How Zee Ali went from selling cigarettes in the hood of Chicago to selling 1+ million products

I’ve got someone who’s been a longtime Mixergy fan who I met in Chicago where I went to speak at Podcast Movement, a conference for podcasting. As I walked into the after party, I met this guy and after we talked for about a sentence or two, I said, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s go talk outside. I want to hear more of what you said to me.”

His story was so freaking fascinating. So much about his life was fascinating–the business that we’re going to talk about is fascinating.

I want to hear how he got started as a kid selling individual cigarettes, how he got started in chef school hustling, selling stuff.

And frankly it’s also a story about depression. He was that open with me that it helped me see a little of myself in what he went through.

His name is Zee Ali. He is the founder of the Zee Group, which makes custom apparel, print and promotional products.

Zee Ali

Zee Ali

The Zee Group

Zee Ali is the founder of the Zee Group, which makes custom apparel, print and promotional products.

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Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com. Of course, it is home of the ambitious upstart.

I’m smiling especially big today because I’ve got someone who’s been a longtime Mixergy fan who I met in Chicago where I went to speak at Podcast Movement, a conference for podcasting and as I came into this restaurant where the after party was, I met this guy and I immediately said after we talked for about a sentence or two, I said, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s go talk outside. I want to hear more of what you said to me.”

And the two of us ended up spending the whole night together largely with me doing the kinds of interviews that you’ve seen me do on camera forever, except it was in person because it was so freaking fascinating. So much about his life was fascinating.

It’s the business that we’re going to talk about here today that’s fascinating. It’s also how he got started even as a kid selling candy, how he got started in chef school hustling, selling stuff and then that became the business that you’re going to hear about today. And then frankly it’s also about depression. That he was that open with me was–it helped me see a little bit of myself and all of our struggle in what he went through.

So, let me quickly introduce him. His name is Zee Ali. Actually, that’s’ the name he’s going by now. We’ll talk about that in the interview too. But Zee Ali is the founder of the Zee Group. They make custom apparel, print and promotional products. Let me tell you what that means.

When he and I were talking, he pulled out his phone, showed me his email account and showed me this message that came in from the Hyatt, where we were actually hosting the event. And the Hyatt wanted to buy a bunch of polo shirts from him with their logo on and it and he was able to provide that for him. That’s the kind of stuff that he does.

This interview is sponsored by two great companies. The first is HostGator. It’s the place that hosts your website. The second is Leadpages. Speaking of conferences, they’re having a conference. They’re also inviting me to speak. It’s called Converted 2016. I’d love for you to come and meet me in person the way that Zee did at this conference here in Chicago. But I’ll tell you more about them later in this interview.

First, Zee, good to have you on here, man.

Zee: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Andrew: I already told you–not that I needed to because you’ve listened for so long — that one of the first questions I’ll ask you is what’s your revenue. So, let’s get into it. What’s your revenue, dude?

Zee: Andrew, we haven’t gone on our second date yet.

Andrew: I consider this a second date.

Zee: We’re a private company. I kind of want to keep that close to me.

Andrew: But you were comfortable saying a minimum. You do over how much?

Zee: Seven figures.

Andrew: So over $1 million in revenue selling polos, hats, that sort of thing.

Zee: Yeah, merchandising. So, custom swag. So, when you go to a conference, an event, you’ll see a lot of marketing collateral that has branding on it, whether it’s a backdrop, a t-shirt, a giveaway product, a pen. Those are the types of products we offer.

Andrew: Here’s what I was asking you at drinks with some friends afterwards that I feel like you didn’t want to answer. That is the margins. The margins are tiny, aren’t they?

Zee: Yes and no.

Andrew: A big part of your expense goes to paying for the actual polo. A big part of your expense goes to the machines and the people who put the logos on the polos and the hats, right?

Zee: Certainly. Our goal really would be to hit between 30% and 45%. But now it varies.

Andrew: 30% and 45% net or gross?

Zee: Gross.

Andrew: Gross. Okay.

Zee: It could drop down to 20%, to 33%. It really depends. Sometimes we can make over 200%. The variables are based off of how urgent you need the order. Do you need it tomorrow morning or do I have six months to produce it. There are just so many variables. If I’m bidding on a government bid, you’ve got to come in really aggressive to earn their business. But we don’t try to focus on selling on price. We have more of a consultative approach. We don’t even have ecommerce on our site. You can’t even go and buy a t-shirt off of our website.

Andrew: Why not? Why lose the sales that would come in from people just clicking a button and buying?

Zee: Sure. So, we’re a B2B business. We want to offer that consultation. I want to see you face to face, understand your company goals, what you’re trying to achieve and then give you something that’s actually going to give you an ROI versus, “Here, buy some t-shirts and pens and good luck.” I’m looking to build a long-term relationship with each of my clients. If they succeed I succeed because then they’re going to keep paying me more and more and they’re going to keep coming back year after year, versus an online transaction where it’s really no human contact. It’s give me your credit card number and here’s your stuff. See you later.

Andrew: I see. You’re really big on putting a phone number up on your site and getting people to call up and buy from you that way.

Zee: Absolutely.

Andrew: You’re wearing a nice suit. You’re wearing a bowtie. I feel so underdressed. I told you I took all my clothes home before the conference and forgot to bring them back here afterward so I’m just doing this in a t-shirt. But when I see you in a suit, a nice pressed white shirt and a bowtie and you’re sitting from your home doing this interview, I know that there is a reason for it. Why the bowtie? Why be so dressed?

Zee: Sure. I always dress for success. Also, the bowtie is a part of my personal brand. I make it a point to where a bowtie and dress sharp all the time anywhere I go because it leaves an impression and that’s what I want to do. So, if I attend a podcast or a conference next year and the year after, I’m telling you, people will identify me with the bowtie. It’s a lot to do with networking as well.

If I genuinely don’t enjoy the conversation I have with someone but I really want to earn their business because they qualify as a good prospect, I’ll send them the generic email. I try to make it as custom as I can. But I always put in my signature line, “P.S. I’m the guy that wore that purple bowtie.” It will make you recall who I was.

Andrew: I see.

Zee: Not many people want to actually put on a bowtie and stand out. I’m willing to put myself out there.

Andrew: It’s always a purple bowtie?

Zee: I’ve got dozens of bowties.

Andrew: I saw. It really did stand out. I think it was the next day at lunch you were in jeans, a shirt and a bowtie, no jacket, not a suit or anything. Am I right?

Zee: Yes. It’s always got to be a bowtie.

Andrew: I asked you how you got started with this and you said your parents–you’re from where?

Zee: From Pakistan.

Andrew: Your parents had big dreams for you. They wanted you to be what, to go to what kind of school and be what when you grew up?

Zee: Like most Pakistani Indian parents, they want you to be a doctor or a lawyer and of course, it’s totally something I was going to run away from.

Andrew: You instead went to what school?

Zee: I ended up going to culinary school to be a chef.

Andrew: Did you actually like cooking? Do you enjoy it now? Do you do it?

Zee: I absolutely love to cook. I’m very passionate about it. In fact, long-term I’ll just travel through Europe and go restaurant to restaurant because I think cooking is such a fun journey and brings people together and I love it.

Andrew: Okay. There’s something else you love. You love hustling, love selling. It was in culinary school that you started this business.

Zee: Yeah.

Andrew: But before culinary school, you were hustling so much. You started telling me of course you sold candy, right?

Zee: Of course.

Andrew: You also sold what as a kid?

Zee: I sold loose cigarettes. I sold a lot of odd things.

Andrew: Wait loose cigarettes, meaning you’d buy a pack of cigarettes and then you’d sell the individual cigarettes?

Zee: The individual cigarettes.

Andrew: Which is illegal in many ways. First of all, I don’t think in the US you’re allowed to sell loose cigarettes. I always know I’m in a third world country when they’re selling individual cigarettes. Second, you shouldn’t be selling cigarettes at all, right? And third, you were probably underage.

Zee: Yeah. I was 14, 15.

Andrew: And who would you see these cigarettes to?

Zee: My parents had a restaurant on the west side of the city like Madison, California. I would consider it kind of the hood. I would buy the packs from a guy who drive to Indiana and bring back boxes of Newports. I would buy each box for about $3.50, $4 a pack and I would sell them outside the restaurant or the corner at the restaurant for $0.50 apiece. That was my little side hustle.

Andrew: And what did your parents think about this future doctor, future lawyer selling loose cigarettes on the corner.

Zee: Honestly, my parents didn’t really say much. They weren’t around too much. Most people don’t understand that food service is not a job. It’s not a career. It’s truly a lifestyle. You have to really love it and be passionate about it. My parents worked all the time. They were really never around in my life because they wanted to put food on the table and they had obligations and other things going on.

So I grew up in a position where I just did whatever I wanted and no one really said anything to me and if they did, I probably didn’t listen. I was probably a very disobedient child. I did what I wanted.

Andrew: All right. So, what else did you sell as a kid? We’ll get into what happened in culinary school that set you off on this journey.

Zee: Sure. At one point, I sold women’s push-up bras. I sold butt pads, corsets. I’ve sold bottles of juices that were $100 each.

Andrew: Okay.

Zee: You name it, I’ve sold it.

Andrew: I’ve got to ask you about all those. Where did you sell the $100 bottle of juice?

Zee: So, I was selling them at my school while I was in culinary school. I was able to sell it successfully to women who were pregnant or soon to have a child. So, this bottle of juice had the top five berries in the world, so like noni, pomegranate, acai, goji. It just had all these awesome nutrients. You took two ounces a day. That’s why it was so expensive. I quickly learned that that was very expensive and people didn’t want to pay $100.

Andrew: So, you were walking around with these bottles selling them?

Zee: Yeah. I had a catalog and I would walk around with the bottles and I would ask all my teachers. In fact, I sold them to my teachers.

Andrew: You would go to the teacher and say, “I have this special bottle. Do you want to buy one?” And if they did, you’d just give them the bottle right there?

Zee: Absolutely. I’d give them the bottle right there because I’d have to buy up front and inventory some of it. If they wanted more, I’d have to order it in.

Andrew: Okay. Some people would feel really awkward going to the teacher and trying to sell them a bottle of $100 juice or frankly anything. You didn’t feel any of that awkwardness?

Zee: No because I wanted money. I was very money hungry my whole life. I watched my parents struggle so much and I swore to myself that as I got older, I was never going to be in that position.

Andrew: I see. I picture then every time you want to go and sell something to the teacher you thought, “This is my way out. This is my future. I’m going to be so much better than my parents if I have the courage to do this and if I have the ability to sell them on it.”

Zee: Yeah. I didn’t care. I would sell you anything. I had no shame selling.

Andrew: What’s the butt thing that you sold?

Zee: So I’m actually upset that this exists. It’s a butt pad. It’s cushioned padding that women wear as an undergarment and it enhances their…

Andrew: To make their butts look bigger.

Zee: Right. It makes their butt look bigger.

Andrew: Yeah. I don’t need that in the world either. Who would you sell that to?

Zee: I completely failed at that. Women didn’t trust me. I think I was 18 or 19. Someone hooked me up with this company and they gave me this catalog of products, which has the juices and all these women products. I would pitch it and show women and you would get that the smirk and the smile like, “Get out of here.” So, I completely failed at selling those. I was more successful at the juices.

Andrew: And even the juices weren’t a huge hit.

Zee: No. They were not. They were too expensive.

Andrew: And then a friend of yours tells you about–what is it called, the jacket the chef wears?

Zee: Yeah, a chef coat.

Andrew: A chef coat. What does your friend tell you about a chef coat that led you to create the Zee Group?

Zee: My good friend Manny was bugging me for a little bit to check out some chef coats he had access to. He was buying them from some guy. He’s like, “Zee, I know you’re the guy who can sell these for me.” I finally said, “Show me what you’ve got.” So, I remember walking outside the school, going to his trunk and looking at the coats. We were getting them all dirt cheap. We were sourcing them all from the flea market. I said, “Let me see how I can sell these.”

So the first thing I do is I go to the bookstore, see what they were charging the students for the chef coats and our cost. We were getting them for almost nothing. So, we decided to start selling chef coats and just hitting up all the students at the school.

Andrew: The reason that Manny knew to bring these coats for you is Manny knew, “Zee’s my guy. He sells everything. If I have push-up bras, he’s going to sell them. If I have butt enhancers, he’s going to sell them. I happen to have coats. He happens to be in culinary school. These chef coats are going to be perfect for him,” that’s the thought?

Zee: Yeah. I asked him about this actually. He said, “Yeah, you seem like somebody who can hustle and go sell.”

Andrew: All right. So you bought it first and then you sold it how?

Zee: So, I literally went classroom to classroom. I was a student there. So, I would go to every single class I had and I would talk to every single student and say, “Do you want to buy chef coats? Do you want to buy chef coats?” People would pay me cash and I would give them a coat. Eventually I asked all my professors like, “Hey, chefs, can I come to your class before class starts and then do a presentation to the class? I’ll help the save the students a lot of money.” They were like, “Totally.” I started hitting up every single classroom at the start of every semester. To this day, I still do that.

Andrew: You still will go into classrooms at the culinary school where you used to be a student and ask, “Can I speak to your class about chef coats that are cheaper than the ones that are sold in the school store?”

Zee: Absolutely. The bookstore hates me.

Andrew: And they’re still okay with you in the school doing this?

Zee: They’re okay with it because they love me, because I’ve built such a strong relationship.

Andrew: That’s what I was going to say. Most schools don’t want people peddling stuff. They don’t want you walking in and trying to sell something and then someone else will say, “I’ve got this cut of beef. I’ve got these knives.” They don’t want that. When they love you, you’re a thought out person, how did you get the school to like you so much, to love you so much that they allow you to do this?

Zee: It wasn’t always that way. I remember my first semester in school I got kicked out of almost all of my classes. I ended up going to culinary school because I landed a job working for Classic Residence by Hyatt. It’s a senior living facility owned by Hyatt Hotels when I was 15 as a busboy.

I worked my way up there from a busboy to a server to a dishwasher to a prep cook to a line cook and when I was 18, my senior year in high school, my chef sat me down and said, “Hey, Zee, why don’t you go to college?” Of course I laughed at them because my parents were broke and I refused to be in debt. So, I was like, “No way, I’m not doing that.” So, I was lucky enough to convince them to pay for it.

Andrew: Convince who?

Zee: Hyatt, so my chefs.

Andrew: They said you should go to culinary school. You said, “Why don’t you pay for it?” They said, “Okay. Sure.”

Zee: Yeah. So it wasn’t yes right away. It was, “Hey, we have scholarship opportunities here, here and here. You should apply for them.” Because I had so much experience already working in the hotel, I think I got 100% acceptance for every scholarship I applied for. I had so much money I had to give money back.

Andrew: Okay.

Zee: I applied to one school, Triton College. I never visited the campus. It’s a community college in River Grove. I really didn’t care. I genuinely think I went to culinary school because I wanted to get this piece of paper to show my mom, “Your son went to college and I want you to be proud.” I think I did it more for her than for me.

Andrew: Okay. And then eventually you’d go back to selling and hustling and not being as bad off as your parents were by working so long and still not being rich.

Zee: Definitely.

Andrew: All right. Take me back to the school. Why does the school like you so much that they allow you to come in and sell this stuff? And then I’ve got to talk about my sponsor.

Zee: Sure. So they allowed me because they trust me. They trust me. I fixed up my act. I didn’t get in trouble anymore. I was getting in trouble because school was easy for me because I was a trained cook already. So, I’d just flirt with girls and I didn’t know better. Eventually I fixed up my act because I didn’t want to get kicked out of school. I just did the right things. I was very accountable. I made sure that if I said something, I would do it.

Andrew: That’s what you have to do to be a good student. That’s not what you have to do if you want people to like you enough to let you sell in your class. The guy who wears a bowtie intelligently with a plan behind it must have done something to allow the teachers and the school system to allow you to go in.

Zee: Sure. I simply said, “I’m going to save your students a lot of money.” I think that was the real hook. I was saving students money. I was at a community college. I was saving them time and money. I would personally fill up my duffel bag with uniforms, show up to every class, take orders, let them try on all their sizes, get fitted and then I would hand deliver all their uniforms one at a time to all the students.

Andrew: I see. And when you see someone go through that kind of effort, you admire them a little bit. You root for them. You want to help them out. Is that what’s going on?

Zee: I think so. I think I started to grow on them. They’re like, “Yeah, we love Zee.” If I was going to show up at a 7:00 a.m. class, I did. If I said I was going to deliver something, I did. It wasn’t’ easy. I was driving almost an hour away to the school.

Andrew: I also get the sense that there’s more to your charm that’s more thought out than we’ve gotten to here. If you come up with it throughout this interview, bring it up. I want to deconstruct. Let me talk about my sponsor, but before I do, I’m looking at–you went to Triton College in Chicago?

Zee: Yeah. River Grove.

Andrew: I’m actually looking at some of the classes they offered in their culinary training program. It includes nutrition, which sounds interesting, food preparation, which of course would be included, menu writing, which I never would have expected, but sounds really fascinating. That sounds like the copywriting of chefs.

Zee: It is.

Andrew: Is there something about being persuasive or convincing in that class?

Zee: Certainly. Yeah.

Andrew: What do you remember?

Zee: I remember a lot, actually. If you’re putting a burger on a menu, you don’t want to just put cheeseburger or cheeseburger with bacon. Maybe you want to say an herb infused burger or you want to add with an aioli sauce. You want to add another layer of detail, an element to help persuade that person to purchase that burger.

Andrew: I see.

Zee: There are a lot of keywords that you can use. We have our own dictionary of words that we can infuse similar to copywriting.

Andrew: What are some of those words?

Zee: I have to think about this. I haven’t written a menu in a while.

Andrew: All right. Give it some thought.

Zee: Like chilled shrimp instead of just shrimp. If you’re at a buffet, you’re going to put chilled shrimp instead of shrimp buffet.

Andrew: I don’t eat shrimp, but my sense having seen it my whole life is it’s always chilled. Am I right?

Zee: For a buffet, you can have it chilled. It’s like a terrible example. Let me get back to you.

Andrew: My sense is what you’re doing is you’re adding an extra level of detail, but you’re also promoting that detail.

Zee: Certainly.

Andrew: Chilled shrimp doesn’t seem like the most amazing thing to come out, same thing with aioli on a burger. It’s not that hard to put aioli on a burger. It’s not the most special or most expensive sauce, but you’re right, when I see it on there it feels more interesting. When I see that something is infused with something else, the word infused catches my eye. Even though it’s not that hard to do, it feels more special.

Zee: Sure, like, “This mouthwatering burger,” or any sort of words to help excite you about what’s on that menu.

Andrew: There’s something about mouthwatering that always gets me. It makes my mouth water without me wanting it uncontrollably. I wasn’t going to say uncontrollably because that sounds like I’m drooling everywhere.

My sponsor is a company called Leadpages. If you’re listening to this, you should get on a flight and come out to the Leadpages conference. It’s called Converted 2016. One of the reasons I’d love for you to do it is so that you and I get to meet the way that Zee and I got to meet and hopefully we’ll have a long drink conversation and really get into what you’re working on.

And I’d love for you just like Zee did to meet some of the other people I get to know at the conference. That’s my goal. That’s my ulterior motive. Basically they’re paying me to tell you who’s listening to come out and hang with me. I love that they’re willing to do that.

But once you come out, you’re not just going to get to see me. You’re going to get to meet other people like Marc Maron, who it’s an incredible podcaster. You’re going to get to meet the founder of Leadpages, Clay Collins. I’ve known him for years. I think he was at the very first scotch night here at Mixergy.

Pat Flynn, the founder of Smart Passive Income–in my interview with him, by the way, Zee, I said to him, “Pat, I have to tell you why I never had you on Mixergy before.” I said, “It’s the name, Smart Passive Income. It turned me off. I was a little worried who’s telling people how to make money overnight while they sleep. That’s not the kind of program I’m doing.” Then I researched him and I found out he wasn’t at all like that.

I had him on. We had a great interview. I got to sit down with him at the conference where you and I met. He will be at this conference also. One of the things that I liked about getting to know him in person is what he’s like in person, the small details that you don’t–I think I’m maybe a little cynical because there’s so much in my work here where I have to review people and say, “Are they good? Are they not?”

When I go to see Pat Flynn and as he’s getting off the stage and people are trying to get his attention, I say, “Pat, I’m sorry to interrupt this long line of people, but I lost the cable that I need to connect to the projector at the conference. Do you happen to have one?” He goes not only, “Sure,” but he goes into his backpack–he always has this backpack with him–he unfolds this special binder that he has for the stuff in it, has a special sleeve just for this cable.

He pulls out the special cable with lots of different inputs in it just in case the projector has some weird output. And then he hands it over to me. I realize how good this person is. When I want to bring it back and find him, he goes, “Andrew, you can keep it. I can get another. I want you to always have this.” That’s why I go. I want to see the details of how these people run their lives and how they run their businesses.

If you come out to Converted 2016, you’re going to get to meet a lot of these people. Here’s the one theme we all have in common. Everybody who’s coming to that conference is looking to grow their conversions. That means the people who hit their web pages, they want to get more of them to join their mailing list. That means the more people who go on their mailing list, we want to find ways to get them to convert into buyers and do it right and we want to understand how others are doing it.

We’re there to learn from the speakers on stage. We’re there to have drinks with the speakers on stage and get to know them and continue to get to know them afterwards. We’re there to meet everybody in that audience because everybody in the audience is working on conversions and we want to meet them and learn from them and work with them.

If you come to this conference, don’t use the standard link everyone else is using. I have a special one for you. They’re going to give you up to $250 off the price of your ticket. Go to this special URL. It is Leadpages.net/Mixergy. And of course, email me your receipt so that we can connect and meet in person. I want to give you my phone number or Zee and I were connecting using Facebook Messenger. I’ll find some way for all of us to connect so we can meet in person.

If you’re hearing my voice, come out to Converted 2016, use my special link and let’s meet in person. That’s Leadpages.net/Mixergy.

By the way, when I go to conferences, Zee, I have a few goals. I don’t so much care about the speakers on stage. I go if there’s something I want to force myself to learn. I go if there’s someone I know is speaking and I want to know them better and so it gives me something to talk to them about. But largely I go to meet the audience. I want to know what their problems are, what they’re working on. I go to know little secrets they don’t feel comfortable talking about. Why do you go? Why did you go to this conference that you and I met at?

Zee: So, it’s funny. It’s a podcaster’s conference and I have no podcast. I actually have no interest in starting one. I was more there to find awesome people like you to get on their podcast. So, mission accomplished. I was just hoping to run into some awesome people, learn from them, share my story, inspire someone and have a good time.

Andrew: You’ve been asked to do other podcasts but you’ve said no. Why not?

Zee: I said no because I wanted to work with and be on the best podcasts. I didn’t want to start at the very bottom with a small audience. I just wanted to go for the bang. This is my very first podcast. It’s an honor to be on your podcast.

Andrew: I know what you’re talking about. It’s much better to start off with a big podcast and show everyone else than to start with a small podcast and go to all the bigger ones and say, “Here’s where I was before.” Nobody wants to take a person who’s just on a tiny podcast and doesn’t really have much going for them and say, “All right, this is appropriate.

Zee: Right.

Andrew: Let’s continue with the story. I see how you’re selling these chef coats. But how do you build up from there to printing up polo shirts or logos on polo shirts for the Hyatt. What’s the next move up from there?

Zee: Sure. The way I got started from one product to now over a million products–it’s funny how that all happened. So, while I was selling chef coats on at a time out of my trunk in school, I had one of my professors or someone who worked at the school referred me to another college and said, “I used to work at this school. I think they need uniforms. I’ll let them know you’re going to stop by and you guys should work together.” I said, of course.

So, I grabbed my duffel bag, filled it up with coats and I show up to the school and the chef looks at my price sheet that I typed up. I mimicked a restaurant menu because I didn’t know better, so it said like, “Chef coat. . .” and the price. So, the chef said, “I need to place my order right away.” I said, “Perfect, let’s go to my trunk and you take whatever you want.”

He looked at me like I was crazy, like I was lost my mind. He was speaking in a foreign language. He’s like, “You need a W-9, a 1099, terms, references.” I was like, “What are you. . .?” I couldn’t comprehend anything he said. But for some reason, I went to Walmart that week and bought a voice recorder and I secretly taped the entire conversation, went home, played it and I went to Google. I typed in W-9.

I clicked on the very first ad that was running. I didn’t realize it was an ad. I had about $1,600-ish in my bank account. I clicked the first ad and I gave them about $800. Within two or three days, I was a legal company. At this point, I didn’t know I was obligated to pay taxes. I didn’t know what my responsibilities were as a business owner. All I knew was I had that one piece of paper that he needed for me to sell to him.

Andrew: And the W-9 is what gives you I think your tax ID number which is what they use when they pay you.

Zee: Yeah.

Andrew: Okay. And that’s all you had and then you were ready to go and start a business.

Zee: Yeah. So, that was a struggle because we were sourcing these coats from the flea market. So, now I needed to find a reputable manufacturer and where in the world is this coming from. That was an entire journey to figure that out.

Andrew: How do you find a manufacturer?

Zee: So, what I did was I was buying from this flea market, this guy who was getting seconds. What seconds are are products that can’t be put on retail shelves because of minor imperfections. So maybe the tags are missing or maybe there’s a little smudge on the jacket and it can’t be put in retail shelves so it has to be sold off the market. So what I was going to do was put tracers on his truck to see where he was actually getting the product from. Obviously it was coming from Guatemala, I could read on the tags. But it was being warehoused somewhere in Illinois.

Andrew: You were going to put a tracker on his truck. That’s a little psycho.

Zee: Yeah. That’s a little crazy, but I was getting desperate. I needed to find out where he was getting these coats from and where I could find the perfect coats because I didn’t have time to sit there and find all the misperfections and hide the tags and cover it up or clean it up. I remember at one point I bought almost a palette of chef coats, took them to my house. My mom and I took the plastic bags off, washed every single coat one at a time, ironed them, folded them back and placed them in the bags. We sold them one at a time.

Andrew: That’s pretty psycho too, but admirable psycho too.

Zee: Yeah. I’m a crazy guy.

Andrew: Why couldn’t you just go–I’m on Alibaba.com. The first result that comes up here is somebody who’s been on Alibaba for years. They’re in Shenzhen. And I can get a chef coat from them for $8.93 and up.

Zee: Sure.

Andrew: But I have to order 500 sets minimum. Why couldn’t you do that?

Zee: So, 500 sets is a lot. I only had $800.

Andrew: Okay.

Zee: So, I started with the balance. It was about $800. I had $1,600. I paid half of it towards the LLC and I had a balance of $800. So, I needed money. So, I started applying for every credit card I could get. My credit limits were $200 to maybe $500 on each card.

Andrew: I get that.

Zee: So, to your answer your question, the way I eventually found the manufacturer was I spent more than 100 hours researching on Google every single word, every single association with that brand, with that company and eventually I found them. What was so difficult was they used a different name so that people can’t find them. So, eventually did find them. I called them and said, “I need to sell your products and I need them now.” They laughed at me and they were like, “Who are you? Send us your terms and your credit references.”

Andrew: And you had none of those. What did you do?

Zee: I was like, “What’s a credit reference?” They were like, “Just ask your other vendors.” I was like, “I have no other vendors. You’re my first.” So, I was lucky enough they set me up on terms eventually, but I did have to pay my first PO with about five cards, which really annoyed them.

Andrew: But they rang it all up.

Zee: They did. Yeah.

Andrew: I think it’s funny the way that you were looking for a chef coat supplier is the way in the drug movies I see them looking for the connect. They always want to go up the chain to the guy that’s got all the drugs. We’re still now talking small ball. What’s the move that gets you into the bigger leagues?

Zee: Sure. So, I’d say chef coats is the bigger leagues.

Andrew: But it’s not just you buying from this one supplier selling it one at a time that got you to where you are today, is it? Or was there a next big thing that allowed you to grow?

Zee: So I think the big pivotal point where I was able to really take off and start making more money was networking. I hustled my ass off. I went to every event I could possibly go to. I was a part of the largest chef organization in the country, the ACF. What I did was I actively went to every single meeting. I eventually was managing marketing on their board. I got to know every single person I could get to know and eventually I was able to get a customer who has a really successful culinary school. They spent I want to say six months into my business, they spent about six figures with me. That was really like the point where I was like, “This is super cool.

Andrew: I see. Now you’ve got a real growing business. And it was all that networking. So, let’s break down what you did. One of the things you did was you joined the association, but you weren’t just a member. You wanted to rise up in the membership. You told me that people keep asking you, “How old are you?” Let me ask you now–how old are you?

Zee: I’m 27. I just turned 27.

Andrew: And at the time that you did this, how old were you?

Zee: I was about 20 years old, I’d say.

Andrew: They don’t want 20-year olds, they don’t even want 24-year olds from what I understand joining associations and having leadership positions, not at the higher level, do they?

Zee: They don’t. But I was the baby. I stood out. Everyone loves the baby, right?

Andrew: They all want to help.

Zee: They want to help.

Andrew: I’m not good at asking for help. Are you good at asking for help?

Zee: It’s funny. Now I’m very good at it. I will make all the phone calls I need to get the answers I need to move forward and grow my business. I was really scared. When I first started, I was going for, “Hey, Andrew, can I be on your podcast?” versus I didn’t even ask you.

Andrew: I see.

Zee: So I learned that the hard way. But by just showing my face at every event that they had, people start to get to know who I am and what type of person I was. I’d be able to slowly work my way in, build relationships and sell my products.

Andrew: I know you’re really good at networking. Tell me about some of the techniques you use to network. I’ll tell you about one of mine. You actually saw it. I did it intentionally around you. What I usually do is once I’m out of earshot of the person I’m talking to, I talk to my phone. I go into my phone, I hit the voice dictation button and I just start making a list of all the notes that I have about you, everything that I remember.

I’m actually looking at what I said, “He sold all kinds of things growing up, everything from candy to cigarettes.” It even has the number T-W-O cigarettes because dictation doesn’t get things exactly right. “He even sold pirated CDs, says he’s not proud of it. Push-up bras, but pad process,” I don’t know what that means, but I’m just writing this in the phone using my voice. “He used to screenshot my logo to inspire him.” This all goes into my phone.

By the way, what did you do with my screenshot, the screenshot of the Mixergy.

Zee: So, every time I saw your face or your Mixergy logo, I would screenshot it as a reminder, “I need to be on that guy’s podcast. I need to get to know him. He needs to know who I am.”

Andrew: I see. Where would you put the logo to inspire you and remind you to think about being here.

Zee: They would go on my desktop. I’m pretty sure I have ADD, so my desktop would pile up and so I would have a folder.

Andrew: I think that’s like command, shift, four puts it on your desktop.

Zee: Yeah.

Andrew: I just did it right now and it went to my desktop. I see. That’s pretty cool. So, tell me about what your techniques are. How do you get to know people better? How do you maintain contact with them? Give me some tips.

Zee: The most important thing I think about networking is you don’t want to go in for the sale. Everyone that’s at an event is looking to grow their company, start their business or grow in general. If I go in with the mentality of, “I want to sell more t-shirts or mugs or pens,” I’m going to turn people off. They’re there to sell something too.

So, instead of pitching my products and services, what I do is I share my story. That’s exactly what I did with you. I stopped you and I think I asked you, “Hey, I’m Zee. I really enjoy your podcast.” I complimented you. Then I asked you for 45 seconds. I think after 30 seconds you asked me to go outside so we can have more one on one time and actually talk. So, stories are memorable. What you do I probably won’t remember after I leave.

Andrew: So what you did was you didn’t say, “I only want 45 seconds.” That would have felt a little bit off-putting to me, I think. But you said, “I’ve got the 45-minute pitch about what I do,” or something like that.

Zee: The 45-second pitch.

Andrew: That’s what made me like, “Let’s see this. It probably won’t be that good because he just told me he’s about to give me a pitch that he’s worked on. It’s better if you give the pitch without saying how much you worked on it. but then you talked about how you leveled up in life. You talked about what you were selling. The story was well crafted and convincing. Do you remember what you said?

Zee: So it’s not very memorized. It’s off the cuff. I said something along the lines of–I gave you a compliment and then I said I started a company with $800 while I was in culinary school and I worked my way up. As I mentioned earlier, I ended up in culinary school with one product and now we offer over one million products.”

Andrew: Then you told me the story of I think a little bit of how you sold it. I get what you’re getting at. You’re telling people stories. A lot of times people don’t have something they can give you right away. Do you have a process for staying in touch with them?

Zee: Yeah. Having a CRM would be phenomenal. A CRM, for those who may not know, is a software that allows you to manage all your contacts.

Andrew: If they don’t know, they shouldn’t be listening to Mixergy. Can you say that? You should be listening to amateur hour podcasts. But I do that. I explain what things are too out of habit.

Zee: So, if there’s someone you’re looking to build a relationship with, someone you want to get to know, you want to make sure you document what you know about those people. So, for instance, you’d like to maybe do business with me and if I had a podcast and you wanted to be a guest, what you can do is listen to this interview, learn about what I like–I’m into chefs. I’m into selling t-shirts.

And you can find a hook or find something that connects to my story and use that as a hook to convince me to talk to you versus–I couldn’t email you and say, “Can you put me on your show?” I would need to say, “I enjoy this podcast because it inspired me to do this and this and because of your show, I’ve done this.” It’s more personable. So, it needs to be super custom.

Andrew: Okay. I think I told you that before we talked I was on a call with a guy named Mike Yang who created a software called ManyChat. I love the software. Apparently he’s a fan of Mixergy and I’ve been using it. So, he said, “Andrew, I see you’re using it. Let’s get on a call if you have any tech support issues,” which I did.

We got a call, but I realized that before we got on a call, he went back and listened to one of the interviews to refresh his memory about it so he can bring it up. It wasn’t until days later that I realized he didn’t just happen to listen to that. He intentionally went back to listen to and prepared for the call, which was a hell of impressive.

All right. I want to talk about the bad stuff now. We’ll come back from this next commercial break and we’re going to talk about the depression because it seems like things are going well, and I want to talk about the name change, what’s going on there.

The sponsor that I’m going to tell everyone about first is a company called HostGator. I’m going to be honest and tell people what you told me before we started and that was you wanted to switch away from HostGator to a company that offered security. You wanted security. Did you ever get a virus, by the way?

Zee: Never.

Andrew: I did. I got a virus from WordPress. I had no idea that websites could get viruses. It was awful because not only do people get rerouted to Viagra ads on your site and people think maybe you’ve sold out and now you’re in the Viagra business, but then Google search results started saying, “Mixergy–home of the Viagra,” or something. And then of course because you’re selling Viagra illegally on your site through spammy ways, Google starts to punish you. So, it’s your audience getting punished, you’re getting punished and Google making it so much worse.

Well, one of the things that people don’t realize is you should actually be protecting your site. You should install backup software on your website. You should do antivirus on your website. Go figure, antivirus for a freaking website. WordPress is getting better and better. It’s not as easy to get a virus as it was when I got it.

But what you might want to do is get managed WordPress hosting. That means they’re going to upgrade your plugins. So, if there’s a security hold in one of your plugins and it gets a new upgrade and you forget to upgrade it yourself, you forget to install the upgrade, so you want someone to do it for you. You want someone to manage your site to make sure you’ve got the backups running, make sure you actually are protecting yourself from viruses.

I have been talking for the longest time about HostGator’s basic package. It’s inexpensive. It’s easy to get started. Within minutes you can have everything up and running. I actually had one of my members hear an idea from a Mixergy interview, go to HostGator, start his website and then he even had a HTTPS URL on the pages he needed it because he was collecting data. This guy as an amateur was able to do it fast.

But if anyone wants to level up, HostGator has got that too. They have managed WordPress hosting. Go look at the number one managed WordPress hosting company. See what they charge. These guys have been getting away with murder for years.

Managed WordPress hosting, they charge you an arm and a leg because they do all kinds of stuff like upgrade your plugins, protect you from viruses and no one was doing it for a long time. At some point I think in the last year, HostGator, the giant in the space said, “These guys are making bank with this. Let’s just offer it. It doesn’t cost that much to do it. Now they have managed WordPress hosting.

So, if you’re out there. You don’t like your hosting company. You want to switch to HostGator and you want all this, just ask them. Say, “I want managed WordPress hosting. Andrew’s been talking about it. If you just want basic WordPress hosting and you’re comfortable upgrading plugins yourself, you click a link and you upgrade it. If you’re comfortable with all that you’re just getting started and you don’t care because you need to get started fast, HostGator is a fast, easy, inexpensive solution.

All you do is I’m going to give you a URL with a big discount on their already super low price. It is HostGator.com/Mixergy. HostGator.com/Mixergy. I’m looking at the page right now. Right now the offer is $4.87 a month. Again, you can upgrade from there if you want managed WordPress hosting for a little bit more. And they’re going to give you a $100 in AdWords offer. They’re going to give you a $50 search credit, unlimited email addresses.

You ought to talk, by the way, to our producer Jeremy. He’s got a side business. That guy’s email address is Support@ his URL, Support@InspiredInsider.com. He should have Jeremy@InspiredInsider.com, Hi@InspiredInsider.com, not Support@ when he’s at a conference telling people to email him.

Well, with HostGator, you can get infinite email addresses. You can get all that and so much more. Go check them out at HostGator.com/Mixergy. Zee, if you want, you can switch over to that to the managed WordPress hosting. Anyone out there, if you have a site that’s WordPress, they will migrate you to HostGator for free. They’ll do it for you. Sit back, have a beer. They’ll do the work for you.

Zee, do you hear that my voice sounds tired? There’s like a little exhaustion in my voice. Do you hear it?

Zee: Barely.

Andrew: It’s a little raspy. The reason is I came back from that conference and immediately jumped into potty training with my kid. In fact, I was supposed to come to work yesterday. I said, “Screw it. My kid needs me for potty training. I’m staying home.” I immediately texted my assistant and said, “Any issues that are going on, resolve it with the team. I’m spending time with my kid going through potty training.”

It’s one of the toughest things we’ve had to do, but I love that. I feel like there’s so much bonding dealing with the difficult times. At the end of the day, that little bugger peed in a potty exactly like he’s supposed to and then was jumping up and down on the bed–he’s two years old–jumping up and down on the bed saying, “Rock and roll will never die,” because I happened to be humming it earlier in the day.

I love that about this business. I love that I can say at the last minute, “My kid is going through potty training. He needs an extra day. I’m going to stay home. The nanny can actually help me, but I’m going to be here with him and we’ll sit and talk about choo-choo trains while he potties.” That’s where the voice is coming from.

Let’s get into it. I talked about why I changed my name. Can you talk about why you changed yours?

Zee: Sure. So, Zee is more strategic for branding. It’s short for Zeshan.

Andrew: Is Zeshan a Pakistani name?

Zee: It is.

Andrew: It is? I didn’t know that. Continue.

Zee: So typically when I meet someone at an event, I’ll introduce myself as Zee and they’ll ask me to repeat it and they’ll say it a few times and we’ll decide whether it’s Z alone as a letter or Zee. We end up saying it about six or seven times within ten seconds and that’s enough for me to be memorable and for them to remember my name.

Andrew: I saw that.

Zee: So, that’s the reason. So changing my last name–my legal last name is Bemani. I’ve decided to change it to Ali, which is my mother’s last name. I’ve decided to do that for a lot of reasons. One big one–this is kind of hard to talk about–but I’ve really never had my parents around growing up. I’ve kind of been solo my whole life and have figured out things the hard way. I just never had my father in my life.

Andrew: Why not? What do you mean? It sounds like he was working. You were on the corner selling loosies next to him. It seems like you guys were close physically at least, no?

Zee: No. Far from it. Unfortunately the one memory that comes to my mind when I think of my father is I remember calling him, whether it was twice a week, three times a week. I would call him to ask him something and I would typically get the same answer all the time, “I’m busy. I have to go.” That’s what I would get all the time. So at one point I was like, “I’m never going to call him. I’m just going to figure it out.” He’s just never been there for whatever reason. I forgive him.

Andrew: I don’t know about that. I’m not upset with him would mean you just leave Bemani as a last name and just keep calling yourself Zee. There’s something else there. We’re at a place here where you have total control here. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.

But I’ll tell you, when you look at the people you admire the most, the ones that will be on the Howard Stern Show or even on Oprah or even in casual conversation, they’re the ones who don’t hold back the tough things. They’re the ones who say, “This is a tough thing for me to talk about and that’s why I’m going to do it. I’m not going to be lifeless person here. I’m going to be a person who opens themselves up a little bit more so you feel a connection with them.

So, it’s up to you. There’s something else here and you can go into it if you want.

Zee: Yeah. So my parents–I grew up in the food service business, right? I explained that’s a lifestyle. I don’t think my father had this priorities straight. I think family wasn’t on the radar. So, it was more food on the table, working. That sounds great, your father is working to put food in your mouth.

But it’s not cool or I was really pissed off for the longest time why my father didn’t show up to my graduation eighth grade, high school, college–that kind of stings, right? When he’s too busy to make time to go to a graduation, when he’s too busy to come watch you play basketball, when he’s too busy to answer a phone all. I just knew he didn’t want me in his life. So, I just grew real thick skin and said–

Andrew: Was he ever rude to you beyond hanging up the phone, which is pretty rude to hang up the phone on your kid. Was it ever worse than that? Was it open hostility or open dismissal?

Zee: I would say every time he hung up on me he was genuinely busy. He was occupied with something. Whatever it was took priority over me. He was never hostile towards me.

Andrew: Just not there, not at all accessible.

Zee: Never there.

Andrew: Was there one time you were ever in trouble and he wasn’t there?

Zee: If I were in trouble, I probably wouldn’t call him.

Andrew: Really?

Zee: Yeah, I wouldn’t. That’s the last place I would call because I’m so used to the, “I’m busy. I can’t talk right now.” So, if I need something, no, I won’t call him.

Andrew: How did he feel when he found out you were changing your name?

Zee: I haven’t formally announced it to him. I know that he’s friend requested me and I don’t even know if I’m accepted him because I was so mad. There’s a part of me that’s mad. There’s a part of me that’s like, “I forgive you. I can’t hold this grudge the rest of my life. Let’s be adults and move on.” I’m sure he’s seen it. We haven’t communicated about it. I’ve really never had any one on one conversation. We haven’t talked about girls. We haven’t talked about sex. We haven’t talked about how do you shave, you should wear deodorant.

Andrew: What about work? You guys ever talk about that?

Zee: No. My father is the hardest working man in the world, but he is the dumbest business man in the world.

Andrew: What makes him a dumb business man?

Zee: He’s got that old school mentality of it’s got to be his way. So, if I advise something to help his business grow, it’s either he’s older than me so he has the upper hand. It’s just a very old school way of thinking, “Because I’m older, I’m better. Because I’m older, I’m more experienced. I’m smarter than you.”

That’s one of the reasons one of the thing I’ve ever lied about my whole life has been my age because people associate age with experience and if I show up to a business meeting and I’m this 22-year old kid trying to sell you a six-figure agreement to buying chef coats, there’s a lack of credibility maybe because of my age. But then when I start name-dropping, “I’ve worked with Samuel Adams, Dunkin Donuts. . .” And they’re like, “Okay, maybe we’ll listen to him.”

Andrew: I remember spending upwards of $1 million on furniture for office space in New York and when they asked me, “What do you want the look to be?” I didn’t give them a look, what I said was, “I’m 22 years old. Create furniture and a look experience here that would keep people from seeing what my age was.” So, instead of expressing what I was through the atmosphere or what I wanted the atmosphere to do for our company, I said cover this thing up that I thought was a big stain on who I was. I get that. And your mom, are you guys close?

Zee: I’m really close to my mom. I actually visited her a couple days ago. I love my mom to death.

Andrew: She washed and ironed all those coats with you.

Zee: Yeah. We did it together. She helped me wash all those coats, fold them, iron them.

Andrew: Is she proud of where you are now?

Zee: She’s very proud.

Andrew: How do you know?

Zee: She tells me. I love her. She’s the one person that was there for me.

Andrew: You said at the earlier part of this interview that you cared about money, you wanted to make money. You’re doing it. You started to make money. You have a team. You’re growing. You have customers. Why did you then become depressed? What led to the depression?

Zee: So my whole life, growing up everyone knew they were like, “He’s going to make a lot of money.” People would say, “Zee, money is not going to make you happy.” It’s such a cliché thing and you hear it all the time. I was just like, “Yeah, money is not going to make me happy,” and I’d go with what they were saying and that’s not how I truly felt until about two years ago, where I was making good money. I lived in a beautiful place downtown.

I have everything. If there’s something I want to buy, I just buy it. I don’t think twice about it. If there’s a problem I solve it and it’s that easy. I did well the last almost seven years now in business. I was just like I woke up one morning and I said to myself, “What the hell am I doing with my life? Why did I start this company?” And the answer was simple. I started it to make money. There was no why. There was no other reason to behind it. It was solely to make money.

Andrew: There was no love for polo shirts and chef coats or anything like that. It was just, “This is a means to an end and I’m going to jump in.”

Zee: I was just money hungry. I wanted it more than anything in the world.

Andrew: You got it or you were starting to then what’s the problem.

Zee: Then I was just like, “Shit, I’m not happy. Why am I selling these coats? What purpose am I solving? Am I helping the world? How am I giving back and contributing to society?” And I wasn’t. I was partying. I was having fun. I was enjoying the lifestyle I had built. It didn’t make me happy.

It took me a long time. I think depression is something you live with. It comes and goes. I’m sure I’m had a lot of phases during the last seven years of starting a company where you wake up every morning, “Why am I doing this?” I remember there was a point where I had a really nice purchase order sitting on my desk, several thousand dollars. I never called them.

Andrew: Because you didn’t care anymore.

Zee: I didn’t care.

Andrew: That’s what depression feels like. That’s how depression expresses itself at times, isn’t it?

Zee: Yeah. I didn’t care.

Andrew: Did you have the blahs, where you would wake up in the morning where you didn’t care about anything and ignore everything on your work list?

Zee: Yeah. I’d just delegate it. I’d ask someone on my team, “Can you just manage my inbox?” I set my phones to call forwarding and don’t touch anything. I’d sleep in until 2:00, slowly walk over to the restaurant across the street, chill, think about what I’m doing, maybe answer a few emails, get on a couple calls, but I was going through the motion.

I remember I would call my mom like, “Mom, there’s something wrong with me.” I didn’t use the word depression. I didn’t want to scare her, worry her. There’s something wrong with me mom. I can’t figure it out, but I don’t care. What am I doing? It was hard.

Andrew: I get that. It’s weird actually because I don’t think you recognize you’re in a depression when you’re depressed.

Zee: I wasn’t fully aware of it. I wasn’t consciously award, “I’m depressed.” It’s a mental state of mind where externally you can’t look at me and say I’m depressed.

Andrew: I feel like there are so many different kinds of depression, like, “I don’t want to kill myself. I’m not depressed.” It’s kind of like cancer in that way. There are so many kinds of cancer.

Zee: It was pretty bad for me. I questioned my existence.

Andrew: Did you actually get to a point where you thought about committing suicide?

Zee: I did.

Andrew: How detailed was your thought?

Zee: Even when I was younger. Just put yourself in a position where you don’t have family, parents, and you’re alone. That’s hard, right? That’s tough, even with a company. I gave up all my friends, the girl I thought I was going to marry, every single thing to do a startup, to grind your face away. I’ve made myself a prisoner of my own company the last like six and a half years or so by choice because I wanted something. I wouldn’t change a thing. I don’t regret it.

Andrew: But did you regret it at the time?

Zee: At the time I questioned it. I was confused. I was lost. Why am I waking up? What am I doing? This money is not making me happy. Money buys me ten minutes of happiness. I swore to myself that I was going to buy a Lamborghini and I will. But I’m never going to pop open the hood. I have no interest. It’s going to buy me ten minutes of happiness and after I drive it for ten minutes I’m going to be like, “It’s just another object.” So, I needed a reason. I needed a bigger why. It took a long time to realize, “Why am I running my company? Why do I want to wake up and take the next breath?”

Andrew: How did you get to a place where you can find that why? Frankly, when you’re depressed, everything seems insignificant. You can say why, “To help other people.” “Well, someone else can help. The world doesn’t need me to do it,” or, “I can’t help enough,” all these things can come up. So how did you find the why and make it meaningful enough to get you out of the funk?

Zee: Yeah. I took some trips. I thought that would help. That didn’t. I just spent a lot of alone time with myself. It was so bad that friends would invite me, girls would invite me to these parties and I would tell myself, “They really don’t want me to be there but hey feel sorry for me. They really don’t want me to go but they’re inviting me as a nice gesture.” I would turn every positive thing into such a negative thing. I envisioned, “If I do this or do this, I wouldn’t have to see the next morning because it would just be easier for me not to wake up.”

Andrew: So, then what did you do to find the why?

Zee: I think it just takes time. I laid out everything on a piece of paper of what I wanted in life. What are the things that make me happy? What can I do for the world? Money didn’t do anything for me. I realized the only reason I continue to run my business, sell chef coats and t-shirts and things is because it’s fun for me. I enjoy it. I haven’t hit all my goals. I love work with awesome companies and different brands and helping them grow. That’s fun for me.

As for my life, why do I want to wake up, my sole purpose in this world is to inspire people because I think there are a lot of people who are in funks or just don’t know what the next step is. Neither did I. I have a culinary arts degree and I run a company and I’m working on another startup. That’s ridiculous. I have an associate’s degree. I don’t have a bachelor’s. I don’t have my MBA. I have hustle and I’m just going to outwork people.

So, for my life, I want to inspire people through my story, through talking to students, visiting colleges, doing public speaking. I also want to educate people. I think a lot of problems–I think the big problem is people aren’t educated. People need to learn how to calibrate their mind. I know you’ve mentioned it somewhere, mind over matter. Most things in life, that’s true. Once you learn that, you can take over the world. I truly believe that. It took some time. It took a long time.

Andrew: I do find that helping someone else is a good way to get out of a funk or finding a bigger mission but also a mission that helps someone else. The thought that I keep having around it is it goes back to this guy Yossi Ghinsberg, who I interviewed back before I figured out that Mixergy is about interviewing entrepreneurs.

But I was fascinated by him. He’s a guy who got lost in the jungle in South America. He started to get like really bad off. I don’t want to get into the details of the pain he went through but it was pretty bad. I think he had a spike up his butt and that’s one of the things he talked about in detail. That’s one of the things I remember about his interview.

The other thing was I asked, “How did you even have the courage to get out of it?” He said he was so hungry that he started to hallucinate. He started to imagine this girl who needed his help. So he started talking to her and helping her. By doing that, he built up his confidence, his strength and was able to get himself out of that place, out of the Amazon.

So I can see how finding a bigger mission, helping other people would lift you up and help other people going through what you went through. Before we started, I asked you what’s a win for you. You didn’t say, “I would love if every startup got a t-shirt or made hats through my company.” You said, “I just want to teach people what I know about networking.”

You printed up a URL. Let’s do that. I love that you went to your computer. There it is. It says TheZeeAli.com/Mixergy. I’m on it now. There’s nothing on there because you weren’t sure what to put on there. How do you continue a conversation with people? My suggestion was if there’s something about networking or something about business you’ve learned, that would be helpful. Do you have something like that?

Zee: I’ll put some of my top tips on networking and how you can add a lot of value, how you can sell without selling. I’ll put a bunch of awesome content up there. if you guys are interested, feel free to check it out–TheZeeAli.com/Mixergy.

Andrew: Okay. Are you open to people hitting a reply on an email to you or contacting you?

Zee: Yes. Totally. Hit me up on any social media platform @TheZeeAli.

Andrew: You keep getting that name on everything. Did you get it on Snapchat?

Zee: Yeah.

Andrew: I’m bummed I didn’t get Mixergy.

Zee: You’ve got to get on there.

Andrew: Somebody out there, if you can help me get Mixergy on Snapchat, anyone out there, I don’t know what I would do in return, but I would be incredibly appreciative. I don’t know who that person is who has Mixergy, but please, give it back. You must be a fan.

So, there it is. The URL is TheZeeAli.com/Mixergy. It will be up and running when this interview is live. Congratulations on what you built with the business. We of course talked about that, the Zee Group, your company.

We also talked about my two sponsors–HostGator, if you want basic WordPress hosting or other hosting, they do a phenomenal job of it. But if you want to take it up a notch, they also do managed hosting. Frankly just talk to them. If you need something in the hosting world, they have it. These guys are the giants in the space.

Second, if you want to come out and see me speak live and hopefully we’ll have a drink together. That’s very important to me, more than you sitting in the audience and watching me speak, and you will love it, you will laugh, you will want to hug your neighbors. You will do all that and so much more when you watch me speak. More than that, I don’t care about that as much as I care about getting to talk to you in person, whoever it is who’s listening to me.

That’s why I’m going. I want to listen to you, not have you hear me from the stage. So, let me know if you’re going. But the URL, if you want to just go and get a ticket right now, it is Leadpages.net/Mixergy. I’m grateful to the both of them for sponsoring.

Cool, Zee. Good meeting you.

Zee: Thank you.

Andrew: Congratulations on crossing one big thing off the bucket list.

Zee: Yeah. Thank you so much.

Andrew: How’s it feel? Before we hang up, you’ve listened, you’ve been a listener for a long time–being on here, was it as stressful as you thought it would be in the beginning?

Zee: You’re a good interviewer. I’m so hot. I turned off my AC so the noise would be down.

Andrew: So, it wouldn’t make noise. Good. You’re sweating right now.

Zee: I’m sweating. It’s pretty bad.

Andrew: How do you feel about what you revealed about your father? Do you feel vulnerable about that being out there?

Zee: Yeah. But as my good friend Corey Blake would say, “Vulnerability is sexy.” I really don’t have much to hide. I’m a very open, transparent person. If my story can help inspire someone and help them then I’ve done my part.

Andrew: Okay. You know what I didn’t get to follow up with on? The audience can follow up with you in person and I will too–you mentioned you broke up with someone because of work, because she wasn’t going to help you go where you wanted to go. Did you say that?

Zee: Yeah.

Andrew: We’ll talk about that in private too. This was a phenomenal interview. Thanks so much for doing this.

Zee: Thank you.

Andrew: Bye everyone. Good to talk to you.


  • I love the sincerity and honesty in this interview. And also how he shows his hustle. Big inspiration.

  • Emma Veiga-Malta

    One of my top 10 – thank you Andrew and Zee.

  • Lane

    Zee is a great guy. Glad to see his story is being told!

  • Zee Ali

    Thank you Anthony! I really appreciate your support.

  • Zee Ali

    Thank you Emma! I’m relieved to hear it wasn’t so bad hah. Of course, I will always be hard on myself. I was so afraid to listen to my own interview. I wrote an entire post on my blog about how I f’d up:
    http://thezeeali.com/fd-everything-need-know-first-podcast-interview/

  • Zee Ali

    Thank you Lane!

  • Emma Veiga-Malta

    great blog post – you did not f it up at all!

  • Johnny

    I don’t comment often but Zee’s drive, hustle and success is hugely inspiring.Great interview a congratulations with your achievements Zee – may you go from strength to strength!

  • Zee Ali

    Thank you Johnny!

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