Sue Yee is the CEO of Active Data, the builder of Active Calendar online event communities that keep visitors coming back. Tired of suffering from chronic calendar pain, she has embarked on her own mission to optimize disposable time. She sold her family’s cable television form for over $100 million, won the Smart CEO Voltage Award in 2014, and is a proud mom of 2 future women leaders.
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Worst Entrepreneur moment
- Sue was FIRED by her father multiple times, but re-hired by her mother. This taught her some valuable lessons and allowed her to prosper on her own!
Entrepreneur AH-HA Moment
- KISS: keep it super simple. Within the simplicity lies the beauty, Fire Nation!
Small Business Resource
Best Business Book
Sue Yee: I am because I love Smokey the Bear, and I’m ready for you to start that fire.
John: Yes. Sue is the CEO of Active Data, builder of Active Calendar online event communities that keep visitors coming back. Tired of suffering from chronic calendar pain she has embarked on her mission to optimize disposable time. She sold her family’s cable vision form for over $100 million, won the Smart CEO Voltage Award in 2014, and is a proud mom of two future women leaders. Love it. All right Sue. Take a minute to fill in the blanks from the intro and give us a glimpse of your personal life.
Sue Yee: Well, I’m a first generation Chinese girl born to two parents that – at the time, we didn’t get to find out the sex of your baby – thought I was gonna be a boy. How’s that for you for –
Sue Yee: – for managing expectations?
John: Pretty typical probably.
Sue Yee: Yeah, I know. So they bought me all these blue clothes, and then when I came out, they’re like ah shoot. I gotta go get girl clothes for her to wear. But really where I came from I was born into a mom-and-pop business that I was very fortunate that turned into a $100 million asset for them.
And they trained me well since my mom had me stamping bills past due when I was five years old. And working in an entrepreneurial family of course – and I don’t know if this would resonate to anyone else that’s in that world – I was fired by my dad a whole bunch of times and then rehired by my mom fortunately afterwards. So that’s kinda where I came from.
John: That’s the rollercoaster. That’s the entrepreneurial journey, the ups and downs when your own father is firing you, but your mother’s like honey, she’s coming back on board. She’s a good –
Sue Yee: Yeah.
John: – stamper of past-due invoices.
Sue Yee: It started out with those blue clothes. When I saw them when I came out, I just – nuh-uh, I am not gonna conform. I gotta do whatever I want to do dad.
John: Did they end up having a boy?
Sue Yee: Yes, I have two younger brothers.
John: Okay, so they were able to use those clothes at least. That’s –
Sue Yee: Yeah, recycling.
John: So Sue you’re at a networking party. Someone asks you what do you do, and what do you say in ten seconds?
Sue Yee: I say disposable time is my currency because I take advantage of people’s disposable time with my software. I build event community software that makes it easy for people to find, register for, and share events.
John: Boom. Love the conciseness. You must have done that before.
Sue Yee: It’s my job. I better know that.
John: Sue let’s break it down. I want to actually talk about your entrepreneurial origin story and not from the first days but from what you’re currently doing right now. So tell us the story of how you came to be doing what it is that you currently do, and really take us to that starting point.
Sue Yee: Well, of course, I think starting businesses and being in an entrepreneurial environment must be in my DNA. I’d get up every morning. My parents would still be asleep when I left for the bus at 7:00. They’d both work until 2:00 every morning. My dad didn’t’ have a desk. He had a workbench and a soldering gun, and he never had an office.
He just had a workbench with chips, circuit boards and converters all over the place. My mom worked from home. I give her claim to fame as a pioneer of telecommuting, and she helped identify what a working mom was supposed to be like. And so how I started though my business and my entry into the internet world was back in the ‘90s when cable was experiencing the threat of large telecom phone companies getting deregulated. My family and I decided to get out and merged with RCN, and I used the assets and the proceeds of that merger to start internet companies because I saw huge opportunity in working in an open communications network versus the closed infrastructure that cable television had at the time.
How I started the calendaring business is that we took a lot of the technology and assets that I started in the ‘90s, which timing is everything. And we invented so many cool things back then that when the internet crashed in the early 2000s, we had a lot of lessons that we learned from that. And we said okay, what do people want? What will people buy? What will give us direct market presence?
And we found one of our assets was this calendar software that we had that people wanted, and to this day I think calendars are one of the last fashions and silos of information because it’s very personal. You keep your calendar. It’s all about personal calendaring when there’s this huge market of shared calendaring and then where people need to find what’s going on.
And it’s always locked. Locked in an Excel sheet or an email or a memo or something. So that’s really how we started. It was a transition from my telecom days and my cable television days and looking at all the licensing models that I negotiated back then in the ‘80s and ‘90s with CNN, ESPN, and MTV. And think about it. Add supportive channels to pay-per-view to pay channel subscriptions to cable shopping. Hey, that’s what’s going on in the internet now except you’re not restricted to geographic infrastructure.
John: I live and breathe with my calendar. And Fire Nation if you step back and you think about how you go about your day-to-day, if it’s not really coming from that calendar, then how are you scheduling things? How are you really making sure that you’re utilizing your time in the best way possible?
And that was one of my biggest struggles when I first launched Entrepreneur on Fire was what’s the best use of my time right now and especially when it comes to scheduling so many interviews? I mean, a seven day a week podcast until I got my calendar software together, until I focused on my calendar being really the fulcrum point for everything else that I do, I was really having a hard time putting my priorities in order.
So love this focus Sue, and I want to dive more into this. But first, let’s talk about something that’s pretty important to all entrepreneurs. How are you generating revenue with your current business?
Sue Yee: Well, my goal is to make money while I sleep.
John: Passive income.
Sue Yee: It is. And being in the cable television world where it’s recurring income, I’m used to that. So generating revenue through transactional based events – ticketing, online registration, donations, selling goods and services – that’s how I’m generating revenue. It’s a combination though of making money while I sleep and direct sales, so it’s transaction revenue and software licensing. To address kind of your personal calendaring and your scheduling –
Sue Yee: – that’s all well and good. But if you close your eyes, how much time do you think is wasted by people retyping events that they want to put in their personal calendar that another organization is organizing? I mean, if you think about all that time and that pain that people take to say well, oh, this concert’s on this date and that party’s on that date and this meeting and this conference is on that date, there is so much time that’s getting wasted.
And that means there’s less disposable time for me to take advantage of. So that’s why I’m generating this platform, this event community platform to get folks to have a venue and a community to share their events for folks like you, for folks like me, for everyone in the world to download with one click. I mean, that’s really what our goal is. That’s what the model’s all about.
John: And the problem sometimes Fire Nation is that we look at it, and we say that only took me 30 seconds, maybe 45 seconds to do that. But you need to step back and say how many 30 to 45 second blips am I doing throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the month?
And that turns into hours and hours of time not to mention the time it takes to even spend some of your precious bandwidth going to the point of entering that in and then leaving. It’s not just that 45 seconds. You have that ramp up and ramp down period on every task that you do.
Sue Yee: Well, yeah. And actually, to add on that, one of my concepts I like to share with everyone is I look at events, and I don’t mean like individual appoints like a dentist appointment or my brother’s birthday or something but any kind of an event. When you’re a marketing planner and you know the date of that event, I compare events to bananas because just like bananas and fruit there’s a short shelf life, right?
From the date that it comes off the farm to when it gets delivered to the store to when it sits on your counter, you only have a certain amount of time to get it sold at just the right time. Same thing with events. If you can’t optimize from the date that an event gets planned to when the event’s actually held and you only market it the last two weeks or the last two months, gee, that’s a missed opportunity.
There are those of us that plan a little bit further than that, and so we like to share or say that we like to help you take advantage of optimizing event marketing communications through our platform.
John: Love it. Well said. And Sue let’s shift now. Let’s talk about your journey as an entrepreneur specifically. And when I say specifically, I mean a story. And that story that I really want to have you share with our listeners today is your worst entrepreneurial moment. So really take us there to that moment. Tell us that story, and let’s share some lessons learned.
Sue Yee: Well, I’d have to say the worst moment I ever had when I broke down was when American Express called my office and said I had a payment due, and I only had 12 cents in my checking account.
John: Ooh, owe.
Sue Yee: That was my worst moment.
John: That’s a memorable number, 12 cents.
Sue Yee: Yeah, 12 cents I know. Well, that’s because my finance officer my mom had called because she was wondering where I was for the day. And she said, “Mrs. Yee, we’re checking accounts, and there’s only 12 cents in this one account.” And she goes, “What? 12 cents? Whoever heard of 12 cents in a checking account?” Oh, I got an earful that’s for sure. But really that was my worst moment. But really it was the circumstances around that time. That was in the early 2000s and right around 911.
Sue Yee: I was eating hotdogs and ramen noodles every day, 20 cent lunches because every dollar I was making or getting was going back into the company to service our customers and pay staff. I mean, we were scraping. And when you don’t have the money, you only spend on what you need not what you want. And we had to just scrape and be efficient and cut expenses, and it really was a learning experience because you don’t realize how much money is just automatically being billed to you that you’re not using.
You start figuring out your priorities, and there’s a lot of money to be saved when you don’t have it. And we did it. Of course, we had to cut stuff like fresh cream for coffee, and that was awful. I had to cut down on lunch, but we had to determine what was a controllable factor and what was something that we couldn’t control. We could not control the economy.
We couldn’t control the widespread fear of our clients that they had to curb spending, so we had to pivot. We stripped out all the pie in the sky dreams that needed investment and time, and we had to focus on what was going to build on our dream but at the same time meet a market need and build revenue.
John: I think a really valuable lesson here at Fire Nation is focus on what you can control not what you can’t control. If you focus on what you can’t control, then how’s that ever gonna be of benefit because you can’t control it? But what you can control – for instance what Sue’s talking about specifically – are internal expenses. Now, I’ll actually come out and say I think it was probably a good thing you cut cream. It’s good to become a lover of all black coffee. That’s just the way –
Sue Yee: Right, right.
John: – it should always be. Hopefully you had to cut out the sugar too. I mean, that’s just a good thing to love that taste. But Fire Nation think about these things. Every dollar does matter when you’re building a company, when you’re growing and expanding that runaway that we as entrepreneurs need so desperately. And Sue in just one sentence, what do you want our listeners to absorb from that worst moment in your life?
Sue Yee: You gotta keep your eyes wide open and know where every dollars going, and make sure it is focused on what you’re trying to achieve. Anything don’t spend on. So it’s really focus and discipline. So learn what you can control, what you can’t control, and in translation take what you’re focusing in and you’re investing in – your time, your money, your resources – on the priority that you want to accomplish. That’s the most important thing.
John: So Sue let’s do a shift now, and this shift is gonna stay on you and your entrepreneurial journey, but it’s gonna focus on an aha moment, a lightbulb for you that went off at some point in your journey. And you’ve had a ton of those over the decades, but what one story do you think’s gonna resonate most with Fire Nation? Take us to that moment, and tell us that story.
Sue Yee: Well, I’ve had a lot of aha moments, and I think as an entrepreneur, as a business owner, if you don’t keep having those aha moments, then you really aren’t learning. One of my favorite sayings is as soon as you say I know, all learning stops. So I’m always open to as many aha moments as I can, and then I’m accumulating them and trying to apply them wherever I can.
One of the aha moments in terms of starting my company was in technology there’s a whole plethora of different ways you can accomplish things. And we had invented all these different solutions and technologies, made things more complicated than they could be. And it was amazing – without going into all the details – all the advanced technologies that we had built that maybe were a little too soon.
And timing was everything in the marketplace. And what I did was one day I had a management retreat, and we were sitting around the table and saying okay, we have five major market segments for the five different products that we’ve invented out of our business. Which one should we focus on? And four of them were extremely complex. One was really simple. And I guess that’s where the keep it simple is always a great rule.
The one that was simple that was easy to understand was Calendar, and it was amazing. The aha moment was we did an inventory of all these product lines and the market needs and the technologies, and we balanced opportunity, future opportunity, with current market needs. And we said calendar was the simplest of our solutions. Let’s move it, and I think there’s still a huge market opportunity for Calendar. But it’s simple. There’s a start date, start time, location, and a description. It’s structured data, easy to use. So that was a great aha moment for me.
John: Sue there’s a lot of things I want to pull out of that. No. 1 is the acronym KISS. Keep it super simple, and Fire Nation as entrepreneurs we always seem to have this desire to be so complicated in every single step that we take. And it doesn’t have to be that way. And as you heard Sue share, within simplicity lies beauty.
And we need to realize that and embrace it, and that is often the right path especially at the beginning in that still testing and proof of concept phase. And also, I love Sue how you talked about how timing is everything, and we just need to accept that as entrepreneurs. Those are those external factors. Sometimes there’s a lot of luck that’s gonna lay a role in whether you’re successful or not.
And that’s just a factor that you can’t control, and of course, you can do things to improve your luck. I love that quote luck is where effort meets opportunity. But there’s only so much you can do, so focus on what you can control. I love this theme that we keep coming back to. And Sue what’s the one sentence you want to share with us that you want to make sure the listeners really absorb from this story?
Sue Yee: Chance prefers a prepared mind.
John: Expound a little bit.
Sue Yee: Well, it’s a Louis Pasteur quote. And basically, what that means is if you want to mitigate your risk, you gotta prepare. Luck and timing fall into play as well, right? And that’s the –
John: Of course.
Sue Yee: – catalyst to success. But wherever you can prepare and look under the covers and identify where your risk and your failure points could be so that you can address it – and there’s lots of comments about hey, expect failure. I’d like to kind of twist that because I’m in technology. Things always fail, right? But it’s really anticipate failure.
Sue Yee: If you reverse engineer things to anticipate failure, then you will be more likely to guarantee success. That’s really what I look at. Chance prefers a prepared mind. Always prepare so then you mitigate your risk, and anticipate failure. And from there another favorite one of mine is that just because I ask your opinion doesn’t mean I’m asking you to tell me what to do.
I’m always looking for opinions to validate or to have me pivot on my way of thinking, and that’s also consistent with just chance preferring a prepared mind. Poll and find out what’s going on out there so that you can validate what you’re doing.
John: Love all of this, and Fire Nation these are the type of things you press rewind 30 seconds on and kinda take that in because it’s so critical that we understand that this is part of the entrepreneurial journey. And Sue what’s your biggest weakness as an entrepreneur?
Sue Yee: Not realizing that I can’t do it all at the same time. That’s my biggest weakness.
John: You can’t do everything at once? What about multitasking?
Sue Yee: Oh no. I know. It’s not scheduled. I can’t do it. Yeah, it’s focus and discipline. I might preach this. And in reality I just constantly have to curb myself and identify and stay focused. It’s identifying what’s the priority, what’s important, what’s not necessary to do because time is like a river.
You can’t step in the same river twice, and same thing you can’t redo yesterday today. You just gotta keep moving forward, and you gotta make the best use of it. So that realization is really one of my biggest weaknesses because I would have so much to do and not enough time to do it.
John: What’s your biggest strength?
Sue Yee: Passion –
Sue Yee: – and my relentless pursuit to be useful. I always want to be useful every moment. Every moment is a gift. And if we don’t take advantage of the moment, whether it might just be to veg out – I mean, that’s a useful moment as well –
Sue Yee: – but –
John: We need to recharge.
Sue Yee: Yeah, that’s important to do too. But really my biggest strength is that I have this purpose in life to be purposeful. That’s my biggest strength I think. I don’t just sit around.
John: Purpose in life to be purposeful. I love that, and I love how you’re always looking to be useful. And another phrase that I use and I think is so powerful Fire Nation so many of us are striving to get to this end zone to score to get that big win. And then it’s like okay, now, we have all this money. Now, we can rest and relax.
But we are always, as human beings, wanting to be relevant, wanting to be useful, wanting to be purposeful. That’s never gonna end believe me. So set up your life and your journey in that way. And for you Sue what’s the one thing that has you most fired up right now?
Sue Yee: I can’t tell you or else I’d have to have you give me lots of money.
John: I decide to NDA over Skype.
Sue Yee: Yeah. Okay, a verbal NDA. No, other than that, you know what? I do have some awesome things that are coming down the pipeline. Maybe we could talk again. I could tell you all about it in another interview once they’re up and running.
Sue Yee: But other than that, it’s waking up every day as a new day to make things happen. That’s what has me fired up. When I wake up in the morning, it’s a new day. Whatever bad stuff happened the day before, it’s okay. Reset to zero. Start over. Go forth.
John: Reset to zero Fire Nation. We all deserve one of those every now and then. We had it on Nintendo. Let’s have it in life too. So Sue –
Sue Yee: Right.
John: – we’re about to enter the lightening round, but before we get there, let’s take a minute to thank our sponsors. Sue are you prepared for the lightening round?
Sue Yee: Yes, yes.
John: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Sue Yee: I think one of the biggest issues of becoming an entrepreneur is overcoming gender biases and surprising people and having them reset expectations of what I was capable of and still am capable of. I think that’s one of the biggest things for me as an entrepreneur. It’s really just establishing credibility and a proven track record.
John: What’s the best advice you ever received?
Sue Yee: The best advice comes from my 80-year-old godfather, Leon Portress, who is my mentor and my hero. He didn’t use these words because he’s such a gentleman. He told me that you don’t have to be a jerk to get what you want and that charm wins every time. So he taught me how to negotiate and how to get what I want without having to be a jerk. You have to be assertive sometimes, but you don’t have to burn bridges with it.
John: What’s a personal habit that you have that you believe contributes to your success?
Sue Yee: I know how to use the delete button for my emails. No, seriously. It’s actually not working linearly but by priority. So in practical terms, I get hundreds of emails every day.
Sue Yee: And it’s not looking at first in, first out and going one-by-one in date order because I get so much email. It’s being able to scan my hundreds of emails and address the priorities and not working on one at a time in chronological order. That kind of is a personal habit though not just with emails. It’s with everything. There are so many priorities that come at me every day, new ones that come into my funnel every day and for my staff every day. And it’s being able to reset all the time what that first priority has to be when you have ten new ones that are going on top of the ten old ones I had yesterday. So that’s I think one of the personal habits I still have to get better at but that I strive to do.
John: Have you ever tried a tool like SaneBox or Mailbox to help you with that email?
Sue Yee: No, but I will. I’ll take a look at them.
John: They are –
John: – awesome tools when it comes to prioritizing. They start to learn your habits about what you actually do prioritize. They help you a lot. And speaking of resources do you have internet resource like in Evernote that you can share with our listeners?
Sue Yee: I wouldn’t be doing a good job if I didn’t say Active Calendar.
John: Duh, you’re an entrepreneur.
Sue Yee: Yeah, actually with Active Calendar what I do is I’m able to see at a glance who’s on vacation, product release schedules, marketing schedules and deadlines all at the same time. And I can juxtapose and align my universe by date and time.
Everything revolves around date and time, and what better way to see out in the future than to see what collisions are gonna occur, what conflicts are gonna occur, or what opportunities that are out there that I can leverage and align things with. It’s all about alignment. That’s how you get efficient. You align things. You save time.
John: If you could recommend one book for our listeners, what would it be and why?
Sue Yee: Oh, I knew you were gonna ask me about this book question. I’m in the video generation, cable television, video. I go to TED Talks. I read current trends. I go to YouTube. I learn things that are happening on video. I guess it depends on if you’re saying a book is print. Well, I go online, and I download TED Talks, or I read the New York Times. So I’m guilty of not necessarily being a good book reader but a good information gatherer.
John: Well, you need to know what works for you Sue, and you obviously do. And TED Talks is a great resource, and Fire Nation I know you love audio like TED Talks. So I teamed up with Audible, and if you haven’t already, you can get an amazing audiobook for free at eofirebook.com. And Sue this next question is the last of the lightening rounds, but it’s a doozy.
Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning in a brand new world identical to earth, but you knew no one. You still have all the experience and knowledge you currently have. Your food and shelter is taken care of, but all you have is a laptop and $500.00. What would you do in the next seven days?
Sue Yee: Actually, I thought this would be a hard question to answer, but it was really actually easy once I answered it. I’d walk around. I’d talk. I’d talk some more. I’d observe and observe. I’d listen and listen some more. I’d talk some more. I’d ask questions, ask more questions, listen, talk, observe, listen, talk, and I would meet as many people as I could to build my network.
And I’d find out what the market need was out there. I’d track all the people that I’d met. I’d enter them into my laptop until I could find out and define a market need, and then I would use all of the people that I met – not use but leverage all the people –
Sue Yee: – that I met to either have them help me, help them buy it, or get them recruited to help me build it. That’s what I would do with my laptop and my $500.00. I’d probably use it for internet. I don’t know if the laptop has internet, but if I didn’t, I would use some of it for internet then. But I would just meet and network with as many people as I could to identify a market need and then leverage that network to build and distribute it.
John: Well Sue I want to end today on fire with you sharing one parting piece of guidance, the best way we can connect with you, and then we’ll say goodbye.
Sue Yee: I would say don’t ever give up. Just always keep trying. And reset to zero if you have to, and just keep living your passion and fulfilling your dream. The best way that you can have success is believing. You gotta love what you do and believe in it, and then, therefore, you’ll be successful whether it’s with money or with your own personal satisfaction.
That’s really what counts at the end of the day. How you can reach me is you can follow me on Twitter. My handle is Susancyee. You can LinkedIn with me. You can reach me at activecounter.com and send check it out and send me some feedback, and you can email me at [email protected]
John: Fire Nation you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and you have been hanging out with Sue and J. L. D. today. Sue keep up the heat, and head over to eofire.com. And type Sue in the search bar. Her show notes page will pop right up with everything that we’ve been talking about – links, resources, all of that great stuff. And Sue I want to thank you for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today. For that we salute you, and we’ll catch you on the flip side.
Sue Yee: Thanks so much John. Loved being here. Talk to you soon.
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