Founder Story | Tom Morkes Shares His Veteran Story| High Speed Low Drag Podcast #4 Content

Tom Morkes on HSLDHigh Speed Nation. John Lee Dumas here, and I am fired up to bring you our featured guest today, Tom Morkes. Tom, are you prepared to ignite?

Tom: I am, John. Let’s do it.

John: Yes. Tom is a West Point grad, Iraq war veteran. He even got paid to jump out of helicopters for a while. Since leaving the Army, Tom has written and published three books, started his own publishing company, Insurgent Publishing, and is a co-founder of High Speed Low Drag.

Tom, I’ve given our listeners just a little overview. So take a minute, tell us about you personally because we want to get to know you and then let’s dive on in.

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Tom: For sure, John. I appreciate it.

Yeah, my background is actually in the Army, five years active duty. At one point I did get paid to jump out of helicopters, which was pretty cool. That was my last unit that I was in. I was in Airborne Unit for the last year. Since then, about that last year in, I started to work on the side, do some writing and publishing online, just my own stuff, kind of kept it a little bit down low.

But I was able to actually make some money from it which I was pretty impressed by because you read a lot of stories and hear a lot of people making money online. I’m like, “Is that really legit?” So, yeah, turns out it is. It’s possible. It’s hard. There’s nothing easy or automatic about it, but the experience is good.

Then when I left the Army, I was like, well, I’d always wanted to just take a year off, just kind of decompress or whatever, and go travel. So I actually, at the same time I got out, I started traveling around the world for a year. I just got back to the States now, believe it or not. So that was a year ago I left.

BootstrappedIn that time span, I also started my own publishing company. We published close to half-a-dozen publications, single author, and then also a magazine called, “Bootstrapped.” I’ve written a few books now, working on a fourth, and co-launching High Speed Low Drag. So it’s been a busy year, but it’s been a lot of fun.

John: Well, it’s busy, but it’s what we do, Tom. It’s what inspires us and what turns on our passion. It’s what fires us up. Kate’s been gone — my girlfriend, for those who don’t know, who works with me on EntrepreneurOnFire — for the last six days. Every now and then she’ll check in. She’ll be like, “Oh, so what did you do today?” I’ll be like, “I actually just worked.” I kind of loved it, but maybe I should shower at some point.

But, Tom, you know what we’re doing here? We’re bringing this to veterans. We’re bringing this to even people who are still currently in the military who are looking ahead towards that transition out, or people who are just right now in that transition period. We’re here to bring information, knowledge, experience, tools, tactics that can help people along this way.

That’s where the focus of this podcast, High Speed Low Drag, and I’m bringing on a new, amazing veteran every single week. We’re really going to dive into a lot of key things that have made their transition into the civilian world successful. I’m excited to start with you, Tom, our first interview, as one of the co-founders, myself and Antonio Centeno of Real Men Real Style.

We had a really good intro chat back at Episode One. We introduced ourselves and dove into that and got into some cool things on what we have planned. But what we’re really focusing on today, Tom, is your transition, your journey in the military, in the transition, in the post. But before we get into that, we do start with a success quote, so take it away.

Tom: Sure. This is one of my favorites, and I really do try to embrace and live it every day. It goes like this. “All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger — it’s impossible — but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”

That’s actually Niccolò Machiavelli. Pretty powerful stuff, at least for me, it’s been instrumental on how I perceive and execute on different ideas.

John: Any quote, Tom, that has the word ‘sloth’ in it, I like it because I never, ever want to be compared to a sloth. As long as I can keep that on the backburner knowing that by being lazy I become a little slothful, that fires me up to actually kick it in the next gear, so to speak. Thanks for sharing that.

Tom: For sure.

John: So, Tom, we’ll turn the spotlight right now on your military experience. This is the first topic we’re going to talk about because in the military, we all have pivotal experiences. We all have those. So I want you, Tom, to share your pivotal moment in the military. Give us some background about — walk us up to that time, tell us that story and the lessons you learned.

Tom: Yeah. This is one of those questions that’s tough for me because, again, focusing on one thing is always tough. But I’m going to do my best here.

When I was deployed to Iraq, I think I was like 22 at the time so pretty fresh, Second Lieutenant. And then deployed to Iraq, turned 23 I think in Kuwait or Iraq before we got there. That was in 2009. I was Transportation at that time so fell in Logistics Unit. Part of a Stryker brigade that was over there.

So I figured I was in-charge of a POL Platoon which is like fuel and water and all that. I was like, “Well, this will be no different than what we’ve been training to do for the last six months of the unit I’ve been in.” When we got there, they needed somebody to take over the Convoy Security Platoon for the battalion.

John: Oh, wow.

Tom: I was like, “Well, that sounds way more up my alley,” so I raised my hand because it just was more what I wanted to do. It seemed — I don’t know what it was about that that drew me to it, but I guess I liked the idea of going outside the wire. I know I might sound weird but from a logistics perspective, not many guys, not many women too, actually leave the wire in those positions. It’s just the nature of it. And I didn’t want to just be in the FOB all day for a year.

I guess I ended up getting the position. I guess there was no one better. They chose me out of whoever else volunteered or wanted to get it.

John: Or no one else volunteered.

Tom: Yeah. Exactly, right? That was basically my secret, volunteer for the job that no one else wanted. So that said, all of a sudden I was, okay, I’m handed this unit or this platoon and here’s the thing about that, is we weren’t infantry. I think you’re going to appreciate this and any veteran listening can probably appreciate that. I took over a platoon that was cooks and chefs and warehouse workers.

John: Oh, yeah.

Tom: And that was my little ragtag group of convoy security.

John: Here’s an M240. Here are a couple of cooks. Go provide security.

Tom: Yes. So I was like, okay, so here’s my next objective is to make sure that nobody dies. It sounds like a joke, but it’s very serious too.

John: Very real.

Tom: Because that’s the situation, right? And we were falling on these MRAPs too.

platoonSo I was like, okay, I have this new equipment. I have this new platoon. Nobody’s really been trained in any of this stuff because we didn’t have MRAPs back in the States. I had to create, basically, SOPs and TTPs for us on how to actually operate these vehicles because nobody had done it before. The unit we filled in on didn’t have that stuff established either.

So for me, it was training every day before missions and then going out on mission every night that — I won’t say there was a pivotal moment, individual, but the process of doing that day in and day out, it made me appreciate life; one, just that experience, that deployment; two, appreciate the necessity to figure out systems and to doggedly pursue them to make sure that everybody understands it like that it’s muscle memory because if anything bad puffed off — and a couple of times they did — you didn’t want people to forget what they were supposed to do.

So that moment which is more the whole year in summer was pivotal for me.

John: Tom, what I think that did is that really set a precedent in your life. That you are going to be one to raise your hand. You’re going to be one to step forward into the unknown. You’re going to push your envelope with your comfort zone. You did that as an officer in the US Army, and that really allowed you to transition those skills that when it came time to step up in the entrepreneurial world, you raised your hand.

A perfect example is here with High Speed Low Drag. Antonio and myself were incredibly busy doing our thing, but we had this thing on the backburner for so long, we had been creating content for it. We wanted to just make it launch, but we needed that third and perfect piece.

We reached out to you. When we made that callout, when we were looking for that perfect piece, and we reached out to you. We saw what you were doing. You did raise your hand. You said, “Yes. This is out of my comfort zone. This is something I necessarily haven’t done before, but I’m going to step forward and make this happen.”

That just follows a precedent you started way back when you were 23 years old. Actually, you were talking about that, really reminds me of the 13 months that I spent in Iraq. It was a little different because I actually went there as an armor officer, knowing that when I got back, I was actually transitioning into transportation. I had those two two-year stints. My first two years was armor. My second two years of active duty was transpo.

I remember being very thankful that I was there on a tank with soldiers around me who were trained to fight. So I can only imagine that extra battle that you had to go through, to take, like you said, this ragtag platoon of cooks, so to speak, and turn them into a security detail. Congrats on that, my friend. That was what I pulled out of that.

Again, this is going to be the struggle in these interviews, High Speed Nation, is really keeping them to the 25 minutes really that we’re trying to keep them into. Because you get someone like myself and Tom talking war stories, well, it’s hard to get us to stop. But we are moving forward.

What we’re next going to be talking about is the transition out, Tom. Because a lot of listeners, a lot of High Speed Nation is either in the military having transition in the future, currently transitioning, or they’ve already transitioned out but there’s so much that they can learn from what you did, both right and wrong, and lessons that you learned.

So, talk to us about your transition out. Build a story around that, and share with us the lessons you learned.

Tom: For sure. So I mentioned a little bit that my last year in, I kind of started stuff on the side. That was really it. Ever since I was in college, I’d always been fascinated by business and entrepreneurship and real estate as well, and wanted to get into that realm of things somehow, some way.

So for me the transition process was that last year. I was like I definitely want to get out of the Army. I don’t want to do this as a career. It’s been good, and I’m ready for something new, a new challenge, and something more creative. I’ve always been creative, and I was like I want to do something where I can have more creative freedom and liberty which, by its nature, meant that I couldn’t just go with a recruiter because there are a lot of recruiters that, as you are well aware of, come for officers.

John: Right.

Tom: And say, “Yeah, come be this middle manager at Frito-Lays, and you’ll get paid twice as much as you did in the Army.” At first, it sounds great. Then you realize — you look at the hours and you look at what you would be doing, it’s not something I wanted.

So for me it was a matter of how do I start something on my own that can sustain myself? Because I’m not skilled at programming or design or anything like that, I had to fall on writing which I don’t even consider myself a great writer, but I was like, “Well maybe I can do this, and see what happens.”

Sure enough, when I sold my first book, I was still in the Army. I made about $500 that first month I put it online. I was like, okay, this is possible. Maybe I can. You don’t have to be a great writer. Maybe you’ll make money. That’s a good thing.

So, one thing led to another from that and the rest is history. It’s just one thing after another, putting one foot in front of the other, and saying, “Okay, this was successful. What else can I do?” That’s led me to several books, to consulting a little bit, to some freelance work, to co-launching projects like this, High Speed Low Drag, and to Insurgent Publishing where I publish other people’s stuff.

It’s been a lot of different stuff, but the end goal for me has always been how do I create my own lifestyle here and do stuff that I love to do every day?

John: So my big takeaway here, Tom, is if you want to be, do. Now, for High Speed Nation who’s listening, Tom wanted to write. He knew that he could write on some levels, but he was so far from that Seth Godin or just insert any famous author at this point. On a skill level, he wasn’t there. Guess what. Neither was Seth Godin when he started. Neither was — insert any author — Stephen King, you name it. No author, when they start, is a good writer. It’s not something that you come with natural skills on.

If you want to be, do. Turn the mirror to myself. I wanted to be a podcaster so I decided to do a seven-day-a-week podcast, EntrepreneurOnFire. Was I good when I started? Absolutely not. In fact, I can’t even listen, Tom, to my first 50 interviews. I absolutely cringe. People are like, “Oh, it’s not too bad.” I’m like, “Oh, it was bad. It was bad.”

So High Speed Nation, if you want to be, do. Just because you’re not good at something right now, just because you don’t have the skills right now, you have an amazing opportunity in life. It’s called the Internet. It’s called Google. It’s called places like where for $25 a month, you can subscribe and take any course in almost any subject, and become an expert.

That’s how I learned Adobe Audition to actually record this interview. That’s how I learned how to actually upload things to a media host. That’s how I learned how to submit podcasts. Everything I learned, I learned from the Internet. So High Speed Nation, if you want to be, do.

Tom, let’s move forward now into an actual moment in time, your civilian AHA moment. So now you’re out of the military, you’re rocking and rolling. Or you’re not rocking and rolling. You’re scraping along. You’re crushing it, whatever is going on at this point in your life. What was that moment when you did have this light bulb go off and you just said, “Okay, this is actually something I’m going to physically do and put my heart and soul into.”?

Tom, get real specific and really drill into the steps that you took to turn that idea into reality so that our listeners right now can understand the process of going through that.

tom-morkes-and-seth-godinTom: Yeah. It’s funny how things just — they grow or they stem from one thing leads to another. So that first book that I wrote and that I published, it was essentially just a compilation of notes. When I launched it, it was called — at that time I think it was called “2 Days with Seth Godin.” It’s still up in my website. People can get access to it.

I gave it away free because I didn’t want to sell it at the time. I was in this mindset where I just wasn’t confident of what I was doing anyway, to a degree. But I also was like, well, I want people to be able to get this content for free. But I also wanted to be validated so I let people pay what they want for it. That’s when I made my first $500 online in that first month. Again, that was mind-blowing for me because people could take for free, but they chose to contribute.

So just in my mind, my wheels were spinning. Okay, well maybe I can do this again. So I wrote a bunch of other smaller guides and books and stuff like that and offer pay-what-you-want. Sure enough, it did bring in money. Again, it surprised me every time it happened, when somebody would contribute and they didn’t have to. I was just blown away by that.

Well I ended up writing about that on Back then it was called Think Traffic but I wrote a little guest post for them to show —

John: Quick side note, Tom. That was the first time that I had ever heard about you. So real quick, High Speed Nation, this shows you the power of reaching out to already established sources and providing value to them. Because I was a reader of Think Traffic but I had never heard of Tom. I read his article and I’m like, “I need to check this guy out.”

Go ahead, Tom.

Tom: Yeah, and that’s exactly it because pretty massive platform and they were cool enough to let me guest post. I thought they would just reject it, but I was like, might as well ask. I was like, “Hey, I want to write this about my experiment, and here it is.” They published it and had a great reaction. Tons of people left comments, got a lot of shares, got me a lot of, I don’t know, publicity or however you want to describe it. People found me —

John: Notoriety.

Tom: Yeah, however you want to say it. The point is the AHA moment there, the light bulb was like what you just described, reach out to people who will accept your ideas sometimes. You actually won’t just get rejected all the time, although I’ve been rejected a lot. The second thing was — AHA moment — when people responded to that and they had so many questions. They were really thrilled or turned off or had all these different mixed emotions about this blog post, about pay what you want.

It was like a light bulb. I should write a book on this topic. So that was my next book. It was called “The Complete Guide to ‘Pay What You Want’ Pricing.” Everything that I’ve done since then has just been leveraging where I see interest or success, and trying to lean into that and double down on it. I’ve done a lot of things that have failed, but I always look for something where there’s interest or where I’ve had success and try to double down.

So that was my AHA moment was seeing what will happen and then just following the trail and saying, “Well people are interested in this. Maybe I can create a product for them, and they’ll buy it.” Sure enough, that’s what’s happened.

John: There are a lot of things I want to pull out of there, but specifically I want to focus first, Tom, on the way you started. You started by offering things for free. I want to draw parallel to that with EntrepreneurOnFire because when I first started, Tom, there weren’t a lot of podcasters that were out there that were releasing podcasts, and they would maybe do three a week. They will release one for free and then put two behind a pay wall and say, “Hey, if you want the Plus membership, you need to come to my site, subscribe, you’ll get the other two.”

I was like, you know what? I’m an unknown. I’m a nobody. I have no audience. My only care right now at this beginning stage of my business is to build an audience. High Speed Nation, there’s no better way to build an audience than to deliver highly valuable, consistent content for free. Those are three keywords: valuable, consistent and free. That, in a nutshell, sums up EntrepreneurOnFire. You can’t get more consistent than seven days a week.

Luckily, it was valuable not because of me who was bad as a host, but my guests, luckily, were great, and they provided the value. Then of course it was free. So I checked off those three blocks and soon built a podcast that was then awarded Best of iTunes 2013, has over 8 million total downloads now, and the story goes on. And Tom was starting in the exact same manner.

So don’t be afraid to start for free or even for that, free with a potential ‘Donate’ button because if you do deliver enough value, there are going to be people who are going to want to pay you back for that value exchange. So get that audience out there. Get it big. Tom, what do you want to add to this kind of insight that I’m giving?

Tom: That’s it, man, in a nutshell. Start and then show your work, and I think you’ll be surprised. For anybody who’s listening to this, obviously — I’m guessing the majority is going to be Vets and so I understand obviously coming from your shoes, how that feels if you’re especially going out to new territory you’re not used to. Just put your stuff out there.

It was scary for me. Actually it’s funny because it was probably scarier for me to publish my own stuff than being a convoy security platoon leader in Iraq, to be honest with you. It was scarier for me to publish my own work online. But once you do it enough — just like you know this, John — you’d get over it. You get over yourself. You get used to it, and it doesn’t faze you anymore.

Now, after 500 interviews that you’ve done, you’re a pro. It just doesn’t faze you, I’m sure. It’s the same way with my writing.

John: Seven hundred interviews.

Tom: Seven hundred, oh, my Gosh.

John: Totally. Again, this goes back — I don’t like to be redundant, but this point is so critical for veterans that are out there, and soon-to-be veterans — if you want to be, do. There’s literally no other way to actually become an expert at something, to get to know something. So just get in there. Be bad at it. Fail. Make mistakes. Learn, and do it.

Tom, we’re going to bring things to present time. We’re going to talk about today because you do have a lot of cool things going on. Obviously, High Speed Low Drag is one of those, but we really did go into some depth on there with Episode One so we can skip over that part. Talk to High Speed Nation about something that’s really firing you up right now.

Tom: Yeah. The most recent thing I’ve done is launch Issue Two of Bootstrapped Magazine which is essentially like a boutique magazine, comes out twice a year. It’s about the people who build businesses from scratch. It’s real exciting because I have now — the first issue — the whole thing with Bootstrapped, I’m doing it myself, but the first issue was essentially all me trying to —

John: You have a couple of great sponsors though.

Tom: Yeah, we do actually. I have EntrepreneurOnFire as a sponsor in this issue.

John: Do you?

Tom: Yeah, exactly, and Gumroad. It’s real exciting that from the first issue where actually — again, John, you contributed an article, and it’s something that I didn’t know people would participate in because I was an unknown.

But I reached out to you and to some of the great people that I already started to connect with and said, “Hey, this is what I’m putting together. This is my vision for it. Please support it. Please contribute if you can.” Sure enough, enough great people contributed, like you, to make it a legitimate publication and that was getting 100 subscribers right off the bat, annually.

I was like, okay, that’s idea validated so now how do I take this to the next level? And that’s been interesting for me, to go from idea — getting those preorders or whatever, getting the orders, the Early Bird orders, going from amateur to, okay, we’ll let’s turn this into professional. How do we scale this now which was a question I never had to answer before.

So, this Issue Two is just that. It’s a snapshot of me putting everything I can into this to scale it to like a real professional level, and I’m just thrilled with this product now. We’re starting to reach out to cowork spaces, get distribution there. The feedback has been awesome. People love the design, and they’re just thrilled by what we’re doing with it. It’s just super exciting.

So I see this as being a really powerful publication that, in my mind, I look at it as not necessarily direct competitor to magazines like Entrepreneur or Inc. or anything like that, but —

John: One day it will be.

Tom: One day it will be. Yeah, it will be.

John: Well, Tom, check it out. Obviously our time here is limited. High Speed Nation is going to be hearing from you a lot, a lot which is a great thing. What we’re going to do right now is we’re going to get into the Lightning Round which is — I think its six questions and take about ten to 15 seconds each, no more, one sentence, just give us a direct response. We’re going to crush onto the next one.

Lightning Round Question Number 1: What was the most difficult adjustment you had to make to the civilian world?

soldierTom: Choosing my own direction and then making it happen.

John: It’s interesting because as an officer, as an enlisted soldier or whatever branch you may be in, you have this chain of command that’s choosing your direction for you in so many ways, so I totally get that.

What business advice would you pass along to those making the transition now?

Tom: You’re already doing it if you’re listening to this. That’s obviously a shameless plug, but it’s also true. It means you’re searching for knowledge. The next step I’d say is start putting it into action. Connect to people. People that you hear on this interview show that you resonate with, reach out to them. Reach out to John. Reach out to myself. Connect to people. Connections are everything.

John: What is one of your habits that contribute most to your success?

Tom: Shipping, actually creating stuff and getting it out the door so that people can buy it or consume it; judging the response and then reengaging, either doubling down or trying a new course of action.

John: Get it out there, High Speed Nation. You’re going to hear us talking about this a lot, minimally viable product. You’ve got to get this ugly, distorted-looking product or service out there that’s going to get beat up by your clients but in a good way. They’ll give you the direction to move into. Don’t waste your time trying to perfect what your audience may not want.

Tom, what’s the biggest generalization, if any, you’ve had to overcome in the civilian world?

Tom: Just that because of my background that I don’t have the skill sets to do what I’m doing. I’m not a publisher. I have no right to be doing what I’m doing. But I’m doing it, so who cares? Who cares what résumé you have?

John: What book, Tom, would you recommend to our listeners?

Tom: I’m reading The Obstacle is the Way right now by Ryan —

John: Ryan Holiday.

Tom: Yeah, man. It kicked me in the butt.

John: You can say ‘gonads’ on this show.

Tom: It did. It really did. So I would suggest that one because I’m reading it.

John: Cool. I actually had Ryan Holiday on EntrepreneurOnFire. So if you read The Obstacle is the Way, High Speed Nation, come back and check out that interview. He really goes into depth about some of the stoicism that he dives into. It’s fascinating.

Tom, wow, thank you for being so incredibly inspiring and open with us today. Share with us the best way that we can find you and then we’ll say goodbye.

Tom: Besides,

John: High Speed Nation, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and you have been hanging out with Tom and myself today. So keep up the heat. And Tom, thank you for being so generous of your time, your expertise and experience. High Speed Nation salutes you and will catch you on the flipside.

Tom: Thanks so much, John. I appreciate it.

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