Evan Aaronson – Founder of MealsWithMentors.com

[quote style=”boxed”]Close your eyes and go.[/quote]

Evan Aaronson has almost 20 years of experience with creative projects and streamlined, entrepreneurial ventures. He’s worked as a comedy writer, reality TV producer, feature film director, video editor, college instructor, public speaker, online marketer, and Internet entrepreneur known for spotting trends before they hit the mainstream.

After attending UC Berkeley and graduating from NYU Film School, he quickly became one of the pioneers in the fields of online video, music DVD documentaries and independent film–earning himself a platinum record for producing Warner Brothers’ Maybe Memories for the band The Used.

His first feature, Nothing, was one of the first mockumentaries to be distributed nationally, and not only earned him positive reviews from Roger Ebert and AOL Critics Choice, but also soon became an underground favorite. Its style was a precursor to reality TV. In an effort to marry independent films with strong brand names, Aaronson used his second feature, Baggage (starring Mariette Hartley, M. Emmet Walsh and Vincent Schiavelli), to create the home video line for the publishing giant, Chicken Soup for the Soul. During this time, Aaronson worked as a writer/producer/director for reality shows like ABC’s The Bachelor and Discovery’s Monster Garage for which he directed one of the highest-rated episodes of the season.

He also created and managed numerous web properties over the last decade, the most notable being Go Massage, one of the most sophisticated massage directories in the world. Once called “The Starbucks of Massage” by Massage Magazine, it has thousands of clients ranging from celebrities such as Miley Cyrus to Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft, Disney, Facebook, Paramount, Yahoo, Hilton and many more. It was voted Top 10 Mobile Massage on City Search, and through the site, Aaronson developed many technological breakthroughs like pay per lead technology and the use of texting in directories. The company was successfully acquired in 2011. He has recently launched two new websites: Boomopolis.com, which demystifies small business, and MealsWithMentors.com, which makes it easy to find a mentor of your choice.

Speaking engagements include: UCLA, Loyola Marymount, Learning Annex, Tavis Smiley Conference and VSDA, 2012 Silicon Beach Festival, and Startup California. Press mentions include: TV.com, CNET.com, Virgin.com, Variety, Citypaper (Baltimore), San Francisco Weekly, Chicago Tribune, DVD Premieres, Channel 9, Outside Magazine, Daily Candy, and City Confidant (Seattle). His other interests include writing songs and recording music. As a rapper, he once even had a song on a record with Christina Aguillera.

What are you working on right now?

It’s called Meals with Mentors, and it’s a new way to achieve your dreams faster and more efficiently by getting matched up with a mentor. In fact, we’ll find you one for free. All you have to do is take the mentor to lunch at his or her favorite restaurant.

We see it as an alternative to learning and career advancement, and it’s a lot more effective than school, books or sending out blind resumes–it’s real face-to-face conversations with people in your neighborhood who have expertise on the topics you desire. Want to be a rap star, modify your home loan or travel to Antarctica? You now have zero excuses not to achieve your goals. These mentors can hold your hand along the way.

And mentorship, of course, is nothing new. Usher mentored Justin Bieber. Francis Ford Coppola mentored George Lucas. Johnny Carson mentored David Letterman. Socrates even mentored Plato.

As for the mentor benefits–besides the good karma and the free meal–Meal with Mentors enables mentors to give back to the community, develop their professional networks, gain positive exposure for their brands or businesses, and meet possible employees or even future clients.

Where did the idea for Meals with Mentors come from?

This project began out of my own frustrations with having to unnecessarily reinvent the wheel whenever I wanted to achieve a goal. I would often exhaust a ton of energy and time trying to produce results, only to later learn that they could have been accomplished cheaper, faster and probably better if I’d had the proper guidance–real people guiding me along the way, perhaps even opening doors for me and helping to (forgive the pun) satisfy my hunger for more knowledge.

When it came to filmmaking, I went to one of the top film schools in the country and read all of the most popular books. Don’t get me wrong, it was all very helpful, but I never learned how to raise money, write a business plan, find distribution, whet investors’ appetites, or negotiate music rights. I had to figure out all those things on my own, by trial and error. The learning curve was so steep, in fact, that I wound up bankrupt, homeless and almost killed on a trip to Peru (where I was kidnapped) to escape my problems. None of that really had to happen.

I’m not saying the mentors weren’t out there. They were, and they are now. But if you’re not brave enough to reach out to strangers, then you’re limited to the skill sets of your close friends and family, and so many of us need mentors outside of our immediate circles. We just need a better system in place to get in touch with others, and that’s what this site is about.

Through this method of mentorship, the learning curve for any new endeavor doesn’t have to be steep at all. It can be easy and fun. Through the process of sharing wisdom, a person can invent the wheel once and then share it. No reinventing is required.

What does your typical day look like?

This really depends on what stage I’m at in any given project. Right now, I’m in promotion mode, so most of my day is spent promoting the site, reaching out to my contacts, etc. But a few months ago, I was knee deep in development, so I was working with the programmers on a daily basis. I generally work about 40 hours per week, and that rarely changes (unless I’m working for someone else or making a movie). But I’m just not a fan of working 14-hour days unless it’s absolutely necessary, and I never require that of my workers either.

There’s a couple of other things I do to keep things interesting:

  • I try to have lunch with either a friend or colleague at least twice a week.
  • The networking events like yours are also extremely beneficial, so I try to hit those up at least twice a month, but I’d like to go to even more.
  • To ease my stress, I go to the gym or take a bike ride around my neighborhood, get massages regularly, and go in my jacuzzi.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I have a phrase that I’ve been saying to myself over the past few months: “Close your eyes and go.” I know that seems counter-intuitive. If you close your eyes, you can’t see, so how can you go? I really mean that by closing your eyes, you’re shutting out all other options for yourself, along with all the self-doubt and distractions in your life. By closing your eyes, you’re focusing on the job at hand, which is to bring that idea to life. That plus a lot of research and development is necessary before I commit to the idea, and then comes a ton of hustling.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Ah, my favorite question. Please forgive the long answer.

I pride myself on being ahead of the curve with trends, so you can’t limit me to just one. Long before they went mainstream, I predicted: the rise of hip hop, reality TV, online videos, directory websites, pay per lead technology, texting in websites, and the growth of the mini-spa/massage place. As for Carmageddon last year? When everyone else was afraid of the 405, I embraced it months before, thinking it would actually be the best time to hit the freeway.

When it comes to capitalizing on trends, I’m a firm believer in a sweet spot time. This duration and timing can vary, but it usually occurs just after the early adopters get wind of it and before it hits the one-year mark of being reported in the mainstream media (when your mom knows about it). After that time, it’s usually too late.

Some examples include learning HTML in 1996, buying LA real estate in 1997, sending marketing emails in 1998, starting a blog in 2002, or starting a LinkedIn group in 2008 when the majority of people were not paying attention. (I just met a guy who has more than 35,000 people in his group. It was started in 2008 when the field was not crowded. You’d be fighting an uphill battle to get those numbers if you started a LinkedIn group today.)

All that being said, I could still be completely talking out of my ass with the trends listed below, but here goes.

1) Mobile text marketing. We’re still in the sweet spot for this. Whenever I get a text, I read it immediately. In fact, the open rate on texts is 98%. The open rate on emails is somewhere around 15% and will most likely decline further.

2) Crowd funding. I fell in love with this concept in March of 2011 and was even going to start a crowd funding business myself, but here we are, over one year later, and because I didn’t, I feel it’s now too late. I still think it has some juice left; they just passed a law allowing people to invest that way to become part owners, and that’s great, but as a profitable business, this concept has a life span of maybe another three years. By then, people will have moved on to something else (but I still think it will be used as an investing platform). I know of a company mentored by the accelerator Amplify here in Los Angeles that is white labeling it and selling the platform to others who want to start a crowd-funding business. It’s kind of like selling mining tools to the miners instead of digging for gold yourself– hat’s what the smart money does. In fact, that’s how Seattle became a city; they literally sold mining tools to the miners who were on their way to Alaska to dig for gold.

3) Funny online videos for small businesses. Everyone seems to be hopping on this bandwagon right now, and for good reason. It’s a fairly new practice, and it works. Science, Inc. another Los Angeles accelerator, just did this Dollar Shave Club YouTube video, and it was great. I think the conversion rate was decent as well. Don’t quote me, but I think they got 5,000 signups the first week. They’re now at roughly 4,000,000 views on the video. But again, if you don’t act on this funny video small business thing within the next few years, you’re too late, and you better know how to make it go viral because it won’t do it on its own. We are still in the sweet spot for this trend though, so go for it. I plan on doing one myself.

Another thing I see people doing is creating video reviews on other businesses or products in order to market their own business. There’s this Soldier Knows Best guy on YouTube, and that’s all he does. He has like 82,000,000 views; it’s amazing.

5) Co-working spaces. This concept has really taken off in the last few years, and there’s a reason. People don’t like working alone. We are social animals, which leads me to my last and by far most contrarian prediction.

6) Turning it off (aka The Online Backlash). Everything old is new again. Newsflash: people don’t really like sitting in front of laptops or looking at their iPhones for hours at a time. (I’m in that business, and I don’t even like it.) They also don’t like to be alone. So why are co-working spaces taking off? Why are Idea Mensch events so popular? Because people need people. Technology, in and of itself, just doesn’t make us happy at the end of the day–I don’t care how cool the app is.

Vinyl is actually making a comeback, and yes, that’s good old-fashioned musical records I’m talking about. Here we are in a world where Facebook has a billion members, people don’t answer their phones, and we listen to digital files that we can’t even touch. So why vinyl? I can’t help but think that it’s a sign of a bigger thing happening, a correction of sorts. We had the sexual revolution, and then we had AIDS. We had super political power, and then we had 9/11. We had the boom, and then we had 2008. Now, we are dealing with a technological revolution where, and yes, I will say it, perhaps things are getting a little out of hand. It’s getting to the point where eventually, our ability to relate with people in meaningful ways will be affected. And when our humanity is being threatened, there will be a backlash. This is what we’re starting to see happen.

So I’m personally looking where a lot of my colleagues are not right now: people’s need to connect face-to-face rather than through email, Skype, etc. You simply can’t replace real, face-to-face interaction, ever. It’s starting to be about online tools for offline living. That’s what Meetup and Eventbrite, and my previous company, Go Massage, have done. Bill Gates was even an early advocate of this. He had his Think Week, where he literally took off for a week and turned everything off. He had no cell phone, no computer, nothing. We all need to do that more often. That’s where the good ideas come from, and when true living happens.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I’ve actually had roughly 53 jobs in my life, believe it or not, and most were pretty bad, so it’s a pretty competitive field. But I’d have to say the winner was painting the names of celebrities and entertainment executives on curbstones to mark their parking spaces in a TV studio lot. Yes, I know you’ve all wondered who does that job. I did it for three months (and I had to park 15 minutes away, so I had some issues with that). But the fun didn’t stop there. I was also a flyer distributor, a movie usher, a pet store clerk, a pizza delivery guy, an extra, an ESL instructor and a law clerk.

What I’ve learned is it doesn’t matter so much what you’re doing. What matters more is who you are doing it with. If you have a decent boss, and your co-workers are cool, things are a lot more manageable. The best jobs I had were working as a contestant coordinator on a children’s game show called Pictionary (when I was 19) and teaching screenwriting at UCLA. I had cool bosses, so that helped.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Well, having a good support system really cannot be underestimated, and so I would have made stronger efforts to find that community (including finding a mentor or doing whatever it took). Big projects are not really done by one person. It takes a team.

More importantly, I would make sure that I, the entrepreneur, was also part of my support system. That sounds like a given, but sometimes, especially when working solo, the negative voices kick in and it’s difficult to shut it up without the help of affirmations or positive thinking tools.

As far as hiring the right people, that’s always been a challenge. I would maybe hire them on a trial basis first, possibly even just part time in the beginning to make sure they had the needed skills. Then, if it went well, I’d bring them on full time.

When it comes to offshoring, I think it’s okay for small bug-fixing or adding features once your site has been completed and the architecture has been done. But I would not build a site from scratch using an off-shore company (no matter how much money you are saving.) Many would disagree. That’s just my opinion.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Constantly re-evaluate your own set of rules–even the basic ones you’ve had since you were born. What worked two years ago may not work today. Example: We were all brought up with the belief that owning your own house is a good thing. But is that really the smartest move right now, at this moment? Not necessarily. What about going to college? For my generation, it was ingrained in us since we were toddlers, but is that really the best solution right now for everyone? Does a bachelor’s degree get you much in the way of work? Our world is not what it was 10 years ago, and it’s not even what it was two years ago. It’s changing ever more rapidly, so we constantly have to be paying attention and pivoting. I mean, if someone told you 10 years ago there would be a mass-marketed ice cream named Schweddy Balls, would you have believed them? Exactly.

What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Well, I think too many small businesses on the web are Google-dependent. I know that I was back in 2008, and so I made a decision to hugely cut my Adwords by almost 90% and focus on other forms of marketing.

Adwords is convenient for a lot of us, and it was great in 2004 when fewer competitors were using it, but there came a point in my business where the ROI simply wasn’t working for me. I think if the average price of your product or service is less than $300, Adwords should really be minimized.

I also stopped obsessing over SEO around the same time. Don’t get me wrong. I still do SEO to some extent, but I’m not gonna go around chasing Google and trying to figure them out, because they can change their algorithm at any time, as they did twice, earlier this year. A lot of businesses were negatively affected by that, but if those businesses had had other forms of marketing in place, they would have been okay.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I think someone actually may have recently snagged it, but here it goes. I’m a big picture-taker. Whenever my wife and I go out, we always have to stop and ask someone to take a picture of us together, and it’s sort of a pain. A great idea would be to invent a device that connects to the tripod hole of your camera. It would be a long, thin, retractable pole that would extend seven feet in length. At the far end would be the camera, facing you, and at the other end of the pole (the end you hold with your hand) would be a little monitor where you could see what the camera sees (along with a button for you to click to take the picture.) Again, I think this was recently done, but I did think of this idea five years ago, so it still counts.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

  1. I would make it so that when babies are born, they immediately sleep through the night instead of waiting until they’re one year old to do so. I would do this by telling God, “Dude, you did a lot of great things, but mistakes were made, and this was one of them. Please fix it.”
  2. I definitely would change the series closer of The Sopranos, and while we’re at it, I would re-write the last entire season of Mad Men (though I do like that show).
  3. Speaking of re-writes, I would re-write nursery rhymes to make them more positive. Ring Around the Rosie, Jack and Jill, Little Red Riding Hood? Man, talk about downers. They make Schindler’s List look like Mary Poppins. Those old-timers obviously never read Norman Vincent Peale or Tony Robbins.
  4. I would make people better communicators, so that they would always tell the truth and say exactly what they mean instead of making us have to guess.
  5. I would make it easier for people to achieve their goals and dreams. This is what I’ve tried to do with Meals with Mentors.

Tell us a secret.

I’ve got a lot of secrets, so I’m not even sure where to start, but let me give you my top three.

1) There’s this weird phenomenon that’s not often discussed, but it happens to me over and over again. You bust your ass to put something out there, and you don’t get the results you expect. You wonder, “What happened? How could this not work?” But then, out of nowhere, you get rewarded in another random way.

When running Go Massage, I remember spending a lot of effort emailing this amazing offer to the clients, and my response rate was way lower than I expected. I was obviously pretty bummed, but then, the next day, I got this huge gig from a corporate client who never even received that email. It’s as if the universe said, “I’ll reward you for your efforts, Evan, but don’t think you can figure me out, because I’m always one step ahead.” This sort of relates to the 100th Monkey theory, which I don’t have time to go into here, but I suggest everyone look into it.

2) Risk without faith equals loss. People say that persistence is more important than talent in determining one’s success. I say that faith and a belief in yourself is more important than persistence. If you’re persistent, but you have this voice inside your head that’s perpetuating self-doubt, the persistence won’t do any good, and neither will the talent. I should know this, because I’ve dealt with this issue myself. You need to find some way of killing off that self-doubt–even if that means speaking affirmations out loud. Do whatever it takes. I’ve noticed those who have succeeded are the ones who truly believe in themselves (even if they give the appearance of self-deprecation). That’s why you’ll see some bad ideas succeed and good ideas fail. The former had the faith and the latter did not.

3) I don’t believe that the cream necessarily rises to the top. I believe we live in an age where the cream with the best marketing skills does. There came a point in my life (around 1998) where I got the sneaking suspicion that marketing (or the presentation of something) was actually surpassing the content itself in terms of importance. For me, this was crystalized when that really bad movie, Charlie’s Angels (released in 2000), actually did tremendously well in the box office (primarily based on good marketing). I think the audience was actually tricked into thinking it was good, based on the trailer and the poster.

So why did the steak lose the war to the sizzle? I think we got deluged with so much information on a daily basis, that we simply no longer had time to learn about something in depth. We sought only the bullet points, so the value of the first impression went way up–in all facets of life–including dating, careers, and movies.

Unfortunately, because of this fact, some great ideas and talented people do not get fair exposure. I used to edit actor reels for a living, and I’ve personally had the experience of seeing a lot of very talented people fall by the wayside due to bad marketing. I just don’t think that Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep are the best actors of their generation. I think it’s some poor guy living in an apartment in Van Nuys who never got a good enough agent. I think the same of quality people who can’t get a date; they just don’t know how to write a good Match.com profile.

But then, all of a sudden, there was a bit of a correction. With the Internet, artists could do things themselves. They could make their own YouTube video and possibly get noticed. That was great, but now, since everyone is doing it, making a good video is simply not good enough anymore. If you don’t know how to market it or make it go viral, it doesn’t matter if it’s a work of genius–it won’t get noticed. So we’re somewhere back to where we started in 2000. People really need to think ahead of the curve and outside of the box when it comes to marketing in order to get the attention they deserve. Look where no one else is looking.

Oh, and here’s a bonus secret: when your car fuel tank shows “E” and starts blinking like crazy, it’s just trying to scare you. You really have another 60 to 80 miles to go (but try to forget I ever said that), or you might wind up on the side of the road calling AAA.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

Compete.com, Hootsuite.com, Jing, Firebug, Alexa, Odesk, Online Design Tools (Vistaprint, Snapfish, etc.), Eventbrite, and Logonerds.com.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

There are so many great ones out there. I’m sure your other interviewees have spoken about the entrepreneurial books I’ve recently read, so I’d like to throw out a few titles that may not have been mentioned.

Influence by Robert Cialdini. I read it many years ago, and it really opened my eyes. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. This has nothing to do with ideas or being an entrepreneur, but it’s an extremely well-written work of fiction, and I actually felt I got smarter after reading it. Two other great ones, which may have been overlooked, are You’ll See It When You Believe It by Wayne Dyer and The Positive Principle Today by Norman Vincent Peale.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

I have to admit, I’m not a huge Twitter follower, but I was in Ralph’s supermarket the other day, and randomly picked up this book by the writer of Shit My Dad Says, and I was pretty amazed at his story. Since this site is about ideas, I think it’s relevant. The guy just breaks up with his girlfriend, moves into his dad’s house, and starts a Twitter account called Shit My Dad Says. It got very popular very fast, and after 500 words of Tweets, the guy got offered a book deal, and later a TV show starring William Shatner–all from a Twitter account. That’s got to be the luckiest break in the world. But again, I don’t think that could happen today. I think he hit Twitter in its sweet spot time when it wasn’t as crowded. Amazing story, though.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

It was actually when we took the photo that you see above for this interview. I love my wife dearly, but photography is not her best skill. We took a series of shots outside my house. One had my head basically cut off from the top of the frame. For a guy who went to film school, green-lighting one of these pictures was a challenge. There were no hipster shots of me looking to the side or with a whiteboard in the background. Whiteboards are so 2011 anyway, are they not? Instead, I settled with a shot where, even though I finally reached my goal weight (155 lbs and 6ft tall–not too shabby), I still manage to have three chins in photos. Thank you, God.

Who is your hero?

Not sure why this is the toughest question, but I guess I can answer it by defining what a hero is to me. To me, a hero is someone who has sacrificed himself for the greater good of others and is not fully recognized for it. Martin Luther King and Ghandi did amazing things, but my hero is the random guy no one heard of, who gave up his kidney for a relative or friend.

I also admire those who have had to overcome many obstacles to get to where they are. But I feel, too often, we focus on the rags-to-riches stories. For people born with money, their hardships may not be as easy to see, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have them. I’m neither rich nor poor, but I have friends who are both, and I can tell you that hardship (both physical and mental) doesn’t discriminate.

As for real people–although they are not heroes–these guys are people whose careers would be nice to have: Woody Allen, Larry David and Will Smith.

Any other tips for people who want to bring ideas to life?

Yes. First, be bold. As scary as that is sometimes, it generally works, and it’s what you need to do to survive in a crowded marketplace. This includes making some really tough decisions, and sometimes throwing away months of work and starting over (which is very hard to do.) Robert Zemeckis shot three weeks with Eric Stoltz as the lead in Back to the Future before Stoltz was fired, and Zemeckis had to start all over with Michael J. Fox, but the results paid off.

Second, look where no one else (or few people) are looking. Look at Tyler Perry. I really don’t get that guy’s success at all. His movies completely baffle me, and I find myself asking, “How did this guy do it?” Same thing with Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion. But then I realize that both of them are truly satisfying very specific market niches that no one else was really looking at. There was a need there that was not being filled, and so they filled it. And because they nailed it on the head so exactly, other market segments started paying attention, and they were able to expand. That’s what I always try to do with my various projects.

Having said that, always take anything you hear in the two-dimensional media with about 10 grains of salt. It’s extremely deceptive (even the news is), and things are often very different than they appear. Tupak Shakur went to private school. Hansen, the singing group, is actually very talented, and John Cusack (so nice-guyish on screen) was a real jerk to a friend of mine.

Also, when celebrities give the impression that they’re real people just like you and me, they’re basically pretending. I just spent four hours cleaning hairs off my bathroom floor and wiping bird shit off my kids’ outdoor toys. I doubt George Clooney is actually doing that. In summary, the Wizard of Oz is real, and he’s some PR guy behind the scenes telling a celebrity, “make sure to be relatable.” So hold off on making life decisions or judgments (positive or negative) about anyone based on second-hand information. There’s just nothing that beats face-to-face, real-world contact (and even then, you need to stay on your toes).

Lastly, I’ve been doing a “Y.E.S.” every year for the last 15 years or so. It’s a Year End Statement, and it’s extremely detailed. In fact, it usually takes me anywhere between 15 and 40 hours to write it, and I publish it as a blog (the non-private parts at least). It covers both my personal and professional life, and at the very end, I include the biggest lesson learned–a great document for my whole life. It’s an investment that definitely pays off down the road, especially because it’s so easy to forget things.

Tell us something we don’t know about you.

The longest (non-familial) relationship I’ve ever had has actually been with Ralph’s Supermarket (since I was 5). They should make me their next Jared. I also like musicals a lot. Oh, and Jesse James (Sandra Bullock’s ex) once threatened to kick my ass, but he later apologized, so it was okay.


Evan Aaronson on LinkedIn:
Meals With Mentors on Twitter: @mealswmentors
Meals With Mentors’ website: