Millennial Stories | Alula Leakemariam | 22 year old college dropout turned successful entrepreneur

Hey everyone, so today we have Alula Leakemariam joining us. A college dropout who risked it all and pursued something he believed in, and through hard work he succeeded.

Background information:

He is a 22 year old entrepreneur who recently just opened up his first tattoo shop business. He currently is co-owner and handles the operation side of things, while his partner Yi does the tattooing. Alula and I both went to the same high school and we played on the volleyball team together. Funny story is that he used to hate me back in grade 9, because I was young, immature, and I thought I was the best at everything (which I still do).  But we shared a common goal, and that was working hard to get better at volleyball. So naturally over time we bonded. I remember the summer after grade 9 we would just be in the gym all summer long, practicing, then we would go workout, then go home watch some anime, then at night go to the YMCA and play more volleyball. Good times. He’s like a brother to me now. But anyways, let’s get this interview started!

So Alula tell us about yourself:

I was born in Mississauga, recently moved to Brampton. Went to college at Sheridan for an apprenticeship program but mainly to play volleyball. (our old high school coach, coached at Sheridan). After that year I started working construction as a general labourer until I found an apprenticeship. I did that for a year and a half or so.

So how did you feel about that experience?

There were good things and bad things about working construction. Of course the money was good, but the social environment wasn’t as good. I felt really confined, and my mental health suffered as a result. A lot of the people I worked with were anxious, depressed, unmotivated, and their influence over time affected me. It started to get really hard to wake up in the morning, there was this one time where it was absolutely freezing out at -27 degrees Celsius. That day sort of pushed me to the end. It was around the same time that a friend recommended a book to me called No More Mr. Nice Guy. I was struggling to quit my job but one idea that was mentioned in the book paraphrased is: To achieve a certain level of success you need to make action, live as if your father was dead. So the next day I was working and about half way through the day I said fuck it and told them I quit.

Did you have a plan or you just quit on the spot?

I quit with no harness, I didn’t have a plan but I just knew I didn’t want to work there anymore. Construction was my backup plan, and I didn’t have the marks to pursue other things.

Would you have done anything better?

Sheridan was a good experience, I learned a lot of skills in construction, but when it was time to go, it was time to go. No regrets.

So how did the tattoo shop venture start?

In that time I was in between jobs, I was very scared, and unsure about what I wanted to do and the direction I was headed in. I started reading more books. I was thinking about going back to school. I was only going back because I didn’t want to be doing nothing, and my parents were pressuring me. So I applied in January 2015, and got accepted for September 2015, so I kind of had around 8 months to think things over. I just started trying to find ways to make money, googling things, ideas, And professions that interested me. I was reading whatever books I could lay my hands on.

(totally candid photo by the way)

Then one day I saw Tai Lopez’s advertisement on youtube “Cure my Garage”. It eventually led me to his webpage where he has this book club, I bought one of the books recommended from Chapters and it was great. I read about 50 books in 8 months, I was just motivated to get out of my parent’s house and read. Sometimes I would lock myself in my room with my earmuffs and flip through pages and pages of books. I fell in love with reading and learning. Over time I just became smarter and more confident with my abilities. I also started just writing things down. All this eventually led me to knowing that I wanted to become an Entrepreneur. I wasn’t satisfied with working 9-5, I wanted to be my own boss. During that time Yi was also tattooing from his basement, building up clientele. So we talked about potentially opening up a tattoo shop, and it was exciting for me to try and go against what everyone thought we could do. Two young 22 year olds trying to open up a business. Then it started, but the problem was we needed money. I sold my car, got a business loan, maxed out my credit card. I went all in. The place opened with about 100 or 200 bucks to our name. We also knew that 8 in 10 businesses failed in the first year. However we were confident in our abilities, we were motivated, the industry was a good industry to get into. However with money being tight, we were forced to live at the shop, I had no money for a car, spent it all renovating the place making sure everything was good to go. I slept on a shelf basically.  It was the craziest 4-5 months of our lives. But once the shop opened up we slowly built our clientele, and now it’s going pretty good.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs:

First is to think rationally about what you’re trying to get into. Is it a good market to get into, do your research, and find a mentor. Don’t take advice from people who haven’t done it before, or don’t have money. There’s a lot of people that will try to give you advice, and even though they might have the best intentions, they just don’t have the experience.

Second is definitely to keep your books in order, hire an accountant make sure you’re tracking all your expenses and where your spending your money. Ensuring that your financial statements/ chart of accounts is up to date. This also helps with your taxes. At the start we didn’t have an accountant so our books were all over the place, and it took around 6 months to clean up that backlog.

Third is marketing through word of mouth or social media for our business. It’s very important in marketing to prioritize your customer’s experience. Making sure that when a customer comes in, are they engaged, are they social. Our brains are hard wired to find social interaction, that if they’re socially engaged in the shop it creates a more memorable experience. That means they’ll be more likely to share and tell their experience to others. It’s a quarter of the cost to gain a new customer through a referral, then it is through acquiring a completely new customer. One of our strategies is to have multiple people come in for free consultations at the same time, so that when they see other people potentially unsure about getting a tattoo, that they’re not alone.

Last question your top 5 reads:

In no particular order:

1.The lessons of history, By: Will Durant

Summary (all summaries straight from amazon): In this illuminating and thoughtful book, Will and Ariel Durant have succeeded in distilling for the reader the accumulated store of knowledge and experience from their four decades of work on the ten monumental volumes of The Story of Civilization. The result is a survey of human history, full of dazzling insights into the nature of human experience, the evolution of civilization, the culture of man. With the completion of their life’s work they look back and ask what history has to say about the nature, the conduct and the prospects of man, seeking in the great lives, the great ideas, the great events of the past for the meaning of man’s long journey through war, conquest and creation — and for the great themes that can help us to understand our own era.

2. How to Win Friends and Influence People, By: Dale Carnegie 

My book review of it

Summary: This grandfather of all people-skills books was first published in 1937. It was an overnight hit, eventually selling 15 million copies. How to Win Friends and Influence People is just as useful today as it was when it was first published, because Dale Carnegie had an understanding of human nature that will never be outdated. Financial success, Carnegie believed, is due 15 percent to professional knowledge and 85 percent to “the ability to express ideas, to assume leadership, and to arouse enthusiasm among people.” He teaches these skills through underlying principles of dealing with people so that they feel important and appreciated. He also emphasizes fundamental techniques for handling people without making them feel manipulated. Carnegie says you can make someone want to do what you want them to by seeing the situation from the other person’s point of view and “arousing in the other person an eager want.” You learn how to make people like you, win people over to your way of thinking, and change people without causing offense or arousing resentment. For instance, “let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers,” and “talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.” Carnegie illustrates his points with anecdotes of historical figures, leaders of the business world, and everyday folks.

3. The One Thing: The Surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results, By: Gary Keller

Summary: YOU WANT LESS. You want fewer distractions and less on your plate. The daily barrage of e-mails, texts, tweets, messages, and meetings distract you and stress you out. The simultaneous demands of work and family are taking a toll. And what’s the cost? Second-rate work, missed deadlines, smaller paychecks, fewer promotions–and lots of stress. AND YOU WANT MORE. You want more productivity from your work. More income for a better lifestyle. You want more satisfaction from life, and more time for yourself, your family, and your friends. NOW YOU CAN HAVE BOTH–LESS AND MORE. In The ONE Thing, you’ll learn to * cut through the clutter * achieve better results in less time * build momentum toward your goal * dial down the stress * overcome that overwhelmed feeling * revive your energy * stay on track * master what matters to you The ONE Thing delivers extraordinary results in every area of your life–work, personal, family, and spiritual. WHAT’S YOUR ONE THING?

4. Riveted, By: Jim Davies

Summary: Why do some things pass under the radar of our attention, but other things capture our interest? Why do some religions catch on and others fade away? What makes a story, a movie, or a book riveting? Why do some people keep watching the news even though it makes them anxious?
The past 20 years have seen a remarkable flourishing of scientific research into exactly these kinds of questions. Professor Jim Davies’ fascinating and highly accessible book, Riveted, reveals the evolutionary underpinnings of why we find things compelling, from art to religion and from sports to superstition. Compelling things fit our minds like keys in the ignition, turning us on and keeping us running, and yet we are often unaware of what makes these “keys” fit. What we like and don’t like is almost always determined by subconscious forces, and when we try to consciously predict our own preferences we’re often wrong.

5. Managing Oneself, By: Peter Drucker

Summary: We live in an age of unprecedented opportunity: with ambition, drive, and talent, you can rise to the top of your chosen profession regardless of where you started out. But with opportunity comes responsibility. Companies today aren’t managing their knowledge workers careers. Instead, you must be your own chief executive officer. That means it’s up to you to carve out your place in the world and know when to change course. And it’s up to you to keep yourself engaged and productive during acareer that may span some 50 years. In Managing Oneself, Peter Drucker explains how to do it. The keys: Cultivate a deep understanding of yourself by identifying your most valuable strengths and most dangerous weaknesses; Articulate how you learn and work with others and what your most deeply held values are; and Describe the type of work environment where you can make the greatest contribution. Only when you operate with a combination of your strengths and self-knowledge can you achieve true and lasting excellence.

Wow first interview done, and many more to come. So honestly, there’s no clear formula for success, or becoming an entrepreneur. What worked for Alula and Yi might not work for you, you just have to figure it out. There’s always going to be risks involved, and at the end of the day I don’t fault anyone for trying to follow their passion or not going the traditional 9-5 route. But be smart about it! Maybe not like Alula, having only 100-200 bucks to start after the shop was open, (alula himself mentioned it). But don’t be afraid to take risks. Next up we have a computer science graduate who has worked for multiple startups in the San Francisco and Toronto region. He shares his insights, and advice next time on Millennial Stories.


Jason Lin


Photography: Michael Pham

IG: Phammersphotography