Small Business

Small-Biz Talks: Interview with William Hung

William Hung, who might be best known for his appearance on "American Idol", is currently an entrepreneur who is launching his own business. We sat down with him to discuss his unique background and some of the challenges he's faced.

Starting a business from scratch is extremely difficult, but how hard would it be when people already know your name? That’s the environment in which William Hung had to grow his own business.

While most people are likely aware of him because of his appearance on "American Idol," he'd prefer to be recognized for his professional speaking and coaching business. We had the chance to talk with him about these struggles and how he manages to overcome other standard business challenges.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. If you're a small-business owner interested in sharing your funding story, tweet us at @ValuePenguin.

Can you talk a little bit about your business?

Right now my primary focus is professional speaking and public speaking coaching.

How did you transition from your “American Idol” audition to what you’re doing now?

I only started professional speaking about two years ago. To be completely transparent, I’m actually working a full-time job for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. It’s not a bad job by any means, but it’s not what I want to do with the rest of my life. It’s not fulfilling enough.

So I looked back at my experience in the entertainment industry, and one of the things that stood out to me was how my first album, “Inspiration,” was very successful. It became the No. 1 independent album on Billboard and sold over 200,000 copies. The unique thing about “Inspiration” is that, yes, I did a lot of cover songs, but the record company intentionally wanted me to record inspirational messages between the songs. So I thought to myself, Wow! Maybe that idea can work. Maybe I should just go into inspirational speaking.

What made you go into the “American Idol” audition in the first place?

It happened over 14 years ago now. Back then I was an engineering student at UC Berkeley. I was struggling with school, and I wanted to try something new.

Did you find it difficult to start your own business, given your prior Internet fame?

When I first started out my current business, I actually thought it’d be easy to start. I thought that I’d have an easier time, given that people would know who I am, and that I would be able to get on big stages whenever I wanted. I got a few big reality checks, and it’s really tough.

I will never forget my very first speaking engagement, which was a local speaking engagement for a $100 gift card. I should be proud of it, but at the same time, maybe I shouldn’t be so proud. So my prior reputation hasn’t been as much of a boost as I initially thought it’d be.

What have been some of your biggest challenges in starting your business?

The biggest challenge thus far has been to build credibility as a speaker. That’s why, when I first started, I was only charging minimal amounts for engagements. I wanted to build up high-quality media coverage that I could then use for future engagements on larger stages. That was definitely the first roadblock I really had to clear.

What stage is your business at now?

Right now, I’m definitely not as concerned with the quantity of engagements I’ve got lined up. It’s very different from the $100 gift card days, and I’m making a lot more per engagement, so I can really focus on targeting the best engagements possible. My business isn’t yet at the point where everything functions on its own and I have an automatic pipeline, but it’s certainly pretty mature.

Did you ever have to take out any financing to fund your business?

Right now it’s all my own money; I used my previous savings from my entertainment career. I did invest in different coaching programs. Some are better than others, but I haven’t found the one program that’s really a big breakthrough for me. Although it might, because I’m my own worst enemy. What direction do I want to go? What industries do I want to target? I’m constantly thinking about things like that.

How do you figure that out?

It’s still evolving. I think the way you figure it out is you just put yourself out there. For example, I spoke for real estate industry conferences, I spoke for gaming conferences. I tried different ones, to see how I feel, not just speaking on stage but also before and after. You need to interact with people, you need to connect with people; so I want to see how I feel about it.

Were there any other ways you thought you could leverage your prior experiences for your business that did or didn’t work out?

Leveraging my “American Idol” audition is still the most effective way for me to attract clients and partners. Most people who hire me don’t hire me because they think I’ll be the best speaker, they hire me because they think I bring something unique to the table. I’ll fully acknowledge that I’m not the best speaker on the circuit or anywhere close to it. I’m not going to compare myself with Tony Robbins or Les Brown or whatever. But maybe I do bring something unique.

Normally, when someone fails on national television, good things don’t happen to them. It’s a unique way for me to tackle the issue of failure. Because a lot of good things did end up happening to me, and I’m very fortunate. I think that’s a good, unique thing that I can bring to the table, whether I’m talking to the sales team or other people that want to become entrepreneurs.

Do you have any favorite success stories that you want to highlight?

I’m still relatively new in terms of public speaking coaching. I don’t have any huge breakout successes yet. However, one story I do want to highlight is that one of my clients was able to secure a promotion. My coaching was only a part of her success, as she worked very hard to position herself to get that job as a senior consultant.

What’s next for your business?

I definitely want to do more speaking and less coaching. I still want to coach, but I’d like to focus on a few people at a time. I’m thinking about shifting into speaking for the gaming industry. For example, one of the events that I’m looking at for next year already is the International Gambling Conference at Las Vegas. I have a passion for gaming and poker. Maybe I can find that right niche to make it better.

Finally, do you have any general tips for our readers?

Don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t be afraid to pivot. You want to do what’s true to your heart. I’m still evolving and pivoting 14-15 years after my original audition. I don’t know what I’ll end up with. I would say just keep an open mind until you figure out what you really want and what is right for you.

Justin Song

Justin is a Sr. Research Analyst at ValuePenguin, focusing on small business lending. He was a corporate strategy associate at IBM.