Klyn Elsbury has experienced more adversity in her teens and twenties than most people experience in a lifetime. In this interview with Klyn Elsbury, the author of I AM___: The Untold Story of Success, we discuss her battle with cystic fibrosis, creation of an innovative company to recruit talent for companies, the writing of her book, and her new entrepreneurial journey into motivational speaking. Klyn is an amazing woman with and incredible story.
In 2014, after being forced to quit her professional recruiting career due to excessive hospitalizations from complications of Cystic Fibrosis, Klyn Elsbury was confined to a wheelchair with her lung function plummeting below 40%. It was after a two-week hospital stay (just one of 5 that year) she set off on a six week road trip across the United States to visit friends and family she wasn’t sure she would live to see again. I AM _: The Untold Story of Success is a blend of raw emotion and inspiring wisdom. It draws a parallel between what it means to live as if every day is your last and what it means to create a highly impactful legacy through entrepreneurship and athleticism. She has since regained 30% of her lungs and currently lives in California with the love of her life. Together, they are the co-owners of Landmark Makers, a recruiting services firm dedicated to high-growth companies that offer workshops and recruitment services nationwide. Her story has been featured in numerous publications including Manifest Station, Zumba blog, and she has appeared on several shows including KPBS, NPR, Connected Women of Influence, and NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt. She is a nationally recognized speaker who will be presenting for the Entrepreneurs’ Organization at Alchemy in 2017.
Patrick: This is Patrick Henry, the CEO of QuestFusion with the Real Deal…What Matters. I’m here with Klyn Elsbury. Klyn and I are both San Diego locals, but we hadn’t met each other. We have a mutual acquaintance and found out that we have a lot of friends in common. Klyn is from Iowa. I’m from Missouri. We know what it’s like to drive for hours and just see cornfields. A lot of good entrepreneurs come from that background.
Klyn is a successful entrepreneur. She’s built her own recruiting business called Landmark Makers. She has a very successful recruiting model. We’ll talk about that today.
She sent me a link to a speaking engagement for a SUE talk, which is like a TED talk. She talked about overcoming adversity with some of the things that she’s gone through.
In 2014, after being forced to quit her professional recruiting career due to excessive hospitalizations from complications from cystic fibrosis, which is a genetic disease, Klyn was confined to a wheelchair, and her lung function plummeted to 40%. After a two-week hospital stay, just one of five that year, she set off on a six-week road trip across the United States to visit friends and family because she wasn’t sure if she was going to see them again.
Take us on your journey. You went on the road. What happened at that point?
Klyn: I wasn’t sure where my life was going to go, and if it was going to go on. It was all because there was this drug coming out that was thought to halt the progression of cystic fibrosis. When you’re born with something that’s genetic and a fatal condition, it’s almost a downward spiral.
This drug was thought to halt the progression but it couldn’t get approved. The price was $259,000 a year. My insurance didn’t want to pay for it. The drug manufacturer didn’t have any solutions for me. I was trapped in the middle, watching my health continuously decline.
That was what started the whole movement behind using my recruiting background and reaching out to people who I thought would be able to make a difference and help other people get access to the drug.
The journey started on the road trip to see friends and family. I had this idea of, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want it to be over,” but I didn’t know what to do. My back was against the wall. The only skills I had that I could pull from was reaching out to people, getting the message out there and seeing what would happen. When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.
Patrick: You were able to finally connect with Lester Holt and ABC Nightly News. You were on that program with him. Tell me about how that happened and the events that led up to that.
Klyn: They reached out to me. It was Anne Thompson. She’s an Emmy award-winning producer. She’s a brilliant woman. She reached out to me and said she got a hold of the story, and wanted to know if I’d be open to doing an interview. I said, “Absolutely. Of course I want to do this interview.”
We kept having to postpone it. The last reason was because the Pope came to town. They couldn’t meet me because of the Pope. It worked out well because, by the time they could meet me, I was hospitalized again. They took the news crew all the way to the hospital. They shot everything in the hospital.
Within just a few minutes of it airing to 10 million viewers, the drug was magically pushed through. The paperwork was suddenly found. The manufacturer was suddenly willing to help. I’m not saying that I was the catalyst, but it was really ironic how everyting came together in the last 10 minutes of that interview. The drug was on my doorstep and on the doorsteps of up to 900 other people with CF in California within six days.
Patrick: You were an activist of sorts. You really drove that thing. We talked about this off-camera. One of the things that’s critically important to you with your health is to exercise regularly. Maybe that doesn’t halt the progression of the disease but it keeps you healthy. Tell us about that. You were teaching Zumba and you were a personal trainer. What happened then?
Klyn: It all started to funnel. At the time, I was teaching Zumba. I was training people but I was really bored. I couldn’t jump into a career because I had spent so much time in the hospital. The one drug that would help me wasn’t available. After the drug became available for me, I started thinking, “What else is out there?”
I wrote a book. “Habit” is one of the chapters in the book. Working out has always been a habit of mine that I think has led me to a level of health that I can enjoy. I deal with a lot of CEOs and entrepreneurs. If you’re not working out and taking care of your body then you’re not taking care of your mind.
If your mind isn’t sharp, then what’s happening to your company? I have always had a very healthy habit with exercise. It started to save my life. But I realized that exercise saves everyone’s lives. It’s not only if you have a condition.
Patrick: The book is called I AM___: The Untold Story of Success. Pick this up. Is this available on Amazon?
Klyn: It is.
Patrick: I’m only halfway through it and it’s quite a read. I’m very excited to continue on with it. Klyn is an expert and specialist in the recruiting field and building teams. Team building is a foundation of building a great company. I talk about this in Plan, Commit, Win. If you’re a solopreneur, you can have a network of freelancers. Normally you have to build a team to build up a really big company. Talk to us about that and your unique approach on recruiting with Landmark Makers as well as how you help entrepreneurs.
Klyn: I worked in an agency my entire recruiting career before I had to take a step back in 2014. I kept thinking that there had to be a better way to do it. It didn’t make sense that I was competing to send a bunch of resumes to a client. I was competing against my team and eight other companies. Naturally, as a salesperson, what am I going to do? I’m going to send you as many people as I possibly can, hoping that you’re going to pick one. Then I’m going to collect my fee.
I thought, “What if I come at it as if I work for your company?” Now that I’m working for your company, I get to know you. I get to know your unique situation. I get to know your company, the career itself, the leaders you already have in place and why it’s a place that people want to work.
Then I said, “Why don’t I find someone for that and create a customized process for you to do what I’m doing? If you never want to use another recruiting agency, you never have to. Now you’re empowered.” It creates a talent magnet for you, where candidates start showing up more.
They apply more so you have better retention with your ads. Then you have less turnover because everyone is happier. You’re getting the quality of people that you want because you don’t have to sift through 80 resumes yourself. That was how the idea was born.
It came out of what happened with the book. I started studying high achievers, entrepreneurs and CEOs. They all said that one of the problems in their business was finding the right people on their teams. That was something I had always done in my career. It just never clicked for me to take it to another step. Through the interviews and some of the stories that they told, it naturally had to happen.
Patrick: Another key element that you cover in the book is overcoming adversity. That’s something that’s been a cornerstone of my personal life as well as my career. Some things are through my own ridiculousness. But with some things, adversity just happens.
Talk about that in terms of, not only your entrepreneurial and life journeys, but these interviews that you did with other successful people. What were some of their experiences and the commonalities in terms of overcoming adversity?
Klyn: My adversity is spending most of my life in a hospital. I’ve spent more Christmases and holidays in the hospital than I have at home with friends and family.
Patrick: You’re a living miracle. This is serious. Since you were a little kid, you knew that the end was going to be much sooner than most people.
Klyn: Yes. I told you earlier off-camera, I dropped out of college because I didn’t think I’d live long enough to pay off the student loan debt. When you come to such dramatic grips with what your life means, you start to see patterns in other people’s lives, because we’re all connected.
I didn’t think my story was something worth sharing for the longest time. I love high achievers. I love entrepreneurs. I love CEOs. I love people in the investment community. They have these businesses. They’re a pillar of character for the community. They have these values. They’re authentic and genuine people.
Life happens. Let’s say that someone important on their team walks out or they had an expensive month and they’re not sure if they can float payroll. It’s that struggle. Through my interviews, I learned that we all have those dark days of our lives when we’re sitting on the floor. Maybe the lights are about to be turned off.
One guy wasn’t sure if he could feed his dog and thought about getting rid of him. I started thinking, “How is that any different from wondering if I’ll be able to feed myself soon?” I didn’t mean it as in to get food. I meant, am I going to need a feeding tube soon? His pain was real. He couldn’t bring himself to take that next step. Who knows how long he sat there on the floor.
I didn’t know if I could take the next step to get out of the hospital bed and start working out. It doesn’t matter the severity of the pain. It’s still real. It’s real for them in that moment. The book chronicles the deepest, darkest days of some of the most successful people out there. I said, “What was that deep, dark day?” Then I related it back to what a deep, dark day is like with a terminal illness. We all have that bond towards human achievement. That’s the real story. That’s what I wanted to encapsulate.
When you actively study human achievement, then you have to put what you study to work. You have to prove the idea. That was how my recruiting company was born. I took these patterns and applied them to real life. It all manifested and fed into itself. I didn’t have a business plan. I didn’t have the journey written out. It flew naturally together.
Patrick: You run across so many people in your life, and everyone experiences adversity. When it happens, successful people seem to power through it. There is always a setback that puts you back on your heels. It’s emotionally difficult. You assess. Maybe you have some regret. Maybe you do some course correction. The successful people move on from that. They learn from it and move on from it.
Whereas, the people who are less successful or don’t achieve as much, it blows them up. Then it’s about blame. I hear people my age that are still blaming their parents for the way that their life is. It’s the craziest thing. I can’t comprehend that but it happens all the time, every day. In my twenties, I did a lot of personal development. I think the ability to take adversity and overcome it is really important.
When you were in the darkest days, what was the catalyst that made you move forward from that experience?
Klyn: I’ve had about 100 interviews and I’ve never been asked that. I’ll talk about my darkest day. Before that, I was doing really well. I had a six-figure career. I bought a house at 23. For a college dropout, having a house at 23 and a six-figure career with a corner office was good.
I had to give it all up. I was watching my health decline. There was a point when I was in a wheelchair. I was visiting my family in Dallas, Texas. My lung function wasn’t high enough to fly back to California. It was too dangerous. I didn’t have insurance in Dallas. I didn’t want to be stuck with a $200,000 medical bill. I remember that we took my dog to the vet and said that he was sick so that we could get antibiotics from the vet that were affordable. The dog wasn’t sick. The dog didn’t take the antibiotics. It wasn’t animal cruelty, I promise. I just wanted the medicine so that I could hopefully get on a flight.
I remember taking phone calls from a couple of people. They asked what I was really working for in life. If I don’t stop digging my heels in, all the money in the world wasn’t going to mean anything. What is the purpose? What’s the significance? It’s not just the success.
I quit. I gave up. I initially thought, “I want to live in a mansion.” All the things that don’t really matter in life, I had to come to terms with that. That was what my life was about. How much could I keep up with the Joneses and impress everyone around me? How did my life look as opposed to how did my life feel?
On my darkest day, I remember sitting there and cashing out my investments. I didn’t know what was next. I had to go on disability for a while. I thought, “I’m 23 and I’ve lived everything. This is the end of the road.”
What brought me out of it was love, the one thing I didn’t think I needed. It was my mom, holding my hand. When you have 40% lung function, you can’t cry. When you cry, you cough. Then you’re reminded that you have 40% lung function and you keep coughing. It’s a huge ordeal.
My mom would sit there, hold me, let me cry and get out all the anger and frustration, and the pity party that we go through sometimes. At the end, she said, “Are you finished?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Now what are you going to do with your life?” I said, “I don’t know.” She took me to the gym. That was probably the weirdest thing for a mom to do, but I think that’s what saved my life.
My dad was there for me. He’s a very loving man. He was there to coach me and push me. My entire life, I thought I had to live up to my dad’s expectations. He’s a successful sales guy, so I had to be a successful sales woman. But then I realized, when you get rid of the sales side, what is sales? It’s listening to someone else and helping them with what they want. All my dad wanted for me was to be happy.
When I got rid of all the stuff that I was trying to fill my life with, an insurmountable amount of love came rushing in. It came from friends and family. That’s what set me off on the six-week road trip. You come to alignment with who you are. That can lead to who you can be. That was what I learned the most. It’s the amount of love that’s out there, and I didn’t think I needed any of it. I thought I had it all.
Patrick: There was this epiphany. You’ve recovered to a level where you can work now. You’ve restarted Landmark. You discovered this new potential journey that you’re on in terms of speaking engagements. Talk about that and the I AM___ journey.
Klyn: I just love helping people. I love people. They’re fantastic. If you haven’t talked to one lately, do it. They’re wonderful. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had a lot of people reach out and ask me to speak for their corporations. I do day trips. I had a couple in San Diego where I spoke in front of their leadership team.
There is that business synergy there because I own a company now. I can talk about what it takes to create a high performing team. At the end of the day, the only reason a team is high performing is because of the love and emotion of the people on board.
I blend the stories of what it’s like to create a company from a hospital bed. I’m still hospitalized all the time. I spent 30 days in the hospital so far this year. It’s less than last year but it’s still something that I think about. Every time I cough, I wonder if I’m ready. It’s been too long. I blend a lot of what it takes to survive a terminal illness with what it takes to create a thriving business.
You wouldn’t think it, but there are synergies there. With that company, I’m doing the speaking gigs. I’m on podcasts. I’m doing book signings. I love it when people reach out to me on LinkedIn and say, “I read your book or heard your podcast.” I’m creating that awareness that I am a person. I want to connect with you. Everyone who has ever reached out to me has gotten a personalized response. I’m not automating that stuff. I want people to know that someone cares.
You never know where that person was when they decided to pick up a copy. It’s a heavy read. It made my boyfriend cry in the first few pages. To have someone read it, quote you and then reach out, they deserve that personal response. I think that love for humanity is why this brand is starting to take off and gain that traction. It’s new. It’s heavy, but it’s love. It’s also business.
Patrick: So much in social media is just bots talking to bots. There are people who want to have a true human interaction, and be social on social media. We try to do that. I’m on Twitter. People are shocked that I actually talk to them and give them a personalized response. It’s the craziest thing.
There is so much truth in that. It’s about reaching people and touching them in a special way. There are people who have built incredible franchises. Tony Robbins is probably the biggest of late. He’s been doing it for a long time. More recently, you have Brendon Burchard doing the speaking thing.
Do you feel like you’re at a crossroads in your career with the recruiting versus being a circuit speaker? Are you balancing it? Are you not sure which way to go or are you going with the flow?
Klyn: Even though it’s too distinct brands, I think they’re so closely related. It’s the same target market. It’s the same general feeling of finding high achievers, connecting with high achievers and introducing them to other high achievers. It’s very similar.
I don’t think it’s at a crossroads. I dedicate my time where there is the most amount of need that week. The great thing about having a team at Landmark is that they’re high achievers. What happens when you hire a bunch of high achievers? You get out of their way and let them achieve.
That’s freed up a lot of space to pursue this other side of it, which I’m starting to build out with other high achievers. It’s amazing what you can do when you put a bunch of great minds in a room. I’m equally passionate about both. I love both. Tony Robbins is a legend. He created this industry. I know that there were people before him, like Zig Ziglar, Wayne Dyer and Jim Rohn. These are the legends.
I was fortunate enough to hear Brendon speak at Alchemy last year. He’s a very talented guy. He gets it. It’s not that I want to be a circuit speaker. I want to go where I’m needed most and put out a similar message from both brands. Whoever identifies with it, they are able to capitalize on what they need the most.
Patrick: I would go a step further and say that’s part of your unique value proposition. You bring that other part to the table. A friend of mine, Brian Smith who started UGG boots, a big part of his speaking engagements are related to his entrepreneurial journey. Talk about a grinder. He had to grind that out for decades. That’s what makes you unique to potential clients. You bring not only your personal perspective but the business perspective. It makes sense.
Klyn: When we put a candidate in front of a client, we’re still putting a human being in front of a human being. I can’t just say, “You’re looking for a sales rep? Great. How many calls? You need 100? Great.” Instead it’s, “Why do you need 100? Where do you want your company to be? Why do you want it to be there? What type of personality traits are you looking to add to your team to get you where you want to be?”
Then you find someone who wants to work for a startup, a smaller company, and who has the same mindset. It’s more about the mindset. We say it’s a higher attitude and trained skills. The skills have to be there but we care about the attitude, the personality and the indications of a high achiever. That’s no different than what I speak about. I just talk more about the hospitalizations and creating the business despite the terminal illness. It has a very synergistic tie.
Patrick: The team is the foundation for a successful company. It’s you and your cofounder in the garage. Most companies, as they grow, you have to build that team. I talk about this in Plan, Commit, Win. If you don’t hire for culture, culture will happen. It will happen in some way that you may not want or expect. Then it takes over on its own. Having that conscious awareness of what kind of team you’re trying to build, the ethics and structure are all important. Doing that consciously as part of the process of hiring is very important if you don’t want to wake up one morning with 150 people and think, “What the heck?”
I know that you will be speaking on September 16th at Alchemy from the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. Tell our entrepreneurial audience a little bit about that.
Klyn: I’m very excited about that. I’ll be on the stage alongside Tony Hawk, Bill Walton and Chef Gordon. I’m excited to be at that level. It’s the same stage that Brendon Burchard spoke on. It’s really weird to see him and know that next year, I’ll be on that stage.
I know I’m supposed to have confidence. I do this all the time. The reality is, I think, “Are you serious right now? This is so exciting.” I was so honored that they invited me to speak. It’s going to be powerful. I want my slogan to say, “The best speaker you’ve never heard of.” I’m on a list with some pretty big people.
Here is my main focus. I’ve toyed with this idea so many different times. I want my life to serve as a reminder to help other people remember why they’re alive. When you think of that, it’s about creating a life plan the way you would create a business plan. We could all get hit by a bus tomorrow. We’re all terminal. I’ve heard it all and it’s true.
Patrick: You have a different sense of urgency than most. It’s not only the way that you grew up, but going through that experience of being down to 40% lung capacity, that’s a wakeup call.
Klyn: It’s a huge wakeup call and not many people wake up after that.
Patrick: You think, “I’d better get my affairs in order.”
Klyn: And we did. We went through the process of writing a will and getting an attorney. I went over who gets my investment accounts. Sometimes we get so distracted by the things that don’t matter, we forget what really does. My allotted time is 30 minutes.
In 30 minutes, I want to take the audience through a journey where they laugh and cry. At the end of it, they go home and become better whether they’re a spouse, a parent or a leader. I’m going to tie the personal side and the business side together, and how they can be the best that they can be while sharing examples from my story, from the book and from creating Landmark Makers. It will be a real, authentic human experience. It might be slightly above mediocre.
Patrick: I think you’re going to be awesome. I’m very excited for that. We’re here with Klyn Elsbury. Her book is I AM___: The Untold Story of Success. It’s available on Amazon.com. Are there any parting words of advice for the entrepreneurial audience?
Klyn: A bird sitting on a branch is never afraid of the branch breaking, because its trust is not in the branch but in her own wings.
Patrick: I like that. How can people get a hold of you?
Klyn: You can find me on LinkedIn.
Patrick: Thank you so much for being on the program. This was fun.
Klyn: Thank you.
Patrick: This is Patrick Henry, the CEO of QuestFusion, with The Real Deal…What Matters.
If you are interested in learning about the most important things in life and living your life to the fullest, you need to read Klyn’s book, I AM____: The Untold Story of Success.
This is Patrick Henry, CEO of QuestFusion, with The Real Deal…What Matters.