Sometimes the safest place to be is the one that feels the scariest. Lions—with their intimidating teeth and deafening roars—are designed to provoke fear. But the real danger lies with the smaller, quieter lionesses. In the animal kingdom, the lion’s job is to roar and send prey scattering away from the startling noise—right into the path of the waiting lionesses, the true hunters. If gazelles knew to run toward the frightening sound, they would have a better chance of survival. The roar doesn’t represent the real danger.
Likewise, humans sometimes have an instinctive desire to shy away from pursuits that look and sound scary. But often, running toward those challenges and conflicts is the best (or only) way to grow and meet our goals. In business, those who run from the deafening noise never reach their full potential, while those who turn and face the fear thrive.
Abe Issa was literally born into conflict. When he was five, Issa’s family fled their native Beirut—in the middle of the Lebanese civil war—and found refuge in Fort Worth. As immigrants, Issa’s family naturally faced a tough road, but even that comes with a different perspective when you‘re used to seeing soldiers with machine guns as you walk to school and waking up in the night to the sound of rockets. The contrast was stark—even to a 5-year-old.
Issa’s business endeavors started young (and by necessity)—with middle school fundraisers. Unlike his peers, whose parents could afford to buy their boxes of chocolate outright, Issa sold candy bars door to door. Issa says the experience taught him the work ethic he carried through school and into his career.
Issa started at UPS in high school and became a supervisor six months later, which allowed him to get a car and start building his credit. From there, he put himself through school at Texas Christian University. Halfway through college, he started doing real estate, working 60-70 hours a week on top of his schoolwork. He started out on his own immediately out of college, building millions in his real estate business. But a young businessperson, Issa had a lot to learn. His business tanked with the market, and he had to move out of his home and into an apartment.
The extreme contrast from a life of wealth to no money in his pockets left Issa unsure what to do next. People around him who had seen his drive sought to recruit him for industries and roles, but he just wasn’t interested. This became Issa’s defining “run toward the roar” moment. He said, “I could’ve folded at that point and worked for someone else, but I didn’t want to do it.” So instead of taking what seemed like the “safe” route, Issa set out again to build something from scratch—this time with more experience and a few lessons learned. Issa is extremely driven and competitive and says, “All I knew” was that “I wanted to challenge myself and do entrepreneurship again.”
With his interest in sustainability, Issa started researching the solar industry. In a throwback to middle school, he went door to door to find out if people were interested in solar energy. The only difference from his chocolate days was that he took it a step further and started setting appointments. He found strong interest, ultimately leading to the birth of Global Efficient Energy—which he funded with only $1,000. As the lone salesperson, Issa made phone calls personally and did free energy audits door to door—putting packages together to demonstrate solar energy’s value to homeowners.
Considering how many businesses don’t make it past their fifth year, it’s especially impressive that Global Efficient Energy has doubled its revenue every year since its start in 2011. That stat, impressive on its own, is especially astounding considering the massive numbers: They project $60 million in revenue in 2015 and expect to open more locations and double again in 2016.
Issa has focused on building culture in his company, saying he wants people to have fun while they work. Equally important, internal employees see how the company treats people externally. The company sets itself apart with exceptional customer service. When customers face bigger issues, Issa addresses them personally. If a customer is having a problem with a system, Global Efficient Energy sets themselves apart from competitors by going beyond simply replacing solar panels. If they aren’t saving the expected amount, the company will actually cut a check for the lost savings. Issa says, “If you don’t take care of your customers, you’re not going to be in business very long.” They go beyond selling panels, and instead, educate consumers on energy conservation and then provide full turnkey solutions that provide energy sustainability.
Without Abe Issa’s courage to start over, someone else would’ve filled the energy sustainability need, and Issa certainly wouldn’t be a finalist for Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the Southeast territory. You don’t become one of Inc. Magazine’s Top 35 Under 35 Coolest Entrepreneurs or CEO World Awards’ CEO of the year for environmental sustainability by shying away from the roar.
Jason Forrest is CEO of Forrest Performance Group, a global leader and designer of sales, management, and corporate training programs. He grew up “under the influence” of his father, a business owner and professional salesman, and his mother, a persuasive speaking professor.