January 3, 2009
I visited my uncle in Boston a few weeks ago. As far as I can remember, he has been a wealthy doctor with a number of successful businesses. He and I spent some time during my trip and we started talking about business and the current economic climate. He may not realize it, but he can be a bit opinionated and shares his advice whether you ask for it or not. But during this recent visit, I got a lot of insight into him as a person and how he became so successful.
Uncle Muhammad grew up as one of 6 kids in Pakistan. His mother didn’t work and his father was a laborer. He said how they would often wear their school clothes to bed and vice versa. When he was in his early 20’s he got accepted to medical school in Egypt and spent the next 8 years of his life studying and practicing medicine.
Then in 1981 he came to the US with big dreams of practicing medicine in Boston. The only problem was that he wasn’t certified to practice in the US. This marked a new chapter in his life. Unable to practice medicine, and desperate for a job, he took a position at Burger King making $60/week. He mentioned how he would wake up at night with panic attacks because he was so broke. Still, he stayed optimistic and kept working. He eventually thought it would be a good idea volunteer at the Dana-Farber Harvard Cancer Center just to meet people and stay connected to the medical community. Speaking heavily accented English, he remembers the funny looks people gave him when he told them that he was a trained doctor overseas while working in the library.
He told me he kept working like this until 1985. Finally after 4 years of hard work, he was licensed to practice medicine in Massachusetts. The first thing he did was buy a house in a nice suburb right outside of Boston called Needham. He used his new found income to invest in real estate, buying his first properties without getting a traditional bank loan. He negotiated terms with the seller where he paid him monthly installments until the property was paid in full. Two years later the property doubled in value and he sold it for a handsome profit.
Now as a kid, I remember Uncle Muhammad working a lot. I remember him as a well-todo doctor with real estate, a pizzeria, a fast food joint, and a gas station. But things are not always what they seem. I learned that both the pizzeria and fast food restaurant flopped, total loss, about $500k over the course of a few years. The gas station hobbled along until he eventually sold it. One of his next ventures was to start a medical practice with a friend of his, all while working his full-time job at the local hospital. Although he’s always working, he’s doing quite well for himself now. Now that I know his whole story, I have a greater appreciation for his advice. Below are 3 things he shared with me during my last visit:
1). Not New, Just Better: To run a successful business, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Uncle Muhammad likes talking about how Google didn’t invent the search engine, how Nike didn’t invent the running shoe, how Southwest didn’t invent the airplane, and how Apple didn’t invent the touchscreen phone. He said the way to get ahead is to look for inefficiencies in the current way of doing things and make a slight improvement. If you’re good enough, people will recognize it. I applied this to my business and decided to re-invent myself to take advantage of market conditions. Anyone that can eliminate, streamline, or automate business processes is poised to make a killing.
2). Be Creative: Current economic conditions are scary, but they are a once in a lifetime opportunity for entrepreneurs. There is nothing stopping you from having a successful business, no matter what the economic conditions are. He is amazed how people born and raised in this country, with perfect language skills, access to immense resources, and amidst incredible opportunity fail to appreciate how lucky they are. It doesn’t matter if you have no money. He said how he printed business cards and gave them to people when he was still volunteering at the Harvard Cancer Center. He said that if you make a solid plan, you’ll eventually convince someone to invest in you. You have to be creative and aggressive.
3). Never Give Up: During his 4 year tenure at Burger King, I asked Uncle Muhammad if he ever got depressed, or if he ever felt like giving up and moving back to Pakistan. His answer was surprising, despite having very little, he knew things would get better. He said “It’s in my nature to work hard, and I knew if I kept working things would get better” When mentioning his failed restaurants, Uncle Muhammad barely blinks an eye. It’s almost as if he doesn’t care. He does, but he’s seen so much failure in his life that he knows it’s par for the course. So while business has been slow for me, I see things picking up. As a matter of fact, the downturn is good because it forces me to rethink my business and position myself to really grow. This is an opportunity for companies as a lot of below average ones will fail. Only ones with serious intentions and an intellectual base will remain. So see the downturn as a blessing in disguise.
So there you have it, a lot of companies are having a hard time, but we’re literally living in the most opportune time in the history of the world. If a Pakistani immigrant can come to the US and build a successful business, there’s no reason I can’t do the same.
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