This Self-Taught Entrepreneur used to be Homeless; Now He’s Making Millions

The world is yours to take. No matter what background you come from or what financial circumstances you find yourself in. Because if you catch hold of that entrepreneurial spirit, any situation can be your opportunity for greatness.

That’s how it was for Armir Harris. When he came to the United States as an Albanian refugee, he and his family had hardly anything. But Harris didn’t need what some people think are necessary to start a business, like a formal education or a substantial amount of starting capital.

Harris started on his path to success with the opportunities before him. Now he runs one of the largest bus reservation platforms in North America, making $12.1 million in revenue last year. His life is filled with lessons for success; which ones do you need to hear?

Work with What You Have

Harris didn’t always want to be an entrepreneur. But he had that entrepreneurial spirit to innovate and find the opportunities around him, even in less-than-favorable circumstances.

When civil war broke out in his home country of Albania, Harris’s family couldn’t leave the house for months at a time. Going to school was out of the question. In an effort to find safety and start a new life, Harris, his mother and sister left their home for America.

Starting over with hardly nothing, though, is hard for anyone. Harris and his family got by living in homeless shelters and even sleeping outside when they first made it to the United States. His mother worked small jobs cleaning restaurants to earn them some money. But even in this period of little financial stability Harris says, “We had each other. We were happy.” From a young age Harris saw what he did have, rather than focus on what was out of reach.

Things starting looking up a little when Harris’s uncle started a party-bus and limousine rental service. Harris and his mother helped with the business, giving Harris a chance to learn the ropes of managing a company. He even taught himself HTML to create a website for his uncle’s business.

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Harris says that “working with [my uncle] when I was a teenager taught me the ins and outs of the transportation business, the pain points, and the inefficiencies. I don’t know that I’d be here without that experience.” As tough as some of those early days were for Harris, they were instrumental in who he would become.

Find the Path that’s Best for YOU

But Harris’s heart wasn’t set on becoming a businessman like his uncle. He found a love for tennis, finding chances to play and refine his skill until he was recruited to play for Boston University. For a kid sleeping on park benches and not having the most conventional education up to this point, this was a huge step for Harris.

And yet a traditional path to success wasn’t meant for Harris. Seeing that he wouldn’t become a professional tennis player, Harris looked at what he could do. In between school, Harris sold real estate and rented out apartments, making quite a bit of money for school loans. His real estate career took Harris to Los Angeles with a transfer to UCLA. But 3 credits before he graduated, Harris dropped out of college. He says, “I had gotten my education,” and that was that.

The place where Harris saw the most opportunity was back at his uncle’s business. He saw ways he could help grow the business, with more opportunity there than where he was at. So Harris left school and moved back home.

What to Do when Opportunity Strikes

A short time after moving back, a rep from the Democratic National Convention called Harris’s uncle’s business asking for 60 rental buses in two weeks time. To meet the demand, Harris outsourced buses from nearby states. By doing so, his uncle’s business earned $800,000 within just a few short days.

That’s when Harris found his niche. He saw a market need for a company “that would aggregate buses from all over the country on one platform.” The vision he had, was an online system that could utilize unused buses for large groups, and even smaller parties who wanted safe, clean and effective transportation services.

Harris’s family, however, didn’t see eye-to-eye with Harris and his vision for change. They said that if he wanted to start this company it would be on his own.

But Harris couldn’t refuse an opportunity like this. Without his family’s support, and with only $800, Harris started what would become Shofur, a bus reservation service used by some of the world’s most influential businesses like Facebook and Google.

What Made it Successful?

Harris had to start small and be resourceful to make his startup a success. He refused to take any funding, including venture capital or loans, to get his business off the ground. At first, Harris went back to being homeless, sleeping on friend’s couches so he could afford freelancers to help him make the software.

It wasn’t easy, but Harris wouldn’t change his strategy for anything. Looking at failed businesses who had large amounts of funding, Harris says, “It amazes me how you can fail with millions of dollars…I think this funding actually hurts businesses.” Money, after all, isn’t all it takes for a business to succeed. What may matter more is the labor and sacrifice that you put into your company. And that idea the market has been waiting for.

It worked for Harris. Shofur’s services meet their competition head-on with online services like book-ahead seating and driver reviews. He says, “What really sets us apart is our technology.” Making bus reservations simpler has changed the game for other distributors. As Harris points out, “The bus industry is a very antiquated industry.” But rather than just accept that as fact, Harris decided to do something about it. Today, Shofur’s online and app-based services make bus reservations simple and effective in a digital world.

On Success and Giving Back

With all his success, Harris doesn’t forget to give back. This year Shofur launched a scholarship program that will cover a student’s full four year tuition. Harris says that out of all the things he loves when it comes to running a business, “The most rewarding part has been giving back,” especially to those like Harris who just need a chance to make it in this world.

For some, that chance might come from a college degree, even if it didn’t for Harris. He’s proven that chances and opportunities for success sometimes come in unexpected or unconventional ways. For Harris, they came after working side-by-side with his uncle. They came as Harris forged his own path. They came because of the example his mother set, cleaning table after table, sacrificing so much to create a new life for her family. Harris says, “and I don’t think I would be here today without the education my mom gave us.” It wasn’t a traditional education, but it was what Harris needed to succeed.

Now, Harris can give back to his mom. After years and years of working just to get by, she finally retired, now living in a home that Harris bought for her. He says, “She made a sacrifice for us. It’s only fair that I repay her.”

Your story may be different than Harris’s. But remember, when the odds are against you, look for where you can learn. Look for where you can earn.

Seize the chances that are waiting for you. The opportunities you are seek won’t hide from you. They’re right in front of you, they just might look different than you were expecting. Take every opportunity that’s best for you, and see where it takes you.

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