There’s no cars on the island. So I didn’t have to have that unpleasant reminder every single day of the Mercedes, the BMW, the Rolls Royce. I didn’t need to do that. I just walked around the island. So I didn’t need a car. So I think that’s another important lesson is to the extent that you can. When we moved to the United States, we did the same thing. We didn’t move back to New York City. We moved to a small city in Texas on the Mexican border that’s just a very poor city. We isolated ourselves from all the having to keep up with the Joneses pressure, so we wouldn’t feel pressured to have to live this lifestyle. We could put all of our savings, and our earnings directly back into the company.
Jay Kim: I love that. That’s such a great story. You’re absolutely right. You have to be able to eat dirt, and just really focus on your business before. It takes a long time. It takes years, like you said. So I want to switch gears now. So from your Scrabble business subsequently you’ve dabbled in different types of online business. Along the way you’ve discovered this brilliant method, which you call the Ask Method. It’s now, like you said earlier, the basis of your national bestselling book, and the business that is now a multimillion dollar business that you’ve generated. So why don’t you talk us through what exactly is the Ask Method, and how can someone implement that into their business today.
Ryan Levesque: Well the first couple things that I tried online I completely failed at. When I was just getting started I stumbled on this idea of using surveys to figure out what it is that people want in the market that you’re serving. It doesn’t matter if you’re in finance, if you are in Scrabble tile jewelry, if you’re in orchid care. The idea at the time was that if you use surveys to ask the right questions, you can figure out what it is that people want to buy, and then you can give it to them. This strategy was really appealing to me, because I’m very risk averse. I’m the type of person that doesn’t like to just go all in. I’m not your classic entrepreneur who just bets all his chips. I was comfortable risking just a small amount of money at a time, because my burn rate if you will, the amount of money I had was just whatever I had in the bank, and I didn’t want to go through all of that.
So this idea was really appealing to me. But what I learned was that the devil is in the details. There’s a quote that’s attributed to Henry Ford, and it goes like this. Henry Ford is known for saying if I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have told me faster horses. Steve Jobs is famous for saying, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. The reason why those quotes ring true is because they are true. So whenever we introduce this idea of the Ask Method people inevitably say, well is it as simple as just asking what people want, and giving it to them? The answer is no. That’s really what I spent the last decade figuring out. Going into market after market asking the right questions to uncover what the true demand is. To figure out not only what is it that people want, but what will they spend money to purchase. You can’t just ask somebody what will you buy, because they won’t be honest with you. You have to go through the side door.
So the Ask Method is all about asking the right questions, at the right time, in the right way, to figure out what it is that people want to buy. Then the second big concept is in every market, it doesn’t matter how big the market is, or how small the market is, there are what we call buckets of people. You see in every market there are profit pools. There are certain groups of people who will spend a disproportionate amount of money. There are other groups of people that you actually want to selectively ignore focusing on. It’s all about identifying what are the three to five most important buckets in your market, and ignoring everybody else.
So using this process, the Scrabble tile market was the first market I got any success in. We took that business to almost $10,000 a month in revenue. The next business I went into was the orchid care market. So orchids are huge in Southeast Asia, and in Hong Kong. We started teaching people how to care for their orchids, and built an entire business around that that we grew from nothing to $25,000 a month in 18 months, and eventually to half a million dollars a year. Then I had to go back, and make my parents proud, and use my background in neuroscience. So I created a business called RocketMemory, which is a memorization technique business where we teach people memorization techniques using the brain, using the mind. So I built that business.
Then from there people started reaching out to me and asking me to help them do what I’ve done in these three businesses for their business. I started partnering up with bigger and bigger companies, and went into markets like dog training, and weight loss, and satellite TV, and business funding, golf instruction, tennis instruction. All in all I went into 23 different markets, generated over 100 million dollars in sales using this process. It all started from that first little business that we started in a tiny little apartment in Malvan.
Jay Kim: That’s incredible. So let’s dig a little bit deeper very quickly. You said that essentially you are asking the right types of questions so that you can find the most profitable buckets within your niche. How are you able to craft those questions to ensure that the people you are targeting aren’t just these freeloaders who are trying to get information for free, and will never spend a dime? Because I think in online businesses especially, this is one of the most important things. Let’s say you’re building your email list out, and you’re trying to ascend them into buying some sort of product of yours. The biggest challenge is basically, of my list who am I going to earn money off of? That’s the bottom line what you want to know.
Ryan Levesque: Totally. I’ll introduce two concepts. I think this will be really powerful. The first is what type of information are people able to give you an accurate answer around. The biggest mistake people make when they run surveys is they ask people what they want. But people actually don’t know what they want. We’re not good at knowing what it is that we want. In fact, if I ask you this question, what do you want in life? It’s something you have a hard time thinking about. If I say, what would your dream house look like? What would your dream job look like? What would your perfect career look like? We actually don’t know what it is that we want. But if you flip it around, we’re really good at knowing what it is that we don’t want. So if I flipped all those questions around and said, think about the house you’re living in right now, or your apartment. What’s the most annoying thing you just don’t like about your apartment? We’re really good at being able to pinpoint what that thing might be. Think about the last job that you had. What was the thing that you hated the most about that job? That’s the first big idea, is that people don’t know what they want, but they know what they don’t want. Your questions want to be focused around that type of thing.
The second big concept is this. A big mistake that people make when they run surveys is in the way they analyze the data. It’s something I call the myth of the FAQ, and it goes like this. When you’re paying attention to the responses people are giving you, to a question like, let’s take the example we just used right there. When it comes to your last job, what was the thing that you hated the most? What people will do is they’ll ask 100 people, get 100 answers, and they’ll look at the themes, and trends, and ideas that pop up. They’ll say, all right, here are the biggest themes. But the mistake that people are making is they’re treating all responses equally.
The big idea that you want to focus on is this. The people who leave you the longest, most detailed, most passionate responses, those are the people who are most likely to spend money to solve the problem that you are asking about. Think about it like this. If I ask you, what was the thing that you hated most about your last job and you said, I don’t know, the hours were a little long. Versus, oh my gosh, where can I begin? The thing that I hated the most was this, and that, and the other. Of those two people, who is more likely to buy a product solving the problem that you’re asking about? It’s the person leaving the long, detailed, passionate response. So that’s what you want to do. You want to focus on those people when you’re analyzing the responses, and actually ignore everyone else. So the soundbyte for the second concept that I’ll leave you with is depth of response is actually more important than frequency of response.
Jay Kim: That’s actually very powerful. Because I don’t think people recognize that, especially when they’re just scanning results. I think that’s a powerful way of looking at things. Guys listening in, Ryan goes through everything in his book Ask. I highly recommend picking it up. I read it myself. I can tell that you have a scientific background, because the way in which you analyze your data is very detail oriented. Ryan, I know we have to wrap up here. Thank you so much for coming on the show. The last couple questions are what are you working on this year, or in the next six months to a year? Are there any exciting projects you have that you’re working on related to your business? The final question is just where can people can find you, follow you, and connect with you?
Ryan Levesque: That’s great. I appreciate the question Jay. I wish we had more time, because we could go so much deeper on this.
Jay Kim: I know. We’ll have to have you on again at some point.
Ryan Levesque: We’ll do a part two. I’m totally down for it. But in the meantime in addition to the book, which is a great starting place, the best place to go deeper on this is to go to askmethodworkshop.com. That’s actually the thing that I’m most excited about in my business right now, and here’s why. We made a commitment in addition to our book, in addition to our paid training, paid consulting programs, paid coaching programs, to put out the absolute best free content we could. We wanted to model ourselves after the organization known as TED, if you’ve ever seen the free TED talks online, and put our absolute best work out there.
So I recently put together something call the Ask Method Workshop. It’s a free workshop you can go through online that opens up periodically. Depending on when this is published, it might be open now, it might open up again in a very short amount of time. We open up a few times a year, and you can actually go through the Ask Method process. It’s my absolute best work, and it’s free. It’s a free video series that walks you through all the steps of the Ask Method, and how to implement it step by step. It includes a series of PDFs and checklists, as well as a mind map that walks you through all of the steps involved to execute this in your business. So if you go to askmethodworkshop.com, it will take you to that free resource. It’s the thing I’m most excited about, and most excited about for anyone here listening to this who is excited to go deeper into the Ask Method.
Jay Kim: That’s awesome. Askmethodworkshop.com. We’ll make sure to have that all linked up in the notes. Ryan, thanks so much for coming on the show. We really appreciate your time. I’m looking forward to jumping into that workshop.
Ryan Levesque: Awesome. Jay, it has been a pleasure, and I look forward to connecting again sometime soon.
Jay Kim: All right. Take care now.
I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. All the show notes and links can be found over at jaykimshow.com. Come back often, and make sure you subscribe, rate, and review. Don’t forget to join us next week for another exciting episode of The Jay Kim Show. I’d love to hear your comments. You can find me on Twitter @jaykimmer. See you guys next week.
This podcast is brought to you by Hack Your Fitness, the high achievers guide to getting ripped in under three hours a week. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably working a full-time job or jobs and trying to find time to balance family life, social life, and, last by not least, fitness.
Look, I get it. I’m a full-time investor and entrepreneur myself and father of two. So how am I able to stay fit year round without spending hours and hours in the gym killing myself on the cardio machine? After struggling for the last 15 years trying every workout and diet under the sun, I’ve finally designed a system that allows me to achieve and maintain single-digit body fat for life in under three hours a week, cardio not required.
Head on over to HackYour.Fitness and download my free 13-page guide that teaches you the simple science behind efficient fitness and smart nutrition and gives you everything you need to know to finally take control of your life. That’s HackYour.Fitness.
Asia's latest investing trends and on-the-ground field research delivered directly to your inbox