269: Necessity and the Other Side of Success with Immigrant Entrepreneur, Martin Sawa


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By The Misfit Entrepreneur and Dave M. Lukas. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

This week’s Misfit Entrepreneur is Martin Sawa. Martin was the son of penniless Ukrainian immigrants and was on a path for the same kind of life when he made a decision. At almost 30, he quit his dead-end job to go into real estate and compete in the high stakes commercial real estate market in San Francisco. He struggled, but eventually found enormous success culminating in a $400 million deal that basically allowed him to retire and pursue his passions for writing. He had it all – but he had to confront the true cost of the sacrifices he made to get there.

He wrote about his story and incredible lessons learned in The Other Side of Success: Money and Meaning in the Golden State. Martin came from nothing, sacrificed everything and went through tragedy to find success, and ultimately learned what really matters on his entrepreneur journey and I’m excited to have him share it with you in this episode.


Martin’s parents lived under both Hitler and Stalin. They made it through the war and were put in a displaced person’s camp in Austria for several years and finally made it to the US. They were resettled in rural Wisconsin. Martin was sort of an outsider in that he had trouble with the language, etc. He was able to go to and work to pay for a Jesuit boarding school and this helped him. He then went to college in the mid-west and after headed out to California.

He got a job in Oakland, got married, and as he approached 30 years old was dead broke and hating his job with another kid on the way. He had his “aha” moment when he was working at zoning counter for his job in the city planner’s office. A developer came in and started screaming at him to process his project. In that moment, Martin just walked away and continued out the door – vowing never to have a job again and would work for himself from then on.

He was driven by necessity. He had some sales experience from when he was younger doing door to door sales. He chose commercial real estate as the biggest things he could sell that would pay the biggest commissions. It took him a year before he made any money. Eventually, he worked for a broker and climbed up the ladder. He was divorced by this time and he and his new wife moved to Los Angeles. He was traveling and doing mega-deal internationally. He reached a point where he felt he was done and quit. He later went back when invited to do a deal with an old colleague. They bought a building in San Francisco. His wife, who was everything in his life, dropped dead one night from a heart attack. He had to work through that and did so. He did a large deal that gave him the ability to do what he wanted to do and that was how he got into writing and consulting.

Can you give perspective on why the US is such a great place to reach one’s dreams?

  • The worst possible situation for his parents was nothing compared to the worst possible scenario in the US.
  • Just living in the US was better for them and is for many.
  • In the US, the children could do better than the parents and his parents instilled this in him.
  • The US gives the opportunity, not the guarantee – in many places there is no opportunity.

What went through your mind when you walked out on your job?

  • Martin had a big fight with his wife that night.
  • The mindset became one of necessity
  • He knew that he had to put skin in the game to really achieve great things, so he did.
  • You have to figure out a way and it makes you have to get up early and go to bed late to make it happen.

Advice for those looking to make the leap to entrepreneurship?

  • Just do it.
  • You’ll never know all you’ll need to know.
  • Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face and you just have to understand that the majority of the time, plans do not work out the way you thought. It’s the ability to keep going that matters.

What was your mindset as you went through this journey?

  • In the first year, it was necessity. He had to take care of his family some way, somehow. He even played the credit card game to make things work.
  • He kept putting more skin in the game and growing the size of his deals because he knew that the reward was greater, even with the risk.

At the 24 min mark, Martin talks about the other side of success and he you overcame the tragedy and challenges…

  • It’s hard to find meaning in the material world.
  • Meaning is found in the world of the unseen (spiritual, etc.)

Where do you get the willpower that you’ve used to overcome and keep going?

  • You have to develop the skill to figure out what works best for you.
  • You can read every personal growth book out there, but in the end what works for you will be specific to you and you have to synthesize it and make it work.
  • It is easier to do something when it is specific to you and you’ve created it. ​

Other advice on how to success?

  • Put skin in the game.
  • Rely on your experience whenever possible.

Thoughts on truly finding meaning?

  • Ask what you believe to be true?
  • What you believe will govern and guide your life, so make sure what you believe is true for you.
  • Next ask, who do you admire? What are their qualities?
  • Align what you believe (core values) with what you do in the material world.
  • When the alignment is there, you find meaning.

Best Quote: Put skin in the Game!

Martin's Misfit 3:

  1. Have you put skin in the game? No risk, no reward and skin in the game is the best motivator.
  2. What do you believe to be from the top down?
  3. Are you living true to yourself? Is you pursuit of material success in alignment with your core values?

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