Uncommon Interview: Howard Mann puts the fun back in business

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.

business-brickyardIn 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).

Many of you are just starting out on your startup journey, still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of hope and confidence. Or fear and fraudulence, whatever.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

Enthusiasm!

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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.

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  • http://tb.contacterra.com Kirill Blazhko

    On objective thinking and enthusiasm: enthusiasm can be also lowered by losing a client or losing a bid to win a client. But I think that rationalization can really help here.

    I use simple technique – imagine the worst scenario it can end by.

    And the worst way is that: an entrepreneur can find out that he has lost a client due to the fact that the competitor suggested a lower price. And then he can find out that if he lowers the price too the business becomes almost unprofitable. All he can do is to change the business model or to start a new business. Tough challenge, but it is definitely not the end of life.

    So, that is the way we can keep enthusiasm stable.
    .-= Kirill Blazhko’s latest blog post: The real secret of how to stay motivated in business =-.

  • http://www.blackbeltguide.com Marc Winitz

    This is an excellent post Jason. I understand why you choose Howard for the interview given his contrarian observations. I was unaware of the e-book but will download it now.

    Two things really stick out for me in this insightful post:

    1) Howard’s example of taking a customer for granted, everyone does this. At my company we noticed and in situations like the one he describes we started to treat our customers more like employees because the process is identical. When a (good) employee leaves the natural tendency is to go back and offer them something to stay, but it is too late at that point. That’s why the employee left and it is why customer’s leave. In a sense a customer and an employee are virtually the same thing, you can’t live without some and can without others so keep them both front and center through this lens and you are bound to stay on top of the most critical issues that both of these key players have to your business.

    2) The whole issue of spending time on competition completely resonates for me and the reason does not have to do with understanding the market and what is going (Howard isn’t saying that I don’t believe) but rather get close to your customer. If you are doing that it doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing. And going back to the point about finding rationalizations the bottom line is that if you are not doing this (talking with them, sitting with them, communicating with them, etc…) you are not close to them and eventually they can walk from you.

    Awesome post, thanks for this.

  • http://www.thedailymba.com Jarie Bolander

    The challenge I see is the keeping the purpose and passion alive when the big idea you are trying to foster is stalled or stalling. I agree that enthusiasm can wane and that your purpose and passion has to pull you through but it also seems that you have to be pragmatic.

    If the business is not taking off or can’t take off, then when does it make sense to continue down the road even if you have enthusiasm, purpose and passion?
    .-= Jarie Bolander’s latest blog post: How to Attract, Motivate and Retain Startup Talent =-.

  • http://www.fusioncharts.com Sanket Nadhani

    Great points you make there Howard. I could see myself nodding in agreement with most of the things you mention.

    However I am not so sure about — “Clients’ choices are usually straightforward even if they seem unfair.” And particularly so when the client in question happens to be an enterprise. I mean what would you say if a company chooses A over B because A sent the proposal in a nicely designed PDF, used fancy terms in their mail and the like. B, on the other hand, was much simpler, sent its proposal inline in the mail itself and uses simple plain language which conveyed exactly what they wanted to. Basically the difference between being to-the-point and getting fancy with the designs and stuff.

  • http://www.howardmann.com Howard Mann

    Marc: Re not focusing on your competition. You have it exactly right. There are so many hours in a day and the more you spend focusing on your competition the less you have left to focus on those that pay your bills and help grow your business. I realize that you will never fully forget about your competition. But, the more conscious I can make people to how much they are doing it the faster they can recognize it, correct it and redirect their energy and focus. Thanks for the comment!

    Sanket: Let’s explore your A and B proposal example where A was a fancy, highly designed PDF and B was a short and concise proposal. And A won. What I want to get across is that many companies rationalize that result (If you are B that lost) in a way that does not allow them to improve their businesses. So, if the big enterprise wanted a fancy and highly designed proposal then why didn’t that get picked up in the discovery process before the proposal was done? What questions were not asked that should be asked in the future. If your company refuses to create anything but a short and concise proposal because that is what it believes in then how could that be communicated for future proposals so everyone knows what to expect? For example “We won’t try to take away from our smarts by blurring them with some fancy designs on our proposal. You are hiring us for our thinking and our ability to solve the right problems fast so that is why you will only see the right information on our proposals and nothing else.” Hope that helps to clarify and expand on the idea. If not, just let me know.

    Thanks!

    • http://www.fusioncharts.com Sanket Nadhani

      What would be your take on the A and B example for a product company? For a services company, I think what you mentioned should work fine, though I don’t work in one so I wouldn’t know for sure.

      But in a product company where the numbers are huge and you can’t spend that amount of time on every prospect setting the expectations and getting your philosophy through, what would you recommend?

      On a side note, we are more on the A side – we have exquisitely designed PDFs and carefully chosen words for every communication :)

  • http://codeanthem.com/blog Amber Shah

    I like your point about trying to ignore the competition, or at least not make them your focus. However, for a small startup going up against big competition, it can also make sense to “take on” the big boys. In “Getting Real”, they talk about taking a stand against a competitor and having a strong point of view.

    In my business, there are large incumbents (job boards, like Monster and Dice, and recruiting firms) who I would clearly be competing against. What I offer is different from them, and much more valuable to companies and job-seeking programmers, but the value proposition sounds similar.

    If I don’t say anything, it may not be clear what the benefits are over them and it may also seem like there’s a pink elephant in the room. On the other hand, taking them on explicitly (are you tired of X? we offer Y which is better because…) defies your advice to ignore the competitor. What do you advise?
    .-= Amber Shah’s latest blog post: Let’s Be Independent Together =-.

  • Robert Graham

    Jason observed that many of his readers are just starting out and still have that passion. What are some effective ways to keep it?

  • http://www.howardmann.com/blog Howard Mann

    Amber: It is important to make the distinction between competing with your competition vs focusing on them. Also, the client is making the decision about what is most valuable to them vs how you perceive what you do better than your competition. If you let your customers and future customers tell you what matters most to them then you can show how you solve their problems and make their lives easier. They will then make the comparison to the competition.

    To follow your example, 37 Signals did not market Basecamp as an alternative to Microsoft Project or Highrise as an alternative to Salesforce.com (and others). They offered up a project that was simple project management and simple CRM. They built something they needed for themselves and steadily improve it based on what their customers ask for and what they think adds value to their product. In a feature comparison chart against salesforce.com Highrise would look totally inferior. And it isn’t. So why play on that field?

    It is hard to deliver a truly unique product/service if it is built against a feature list with your competitors.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the insight. And after re-reading the part about “picking a fight” (http://gettingreal.37signals.com/ch02_Have_an_Enemy.php) I see that it wasn’t as much about using that as a marketing strategy, as it was about defining the vision for the business or product internally.

      I enjoyed this interview, particularly the part about the book even though I’m not writing a book, because I want to apply those same principles to my startup. I am also using my blog to test my ideas on an audience, and I want to have a “point of view that will turn as many people on as off.”

  • http://www.nbcommunication.com David Nicol

    Thanks for the great interview. I love the Business Brickyard, and I’d really love to hear Howard talk some more about how to reduce the stress and worry of business ownership, as this is a huge issue for me.

    My business is actually doing very well and growing steadily, but I generate so much unnecessary stress for myself by aiming too high, and then fretting about the seemingly insurmountably distance we still have to travel to get from where we are to reach these far off goals. I sleep best at night when I’m in “lets keep it small, lets stay focussed and local” mode, but after a few days of this I get restless and the big ideas start coming back. It is hard to find the right balance between contentment and ambition, or between realistic (but maybe boring) goals, and lofty and exciting (but potentially stressful) ones. Does anyone else have similar internal conflicts? How do you deal with this problem?

    • http://www.howardmann.com/blog Howard Mann

      David,

      You painted the perfect picture of what so many business owners struggle with. I used to feel that way on every drive home at the end of the day and it is not fun.

      I have found that those big far reaching goals create stress because they rarely connect back to the smaller actions you can take right away. The end result is those goals stay goals instead of you feeling that your business is moving towards them regardless of the pace.

      If you make sure your goals connect to a strong and valued purpose (That will help filter out goals that do not fit your company the best) then I often use the GoalJumping concept in my book to paint a picture of the business far enough in the future so the vision is not encumbered by any current constraints. For example, the ideal of your company 10 years from now. What does it look like, what does it do, how much does it make and what are you doing every day? Then work your way back to what needs to get done in the next 90 days, who is charged with doing each task and when they commit to having it done. Essentially, everyone will know the biggest goal (The home run) you want to achieve but getting there now becomes a series of singles and doubles.

      Be sure to repeat the exercise every 90 days to constantly reset where you are headed and what must happen next (Things always change). Oh, and have FUN!

      Howard

  • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

    Jason – Howard is a great guy. We just did an interview recently (probably will be up in a few weeks). I’m curious when you said most interviews are bad. What do you think separates good from bad?

    -D

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Most interviews on the web are “stock,” meaning they ask the same innane, useless questions like “Where did you grow up?” and “What got you interested in [subject]” and “What’s the single best advice for [X]?”

      In other words, stuff that’s not actionable.

      I think your show and specific others (e.g. Mixergy) have fantastic interviews, and I hope the ones in this series are similarly useful and insightful.

      P.S. Another reason I lead with that aggressive line is that many people hit “back” as soon as they see “interview,” so I want to get the message across quickly that this isn’t going to be “What do you want to hear Peter say when you get to heaven.”

      • http://www.therisetothetop.com David Siteman Garland

        Got it, Jason. That makes a lot of sense. I think about that a lot (whether or not to include the words interview in the title)

  • http://notupyet Pat Smith

    Jason, since I found your blog I can’t wait for more of your pearls of wisdom.
    Howard, I love the idea of getting “singles and doubles”. As a bootstrap business in the start-up phase, I have big dreams! I know that is not realistic and it is comforting to know I don’t have to burn the world up-yet. I am learning everything I can from people who have been there. I know that you say to ignore the competition, but a “friend” is starting a business like mine. I trusted him with my ideas and now he is copying them. I can’t ignore him because I have to deal with him on a professional basis. How should I treat him? The two extremes would be 1) with disdain 2) offer him help. Where should I fall between the two extremes?

    • http://www.howardmann.com.blog Howard Mann

      Pat,

      If your “friend” is a competitor then I would suggest you simply focus on your business and do your own thing. If he wants to copy you then his business will always be a cheap imitation of yours and that will take care of itself. The person that simply copies something does not understand the thinking that is behind it so the product/service will not have any depth.

      Keep your business original. Over time, integrity does win out although it is very tough to feel that way when you have been wronged.

      Hope that helps.

      Howard

  • http://jorgensundberg.net Jorgen Sundberg

    Completely gree with the competition bit, do your own thing and your customers will respect you for it. And you can waste countless hours just monitoring others’ movements when you should have been improving your own game!
    .-= Jorgen Sundberg’s latest blog post: How to Get Speaker Bookings: Write a Fact One-Sheet =-.

  • Lasse Koivisto

    Hi Jason, very good post. Its indeed a very good interview.

    Howard I have one good question. You said that you need to maintain enthusiasm and I know that the best of doing this is to love what you do. I´m in the last year of business administration here in Brazil and I want to be an entrepreneur but I can´t choose something I love. I like B2C product businesses but that´s it, I don´t know what I really love (except my hobbies). How was it like finding what you really love?

    Thanks for all the information you gave us.

    Cheers

    • http://www.howardmann.com/blog Howard Mann

      Lasse,

      Glad to hear you enjoyed the interview!

      It takes a long time to figure out what you truly love to do as it comes from experiencing as much as you possible can as your career unfolds. One way I try to help entrepreneurs zero in on the areas they love is this little exercise:

      Keep a log of everything you do for an entire week. I mean everything all the way down to make photo copies and sending faxes. Then take that list and look for the things that, when you are doing them, increases your energy. The things that you could do all day and never get tired. You will find many things on your list that you are good at doing but that does not mean that you love doing it. Important distinction. Look for what is at the core of those actions that fuel your energy and see what they have in common. Or, in your case, in what type of business or industry could you spend the bulk of your time doing those types of activities.

      I am not naive to say that you will then magically be able to only do what you love doing all day every day but now you have a goal to work towards. As long as you know you are working towards that goal the easier it will be to sustain the drudgery that is part of the journey. As they say, it is a marathon not a sprint. So enjoy the process and not just the finish line.

      Hope that is helpful! If not, let me know and we’ll dig deeper.
      Howard

      • Lasse Koivisto

        Hi Howard,

        You have gave me another reality. In the last months I’m looking at industries that I might love, but deep inside I think that just administrating my own business is what I really love (respecting the idiosincrasies that I showed above). I have no real passion for one especific product, but I have a passion in administrating. Is this normal? =)

        Thanks for the quote “You will find many things on your list that you are good at doing but that does not mean that you love doing it. Important distinction.” I never thought about this. I was thinking “What are the things that I`m really good at?” Would it a good idea to just think about things you really love? Forgetting the good-at thing.

        Isn`t the good-at thing a consequence of the love for something? (Just something I thought right now)

        Thanks for you time

        Cheers

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  • http://identi.ca/group/gewinnspiele JamesGames

    hola
    i’m so pleased that i found this article. that posting was so cool. thanks again i saved this article.
    are you going to write similar posts?