Neil Patel

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In the annals of entrepreneurship, few stories rival the extraordinary journey of Payam Zamani. Born into adversity in Iran, Payam’s path to success was not paved with gold but with resilience, determination, and a relentless pursuit of excellence.

From fleeing his homeland as a refugee with only $75 in his pocket to launching an IPO worth over a billion dollars, Payam’s story is one of triumph over adversity and a testament to the indomitable human spirit.

Listen to the full podcast episode and review the transcript here.

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Escaping Adversity

Growing up as a member of the Baha’i community in Iran, the largest minority group, Payam faced persecution and discrimination from a young age.

The aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 brought further challenges, with the government targeting Baha’is and stripping them of their rights. Many Baha’is were killed in the 1980s.

At the tender age of eleven, Payam was expelled from school for his religious beliefs, setting the stage for a tumultuous journey ahead. He reveals how, even today, 45 years later, Baha’is don’t have the right to attend universities in Iran.

Crossing the Desert

The defining moment in Payam’s life came at sixteen when his parents made the agonizing decision to send him out of Iran for a chance at a better future.

With nothing but uncertainty ahead, Payam embarked on a perilous journey across the desert, guided only by hope and the promise of a new beginning.

Payam’s parents worked out an arrangement with some people who could smuggle him out of the country. His recollection of that fateful goodbye to his mother, their eyes locking in silent understanding, epitomizes the sacrifices made in pursuit of a dream.

Without cell phones, staying in touch was not easy. Payam remembers being taken to a safe house where he stayed from 8 am to 10 pm along with five other refugees. The Jewish girls in the group were asked to lay flat in the back of a Cherokee truck and covered with a tarp.

Payam sat in the truck cabin with another boy and the driver. Seated on a bench seat in the front of the truck, they drove out into the moonlit desert.

Under the threat of Rocket-propelled grenades, the truck sped through the desert, staying away from the highway and the border guards in the distance.

Describing the Journey

They continued their journey of many days by car, motorcycle rides, and hiking through the desert. Payam describes this journey in his book Crossing the Desert. In the book, he talks about his experiences growing up in Iran and his determination to embrace life’s difficulties.

As Payam says, they make us better prepared for a future that we don’t even know what we should anticipate. He talks about becoming stateless and then coming to the US, building a company, and taking it public with a $1B valuation.

His successes did not give Payam the satisfaction and joy he wanted; instead, they took him to the beginning of capitalism without faith and spirituality. He has spent a lot of time building businesses in the last 20 years while trying to understand how they can make the world a better place.

Payam’s core objective is the idea of service to humanity through our professional engagements and how that can fundamentally change the trajectory of a business but also bring true joy to the professionals involved in a business–a truly commendable thought process.

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The Land of Opportunity

Arriving in San Francisco, United States, in 1988 with his brother and little more than a dream and $75, Payam immersed himself in a vastly different culture. Yet, the warmth and openness of the American people left an indelible impression on him.

Payam remembers a cousin picking him and his brother and taking them to Modesto in Central Valley in California.

Their first meal was an ultimate cheeseburger at Jack In The Box, and Payam was alarmed that it cost $14 when all they had was $75. He recalls being worried about running out of money quickly.

Despite the initial challenges of adapting to a new country and culture, Payam embraced the opportunities that lay before him, seizing every chance to carve out a brighter future. He wonders how people often focus on obstacles and view them as roadblocks.

However, Payam opines that the name of the game is to focus on the opportunities. The most exciting thing he realized was that he could get an education without worrying about getting beaten up for being a Baha’i.

Although they had to work to pay for books and school, Payam was appreciative of being able to go to High School and junior college by paying so little. He wasn’t denied access because of his religion, and he wanted to take full advantage of the opportunities.

Within 48 hours of reaching the US, Payam and his brother got jobs, and after 20 days, they got their own apartment. They paid for it, went to school, and connected with their parents and sister. Two years later, their parents joined them in the US.

Payam credits President Ronald Reagan and his US human rights policies with giving him and his family a second chance at life.

Entrepreneurial Triumphs and Tribulations

Payam’s entrepreneurial journey began with AutoWeb, the first online car-buying service he co-founded with his brother. He relates an interesting story about the inception of the company. After landing his first job at Microsoft, his brother was ready to buy a new Honda.

However, as he revealed when talking to Payam, Honda did not have a website. After signing up on the CompuServe platform, Payam started to explore the internet and was inspired to start a website with his brother. His brother was a technology guy, and Payam had experience with sales.

Pooling their skills, in November 1994, the duo started AutoWeb, which became the first online car-buying service. Payam would go door to door to car dealers in the US and offer them the chance to put their business on AutoWeb. At the time, most people did not know anything about the Internet.

Payam motivated himself to sound excited and energetic to sell the concept. He remembers approaching over 150 dealerships and presenting the opportunity but hearing nos every time. They transformed a nascent idea into a thriving business through sheer grit and determination.

Once they snagged the first sign-up, their idea quickly accelerated to 5,000 car dealers by 1999. One out of every four in the US had signed up with AutoWeb, and ultimately, they took it public in 1999.

He looks back again with appreciation for all the help he got from the many people he met along the way.

The memorable moment was when a child from Iran who came to the country with $75 rang the bell for a $1.2B company. However, success was not without its share of setbacks.

Storytelling is everything, which is something that Payam Zamani was able to master. Being able to capture the essence of what you are doing in 15 to 20 slides is the key. For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend Peter Thiel (see it here), where the most critical slides are highlighted.

Remember to unlock the pitch deck template that is being used by founders around the world to raise millions below.

The Dot-Com Bubble Burst

The dot-com bubble burst, and his subsequent ventures faced challenges. Yet, each experience served as a crucible for growth and learning. Payam remembers how it opened his eyes to the problems with capitalism in the US.

He could see how the stock market is often manipulated or rigged, as it is also called. Bankers typically set up IPOs and often stretch the rules as far as they can. Many continue to believe that unethical is not illegal.

Stock prices are often manipulated to the maximum value. Note that true wealth in this country, which brings about millionaires, is made from the stock, not cash flow.

Bankers and others involved often do everything they can to maximize that stock price for as long as they can until they sell the shares.

It bothered Payam that many were not into company building but stock price maximization, which are two different things. He left that IPO process filing disenfranchised, saying that this is not the right way to build businesses, which is too often driven by greed.

Payam left the company; he had given up his CEO role a few months prior to the IPO. Although he had started a company after leaving, that business did not survive the dot-com bust.

He ended up losing most of the $200M he had made as part of the AutoWeb IPO. Payam was 28 at the time.

One Planet Group

Amidst the highs and lows of entrepreneurship, Payam’s guiding principle remained steadfast: to build businesses that thrive and positively impact the world.

This ethos culminated in the formation of One Planet Group, a conglomerate of companies dedicated to not only being great businesses but also committed to contributing to the betterment of the world.

From performance-based marketing ventures to ventures in entertainment like West Wind Pictures, Payam’s vision transcends mere profit to encompass a broader mission of societal betterment.

However, he warns aspiring founders to be prepared for the different business cycles. A company going up will certainly go down at one point, so they should be prepared for that.

Entrepreneurs should never think that the slumps won’t happen to them because they are smarter and better than other entrepreneurs and executives or that their business is better.

Payam advises them to navigate crises as growth periods that they can take advantage of to build a better foundation for the next growth stage. That’s how the cycle of life proceeds.

He reveals how AutoWeb did not perform well post-IPO partly because the board had rushed into changing leadership and hiring folks not ready for the challenge.

Payam’s own investments didn’t do so well. However, he used the setbacks to build a new company in June 2001.

Today, it has evolved into a business that brings him true joy, and the way it’s built contributes to what he thinks is building good businesses that also contribute to the betterment of the world.

Through One Planet Group, Payam has invested in around 50 companies. One of the companies he owns is Buyerlink, which is now earning revenues worth $70M.

Buying Back AutoWeb

Interestingly, around a year and a half ago, Payam bought AutoWeb, which they took public in 1999. He went ahead and took the company private.

As Payam reveals, 24 years down the line, it’s not the same company, and not a single employee has remained. Since he left, AutoWeb had lost over $350M and was losing around $1M a month.

Payam bought the company, closing the deal on 1st September 2022. A month later, in October 2022, the company became profitable and has been growing ever since. Payam recalls how he was determined to bring his baby home and take care of it.

As Payam reveals, the businesses he owns are primarily focused on performance-based marketing. Basically, technology-driven advertising is done on the Internet. Many of their clients include blue chip businesses like car makers on their platforms.

Since Payam wanted to create a bigger impact, he recently took a controlling position in a company called West Wind Pictures. This company makes movies and TV shows, which Payam wants to leverage to tell stories that he thinks will bring light into the world to make it a better place.

Payam’s Vision for the World

Coming back to One Planet Group, Payam views it as a beautiful brand that makes sense out of his chaotic world. He is committed to being an entrepreneur who builds businesses.

He loves to work with other founders and help them, somehow contributing to the betterment of the world–that’s the legacy he wishes to leave behind.

In Payam’s opinion, anyone having a personal worth of billions of dollars is far from acceptable. Our money and wealth should be spent on our needs, our families and the betterment of the world. Accumulation of wealth and an ever thirst to consume more will certainly not bring us joy and will negatively impact the world at large.

In Payam’s mind, every decision you make has a consequence, and the intention behind our decisions and considering the consequences of our decisions is of utmost importance.

He is not this independent entity put on this planet to maximize the amount he can consume and the amount of waste he can create as a human being.

Payam believes humans, as noble creations, should take care of themselves but also contribute to everyone else’s well-being.

He hopes that companies like Amazon, as they march ever more rapidly to become massive global dominators, will consider how the small businesses on the main street are getting affected.

Payam hopes they will consider the consumers who will no longer have a choice.

He thinks that it is essential to consider how much wealth is truly necessary to be accumulated and at what point should you just give it away or simply not earn it as you offer profit share to your employees and change the way you choose to measure success by going beyond financial targets.

Lessons Learned and Shared

Through it all, Payam imparts invaluable lessons garnered from a lifetime of experiences. He underscores the importance of embracing challenges, recognizing that every crisis is an opportunity in disguise.

Payam advocates for finding mentors who can offer candid advice and guidance, steering one through the tumultuous waters of entrepreneurship and life.

The ideal mentor is one who is willing to criticize and deliver hard-hitting lessons on spending money, investing, raising funding, and structuring deals.

Above all, Payam emphasizes the need to lead with intention, with a focus on creating value not just for oneself but for humanity at large.

A Beacon of Hope

Payam Zamani’s story is more than just a tale of triumph; it’s a beacon of hope for those navigating the treacherous waters of adversity. It’s a testament to the transformative power of resilience, determination, and unwavering belief in one’s ability to defy the odds.

As he continues to chart new territories and build businesses that leave a lasting legacy, Payam inspires us all to dream big, persevere in the face of adversity, and strive for a better tomorrow.

In Payam’s words, “Embrace life’s difficulties, for they prepare us for a future we cannot yet anticipate.” And in doing so, we all find the courage to embark on our own remarkable journeys of discovery, growth, and fulfillment.

Listen to the full podcast episode to know more, including:

  • Embrace adversity as a catalyst for growth and resilience; every crisis holds the seeds of opportunity.
  • Seek mentors who offer candid advice and guidance, steering you through the complexities of entrepreneurship and life.
  • Lead with intention, focusing on creating value not just for oneself but for the betterment of humanity.
  • Success is not a straight path; it’s a journey filled with triumphs and tribulations, each shaping us into who we are meant to become.
  • Find solace in the midst of uncertainty, knowing that every challenge is a stepping stone towards a brighter future.
  • Never underestimate the power of perseverance, for it is the fuel that propels us forward in the face of adversity.
  • Leave a legacy of impact and significance, building businesses that thrive and make the world a better place for generations to come.



For a winning deck, see the commentary on a pitch deck from an Uber competitor that has raised over $400M (see it here). 

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The Ultimate Guide To Pitch Decks

Remember to unlock for free the pitch deck template that is being used by founders around the world to raise millions below.


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Neil Patel

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