I hate most interviews, and I think everyone else does too.
This interview is different: It’s insightful and actionable. Weird, right? I promise not to ask where Howard was born. Yeah, I don’t care either.
In this installment of the Uncommon Interview series we hear from entrepreneur, business turn-around and acceleration specialist Howard Mann of Brickyard Partners, famous for the little book pictured at right (available as a free eBook).
But despite what many-signaled folks would have you believe, it’s hard to maintain that enthusiasm. The ardor wears thin. You’re managing instead of making. You squelch fires instead of setting vision. You deal with lawyers and accountants and HR and landlords and massive monthly bills instead of coding up features filled with win.
Here’s where Howard comes in. He brings you back to the fun, the love, the reason you quit your job. Even if you’re not staring burn-out in the face you’ll find Howard’s perspective refreshing and inspirational.
Even so, Howard deserves rude questions as much as anyone, so read on about why you should ignore competitors, how to be successful with “singles and doubles” instead of home runs, and how he sells his book online.
Special Offer: Howard has generously offered a free 30-minute coaching session for the two best comments! Anything counts: Best question, best new information, or even just the funniest. So don’t forget to leave a comment.
Q: You say a business has to find its “true story,” meaning being honest and objective about its strengths and weaknesses, competitors and customers. But it’s difficult to avoid inventing excuses and it’s often impossible to validate our theories empirically. What can a startup founder do to force herself to think more objectively, often in the absence of good data?
This is about being honest, if to nobody else, with yourself. People love to rationalize. There is that great line from the movie The Big Chill:
“I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.”
If a business owner understands that their first reaction is to rationalize anything bad that happens, so they feel less bad about it, the sooner they can then self correct to push themselves to think about what the truth really is.
I don’t think it takes a lot of data. Let’s take losing a client or losing a bid to win a client. You can tell yourself a whole host of stories about why that happened but ultimately the client decided that you did not offer what your competitor did. It is that simple. What is critical here is that truth is actually not as painful as we expect it to be. Maybe your price was too high or your technology tools did not have the particular features they felt they needed. Like it or not, the markets perception becomes your reality. But if you can deal with that honest assessment you can take aggressive action. You can decide to lower your prices for the next time or decide what features to add to your technology offerings. Or you can use that information to figure out the type of clients that want what you do offer.
What is dangerous is taking action based on the false stories we tell ourselves. Let me give you an example. About 18 years ago we were handling one of the largest tire manufacturers in the world. They had been a client forever and one of our largest. When they moved to a different part of the country, they put the work out to bid. We fought hard for it and lost it. We told ourselves that it was all politics and they would never get the same service from the Company they chose. Maybe some of that is true but there was no positive action for us to take from those rationalizations that could make our business better after losing that client. And that is as big a shame as losing the client (if not bigger). But then we pushed past the easy story we were telling ourselves. What was true is that we had started to take the client for granted. We did not keep improving our service and delivering new ideas. When the bid came out, all of a sudden, we had a ton of things we could do for them. Way too late. That analysis allowed us to take real action and start paying closer attention to the customers we still had. We could take the ideas we developed in the bid and bring them to our clients proactively so we did not get caught in the same way again. It also allowed us to consider the type of client that we were best suited to work with.
Remember, in general, business is a lot more simple than most people make it out to be. Clients’ choices are usually straightforward even if they seem unfair. As soon as you are open to look for truth, and are not afraid of it, the easier it is to find.
Q: Your book is available as a free PDF on the Internet, yet you also sell a hardcover for $15 and Kindle version for $8. A lot of people are thinking about writing a book and possibly distributing in this way. What worked or didn’t work? Is a blog required to sell a book like this? Can a book generate substantial revenue or is it a “loss leader” in selling other products or services?
I saw Seth Godin give a talk not too long ago and he mentioned that a book is a souvenir and, more and more, I think that is 100% correct. I would hope that the goal for any author is to use their book to reach as many people as possible with an idea or message you hope will make an impact on them and/or their business. My book has a hard cost to it, was created with quite a bit of attention to the design and experience of holding/reading it so there is a price for that. But if people want to read it as a PDF and that makes an impact on their business then that is just as valuable to me and is true to the purpose of the book.
Both versions have worked well (The Kindle version is fairly new but is proving to be another viable option). The free PDF has been downloaded over 8,000 times (and who knows how many of those have been passed along to others) so my ideas have connected to business people around the world. I chose not to be encumbered by a publisher so that made it easier for me. That decision also allowed me to create the type of business book I would want to read. Too many business books are 50 pages to state a concept followed by 300 pages trying to prove that concept over and over again. By the end of most of them I forgot the premise and I have no idea how I am going to make it work for my business or my life. My book is meant to be read in a night or two or on a single airplane ride. It has 12 concepts and not 112 so you remember them all instead of the last few you read. To me, that is what gives my book the best chance at helping a business owner get back to the basics and make their business more fun to run.
The blog was helpful to me as a place to test out and refine my ideas before I turned them into a book. But I don’t think you need a blog to have a book. I know everyone wants some rules, but what will work is what feels right to the author. If the book is really great then a simple site with an excerpt and a link to where it can be downloaded or purchased would work great. Word of mouth will take care of the rest. Of course it helps to have an audience to be the initial group that reads about it and tells others but, especially nowadays, there are many ways to build that audience.
I never expected to make money on the book and, I believe most authors will tell you, don’t write a book if you are planning to make a living from it. To me, the book is the greatest business card I could ever create. It has real value and an honest purpose. It also has a point of view that will turn as many people on as off. That is ideal. If someone reads the book and is turned on by my thinking about business and feels I can help them then that is a great result. And that has happened and, I expect, will continue to happen. But that has been a pleasant outcome instead of the goal.
Q: Competitors are irrelevant? You quote Mike McCue from Netscape as saying “Even in the face of massive competition, don’t think about the competition. Literally don’t think about them.” But wasn’t it incorrect for Netscape to completely ignore Microsoft as they rose and dominated the browser market? You point out that “your competitors have never paid your bills and they never will,” but don’t they take food out of your mouth? What are some specific things you can do to address your competitors while not allowing them to define you?
You will never fully forget your competitors. Let’s take that as a given. But what I see is a crazed focus on them. Why?
My clients know so much about what their competitors are doing that it’s ridiculous. Obtaining copies of their presentations and proposals and figuring out how they can say “Me too” to every point in them. Is that how you want to distinguish yourself? Whose business are you building? Yours or a carbon copy of your competition? And while you are spending so much time and energy watching and worrying about their every move they are, as you say, taking the food out of your mouth. Why do we all think our competitors know so much about our market or our clients that we need to watch and emulate what they are doing? Why are we not spending that time finding out what our clients truly want and need?
To take the Netscape and Microsoft question, that quote from Mike McCue could easily read “We took our eye off of the people using our product to focus on Microsoft and Microsoft did not.”
The more you focus on your competitors and match their offerings then the more similar you will be to them. When that happens then you become a blur in the eyes of your clients, prospects and the market in general. If you are a blur, then the only thing you will be competing on is price. Lucky you. And that is the real lesson here. The more you are focused on matching and dueling it out with your competitors the more you lose a way to present your business as unique.
If you are spending the bulk of your time learning about what your customers really want and delivering it to them with some flair and consistency, your competitors will be spending their time focusing on you.
As I mention in the book, focusing on your competitors is the business equivalent of trying to keep up with your neighbors fancy car or giant house. A totally empty and meaningless pursuit when you do that personally. Why would it be any different for a business?
Q: I love your message about “hitting singles and doubles” — that we should make significant but small goals for ourselves rather than betting the whole business “on the rare occurrence of hitting a home run.” That sounds reasonable at first, but it could be interpreted as “aim low so you can hit it.” How do you balance the notion of making short-term, attainable goals against the desire to be something special and make leaps of innovation?
Most of what we now think of as home-runs started out as “singles and doubles.” If you look at product and service offerings that we would now consider a home run you would see they started out as a single or a double. Just look at YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or even Google. Forgetting the profit question for some of those businesses for the moment, they are each a home run in one way or the other. But they were not designed or launched to be a home run. Nobody bet their house on the success of them. And that takes nothing away from the incredible impact of each and how they have scaled. Even with all of the cash that Google is sitting on they continue to try out new singles and doubles. Some will turn into a home run and others will not. Either way, Eric Schmidt does not have to go to sleep at night wondering if he will still have a company if one new initiative flops. So when I speak about reducing the stress and worry about business ownership, part of that comes from being able to sleep at night. Literally and figuratively. It is also about the confidence that builds when you are in a position to constantly push new ideas out to clients and the market instead of working for 2 years on a home run type of idea that may never get done.
The concept of singles and doubles is more about persistent innovation and getting ideas out the door. To fully butcher the analogy, if the ball never hits the bat you will never even get on base, much less score.
Q: A lot of your writing is about rekindling a founder’s enthusiasm (which I very much appreciate). When you’re starting out you can’t imagine that you’ll ever be tired of the adventure, but burn-out is very real, and you offer pithy insights into how to get past that. Still though, you quote Henry Ford saying “You can do anything if you have enthusiasm,” but is enthusiasm enough? You can be ebullient and yet silly, thoughtless, or just unlucky. What else is required?
In a word, purpose. In two, purpose and passion.
Every time I start to work with a client I find the same thing: Someone that used to love what they do that can no longer answer the question of why they do it. They started out with a real passion and a sense of purpose. As the business grew, running it got more complex and the purpose and passion got buried under paperwork, expenses, bill collection, staffing issues, etc… And that is a totally natural cycle but one that most business owners feel is just part of owning a business. I see founders resigned to that drudgery as part of what it is to be a business owner. And all of their business owner friends commiserate with them and tell them it is the same for them. It became that for me and it is the worst feeling in the world and a horrible way to spend a life. You are stuck with all of the responsibility of running a business and are responsible for the livelihood of a lot of people so you just keep on keeping on. If that is not the definition of misery it should be.
So the goal here is to break out of the rut. And it is a very deep rut. The goal needs to be to recapture the passion and purpose you had when you first started out. When I looked back on how I eventually got back on track it was not by trying to add complexity or trying to catch up to my competition. It turned out it was the opposite. I stopped worrying about my competition, I got my clients to stop using me like a bank and started finding a way for my business to express its purpose to the market. I stripped away the complexity, worry and stress and figured out what was great about my company and why my clients chose us over everyone else. I started to innovate more around those insights and show off the cool stuff we were doing. And guess what showed up?
Your turn: Ask Howard! (And get free stuff.)
Howard will be lurking in the comments area like a vulture, I mean shark, I mean guardian angel. So ask a question and join the conversation! And don’t forget, the best two comments (question, info, whatever) get you a free 30-minute coaching session with Howard.