(Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune)
This week, Zach Haller officially became an entrepreneur. Well, that's if you define "entrepreneur" as someone who's running their own business. But that word has many, many definitions, and Haller, a transplant from Madison, has been hustling in Chicago since 2006, working as a paralegal, and teaching aerobic. But that was before he hatched an idea too good to not act on.
That idea is Found In Town, a free social-media platform exclusively for reuniting people with their lost belongings. So, basically, the Internet is now a big lost-and-found box. And we have Haller to thank.
I gave Haller a call -- while he was still technically on the clock as an immigration-legal advocate -- to talk about how he's managed to keep so many balls in the air, and what advice he'd give to others who want to pursue entrepreneurship but not give up their day job. Hopefully I won't get a bill for his time.
How long have you been juggling?
Zach Haller: I've always been working full-time. I've been teaching aerobics classes part-time, recreationally, really, but I get paid for that as well. I've done several classes a week, basically, for the past eight years. I moved to Chicago in the middle of 2006 and have been working as a paralegal and a fitness instructor since that time. And about the summer of 2009 I conceived the idea of the company I ended up launching. I was working on it periodically, not really committing full attention to it for about a year and a half. And then at the beginning of last year, things were ready to step up a bit in terms of getting the company off the ground.
How has the launch been going?
Zach Haller: It's been going well! Everything's been -- knock on wood -- going according to plan so far. No surprises, no curveballs anywhere. It's all kind of a new experience for me since I don't have a business background. It's just pushing onward through the fog, but things are going well and everyone I've been working with has been supportive. I can't imagine things going better.
You've been doing this a while. Have you gotten better at maintaining the work-work-life balance? Has it changed at all for you?
Zach Haller: I think the most important thing, when you're starting a business, is to find something that you enjoy doing. It's kind of a no-brainer but when you think of all the time you're putting in, it needs to be something you enjoy if you don't want to be stressing about it. You're swapping hours of where you would've been watching TV or doing other recreational activities for hours where you have to be at the grind outside of the usual workday. You have to be willing to let go of some of that personal time. Most of that personal time, to be honest, if you're really moving forward quickly. You're swapping in all the entrepreneurial activities. It's a lot of reading. It's a lot of learning. It's a lot of networking.
Those are things that aren't too far removed from what I was doing in my spare time to begin with. I'm a naturally curious people. I was just moving away from the fiction and moving into reading about business practices and business development, things like that. It's just a matter of adjusting your schedule to fit your new venture and hopefully that's something that's not too far off what you've been doing in the past in terms of hobbies so it doesn't seem like work when you're putting in hours in the evenings and weekends.
How do you keep all these duties straight? Do you keep a bunch of to-do lists? Do you use GTD apps?
Zach Haller: I really just kinda keep it all in my computer. Part of the good thing about working on your own -- as I'm sure you know -- is you're really on your own schedule and you can coordinate things according to when you want to do them. I rely on my memory a lot. Things are always stirring, so I'm aware of what's coming up but I just use my own online calendar through different documents online to keep track of what's going on. The iPhone is pretty handy with setting reminders and calendars. I keep it with me wherever I go. Even if my brain is totally checked out of anything work-related.
Assuming you remember to turn it on, yes.
Zach Haller: [Laughs.] It definitely doesn't get turned off too often, to be honest.
What are some habits you would discourage people from having as they start to get used to juggling?
Zach Haller: I would discourage people from pining too much on hypotheticals, and also just doing anything more than what's in the short- and medium-term of necessity. If you spend too much time creating problems in your head to solve them, or if you spend too much time planning for the long-term -- obviously those are valuable thought processes to do periodically and things like that, but considering how unpredictable the pace of starting a business is and how unpredictable just the development of the business is, especially for young entrepreneurs. The more you plan ahead, the more you create these complex situations that you may or may not end up in, the more time you're potentially wasting, because things can turn at any moment. Things become important that you don't realize are going to be important, so the most important thing is to stay focused on the task at hand and be prepared for the medium-term. Too much long-term preparation or hypothetical consideration is probably a waste of time.
What was the breaking point for you in realizing you should pursue this idea? Because this is your first endeavor as an entrepreneur.
Zach Haller: If you had asked me five years ago if I'd ever want to start my own business, I would've just laughed and thought you were asking the wrong person because I'm such a non-business-oriented person. The idea just came to me, and the thing was back in 2009 when I first thought of an online lost-and-found system, the Internet hadn't quite been completely socialized yet. Facebook was around, but it was half of what Facebook is now. Twitter was just barely picking up and not many people were on it. I just kinda thought of the concept of my company, overtime, as the Internet changed. My idea worked very well into the way the Internet was shifting. About a year and a half in, the pieces started coming together in a way that made it seem like it could conceivably work. At that point I was like, "Okay, I need to pull the trigger on it."
You really need to believe in yourself, and I say that with the caveat that you need to be practical and smart. We all had our parents tell us we can do anything and can be whoever we want and things like that, and that's true to a degree, but you've gotta keep one foot on earth. You shouldn't feel limited in terms of what you can make of your own life, and you're the enabler of your life, but that doesn't mean you should be in a dreamlike state and forget all the practical elements of what a career involves. You just need to really focus and not let yourself second-guess or doubt yourself. But at the same time, keep in mind that you are responsible for everything you're producing. But there's a lot of hard work involved, and you shouldn't delude yourself.
David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a columnist for EGM. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.