GFEP 21 | Business Reset

 

Now that we’re in the last month of 2020, is it fair to say that this has been the most unpredictable year in memory, if not, your lifetime? Whether it’s been a year of disappointments, plateaus, or pivots, author, consultant, and executive coach Mitch Russo helps his clients reset their company by first adjusting their mindset. Mitch’s seasoned business advice valued by such renowned thought leaders as Tony Robbins, Chet Holmes, and Shark Tank’s Kevin Harrington will be of great benefit if you’re ready to make 2021 the year you always envisioned.

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Mitch Russo | Business Reset, Personal Reinvent 

Mitch Russo, it is such a pleasure to have you on the show. I’ve been looking forward to this interview for some time. I know our overall audience is going to learn a lot from this conversation. Let’s get right into it. We are talking at a time when a lot of business entrepreneurs may be struggling. They’ve spent many years and resources building up a business launching an idea. They’re now wondering, what’s next? Is it worth pursuing or should I give it up and take another route? Was it a good dream at one time, but it’s time to act like an adult and go do something else? As a business consultant to many successful entrepreneurs and enterprises, how would you respond to that question that people may be having?

There are dire and desperate situations caused by COVID-19. We’ve had restaurants all over the country go bankrupt. There’s an estimate that says, if not a half, at least a third of existing restaurants are out of business for good. When it comes to the type of work I do, we don’t work with retail establishments, but I had a chance to chat with an owner of a chain of restaurants who called me almost out of desperation and said, “I would love to pick your brain for fifteen minutes.” I said, “Sure.” We got on the phone and we chatted. After hearing his tale, I started saying, “Let’s go down a different road here. What are your assets? What have you done over the years that are unique to you?”

I discovered that there was a wealth of data and information that he had on purchasing food, storage food, the management of the food process and then on simple things like recipes that can cook quickly using the same temperature ovens. It was a network of brilliance, maybe even a treasure chest of brilliant ideas that I would have never known existed unless I pushed in this direction. By the end of this fifteen-minute call, an hour later, it turns out that I had encouraged him to start documenting everything he felt like was valuable and unique about what he had learned years building a chain of restaurants. At that point, what we are planning on doing is working together to help him launch an educational program that will be a combination of online learning, Zoom-based coaching and eventually, a live component where people can come and start a restaurant business in a live laboratory with him. He went from being depressed and scared to super optimistic and excited about the future.

That’s a reset. You’ve coined that phrase business reset, where you take people who may have reached a crossroads either by themselves, as they’re trying to launch this fantastic idea that they’ve had, or their business has hit a fork in the road. Can you describe a little bit more about the whole business reset mentality and some of the practices that you use with your clients?

The first thing that we do whenever I work with a client on a business reset is to deal with the mindset. Mindset is the most dangerous thing when it comes to success and failure. If you don’t have your mindset, no amount of coaching is ever going to help. The idea is let’s get people from a place of despair, into a place of hope and let’s do that quickly. Once we feel like there are some hope and some confidence in the possibility of a future, we then look for the strategy first as to how that will happen. Different businesses have different approaches. For example, many of my clients have been keynote speakers who are out of business and unfortunately, probably will be through 2022.

One of the things that I did with my keynote clients is similar to what I did with my restaurant clients is to say, “Let’s take the inventory of what your intellectual property is,” and we do that. We decide in advance, whether it makes sense to start structuring those as programs. One of the things that we do that’s different than with our restaurant friend is we want to approach the same clients as they had before and say, “I used to speak from stage. I used to do your keynotes, but we’re in a different world. We have a program that’s even more effective. What we’re going to do is we’re going to be doing an online keynote effectively to get people started.”

We’re going to be following that up with a three-level coaching program. We’re going to coach your VPs and executives first. We’re going to get their mindset straight. We’re going to teach them about what we’ve learned about how to both manage people, manage under diverse situations and how to effect change in the organization where everybody is scared. The overall tone of everybody in every company is scared. The only places that don’t exist are the people at Facebook, Google, and maybe Netflix. They’re excited but other than the rest of us, there’s a lot of fear out there. We address that first. What we do is create what I call the university structure. What we do with the university structures is I explain to my clients how they should potentially explain this to their clients, which is to say, “The idea is to get them into the program and sign on for the first part of this, knowing that there’s a second and third part and maybe even a fourth part. The idea is to create the highest lifetime value possible.”

Like a university, there’s a big job to sell you into freshman year to get you to come to our college. There’s not much of a sales effort to sell you from freshmen to sophomore year. The assumption is made that if you’re a freshman, you’re going to become a sophomore. We take the same approach with the way we train people to sell into a corporation. This has become extremely successful, multiplying the value of that customer relationship far more than a simple keynote would have done. To be fair, a keynote might’ve generated $10,000, $15,000, or $20,000 in an afternoon in the past. Now, what we do is we generate six figures by building a long-term program, getting people involved in it where we are documenting and targeting objectives all throughout the process. We are showing our clients exactly what we’d done and bringing down to earth the value that we have delivered so that they want to do the next phase of the program.

The type of clients that you put through this business reset, are they diverse? You mentioned, a lot of them are keynotes or they were until the current circumstances. Do they come from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds? Do they keynote for different purposes or are they in one channel?

The particular clients that I’ve spoken about have all been keynote presenters for corporations or non-profits. They all speak from the stage. They all have a transformational message. Some of them already have training programs, many don’t. Some of them have books, some don’t. What we try to do is we try to build their authority first and in many ways, this is what we would do for any client. I haven’t worked with him yet, but we’re in the process of chatting about how to work together. He happens to be an exterminator. You might say, “Why would an exterminator even need a business coach?” It turns out that he is 65 years old. He has a nice business, but the problem is that he has a specialized type of process. He services homes that are particularly sensitive to chemicals.

Never sell anything without knowing what you're going to sell next. Click To Tweet

The bottom line is that what we wanted to do was transition him out of the business in either 1 of 2 directions. We chatted about this in our initial call, which has maybe it might be a time to sell the company. He wasn’t too happy about that. He loves what he does and he feels he’d be bored. I told him he could join me here in Florida. I’d keep them busy on the fishing boats if he likes. What we talked about is maybe how to create the equivalent of a coaching organization, a Salesforce or a network of operators who he does not have to pay directly a salary. In fact, it could pay him as a result of the training. From there, conduct his business more like the CEO than as the operator itself.

Mitch, you’re alluding to something that we have spoken about previously, which you call the alternate sales channel which is a fascinating concept that you have used to great success. Can you elaborate a little bit more on what the alternate sales channel is and who can utilize such a practice?

I’ll tell you first what it’s not. It’s not a traditional salesforce where you pay people. Imagine if you could hire a salesforce, bring them on board, get them excited, and have them pay you for the privilege of selling your products. Would you like that to happen in your own business, as an example? Of course, you would.

I don’t know about that.

The bottom line is most people would love to have a bunch of salesmen come onboard, pay them, and then sell their products for them. That would be just great. What we do is we look for a certain type of business where this process can fit nicely into the structure of what they’re doing. Sometimes it’s not a fit. Sometimes it is. That’s what we do when we have an exploratory session is we try to understand what the nature of their business is. I’ve done this for SaaS and real estate companies. I’m doing it for a company that goes into your home and clears out all of your unwanted possessions and liquidates entire homes. In ten days, we’re building an entire countrywide network of certified partners who do this for them and pay them for the privilege of working with them.

The whole idea here of the alternate sales channel is it’s not a traditional channel in any way. It’s not based on an employee relationship. It leans heavily on making the person who you bring into this organization, highly independent while still supporting them at a much higher level than almost any other company would think of doing. That’s part of what the channel is about. We call that certification. In the past certification, you go learn something, you take a test and you’re certified. That process can cost anywhere from $99 to $18,000.

John Maxwell has a coaching certification for somewhere in that range, $18,000 but what you get is the same. You get a certificate you could put on your wall. When we build certification, we’re creating a business environment that our certified partners step into, which includes lead generation, public relations and technology in place for them. All of the elements of having a business, which they admit, they were never good, to begin with. We’re supplementing all the things that they didn’t like to do and weren’t doing well with an entirely professional environment, ready to go into action for them.

That’s for the business owner you say. You’re able to assist them and identifying other skilled individuals that can not only represent their product or their offering but also bring those other functions within the business or to the business, is that correct?

That is correct. Most of the time, it’s like that a mythical story of the beggar sitting on a box in the bazaar begging for money until a wise man comes along. He holds up his cup to the wise man and says, “Can I have some change?” The wise man looks at him and says, “Why would I give you change when you’re sitting on gold?” He said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Look under the box,” and he walks away. The beggar has been sitting on that box for twenty years. It’s never moved. He opens the box, picks it up and discovers that there are gold coins in that box. We take that same approach when we work with our clients because we say, “The best people to enroll first are your own clients.” Your own clients in many cases would love to do what you do. If that’s the case, then we enroll them, get them trained, get them set up and get them out there doing what we do.

This is the model that you developed some time ago. Can you talk to us about the genesis of this approach?

GFEP 21 | Business Reset

Business Reset, Personal Reinvent: Mindset is the most dangerous thing when it comes to success and failure. If you don’t have your mindset, no amount of coaching is ever going to help.

 

I stumbled across this as a bad idea, which later got refined into a good idea. Here’s what my problem was. I was running a software company that was the victim of our own success. We had way too many clients. We couldn’t support all of our clients. We had whole times in the half-hour range and that was completely unacceptable to me. A long story and I’ll try to make it short was we got a call from an important woman in Los Angeles. She was the head of the Los Angeles Bar Association technology division. She was upset at us for what we had as a software product for lawyers. She said that our software crashed her computer. Not only was she going to sue us, but she was going to report this to the entire bar.

This is a $99 product. The resources here are not the issue anymore. We have a reputation and potential influence. I said to her, “I promise you that in a guaranteed 48 hours, we will get your system fixed even if I have to fly to California all by myself to do it for you. Do not worry. We’ll be back to you soon.” I’m in Boston, Massachusetts. I get on the phone because there was no internet trying to figure out how to get an airline reservation. I couldn’t get out there. I think to myself, “What else could I possibly do?” I had this idea. I had spoken to some of my own clients in that area. I remembered one particular excited, happy, smart woman who worked at a law firm. Her name was Anne.

Out of the blue, I called up Anne and I said, “Anne, this is Mitch Russo.” She got all excited. She had no idea I would ever be calling her. She said, “Mitch, it is wonderful to hear from you. What can I do for you?” I said, “I have a favor to ask. I’ll pay you for your time. Here’s what I’m looking for. I would like you to go over to this person’s office. I would like you to figure out what’s going on and see if you could fix her system.” California was three hours ahead and it was already 4:00 in the afternoon. She said, “I get off work in 30 minutes. I’m going to go there tonight.”

I said, “That is amazing. Thank you.” I’m at home and I’m sitting on pins and needles. I gave her my home phone number. No cell phones back then. I’m waiting and finally, she calls me up. I said, “How had it go?” She went, “It went great. It turns out that she needed to do a bit of blah, blah, blah. It’s all fixed. She was happy and she gave me $100. These were the words that changed my life. Mitch, if there’s anybody else in the San Francisco or Los Angeles area that you want me to help, you let me know.” All of a sudden, my brain exploded.

I said, “What would happen if I had 100 of Anne’s all over the country, willing to go out there and help my clients?” Anne is already a client. She’s already at the mastery level on my products. What would happen if I simply invited them to work with us directly and dispatch them as certified consultants? I got to work and we put together a little test. It was hard. You had to know your stuff to pass, but in the end, what ended up happening is we sold these tests for $1,000. If you flunked, you got your $500 back. We had generated a new product by selling tests. We had no idea we’d sell many. At that point, once they pass the test, we said, “You’re certified.”

We started using them as dispatch for tech support issues. Now, this seemed to be going great. We had 60 people in the field and they were busy. They were thrilled, but then something weird started to happen. All of a sudden, we would get these phone calls from upset people. They would come in through tech support. I wasn’t aware of them. Tech support would get the call, but they would deal with the problem. I still wasn’t aware of them until finally, we got a threat. It turns out that what we are unaware of is that these people who we had “certified” were not business people. They were not professional people. They showed up looking like Elmer Fudd. They showed up smelling like a trash dumpster. They were late, rude, not on time and incompetent. We had some big problems on our hands.

My vice president walked in marketing said, “This was a stupid idea, Russo. You should shut this down right away.” I said, “I will shut it down right away, but it’s not a stupid idea. It’s a good idea and I’m going to prove it.” I shut down the program. I sent apology letters and I said, “I want to speak to every person who’s been impacted by this.” I, personally, as the CEO of a 100-person company took every single phone call from every single disgruntle client and I made it good. Every one of them. I then rebuilt the program from scratch. It took me six months and I reissued the program at a much higher price.

I held my breath. I had no idea what was going to happen next. To my surprise and delight, a bunch of people applied and went through all of the training and it was much more detailed this time. They finally were truly professional certified consultants. That program over the course of less than eighteen months, ballooned to 350 certified consultants who were out there helping my clients with my software, with my customers, generating $1 million in revenue from certification fees, testing fees and symposium fees. They became my third-largest sales channel right behind retail and direct. I didn’t even expect that to happen. That was a total surprise. My tech support hold time dropped over 20% and was still dropping by the time the program had evolved to that level.

You might say it was an accident how I came up with this and I had never heard of it before. I didn’t have anyone to model, but that’s what we did. It was that model later that I continued to refine and build a toolset and build the legal documents and all of the flow charts in my naps to go with it. When I work with a client, we have a smooth engagement. We can go from 0 to 100 in less than 90 days, and we could launch their certification program, generate mid-six figures most of the time on launch. From there, we do it every quarter. That’s the base story of how certification came about for me.

That’s living proof that necessity was the mother of your invention. You had to find a solution to that disgruntled client in LA. That’s a great testament to that principle. Let me ask you a couple of questions about that story though, Mitch. This certification type of process, the sales channel that you’ve developed for yourself and clients, can it work for service-oriented businesses as opposed to those businesses that are selling a product? You had software and people needed to become proficient and expert in your software. Can it work for a business-centered organization or a service-oriented business? If I have a consulting business if it’s helping people produce living wills or living trusts. I would build a system through your channels where I could certify certain qualified attorneys, who could go out and share our system of building those living trusts for clients around the world.

Never leave a customer in a place where they weren't far better than they were before you met them. Click To Tweet

There are two elements to that. The first element of that is it sounds like you would need to be a lawyer before you could perform a legal obligation. You need it for your customers that are lawyers. As for selling certification, you are selling a product to a lawyer. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that the product is the certification and the know-how and the documents assembly software to create those for their clients, which you will enable.

You are a SaaS-based company from the way that’s described. You’re a SaaS-based company and you have clients that need service, who would like to take advantage of the product. The answer would be yes, with a caveat. The caveat is that you’re going to need to be careful because having sold to lawyers throughout the years of selling legal time and billing software, I can assure you that lawyers will look for anything they can to trip you up in your business because they want to see what you’re doing so they could do it too.

If you are in any way, playing in a space that is not even legal, then you will be called out by your potential clients. However, the other thing is that one of Mitch’s rules is you never sell anything without knowing what you’re going to sell next. The whole idea is that I wouldn’t promote it as a program to sell will generation. I would promote it to lawyers as an entry-level service to bring new clients into your law firm. This is the fastest, easiest way to do so in bulk in quantity. For me, I would position it differently from the way you described it. Realistically, if your company is not doing that service then it is in fact, a good idea to think about certification for that.

The second question I had related to your story is that this first woman who you hired, who did that favor for you, and she got $100 from the client. She had skills in knowing how to work the software so that it didn’t crash the system. You built an army that sales channel from that point on, but what started to crumble around you was the professionalism of those individuals. In other words, in order to maintain this new product that you had created, this sales channel, it wasn’t the hard skills of being fluent in tech or software. It was the soft skills in how to be on time and how to address a client professionally, had to listen and how to speak appropriately to clients. I find that interesting that it was the soft skills, perhaps it could have undone this fantastic idea you had. Am I correct in assuming that? If I am, how did you fix that?

If I would have known what you said when I first started, I would’ve saved myself a lot of grief, but what else I would’ve done? I would’ve missed out on learning that and figuring out how to fix it. You’re right and here’s how I fixed it. First of all, I wrote a manual that was about three inches thick that contained chapters on how to dress, how to show up, how to speak and how to conduct an engagement. Here are all of the pre-formatted letters that you send before and after your engagement. Here’s what you say when you follow up, etc. That was part of it, but not the most important part. The second thing I did is I created the code of ethics and the in order to create the code of ethics, I had to first examine myself, what are my values?

We crafted what we call The Value Parthenon, which means that the roof of the Parthenon is my values as the CEO. What is my why? My why is to find a better way. I can’t look at anything and not try to fix it. It’s unfortunately my nature. The values that I have are to always find a better way. My other value never leaves a customer in a place where they weren’t far better than they were before you met them. My third value might be that I’m looking to create a relationship, not a transaction and there are several others. This is what I call my values. You have yours, which are similar to mine, I’m sure, and more. The next step is if you think about the values as the roof of the Parthenon and we think about the columns of the Parthenon as our code of ethics, then what we have is a system that is almost guaranteed to make sure that none of these mistakes happens in the future.

What we’re doing, Rob, is we’re building a culture in advance of even launching the program. In this process, I give my clients a pre-formatted culture course that they record in their own voice that transmits these values in these cultures and the code of ethics to everybody who joins and becomes part of the company that building certification. They even take an exam on the culture. That’s how close and how far we go to make sure that they truly understand that this isn’t a free for all this. It doesn’t get to devolve into entropy. This instead has a set of rules that everyone must follow. The way I like to think about it is that freedom is created within boundaries. As I said before, if you think of the Parthenon, everything inside the columns, you’re free to do whatever you want. As long as you stay within the columns, you have absolute freedom to build your business, to create for yourself, anything you want with my help and with our help always.

As a business owner myself, and over the many years that we’ve been in business, we have never been a 100-person company like you’ve led before. We’ve always had a small staff relatively, but over the years, we’ve hired and employed somewhere around 80 to 85 individuals. One of the biggest challenges that any small owner has, especially I would add if their business is based on service, is that they’re protective of their brand, their reputation, and how they are perceived by the market. When you bring someone into that small family called a company, you want to make sure that that person is not going to disrupt or undo all the work you’ve done. We have heard this a thousand times, “It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and five minutes to destroy it.” Being as careful as you are and building that code of ethics is an important point. I’m sure it brings a lot of comfort to those who might want to pursue the path that you’ve described, even working with you, Mitch.

This turns out to be the key to success for any business if you are not transmitting your values to the people who you work with on a daily basis, if you are not leading from the top. On my LinkedIn page, it has a statement that says, “The CEO’s job is to create and to communicate.” I know everyone else has pictures of them on stage and waving. To me, this is the highest form of leadership and creating can take many forms. Creating could be building programs, creating sales teams, but not doing. Communication is the second most important skill of the CEO. If the CEO cannot communicate, that means nobody knows what the CEO is thinking.

I struggled with being an introvert growing up to understand how to communicate effectively. I went through and envied a lot of the people that were gifted naturally with this charisma. I never had any of that stuff. I had to learn it the hard way. I did it by trying to understand myself first. This was such a great challenge that I documented this process. This is part of what we teach when we build certification. We have to make sure that the CEO is willing to do the communication part. Most people are good at creating or think they are, but they get mired in the operation that they don’t have enough time to create.

GFEP 21 | Business Reset

Business Reset, Personal Reinvent: Different businesses have different approaches.

 

The communication part would be considered excessive by the average CEO. The average introverted CEO would look at what I do or look at what I say and say, “That’s way too much. That’s a little too much communicating, Mitch,” but it’s important because people need to know you. If everyone says, “I’m one of Rob’s guy. I’m on Rob’s team.” They need to know who Rob is. They need to know what you care. They need to know what makes you smile because ultimately, that’s what they want to do. They want to make you smile. They want to fulfill their lives and they want to make you and your clients happy.

You said, in order for the employees to know what the CEO is thinking, he or she has to learn how to communicate. The part that I would add is that in order for the CEO to know the employees, their colleagues, they also need to communicate. Communication is not just talking. It’s also listening, I’m sure you would attest in your own career. Let me ask you, when you are looking at a prospective client, someone who you want to take to the proverbial next level, whose business you want to help reset, or you want to build these types of channels and certification programs that you’re describing, is there a perfect recipe of a prospect for you? How would you describe the person when you see them or hear about them, you say, “I got to work with them?”

It’s a great question and in a way I’ve never quite articulated this before. Thank you for drawing that out of me because I’m going to make this up as I go along here. I appreciate that. The first thing is they have to be coachable. If I detect that someone is stuck in their ways that they’re not willing to listen and do, then I don’t think it’s a fit. It’s going to be a slugfest for me and for them too. The second thing is they have to be able to think outside the box and look at new ideas. I’m willing to stand by their side and guide them through that process, but in our first session, in any engagement that I have, I do an unusual exercise.

My first session with any new client is two hours long. I take them through a pathway to discover a little bit about themselves that make people who’ve never looked at before. Behind the scenes while we’re chatting, I’m building a mind map of everything that I see as the core of their existing business. I’m using what they tell me to create a trajectory for the future. I’ll give you an example. I had a gentleman on and he started as a new client. In our conversation, it was clear that he had made a nice living doing what he was doing. I’m not going to tell you who it was or specifically what he did.

He was a good provider, but he lost everything with COVID. He wanted to restart that business. In the series of questions that I had asked him, I helped him to discover something about himself that he had never looked at before. In a matter of 40 minutes into our session, he had broken down, started to cry and said he had never realized this about himself before. From that moment in time, everything we did going forward was based on this discovery of who he truly was. I’ve done this with NFL players. I’ve done this with CEOs in $50 million companies. It doesn’t matter where you are or in your life. It doesn’t matter how “successful” you’ve been. All of us have this desire. In many ways, we have adapted our lives, our needs and our family’s needs.

Those are all good things, but if we can find a way to unleash this desire in a positive way, it might turn out to be the most profitable thing we could do as well as the most satisfying. That’s part of my process. For example, I take a person through this process and I’m getting nothing back, or I’m not able to get them to where I think of as the next stage in their own evolution. I know I’m going to have a difficult time with this individual because I need them to open up to me. I’m a stranger. I get that, but I have a way about getting people to open up. In many ways, it’s all about them, anyway. It’s nothing to do with me. It’s trying to shine a light on their best qualities.

In many cases, we don’t take advantage of our greatest skills and assets because, in the past, they didn’t seem to benefit us, but in the future, they may have to. That’s part of why we do this exercise. That’s so powerful. I have never thrown anybody out. I had one woman many years ago tell me that she was exhausted after every session with me that she had to lay down. Sometimes it took two days to recover. She said she doesn’t think she can continue. This woman was what I would call a trust fund baby. She had never had a job in her entire life, but she had this desire to create a business.

In my early years, I was maybe a little too enthusiastic about what I saw in her and about her. I might’ve pushed her a little too hard, but she would never have made it to the end anyway because she wasn’t willing to do the work. There’s work with any endeavor there’s going to be concerned. In some cases, even fear and everything we want is on the other side of that. My goal and my job as your coach is to get you to the other side of that and show you what I can see that’s already there.

It’s not only the business reset that you specialize in. I’m interpreting your words as you also do an individual re-invent. That’s what oftentimes we must do, especially when we are facing trials and hurdles that we either anticipated or didn’t anticipate. Certainly, many people are in that boat now in 2020. It’s a fascinating exercise. When you speak of individuals, you have a lot of influence on people. That’s one reason why we’re eager to interview you for the show because we’re all about finding those nuggets that help us all be better influencers and persuaders and to inspire people to do greater things. You’ve also worked with people who could be described as great persuaders and influencers.

You’ve partnered with Tony Robbins, Chet Holmes and Kevin Harrington, who’s the original shark of Shark Tank. These are your partners and friends. This is not to discount your value at all, Mitch, but those are household names to people in the business. In order to partner with those types of personalities and those prominent personalities, what does someone like you win them over so that they had confidence in you and said, “Mitch, you’re the person that we want to do this venture with?”

Look to create a relationship, not a transaction. Click To Tweet

When I built Timeslips Corp, I was the guy. I was the guy on stage. I was the guy on camera. I was the spokesperson, the name that signed every letter. I got used to that. I expected that all my life I’d be the guy. When it came to working with people like the names you mentioned, I’m not the guy. I’m the guy behind the curtain. I found that while I loved creating and building new things, I also found a love for creating systems to run the things that other people have built too. When I came along and was hired by Chet Holmes, for example, to come into his company for one small project. To be fair, you should know this, we were good friends for years. He solicited me selling advertising back when I was running time TimeSlips Corp. We stayed close friends. We built a friendship on that business relationship that lasted all of our lives until he passed away.

The thing is that I had to come into Chet’s company, but Chet’s the guy, not me. I had to create the things that were missing for him, which I was more than willing to do. In fact, I love doing those things. I’m an engineer by background. I have an engineering mind. When I approach something, I always think about the way it could work the most efficiently. It goes back to my why to find a better way. When I walk into a situation, there are people doing a lot of manual things. There’s a whole mess of people doing stuff that they shouldn’t be doing. I look at this and in my mind, I see a picture that lays out instantly in three dimensions, exactly what that system would be and I go about building it.

That’s what I did with Chet and Tony. With Kevin Harrington, we created a company together. He was the spokesperson for that company. He was the guy. He was the head. He was the one on camera, the one who signed the letters. I had to build the backend systems in order to create the company around what we were doing. That turned out to be a great place. I enjoyed it where it became a deficit after Chet passed away. After I left that organization, I realized, “I’m nobody. I have no list. Nobody knows who I am. I’ve been forgotten for many years.” After all, I was only known in the legal industry as the founder of TimeSlips. I had to start over from scratch, from the beginning, and rebuild everything about how to become the guy again. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since 2012, when that partnership dissolved.

In your years of starting businesses and building products and relationships, is there one thing that you can look back on? Despite the story you told us previously of the problem you had with the client in Los Angeles, which led to another side of your business. Is there one thing you’ve done, Mitch, in your past, in the spirit of vulnerability that you could share with us, that you will say, “That was a big mistake? I never should have done that?” Whether it was a particular move or a pivot you shouldn’t have taken or simply a mentality or an attitude that you had at one point in your career.

Fortunately, there are many. A few things came to mind. I’ll try and do them in somewhat chronological order. After I had sold my company and after I was working independently, a friend and I got for lunch. I had an idea for a new internet startup. That was when the web was becoming popular. It was 2005. Together, we had conceived of a new type of dating site. We got excited about it. We sketched it out. At that point, we saw no possible competition at all from anyone. We were thinking we would go forward and fund this ourselves because we both had sold companies. We would get the foundation of this thing built and then maybe raise money. At the last minute, he asked me if I would mind if he brought a friend along to listen in and be part of our conversation.

I don’t want to disclose who it was, but his friend was someone famous. His friend had been profiled in a major motion picture and had a bit of dazzle about him. I trusted my friend as my partner so I said, “Yes.” I skipped the part where I got to do the true due diligence into who this individual was because I trusted my friend’s word. That turned out to be a huge mistake. I got my family involved. We all invested money. We put about $500,000 of our own money into this project collectively and because of this individual, it was a complete flop. He did things that shocked me completely and never in my wildest dream would I imagine anyone would be stupid. Yet, we were stuck with him. He was a founding member, a stockholder and an officer of the company until it got to the point where we had to shut it down. We lost a lot of money, a lot of time and potentially it was an incredible idea died on the vine.

Were you romanced by the celebrity figure? Did you feel like you didn’t have the muscle to say, “No, wait, we need to do more due diligence?”

A little bit of both. I didn’t want to challenge my friend and my friendship to say, “I got to do more due diligence on this guy,” but on the surface, he looked incredible. He would say things like, “When we’re ready to launch, I’ll announce this to my publicist and we’ll be on TV,” and we were. We were featured on Good Morning America at one point with this new idea. It wasn’t as if it wasn’t real. He was an irresponsible individual with poor sensibilities. He did things that put us in jeopardy all the time without thinking. It was a combination of me not having the guts in a sense to go forward and challenge my friend and being a little dazzled by the fact that he was this famous person.

It’s understandable, though, looking back. At the same time, we don’t need to hear all of your other failure stories because I’m sure they’re not as voluminous as you’re suggesting. Let me ask you on the flip side. As I said earlier, you’ve created some interesting and powerful relationships in business. Is there a particular move that you’ve made in your career when you can look back? Not to say your career is over yet, Mitch, but so far in your career, you look back and you say, “That was a pivotal move. That was a turning point in my career. I’m glad I did that, whether it was against my better judgment at the time, or it was just good luck,” or whatever it may have been. Is there a moment you can point to?

I have two that were significant decision moments that were in some sense, a little hard. The first one was when we were building the software company and selling time billing software to lawyers. I received a call from an organization in Chicago and I’m not good with the Chicago accent, but imagine I’m speaking in a thick Chicago accent here. It turns out to be one of the officers for the American Bar Association. In a friendly voice, “Mitch, I see you are selling software to lawyers here. It’s not a good idea selling it without the American Bar Association certification. We would love to help you get certified so you could sell some of that software you got there.” I said, “I am happy to. What do we got to do? Should we submit it?”

GFEP 21 | Business Reset

Business Reset, Personal Reinvent: When we build certification, we’re creating a business environment that our certified partners can step into.

 

He said, “No, you don’t have to submit nothing. It’s just $46,000. We will send you the paperwork, you pay the $46,000. We gave you a certification, then you’re good to go, Mitch.” I said to him, “Are you out of your mind? Do you think I’m going to give you $46,000 for some stupid ABA rubber stamp?” He went, “If you don’t, we’ll destroy you.” I said, “I think I’m going to take my chances on this one. I’m going to let them market decide.” At that point, I decided that I was going to double my efforts in marketing to lawyers. We had a couple of what I call lucky breaks, meaning being super prepared at a moment in time when the opportunity strike. Fourteen months from that moment in time of that phone call, we had achieved the number one status in the legal market in time and billing.

Here’s the surprising part that was shocking. I received the call two years later from another individual at the American Bar Association who said to me, “We dissolved that division. We no longer do that.” By the way, I wrote the president of the ABA describing the shakedown that I had gone through and now this guy calls, “How would you like to speak at the American Bar Association National Meeting and tell your story from the stage? You’re famous in our little world anyway. I think we’d love to hear from you.” That move was dangerous at the time became pivotal.

The other one that is less inspiring, maybe is a simple one. Years ago, I decided to create a podcast. My goal was to build a show where I didn’t care who listened to it. I wanted to have my guests be my ideal clients. My thought was I could get my ideal clients onto my show, have a dynamite one-hour conversation with them and then chat with them about what I did. If it was a fit, maybe help them with their business.

At first it didn’t work well. In fact, for the first year, I didn’t sign a single new client. On top of that, I wasn’t getting 50 to 60 downloads an episode. It was terrible, but I kept going and I said, “I know this can work. I know I need to refine what I’m doing. Maybe do a better job of inviting the right guests, etc.” Now my podcast is my single largest source of new clients that I bring into my practice. At the same time, my show is getting 25,000 downloads a month, which is good. I never cared a lot about the number of downloads. That never was a thing for me, but it was discouraging after a year to not be getting many at all.

What you’re describing is Your First Thousand Clients, correct? Tell us all how we can find your podcast.

Go to YourFirstThousandClients.com and there’s the show.

How many episodes would we find in a month?

We publish once a week. There’s about 215 something like that episodes. The last one, in fact, was a Kevin Harrington episode. Before that, we had Seth Godin on the show as well and some other wonderful people.

We know that yours is one of the top 200 podcasts on iTunes if I’m not mistaken.

It touched the top 200 once. It didn’t t sit there in the top 200, but it did touch it once. It fluctuates. It’s in the top 50 management grouping regularly, so that’s nice. As I said, I don’t care a lot about that as much as I do about finding the right guests, who I believe resonates with the message that I am telling.

The CEO's job is to create and to communicate. Click To Tweet

This has been a great conversation. I appreciate your insights. Also, you share the value of your experience with all of us, but as we wrap up thinking towards 2021, how should we as business people be sleeping right now? Should we be nervous? Should we be losing sleep or are there certain things we can do to get a better night for us looking forward?

We’ve all gone through approximately three stages since the beginning of COVID. The first stage was denial, which was, “This’ll be over soon. We’ll get back to business and won’t be a big deal.” The second stage is reality sets in where we’re saying, “This isn’t going soon at all and I’m in trouble here.” The third stage is where I think requires a true shift in mindset because the third stage is, “I get it. Things will never be the way they were before. I got to do something new and it’s time to act.” I have a free gift for your audience. It will help them take that first step to change where they are, if that’s what they choose to do and promote their business, get more publicity, get on more podcasts, do the things that people who are in the process of actively promoting themselves should be doing anyway. The bottom line is in that third stage either you’re stuck and haven’t made that decision yet, or you’ve made that decision and you’re excited about moving forward, even though now, things look bleak.

We’d love to have that free gift. How do we get it?

Go to ProfitStackingSecrets.com. There is a download there and it’s valuable. Most people have a little graveyard on their desktop where they put all their downloads. I beg you, please don’t download this if that’s where you want to put it. Instead, I want you to open it up and promise me five minutes of your time to read even the first section and do one thing. There are three things that I ask you to do in this download. Do one thing, prepare a profile, and use the links that I provide and go out there and apply to be on podcasts. There are 3 or 4 agencies I list in this free download, where you can go on there and find shows that are looking for you and be a guest. Tell your story. Share your experience and knowledge. Get people to get to know you.

I can assure my readers that you did not have to fill out that form for us to find you. Your reputation is wonderful. You’ve proven it out here in this interview. It’s been a real pleasure, Mitch. Thank you again for your words of wisdom, for your advice and your encouragement. Hopefully, we are inspiring a lot of people. I would encourage them to take advantage of your free offer and we wish you the best, Mitch, and your continued pursuit of resetting businesses and re-inventing individuals.

Thank you, Rob.

Important Links: 

About Mitch Russo

GFEP 21 | Business ResetIf you are excited about making rapid progress but are not sure what steps to take to grow your business, then I can help you.

If you are an author, speaker, coach, or trainer. We will transition your skills and knowledge into a marketing and profit machine. In just 8 weeks, you will have new sources of prospects and customers.

My book, Power Tribes, is a blueprint for creating profitable certification programs that will create a new salesforce for you while being paid to do so. We do this for SaaS companies, Coaching, Consulting, Training, and Service companies worldwide.

I’ve been nominated for entrepreneur of the year, and built 8 figure companies TWICE!

I founded and built the world’s #1 software company in time/billing/accounting to $10MM in sales.

Then as CEO of Tony Robbins & Chet Holmes BBI, we grew from $5MM to $25MM+ in sales.

Jay Abraham said about my book: “Mitch Russo provides a refreshing new slant on growing a business to double, redouble, maybe even double again and again.”

When we work together, I’ll teach you the mindset, strategies, and systems you need to accomplish the following goals:

– How to add profitable recurring revenue streams
– How to create 8 figure strategic partnerships
– How to build an unstoppable sales team & manage it
– How to create a clear vision for yourself & your business
– How to build coaching organizations
– How to create certification programs
– How to maximize the value you get from radio advertising

At the end of the 8 weeks, if you feel I didn’t deliver 10x value, I’ll keep working with you until you do.

However, if I see potential in you, I may extend an offer to continue coaching you to grow your business to EIGHT FIGURES as I have done before.

Ready for the next level? visit: MitchRusso.com and set up our intro call.
 

 

Game Face Execs podcast episode 20

 

You can only imagine what sports rabbit hole you could get into when you’ve got the Sage of Sports Marketing on the other side of the Zoom tube. But for this episode, Rob Cornilles brings in his former boss and mentor, Jon Spoelstra for a specific purpose – and that is to take the lessons from sports marketing and sales that cross over to any business in any industry. As a world leader in sports marketing, Jon is a disruptor, an innovator and an inspiration to many sports leaders, including his son, Coach Eric Spoelstra. He is known for his legendary knack for coming up with outrageous solutions to problems. Listen in as he demonstrates some of that on the show.

Watch the episode here:

Jon Spoelstra | The Sage Of Sports Marketing

Has there been someone in your career who either provided you a foot in the door or just dependably ran alongside you as your feet learn to pedal? For me, things changed when I read a book written by Jon Spoelstra. To sports executives, Jon is known as a disruptor, then an innovator as well as an inspiration to leaders including his son, Erik Spoelstra, coach of the NBA’s Miami Heat. I was Jon and his partner’s first hire for their small sports marketing firm back in the early ‘90s. In this episode, I reflect back with my mentor who would later motivate me to launch Game Face. Here is Jon Spoelstra, my former boss and the sage of sports marketing.

Jon, it’s good to see you again. Even though I think you’re trying to fool us here, you’re not really in a Maui right now, are you?

How do you know? The bad thing about Maui is they’ve closed down two of my favorite golf courses. All the golf courses in Oregon are open.

Our viewers are probably familiar with your background. It’s kind of you to join me here in the show. As the people who watched my first episode know, I owe so much of my career to Jon Spoelstra, to you my friend. You and I have not worked together in many years, but your influence has continued with me for decades now. I’m thrilled to be able to talk about what you do and the influence you’ve had on me and so many others, not only in the sports business, but in business, in general, and your writings, etc.

Jon, let’s start in sports because that’s where you cut your teeth. That’s where I did as well. As you look at the landscape of sports, with all that’s going on, and as we are having this interview, there are no fans to speak of in the stands. You made a name for yourself by putting fans in the stands. As you look at the sports landscape, are you bullish or is this more of a bear market for sports as far as you’re concerned?

I’m glad I’m not in it right now because there’s a lot of scared executives and what sports need right now is dynamic leadership more than ever before. I don’t agree necessarily without the no-fans in attendance. I’m more concerned in Major League Baseball about the players because of the locker room and dugout because there is no social distancing there. The St. Louis Cardinals had 11 or 12 people fall to COVID and they came back two weeks later. I look at COVID by naturally, younger players are being like the flu. You don’t shut down the season or you don’t stop the fans because of the flu. In baseball, most of the stadiums are 50,000 seats and you are telling me that you couldn’t put 15,000 fans in there with social distancing. I think that there are a lot of scared executives and I look at that there should be greater leadership. The leagues have to take the action so the teams can perform.

Jon, as the stories are told, you made your career being creative, innovative and a word that you’ve liked to use over the years is outrageous. Could a young Jon Spoelstra make a name for himself in this current climate?

Probably more. I found when I was running Marketing Outrageously, I did a little bit of research on myself and I found that my greatest successes came when the economy was the worst and it’s not good. I didn’t do well when the economy was going well, but everybody did well when the economy was doing good. When the economy was going bad or like during this pandemic, there are a lot of people that are ducking. There are a lot of people that hiding under the covers and waiting for this to pass by and then they’ll emerge and trying to be great. My feeling is now is the time to think outrageous thoughts and be innovative. I’ve talked to quite a few teams that they’re just ducking and waiting for somebody to say, “The season is open. Go ahead and sell tickets.” I don’t think that this is the time to sit and wait.

GFEP 20 | Sage Of Sports Marketing

Marketing Outrageously Redux: How to Increase Your Revenue by Staggering Amounts

Aren’t they somewhat handcuffed by elected officials?

Yes, so instead of just accepting that, they then go to politics. If I could take a bunch of young people and put them in a three-month training program to sell tickets. You’re a trainer. Can you imagine if you could take these young people and mold them for 90 days and the costs would be very nominal because remember we hardly paid these people anything? The costs would be nominal. When selling season opens, if you’re fast, learn how to shoot. I said, “That’s what I would do.” I train these people. There was a book about the medical supply business. The guy’s name is Williams. If you were into medical supplies, they would send you away to train for nine months. I found that amazing if you’d go away to train for nine months before your first sales call. In ticket sales, they train you for what’s a typical team train. If they don’t hire you if they didn’t hire me or Steve.

I was going to say, when I started in ticket sales, I got about nine minutes of training.

If you’re a team or you know you’re going to have a season or you got to assume that there’s going to be a season, this is such a marvelous opportunity to really get good. The opportunity costs are not that great. You’d have the pick of the litter in hiring. You don’t have to worry about Louisiana on the best candidates to another team. That’s the approach that I would take. I would think that when the dust settled in and you’re selling so many tickets if I was doing that, it would be outrageously successful.

I want to talk about that book. The best-selling book that you’ve had and you’re a prolific author. You’ve written several books. The one that seemed to get highest on the charge was Marketing Outrageously. Before that book though, selling Ice to the Eskimos. Those two books, one’s about marketing, the first and the other one is about selling. I want to ask you, let’s hear it from Jon Spoelstra. What is the difference? Because you also used to teach in a university. Jon, you were an adjunct professor at the University of Portland. Give us the textbook to answer. What is the difference between sales and marketing?

Marketing is the positioning of your brand or your product. The selling is going out and selling it, whether it’s face-to-face, with a TV commercial or whatever. The marketing is shaping that brand up and then handing it off to the sales staff to go on sale. That’s the simple version of what I think it is.

If you were to have one of those titles on your tombstone, which one would it be? Are you a marketer, Jon, or are you a salesperson?

What sports needs now more than ever is dynamic leadership. Click To Tweet

I think it’s which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Which comes first, marketing or selling. My feeling is if you study marketing and come up with a better product, it’s easier to sell. If you’re selling and you have a bad product without marketing, it’s really difficult. When I went to become the president of New Jersey Nets, it was a bad product because the team was losing and the guys were ending up in jail. It wasn’t a great environment. You couldn’t sell anything. The marketing helped us sell because we positioned ourselves, “How can we get sell ops?”

We took the strategy of taking the best opponents, Michael Jordan, Boston Celtics, and tried to sell those games out. We started to get some traction off that. The marketing helped us, otherwise, our salespeople are just going to get killed. Marketers don’t necessarily have to be good salespeople. You have to be good tacticians. They have to know the strategy. Salespeople sometimes or oftentimes are bad marketers, but they can sell.

Your latest book that came out in July of 2020, Get Your Ideas Approved is already being bought up all over the place for those who have not read it yet, is there one or two skills or ideas that we can expect to walk away from having devoured that book?

The best way of putting it is if you have an idea, just go up to your boss to half-ass this idea. Generally, this routinely is thrust aside. I say if you’ve got this idea that you want to run with and you want to present it to your boss, present it as if your boss was the Supreme Court and if you failed, you’re going to be locked up in jail for the rest of your life. If you’re going to the Supreme Court, how much would you prepare that idea? It’s a lot different than going up to your boss to half-ass this idea than almost routinely fails, “I’ve got this idea.” If you prepare as if you’re going to the Supreme Court, which is not as daunting as you think, but you have that mentality first. I’m going to say, “This boss is going to approve what I want to do easily.”

Let me tell you, I’ve had some bosses, like in the New Jersey Nets, there were seven of them. I presented things to them, which they approve. Now, all seven might have approved it for a different reason but they approved it. They were my Supreme Court at the time. It only cost $2 99, which is what I want to do. I think it was only 80 or 90 pages, Robert. To Print-On-Demand with Amazon, you need 100 pages. I didn’t want to add fluff to it, so I added several chapters from Marketing Outrageously thinking, “This is an idea of how to get things approved, here are some ideas.”

I don’t think a lot of people, at least those in the sports industry, you’re also a real fan of writing thrillers. You have at least two thrillers that are also on Amazon. Where did that come from?

It comes from all the traveling I did because as much as I would like to read business books, I’d read thrillers. At one point, I thought, “Maybe I’ll try one.” They’re still selling decently. They’re getting good reviews. I’ve got another one that I’m going to work on this winter.

Jon, the book though I believe was your best was I think your first. That’s not to say your other books aren’t fantastic, but I’m speaking selfishly and personally here. I have volume 2 of How to Sell the Last Seat in the House. You wrote this book based on your experience being the president of the Portland Trail Blazers. You didn’t start as the president, but you moved into that position. You created a sellout streak during the ‘80s and ‘90s, which was unheard of at the time when the team was good and not so good.

GFEP 20 | Sage Of Sports Marketing

Get Your Ideas Approved: Job Skill #1: How to Get Your Boss to Approve Anything You Want to Do

This book, How to Sell the Last Seat in the House, for those of you who are reading who are not from the sports industry, I will tell you, I have to attest that this was the Bible of sports marketing back in those days. Not that it shouldn’t be now, but unfortunately, I don’t think as many young people are aware of it and it may not be taught in a university. Like it should be. I grabbed this book when I worked for the LA Clippers. I began reading it and I devoured it. There are two other volumes, 1 and 3 as well. Jon, you got to tell everybody, how much did it cost someone to buy, How to Sell the Last Seat in the House? It’s $795. I remember.

It wasn’t meant for everybody. There were three times and up to that point, Rob, there had never been anything written about ticket marketing or sales, not even an article because there wasn’t any trade journal at that time, but there was nothing about ticket sales. There wasn’t Google so you couldn’t look online for ticket sales and we’d been pretty successful at selling tickets. There were some teams in the NBA, but I thought had no clue of selling tickets. A lot of teams at that time didn’t have a clue. They’d become a lot more sophisticated. I thought I’d just write this down. A primer from A to Z of this is how you sell tickets. I think, there are 400 teams that have bought it at $795.

It wasn’t a book written for consumers. It was written for business executives within that industry.

Fast forward when I retired, it was about 8 or 9 years ago. I’ve been getting people saying they lost Volume 2 or 3. I spent thinking, I should update this thing, except that updating it wasn’t that easy because everything it seems electronically has changed with all these innovations. I hired at the New Jersey Nets at Mandalay. I said I’d like to update this. I said, “You know as well as I do the books. If you want to go 50-50 and work on this, I’m willing.” That’s where we came up with The Ultimate Toolkit, which is essentially taking that many years forward and using a lot of the innovations that we did at New Jersey and Mandalay and other things that weren’t available back at the Trail Blazers days in the ‘80s.

There was a second run at producing a three-volume book because the industry was crying for more information. You then put out this book, Your Profits Are Brought To You By, a book about how to sell sponsorship and big-ticket items. This also came in three volumes. How much did this cost Jon? It was $1,595. One reason I know about this is, as I was devouring these books, I got a call from your business partner, Doug Piper in 1993. I was working at the LA Clippers. I was Ticket Sales Manager there. Doug invited me to come interview with both of you up in Portland to join your two-person team.

The funny thing about it is long story short, you and Doug hired me. You hired me to sell these books to teams throughout the country, even internationally. The funny thing about that, Jon, is that I arrived in Portland, Oregon, where you were based. I think I started on July 1st, 1993, and I get to the door of SRO Partners. There’s a note on the door and it’s from Doug who says that he’s on the road and you’re off to New Jersey. He told me to go across the hall to another suite and I’d get a key from them. I walked into this new office with my computer and my little desk with a list of teams to call, and you basically both told me, just knock them, dead tiger. Start selling them.

That was the heavy training that we provided. Without doing that, that wouldn’t have led you into developing training for teams.

Spend most of your time and effort on your good products. Don’t worry if your poor products don’t sell. Click To Tweet

That’s right. I’m forever grateful for your negligence.

I was off then to be president of the New Jersey Nets.

The timing was impeccable because you hired me and as soon as I said, you left. I want to ask you about some key principles from these books. I’m going to use the ticket book, The How to Sell the Last Seat in the House. It changed the way I looked at the industry and what I should be doing as it did for hundreds of organizations. I had the privilege of being probably your first disciple out in the industry because I was telling people about the goodness found in these books and how it would revolutionize their sales.

You allowed me to go out and Doug as well to go out and provide seminars in your name, teaching these teams how to implement the contents of the book. I want to share with you three principles or ideas that stuck out to me. I want to ask you for our listeners and viewers who are not in sports, how would these ideas be applied to any industry? Here’s the first you talk about the importance of sellouts versus the importance of raising your average attendance. How does that principle apply to a tech company or a retail store?

Let’s take a tech company. What I find with different companies is sometimes they try to sell a full product line, but with every company, they’ve got some dog products and they’re blessed if they have some cool products. My feeling is that they spend an inordinate amount of time selling dog products, products that nobody wants and trying to manipulate those products. My feeling is you should spend most of your time and most of your effort on your good products, marketing them. If the poor products don’t sell, don’t even worry about it because generally, the 80/20 rule applies to products too. Eighty percent of your profits with sales are coming from 20% of your products and vice versa.

I would concentrate on that. What we looked at was sellouts and like New Jersey, that was the perfect test tube for that. When I got to New Jersey, they had seven straight years of being the worst team in the NBA. It’s seven straight years of being the worst team in attendance with certain figures. They led the league in drug rehab cases. They were not a favorite team in the New York area. That was the New York Knicks, but New Jersey Nets played New York Knicks and the Knicks were sold out. If you want to see the Knicks, you had to come to us. If you wanted to see the Boston Celtics with Larry Bird on that team, you had to come to us. That’s what we did is the product that we had is we played somebody. My feeling is that with almost any product, any company spends the time on your best products and doesn’t get worried about not spending time with your products.

I remember one of the examples you’ve given in the book is so many teams will have, let’s say an owner who’s very concerned about that low attendance game that’s coming up on Tuesday night. They insist that their executive team and their sales team and the marketers put a bunch of energy and money into selling that game. All of those resources could be spent and, in the end, you may be bumped up your attendance by a thousand people. You also, point out and this is a principle that I have tried to convey with attribution to my clients, which is, people will remember being a part of a sellout. They will not remember being a part of an average house.

Rob with the New Jersey Nets, I gave their seven owners a list of games that they couldn’t go to. A guy said to me, “Wait a minute. I’m the owner. I go to any damn game. I want to go to.” I said, “You can’t go to these games because we’re going to ignore them.” There’s going to be lousy attendance. You’re going to feel bad because there’s nobody there. If nobody goes to the game, nobody knows that nobody went to the game. I said, but for the big games where we going to sell out, go to those games, have fun. Just enjoy the energy in the building. For these lousy games, we’re not there yet where we can start selling out off of our team alone.

GFEP 20 | Sage Of Sports Marketing

Sage Of Sports Marketing: If nobody went to the game, nobody knows that nobody went to the game.

 

When they go to those games, they want to have that experience again and again. One sell-out feeds the next sell-out and so forth. Principle number two and I could pick two dozen principles from your books, but I’m going to choose these three. Number two is you talk about in How to Sell the Last Seat in the House the importance of packaging games. In other words, instead of forcing someone to buy a complete season, which is too expensive, too many games inconvenient, you said, no. At the Trail Blazers and with the Nets you said, “Let’s package games. If they want a five-game pack, let’s sell them a five-game pack,” instead of trying to cram something down their throat they don’t want to.

In New Jersey, we put together our five best games. The NBA teams at that time, if they did any packaging would take three good games and two crummy games and they would sell 44 packages. We wanted to sell thousands because wanted to sell out the building. In New Jersey, when I got there, in a 20,000 seat arena and 500 season tickets. We had 19,500 every game that we’ve go to sell. As you know, it’s not an easy task. We put together our five best games. One of the owners, when I presented it to the owners, he said, “That’s too good of a deal for our fans.” I said, “You’ve been providing crappy deals for your fans all these years and they haven’t bought. Let’s fool. Let’s think that we made a mistake. We put together this great package and they better buy before we come to our senses. We did that. We sold 25,000 of them. We had to roll it over into other games and those games were pure electricity. That’s one of my great experiences in my life was going to those games. I knew it was a lot of fun.

Let me ask you one from Your Profits Are Brought To You By the sponsorship book. You made a mark in the NBA by if I’m not mistaken, Jon, you were the first executive that insisted that the Portland Trail Blazers bring their media in-house. Some people reading this don’t know what that means. Could you explain that? How does that same principle apply to business now?

Businesses call it outsourcing. Back in 1980, when I started with the Trail Blazers, every team in the NBA outsource their radio and they’d sometimes get paid by the radio station or the station would pay some money for the right to broadcast the games. To show you how the economics have changed that first year in Portland, the year before I got there, the Trail Blazers received a rights fee of $25,000. That was third-best in the NBA. I felt if we didn’t outsource it, we did it ourselves and got the radio station. The radio station at nighttime, where they make their money is morning drive and afternoon drive. Nighttime, it is relatively easy to get airtime from a radio station. We brought it in-house, which meant that we’d have to pay for the announcer.

We’d have to pay for everything pay for me, pay for my assistant. In the first year, what we did was gamble the $25,000 and that first year, we made net-net $900,000. That was more than the rest of the NBA combined. That was a shot heard round the world in the NBA, which led to me getting traded the following year to the Indiana Pacers because they wanted to capitalize on the radio just like the Portland, Trail Blazers had. Larry Weinberg, the owner of the Trail Blazers, wouldn’t let me consult. When we lost the point guard, Darnell Valentine to it, I think he broke his arm or hand, the Indiana Pacers called-up Stu Inman, who was then the general manager and said, “I will give you our starting point guard, Don Buse for two weeks of Spoelstra of time. We did the deal.

The first time in NBA history or maybe sports history that an executive was part of the trade.

I think Indiana got the better part of the deal.

The best way to motivate people is to hire motivated people and not mess them up. Click To Tweet

If my memory serves me, you didn’t even go for the full two weeks.

It wasn’t that difficult philosophically about bringing radio in-house. Interestingly, Indiana Pacers were owned at that time by a business partner, Jerry Buss, the owners of The Lakers. I can’t recall the guy’s name right now, but he wanted to sell because he was losing money. Most of the teams in the NBA in those days were losing money. One of the things they wanted me to do was meet with these prospective owners and tell them that they didn’t have to lose money if they own the team. There were several of these owners that flew in. On the last day, two guys walked in and it was the Simon Brothers, and they were local from Indianapolis, Mel and Herb Simon.

Then the idea of bringing something in-house as opposed to outsourcing, do you think that’s still a good idea in this world?

It depends. Cable has changed the dynamics of everything. Cable companies were spending big on rights fees, but the Yankees in essence, brought cable in-house for the YES Network. They are making a fortune off that. The Dodgers did outsource that. I think it’s a circumstance. You have to look at each circumstance, but at the time when we did it, it was not an easy deal. My boss fought me like crazy saying, “We’re risking the $25,000 and this is crazy. Nobody would want that.” My feeling was and I wrote about that in Get Your Ideas Approved that I thought we could probably make a profit about, let’s say a couple of hundred thousand 300,000, because we had the advantage of selling sponsorship more than a radio station, because we are the team. We could do a promotion. We could do a player appearance. We could do a lot of different things and it went better than I thought.

To your point, taking it in-house meant that you were selling more than just a radio spot. You were selling all the other promotions, signage and print advertising that comes with a sponsorship, not to mention player engagement and things like that. You’ve demonstrated the value of a sponsorship for a sports team in those days was much greater than teams were getting for it. You set that trend. All of these ideas, Jon, it’s interesting to know about the early days of Jon Spoelstra.

Let’s take a little bit of a walk down memory lane. I wasn’t with you, but I know enough about your background because we’ve been friends for so long and you’ve been my mentor. You come from a sports family and that your father, Watson Spoelstra, was a writer for the Detroit News. He was a sportswriter. He covered the Tigers, Lions, and the University of Michigan. You are always around the sports industry growing up. I think you were more of a baseball, weren’t you when you were growing up. You’d go to the Tigers games.

I think I must’ve gone to every Tigers game. I might’ve been 13 or 14 years old. The Tigers in those days, baseball played a lot of day games. It wasn’t the Wrigley Field where they did have lights. It was standard for baseball in those days to play a lot of day games. My dad would take me down to the ballpark and I had the run. He’d go down at about two hours before the game. They would open up the gates about an hour before the game. I had the run of the entire ballpark for about an hour and I saw the Tigers batting practice. One of the thrills that I saw was Gordie Howe, the legendary player of the Red Wings. He would come out frequently to batting practice and the player opposing players would come out at watch Gordie Howe in batting practice.

He’s a big strong guy. He had a tremendous wrist. He would come out, he hit one of the second deck in left and he went in the second deck center field, which is 4-40 away and then second deck right field. He’s an opposing player were in awe, the Tigers were. I saw Ted Williams in batting practice. The only people that saw batting practice were the players and me. That was a great trill. That was the bond between my dad and myself. Until he died, we were always able to talk. We had a link that we had something we could talk about, a comfortable ground and that happened to be the Detroit Tigers. Even when they had lousy years, we could at least talk about that. I thought the same thing with my son Erik. There was a year when he was probably in junior high school where he came and we went to every Blazer home game.

GFEP 20 | Sage Of Sports Marketing

Sage Of Sports Marketing: If you don’t have a safe ground to talk with your kids, they may not hear you when it comes to the difficult conversations.

 

Those days traffic wasn’t as great in Portland as it is now. I could drive home from work, have dinner at home. Erik and I would jump in the car and drive to see the game and drive home. In those days, a game would end in two hours. It never went over two hours. We’d be home in sufficient time where he didn’t have to stay up late. That was the link that we had. People have asked me about it. I have any intentions that he would go on. I said, “There’s no way that you could plan that your son could become an NBA coach and be as successful as he’s been and won two championships.” I looked at it as a link between him and me, as I did with the link between my father and me, and that was baseball.

Just to be clear for those who may not be aware who are reading, Erik Spoelstra, whom Jon is speaking of, as Jon said has gone on to become an NBA coach. He was never a player in the league. He was always in the coaching ranks and he won two NBA championships. It’s impressive to see his rise. Jon, I want to ask you, you talk about sports being that link. You had a successful relationship with your father, you and your son, and your daughter, Monica, who is a very successful businesswoman have great relationships. What are some lessons from someone who has been in sports his entire career practically and who’s raised his kids in the industry that you can teach those of us who are in the sports industry, raising children and trying to make it all work?

I’m not sure if it’s the sport. I think if I was a plumber or a carpenter, there’s got to be that link. What common ground can you talk to kids with where both sides want to talk where it’s not awkward? It’s something that’s a safe conversation because growing up, bringing kids up, you’ve got to be able to have those conversations because there’s going to be some difficult conversations. If you don’t have the safe ground to talk when it comes to difficult conversations, I’m not sure that they hear you. I learned from my dad that we could always revert back to talking about the Tigers. When there was a typical conversation, we could just ease into that. I think the same thing with my kids.

Speaking of kids, you’ve also mentored many people in the sports industry. There are a lot of cases of people that you’ve mentored who’ve gone on to leadership positions. I’ve been wanting to ask you when it comes to those people, did you just happen to come across good talent or did you make good people talented?

The best way to motivate people is to hire motivated people and then don’t mess them up. I felt I was pretty good at hiring young people. There are certain things I look for in hiring young people, but I was looking at imagination and work ethic. How do you bring them along? I wanted them to be able to work hard and I didn’t want to mess them up. Some of the people that I’ve worked with are tremendously successful. At one time, the Sports Business Journal had the 40 Under 40. I had three of the 40 Under 40 in one year and they’ve gone on to tremendous careers. I’m happy for them and I’ve enjoyed working with them. One of them, Howard Nuchow was now Co-Head of CAA Sports which is the largest representation agency. We hired him as a young ticket salesperson. This was at the New Jersey Nets. It would have been circa 1991 or so. He was dead last. We had twenty salespeople, which at that time was unheard of that you’d have twenty salespeople. I think it was 1992. Of the twenty salespeople, he was dead last in sales.

We fired a guy who was fifth best. When the guy that was fifth-best got fired, the sales manager fired him but he came storming into my office and he said, “How come I got fired? I’m the fifth-best?” Nuchow is around and he’s the worst. I said, “We fired you because you lie.” With every particular holder that did not renew it, the New Jersey Nets, I called them up personally. Not to try to save them, but I want to find out why. If you call up people and you’re not trying to sell them, you’re just trying to find out why. I found out that this guy offered things that we could never deliver like player appearance or different things like that. He was able to make sales, but people didn’t renew because we didn’t deliver what he said we were going to deliver.

I fired him. With Nuchow, I felt he always had the smarts. I felt that he had an innate ability to be able to talk to people that were the age of his father. He would talk to them freely. He wasn’t intimidated but he was respectful at the same time. I felt that he just was a little bit stubborn in learning our way of doing things. In the second year, he became the second leading salesperson. At that time, we had a staff filled with gunslingers. These guys were getting good and in the third year, he became the top salesperson. Howard has gone on to a terrific career of which co-incidentally is my son’s agent.

If you have good people, you’ve got to pay them right. Click To Tweet

When we talk about the executives in sports, what are some of the greatest opportunities they have? You talked about when times are down, that is when you have an opportunity to shine and be outrageous and creative. Are there any other opportunities that you see right now? Also, what are the risks associated with pursuing a sports career right now? Is this the time maybe to look at some other field of study or as an occupation?

Right now, it’s difficult to in any industry, except there are some that are flourishing because of COVID. Golf courses are flourishing right now, who knew before March, golf was considered a dying sport. Now at first, you’re like crazy that golf sales are way up, green fees are way up, everything’s way up in golf. In a sports world, the easiest way, the best if you’re a young person getting into sports is through ticket sales. Hopefully, by getting into ticket sales, you get trained by somebody who could, like you, me or Steve, somebody that knows what we’re doing. Hopefully, you have a boss that believes in the training. If you’re a young person and you have a good work ethic, I think that’s the best place to start because if you spend two years in ticket sales, generally teams will hire from within for other spots on their staff, but it’d be in marketing or promotion or whatever.

I think that’s the best way still. Nobody gets hired in promotions from the outside. I don’t know if I’ve ever run to anybody. If you get it with the right team, it doesn’t have to be the best team. It doesn’t have to be the most glamorous team. The New Jersey Nets, we are nothing close to being glamorous and yet take a look at the people that came out in the industry. One thing I did back then and I did this at Mandalay. I started to perfect a little bit better, but in New Jersey, we had a weeklong bootcamp where the first 2.5 days were just on how to get an appointment over the phone, an eyeball-to-eyeball appointment.

At Mandalay, when we had seven baseball teams, we’d have 50 salespeople of those seven teams. We’d fly them all down to Texas. We had a small town in Texas where we put them up at a motel and we had a seven-day boot camp there. They had to pass a certain benchmark. If every one of them didn’t pass, we all had to stay and keep on going. There’s a lot of peer pressure to get better. From that group, from the Mandalay group, there’s a lot of leaders in our industry. If you’re a young person, if you get that type of training, you get the right team. I don’t think it makes any difference with the sport. You’re going to get your foot in the door and I think that you’ll have a career in sports.

I think the other thing that I want to echo, you said, “It doesn’t matter which team or which sport.” It’s true, because it’s amazing to me how many young people think that their first job is where they’re going to retire. I try to remind them, “You’re entering this industry. You could have a 40, 45-year career in this industry.” I preach professional patience all the time. Don’t think that your first job is going to be your last job or your first role is going to be your last role. There’s an actor by the name of Charles Grodin. He is a funny comedic actor. He was on Johnny Carson a lot and he used to say, “I never want my opportunity to come before I’m ready for it,” because he didn’t want to blow it. He wanted to get ready for that.

Getting your ideas to approve, you have to prepare as if you’re going in front of the Supreme Court. It’s the same thing here. If the opportunity comes, you got to jump on it.

You got to be prepared for it. Jon, let’s play a game here as we get near the end of our discussion. We’re going to call it the 24-second clock. I’m going to give you three questions and not within 24 seconds. You get as much time as you need for each of them. I want to get your immediate reaction to this. We’re going to try to expand it now beyond the sports industry, but if you want to stay in sports, that’s fine. Here’s my first question for you. What team or company or organization, if you could right now for fun, work with them, which one would it be? Name the brand.

I would say Major League Baseball.

What would you do with Major League Baseball if you could work with them right now?

GFEP 20 | Sage Of Sports Marketing

Sage Of Sports Marketing: Ticket sales is best place to start if you’re a young person who has a good work ethic.

 

I think I would have fans at the games, and I’d say, there are no restrictions. No social distancing, but anybody over the age of 55, you can’t come to the games, but we’re going to buy you the equivalent of NBA League pass or whatever they call a Major League Baseball one. We’re going to gift you a Major League pass. We want you to see the games. We want you to see all the games. We don’t want you to come to the games, but everybody else that comes to games, you got to wear a mask and there’ll be some social distancing. I would shake things up.

Let me ask you a second question. Speaking of sports now, who is the best owner of a sports team now?

I would say Micky Arison of the Miami Heat because they’ve had longevity and he’s been there for several years. My son’s been there for years. He doesn’t have the knee-jerk reactions that a lot of owners have. When I see some of these owners, like Sacramento, they’ve gone through a coach about every eighteen months or so, whichever managers. It’s either you’re really bad at hiring or you’re bad at managing if you have to fire people that frequently. I look at stability and it’s one thing to had stability if you’re winning. Stability, if you’re losing, but you keep on the same people, then that’s not good either. If you have good people, you got to pay them right. You got to do the right thing. If you take a look at the NBA, Micky Arison has been about most as you can get. For the other sports, I don’t know the owners well enough.

Thank you. I appreciated those insights on the Heat. I appreciate a little walk down memory lane with you, but also, more importantly, I appreciate the insights and the wisdom that you’ve to let me and let the readers of show. It has been a great conversation. I’m glad to know that you’re still got your foot in the industry. You’re still having an influence. We wish you and your family the best. Thanks so much, Jon.

Thank you, Rob. This is fun.

It’s been great to visit with you and I’m sure we’ll do it again.

Important Links:

GFEP 19 | Beating Racism

 

Racism may be tied to socioeconomic inequality in a lot of ways, but being a black man raised in a relatively affluent neighborhood does not give you a “free pass” from being discriminated against. Beating racism has been a big part of Robert Anderson’s journey as an educator. For over 20 years, this educational leader and award-winning lacrosse coach has been teaching students to discover their gifts and become independent. He also works to help educational leaders like himself take steps towards personal development and professional improvement. He beautifully elaborates these aspects of his life and career in this conversation with Rob Cornilles. Listen in as he shares his valuable insights on education, racism and leadership.

Watch the episode here:

Robert Anderson | Beating Racism To Win His Race

Teaching students is hard. Teaching parents how to let their kids learn in this world, that might even be harder, but we’ve found someone who knows how to motivate kids while influencing their parents through love, inspiration and personal responsibility. Robert Anderson, author, speaker and award-winning high school coach, is our guest, a man who was growing up in New York, honors his parents for helping them overcome bouts of racism so he could recognize his own inherent gifts. It’s my pleasure to welcome to the show, a new friend, Robert Anderson, who, when you become his friend, you get to call him Rob, isn’t that right?

That’s a true statement for sure.

I get to call you Rob now, some people call you Robbie A., your father is Mr. A. There are a lot of names going around at the Anderson household. We want to thank you, Rob, for joining us on the show. It’s going to be a fascinating conversation. Welcome.

Thank you. I appreciate you having me. I’m looking forward to it.

Rob, I appreciate you being willing to join me because we’re going to talk about some issues and some topics that I know are near and dear to you. They’re very topical in society. We’re all going to learn a lot from this. You are an educator by trade. You have become an educator in your adult life. You’ve had an impact on hundreds, thousands of individuals, particularly our young people. We’re going to talk about that, but I’d like to start if we could Rob, by talking about Rob Anderson, the learner, not Rob Anderson, the teacher. You and I have talked about what’s going on in this unusual environment that we both find economic, health and social. Rob, from your perspective, what have you learned in 2020 so far?

Similar to a number of people is the emphasis on family and how important it is to make sure that we slow down. During this fast-paced world that we’re living in America, specifically in New York, life moves fast. With four kids and a wife, we have a lot of obligations and commitments. Similar to another number of people, I’ve learned to slow down and appreciate my time with family. During 2020, I’ve had an increased emphasis on how to give. That’s always been my nature, to love people, and I love people. As you’ve already noted, I love our students and I have a passion for educating, teaching and coaching students. When you don’t have the opportunity to be in front of them, you have to figure out another way to give.

2020 has put a spotlight on the emphasis of my spirit on how to give even when you don’t necessarily have the opportunity to be in front of them. It’s highlighted and created a lot of opportunities for me personally and professionally to grow, by writing a book and doing that for the educators of the world and finding a way to serve. Serve our students in a way that’s different and unique, in a way that can enhance their life. We have to start doing things differently. I’m not sure, Rob, if that’s going to change moving forward.

There’s so much in what you’re saying. I’m going to try to slice it up a little bit because I want to dig into your insights, Rob. About education, I’m a parent, I have three sons and they’re all now out of the educational system. You have kids who are in the educational system now. When I say educational system, I know that’s a wide swath. For parents, grandparents, community members, what do we not understand about the educational environment now that you, as an educator, wish we did?

GFEP 19 | Beating Racism

Beating Racism: Educators have to build a connection with each one of the kids and understand who they are. That becomes more of a challenge the larger the class size is.

 

I spent 14 years in the classroom and 15 years in education. I had the opportunity to work under incredible leadership for the majority of my career. The reason why the leaders that have the privilege to grow under as an educator were so influential is that they gave me an opportunity to grow. When we step into the classrooms, specifically young teachers and young educators, there’s a sense of excitement because you have so much schooling and testing. There’s so much work. The interview process is grueling, you finally get your own classroom or at least you have an opportunity to have your own students. For many teachers, those students become your own personal kids.

What happens is the opportunity to grow is fruitful and the system takes hold of you. We all have needs. One of our essential needs is the need to grow. If we aren’t growing, we’re dying. The educational system doesn’t consistently allow our beautiful, bright educators, even our educational leaders to put their two cents into the classroom the way that they felt that they could over the course of their career. The system itself has become stringent, strict and structured, that our educators don’t consistently have the opportunity to evolve and to use their creativity, knowledge, expertise, and use all of their experiences, because the system has become so structured.

Our school administrators, our leadership is under much pressure from not just their superintendent and the school board, but from making sure that our educators are following a system and making sure that they’re hitting the standards. When you’re focused on hitting the standards and you’re teaching to the subject, you get away from having the chance to teach to the student. The more time that you spend teaching for the subject instead of the student, the reason why you went into education starts to diminish. You start to feel as though you aren’t growing. That in turn makes our system broken. It starts to break our educators and our leaders. It isn’t because they don’t have a passion for kids and they don’t have a passion for education. They just don’t have all the resources, the ability, the time to share their experiences and the things that they know that the students need because of the system that’s in place.

You’re very articulate about this. I’m sure our readers are understanding what you’re saying, but let me tell you my interpretation. It sounds to me like you’re saying that starting at administration levels down into the classroom, the teachers are forced to color by the numbers. It’s like, “Don’t get out of the lines.” If you draw outside of the lines, something is wrong with you because of limited time, and I perceive you would say limited resources, they have to stay within those lines so they’re confined. It takes a lot of the personalization out of teaching and they’re not allowed to draw from their own life experiences, their perspective, their insights because they have to be very stringent. Not to mention the fact, this is another thing I’d like you to comment on, in most classrooms, the classrooms are brimming with students. That individual attention is also being sacrificed. I want you to clarify or correct anything I said, but also to be clear, tell our audience who you focus on as a teacher. What is your demographic?

You articulated it well. The biggest takeaway, I can give you a few examples, certainly for the folks in your audience that aren’t in education so they can apply it to their world and certainly gain some value from that. First to answer your question, I’ve taught at the middle school level for more than ten years. I’ve also taught at the elementary school level, K5 for a number of years. I’ve coached at the high school level. My demographic is K through 12. When we look at education and what we’re struggling with, what educators are struggling with is consistently being able to teach to the student instead of the subject.

I’ll give you an example. This is a sport. Certainly having the ability to and the opportunity to coach the game of lacrosse, we have positions. There are goalies, attack men, midfielders and defenseman. It would be similar to saying that we only allow kids to play midfield. We have to stay in the midfield. They don’t go to attack. They don’t ever go to defense or the defensemen just play defense. They don’t have a chance to go to attack. Attack men stay on attack. If you play goalie, you never come out into the field.

That would be an example of having to teach to the subject where our educators have the ability to consistently, on a daily basis, it’s a need to teach to the students. We have beautiful educators. We have bright educators. We have unbelievable administrators. The system doesn’t consistently allow them to teach to the student. The emphasis from the system is not necessarily on the student or to the subject. In business, you could take it and you would say, “We’re just going to speak to our HR department, but our HR department doesn’t talk to our sales group.” When we know that we need each part to have conversations to make sure that the entire body is working together in unison, does that help clarify?

When you spend more teaching the subject instead of the student, the reason why you went into education starts to diminish. Click To Tweet

It does. This problem you’ve laid out for us, what’s the root cause of it? Is it difficult to put your finger on one thing? I’m thinking of a lot of possible causes. It’s lack of resources, let’s just call it what it is, money or it could be the misuse of money that is being earmarked or channeled to education. There are differences of opinions as to what should be taught in classrooms. Even the qualifications of those who are granted the privilege of being in a classroom with 30 eager students. Give us your insights on some of the causes of these problems that you’ve laid out.

You’ve brought up a few of the highlights. There isn’t just one, but I focus on a specific goal and one solution. Funding is a challenge. When we look at our inner cities and we look at the classroom size, and when we look at the resources that are available to our schools in the inner cities, it is a challenge. It’s a challenge for one teacher to work with more than 25 students. That’s a serious challenge. When the emphasis needs to be on teaching to the student and not the subject, in that case and in every case, our educators have to build a connection with each one of those kids and understand who they are.

That becomes a challenge the larger the class size. The demographic knowing that our kids have to deal with to get themselves to school, whether or not they have mom and dad at home, they have food on the table, they’re safe, they feel protected just getting into a classroom, which is a reality for too many of our kids. Moving along into the suburbs, it’s a matter of, yes, we have resources and I’m certainly grateful for that. I’m someone who’s privileged to that. I didn’t grow up in a tough neighborhood. I grew up in an incredibly beautiful neighborhood and environment with amazing teachers, educators and with a mother and a dad that supported me every step of the way through college.

If anything, I am fortunate to be able to explain, share and have that experience. I also know that walking into a school in the suburbs as a black man adds a completely different level of demographic and a challenge. It isn’t necessarily because of things that were negatively done to me, but it’s another example of how I know I wanted and needed in reflection to be able to connect to the people that were in front of me. The educators that I had the chance to be taught by incredible people, beautiful people that I still have relationships with now. I know that over the course of my educational career, I was constantly looking for somebody that looked like me, I could relate to, I felt instantly connected to because of the way that they looked.

I never had that. The connections that I was able to forge were because teachers taught to me, put the subject to the side and taught directly to who Rob is. That allowed for a bond to be created. At that point, I was ready to learn anything. It wouldn’t have mattered because they had the ability and took the time to make sure that they knew who I was as a person. That’s because of who they are as people that was their per desire, but it was also because of the atmosphere that I grew up in that they had the latitude to be able to do that.

Within the school environment, we are seeing and we’ve seen as long as I know, a gravitation into education by people who have first a regard for students and learning. It seems like we’ve always, however, bemoan the fact that they’re underpaid. They would perhaps say they’re not supported by parents as much as they wish they could be, or by their administration, perhaps. Without disclosing names, my wife and I visited with a woman who is retiring from education in the State of California, who I believe if my memory serves me, she has been teaching for 30 to 35 years in Southern California. She’s retiring at the end of this academic year. She says that the environment for a teacher has changed dramatically in those three decades. It used to be that she could not get parental involvement. Now at the end of her career, the exact opposite, parents will not leave her alone. They’re invasive in what the teacher is trying to do that she throws her hands up and says, “I can’t manage parents anymore. It’s taken the fun out of teaching.” Talk to us a little bit about the evolution you’ve seen when it comes to parental involvement.

I often joke, and my kids are aware of this. If my kids are going to play a sport, they have to be big enough and strong enough to carry their bag. When we see kids get off of a bus, one of the first things you’ll often see is a parent or a caregiver taking their son’s or daughter’s bag from them and putting it on their back. When we see kids walking to the sports field, you can take note of how many parents are carrying their son’s or daughter’s bag to the sport field, to the sport that the student is going to play. They don’t carry their own bag. My kids laugh at me all the time because I look at their bag as something contagious, and they just put it on the ground at this point. They need to get themselves situated because my wife and I are not carrying their bag ever.

To your point, there’s been a massive shift in the way that parents see themselves and the achievements of their students as an accomplishment of themselves. Parents have taken note that if their son or daughter is going to achieve, that’s great. They give their son or daughter credit, but the idea of them failing is an example of the mom or the dad failing. That is a major shift because growing up, my mom and dad sent in cookies and treats around the holidays. My mom and dad said hello to my coach and goodbye to my coach, and drop me off at the door and that was it. We didn’t have any other conversations. That’s where the shift is first started where parents see the achievements and the failures, or I will say the failures as their own. I don’t know at what point in education that happened, but it’s happened.

GFEP 19 | Beating Racism

Beating Racism: As educators and parents, we have to establish what our goals are for our kids and then create a path for them to achieve those goals on their own.

 

If you had opportunity on day one of a school year or one of the seasons, rather than collect the students in the classroom or gather your team around for a huddle to explain your philosophy and what we’re going to do this season. Let’s say the kids were waiting in the car and you were gathering the parents around, whether it’s in the classroom or the athletic field, what would that conversation sound like if you had that opportunity?

I do it. I can walk you through exactly what that conversation looks like and to the thousands and thousands of parents at this point that I’ve sat down with me in parent-teacher conferences and certainly on the athletic field, this is not news to them. The first thing I ask is, what do they want? What’s the goal that they want for their own son or daughter? I ask for the answer and I wait. The type of answers that you’ll hear are, “I want them to become independent. I want them to have a great experience. I want them to have fun. I want them to be the best in the class.” You’ll hear those types of answers or “the best on the field.” I’ll turn and I’ll say, “Why do you want that for them?” You’ll hear something along the same exact lines. The key phrase is, “What’s missing? What’s preventing them from achieving that, that hasn’t been there in the past?” Usually, you’ll get a quiet response at that point because they don’t completely know what’s missing until they are given time to reflect on it.

Slowly but surely, you’ll see a hand creep up. You’ll hear a brave soul say something along the lines of, “They need to be more independent. They need to be able to fail. They need to be a little uncomfortable. They need to be a little less scared.” You’ll hear something along the lines of that. I let that sit with all the parents and then I’ll turn around and say, “How do we do that? What’s our role? What’s my role in doing that and how do we support each other to get to our goals?” We can turn around and we can say, “Kids need to be more independent. They need to carry their own bags.” If I turn around and I started screaming and yelling, “Carry your own bag,” people get a little turned off and uncomfortable.

To an older audience, to the high school kids, if they have a problem, they need to see me first. If they have a problem, they need to see me second. If they have a problem, they need to see me third. We should only be having conversations about the weather, the game, the food that we’re going to have at dinner to make sure that it’s healthy and it’s green. We aren’t putting things that are going to slow our kids down. We need to help put healthy food, nutrition into our kids. Those should be the types of conversations that we’re having.

If you feel they’re struggling because of maybe the friends that they’re around, call me. If you are worried about their energy, call me. We shouldn’t be having conversations about playing time. In the same type of conversation in academics, it’s the same exact thing. How do they get in contact with me? They should be emailing me. How do they see me? They should be staying after. What should they do? They should be coming early. What should they do? It’s not your role. Even at the middle school level, it isn’t their role. It’s the role to make sure that their son or daughter has the things that they need to achieve.

We can check in on each other, “This is what I’m seeing. It’s great that they came in with their homework. It’s great that they came in prepared for the exam. Unfortunately, this is the grade that they received. Here’s the plan that we discussed, me and the student, and this is what we’re going to do next. If you can support them in this role, that would be great.” Instead, Rob, what we’re getting are parents bombarding, calling, showing up at the gate when their son or daughter doesn’t step onto the field, taking their kids off the sideline because they sat for a quarter and didn’t get enough time, watching the time to make sure that everybody gets equal time or they get a minute less. They have a complaint. They go right to the superintendent in order to complain. We have to establish, we in education, we as coaches, we as people have to establish what our goals are for our kids, and then we have to create a path to achieve it. We have to allow our kids to be able to walk that path alone with our support, not our control.

You are the epitome of the kind of coach that champion in a national organization called Positive Coaching Alliance. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. They’re ubiquitous around North America. I’ve been privileged to be on the National Advisory Board for Positive Coaching Alliance, for several years now. This is the mentality and culture we’re trying to promote. It’s all the way from the administration of a league, a school, a conference, down through the coaching ranks, the parental ranks and the players. You described that what we believe is the ideal environment. Out of curiosity, how many parents have pulled you aside in your history as an award-winning coach and said to you, “I appreciate you challenging my son or daughter like that. I appreciate you putting them through the paces like you are. I appreciate you not giving them what they believe they’re entitled to. I liked that you’re hard on them.” Is that a common refrain or is that like, “We never hear that.”

Your gift is the thing that you do best with the least amount of effort. Click To Tweet

I don’t want to put an artificial percentage on it but I would say it’s extremely high that I would hear that. The mass majority of the athletes and I would even say the students I’ve had the opportunity to work with, that’s the line, the phrase and the gratitude that I hear from parents, the mass majority.

In fact, you surprised me with your answer. Now that you say it, it’s the case because you set the tone from the very beginning. They know that when Coach Anderson is going to coach their son or daughter, they know what they’re going to get. When you’re going to teach their son or daughter in the classroom, they understand your style. I thought you were going to say that being hard on my child is very rare. Once they meet you and they see the value of what you’re teaching and that philosophy, they’ve got to embrace it.

This is the way that I share, and I believe it’ll make sense to you. I say this to parents, you didn’t get to where you are because you’re soft. Rob, you’re a gentleman, you’re intelligent and you’ve accomplished a number of things in business and at the same time, you’re soft-spoken but you aren’t soft. When parents hear that, as they pull up their cars and their vacation homes for some folks, and for some folks that are living amongst modest means, they can connect to that. They aren’t soft.

If their son or daughter is going to take the next step, in carrying along their legacy whether or not we like it or not, you can’t be soft. Being soft would mean owning who you are. If you can’t own that, it doesn’t matter what you’re given. It doesn’t matter what opportunities in front of you. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or don’t have. When parents can connect to that, their son or daughter is going to have the opportunity to become more of who they are through this process, it does resonate. It resonates and it gives them wings. It gives them ease to know, philosophically that, the things that I say are not my way. It’s not Rob’s way, it’s the right way. That’s the only way to do things, and it’s to get our kids to a space where they can identify with who they are. Everybody resonates with the fact they don’t want their kids to be soft.

You remind me when my wife and I were young parents trying to direct our kids down the path that we thought would be most fulfilling, which would bring them happiness. We asked ourselves, “What subjects should they study?” When they’re young, we asked, “What should they be doing after school? What kind of hobbies should we direct them, introduce them to? We even include sports. My wife will admit that she grew up in a house of girls, and sports was not their thing. They had a lot of other talents. In my home, sports was what I did as a young boy. Since we had three sons, that was a new thing for her raising boys, I remember having that conversation with her when they were young saying, “I think we need to drive them into sports.”

I shouldn’t say drive, maybe we should get in the car and drive them to the soccer field or the baseball diamond. I tried to express to her that I believe sports is where kids are most likely to have to suffer through hard things without being in jeopardy, jeopardizing their health or their safety, and hopefully their mental health. Through that experience, through doing hard things, our boys will learn important life lessons that will serve them well throughout their lives. My wife agreed with that thinking and we have seen the results of it. Let’s move a little bit from the athletic field for just a moment because I don’t want to short-change the work that you do in the classroom. Tell us a little bit about the book that you’ve written, the title of the book, and a little bit about the overall goal and purpose of that book and who would it benefit most, if you would, Rob?

A few years ago, I felt as though my voice is being lost in education. The system itself I felt is broken, and I do believe the educational system is still broken. I wanted to find a solution. I knew that my background in athletics and in training was a part of the solution. It wasn’t my full voice. Being a classroom teacher for fifteen years, I felt connected. I started to feel as though my voice was being lost because of the system that we’re under. I wanted to be able to combine both of those things.

I’ve left teaching and started a firm called Win by Design. We’re an educational consulting firm that focuses on teaching educational leaders how to become more influential. We do that through a system, but we do it by teaching our educational leaders first the foundational principles of human needs, so they can identify their needs first. We teach to the teachers, the educators, we are true personal development firm for educators, not a personal development firm or personal development opportunities where we come in and put another system on people or tell teachers to how to do something.

GFEP 19 | Beating Racism

The 12 Things They Wanted To Teach You in High School…But Couldn’t: A Personal Development Book for Educational Leaders

We’re not that, but an actual firm that trains teachers how to identify their needs first because their needs aren’t being met as people. We ask them to do a lot. I know it because I was in it. I was living it, Rob. From there, once teachers understand how to develop their own personal needs, then we have an opportunity to open up the world. I would say again to our educators where now they can impart their knowledge, their desires on how to teach to our students instead of the system itself. As I was going through these virtual talks across the country and I was sharing, it started develop a thought on what I can give of all the things that these kids don’t learn while they’re in school.

The first one is goal setting. While we’re in school, pre-K through 12th grade, odds are we haven’t had an opportunity for our students to learn how to set goals. Set goals, write them out, put them on paper and then teach them how to accomplish them. We’ve had kids in school from kindergarten through 12th grade, and not only have they not had a class, odds are they didn’t even have anyone talking to them about goal setting. That’s the first part of the book. That’s one of the twelve things.

The next one is how to identify your gift. Your gift is a thing that you do best that requires the least amount of effort. We have kids that go through our schools, kindergarten through 12th grade, and they graduate, some are now going to college and some are opting not to. The ones that go to college still graduated and still don’t know what to do. It was breaking my heart and driving me crazy. Teaching our staff how to help our kids identify their gifts. When they start to think about what their gift is, they shouldn’t be attaching it to a job. They should be attaching it to a mission. As they start to create a mission, that leads a way for them to either get a job or to create a new business that doesn’t exist. Those are 2 of the 12 things that aren’t being taught in our schools that could be shared to our educators that they can impart on our kids.

I remember one time, Rob, when you and I were talking, I was fascinated by something that you said regarding the heart and education. Can you share that with the audience?

We’re just going to have kids in our class that need love. No matter what they’re going to need love. The little ones will grab your leg and sit on your lap. As they get older, we can get confused when some of these boys are 6’4” or 6’5,” they tower over their teachers. Some of them when they’re in 7th and 8th grade, but they still need love too. Unfortunately, too many are necessarily receiving it all at home. Some of them will settle for connection. That’s a piece of the heart that our educators have the ability to give.

Our administrators do as well. We know that we have these kids that come in. At the end of the day, they’re going to find significance, positive, negative or neutral way. There are kids that come in and they’re going to find significance from walking in late. They’re going to come in and they’re going to find significance by falling off a chair or doing cracking a funny joke, you make everybody laugh. Some of those things are disruptive and some of those things are funny.

Acknowledging the fact that we do have all of these needs and we have these needs structures that are documented and it works. When you understand how to apply those needs to yourself and education, you can identify those to the students that you’re teaching. It makes it that much fluent to form a connection. We teach anything that we like, but that’s an example of the heart and what I believe we do with our firm, Win by Design, in teaching and empowering our teachers. Even beyond what we do, it’s what our teachers are capable of doing. It’s why they got into it at the beginning.

Goodwill always wins as long as we allow it to win in our heart and in our spirit. Click To Tweet

I don’t think anyone reading can say, “I disagree with what Rob is saying,” because what you’re saying seems so natural. It seems real and authentic. Yet, the tragedy about some of what you’re saying in my mind is, for example, you talked about love. Students need love. We need to understand why each student is significant because they need significance. The challenge as I see, and I used the word tragedy, is that in this very sensitive society where we live now, it feels like it’s so difficult to make those connections with students if I’m an adult.

In fact, even in the workplace, it’s difficult to make connections with your colleagues because it could be misinterpreted. If it’s misinterpreted, you could end up in the HR office that afternoon. I’m sure the same is true at a school. You can end up in the principal’s office or having unexpected parent-teacher conference because your good intent was misinterpreted. Am I overblowing this dilemma or is this a real dilemma that’s getting in the way of the kind of goals that you and Win by Design teach and train in?

You’re spot on with the challenges. At first, it goes back to the folks on the frontline, our educators. Our educators are under so much pressure that when they wake up in the morning and when they walk into the building, when they close out their day, so much of what they do at times doesn’t feel fulfilling. It doesn’t feel as though it’s even touching the surface of why they even got into it. You magnify that by a day or a decade, and you become dull. You become numb to what you’re even doing. The first step is reconnecting with our educators. Educational leaders and our community members have to. They should feel pressure, if not feel an obligation at a minimum to make sure that we are filling the gaps that we’re asking to do the most. In my humble opinion, we aren’t doing that. That’s where we need to start if you would. Our educators come first.

Let’s shift one more time. You and I have had candid conversations about this. It’s a very prickly subject in our country. It shouldn’t be but it is. A lot of what you’ve said comes from the lens of a black man who was not raised in the inner city, was raised in a fairly affluent area. You had opportunities. You have both parents at home, which I honestly believe lends a terrific advantage, to any of us, regardless of race or ethnicity. How has your race shaped your thinking towards education?

I appreciate the question. I appreciate the courage of the question. I had the unique opportunity to grow up in a beautiful town in New York, in Westchester County. A town that I hold near and dear to my heart and incredible friends, incredible opportunities and we overachieved, athletically. We are still super proud of it. I had the opportunity to also spend the mass majority of my life in the city. My grandparents, my nan and pop, were living in the city. My closest friend was in the South Bronx. I spent countless weekends with him. I felt as though I had a balance of seeing what my life was as a kid. I had the opportunity uniquely to see what life could have been had my parents not made specifically, my dad, made different decisions about what he wanted for his family to move himself and us with my mom out of the city.

It changed the course in the direction of my life. It was part of the reason why I have the privilege to be here with you. Rob, I did not get a free pass because of where I’m from. I didn’t get a free pass because of who my parents are. The reality is I have stories on how racism has impacted me. I’ve been the target of racists, I have been singled out because of my race. The reason why my story is that a tragedy is because certainly I’ll say faith for sure, but it’s also because my parents had the resources.

They had the knowledge and they also had the heart to make sure that I was taken care of when those things hit our family. They had the knowledge and the resources in place to make sure that none of those things impacted me into my adult life. They also had the heart to make sure that negativity and racism didn’t impact me and impact my mind on white people and on white people in authority. My dad had every perspective as a police officer. He was an award-winning police officer. I come from a long line of law enforcement.

Knowing the background, any pure intelligence that my dad had and then unfortunately having to see his son, be targeted and then at the same exact time, my parents didn’t allow negativity to harden my heart. I was quite the opposite. They made it very clear that there are bad people and there are people that are just going to be racist. There are people that will consistently target you because of who you are and because of the way that you look. To make sure that none of those things and events shape what they believe, which are people are good, and by and large good will always win as long as we allow it to win in our heart and in our spirit. I’m a product of them and that’s shaped my reality to this day, Rob. It doesn’t blind me but it’s helped shape it.

GFEP 19 | Beating Racism

Beating Racism: Being a black man raised in an affluent family does not give you a free pass on racism.

 

This would be a good time to end our conversation because I feel like what you said is very uplifting, but there are also a lot of lessons to learn hearing a black man raised in America, raised in New York, hearing your story. We could learn a little bit more if you’ll allow us to, from you here in this regard. I’m Caucasian, you’re black. What is one example of something that I might do that is unintentional, but that in your mind would be racist? I recalled something you told me one time. I don’t know if this is the way you’d want to say, but I’m going to lead you to one answer and then you can add another one. Rob Anderson doesn’t have a lot of hair. He shaved his head. I remember though you telling me one time about someone touching your hair. I don’t want to finish the story. I’d like to hear anything else that we could learn from.

I’ll give two examples, but I’ll start with that one. I grew up in a beautiful area in a place that I hold in the highest regard, in New York, in Westchester County. Growing up, it was quite common to have people, teachers, want to touch my hair because at that point. I had a big fro, not too big. I grew it out in college. I let it lock up against my dad’s best wishes. He didn’t love my locked-up hair. He didn’t like the fact that it was the color of the Texas Jersey. That drove him crazy, Rob. Growing up, it was very common that people will come up and want to touch my hair because I was so different. Not just because of my skin color because they haven’t seen hair texture in that way, and I couldn’t stand it.

At first, I didn’t understand it. As I got older into middle school, I became extremely fierce over it. My parents are very caring and very loving, but they would not ever allow me to get a free pass ever. I had a nice balance. My mom is the aggressor of the two. My dad is a massive man. His hands are so big, he couldn’t fit gloves. Having the opportunity to know that I needed to put my foot down and be more aggressive. I’ll never forget moments like that. It was gross. I had to use a simplistic metaphor that someone wanted to touch me because I just was different.

It’s a turnoff, but it was quite common. It was amongst the adults as well. Until I finally stood my ground and stood firm in that, I did not share that with my parents. That might have set my mom off. It’s why I didn’t share it with her. Until I set my ground with that, that’s when it finally stopped. To your question, Rob, I could probably answer your question with an example better than an action on your part. I was on the phone with a friend of mine. She’s white, and it’s relevant for this conversation.

I was getting ready to walk into a store. I had my Gator on. It was raining. I had a hooded sweatshirt, so I put my hood on. I have an earpiece in. I put my hood on and then I pulled my gator up. I’m walking. I said to her, “Anne, a few months ago, if I walked into the store like this, odds are I might get shot. I should be concerned that I may. Now if I don’t wear my gator or a mask, I have concerned that I’ll be singled out once again.” I took my hood off and my Gator. I walked in. I make sure, when I walk into stores, that my hands are out of my pockets so any cameras that see me, see that I’m not caring physically anything in.

When I walk out of stores, I always make sure that my hands are out my pockets and that my receipt is in my hands. It’s on camera that I’m not stealing anything. It’s very clear that I’m not walking out with anything that isn’t mine. I would share that as an example to say that when I walk into a store or when you see me walk into a store, don’t assume that I am something that I’m not. I’m a data for a married guy that loves people and has built a career around building and creating the best for kids, don’t assume.

Thank you for sharing that. Something as simple as keeping your hands out of your pocket is something that you have to think about in public as a black man. That’s what I was hoping or looking for that you would instruct us on what has to go through your mind in society. I don’t want to even get into the right or wrong of that impression that you have, the fact that you feel that way, should concern all of us. I do appreciate that. I’m sorry that you feel that way. Rob, I tip my hat to you for the influence that you have on other people. That influence is only growing. I would encourage my audience to check out what you do and how you do it on WinByDesign.com. You’ll also learn more about a subject that we didn’t have a chance to cover about the A3 Learner, which is proprietary information that Rob’s developed. Thank you very much. You’re an inspiration. I wish you continued success. I look forward to continued learning from you as we continue our association, Rob.

Rob, you’re beautiful. I appreciate your time. I appreciate the opportunity and your platform. It’s been a lot of fun. Thank you so much.

Important Links:

About Robert Anderson Jr.

GFEP 19 | Beating RacismRob began his career as an athletic performance coach helping athletes improve their physical and mental health.

Over the years, Rob has expanded his efforts and has developed a series of training modules, courses, and programs that help students, school administrators, teachers and faculty members define ‘why’ an inclusive community can alter the focus of the student body, there town, and ultimately the nation.

Rob’s premier program The 12 Things Summit… focuses on how to create personal empowerment by learning how to create an atmosphere of love and inclusion to overcome racism and injustice, overcoming anxiety, foster relationships, create confidence in yourself, how to create a nutritional program to maximize your health.

GFEP 18 | Hershey Entertainment Resorts

 

Hershey, Pennsylvania is known as “the sweetest place on earth.” In this episode, Rob Cornilles introduces you to Brian Bucciarelli, managing director of entertainment partnerships at Hershey Entertainment Resorts, the sweetest salesperson you would ever meet. A homegrown product of Central PA, Brian went from intern to running the sales division of the country’s most delicious entertainment company, managing Hersheypark, the Hershey Chocolate World Attraction, the Hershey Bears Hockey Club of the AHL,  and as many concerts and shows as there are candies in The Hershey Store Museum. Get a load of his sweetness and a sugar rush of valuable information as he joins in as this episode’s Game Face Exec. Enjoy!

Watch the episode here:

Brian Bucciarelli | Selling Sweetness To The C-Suite

I can think of worse things than selling chocolate for a living. That’s why in this episode, it’s a treat to interview Brian Bucciarelli, a sweet salesperson, if there ever was one. Not just because Brian works for Hershey Entertainment & Resorts in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the sweetest place on earth, but because of the way he tends to the rich history of Milton S. Hershey. The man who raised the chocolate bar to create a company, build a town and grow philanthropy that is a part of Americana as well as the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and the Chocolate Kiss.

I’m here with Brian Bucciarelli, who is a critical part of Hershey Entertainment & Resorts. Brian, you have been with the organization for years. Who does that anymore? Most of the people reading this are probably either in between jobs or they’ve jumped from one job to the next. That’s not a criticism, it’s just an observation of the market and how people go within their career. You’re very unusual. You started with the company straight out of school, you’re still with them, and you have a major role to play. Tell us that story.

Rob, you’ve been here. The easiest thing for me to say why I’m here for so long is the story itself, and that’s the story of Milton Hershey and Hershey. Everything about the past and what he did to create the town and our company, the park, and the chocolate company. That’s the easy answer to why I stayed there. The other part of that answer is the people in the industry. I started out in the sponsorship world. I fell in love with the sponsorship industry and then sales itself. It transpired into premium seating, season tickets and groups, and being able to do it in my hometown is another benefit. All of that combined was what kept me here for so long. You are right, especially in the sports world, you don’t see much of this at all and that’s not a bad thing. People go for jumped for different opportunities. I was lucky enough to have those opportunities right here at Hershey.

Are there many people like you within the company?

Yes. More so, we have the traditional form of people that have been here. We have some people who are 50 or so years and we have some new blood. In the past, when I first started, it was a lot of people that have been here a while and you get that thinking of we’ve always done it this way. That’s not always a bad thing, but I think having that mixed blood of people who are new and coming to us from other organizations with new ideas has allowed us to go where we are now.

Brian, let’s peel back. Let’s unwrap the chocolate a little bit about Hershey. Those who have not been to the market and to the park, who haven’t been to a Hershey Bears hockey game, the Hershey Bears are with the American Hockey League, a longstanding franchise. It’s been there for decades. For those who haven’t enjoyed or experienced a visit to Hershey, describe for us a little bit about this community, the culture, and what it means to the people who live there and work there such as yourself.

It’s called the sweetest place on earth. That is trademarked for a reason. As they say, the town was built on chocolate and that was Milton Hershey being a persistent man. He went bankrupt a couple of times before he found his niche in chocolate in Hershey in Derry Township as it was called. His claim to fame was when he added milk to chocolate and how he got successful, believe it or not. He’s the one that started milk chocolate, which is why you see a lot of dairy farms around here now. From that came Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, where I work. I call it the fun part of it, which is the amusement park.

Whether you’re in sports or entertainment, you’re not selling tickets. You’re selling an experience. Click To Tweet

We have two resort destinations. We have a country club. We have a camping resort. We have an outdoor stadium that has concerts. We have an indoor facility where the Hershey Bears play. He started that as a recreation place for his employees. That’s how he built the park. It was for employees only. It then turned into some great amusement park. We are owned by the Hershey Trust, which owns the chocolate company, as well as overseas, the known Milton Hershey School, which is the other great story of Milton Hershey and found this. Originally, it was a school for orphans, just boys, and it turned into underprivileged children.

That’s what this town is built on, but what this town does and what this town offers is amazing. The summer concerts, YouTube, Rolling Stones, we’ve hosted. It’s a major market for Live Nation. The giant center seats 10,500 people. We do your typical indoor shows, but we have the Hershey Bear, which had been around for 85 seasons. It’s the oldest continuously operating franchise in the American Hockey League. As Gordie Howe’s once said, “Everybody who is anybody in hockey has played in Hershey.” It was an area where all these modern hockey league people came through to get to the NHL. We have Hersheypark Arena, as we all know, not only the Hershey Bears and not only Milton Hershey built that in 1936, but the claim to fame there is that’s where Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points.

The unfortunate part about this news now, it’s also where Kobe Bryant won the state championship in high school basketball, which a lot of people don’t know. Why that’s significant now is a sad story, but it is another place that made Hersheypark Arena so great. For those who haven’t been there, I ask everybody please to come to Hershey and visit. Rob has been there a couple of times and it is a great area and a great story.

I’ve not only been there a couple of times, Brian, but after my first visit, I was convinced that if I was coming back, I had to bring my wife. You and your staff are hospitable and that’s the Hershey way. You ensure that when I did bring my wife and I don’t bring her on every trip that I take. She doesn’t want to go on every trip that I take, but I chatted with her about the magic found in Hershey and the mood that’s there and the culture. We celebrated her birthday in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Thanks again to you, it was a fantastic trip. There was more to do than we had time.

That’s what people don’t realize too. Some people think of as cow pastures, farms, and fields, and don’t understand. There’s a reason for all that, but it’s much more.

Besides that, what are some of the misconceptions people have had about the company that you work for over the years?

The biggest misconception is that our company produces chocolate, which we don’t. We are the entertainment side of things. We are a private company. The Hershey company, which produces chocolate, is a public company. We are two separate companies owned by the same ownership group, the Trust Company. However, in saying that, our branding is chocolate. If you come to our resort properties, it’s chocolate. Our park is a theme park, but it’s chocolate-themed. We much live off of that, but we are two separate companies. The biggest misconception is that we are the ones that make the chocolate.

One of the things I also learned, for those chocolate fans reading now, is that you also own Reese’s, which is an interesting story because the founder of Reese’s, the Reese family, came from Hershey. He was employed by Mr. Hershey and then he broke away and started his own thing. Years and years later, they became part of the Hershey family.

The factories in Hershey, it’s a weird twist on all of us that you think it was part of the Milton Hershey to begin with, because of where it is, but it wasn’t. It’s probably my favorite candy, the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, truth be told.

GFEP 18 | Hershey Entertainment Resorts

Hershey Entertainment Resorts: Brian Bucciarelli, managing director of entertainment partnerships at Hershey Entertainment Resorts talks to Rob Cornilles about his career with the company.

 

By the way, the Hershey Chocolate Store at the Hershey Museum, I’ve never seen anything like it. You see variations and sizes of Hershey candies I didn’t know existed.

You’ll certainly get your fill of chocolate if you come here.

You’re an entertainment company. You attract people regionally, nationally, and globally. When I think of international entertainment companies, I think of Disney and Universal. From a sales and marketing and promotion standpoint, how do you compete in that space?

To back up a bit, we have had people from all around the globe. I know one summer, we had a representation in our amusement park, a zip code from every state in the country. We do nationally. Globally, we do get people from out of the country every now and then. I go back to think, you always say, “You experienced the service, but people have to get here first experience the service.” How do we get people? I think it’s a story of Milton Hershey and what he did and what do he created. When you get here and you bring a family and you’re immersed in chocolate. I don’t know that you got to see them. Maybe you did.

I’m not sure if they were at the resorts or not, but we have chocolate characters that roam around. You can hang out with Mr. Twizzler or those types of things. I think it’s the story. Once you get people here, we have thousands of correspondence and letters from people who come here every year with their families. They’ve been coming for 30 to 40 years to come to Hershey and the experience is fantastic. The level of service that we have is second to none. One of our biggest markets is in New York and we can constantly get people from there. We have local amusement parks that we compete with.

If you go to the stadium side, concerts, there are some venues. We compete with the Giant Center as well. Some indoor venues we compete with, but I think the area we’re in also helps us, Central Pennsylvania, 1.5 hours from Philly, 1.5 hours from Baltimore. We are 3.5 hours from New York, two hours from Washington, DC, six hours from Boston. It’s called central Pennsylvania for a reason. Where it’s located, there’s easy access to Hershey from all of these different areas. We also have an airport as well where people can fly in and we’re twelve miles from the airport. At the end of the day, I think people were just intrigued by Milton Hershey’s story and what he created.

We can’t take time on this show to talk about that story, but it’s found everywhere within the community. If you go to the museum and stay at the hotels, his story is on video. It’s on plaques. It’s truly inspiring. One of the small things that people don’t know about Mr. Hershey and his wife is that they were never able to have children. Their children became the orphans of the community and the surrounding communities and for him to fund their education, that’s a legacy. I think from an outsider’s point of view, that’s probably the thing that I was most impressed about. Not that it was impressive to me, but how you and your staff, you and your team seemed to be the thing you are most proud of is that legacy of taking underprivileged kids from all over the country and giving them a quality education.

The first question you asked me was why am I here so long. The HE&R, Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, it goes to our core purpose, which is to add value to the Milton Hershey School. Our core purpose, what we do, and what the Hershey company does is support the Milton Hershey School and all that they offer these kids. Mr. and Mrs. Hershey didn’t have kids and they started this school. It’s turned out to be incredible. They are athletics. They are competing at a high level and all the athletic leagues that they’re in and the kids’ graduation rate. It’s a remarkable story.

The house parents, that’s a whole other story. That’s where these kids live with volunteers. For the most part, these house parents lived with 6 to 8 of these kids in each grade. They get to and from school and they’re taken care of. They’re fed. They have clothes. I’ve been here a long time, but I don’t do the story justice. We have people in our company who know the history much better than me, but you asked why people have been here that long, and then why the new people that come and want to stay, it truly is our core purpose.

I would add that, as I understand it, every time I purchase a Hershey chocolate bar or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, I’m contributing to that school.

You are. That’s when we have a dividend that goes to that school every year, based on the revenue that we bring into our company.

Chase the relationship and the money will follow. Click To Tweet

Do you know what the enrollment is of the school?

I might get this wrong and if anybody from the company sees it, I’m going to say 2,300 or 2,100 in that area and they’re expanding. With everything that’s going now, they’re still expanding.

With all the goodness, all the sweetness around Hershey, you’re a sales person. You have to sell on behalf of the entertainment side of the company, the resort side, and the hockey team. Despite all that, there’s got to be some challenges. There’s got to be reasons why people don’t buy from you. What are some of the top tier challenges or obstacles you have to complete a sale?

It varies depending on what part of the park, Giant Center Stadium that you’re talking about. It’s no different than any, but anybody else in the sales world. There is competition around here for number one, disposable income, not just competing team to team. There’s disposable income. There are many things to do. Where are we going to spend our money is one of the things I like to say, and in anything we do, we’re selling fun. Whether it’s the park, a concert, or a hockey game, you’re selling that experience as you taught us all to. You’re not selling a ticket, you’re selling that experience. We are in Central Pennsylvania and what’s all around us, we have many Minor League teams around us. There are a couple of museum and parks around us. There are some of the other things that are going on. That disposable income and capturing that, where am I going to spend my money mindset is probably the biggest thing for us.

We have talked in your office about the challenges that we’re seeing in 2020. I know that this is a fluid dynamic situation and we’re adjusting on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. Can you give us a glimpse down the horizon as far as how you’re reacting to this and how it might be changing the way you go about doing business, either on the hockey side or the parkside?

Both of them, especially the park, that would have opened in April for springtime. We’re extending season tickets originally through June of 2021, but every other day, we’re closed. We’re going to extend season tickets by the day. Unprecedented things that we have to do and the right things to do. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be honest with you, on the Hershey Bear side, it is remarkable to me. We lost the last six home games because of the American Hockey League was canceled and we lost six home games. We’re going through the process now of this whole credit thing with the season ticket holders. Do they want credit towards 2021? Do they want to refund? It’s exciting and promising. We have many people that have paid in full for 2021 already. They want to get back to hockey and I’m excited about that. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We talked a bit about what’s going to happen with the HE&R, but the fact that these people want hockey back and they missed out. Unfortunately, the Bears aren’t having a great season. We were number one and who knows where they could have gone, but I think things like that are exciting for us.

It shows that people are ready to get out. Even with the park, we are mailing out tickets now. We’re hoping for a July 2021 opening sometime. The people want to get out and who knows what the park would look like. This could look like limited capacity in the park. We don’t know. We’re still trying to figure that out, but it’s a balance of taking care of the customer as best we can and taking care of our company. It is more about the future with these clients too. You don’t want to lose them for making a dumb decision and to lose them in the future. What have you done? You’ve saved money now, but you’re having to go out and find new business, which we all know the heart of it’s their renewal business and any of these things. Definitely, we have had to do things differently. We’re doing it in the right way. I haven’t had many complaints about how we’re doing things, but just unprecedented times. We all have contingency plans, but this wasn’t in the book.

You also have some unique challenges as the Minor League organization because you don’t get national exposure. We’re not talking about you on Sports Center.

Just for the Teddy Bear Toss, we have. I did talk about that some in Sports Center.

Can you talk to us a little bit about the unique challenges about working in Minor League sports and how that forces you to develop skills? Not to say that Major League executives don’t have to develop skills or challenges. What unique challenges or skills you have to develop if you’re going to be successful in this space?

Let’s take the COVID-19 out of it and say it’s a regular year. The biggest thing is we don’t have the superstar. We don’t have Sidney Crosby that were selling tickets. We don’t have the big-ticket strategy that came out years ago like some of these pump teams that we’re drawing and you sold against the visiting team superstar coming in. We don’t have that. Before they changed them some rules, we had some journeymen people that played many AHL games that were sent down to the Minor Leagues. We have veteran rules now. You can’t even have as many of them because of this developmentally. They want to develop the youngsters. You can’t sell based on your superstars.

GFEP 18 | Hershey Entertainment Resorts

Hershey Entertainment Resorts: If you want to get into the major league, you have to start in the minors. If you can sell successfully without a superstar, you’re going to do well in the big leagues.

 

From a renewal standpoint, we have several years here. People know the brand. They know Hershey Bears Hockey and that’s a big selling point for us. Other than that, it truly is what we talked about for selling the experience. That’s what it is selling, the Giant Center itself, selling the end game entertainment, selling the history of the Hershey Bears, the 11 Calder Cups. That’s what we have to sell. With COVID-19, we don’t have TV money. We’re not coming back unless we can have tickets and sponsorship sales. That is the only way American Hockey League can come back. The next thing here is deciding when the AHL can come back and when we can safely have fans in the arena and making sure that they feel safe and want to come back. As I said before, the signs are pointing to people who want to get back. It’s a matter of when we can do that.

Brian, I don’t want to misinterpret what you’re saying or put words in your mouth. It sounds like you have a lot of challenges in Minor League sports. Why would someone getting into the sports industry want to work in the Minors?

It’s like an athlete that wants to get into the Major Leagues, they have to start in the Minors. That’s where you learn the basic skills. If you can sell successfully in the minors, when you go to the big leagues, you’re going to sell. If you can sell successfully without a superstar, and you told us your story when you first broke in, it wasn’t in the Minors, but it was with the team that wasn’t good. I’m going to assume you didn’t have many superstars if you weren’t good. That’s how you sold and you sold on the experience and fun, yet, you sold all those things.

If you can do that, you’re going to be a successful salesperson, wherever you go. I also like to go back to this story all the time. I talked to a lot of my friends who were in the radio business who grew up selling without a base salary. They sold on commission and they were successful selling on commission. You know how many phone calls you need to make to get an appointment, to do a proposal, and to make a sale because that’s what you live off of. I think in the Minor Leagues, you need to start somewhere and that’s where you got to sharpen your skills, is in the Minors.

In your case, you not only started in the Minors. You stayed in the Minors. There’s a career there. It’s not just a launchpad.

There is a career but it’s not likely like we’ve talked about. However, the other thing I didn’t mention is what our company offers too. I’ve overseen Hersheypark sales as well. There’s a lot more than the Minor League angle to this. There are other things I’m doing. I did have an opportunity to go elsewhere and things didn’t work out. I came back here and thankfully, the company accepted me back. There’s a lot of stuff going on here in this company, which makes it an easy place to stay.

Isn’t it also interesting over the years that we have been in the industry, how Minor League ownership groups recognize that they can’t own a Minor League hockey team, baseball team, or lacrosse team? In order to be a more attractive asset and also a more attractive place for people to come to work, they probably need to have their hands in some other things as well. Whether it’s the venue that they manage, operate, etc. Maybe they have another team that they’re working in the off-seasons. They’re pairing up with other franchises. If I’ve got hockey in the winter, I’ve got baseball in the summer type of thing. There are many models of that.

There are going to be great changes in both the sports and entertainment industry down the road. We need to be ready to innovate. Click To Tweet

Revenue coming in all times of the year. Also, that allows them to package things too. Maybe they’re packaging season tickets or sponsorships. It allows them to do a lot of those things as well. You did touch on something interesting. That’s something I should point out, which makes the job here easier. We do own the building and the team. There are some nightmare situations that people are in where that’s not the case. I feel for them and I’ve heard a lot of horror stories there, but yes, we do own both. It makes it easy and we do our own concessions, which is the third part of it.

It was a huge revenue source for you in that regard. Since you are a professional salesperson and you’re a leader in sales, when you started your career, when you went to school, did you anticipate that sales would be your primary function and the way you’d make a living?

No. I got a marketing degree and honestly, I was a non-traditional student. I went back late in life. I came out of college and majored in ping pong and foosball when I first went and didn’t do so well. Unfortunately, Penn State doesn’t give degrees in that. I say this not jokingly, but I realized that I wasn’t going to make a living with my hands. I couldn’t build things. I couldn’t do that time that I needed to get a degree. My dad always said to me, a degree is one thing that nobody can ever take away from you. Once you get your degree, you always have it.

I went back late in life and graduated late. An opportunity for an internship came up with the Bears, which growing up, I knew the Bears and I happened to be in the sales department. I fell in love with that. I think a lot of it was my personality, getting along with people and relationship-driven. That’s what helped me through my sales career. It’s one of those things. I know you’ve talked about it before, but throughout my career, I’ve been to client’s weddings, birthday parties, and so many things. That’s when you truly know that you’ve done well. It’s not talking to them during renewal time. You’re spending time at their house or going on vacation with them. They’re coming to your house. That’s when you truly know that, “This is truly what sales is all about.”

That’s interesting, Brian, because you’re bringing to my mind this idea. First of all, there’s an old saying, “If you’re honest, you can’t have a very short memory,” because if you’re honest, you don’t have to think back, “What did I tell them?” If you’re honest in sales, you can’t have a short memory because you always know. “I’m telling you like it is, or I’m being genuine and authentic.” The other thing you’re bringing to my mind though, is if you want to have a long-term career, let’s say with one organization, those people that you’re selling this year, you’re going to see next year, and you’re going to see five years from now. The things that you’re representing to them, they better be truthful. You better be able to deliver what you’re promising. You’ve been doing that for many years.

There are still people here that I’ve met on day one and they’re still involved with that company. I am not so much involved in the day-to-day sales of a lot of things anymore. A couple of things I have my hands in, but not as much, and there are still people that are still there. My phrase that I always use with people is, “Chase the relationship and the money will follow.” We all know sales is commission-based for the most part, but people that are going after or chasing the money won’t last long. Why they won’t last long? It’s because you’re selling people things that they shouldn’t be sold. That’s not going to last into a long-term relationship and the success of your career is based on your renewals and your relationships.

I truly believe that. I started in this industry making $20,000 a year with no commission. I was never motivated by money. I was motivated, number one, about the company saying, “He’s doing a fantastic job.” To this day, I live by that motivation. I’m making a good living, but I’ve earned that. I didn’t start out that way, but my motivation still is a great job, a handwritten note from the CEO that says, “What a remarkable job you and your team did on this.” That’s my motivation, not the paycheck.

I would want to say, you’re my client. We’ve done work together and we’ll do work together in the future. I would tell you the same is true. I love to say that that’s a client I enjoy not only securing, but renewing because the client is friendly, reasonable and agreeable. I don’t know if you and I have ever had any disagreements or differences of thought, but when we do, they don’t stand out in my mind because we resolve them quickly. We keep moving forward and keep progressing together. You’re not only a good salesperson, but you’re also a good client as well. That personality permeates all both sides of your work. I appreciate that.

I’m not trying to sell Rob and Game Face, but we’ve certainly enjoyed the two times you came in. You’re the only professional sales teacher that we’ve ever brought back. That says a lot about you and your organization. Our sales staff got a heck of a lot out of it and they’re still using that. We certainly appreciate it.

GFEP 18 | Hershey Entertainment Resorts

Hershey Entertainment Resorts: People who are going after the money won’t last long. Success in sales is based on your renewals and your relationships.

 

Thank you. Brian, as we wrap up, I would love to get an idea from you as to whether it’s industry-related or Hershey-related. How will the industry be different five years from now in your mind than it is now? Do you see something around the corner that we need to be paying attention to, that we need to be diligent about? Do you see innovation or creativity that maybe we need to stretch a little bit more in a particular area, whether it’s within your local properties or it’s the industry as a whole?

During these times, how will things change with COVID-19? It is limited seating and you’re in a concession stand line. You have to be six feet apart. Is everybody going to be wearing a mask? Until we get through this and get back to some sense of normal to see what’s going to happen five years down the road, I don’t know. Are we going to go back to normal? That’s another big question. Will we ever go back to the normal way of doing things? Will we shake hands anymore? Will we hug? If I don’t get the hug Rob, when I see him, I don’t know what I’m going to do when the next time I see him.

It’s looking now when we get back to operating, there’s going to be great changes there in both the sports industry, as well as, music, parks, theme parks and even in our resorts. Down the road, I think we’re always having to innovate. We’re always going to have to do the next biggest and best thing out there for Hershey. We built a brand new coaster that, thankfully, is about done and ready to go. The amusement parks always have to innovate. What are we going to do? What’s the next big attraction? What’s the next big food offering? I’m always looking at those things. Probably the biggest thing, Rob, is this cashless thing. We’re seeing it now. You go up there and swipe that. We have a Pepsi station now that you go up there and fill up your Pepsi cup by yourself. There’s a barcode on it.

How big is that going to be with this social distancing? How much bigger does that become that you go in there by yourself and scan and do everything yourself? Our grocery stores had that for the last 4 to 6 years. We didn’t know that that’s the biggest thing now going for them. You go in there, you can scan things yourself and not have to deal with people. I think this cashless thing is going to be big. It was becoming big now, but it’s going to be even bigger with what’s happening in our society.

You mentioned the coaster at the amusement park. I want to say for those of you who’ve not been to Hersheypark, they got awesome roller coasters there, more than you might imagine. They take great pride in their coasters.

This is our tallest, fastest and longest coaster yet. It’s called Candymonium.

I have one more question. I should have asked this, but if I wanted to work for you, what would I need to do, say, and show in an interview if I’m sincere to be the candidate you choose?

I know what I look for in team members. I look for self-motivated individuals. I look with people with great attitudes. I think people will come to the office every day. You’re in control of your attitude. Nothing else. Nobody else can control your attitude. I look for team players. Do you get this out of an interview? It’s a tough thing to say. I’m probably giving away a secret in case, God forbid, Rob, something happens that you have to come to me to interview to get a job. There are many that within our organization now that I hired, and it’s the question that I ask. Everybody asks that standard interview question. Where do you see yourself in five years?

When you’re talking to me, everybody thinks the proper answer is, “I see myself in your role.” This person gave me the answer I looked for every time, “I see myself making more money for this department.” I love that answer. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get ahead. Don’t get me wrong, but I’ve had many people that have gone on into bigger and better things. I thought that was the type of answer I was looking for. Somebody that’s going to come in here and get motivated, wanting to do a good job and want to make more money for the department revenue.

No one else but you can control your own attitude. Click To Tweet

Self-motivation, to me, I’m not a micromanager and people that want to come in here and do a good job. It’s tough from the interview process, but I do also look for somebody that’s not motivated by the dollar, but somebody who wants to do a good job. Somebody that their motivation is me reaching out of a handwritten note or calling them or their boss or somebody else within the company to say, “You did a fantastic job.” It makes me motivated by that. I guarantee you the money will come.

That’s great advice born from years of experience. That works for you. It’s worked for you and your career.

It’s easy for me to say, “I just landed in this role, making a good living, and had to start and make those comments.” I started where I told you what I made, no commission when I first came up and that got me through. I was motivated by doing a great job and that led to this and to this.

It very much mirrors something that I tried to share with job seekers or people young in their career. That is to do the best you can where you are now and the world will find you. Success cannot hide. People will find success wherever it is.

This is great, especially in the sales world. I’ve had people who have been recruited by our clients because the deal with day-to-day dealings with them. They see how they operate, how they are relationship-driven. They have great relationships with them. They care about the client, not the dollar. I’ve had people recruit. The client came to us first. I had no problem with it. It’s gone on to bigger and better things. That says a lot and it makes you feel good that this person grew up. Your department has gone onto something else and they’re happy.

Brian, I want to reiterate to everybody, get to Hershey. Join all the great things that Hershey, Pennsylvania has to offer. You can look up Brian. I’m sure that he’ll take good care of you. If not him, his great staff.

Get to Hershey. If you out there that haven’t worked with Rob or his group, please look into it. Honestly, it wasn’t paid and this wasn’t scripted. He is the best trainer, the best sales training we’ve had, so thank you.

It’s great to visit with you. Thanks for all your great wisdom, Brian, and good luck.

You too. Stay safe.

Thank you.

Important Links:

About Brian Bucciarelli

GFEP 18 | Hershey Entertainment ResortsManaging Director Entertainment Sales & Partnerships at Hershey Entertainment & Resorts. And all-around great guy!!

 

John explains why his role as educator and mentor is what he most cherishes; Why do entrepreneurs decide to become mentors? What are the requirements for effective mentoring? John relates the sacrifices of entrepreneurship on individuals and families; How do entrepreneurs and their significant others get aligned? How long should the entrepreneurship journey last? Is entrepreneurship for everyone? John shares the worst advice entrepreneurs get; The shame of bad ideas unidentified; How does a great idea become a great business? John suggests down economies are the time to ramp up; The phases of startup; John bemoans the ROI of higher education; Why campuses are the ideal place to experience a collision of ideas; John explains the service found for fledgling entrepreneurs at Startup Ignition; The imperative of sales and developing relevant skills; How sales and a great salesperson lifted Omniture to become a billion-dollar company. We’re talking about the meaningful mentor, John Richards, who joins Rob Cornilles as this episode’s Game Face Exec.

Watch the episode here:

John Richards | The Mean And Meaningful Mentor

Admit it, one time or another, maybe even now, you’ve wondered what it would be like to be your own boss, to start your own business. You’ve identified the need, void, and the likely solution that you think could make countless lives a little bit better. If you’re wondering whether or not to take that risky but potentially rewarding step, you have to meet John Richards. This week’s Game Face exec and a mentor whose candid guidance has saved many entrepreneurs untold pain while helping them realize unimaginable opportunities.

I’m joined by John Richards. He is a man who can be described in four distinct ways. He’s been called a great entrepreneur, educator, advisor, and investor. John, thanks for joining me on Game Face Execs. It’s a privilege to spend some time with you.

Thank you, Rob, and thanks for all you’re doing for the ecosystem.

Thank you. John, in that description of you, I mentioned four ways that people have referred to you, an entrepreneur, advisor, educator, and investor. I’m curious if you had to pick one of those and had to put one on a gravestone, which one do you think best describes John Richards?

Probably in the area of education and mentorship is the one that I’ve had the most fulfillment from.

When you talk about fulfillment, can you describe for me what that means to you?

Right before we started this podcast, I had another Zoom event. It was from the mid-2000s, a student that I mentored at Brigham Young University. He has gone on to build a sizable successful company. He and I had a great catch up talk about all that he’s doing there. It’s rewarding to see what he’s done and gone on to do. He shared some principles. I had given a little bit of mentorship in his formative years, but he discouraged me a little bit because he told me he just turned 40, so that made me feel old.

How long have you been advising him?

Probably from the mid-2000s. From the thousands of students at the university level that I’ve mentored and then even people out in the community, I’ll sometimes get emails or communications from people I haven’t heard from, from 8 or 10 years ago saying, “Do you know what’s happened to me?” They tell me their success story and they said it all started when they got this principle or that help. Other ones, I have constant communication with different things. It’s such a fulfilling, rewarding thing. As far as fulfilling, one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in life was to coach my daughter’s basketball team for seven straight years. All of those young ladies are now married and with children. That was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It was coaching a youth basketball team.

I never had daughters. I have three sons who are all grown now. One of my favorite pieces that were ever written by a sports column was Rick Reilly’s piece about coaching girls basketball. Did you ever read that one?

No, I didn’t.

I have to find that one for you and get that to you.

It was fun. I found that girls listen and follow directions. When you coach youth boys basketball, it’s a running gun the whole time.

The worst advice is no advice. Click To Tweet

Going back to your role as an advisor, you have been a successful business person for many years. It’s a unique personality that decides to step away from building businesses and advise and mentor other people to go that same route and teach them to do that. I know you’re still involved in businesses, don’t get me wrong, but you spent a lot of time helping people do what you did. There are many that don’t have the stomach and the patience for that. What caused you to go in that direction?

It’s interesting you say that. It is a sacrifice so you’re bringing up. You step off the income and equity value generation roller coaster and merry-go-round to stop and take more time with people. It’s less lucrative certainly. Some people don’t want to do that. They say, “No, I’ve got more good earning years ahead of me so I don’t want to do that.” The willingness to do that is one of the character traits. Answering your question more directly is, I like to teach. I enjoyed the field of teaching. Teaching is valuable and important.

As a young person going into teaching, it’s not a lucrative career. It’s not something where you’ll gain financial independence quickly. It’s noble, but it’s not that way. When I had the freedom after having entrepreneur success and being able to have that financial independence, I chose to be more of a teacher and mentor, and that fulfilled that desire from my early ages. Some of the traits that you need to do well at doing that though because also some people don’t have the skills or the characteristics needed to do that.

You have to be able to be a good teacher to teach well. You have to be able to be a good mentor. Mentoring is hard. Mentoring requires time, commitment, caring, and spending time with people. Not just flash in the pan superficial mentoring, but real mentoring getting down in the trenches and helping them. Some people believe that mentoring is only about teaching them how to discover their own mistakes and foibles. There’s some truth to that, that helping people learn how to discover things on their own is important, but mentoring is also sometimes being able to tell a person that their idea sucks. It’s a train wreck waiting to happen.

Like a child, if they’re going to put their hand on the burner, you don’t let them put their hand on it so they learn that burners can hurt you. You stop them from burning their hands. That’s the same thing in mentoring. There are times where you have to say, “You’re doing a red light activity and you need to be stopped now for your own good.” Other times where you let them discover on their own. That kind of being the mentor is important. You have to have a desire and a willingness to sacrifice being the entrepreneur going forward and making your own money or high income. All those traits come to play. We talked about that a lot in my circle of mentors and people that have given time the same way I have. It’s hard to find somebody who has been there, done that, and has all the experience and skills, likes to teach, and likes to mentor. For instance, you enjoy that. I’ve seen that in you. You like to teach and mentor, but not everybody does.

The thing that I’m most impressed about what you do, and I’ve observed this in you, John, over the years that we’ve known each other, is that it’s such a time-consuming activity to mentor. It’s almost like you’re a doctor, a physician who’s always on call. When these young or old entrepreneurs are working late at night in their garage or kitchen table and they’re troubled by something, if you’re the first person they think of, you’ve got to be available on the other end of that line. There are tremendous sacrifices that come in what you do, and you’ve talked about some of those. One that I’m interested in knowing more about is I know that you have, as best you can, a balanced life. You have a great family. You have a supportive wife and you support her. Can you talk a little bit about the career choices you’ve made and how family factors into that? In your case, how a spouse or relationship has factored into your decision-making?

That was a big part of taking that directional change in my life. I was married in 1983. My wife is incredible. She and I went on to have four children every two years. We have a busy household and I worked constantly. After I finished my collegiate career, I started building up a company in Seattle. Over about a dozen years, I became a leader in that industry. I worked 80-hour weeks and I was gone a lot. I parlayed that experience into the yellow pages company.

Can you explain to some of our readers what yellow pages are?

The printed Google Search. The industry was huge at the time. In 1984, the federal government broke up AT&T, the largest publisher of yellow pages and the old Bell Company with Alexander Graham Bell. It broke it into eight different companies and that led to a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurs. That’s perfect timing for me coming out of school in 1985. The yellow pages industry was rife with opportunity so I went into that industry. I parlayed that print publishing industry experience into being the first-ever online yellow pages. That happened in 1995. That caught the dot-com emergence perfectly.

My fledgling online yellow page company was sold to a new company started by some Microsoft people that had learned about me, and I became number four at that company called InfoSpace. Two or three years later, it went public in ‘98. From that entire period of around 14 to 15 years, I never took a vacation. I worked incessantly, and then we had enough financial independence to never have to work again. My wife sat me down and said, “It’s payback time.” That was an interesting moment. We decided that we would do that. It was fascinating.

Six months into that of me being the dad on all the field trips and meeting my sons after school, BYU, my alma mater university called me up and said they’d like me to be a professor of entrepreneurship. I said, “I don’t have a PhD.” They said, “You don’t need one. You can be a professional faculty member.” I tested it for a semester flying down from Seattle and I enjoyed it. I moved my whole family down to Utah and decided to work a few years like nobody else is willing to do so that you can live the rest of your life like nobody else or like many people can’t do.

I got off the moneymaking train of income. I stayed at the same level where it was at then. My kids were 16, 14, 12, and 10 when I made that change, and it’s been wonderful. All my adult children live within fifteen minutes of me. I have seven grandchildren. We get together frequently, love each other, and have great relationships. It’s paid off. I got to coach my daughter’s basketball team for seven straight years. I took control of my schedule and time, and my wife has enjoyed it. That’s a big moment.

Earlier when I was working those eight-hour work weeks though, she also taught me things. For instance, she said, “John, you have to be home from 6:00 to 8:00 PM every day.” In the first few years, I was violating that. I learned that if I was home from 6:00 to 8:00, I could have dinner, help get the kids down for bed, and then go back to work until 1:00 or whatever in the morning. I learned a lot of things from my wife. One thing we learned also is that the spouses tend to have a built-in marriage manual. If you listen to them, it helps. That’s been our relationship. I hope that answers your question.

GFEP 17 | Entrepreneur Mentor

Entrepreneur Mentor: People who are mentoring have to tell people, when they can back it up with reasoning, that their ideas are terrible.

 

It does. I love what you said about, “I’m willing to work like no one else will so I can have a lifestyle that few people have.” You may have had that mentality. You could have been born with it. You had that work ethic and drive. I find a lot of young entrepreneurs have a difficult time finding someone. If they’re dating or want to get married, finding someone who has that same attitude and same outlook about that. I’m wondering, were you and your wife aligned from day one on this venture and path that you’re going on?

I’m going to bring up. We talked about that. Let me clarify before I answer that specifically. One of my mentors one time told me, “Work a few years like no one else is willing to do so that you can live the rest of your life like no one else can.” What that means is that the craziness of doing it being an entrepreneur is meant to be a finite time period. If it was to go on until you’re 65 years old or older and work like that, that’s workaholism. That’s not good for relationships and family. If you say, “For these seven years, we’re going to work like that. We have a plan and a strategy behind it. We’re going to have to make sacrifice faces. We’ll be a little bit like a car with an over or under-inflated wheel sometimes and won’t be perfect in some other areas of life.”

I might not be able to be a coach. I never was able to coach my two sons’ sports. Even with my two daughters who are younger. We made that sacrifice as a family. My wife knew the sacrifices, and we did that. We had a time where that was over and we said, “Now we’re going to enjoy the fruits of what we have the freedom to do.” That’s how we structured that. That is important to understand that if it was meant to be for life, that would be a real problem. That’s not how it’s meant to be. That’s our vision. It’s interesting, my wife comes from a family of school teachers and bankers. A lot of them are conservative by nature in terms of that. They work an 8:00 to 5:00 job for a big company.

It ends up though my wife is completely along for the ride. There have been about three defining moments in my career where I put everything on the line. The first time I did it, I went to my wife and said, “Susan, if this doesn’t work out, we’re going back to a one-bedroom apartment, particleboard bookshelves, and a 9-inch black and white TV.” She goes, “Fine. Go ahead. Take your chance. I love you as much then as I do now, and I love you as much afterward. It will be fun building it back up again. Don’t worry about it.” I go, “Wow.” That gave me the freedom to take chances and risks that others might not take. We all know risk and reward go hand in hand as long as you know you’re not a crazy wild gambler and you’re a measured risk-taker.

You’re one of the lucky ones, John. You and Susan have a partnership that’s well-matched and you’re aligned. I feel for a lot of entrepreneurs who don’t have that.

Can I tell you a story about one?

Yeah, it would be interesting.

I won’t name names. One time, I mentored a great entrepreneur. He’s a born and trained entrepreneur. He had to be an entrepreneur to be happy in life. One time, I invested a significant amount of money and helped him raise $716,000 for this company. It was a great idea. The company was doing well. One time, his wife invited my wife and I out. I was chairman of the board after leaving the investment around. We went to a restaurant, The Melting Pot, which now I don’t go to because of this experience. We go to the restaurant and he goes to the restroom. His wife lays into me about his salary and says, “We can’t survive on the salary that you investors have been capped at. We have three children and I need more money.”

I told her, “We, investors, put in $716,000 and we have it capped at $84,000 for a reason. He was making $78,000 and he brought himself up at $84,000 where it’s capped, but it’s not just me. There are other investors. That’s in the documents of the investment. The company is still early and needs the capital going back into building the company. I’m not sure we can do that and pull it off.” He was gone a long time. It took 5 to 7 minutes of her talking to me like this. My wife was blown away by it. He comes back from the restroom. He doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t say anything. We finished the dinner.

A month later, he calls me back and says, “My wife is making me quit.” He’s the founder and CEO. “She says I need to be making $120,000 to $130,000. The last month talking to everybody, that’s not going to be happening here.” She makes him take a job at one of the most conservative institutions in our area and sit in a cubicle. The funny thing is I did help him get a job at a great tech company and he became their number one sales guy but she said he had to have a job with benefits and all these things. We went on to that company, by the way, to make all the investors 5x. It was a great company. He lost out. He sold out all of his shares which was a huge chunk for a small amount of money when he left. He called me up three years after all of this and told me they got divorced. He said, “John, I have to be an entrepreneur.” That’s the extreme on the other side, isn’t it? To this day, he is happier after that situation. He has got multiple companies and multiple things he’s been successful with. It’s interesting.

At the same time, you would agree that entrepreneurship is not for everybody. One has to make a decision. What’s more important for me now, and then in the long-term? Is it to pursue this dream I have and to bring this product to market or to have a happy marriage?

It’s a partnership of the spouse. A lot of times, I mentor people and say, “You need to talk to your spouse about this right now.” Have a real talk if you’re all in and try to prevent that situation I told that story on. There are people, men and women, I meet that I’m one of them. I cannot work for the man. I cannot work in a large organization. I am not happy if I am just a cog in a massive machine. I need to be an entrepreneur in control of my destiny more and have the feeling of building and growing every day. I like the days when I walk in and I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen. I’ve got to be an entrepreneur and handle what happens. I like that. It’s a different lifestyle. I could see if I have saddled the same way this fellow I told the story about and found out. That could have easily happened to me because most of us, while we’re cording our spouses, aren’t telling them, “Are you in for this ride?”

It’s not one of the questions we typically review. “Tell me about your parents. Where did you go to school? Do you mind if I am an entrepreneur?” Let me ask you about the advice on entrepreneurship. Is there bad advice that you’ve heard entrepreneurs get over the years whether it’s from well-intentioned relatives or from professors, or someone else?

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Or even investors.

What are some examples of some bad advice in your mind that entrepreneurs sometimes get?

The worst advice of all, and it’s rampant, is no advice at all. Let me tell you what I mean. It starts at the idea stage. There are two aspects to this. Let’s take The Mom Test first of all. If you’ve heard of that book, it’s a legendary book to read about making sure you don’t get caught in this. I had a young man meet me and come to my office. He says, “I’ve got the greatest idea.” He tells me his idea. “I have spent time evaluating thousands upon thousands of ideas so I’m good at it. I have my procedures and I do it mentally fast. I can teach people how to do it in a spreadsheet and all that. That’s part of my training.”

He told me his idea and I went, “That is probably the single worst idea I’ve heard in my entire years of mentoring.” He went wide in his face and he went, “What do you mean?” I go, “Hold on. Let me tell you. Here are five reasons why this is such a bad idea.” I told him and he goes, “I can’t believe it. Everybody around me tells me what a great idea it is.” I go, “Who are those people?” He goes, “My mother and my best friend.” I go, “They’re not. First of all, they may not have the qualifications to assess this idea. Your mother telling you is not unbiased feedback.”

We decided he was going to go out and get good feedback for the next three days from people he doesn’t know. He comes back three days later and goes, “You were right. My idea sucks, doesn’t it?” I go, “Yes.” He says, “I need to hang around you more.” I go, “It’s funny you say that. I need a TA for this new class I’m starting. Would you like to be my TA?” He becomes my TA and he meets my son. They cofounded Devmountain together and sold it three years later for $20 million. That’s one thing. Bad advice like that is all over the place just at the idea stage.

The problem with investors is that I’m known a little bit for being blunt, and it’s with kindness I hope. What happens is I’ll set up meetings of entrepreneurs meeting with investors and entrepreneurs come back and go, “I had a great meeting. I know they’re going to invest with us. In 30 days, I’m going to get money from them. They loved it.” I set up the meeting sometimes to make sure they get some good critical feedback. I called the investor and I went, “This entrepreneur is jazz. They had a meeting with you and think you’re going to invest with them in 30 days. Did you love it?” They go, “No, I hated it.” I go, “What?” They go, “It’s a terrible idea.” I go, “That’s not how the entrepreneur left for the lunch meeting. They thought you loved it and that you’re going to invest.”

Here’s the common refrain and get back. “John, I’m not in the job of discouraging entrepreneurs.” I say back to them, “Are you in the job of misleading an entrepreneur down the primrose path, and then squandering their time and money on an idea you know is terrible? I agree with you it’s a bad idea. I’ve told them that. They were going to you to get some more advice and feedback.” Investors and people that are mentoring have to tell people when they can back it up with the reasoning that their ideas are terrible.

You have to realize most business ideas are terrible. Few of them make good business opportunities and few good business opportunities get to the finish line. There’s a book called The New Business Road Test by John Mullins, which is the definitive work on this topic. In the foreword to his book, he wrote the book because he says 90% of all the failure could be eliminated by people just not starting companies based on bad ideas that we could have tested as an idea before we even thought about a company. We dismissed it based sometimes even on secondary research, not even primary research.

That’s fascinating because it’s absolutely right that you want to be encouraging to someone, especially if you see that they’ve got good instincts. Here’s one of the problems I’ve had, John. Tell me what you think about this. I’ve always had a problem. Forgive me if I’m stepping on your toes because I don’t know how you feel about this. When people say to young entrepreneurs especially, “Follow your passion.” The reason why I have a problem with that is that sometimes what you’re passionate about is not necessarily a good business idea.

That’s in the same genre. “My passion is knitting sweaters.”

My passion is playing basketball, but that’s not going to make me taller. I’m still going to be 5’6”.

That leads to the same thing. You’ve got to measure it and measure the business idea. In every million business ideas, only 1% or 10,000 of them are going to be a business opportunity. Inside those 10,000 business opportunities, there are going to be some poor ones, mediocre ones, some good ones, and some great ones. The only ones worthy of us taking our time, the most precious commodity we have, and our treasure, personal savings, resources, working on them and maybe even quitting a job to pursue it is a great business opportunity. You need a system.

In my Startup Ignition Bootcamp, I have a system for teaching people how to filter those ideas down so that you’re only working on great business opportunities. You then have to run through the lean startup process to make sure that you can form a business model that extracts, creates, captures, and delivers value. That’s a strong refining process. People that spend a lot of time on ideation and on idea evaluation know when they hear an idea, they can quickly put it into, “This has a possibility that’s not so good and that sucks.” That’s important.

GFEP 17 | Entrepreneur Mentor

Entrepreneur Mentor: Universities in America are more about teaching how to think like the professors think as opposed to imbuing the skills for the workplace that employers need.

 

The people that I’ve delivered that blunt news to and done it in a kind way have come back years later or a little bit later. They’ve thanked me for being honest and frank with them. They start seeing how we have an ecosystem in the venture world that sometimes does not give this kind of critical feedback. I put it just like the kid putting a hand on a hot stove, or you see two trains and they’re on a collision course. Aren’t you going to be the one that goes in switches the tracks so they don’t hit each other or you’re going to be the one that grabs the hand away from the burner?

That’s what you have to do to first time entrepreneurs or people that haven’t had as much experience. I certainly wish people would have done that to me in a lot of the decisions I’ve made early in my career. We can’t be there for everything. They’re going to make enough mistakes and enough terrible outcomes even with all the mentoring they get. Left to their own devices to discover all their mistakes by going through them is not what a mentor is there for. It’s not just to let them have a train wreck. That’s not what you’re there for.

In this economy that we find ourselves in, and I say this economy, I don’t think the economy is going to be much different than what we see today. We’re in the middle of a COVID crisis. Is this the time for entrepreneurs to contract and pull themselves into Corporate America? Is this a time for entrepreneurs to exercise those tendencies they feel that they’ve got running through their veins?

I can’t cite a bunch of sources on this but anecdotally, in my readings over the few decades, most of the research shows that this is an excellent time to start something. Be in the validation and building phase, keeping it lean and mean. When the economy, as it always does, cycles back up, then you thrive. It’s the same thing with a company that is doing well, and then this thing hit, those that make sure they stay lean but keep their marketing up, keep their brand presence up, and all that. They make sure by the time during this correction and down and when the economy is more down, they then thrive when they come back.

The ones that cut too deeply can get hurt and the ones that don’t cut enough can get hurt because their burn rate doesn’t go down. That’s existing companies. Starting a company, taking 3 to 6 months to truly validate your business model and position in it, and then starting to build the product and the infrastructure keeping a lean, taking 6, 9, 12 months to do the things you should do anyway. The things that in a good time, you might prematurely scale and rush it too much. This is a great time to set the table so that you can enjoy the feast when the economy comes back. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. What you say is though everyone needs to make a paycheck. You’ve got to eat and pay your rent. This is a time to be methodic. The market is not asking anyone to rush unless you’re developing a vaccine. The market is allowing you to be thoughtful in the thought as you talked about validation, using this time to validate. That’s interesting advice.

I’m a big believer in lean startups. The lean startup doctrine is true. I’ve proved it and I’ve had the experience for many years. I’ve seen it work. I’ve also participated and read massive longitudinal studies. Lean startup works. Lean startup doctrine is there’s a validation phase, build phase, and growth phase to businesses. The validation phase is when you are contacting your target customers and users to find out what is the magic business model that they will accept and work with you on. That can be done while you’re employed and earning a paycheck and while you’re not putting full time into it.

It will take you longer to validate as opposed to being full time of validation. This is a great time to take your time and validate thoroughly. When the economy starts coming back and it’s easier to raise money and capital to fund your runway, or to get customers, then you can be devising those systems for sales, onboarding activation, and customer service, and then going into a strong growth phase. This is antithetical. It’s like Warren Buffett. When others are selling, you’re buying. What others are buying, you’re selling. This is the same thing. A lot of people would be in trenches, “I’ve got to get a job. Entrepreneurship doesn’t work.” This is a great time to launch something and validate it.

Let me switch topics on you here, John. You were at one time named one of the Top 25 Entrepreneurship Professors in the country. Interestingly, for those of those reading this who don’t know you, you left the world of formal education. In fact, one time, as I understand it, you called it broken. We’re seeing that formal education is reinventing itself by force, simply because people are afraid to go back on campus. Online learning is now a necessity, not just a nicety of education. Talk to us a little bit about your views of formal education. How do you see it further evolving? What does it have to do to be relevant and helpful to the people that you mentor?

There have been massive studies on this. There is a crisis in higher education that has gone back for many years. There’s easy money with loans and grants to students that have paid inflated tuitions that go up 7% a year and fund high salaries for professors and PhDs in academics. That’s all been finding good for that. The disconnect started emerging where the purpose of a college education for most parents and students is to get a job and earn income, but that’s number seven on the professor’s list. Number one on the professor’s list is to help them think better. Number one on the parent’s and the student’s list is to get a great job. There’s a disconnect there.

It turns out that universities in America have an important purpose but they were more about teaching how to think like the professors think as opposed to imbuing the skills for the workplace that companies and employers need. There are only about 10 or 12 majors that have a positive ROI where you spend money on education and put that degree to work and get a job, and you have a positive ROI. There are not many of them. A lot of research shows that. There are some broken systems in all of that. That’s why a lot of the bootcamps, adult education, and online education have emerged where you can go and get quick skills training and get the skills needed by the workplace. Also, what companies and CEOs are wanting in their workers. This is important.

Universities though will never go away and should never go away because it’s important that a young person leaves their home and goes and congregates with other peers and gets training that will help them become productive adults. The thing that happens magically in universities is you bring people together that are smart and have ideas, and they start having collisions. What that means is their hunches of how things should be or what could be better in society and all that, collide with other hunches and form strong ideas. The value of a university is not degreed education as much as it is the collisions that happen at a university.

That’s why Harvard, for instance, is valuable. It’s not the degree from Harvard, but the collisions with other Harvard students and professors. Those collisions that happen of people and ideas coming together to create more than the sum of the parts. That’s why universities are important, but universities do need to focus more on imbuing skills. It’s not just to become a vocational place, but the skills. For instance, computer science is broken. Computer science at a university does not teach a person how to become a 10x software engineer that can help a company build products.

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They’re teaching people esoteric, nebulous ways so that they can become a great PhD in algorithmic computer science, which has its place and is important. For instance, at our local university where you and I have helped out, on any given day, there are 1,000 computer science students. Ten percent of them just want to be an entrepreneur and start their own software company. They’re getting no training on how to start that company right. They are being taught nebulous, esoteric algorithmic things that would help a large company trying to do a complex data problem for a specialized thing. They are not for being able to be the coder, the software engineer that can go into a startup company or an emerging company and produce some real product.

That’s why there are many coding bootcamps that emerged over the last decade or so. It’s because, in twelve weeks, they can produce those kinds of coders, at least in a junior developer way. That’s true in a lot of different things. I know I’ve spoken a lot in answer to this question, but it’s an important one. I even took the entrepreneurial education that I was doing at the university and put it into a bootcamp off-campus for this specific reason. I was having students in their senior year come to me and they finally got into my 400-level class that changed their lives. They go, “You’ve changed my life. I’ve spent the last three years here becoming an accounting major and I hate accounting but I’m now on track. I’ve accepted a job at an accounting firm and I hate it, but you showed me a whole new world that there’s this other world that I can be my own entrepreneur, my own boss. I can control my destiny. That’s a viable option in today’s world. I didn’t know that. Why don’t they give this in the freshmen and sophomore years and expose them to this more?”

I started a class to do that and snuck it in at that university. We started changing things here. What happens if you think about university is these great 400-level classes that start giving some skills, you have to matriculate to the university. You have to get good enough grades in general education courses that far afield from what you want to do in order to get into, for instance, a business school. You have to go through another academic filter and few get all the way to a 400-level class to get my training. I said, “Let’s take it off-campus and make it available.”

I was having even the students going, “I had to spend three years just to get to you and now I’m going to do something that my first three years gave me no value for. Also, I had a 32-year-old and I know that I told him about what you trained me in this 400-level class. He wants it but he can’t get into the university and he’s not going to do that.” What’s interesting is when I do this off-campus, I’m helping people from around the world. They fly into Utah or they come from other states and they sit in the same type of training I was doing at the university, but now they’re getting it and it’s helping them. That’s a long answer, but there you go.

It’s worthy of a long answer, so thank you for that. Of course, what you’re referring to is Startup Ignition, which has been successful in helping entrepreneurs, those who’ve been disenchanted with formal education, or they can’t afford it. They can’t afford the time or they just want to make a career move or career switch. You’ve provided a great outlet for that. We’ll make sure that people know more about that. I have one more question for you. Before we go to that last question, John, for those who are interested in what you’re describing as far as Startup Ignition and how they can get your counsel and mentorship, where would they go to explore that possibility?

StartupIgnition.com and my email address is JRichards@StartupIgnition.com. I love answering questions from entrepreneurs. I will give advice and all that. I’m happy to do that. Thank you for asking.

My last question, and you know this is my baby, is the topic of sales. You’ve mentioned it a couple of times, even when we were talking about you and your wife and how you got aligned early on in your marriage. I’m sure those conversations required a lot of persuasion. When another entrepreneur wants to talk to a spouse or parents about getting some seed money, or friends and family to help invest, there are always sales going on from the moment you get the idea. If you could share with those who are reading, how has sales shaped your career? Could you have done what you did throughout your career, what you do now, without developing the skill of selling?

At the most fundamental level, sales is vital and important. I was a sales leader. I came out of my university experience technical and that served me well for a year or two, and then I realized the real place business happens is in sales. I switched to being a sales leader more than a technical leader, which was interesting. One time, I had 40 to 60 sales representatives under me leading a sales effort. They learned all about compensation commission plans, sales motivation, and how sales works, and handling objectives. I led that for a number of years. Even as I became a CEO and during the CEO role, I learned that the CEO’s number one function they should always stay close to is sales. Absolutely 100% sales in everything.

Also, with all the people I’ve mentored over the years, it’s not until they figured out sales that things took off. I tell entrepreneurs, “On the Richter scale of difficulty, finding your tech cofounder is a 3 or 4 because that stymies a lot of people.” It’s the number one problem I usually hear about. I say, “Wait until you have to find your all-star VP of sales or the person who’s going to make sales go in your company. That’s going to be an 8 or 9 or 10 on the Richter scale. You’re going to be at a point where you don’t want to pay that salary or those commissions and you’re going to be too cheap and frugal, and you’re going to hurt your company.”

I have a lot of people I mentor where they go, “John, sales aren’t happening.” I go, “You’re hiring a guy that is happy with a $35,000 base salary and a pittance of commissions. That’s the kind of salesperson you’re hiring. I’m telling you that person that told you they want a $90,000 or $110,000 basis and they’ll make another $100,000 commissions, that’s exactly who you need to hire and you need to make that happen.” I’ll go back and tell you one of my greatest Angel investments of all time is Omniture, which became Adobe Analytics and brought thousands of employees to our local Utah area. I was an early investor in Omniture. I don’t know if you know that or not.

Omniture struggled in this realm for a number of years. Josh James and John Pestana, the Founders of Omniture, finally came to me and told me one day that they cracked and figured it out. They were going through waves of salespeople. They were not getting high-powered enough the right type of salespeople for enterprise software sales. They had little money left in the bank. They found somebody who wanted to make a $125,000 base and earn another $125,000 commissions. They were used to paying $40,000 to $50,000 base salaries.

They bit the bullet and hired that person. In the first month, that guy brings in $800,000 in revenue. They go, “Is this what we’ve been doing wrong?” They hired three more people and 1 of those 3 in the next three months landed a $5 million a year, three-year contract, a $15 million sale. The rest is history. They went on to sell the company for $2 billion. The inflection point that was most important, even though they’re all important to come together, was that salesperson coming in and being able to make sales go.

John, I have to ask you though if you have a great product, won’t it sell itself?

GFEP 17 | Entrepreneur Mentor

Entrepreneur Mentor: Great products don’t always just sell themselves.

 

The streets of hell are paved with good intentions. It’s just said that way. Great products don’t always just sell themselves. There are some consumer products that do that way a little bit. We know that. If you’re involved in any kind of personal selling, direct sales, or enterprise type of sales, it’s not that way.

John, this has been great. Thank you for sharing with us a collection of your experiences and your wisdom. There’s more we could dive into from everything that you’ve shared. If people want to learn more, you’ve given us your email address, JRichards@StartupIgnition.com. They can learn more about you. I’m sure they’ll want to connect with you on LinkedIn as well. I know you’re active on that. Thank you. You’ve been a great example and mentor to many people. I hope that continues. I hope you’ll do it until they put you in the coffin, John, because you’ve got a lot to give.

Thank you, Rob. It’s been an honor. Also, thanks for doing this and giving back to the ecosystem and for all you’ve done to also mentor and help us mentees and students. You’ve been involved as well. Kudos to you too.

Thank you. Thanks for being a part of this episode of Game Face Execs. If you found any of it useful or helpful, please rate or like and subscribe to our YouTube channel. I always appreciate you referring this to others as well. I’ll see you next episode. Until then, persuade, influence, inspire.

Important Links:

About John Richards

GFEP 17 | Entrepreneur MentorEntrepreneur | Investor | Mentor | Professor | Executive

Entrepreneur: Co-founder of several ventures leading to high-multiple exits.

Investor: Active angel investor having directly invested in scores of new and mature ventures as well as hundreds more through investment funds.

Mentor: Give much time to mentor startup entrepreneurs, having mentored thousands.

Professor: Teach entrepreneurship (lean startup) at leading universities.

Executive: C-level executive with substantial early-stage experience. High premium on Internet, software, and lean startup. Focus has been on advertising and business services. Technically adept. Programmed business solutions before turning full-time attention to management.

Specialties: Accelerators, Advertising, Budgeting, Business policy and strategy, Business-to-business marketing, Cash management, Consulting, Corporate Strategy, Customer service, Database, Database: concepts, eBusiness, Electronic commerce, Entrepreneurial finance, Entrepreneurship, Family-owned business, Internet – B2B & B2C, Lean Startup, Management: consulting, Personal selling and sales management, Social entrepreneurship, Strategic alliances, Technology: impact on people at work.

GFEP 16 | Quibi Shutdown

 

Six months after highly anticipated Quibi’s launch, this unique union of technology and entertainment for consumers closed its doors on October 22, 2020. In this exclusive interview with Rob Cornilles, battle-tested Meg Whitman pulls back the Quibi curtain to give us a greater understanding of why this startup failed amidst the crazy conditions of 2020. But in true entrepreneur fashion, Meg opines about her other investments—particularly Major League Soccer and esports. Full of wise counsel, keen observations and an admirable self-awareness, the indomitable Meg Whitman is this episode’s Game Face Exec.

Watch the episode here:

Listen to the podcast here:

Meg Whitman | Tending The Trends

Most business observers would agree that the biggest story coming out of the tech and entertainment industries was the unwinding of Quibi. A once highly anticipated consumer tech product launched on April 2020 by entertainment mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and headed up by Meg Whitman, this episode’s featured guest of Game Face Execs. Before voluntarily shutting down Quibi on October 22nd, 2020, Meg, one of the most respected executives of the last 30 or more years, took a startup called eBay from $4 million to $8 billion in ten years. She led Hewlett Packard as President and CEO, and she even mounted an impressive campaign for California Governor on the Republican ticket in the 2010 election. I’m pleased to bring you the second interview Meg has given since she and Mr. Katzenberg announced the dissolution of Quibi.

Everyone at the Association of Luxury Suite Directors, it’s my pleasure and honor to introduce our first keynoter to kick off our 2020 conference, Meg Whitman. Meg, thanks for joining us. We appreciate you taking the time.

I’m happy to be here.

We’ve had this on the docket for a long time to speak with you, thanks to Jeff Berding and the other folks at FC Cincinnati, for whom you are a Managing Partner and minority owner. We’re so grateful that you’ve joined the sports industry in November of 2019. It’s been something that we’ve been looking forward to. Let’s get into it. This is a crazy time for everybody. COVID, pandemic, the economy, and the election season. There’s so much going on. Certainly in your life, a lot has been going on. That’s the worst kept secret. Tell us what it’s been like for you and Quibi.

You might recall that Jeffrey Katzenberg and I founded Quibi in August of 2018 with this idea of premium short-form content for your mobile device for in-between moments on the go. We launched in the middle of the pandemic. We did all kinds of things to pivot the business to try to make a go of it and ultimately, we decided that the best thing to do, and we announced this was to wind down Quibi and return cash to shareholders, which most folks don’t do but we’re mature business executives. We’ve been around the block and we decided that was the best thing to do. We were heartbroken. It was disappointing. We had such high hopes for the business, but startups are risky and we launched as you point out in a difficult time so that’s what we announced.

Startups are risky, and most startups don’t make it. In the technology world, it’s probably even more a precarious situation. A lot of us in the sports and entertainment world sometimes feel like startups and now in this environment, it feels like everyone’s a startup because we’re having to reinvent so much. Either from the past and also over the course of your career, what are some things you could perhaps share with us best practices or lessons learned about how you launch a product? Also, perhaps you could share with us how you gracefully exit a product.

All startups rely on entrepreneurs and I would say one of the things I love about the sports industry is it is a group of entrepreneurs, people who are doing things that haven’t been done before and they’re constantly reinventing. Entrepreneurs are a special breed, they are because they see things that most people don’t see and they’re willing to take bets that most people might not be willing to take. Whenever you’re thinking about starting something new, I always look at what are the trends? What makes you believe that you can be successful? What is the open space in the market? What is going to be your point of difference? Who do you think is going to be your competition?

Probably everyone in this meeting has had to go through that. We live in a unique time. Things are changing incredibly rapidly. It’s uncertain so the lesson learned for now is how do you stay flexible? How do you think through what you thought was a good idea maybe two weeks ago might not seem such a great idea anymore? Flexibility and adapting to the set of circumstances. I also think as regards to COVID, we’re in this for the long haul. What you can see is COVID has gone in waves. Until there’s a vaccine, we’re going to be in this situation.

I would say hold your resources tight. This is going to be a longer fight than any of us thought. In any way you can be thoughtful about stewarding the financial resources of your organization will stand you in good stead. We have lots of resources. We could have gone until next summer, but we didn’t see a way out and we didn’t see a way that this business was going to be successful so we decided to return cash to shareholders. That’s not the situation most of you are in but that financial stewardship is important.

As you’re talking about that, Meg, one thing that strikes me is both for you and Mr. Katzenberg, there had to be a sense of humility about what you were doing because you talk about returning cash to shareholders. In this dynamic environment and the flexibility that’s required to live in it, all of us being able to say, “We have a great idea. Maybe it wasn’t the timing.” We’ve seen that in sports. We have great ideas, promotions, a way to sell a new suite or a sponsorship package. How do you communicate those messages to the people who you wanted previously to trust you and to trust your judgment?

Entrepreneurs are a special breed. They see things that most people don't and take bets that most people are not willing to. Click To Tweet

Communication is super important. What I’ve learned over the last few years is going directly to your customers, if it’s a customer issue, is the best thing that you can do. Go directly to the people that you’re trying to reach, whether it’s through social media or something like Medium which is where a lot of people put out what they’re trying to get across. It’s 1 or 2 well thought out media placements, but it’s a completely different world.

Fans and other folks expect to be reached out to personally and if you’re talking to executives in your organization, executive communication is an art. I’m sure that most of you guys know that executives don’t have a lot of time and they’re hopping from thing to thing to thing. Always start the meeting with, “Remember where I left you last time.” It’s great for boards of directors too because they come in every 3 or 4 months. It’s like, “Remember where we left you last?” Many people say, “Of course, they remember where you left us last,” but often, they don’t, and so make your point. I schooled early on as a young executive with the answer first, “What’s the answer? What’s the supporting data?” Tell them the answer again.

You talked about the way that we should lead our teams, crisis management and change management are big topics. That’s why communications are important. When a sports team is going through a situation now where we don’t know for example, when our fans are going to, in full, be able to come back to the stadium or the arena. I am not asking you to write our communications plan for us. What are some key points you think that we ought to be considering and remembering when communicating out about the uncertainty that’s still in front of us?

I would say authenticity. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. Fans and consumers are good at ferreting out authentic communication versus corporate speak. Authentic communication, on the part where maybe the players, coaches, or individuals who manage that interaction with fans can speak for you is super important. People need to know that you’re telling them what you know and in this situation, sometimes you don’t know and it’s okay to say that, but we’re doing our best to bring you back as soon as we can in a safe way. Authenticity is the one thought I would leave you with in nowadays environment.

Am I incorrect in assuming that perhaps in recent business memory, there hasn’t been a time when authenticity, genuineness, truthfulness, and candor have been more important?

That’s right. We haven’t seen anything like this. I’ve never seen anything like this in my career. I bet everyone who’s at this conference has never seen anything like this but there’s been a trend towards this, for sure, towards that authentic communication, that realness. It’s important and it’s been a trend that’s a long time coming but now people value it.

It’s also refreshing, isn’t it? I’ve said this before, so those who know me forgive the repetition, but when you’re honest, you can have a short memory. You don’t have to remember, “How did we put that last time?” There’s a difference between honesty and bluntness. I’m sure you’ve had to learn that throughout your career because of how you communicate it. I could tell my spouse, “I hate that outfit you bought.” That would be blunt and honest, but probably not appropriate. Maybe you have some experience with that. How do you measure or balance between bluntness so people go, “She tells it like it is,” but also tact and always keeping that bridge of honesty between them?

The first thing is to remember who you’re talking to and where they are in their journey of understanding. In the example you use, your wife will never understand that. That probably wouldn’t be a good strategy. Where are people in their journey of understanding? I also, if you can, try to listen as much as I speak because if you can let people speak and speak their mind, even if the decision doesn’t go their way they feel heard. That’s true for fans and executives. People understand and feel, “At least I got heard. The decision didn’t go my way or the conversation wasn’t exactly the way I would have done it,” they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

That’s good advice. Speaking of advice, let’s turn a little bit towards your decisions to get involved in sports. As aggressively and actively as you are now in Major League Soccer and FC Cincinnati, what was it about that league, franchise, market, and certainly about sports as a whole, where you decided to make such a significant investment of your time and resources?

Sports is one of the great industries in America. When I invest, I invest behind trends because what I have learned in my long career is better to have the wind at your back because all boats rise in a rising tide as opposed to gale force winds at one space and I’ve done it both ways. eBay was wind at my back and HP was gale force winds because many of our businesses when I started were businesses that were on the wrong side of history. The trends were wrong. They were declining markets.

GFEP 16 | Quibi Shutdown

Quibi Shutdown: Fans and consumers are good at ferreting out authentic communication versus corporate speak.

 

When our family office was looking at sports, we said, “What are the sports that we think are the sports of the future that are growing and have the potential to grow huge audiences from where they are now?” We identified two. Soccer would be one, particularly in the United States because it’s not as well established here. Second, we’re an investor in eSports. In both of those, if you look at the numbers, it’s up to the right. We said, “Those are the two sports we want to invest in.” You start saying, “What about the ownership group?” Because we were not going to be a majority owner of either, although we are the majority owner of the Immortals Gaming Club in LA, we knew we weren’t necessarily going to be the majority owner so your business partners are super important.

If I’ve learned one thing in my 40 or so years, it matters who you’re in business with. Honesty, integrity, values, and a similar outlook on the world. We looked at a lot of different clubs and a lot of different opportunities. We felt aligned with Carl Lindner and his ownership group. We said, “These people view the world the same way we do. They’re super honest, with high integrity, and they want to do the things for players, fans, investors, and for the city.” We got quite comfortable with Cincinnati as a smaller market because if you look at soccer, some of the smaller markets like Portland, where you used to live, are among the most successful franchises. Sometimes when you’re in a smaller market where you don’t have 4, 5, or 6 big sports teams, sometimes that’s a good place to launch something like a new soccer club, so that’s how he decided.

You also have tremendous familiarity with Cincinnati because earlier in your professional career, as everyone knows, you worked for Procter & Gamble as Account Manager, at that time and Product Manager. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Assistant Brand Manager.

Thank you. I didn’t even know they call them brand managers.

Back in the day, they did.

Not to suggest anything about back in the day.

It was back in the day.

About Cincinnati, have you always kept ties there? I know, professionally, you’ve been on the board of P&G for a number of years. That market was attractive to you not only because of the size but perhaps the culture.

I had kept ties there and it had been on the board but that was not a determinant factor. There are lots of other similarly sized cities that we thought could be equally attractive. It was a bonus for us that I happen to have contacts there and know the city a little bit better than I otherwise would have. It was a more generalized approach to what’s the sport? What’s the ownership group? Does the city make sense?

Invest behind trends. It’s better to have the wind at your back than have gale force winds to your face. Click To Tweet

I would also like to add if I could and I want to get your comment on this, the leadership not only at the franchise level but at the league level of Major League Soccer has done such an impressive job in growing the sport and spreading the influence of soccer around North America. Don Garber and Mark Abbott are friends of mine and friends of yours. Share some thoughts because you’ve been in many corporate environments. You’ve been in so many board meetings. Give us some thoughts about the leadership of Major League Soccer.

They’ve done a nice job and it’s been a long build. People always think when something is successful that it is an overnight success. Isn’t it amazing what they’ve done? If you look at what Don has been working on with his team, it’s a twenty-year journey with some significant ups and downs in the beginning but I have to say they’ve done a nice job. In startups, often you say, “Something is about to hit the knee of the curve.” Do you know what I mean by that? It goes along and all of a sudden it takes off. Soccer is at that inflection point, which is an exciting time to be an owner and be involved in that sport.

Whether you’re a soccer team or football and I mean the American football, baseball, basketball, or what have you, we’re all trying to create content. We’re trying to stay relevant and be interesting to our fan base and even our would-be fan base. You’re a content expert. You’ve been in technology, essentially your entire career but content also seems to be so whimsical by many people. In other words, they throw something out there and hope that it goes viral. They think that that’s how you produce content. Give us some insight into, as an expert in content creation and content delivery, what are some principles or even some practices that certain entities always need to keep in mind?

The first thing when I think about creating content, marketing programs, or anything is the number one thing which is market segmentation. Who are you trying to reach? Within that, who are the sub-segments that are most important to you? If you think about the fan base for any of these sports, they’re incredibly diverse, older, younger, male, female, high income, low income. Think about psychographics. The first question that I always ask, and every tough business problem I’ve ever had had often yields to segmentation. How do you segment that market? Who were you going after? Usually being all things to all people or sinking to the lowest common denominator doesn’t usually work.

That’s the first thing I’d say. Given you have you want to go after 1, 2, or 3 segments, what is it about that segment that they’re looking for? Are they looking for behind the scenes player stories, the history of a team, or the history of the sport? What are they looking for that they don’t get today? What they mostly get now is the game and excellent commentary about that game but they don’t necessarily get the backstory. If you think, there’s always been a backstory and that’s interesting. Maybe a modern version of Hard Knocks, that kind of thing. I think you have to think through and what are the trends out there in the marketplace. The trends out there are definitely back to authenticity and user-generated content. We’re so used to, in my generation, having everything be flawless. I would say that perfect is the enemy of good.

Sometimes if it’s too perfect, it doesn’t appear to capture the imagination particularly of the younger audience. I do think content is, to some degree, a hit or miss program. It’s different. What it’s like, and you’ll relate to this, politics. Content is nonlinear. Sometimes things that people think are not going to make it at all or a total mess end up being a hit and vice versa. Part of this is experimentation. Try things and if it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t work, don’t do that and pivot to something else. Those of you who are thinking about content, that experimentation is super important and when you find something that works, do more of it.

How much of that is based on analytics, the science of it versus intuition and maybe some dumb luck once in a while?

I have learned this spending a few years in Hollywood. This is a blend and this was the basis of Quibi, which is the joining forces of Silicon Valley, which is a left-brained, analytical, engineering-oriented view with Hollywood, which is completely right-brained and intuition. If you can bring them together, that’s sometimes the magic but I will tell you creatives are different than engineers. Sometimes you have to let the creatives tell you what their vision is and let them do it. Not at any cost but you have to let them. They do things that are quite magical, and I would count myself among them, the left brain often doesn’t see. It’s a blend but you don’t want to do stuff that makes no sense that has no basis in data, facts, or analytics. There’s a nice merger there that if appropriately managed, you end up with some great offerings.

It’s finding that sweet spot, that perfect middle of the road.

Experimentation. Experiment.

GFEP 16 | Quibi Shutdown

Quibi Shutdown: Try things and if it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t work, don’t do that and pivot to something else.

 

One of the challenges we have in the sports industry is that we want to be out there. We want to be present and we want to create platforms by which our fans can engage with us and us with them. You mentioned politics. Let me talk about something that’s somewhat political, and I’m not asking for your personal opinion on this, but rather, your advice on how we might handle it. There have been a lot of talks about platform companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc. getting called on the carpet in Washington, DC because of content, not only creation but perhaps control. Where I’m going with this Meg is, let’s say I run a Major League Soccer team. I want my fans to engage with our website or with our social platforms but perhaps some of that content that they’re producing the commentary gets a little bit far afield from where we want to be, and we want to be what we want to be known as. How do we keep that control while also keeping it authentic, real, and not to be perfect like you were suggesting?

My personal view is that every organization, team, or group that you’re associated with has to have a moral compass. The question I always ask my teams is, “What is the right thing to do?” This is a complicated question because you and I might have a slightly different point of view about what the right thing to do is, but it is incumbent upon the leadership of that organization to make the moral calls. My view is everyone needs to make a call about, are they doing the thing, not for that moment, click, or headline? Are they doing the thing for their team, the players, and the country? It’s super important.

I’ll tell you a little story that will bring this home. When I was at eBay, our point of view was that if it was legal for sale in the United States or whatever country in the world we were doing business, that it would be legal for sale on eBay, until we got to household names status. You’ll be interested to know that it’s legal to sell Nazi memorabilia in the United States. It’s not legal in France, it’s not legal in Germany, but it is legal here. Ultimately, we decided that that was not a category of merchandise that we wanted to be involved in. We also decided not to sell over the internet firearms, alcohol, and tobacco because you don’t quite know who’s buying those products when you’re on the internet, so we decided not to sell those.

These were moral issues that ultimately came down to me and our founder, Pierre Omidyar. Other people might have come down on the different places when we got out of those two categories, two new websites popped up and did the great distance in those categories. We didn’t feel bad about it, because there’s something that I call the character of the company. The character of the organization. People say, “How do you make those decisions because particularly if you’re doing business overseas, the Koreans might have a different point of view than the French and the Germans or whatever?” I say, “Usually, this works. If your mother, someone you care about, your dad, or your sister, or someone you love and respect within the room watching you make that decision, would you make the same decision? If that doesn’t work, if it was on the front page of the New York Times or your local newspaper, would you make the same decision?” That’s the thing that is super important for organizations.

A great rule of thumb to follow and you’re answering my follow-up question. You’ve been working with national and international brands your entire career. If I’m a minor league baseball team in the mid-market, I’m not looking for national attention, but I’m not trying to appeal to a national audience. I’m trying to appeal to my local market, the culture of that community. Does that weigh into the decision as to whether or not we should allow certain things versus others?

It depends on what it is and it comes back to the owner, the president, the CEO, the coach, or whoever is in charge of that decision. How did they feel about it? Does it reflect well on them? Does it reflect well on the brand they’re trying to create? People will come out in different places and that’s okay as long as people have said, “How do I feel about this?” As opposed to, “It might be good for my business, but I don’t feel great about it.”

From your experience and where you see the world now, what are some trends? You talked about trends. You like to follow the trends to have the wind at your back. I know you’ve been busy with Quibi and other things being on the board of P&G, but for the sports industry, what are some trends that perhaps you think we’re missing, especially as it relates to technology? What are some trends that we need to be keeping an eye on now?

The sports teams are doing well in this dimension, in many ways. For FC Cincinnati, we’re building a new stadium and what’s always great is when you have a de novo site so we have a de novo stadium, a brand-new stadium so we can take every bit of technology and put it into that idea. You have to think, for example, holistically about the fan experience and your connectivity in that stadium is critical. Think about what you want those fans to be able to do.

You want them to be able to navigate to their seat off of their smartphone, be able to find the restroom with the shortest line, be able to order food from their seat and they want to go to the concession stand with where’s the shortest line. You also want them to be able to replay something they saw on the field that was cool. Think about it. You’ve got a big stadium, a soccer stadium with 20,000, 30,000, or 40,000 folks and/or an NFL stadium with many more than that. Think about the replay and the bandwidth requirements on that stadium. That fan experience with technology can be completely differentiated. That’s super important.

Also collecting the data about what your fans are doing, not by name, not by Rob or Meg but collectively, what are they doing and what can you learn from that? It’s back to what do they like that you’re doing and how can you give them more of it versus things that they’re not taking advantage of. All of that I would call that big data and analytics. It’s super important and every company now should think of themselves as a technology company.

Perfect is the enemy of good. Click To Tweet

If you don’t have a data scientist, a data engineer, or an analytics team, and you don’t have a good chief information officer, you’re probably falling behind. You may not know it yet, but you’re falling behind. By the way, it’s less expensive now given cloud computing. When we set up eBay, I don’t know how much money we spent building our own data center, buying all the servers, and getting it out but now when we launched eBay, we basically built this app completely in the cloud. The capital costs were dramatically less. Technology isn’t nearly as expensive as it used to be, which means the barriers to entry are less but it also means smaller teams can compete with bigger teams and bigger teams can do things. It’s a real addition and a real enabler of fundamentally evolving the fan experience.

This evolution that you’re describing, we’re seeing it in real-time now as you and I are talking the World Series is 1 or 2 games away from completing. The NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup wrapped up. We’re seeing sports in a way that none of us would have imagined since COVID hit. What’s your view of it? As a fan, how do you do your sports now? Do you like it? Are you tired of watching it on TV? Do you want to get out there?

I will tell you that once sports were completely shut down, our household went into withdrawal. We missed watching sports on TV. We missed going but probably everyone else watches more on TV. We missed it dramatically. We look at each other on a Saturday or Sunday and go, “Where are our sports?” We missed that and now that it’s back on television, we miss going to the venue. We happen to like doing that. It’s where we’d meet friends and see people. It’s part of being something greater than yourself. It’s being part of a team effort. Even though you’re a fan and you’re not helping but you’re cheering them on. Particularly in soccer, the fans are wild in a good way. We miss not being able to go in person but I will tell you our household is happy that sports is back on TV.

You mentioned that the Coronavirus, the pandemic is going to be here for a while. That’s your viewpoint. Do you think this way of observing sports is going to be with us for the next several months or years?

I do. It may be well worth it into 2021. Honestly, you’ve seen it. You see these waves of spikes in the virus and this is not going to return to any sense of normal until we have a vaccine. I’m not a scientist, but my husband is. That’s going to be mid-2021 would be my guess. The other thing to think about and it’s important for your audience, is to think about how many different ways there are now to consume sports. It’s not only for TV. It’s mobile and streaming services.

The ability to give your fans what they want to see when they want to see it, how they want to pay for it, that flexibility is going to be super important. Over time, these big media contracts start to dissipate in importance over time, because if you look at the television viewing audience, it’s going straight down. If you’re under the age of 30 and I’m sure your audience knows this, the television viewing of the younger audience is strikingly low. That’s something that as you think about capturing the next generation, we’re all going to have to be focused on.

We have to be creative and innovative. That’s why conferences like ALSD are important to our industry’s future. Can I clarify something you were talking about? Do you see the model that we’re going to have to pursue being more subscription-based or PPV, Pay-Per-View? Do you see it more still on the ad generated side?

All of the above. It’s not going to be like pick one and go with it. It’s going to be, “What’s your ad-supported venue? What’s your subscription offering? What’s your streaming offering? That could be the same as a subscription offering.” We’re going to have to think carefully. Back to market segmentation, what are the offerings that we’re going to have to make available to our fans?

The way that you’re talking about sports, I have to ask you, based on where you’re at now and where you spend your time moving forward, are we going to see you more involved in FC Cincinnati or in other sports enterprises or projects?

When asked, Carl Lindner is the majority owner of FC Cincinnati. When he asks, I certainly try to help in any way I can if I’ve got ideas. I also believe that someone has to be in charge. Too many cooks in the kitchen and you end up not being as smart as you can be. I will be as involved as Carl would like me to be in FC Cincinnati. I’m spending a fair amount of time on eSports, our LA franchise, and our gaming platform in Brazil. I don’t happen to be a gamer, but I can see the trends and I’ll spend more time on those two things, for sure. We’ll see what happens next, but I enjoy it. It’s great fun. It’s quite different than anything I’ve ever done before. Major league sports are different from working for Procter & Gamble, for a beta company, eBay, or Disney. It’s a bit more entrepreneurial and a little bit less linear.

GFEP 16 | Quibi Shutdown

Quibi Shutdown: Technology isn’t nearly as expensive as it used to be, which means the barriers to entry are less, but it also means smaller teams can compete with bigger teams.

 

You’ve talked several times about following the trends. Let me ask you on behalf of those people who are reading, where they see a trend, not so much with their business or their industry, but with their career. That trend is something that they don’t like and they’re saying, “I’ve got to switch things up. This is not going the direction that I had hoped.” I’m asking this, Meg, because you’ve worked at Procter & Gamble, Disney, eBay, Hewlett Packard, Quibi, and now you’re working in MLS, you’ve seen times in your career when it was time to move, it was time to make an adjustment or a pivot. Can you give those of us who perhaps are considering a pivot in our own career some advice on what are the things we should be looking for? What are the things that we should be avoiding when making those kinds of career decisions?

Let me reframe it for you because I don’t think it’s about leaving something, it’s going to something. Usually, you make a mistake if you’re trying to get away from something. When it works is when you see something clearly that is interesting and has a big opportunity for you. It’s more about what is coming your way? What’s happening in the world that you think is interesting that you have a passion for? Passion is an important thing and it’s what I admire about most people in sports. They care about their job, the league, the players, or the sport and it is a team sport. I would say, as opportunities come your way, I would look at a couple of things. What are the trends like? Will the wind be at your back? Who are the people you’re going to be doing it with? You spend a lot of time at work and it’s important for you to respect, like, and trust the people that you’re going to do business with.

Trust is paramount for me because even when you’re in a foxhole, as we were with Quibi, Jeffrey and I trusted each other. There was never any backbiting and snarkiness. That’s super important because you don’t know what way things are going to go. Lastly, I would say is it a stretch for you or is it something where you’re going to learn something? I learned a ton from Quibi. I’m not at the beginning of my career anymore. What are you going to learn? Something I always ask particularly if you’re going to go to something that’s a little bit riskier and people have to evaluate their risk profile. People have different risk profiles. I happen to have a high-risk profile but what’s the worst thing that can happen?

Like when I went to eat that, I said, “What’s the worst thing that can happen? I’ll get another job.” When I went to HP, a lot of people said I should not go to HP. I said, “What’s the worst thing that can happen? I’ll figure it out,” but you have to be prepared for the worst thing that can happen and I would not be paralyzed by fear. I would lean into the possibilities and to have courage. That old phrase, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

I’d like to wrap up if we could by giving you several quick questions and maybe you could give us what comes to mind first. I was going to call these quick bites.

It’s okay. You can still call them quick bites. What we did is create a new category of mobile viewing so it’s fine.

It continues to live on and be a part of our culture. Here’s the first quick bite for you. If you are a sales or a team leader, what’s a book you should be reading?

Experimentation Works by a guy named Stefan Thomke. It’s relatively new and it’s a good read.

If you’re a new executive in the sports and entertainment industry, maybe not long after college has joined our industry, what’s a book we ought to be reading?

No matter what industry you’re in, if you’re new to the business, you’ve got to read Good to Great. It’s in the business. Everyone has to read Good to Great. I’ve probably read it 4 or 5 times and I’m sure you’ve read it. It’s one of those great Hallmark touchdown books.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Click To Tweet

It should be in everybody’s library. Who’s your favorite athlete?

That’s a hard one because I tend to be admiring female athletes but I have to say probably now, LeBron James. I’ll tell you why. He’s been incredible. He has a raw athletic talent and how he’s conducted himself has been remarkable. I’m particularly admiring of the work that he’s been doing with his school and now schools out of Akron, Ohio called I Promise. Education happens to be a passion of mine so what he did is for these challenged kids who have all kinds of family issues, poverty, and all kinds of things. He figured he had to do almost like a surround sound so he helped the parents and gave folks a place to live. He had small classes focused on these kids and the results are extraordinary. He’s done a remarkable job in Akron and he’s now starting to roll them out. I admire his athletic prowess, him as a human being, and what he’s done for education.

You talk about education being important to you. I remember that about you when you ran for Governor of California in 2010. Here’s the next quick bite. What lessons did you learn running for such a public office that we all should be applying?

Thick skin.

Alligator skin.

When you are in public office and when you’re in business, but particularly running for public office or in public office it’s almost guaranteed that only half the people are going to like what you’re doing at any given point in time. Meaning half the people are not. The barbs, the arrows, and the things that come at you are remarkable. I ran in 2010. Think about what’s happened in the last decade or so, it’s even worse now. That’s the first thing, you’ve got to have a thick skin no matter what you do. Once you’ve decided you’re doing the thing, you have to block it out and say, “This is what I’m going to do until I’ve been proven that I’ve made a mistake or something.” That’s the first thing.

The second thing I learned is communication. Having spent a career in business, I was good at talking to analysts, shareholders, board members, and my teams. What I learned in politics was to talk to large groups of people. Think about how you do that. It’s different. The facts and the figures. The left brain is not nearly as powerful as the brain. It’s the stories that you tell. Look at when the President does the State of the Union Addresses. Both parties tell stories. Why do they have the people up on the balcony? It’s because they’re telling stories about those folks and people to remember the stories. I promise you, they do not remember the analysis, the facts, and figures. They do remember the stories.

I’m a better CEO because of that. When I went to HP, it turned out HP was about exactly the same size as the State of California. Same budget and the same number of people so I said, “We’ve got to change HP. We’ve got to pull HP into the 21st century.” I borrowed a lot of things I’ve learned in politics from a communications perspective to lead at HP. The last thing is we should be glad that anyone wants to run for public office. I know you ran for public office and we both lost but that’s not the point. The point is how can you give back and whether it’s the city council, school board, state senate, or state assembly. People should think about getting involved because if people at this conference don’t get involved, we’re missing out on some real talent that is going to be needed over the next decades of this country.

I couldn’t agree more. I have a follow-up question to that but before the follow-up question, since you mentioned that we do have that one thing in common where we both ran. We happen to run the same year. I was in Oregon and you were in California. Would you agree with this lesson that I learned, which was, your friends may disappoint you but strangers will amaze you? Did you learn that?

Absolutely. You probably found it. You were running for Congress so you weren’t traveling the whole state, I was running for governor so I got to see California in a way I’d never seen California. I went to all but two counties. I saw the Central Valley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It was incredible and everyone who runs for office comes away thinking their state or their country and the people are quite extraordinary. What you learn from being out and about is an incredible life lesson. I’m glad I did it. It changed my life and it changed how I think about politics and our state. It was a wrenching experience in many ways but it was also a good experience.

GFEP 16 | Quibi Shutdown

Quibi Shutdown: People don’t remember the analysis, the facts, and figures. They remember the stories.

 

You took the words out of my mouth. You said it better than I could and you said it better than I’ve tried to say it in the past. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask on behalf of our audience if the right opportunity came about, could you see yourself throwing your hat back into the public ring?

I don’t think I will run again for public office. Running for office for me was one of the lessons learned, it was a bad job person fit. What I mean by that is to run for public office you need to be a combatant. You need to love combat and you know this. When you’re doing a media interview, you say up, they say down and if you say down, they say up. It’s a given. It’s a combat sport and now is a full-on combat sport. I’m not wired for combat. I’d love to compete but that constant eight hours a day. It’s why litigators are excellent politicians. They love that and they’re good at it. I found it to be incredibly difficult and incredibly wearing so I would not run again, that’s for sure.

I understand what you’re saying. I appreciate your self-awareness because anyone running for office needs to have that before they throw themselves into it.

I thought I was pretty competitive. I was raised playing sports. I love to win and compete. It’s a whole other realm. It’s a completely different thing than competing in business or in sports.

We’ll have to talk some other time more about this topic. I have one more question for you that everyone would be interested to hear your answer. If you could sit at someone else’s desk for one day, who would that person be?

I’ll give you one, maybe you’ll find it surprising. Angela Merkel, the head of Germany, Prime Minister of Germany, or Chancellor of Germany. She is a remarkable woman. Think how long she has been in office. Think about her role in pulling together the European Union, which is fraying, embracing some things that were unpopular in her country like immigration, and how she has forged relationships with other European leaders. It would be fascinating. The crazy thing is, as you probably know, she was born in East Germany. She has risen to power and unified Germany. She’s been one of the probably most influential and successful leaders of that country. I’d sit behind her desk for a day and see what she knew.

That is a fascinating answer and it did surprise me, but I can see you’d be a great fit there. Meg, this has been rewarding for all of us. I appreciate you taking the time. We’re so grateful in the sports entertainment industry that we’ve got you, the benefit of your intellect, your experience, and your vision. We certainly look forward to having your participation even to a larger extent if you let us. Thank you for joining us at ALSD and at Game Face. We appreciate this.

You’re entirely welcome. Thanks for having me.

Important Links:

GFEP 15 | New England Patriots

 

Every industry is led by a brand that at one time or another dominates. Their innovation, their next move or pronouncement both intimidates and inspires. Perhaps no logo in the 21st century has produced such praise and trepidation as the NFL’s New England Patriots. Bestselling author Jeff Benedict’s latest work, The Dynasty, explores this team’s unmatched ascent and how players on and off the field made it happen. In this conversation with Rob Cornilles, Jeff goes long, explaining how persuasion, trust and humility built a dynasty, and how seemingly underachieving individuals won together to become champions.

Watch the episode here:

Jeff Benedict | Prolific Pursuer Of Truth

If you could sit down with one person for an hour-long conversation, who would you choose? That’s always an interesting question. A historic figure, a business titan, a celebrity, a famous athlete. Introducing Jeff Benedict, a bestselling author who gets to do that with every project he tackles, whether writing the definitive biography of Tiger Woods or the autobiography for Steve Young. This Game Face Exec invites us into the huddle of his latest bestseller, The Dynasty, an unfiltered look into the most dominant sports organization of the 21st Century, the New England Patriots.

It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to talk to Jeff Benedict, a New York Times bestselling author, a very prolific writer, a keen observer of society and a variety of industries. Jeff and I met many years ago as he was working on a project, which was a funny story of how we met. Jeff is based on the East Coast. He’s taken time from his busy promotional schedule as The Dynasty, his latest bestseller, has been published by Simon & Schuster. Jeff is in the circuit right now, meeting with all kinds of media. He’s agreed to take some time away from his busy schedule to visit with me in this show and our audience. Welcome, Jeff.

Welcome, Robert. It’s great to be on with you and to reconnect with you.

You’re going in many different directions. It was fun to find out what’s going on in your life, but with all the busyness around this great new book, The Dynasty, that you’ve put together, I’m sure our readers are interested in knowing the genesis of writing this book about this historical dynasty called the New England Patriots. Can you walk us through that process when it began? What was the motivation or the inspiration behind it? We’ll dig further into it.

The answer to that is part of a personal journey question. A few years ago, I started working with Steve Young on his autobiography. For me, it was like a wonderful opportunity to write a biography about someone that I had admired since I was a kid, and to write about someone who I believed is excellent in his class. He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks who’s ever played in the NFL. While Steve and I were working on his biography, I remember one Monday night, we were in New England because as an ESPN broadcaster, he was covering a Monday night football game in Foxborough. I was tagging along working on the book with him. We were standing on the sideline in Gillette Stadium before the game and the owner, Robert Kraft, came out and was talking to Steve.

Robert admired Steve a lot as most people do in the business. Steve admired Mr. Kraft. Steve also has a great friendship and connection with Tom Brady. As we were standing there, I’m from New England and I was thinking, here we are in the home of the greatest sports dynasty of my generation and of the 21st Century. I’ve been thinking there’s a book here about excellence and how to build success. I went from Steve Young to then doing Tiger Woods’ biography. Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer who’s ever lived. Here was another book about someone who was first in class, and who had built this tremendous successful reputation in the industry of golf.

Doing the Patriots was the third in line of a succession of books about not a biography about a quarterback or a golfer, but a biography about an organization that has thrived on excellence for many years and had been dominant in their industry. I wanted to know how did they build this dynasty, this winning machine. Secondly, how did they sustain it for so much longer than any of their predecessors? I thought by getting to the owner, the coach, and the quarterback, who are the three components or the nucleus of that winning tradition, there was a lot to learn there about how to succeed.

Those three components or levels of an organization, ownership, and then management or the person who’s coaching an organization, and those who are responsible for executing, the people on the field. That’s very familiar to those of us in the business world or the non-profit world. We have a board of directors, an executive director, and people in the field. There are a lot of lessons that we can and will learn from reading The Dynasty. Can you give us some insight into some things that you learned by going into that exploration of this historic franchise that you have found are transferable across industry?

I chose to open the book with a scene that most people reading what they assume is a football book are surprised by, which is a scene that takes place in 1962 when Robert Kraft is in his early twenties. He’s still in college at Columbia and his nickname at that point is Bobby. He’s not Mr. Kraft or Robert Kraft. No one knows who he is. He walks into a diner in Boston after midnight. He’s got his buddies. They’re looking the menu board thinking about what they’re going to eat. He’s looking at a pretty girl in front of him in line and trying to figure out, “How can I get her to go on a date with me?” The reason I opened with that scene is because within 24 hours, not only did he get her to go on a date with him, she proposes marriage to him.

Success comes through learning, setbacks and hardship. Click To Tweet

It’s such an unthinkable, unfathomable situation. I use that as an illustration to say that if you look at what happened in that 24 hours between when he met her in the diner, and when she proposed to him a day later in his car, it’s a roadmap to what he’s going to build in New England as the owner of the most successful franchise. It starts with this. It’s the gift of persuasion. That’s something that’s so easily overlooked. He’s not forceful. He doesn’t try to muscle his way into things. He has a great gift of building relationships, doing it quickly and establishing trust.

I springboard from there to his unconventional decision to hire Bill Belichick as his head coach, which if you look back when Robert crafted that, all of the so-called experts in the National Football League were telling him that this would be the biggest business mistake of his career, that hiring Bill Belichick would be something he’d regret for the rest of his life. He didn’t listen to any of the experts. He had an instinct that there was something different about Belichick because he’d studied him and watched the way he teaches the game of football, and the way young players responded to him.

He trusted his instincts and hired him to be a head coach. The third was he allowed Belichick the latitude and the discretion to make a decision that was very controversial at the time, which was to draft a quarterback that no one else wanted, and that everyone else thought wasn’t suitable to succeed in the NFL. Belichick picks a guy named Tom Brady. He does something even more controversial. He goes with Brady in the lineup over the $100 million superstar quarterback, Drew Bledsoe that was on the roster at the time.

To Kraft’s credit, despite how badly he wanted to intervene and force his coach to not do that, he allows him the discretion and the latitude to make the executive decision. He supports him in it. In other words, it gives them the ability to fail. He doesn’t fail. This proved to be a genius move. All of these things are the beginning. This is the foundation of building a dynastic sports organization, the relationship between the owner and the coach, which is a relationship of trust, transparency and reciprocity. It’s a back and forth trust relationship.

The relationship between the owner and the quarterback is more of a familial relationship. It’s more like a father and a son because the owner recognizes that if you look at Tom Brady like an asset, he is the most important asset on the field. The owner wants a relationship with him that isn’t just business. He wants a closer connection to him, an investment that’s more personal. That’s what helps keep Brady in New England for twenty years. Those are the things when I get into the early part of the building of The Dynasty, these are the fundamental building blocks of building a successful sports organization. If you want to look at what separates the Patriots from the Yankees, the Celtics, the 49ers, the Golden State Warriors, this is it.

First of all, we appreciate your not only recognition, but your acknowledgement of the role that persuasion plays in success. This show celebrates the power of persuasion and influencers, people who can inspire and motivate us to do great things. In that story that you’re telling, was every move that Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick made perfectly orchestrated? How much of it was gut instinct? How much of it was judgment? How much did you find was flat out luck?

There were setbacks and failures. Right now, we look at the Patriots and all we think about is winning. For many years, they’ve been dominant. People forget that this organization used to be the worst team in professional football, both on and off the field. In other words, their performance on the field was the worst in the league. In terms of how they were managed and their financial condition was also the worst in the league. When Robert Kraft bought the team in 1994, the Patriot Stadium had gone into bankruptcy. The team was on the verge of bankruptcy. They had the worst record over the previous decade in the NFL. It wasn’t as if everything was smooth from the outset.

An important point is in the first three years that Kraft owned the team, his head coach was Bill Parcells, who at the time was considered the greatest coach in football. He was the greatest coach in football, but he and Kraft did not get along at all. There was not a smoothness to that relationship. There was a tremendous amount of friction. The reason I bring that up is because for all the trouble that they had, the difficulties, the arguing, and the bickering, which led to Parcells resigning and walking away from the team, it’s that three years of problems that set the stage for many years of greatness between Kraft and Belichick. In other words, there was a learning curve. This didn’t just happen smoothly and easily. Kraft went through a very steep and rough learning curve with Parcells that enabled him to do things differently with Belichick. It helped him learn the industry and also what kind of owner he wanted to be, and helped refine his management style with Belichick.

I went to great lengths in the book to point out the learning processes. When Belichick gets there, people forget that before he coached New England, he coached in Cleveland where his record was a losing record. He was fired in Cleveland because of his record. He comes to New England and his first year in New England, he has a terrible season. It’s 5 and 11. They learn and grow into who they are. You could even make the analogy with Brady that’s similar. It’s important for people to see that success comes through learning, setbacks and hardship. These guys grind through those and use those experiences to build on and learn from.

GFEP 15 | New England Patriots

The Dynasty

You’re also describing individuals that are fallible and that we’re not perfect. In the case of Tom Brady, most people thought he was an afterthought in the draft. If you go back and watch his combine tapes when he was trying out, he doesn’t even look like he belongs on the same field as most of those college draft picks. He was slender, tall, skinny, almost looked like a weak guy. They’re putting together the dream team. It’s skill and ability, but there’s also got to be some chemistry. There’s got to be personality that’s conducive to teamwork.

This is several years ago. There was a study done as why airplanes crash, putting aside the mechanical issues. They said that the biggest reason for airplanes to go down is lack of teamwork in the cockpit. I wonder about the Patriots’ organization. Did you find that there was a unique chemistry? You had to have the right personalities, the right place to create this teamwork mentality that allowed them to work through some of their physical limitations or even some of their setbacks. None of them came in with a track record of success. They had to build it together.

In sports, as is the case in many industries, particularly when people reach the top of their respective industries, there are huge egos in professional sports. If you don’t have a big ego, you can’t make it in professional sports. Belichick and Brady are, without question, the two biggest, brightest stars that have been on the NFL stage for the last decades, since the turn of the century. One of the genius moves by Kraft, the owner, is he recognized early on that he had John Lennon and Paul McCartney on his payroll. His whole approach as an owner became focused on minimizing his own ego because owners have egos too and they’re huge. He suppresses his by putting the focus on his two stars and thinking solely about, how do I keep these two guys married for longer than Joe Montana and Bill Walsh, longer than Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll?

He knew that when they were together, even though the quarterback and the coach don’t have a personal relationship away from business, they’re not close, but they have a chemistry on the field that’s unparalleled. For the owner, it’s all about how to keep them together. That’s not easy, especially as the years were on and the Super Bowl championships pile up, it gets harder and harder to keep those two egos. Those two very different personalities working together on the same stage. One of the things that has been severely overlooked in all of this is the role of Tom Brady, the quarterback being willing to endure harsh criticism and brow beating that the coach would administer.

In Belichick’s effort to coach everybody the same way, to not treat anybody different. Bill Belichick does not believe in a star system. Even though he had the biggest star in the league on his team, he does not believe in a star system. As Tom Brady’s star continued to grow, Belichick would pound him even more in practices and team meetings. For other players, even star players like Randy Moss, Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest, and all of these guys who played for the Patriots to see Tom Brady not only endure these kinds of criticisms and barbs, but to ignore it and perform even harder, it forced all of the other players to get in line behind Tom, and to allow themselves to be coached the way he was being coached.

I believe that and I say this in the book that Peyton Manning, John Elway, Dan Marino, Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, you name it, none of those great quarterbacks would have been able to take or would have put up with what Tom Brady put up with for twenty years. It’s absolutely integral to the success that Belichick and the Patriots have in that system the Patriot way. You had to have a leader, a star who was willing to be humble enough to put up with this, and do it for the good of the team. It benefited Brady because he won six championships, and it benefited the team and the organization.

It was a fascinating insight because you don’t think of humility when you think of professional athletes or frankly, anyone at the top of their industry. As you wrote the book, did you have pretty clear, free rein with these three subjects that we’re talking about right now? Were they cooperative with you and granting you interviews?

As a whole, the Patriots organization was, I can’t say enough about the access and the cooperation starting with the owner and the executives that run the team all the way down. I did have access to both Robert and Jonathan Kraft, the team president, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and to many of the other key players, whether it’s Rob Gronkowski all the way back to Drew Bledsoe. The levels of access and participation varied from person to person. I’ve been told in advance, “Tom isn’t going to say much. Don’t expect a lot from those interviews.” I have to tell you, some of the best interviews that I’ve ever done as a journalist were with Tom.

He was very forthcoming and insightful. It was like going to school, listening to Tom talk about his approach as a quarterback, as a father, as a husband. It was a three-dimensional view of him, which I thought enabled me to do things as a writer that I don’t usually get to do with someone. Kraft was the same way, both Krafts. In Belichick’s case, he was typical Belichick in the sense that he wanted all of his questions written down and submitted in advance, which I tend to do that a lot anyways because I find that I get better answers from people when they have chance to think about the questions in advance. I would have done that anyways is my point.

Athletes are role models, but that doesn’t mean they can't express their opinions about something that's so much more important than sports. Click To Tweet

After he read all the questions, Coach Belichick decided he wanted to answer them in writing. That’s not something that was new to me. I’ve had people do that in the past. My experience is when people take the time to write out answers because it takes longer to write an answer than to speak an answer like we’re doing right now. You tend to get more thoughtful responses from people because they’re forced to think about what they’re writing down. That proved to be the case with Coach Belichick. The answers that he provided in writing were very insightful. They were thought out. They were articulate as you would expect from someone like him. The short answer to your question is I thought that their input and participation was tremendous. It did enable me to convey to the writer the perspective of all three men through their own eyes, instead of me putting my gloss on it. This is what they said and thought and did.

As you have now interviewed many famous and successful athletes, and people of other industry, for our readers’ sake, two in particular that I’d like to ask you about, Tom Brady and Steve Young, two Super Bowl champion quarterbacks who led dynasties in their own era. What’s something similar between those two individuals that you could look at and you can say, “If I was raising a son or a daughter right now, these are the qualities that those two gentlemen had that I hope my son, my daughter, my grandson or my granddaughter could have.”

The subject matter you’re now taking us into is something that has been on my mind for years. I’ll preface my answer with this little anecdotal story. When I was working on Steve Young’s autobiography, one day we were in San Francisco and I was a passenger in Steve’s car. We were driving through San Francisco during rush hour. It was very busy. He was going to a speaking engagement for a business audience and I was riding along. I remember two things. I couldn’t believe how he was driving in traffic, talking and doing all these things. His peripheral vision and reflex were almost unnerving.

As we were driving, I remember this vividly. By that point, I had developed so much respect for Steve as a man, a husband and a father. Forget the football accomplishments. This was being around him enough to see at his core who he was as a human being, and being attracted to those qualities and saying to him that at that point, there was only one other athlete that I could think of that I was interested in writing a book about, and that was Tom Brady. I brought that up to him because first of all, I knew that he and Tom were friends. Secondly, because they’re both quarterbacks. I was seeing what I thought might be some parallels in their lives. At that time, I didn’t know if those parallels truly existed. I was just making some assumptions. Now that I’ve written The Dynasty, I can say that those are not assumptions. They’re facts. The parental approach that Tom and Steve take is almost identical in the way they approach their roles as fathers and also their roles as husbands.

It’s rare in my experience and I have been around the sports industry for a long time. I’ve been around a lot of athletes. I’m saying that Steve and Tom stand out for the fact that both of them reached the pinnacle of their sport. At one time, in Steve’s case, he was on top of the world. He was the face of the NFL. He had his face on milk commercials, shoe commercials, and everything else. He was that guy. Tom is that guy now and has been for many years. It’s hard when you’re in that position and the spotlight is on you all the time. Anything you want is at your beck and call. It’s hard to stay grounded.

It’s hard to maintain the fact that the most important thing in my life is my marriage and my kids. Tom Brady and Steve young are these great examples of two guys who have always understood that, and always remain grounded like that. Being around them, it wasn’t the chance to interview and profile two of the greatest quarterbacks who have ever played the game. Off the field, when I look at them as men, I saw this in both of them. There’s a humility about them when you first meet them that comes through.

When I first met Tom Brady, it was in his suite at Gillette Stadium. It was my first interview with him. The minute he came in the room, there was a personal touch about him that he treated me like a friend, even though I wasn’t at that point. I was a stranger, but that wasn’t fake. It was authentic. It grew from there. To me, there’s a lot to learn from people who get to that point in their life. They still remember to say thank you to the janitor. They still remember to show kindness to the person who is carrying a flashlight on the day of the game and making sure they get safely from the field to the tunnel.

They think of people like that. I can’t say how many times I was with Steve Young during his book where we’d walk into a stadium before a Monday night game. All the stadium staff, the security guards, the people who sweep the stadiums, who would say to me, because they knew I was with Steve, “I love that guy.” I’d say, “Why do you like him so much?” They’d say, “Because when he was a player and he came to the stadium, he would stop and say hello to me. No one else did that.” Those little things are great portals into who these guys are.

For me, knowing who you are means that you understand who others are. You understand the value of other people. If you understand who other people are in the grand scheme of things, it gives you such clarity as to who you yourself are. I have to ask you and not to try to create a controversy here, but it seems in this society of social media, and everyone’s got a point of view, and there are many outlets to express that point of view, narcissism is almost rewarded.

GFEP 15 | New England Patriots

New England Patriots: Right now, we look at the Patriots and all we think about is winning. People forget that it used to be the worst team in professional football.

 

In other words, “Look at me, hear what I have to say.” I’m wondering as a writer, an author and an investigator like you are, are you finding that it’s easier to get popular subjects? I say subjects of people and personalities. Is it easier to get them to open up because that’s the way society is now? Has this ubiquitousness of information caused people to withdraw and be more guarded when they see someone like you waiting to interview them?

Even aside from the issues you raised, which I agree with the way you frame this. That’s an accurate assessment of where we are right now in culture. I agree with that premise, but in terms of answering this particular question, there’s an underlying difficulty even without what you said to get people who have had great success in athletics or anywhere else to open up and talk to a journalist or someone like that. There were a lot of reasons for why that is. One basic one is that people want to tell their own story and not have somebody else putting their gloss on my story. There’s also the fear factor of, how is this stranger going to portray me? That’s valid. If the roles were reversed, I would be concerned about that.

I always think about that when I approach people about doing a story about them or writing a book. I understand that concern. I try to see it from their perspective and try to put people at ease. The first time I interviewed Tom Brady, one of the things I said to him at the outset is, “I have a lot of questions to ask you,” some of which I’d sent to him in advance. My point was at the outset as we’re getting acquainted is to say, “If there’s anything here that I ask that you don’t want to talk about, just say so and we’ll move on to the next one.” I will not interpret that as to mean that there’s something here that’s scandalous or anything else. I won’t put any negative connotation on the fact that you don’t want to discuss that. It doesn’t matter why you don’t want to discuss it.

The fact is it’s a privilege to be able to talk and have an interview with you. I want you to be comfortable. If I want to go into an area that you don’t want to go into, you say, “I’d rather go to the next question.” Without further ado, we’ll move to the next question. I’m not trying to do a gotcha interview with anybody. I’m trying to learn, obtain information, and put people at ease that way. That’s how I go about it. When you talk about social media and the narcissism and all that, in a way, strangely enough, that has benefited to a certain extent because I don’t have a big social media presence by design. I don’t like social media. I don’t have millions of followers on Twitter. I don’t break news on social media. It’s not in my best interest to do that because I’m a book writer.

I often learn things and then have to sit on them for two years because I don’t want to talk about them until my book is out. I’m trained and conditioned to not go on social media and blab about things. It requires me to have a lot more discretion and patience. That is beneficial when I’m trying to convince someone to talk to me because I have a record and a reputation that says, “This guy isn’t going to run out at this interview and post something on Twitter because it would work against what I’m trying to do.” I’ll keep it that way because I’m trying to build rapport with people, and make people comfortable to talk to me about things that they may not have discussed with a reporter in the past.

There’s so much in what you said that I’d love to explore with you. Let me see if I can unpack a little bit of it, not all of it. First of all, this notion that you have to build trust with your subjects. It’s critical. I’m wondering as an author, are you concerned at all about the proliferation of social media? Let’s pick on a platform for now of Twitter where someone can immediately tweet out something they heard or something they saw, or sometimes worse, something they thought. They can get it out immediately to people without much introspection. Are you concerned as an author that more authors are not going to sit on facts and discoveries because they want to be instant with that news? Does that concern you at all for your profession or am I overstating it?

It doesn’t concern me about authors because I’m not alone in the sense that all authors are up against this problem because we’re not in the news business per se. I’m not talking about fiction writers, that’s different. People who write adult nonfiction books, it’s in all of our best interest to be restrained because we’re trying to hold onto that information for the book. The book has value when it comes out. The problem you bring up, I have more than one instance that I write about in The Dynasty, where if you go to Deflategate, which is one of the biggest sports controversies of our time, the whole question of whether the Patriots purposely deflated footballs to gain a competitive advantage. That story, the reason it got so out of control and was ignited into this huge controversy is because of social media.

Before there was any evidence of any wrongdoing, it was a few people, journalists who went to social media with either erroneous information or with assumptions that they put out on social media platforms like Twitter that lit a fire that couldn’t be put out. I dive into that pretty deep in The Dynasty because you see the ramifications of it. It’s so different than the Spygate situation that the Patriots faced back in 2007, where they were accused of filming the New York Jets and breaking rules.

Deflategate was a completely different animal in terms of how it came about, how it was portrayed, and how it resulted. Social media played an unmistakable role in that, the abuse of social media. It’s something that has caused embarrassment for journalism in general because of how many reporters use social media, not to report real news, but to promote themselves. That’s happened at the cost of the reputation of journalists far and wide. It’s one of the reasons that I avoid social media for the purpose of reporting things.

Sports is one of the only places in America where the color of your skin doesn't matter. Click To Tweet

I have to ask you about a phrase that we hear a lot. I got to tell the readers, it’s a great section of your book, where you talk about Deflategate. It’s a fantastic read. I have to ask you about a phrase that we hear a lot. It’s called “your truth” or follow your truth. As a writer, I presume that you’re always pursuing truth and facts. Granted you can throw in opinion and you can gather the opinion of your subjects, but in the end, you don’t want to produce or print something that is factually incorrect. I want to ask you for your opinion about that term, “your truth.” How do you feel about that as an individual, but also as a writer? Is there validity to that phrase or does it take us down a different path?

I have to be honest, I haven’t thought about that phrase. I’m familiar with it. As a journalist, I’ve heard it tossed around a lot in 2019, but it’s not a phrase that I’ve thought too much about. The concept that you’re talking about in terms of trying to get to the truth, if we’re being candid, it’s very difficult to get pure truth, especially when you’re trying to go back in time and recreate something that happened in the past. You have a series of things you can rely on. If you’re lucky or fortunate, there might be some written record that you can go to like journal entries, letters, news reports that were created in real time. That’s helpful.

If you can interview people who were there or who were involved, that’s helpful, but the further you get away from the actual event, memories are tricky thing because people tend to not only forget things, but they misremember. A lot of times, when you ask someone a question about something that happened in the past, it’s not that they’re purposely trying to mislead you. They remember things different than they were. I see that all the time even in my own experience.

If I think about what I remember, and then I consult with what I wrote in my journal many years ago, I’m remembering it different than it happened. Here’s a perfect example of why I try to go about it the way I do when reconstructing the past. The Dynasty opens in the prologue in a very dramatic scene in a hospital room set in 2001 right after 9/11 when Drew Bledsoe, the quarterback at the time is undergoing a procedure to save his life because he’s bleeding internally. There are six people involved in this scene.

There’s Bledsoe, his wife, the surgeon who’s operating on him, and then there are Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft who are in the emergency room after Bledsoe wakes up from this lifesaving procedure. You have six people. To me that was such an important moment. I wanted to open the book with it that I interviewed all six people about what happened in the room that night. Here’s why that’s valuable. First of all, all six of them remember different things about that night. They don’t all remember the same thing. It’s not necessarily that what they remember is in contradiction with what someone else in the room remembered. It’s just that when you talk about your truth, they remember different elements of that story.

Drew’s wife, what she remembers is a bit different than what owner Robert Kraft remembers about that night because they had different points of priority and emphasis and emotion. The benefit of talking to all six people who were in the room is I got the memories of all six of them, and the doctor, perhaps most importantly, the one who is cutting the incision in Drew’s chest and inserting the instrument that’s got to get in there to drain blood. What he was focused on that night was very different than what Tom Brady was focused on that night. I was trying to give the reader a multi-dimensional view of what was taking place in that room. It doesn’t matter what I think about any of that. What matters is what did those six people remember?

When you then integrate those six memories together, you get as complete of a picture as I think as possible. Is it perfect? No, it’s not because first of all, I wasn’t there and there’s no video recording of it, but it’s as close to the truth as I could get as a writer, and that’s what I try to set out. Sometimes you get closer than other times, but the point for the reader is you’ve got to get as close as you can and feel at the end of the day that you can say with a straight face to the reader, “I did my best here to show you what happened.”

Thank you for relating that. I have another question related to professional athletes, then I’d like to go down a different path if we could. As we’re conducting this interview and as you’re promoting and interviewing with various media outlets regarding your book, The Dynasty, we’re in the middle of heightened controversy related to the role of sports, sports organizations, from leagues to teams and athletes, and their participation in social discussion. Some would say, “Keep the athletes out of this. I don’t go to an NFL game to be lectured to. I don’t go to an NBA game to be told that I’m a racist or that I think different, wrongly or ideologically.”

On the other hand, some people will say, “We have a captive audience at a moment like that. We have a national viewing audience perhaps. These players have terrific influence. They have prominence. They should be utilizing that, not just for personal gain but for societal gain.” I’m not asking you to pick a side, Jeff, but you’re close to it because you know professional athletes and decision makers within the sports industry by name, you’re personal friends with them, but you’re also a fan yourself. You’re a huge sports fan. What insights have you gained in this period that we’re going through? What have you learned from this? Do you have any cautionary notes that you would give us?

GFEP 15 | New England Patriots

New England Patriots: It’s very difficult to get pure truth, especially when you’re trying to go back in time and recreate something that happened in the past.

 

My answer to that very important question because of the issues it raises is that my perspective is I have to go back many years. My perspective isn’t framed by what’s happened in the last few months. It’s goes back to what I’ve been watching in the world of sports for 25 to 30 years as a journalist and as someone who’s been involved in the industry is that this is cultural. In our culture in America, we place such importance on athletics. It is such a deeply embedded part of society in America. Think about Little League, Pee-Wee football and youth soccer, scholarships for athletes who go to colleges. It is a huge part of American culture. Not only do we adore athletics, but we place a great emphasis on athletics.

To me, if we’re going to hold athletes accountable as role models, meaning the example they set for youth, and we want our athletes to set a good example for kids because many kids look up to them. You can’t say that, and at the same time say that these athletes can’t express their opinions and their thoughts about something that’s so much more important than sports. When we start talking about issues of social justice, racism, poverty are things that a lot of our top athletes have personal experience in those matters.

To expect that they would not stand up and voice their concerns about some of these things that they’ve either experienced personally or seen and grown up around in their communities, it doesn’t make sense. It’s a good thing, a smart thing, and a courageous thing for that matter when an athlete who knows he has children looking up to him or even adults is willing to speak up, especially in the responsible way that many athletes have been trying to do in 2020, and do that. It’s almost irresponsible not to because they do have a platform. They do have a voice.

We can go back in history and look at athletes who have had the courage to stand up in the past, whether it’s Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Russell, you can start making a list. There’s a long line in tradition in this country of athletes taking risks during times of trouble and speaking out about issues that matter. Sports matter because we’re all into it. At the end of the day, those are games. When we talk about racism or social justice, those aren’t games. These involve people’s lives.

If athletes can affect social change or affect people to open their minds a little broadly, to look at situations and topics that sometimes are uncomfortable to talk about, that’s a good thing. On the one hand, when a player like LeBron James opens a school, and then opens his wallet to finance the school, it’s easy to applaud that because everybody says that’s a great thing. The minute that LeBron James talks about police brutality, suddenly it’s divisive. Half the people like it, half the people criticize him for it. It takes more courage to do that than to open a school, which I’m a big advocate for the fact that he opened the school. My point is one is easy to do in terms of how public will perceive it, the other one is not.

When you take a sport like the NFL, 70% of those who play that sport are African-American. Many of those players have grown up with personal experiences or they have family members and friends who have personal experiences with police brutality, how can they not talk about it? It’s how I look at it. The NBA is in the same boat. I liked the fact that the NFL, starting with the commissioner and some of the owners, and Robert Kraft is one of them, have gone through this process over the last few years where they’re looking at this whole thing entirely different than they did when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee. It’s looked at differently than it was back then. It’s taken some time to get there. The further we get away in time from when Kaepernick took the knee, there’s only going to be more understanding about why many players have come out and are speaking out in one form or another about what is clearly a very serious issue in America right now.

The earlier discussion we were having about truth, finding your truth has a lot of application to this subject. As you mentioned, in the example of the operating room when Drew Bledsoe was being operated on, there were six people who all had a different memory or perspective. That is the needle that needs to be thread is that in the sports industry, we have to understand that everyone has their own truth. Some people understand what the athletes are saying or trying to say because they’ve been there before. They relate to it as you suggested. Other people don’t understand what the athletes are trying to say because it’s a different world for them. Hopefully, the industry will find ways to speak to all audiences. It’s a pivotal moment right now.

One of my favorite anecdotes in The Dynasty, and you probably remember this, but Robert Kraft is a wealthy white man who owns an NFL team. He doesn’t have personal experience with what a lot of the African-American players in the NFL have been talking about for the last few years. What’s interesting to me, and this is why I wrote this in the book, is in an effort to understand more, he did something that no other owner has done. I wish all of them would do something like this. He visited Meek Mill in prison in Philadelphia. He’s a very famous rapper who was arrested and accused of pointing a gun at a police officer. That’s not a unique situation for a young black man in an American city.

What is unusual is that the owner of a football team in New England bothered to go and visit him in prison, get to know him, learn his upbringing and his experience, and then go to bat for him, join up with someone like Jay-Z and advocate for Meek Mill. Some people said, “Why would you put a story like that in a book about a football team?” It’s related to the whole Black Lives Matter Movement. It’s a different look at how somebody learns about someone who’s different than them. They’re a different color. They’ve come from a different background. They’ve had an entirely different experience with law enforcement.

The best persuaders are the best listeners. Click To Tweet

The only way we’re ever going to build these bridges is we’ve got to talk to each other. We’ve got to be willing to hear people who have an experience that’s entirely different than ours. Sports is a perfect platform for that. It’s one of the only places in America where the color of your skin or how much money you make or what neighborhood you grew up in or what religion you are doesn’t matter. That’s what makes sports such a beautiful thing. If you have an owner like that or a coach who’s willing to make those kinds of efforts to understand other people, it also provides a roadmap of how we could navigate through some of these thorny issues that we’re grappling with right now as a society.

As you’re talking about those incidences, those examples, if I can shift a little bit, it reminds me that everybody has a story. I’ve got a very close friend who runs his own podcast. Roger Brooks is his name. His tagline is everyone has a story. You are in the business of discovering people’s stories. You’ve been doing this for decades. We hope that a lot of different people read this and all of our episodes, but we’ve been very vocal that we’re focusing on those people who want to be better persuaders, better influencers, and better motivators. Whether it’s a family or if it’s with your significant other, or it’s the company that you run, or the sales department that you’re in.

When it comes to everybody has a story you have learned, I presume, how to enjoy and appreciate other people’s stories. It’s reflected in what you’ve been sharing with us. How would you guide or counsel people who are persuaders or who want to be better persuaders in their industry, in their company, or their organization? How would you advise them to become more aware of other people’s stories, to appreciate other people’s stories, and to pull those stories out of their colleagues or out of those people that they manage?

My personal experience is that the best persuaders are the best listeners. In my job as a biographer, as someone who tries to understand success and write books about people who have become the best in their thing better than anyone else, whether it’s a person or a company is I go into these projects and I try to have no judgment about people. I don’t want to come in with preconceptions. I want to learn about people who are different than me. That’s what’s fascinating. I’m not trying to convince people to be more like me, or to think the way I think. I want to understand who they are and how they think. The most important skill probably for me is listening. I try to listen to people.

I try to watch and observe, understand them, and get their perspective of things. It enables from a writing standpoint a more multidimensional view and understanding of who they are or who the business is. It’s less about me and more about them. That’s a portable or transferable skillset. You can’t possibly go along with everybody. That isn’t going to happen. You’re going to have differences of opinion and stuff like that. In terms of influencing people, so much of that starts with listening and understanding. It has to be genuine. People can perceive whether you’re giving lip service to them or whether you genuinely want to hear from them, understand them and their perspective.

As a journalist, if people get the perception that I’m not genuine, then they’re not going to open up to me and share the information and the stories with me that I need to do my job. I don’t know if that part can be taught. I’m intellectually curious and I like to know. Whether I’m talking to a janitor or someone who works security detail, or whether I’m talking to a president or a CEO, there’s something to learn. I value the interview with the janitor or the security guard because he doesn’t have to talk to me any more than the CEO doesn’t have to talk to me. That’s how I view it. That’s how I try to go about what I do as a journalist.

In closing, Jeff, you have sat down with the Warren Buffetts of the world, the Tiger Woods of the world, presidential candidates, politicians and leaders of industries. If you wouldn’t mind sharing one person, perhaps one company or one brand that as much as you’ve tried not to go in with preconceived opinions after meeting them and visiting with them, you walked out of that meeting or out of that multiday interview and you said, “That person surprised me. I did not expect to find that. I did not expect they would be what they turned out to be.” Is there one particular example that you might share with us?

I could point to many examples, but because where my mind is right now is the New England Patriots organization, that’s where I’ve been embedded for the last few years. The example that is most at the forefront of my mind would be Robert Kraft. He’s the owner of the New England Patriots who was a complete stranger when I approached him about wanting to write this book. Having had the opportunity for the last few years to interview him extensively and maybe more importantly, to observe him in a wide range of different environments, to see his management style, executive approach, how he deals with people, conflict, adversity and success, I would say him.

I didn’t have an appreciation for the complexity and the difficulty of running a world-class professional sports franchise because I’ve never had the privilege of profiling an owner before. With him, it was almost like a jaw dropping learning experience every time I was around him. That benefit and that luxury of being able to observe him and also his son, Jonathan, who’s also a senior executive in the Patriots organization, two of the best in the history of the industry, it was filled with surprise. I’m grateful that they allowed me the opportunity to do that, and to tell that story in the book.

GFEP 15 | New England Patriots

New England Patriots: People can perceive whether you’re giving lip service to them or you genuinely want to hear from them and understand their perspective.

 

We’re grateful, Jeff, that you took the time to visit with me and our readers. This has been a very rewarding conversation with you. Once again, we’d encourage everyone to grab, not only The Dynasty, there are many great insights, stories and lessons that we can all take from it, but also any of Jeff’s other bestselling books. We’ll make those available to our readers on our various platforms. Thank you, Jeff. We wish you the best of luck. Any last suggestions you’d give to any of us on how we can best get the book right now?

The book is available everywhere, Amazon, BarnesAndNoble.com. I’m a big proponent of local independent bookstores especially during this pandemic. Many of these local bookstores in anybody’s home communities have been hit the hardest. I’ve been encouraging people where possible to buy the book from a local store and help their local businesses.

Best of luck to you, Jeff. Can you give us a peek into your next book or is that still under wraps?

It’s still under wraps. I’m trying not to think about that right now.

Thanks again, Jeff. I hope to see you on the road sooner than later.

Thank you, Rob. It was a privilege.

Thanks for being a part of this episode. If you found any of it useful or helpful, please rate or like and subscribe to our YouTube channel. I always appreciate you referring us to others as well. I’ll see you next time. Until then, persuade, influence, inspire.

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About Jeff Benedict

GFEP 15 | New England PatriotsJeff Benedict is the bestselling author of sixteen non-fiction books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller Tiger Woods, with Armen Keteyian.  His latest book, The Dynasty, is the definitive inside story of the New England Patriots dynasty and was published in September 2020.

He has also been a special-features writer for Sports Illustrated and the Los Angeles Times, an this essay have appeared in the New York Times.  Benedict’s stories have been the basis of segments on 60 Minutes, CBS Sunday Morning, HBO Real Sports, Discovery Channel, Good Morning America, 48 Hours, NFL Network, NPR, and ESPN’s Outside the Lines.  He is also a television and film producer.  He resides in Connecticut.

GFEP 14 | Express Employment Professionals

 

How do you get job security when so many are experiencing job insecurity? In this episode, Rob Cornilles asks Bill Stoller of Express Employment Professionals, one of the most influential players in matching employers with job seekers. Whether you call this market “primary temporary employment” or “temp hiring,” the chairman and CEO of this sprawling franchiser delivers sage advice for today’s reality. If you’re looking for better candidates or to become one yourself, Bill offers clear direction rooted in proven success. He’s our “man for the jobs” as he guides us to that which leads to greater self-worth: a job.

Watch the episode here:

Bill Stoller | The Man For The Jobs

Chances are pretty good you have an Express Employment Professionals franchise near your home or work. With more than 900 offices in several countries, it’s hard to miss this ubiquitous Oklahoma based business that’s placed well over eight million people in temporary or flex jobs. Bill Stoller, the company’s Cofounder, Chairman, and CEO knows what it takes to find, acquire, and keep a job. Also, if you’re hiring, how to test out talent for fit and competency while satisfying any current budget constraints. Here is the Man for the Jobs.

My guest is Bill Stoller, the Founder, Chairman and CEO of a successful company, Express Employment Professionals, based in Oklahoma City, but with offices all over the country, in fact, internationally now. Bill, welcome to the show.

Thanks, Rob. It’s great to be with you.

It’s good to see you again, Bill.

We’ve had a long absence in between our communication, but I thank you for reconnecting.

I’ve always admired and appreciated your business and frankly, I’ve been a little envious of how you have grown this business since 1983. I know you’ve been in the business even longer than that when we talk about temporary staffing. Let’s modernize it a little bit as we get into our discussion here. You and I are talking in an unprecedented time economically. It’s certainly different in 1983 or back even in the ‘70s when you got into this industry. You have been known to call this primary flexible employment, this type of industry that you’re in. I want to ask you straight away, what is it like being in the employment industry when many people are unemployed?

It’s always been a curse and a blessing anytime you have a downturn and there’s high unemployment. This downturn has been totally different. Usually, there’s a rampdown to the point where you bottom out, where it took about two weeks for everything to bottom out during this time. As we slowly come out of it, we are experiencing certainly high unemployment, but we’re also experiencing a huge shortage of people to fill orders. We have 24,000 jobs that are unfilled because we can’t find the people to fill them right now. It’s almost like it was prior when we also had a difficult time recruiting. I’m sure some people are afraid to go back to work and the unemployment benefits have been good, but I also think that people are taking a pause. Don’t get me wrong, there are still lots of people that want to go to work, and we are putting more and more people back to work every week, but it’s still a struggle because there is a demand for people to fill jobs.

You mentioned a couple of things there. You talked about the concern for health and safety. You talked about unemployment benefits may be difficult to turn away from if they’re available to you when you’re not employed. Are there any other factors that you can think of right now that cause people to take a pause or rethink where they want to go in the workplace?

I also think that the whole issue about George Floyd has changed a lot of attitudes and perspectives, and for Black Lives Matter, a lot of people are focusing there. It’s a diverse group of people that are focusing on it. I do believe that has a lot to do with it. Other than what I have already explained, I don’t think there are too many other reasons other than people are nesting. They’re getting used to staying in their homes. Although, from that standpoint, there are a lot of issues about mental health during these times as well, people being locked up in their homes. That’s why we’re seeing a second recurrence of the COVID because people aren’t wanting to get out and they are getting out. It’s going to be natural for that second wave to be with us, and it will go like waves do. You’re going to have a wave here, a wave is going to come a couple of minutes later and another couple of minutes, meaning a couple of weeks, and depending on the timing of what’s going on around the world.

There can be no passion without true purpose. Click To Tweet

When we were thinking about who could be an interesting, compelling and helpful guest for our podcast, your name came up quickly because of the state of affairs that we’re in as a country, even throughout the world. Employment is such a hot topic and you’ve described it quickly why it is so. You’re the expert in employment. You’ve been in this industry for 40 years or so. Whenever I have employment questions, I think of Bill Stoller. Before we talk about the future, let’s talk a little bit about the past. You began the company with two partners in 1983. One of those partners, Bob Funk is still with you as a partner, Cofounder, and he’s the President of Express, whereas you’re the CEO. You’ve seen so much change in how the industry looks at temporary staffing. Can you describe the evolution of that industry?

The whole industry started because there were a longshore of people that had worked in the north during the summer, and they would shift and work in the south in the winter. They had a job broker manage for the shipping company. World War II came around, you had people who went off to war, and you had to have jobs filled and many of the women here filled those jobs. Following World War II, you had a huge surge in the economy, so you needed to have people, and sometimes those surges were temporary. Companies decided to start doing it just in time. That has been one of the big revelations that leadership and executives have found. Rather than employ somebody for twelve months a year, we can employ for six months. That’s also changed as well because we got into it in the early ‘80s but towards the late ‘80s, things turned around to the standpoint of where most of the lower-skilled positions, middle to lower-skilled clients, and companies wanted to try somebody out before they committed to them.

I believe that has grown dramatically over time. You can call that Probationary Hiring or Probationary Staffing on our end, where you get to see how the person works, what their attitude is, and see if they fit your culture. That has been a huge reason why the industry has come around the globalization of international companies. When the Berlin Wall fell, to me it seemed like all the trading that went around in the world was one big trading partner, as opposed to producing goods and services for your own country. That has caused shifts in demand, so a lot of seasonality. Seasonality has also created a big need for temporary staffing. Even now, during these times, companies are still needing that, but many of them are looking at just bringing people in and trying them out before they hire.

Let me shift a little bit into the higher skill positions. When you look at projects that companies need to have done, in the IT world, the technology world has projects, maybe they’re now coming up with some software for their company. They’re going to hire project people. The IT world, the technology people will actually enjoy that because most of them do work virtually and they’re able to do their job from anywhere. The computer age has really brought on a lot into the technology sector as well. You’re seeing it in all aspects. Engineering can be the same way when you have construction sites. You have needs for engineers for just a temporary period of time. There’s been a huge mind shift in Corporate America and small business. We’ve been the beneficiaries of all of that change.

I would also imagine this shift towards telecommuting or virtual work like we’re doing is also contributing to the realization that, “I don’t necessarily have to have a full-time employee and/or I don’t necessarily have to have a full-time job with one employer. I can mix it up. I can shop my services.”

That certainly is happening. Of course, Millennials like that, they’re used to that. They’ve grown up with electronics, handheld and as well as computers. They love it. A brief story for us is we used to not allow our temporary associates to work virtually. It was primarily for worker comp reasons. We’ve obviously changed. We have figured out how to deal with it and how to work with it. I can’t say a large amount, but we do have some that have worked virtually.

The other thing that strikes me about what you’re saying is the old traditional perception of temp workers, I know that’s almost a disparaging term. Please forgive me, I’m harkening back to traditional terms. It’s like, “I need someone to sit at the front desk for me. My assistant is on vacation or sick for two weeks, so I need someone.” It covers the gamut as far as the type of temporary associates that a company may hire for all sorts of skillset.

It sure does but it’s changing. Let me first go back to how to call somebody who’s doing flexible work. Years ago we decided, “Let’s update that and maybe give them a better title.” We call our temporaries, associates. We like that name. We’ve never heard anything negative about it. Internally, we call ourselves teammates. That’s how we identify us versus our associates.

It seems that the model has not benefited the employer more than the employee or the employee more than the employer. It seems like both sides of the coin are benefiting from the evolution of this industry.

GFEP 14 | Express Employment Professionals

Express Employment Professionals: The associate system benefits both employee and employer because they both get to see how the other side acts and works.

 

That’s a good point. There are quite a few people, in fact, that do want to control their time and they don’t have to work full-time. There are also people that are waiting maybe to go to college in the fall and they want summertime work. Some people may be going into the military and they need something to do to wait out that period. There’s also the person that’s coming back to work. Before they want to commit to any one company, they like to go around to various companies and look for the right company to work for. It benefits both sides because they both get to see how each other acts and works and what the culture is both within the company and what the person’s beliefs and culture are.

I appreciate all the clarification you’re bringing to this conversation already because here’s another misconception, and maybe it’s my shallowness. Historically, I may have thought that someone who turns to a temporary agency for assistance in finding work is someone who might be a little desperate. They can’t find anything full-time, “I need to find a broker, if you will, of jobs who can help me.” The way you’re describing it, if you’re an available talent, an available associate, you could use Express as a great way to strategically map out your career. Help with the ebbs and flows of your life and important milestones of your life, whether you’re having a child or you need to care for a relative, or whether you want to get additional education. Am I reading this correctly?

You’re absolutely right. It’s that flexibility that affords both the company and the individual. A lot of it is the individuals are looking at their lives and their balance of life, and they’re wanting to enjoy both. There are other times too. If one family member gets a job in another community, the trailing spouse needs to find a job. When they do that, we’re a great source for them to utilize, to look at what the market is. Think about when you move to another city, many people don’t buy a home. They rent for a year so they can see what part of town that they’d like to live in. Looking for a job is similar to that.

I’m going to talk a little bit about the assistance that Express Employment Professionals gives people who are in any of those situations. You are approaching 900 offices throughout North America, in Australia, in South Africa. It’s truly a global company. In 2016, Express was named one of Forbes’ Best Franchises to Buy. You are a franchise model. Those 860 some odd offices, it would be interesting to know how many of those are owned by franchisees and how many of those are still owned by corporate. Also, Forbes has ranked you the Number Five Best Temp Staffing agency and the Number Eleven Best Professional Recruiting Firm. Another one that I find interesting is that Entrepreneur Magazine ranked you number one in your category for franchisors. Those are tremendous successes. Obviously, the industry thinks highly of the model that you’ve built. I’ve got to ask you, Mr. Cofounder, how did this all come about? What’s the secret sauce that has made your company successful over these decades?

You brought it up early in your question, and that is we are a franchised organization. For the type of business that we have, which is personal and relationship-based, there’s nothing better than to have an owner of a business in their local market. That is the number one reason why we have been able to grow as much as we have and, quite frankly, been as successful as we’ve had. I will also say that the founders are also franchisees. We started that way. When we’ve all three got together, we had a disproportionate amount of business. The only way that we could start a business was to charge ourselves for how many paychecks that we provided to people.

If somebody had $250, they’d pay a portion to get those paychecks to the associate. If somebody had $100, they would pay for that service. That’s how we accumulated money other than lending the company money at the beginning. We started franchising and getting people. Obviously, we had to get a line of credit. That’s how we ended up growing. I also think that we have a unique purpose. Every one of our franchisees captures that passion. They capture a passion for doing our business because they also understand what the purpose is. Our purpose is to help people find work and companies to find good people. To me, that is the backbone of who our company is. People that are passionate about what work they do are passionate because they do have a purpose. I don’t think you can become passionate unless you have that true purpose behind you.

It took me a couple of years when I was placing people on jobs. In my day, temporary help was not a big business, even though there were companies that specialized in it. It was those that place people on jobs full-time. The first time that I put somebody on a job, it sure made me feel good. After a while, I found out, “Is this what I want to do for my life, continue to place people in jobs?” I rationalized in my own mind, “What more important thing to do than to help people find a job?” What can you do without a job? There’s not much you can do. I rationalized that the job I was doing was the most important job that someone could ever do. We have a lot of franchisees and a lot of their staff that believe the same way. That has been the cornerstone along with being 100% franchised.

You talked about a job and how good it feels to place someone. I know a little bit about that, Bill. For over a decade, my business was in the training/placement business where we put people into jobs within our core industry at that time, which was the sports industry. We still work a lot in the sports industry as you know. We also work with more general businesses and a variety of industries. Nothing brought us more satisfaction than to take someone who was unable to get their foot in the door, either because they didn’t have the requisite skills or they didn’t have the “connections.” We would take them and train them up and then we would give them that opportunity with our network of clients. Our placement rate was 75%, 80% at some point. We used to think that’s a lot better than most colleges, not to diss most colleges. We understand what you’re saying and it’s gratifying. What is the most important job someone can have when they’re out of work? What’s the most important thing they can do when they’re out of work?

Don't jump at the first thing that you would think is a good job. Find a company that is a good company to work for. Click To Tweet

They need to start looking for a job because it’s not always easy and it’s not always quick. Quite frankly, I always recommend coming to Express and earning extra money and look at companies that they might want to work for. The advice that I’ve always given somebody, especially coming out of school, I say, “Don’t jump at the first thing that you would think is a good job. Find a company that is a good company to work for.” It doesn’t matter what job you do. It’s finding the company. Once you get inside of an organization, your talents and skills will be seen by others and then you will quickly get promoted or put into maybe more interesting work. When they’re out of work, it’s important for someone to try to continue working on temporary assignments and then look at the same time and then find a company that you want to work for.

Can I drill down into that a little bit with you? You said, “Find the company that you want to work for.” Most companies, like most resumes, look perfect on paper. The closest we ever get to perfection is on our resume. Certainly, you’re supposed to put together an attractive, appealing resume. That interview is important to identify who this person is beyond what they’ve written. When I look at a company, I can go on their website. They look pretty good on the website too. Are there any insights, any tips or any secrets that you can give us? How do you get to know a company when you’re on the outside?

Work temporary for them through Express. You’ve got to get references. You need to find people who have worked there and why they’re not working there now. You need to find out from people that are working there. Anybody could go out at 5:00, as people leave their place of business, they could always ask them that way. I’ve never heard somebody doing that. That’s about the best way that I know of. You can also talk to their competition and see what their competition thinks of that organization. There are ways to always look at and discover what a company does. There seem to be rankings for everything and ratings for everything. People could look up what ratings are. In our industry, every town has ratings of the best employment companies to work with.

That’s a good point. I’m happy to tell you that where I’m living, there’s an Express office about 6 miles from me. In fact, I’ll bet many of our readers, chances are that not far from where they are, there’s an Express office. There may even be one that they’ve passed already. Let me ask you though, those candidates that are going into the Express office and they’re sitting down with one of your advisors, what are some of the skills that they probably should have or at least work to acquire if they’re going to be a successful candidate?

I have to say that soft skills are still the most important skills to have. You’ve got to develop yourself. You’ve got to be knowledgeable. You need to make sure your mind is healthy. You need to have the right attitude. To me, attitude is everything. You also need to have a good appearance. It’s those things that are important. In terms of what type of true skill somebody wants, they’re going to have to find out what they like. If they took some college, did they like accounting? Did they like presentations or speeches? Did they like English? There are always jobs that you can do in those areas. Obviously, some want to be a mechanic. Some want to be a skilled laborer, which quite frankly, is a wonderful position to be. In fact, we took a survey of trade people, and they seem to be the happiest workers that you could find.

We found it was about 90% enjoyed what they were doing and felt that they were a great contributor to their company, and they came home satisfied after a day’s work. You have to find out where your interests are and then go out and get some skills in those areas, and then you’re prepared to go into the workforce. I’ll always come back to attitude, how you look at life and how positive you are is the most important thing.

In this environment, meaning the economy we’re in, there’s a lot of social unrest, there’s political uncertainty. Should people be faking optimism? You’re a wise individual. You have kids and grandkids. What are you telling them so that they can have a good attitude about the future?

A lot of people are distant from what is going on. When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, a lot more people are tuned in. I believe our youth don’t have any negative feelings whatsoever. They’ve grown up in a much more diverse life than what you and I have had. It’s all about treating everybody fairly, equally and quite frankly, positively. I haven’t personally seen too much of the negative attitudes. I hear a little bit more fear in people because of the COVID-19. Maybe it’s who I work with. I work with a bunch of great positive people who are wanting to do what’s best for everybody.

GFEP 14 | Express Employment Professionals

Express Employment Professionals: Soft skills are still the most important skills to develop to be a successful job candidate.

 

I will tell you that I’m a big supporter of DEI. I have several initiatives that are going on inside our organization. We had an ad hoc committee that we turned into a full-time committee. We’re going to get our franchisees involved in focus groups and in a franchise committee to give us advice. We’re going to do all we can to make sure we recruit for diversity. That’s the healthy way of doing things. Most executives don’t want ‘me too’ people, meaning they act like me. They want people who challenge them. I know I do. I’m not right in everything that I do. You want people that have diverse ideas and thoughts and so forth. That’s my take on where people are.

It sounds like you’re undergoing even greater communication within your organization to understand one another. You’ve talked to me in the past about communication and how important you believe that is for any professional in any skill or trade or industry that they may find themselves. Can you share with the audience a little bit about your views on communication? You’ve also told me in the past that you think that relates closely to what I’m a champion of and the industry and the skill that I work in, that being sales. I don’t want to give too much away. What are your thoughts on communication as a professional?

I don’t think there’s anything more than an executive needs to do is communicate to their people. I’ve certainly learned that the more they hear from me, the better off it is for everybody. They want to hear what we’re doing, why we’re doing it. I did live streaming with our people for a couple of years and I did it about every quarter. We did it up to six times a year. I have done probably nearly twenty of them. I gave a live stream to all of our people to let them know what we’re doing because we had to go remote. Ever since then, we have been communicating.

I’ve always had an open-door policy. I want people to come and talk to me. We have quarterly meetings with all of our staff at headquarters. We have a ritual. At the end of each meeting, we have asked the founders questions. People ask us questions. Believe me, they challenge us in many areas. Quite frankly, some great ideas have come from those questions that we were able to implement. It’s not only you communicating, but it’s also you listening in these times and all the time, and that’s extremely important. I truly believe that people who are the ones that ask the questions are the ones that are going to get ahead in life as well. From your standpoint, consultative selling is extremely important. To me, consultative selling is asking questions and listening to what the person is saying.

Express is a company a lot of people love working for. Your headquarters is in Oklahoma City. You have offices everywhere. Your revenue growth, last I checked a couple of years ago, it was about $750 billion in sales. I don’t know what it’s at now, obviously, it continues to show impressively. On the other hand, there are a lot of people that don’t like where they work. There are several studies that have been done, and even polls and surveys that suggest what those reasons might be. In fact, a Harris Poll suggested that the number one reason why people leave is because they have a better offer. I’ve also heard competing polls say, and you and I have chatted about this in the past, the reason why people leave is because they don’t like their boss. If you were advising a company on how to retain good talent, what are some of the things that you could suggest that would make that talent want to stay and want to be a part and grow with that company?

There are quite a few things you can do. Obviously, the first thing is you’ve got to communicate and you’ve got to listen to those people coming in. I also think it’s important that you have internal training for your people. We’ve developed a leadership program for our people, and it’s all by volunteer if they want to do it. We have a program that they’re able to more self-develop and then also learn leadership skills. One thing that we’ve instituted is we have our own in-house Toastmasters club. I don’t know if they’re doing it in these times, but I wouldn’t doubt if they are doing it virtually. If they’re not, I’m going to suggest that make sure that they do because that’s something that will keep people positive.

Toastmasters, for those who may not be aware, it’s been around for decades nationally in individual chapters all over the world. Toastmasters teaches people how to speak comfortably in front of an audience, whether it’s a speech or it’s a Q&A. Why did Toastmasters become something that was instituted of expressing? Why do you think that’s continuously an important skill for people to learn?

I’ll go back to my experience. When I joined the company right out of college, it was a personnel service. They had in their manual that if you want to help yourself, here are certain things you can do. The one I remember the most was joining a Toastmasters group and become a better communicator to break down any fear you might have speaking in front of other people. I joined Toastmasters. Over my life, I’ve gone through two Toastmasters chapters. I’m sure some of your readers know and some don’t, but they have manuals that you develop speeches from. In both clubs, I went through both of those. You have a goal in front of you and they place it there. That’s how I got it. It’s all part of self-development. One of the things that people need to do for themselves is to constantly self-develop.

There is nothing more important than you being happy with who you are. Click To Tweet

I remember many of the books that I used to read when I was in grade school, high school and college were self-development books. I truly enjoyed reading those because I don’t think there’s anything more important than yourself being happy who you are. Your self-esteem and your ability to please yourself allows you to help other people. I don’t think you can help other people if you’re not happy in your own body. That’s why I enjoy helping people and helping people find work or giving people the opportunity to own their own business. It gives me joy because that’s how I have lived my life. I love to see other people be able to experience the same thing.

One of the things that I am big about is having a decision made at the lowest level possible. We had an instance where we had a franchisee who supposedly owed $250 for something and they were adamant they didn’t and our employee was adamant that they did because that’s what the record show. Our CFO came to me and he said, “What do you want to do with this?” I said, “How much wasted time are we going to have arguing over $250? That doesn’t matter. Let that person make that decision and say that the franchisee is right and let’s go on to the next thing.” It’s part of that empowerment that is important.

We’ve all heard of some of the hospitality organizations around the world who give their people the power to make decisions like that. That makes it much more important to be able to have those decisions made at the lowest level possible so everyone can be positive and go on to the next thing. Giving people responsibility is extremely important, giving somebody the opportunity to lead a project. I grew up that way. I grew up on a farm and my father put me in-charge of certain projects and certain things. I learned to be a decision-maker and learn to be independent and have some autonomy, and him not over my shoulder all the time. That’s important as well.

Everybody sets an example for somebody. I believe that everybody is a mentor to somebody, to everybody, quite frankly. No matter where you are, people look at you. If you’re the center of attention in one way, shape or form, they’re looking at you and studying you. You always have to believe that somebody is constantly monitoring who you are. Within an organization, that employee needs to take that responsibility on as well. It does come back to self-discipline, and that’s another big trait that people need to have. An organization needs to be able to offer an expression of how people want to work and take on responsibility and be responsible. That’s how I think organizations can do a better job.

Bill, I want to stay on this track where we can all make improvements. Let’s start with the candidate who’s interviewing for a job. You’ve placed eight million people in jobs.

Over the lifespan of our company, I’m sure.

It’s an incredible number.

It’s about 500,000 a year.

You don’t know about every one of those cases. I know you can’t keep track of all of them. Is there a common mistake that people interviewing for a job make that you wish you could correct before they even make that mistake?

GFEP 14 | Express Employment Professionals

Express Employment Professionals: An organization needs to be able to offer an expression of how people want to work and take on responsibility and be responsible.

 

There are certain things. They need to be prepared. It would be nice to know if they know anything about the company before they come in. It would be nice if they knew anything about their boss. Whether it’s Facebook or LinkedIn, you can find out a lot of things about people. A lot of people do that and I’ve been impressed with what they’ve done, at least the people that I have come into touch with. They have to ask the right questions. The right questions are not necessarily, “What kind of benefits do you have for me? What can you do for me?”

For the most part, you need to have a balanced interview. You need to come up with three questions to ask the interviewer when you are preparing. Your attitude also comes up. You’ve got to display that positive attitude and a go-to attitude, and somebody willing to go to work. Interviewing and looking for a job is the toughest job there is. You talked about communication. We’ve talked about sales. Everybody is a salesperson because going through a job interview, to me, is selling yourself. You need to know who you are, know what your positive traits and negative traits are, and don’t be afraid to communicate those. It’s all part about selling yourself to the company.

Let’s switch seats. What’s the biggest mistake you see hiring managers, the interviewer, will make that may sabotage their ability to get a good candidate who’s sitting across the desk from them?

If they’re not prepared, then that’s not going to be good. They also have to sell themselves and sell the company to the person. It’s a two-way street from that standpoint. They need to ask intelligent questions. They also need to listen. I’ve always liked using open-ended questions and letting the person speak for a minute or two instead of yes and no answers. I can be at fault at this too, there are too many times you want to answer the question for them and sometimes you do. You have to be patient and let the person explain where they’re coming from.

The first impression is the lasting impression. I’ve told many interviewers in the past, “Allot the same amount of time to each interview because the first impression may not be the right impression.” I said, “If you’re going to take 45 minutes for the interview, give everybody that 45 minutes because you will discover more as time goes on.” I have found out that sometimes a person is quiet when they start an interview, and when you get warmed up, they are much more expressive. If you didn’t give it that time for them to warm up, they never would have happened. Making the person comfortable is the most important thing as well. Obviously, if you can do it between two chairs, that’s also the best way to do it so there isn’t that barrier between you and them. Intimidation can be a big thing in an interview. You don’t want to intimidate the person that you’re interviewing. Those are a few of the areas that a person interviewing someone else can do better at.

You’re suggesting that the interviewer has to remember that they’re recruiting somebody. You are a collegiate basketball player. We provide a little bit of basketball behind me, paying homage to your collegiate career, Bill.

Division-III.

Still, aren’t you in the Hall of Fame of that University?

I am in a couple.

If you can't be happy with yourself, you can't help other people. Click To Tweet

That’s absolutely true. You’re also a great contributor to Pacific University. Let’s call it what it is. You’re a huge supporter and contributor to that university.

I went to a junior college first and it was Lower Columbia College in Longview, Washington. I also think that’s a great way to go for people. I did it for my basketball career because I didn’t want to commit to a four-year school. Going through junior college was one of the best things I did. That’s the one I’ll refer to I’m in the Hall of Fame there. I was blessed and honored to be admitted to the Hall of Fame.

They recruited you and they do today. Universities in their athletic programs are well-known for the recruitment of athletes. It’s funny that sometimes in business, we don’t take that same attitude. We almost take the attitude of, “You’re lucky I’m interviewing you now. I am blessing you with my presence, allowing you into my conference room or my office.” That’s the vibe they give to a candidate. Granted, they’re in a position of power and they’re in a position where they’re already successful. They have the job they want and this person doesn’t. It’s easy to act a little bit full of yourself and a little more superior. What you’re describing is you have to put that person at ease. You need to let them know that we want you. We want the best candidate and we hope that you’re that person.

You have helped people who want to become business owners. As a franchisor, you have many franchisees. You have made people’s dreams come true who can invest in an Express franchise and now they’re a business owner. Not everybody is cut out for that. Not everyone is cut out to be a business owner or to be a franchisee whether it’s an Express, McDonald’s or Taco Bell, or whatever the situation may be. What advice do you give to people who are contemplating making such a career move? What are some traps they need to avoid? Also perhaps, what are some highs that maybe they cannot yet see but that are out there for them if they’re successful?

That’s not only a loaded question, we could spend a day on one alone. I had no intention myself of starting my own business. It was the downfall of the company that I was working with when they ran into financial trouble. Sometimes, what’s adversity to somebody else and even yourself, changes your whole life. Did I want to start my own business? Did I want to continue with the company? I was going to buy the office. I decided to buy the office. Three months later, they went under from a bankruptcy.

You’ve got to go back into your childhood and your growing up period. Did you like being a leader? Were you a leader? If you were a leader, that’s one indication. Did you like taking risks and doing things on a job that was somewhat risk-taking? I don’t mean physical risk, but I mean decision making risk on what direction to go with a decision and then a program. My father was the best person for me in teaching me at a young age. He gives me responsibility and then I went out and did it. Another important trait is, are you proactive? Are you always looking for something to do that’s better or you’re looking for another way of tackling something?

Of course, there also become financial things. You’ve got to be a wise spender. You’ve got to save for the rainy day, but you also got to save if you want to buy a business. There are all sorts of things that you’ve learned about yourself. We’re not perfect. We select people that aren’t right for our business and we select people that aren’t able to do the types of things that a business owner must do. Time management is important. Are you a good time manager? Do you prioritize well? One of the things that I would also suggest is that there are business brokers out there. Business brokers can be a big help to you if you’re thinking about getting into a franchise or buying a business or whatever it might be.

You’re right, not everybody is cut out to be. For the most part, those that work for really large organizations that have a broad job that doesn’t give them a definite skill, I’m not certain if that’s the right person. Sometimes being too corporate and sometimes not being the doer. Especially in our business, we’re not an absentee owner business. You’ve got to be in there every day. When you get started, you’ve got to do the work itself. You have to be in the business. Once you grow enough and you have enough business, then you manage the business and you’re on the business instead of directly in it. That’s when you become a sales leader and that’s extremely important as well. You’ve got to enjoy managing people and inspiring people. If you like doing those things, then owning an Express franchise or even a McDonald’s franchise is the right way to go.

As you know, Bill, this podcast is built around the idea that we like to talk to people who know how to persuade, influence and inspire people, and/or who have been persuaded, influenced, and inspired to do good in business in their communities. I’m wondering in your career, is there an individual or is there an incident that stands out where someone inspired you or someone motivated you to take a particular measure or a step, take a risk perhaps? I’ll even give you this, Bill, I’m sure that you’re involved in that every day with your leadership team and with your franchisees. In general, how do those words resonate with you, to persuade, influence and inspire?

GFEP 14 | Express Employment Professionals

Express Employment Professionals: A job is everything. It gives you security. It gives you self-worth.

 

That’s what leadership is all about. Those three words are what every leader should consider and understand as they lead their organization. I do think that it’s important for people to understand that you can’t be afraid to do what you might want to do. If you look back at a lot of experiences in your life or people that have influenced you, you take snippets of each one of those. When I first interviewed to go to work for Acme, I never thought about going to work for an employment agency. I had taken a personnel class in college and they forewarned you about going through an employment agency, at least the book did, and the professor. I was hesitant. When I interviewed with my eventual supervisor, he gave me a vision and opportunity. What’s important is people need to have that vision put out there in front of them.

Certainly, the president of that company was an inspiring person. He was persuading but in a great way. You have to treat people the way you want to be treated. When I looked at him, he is the one that said, “Do you want to join Toastmasters? If you want to do secondary education, you’ll get an MBA or whatever.” When somebody says those things, I went out and did them. I went out and got my MBA. It was that vision that people put for you. There are all sorts of people that persuade you, but you have to accept what they’re trying to message to you. It’s the receiver who’s the one that needs to take action to themselves. Without mentors, without people that give you some direction, why continue? You might as well take people’s advice and what you think you can do within it and you’ll make a success of yourself.

I love that answer. I want to ask you one more question. You’re in the job world. Your whole career has been built around helping people find work and sustaining themselves and their families. I want to ask you, what’s the value of a job in your view to an individual? What does a job mean to somebody? What does it mean when someone doesn’t have a job?

This is another one of the topics I love. To me, a job is everything. I don’t know all of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but self-actualization is one of them. It gives you self-worth. To me, everything relates to the job. You need to have that. Security is another one. Love and security, you’ve got to have those. A job allows you to have that. I’ve always loved work and probably to a fault at times. When you do what you’re passionate about, it’s absolutely not work. In some ways, when you’re in the sales business, it’s also competitive. That’s why having a competitive background has certainly helped me as well as yourself. It’s important.

If you can’t be happy with yourself, you can’t help other people. A job is everything. What can you do without a job? I believe that being happy on a job makes you happy everywhere. You have to find that. You’ve got to find out what you’re passionate about and then go out and do it. It doesn’t mean that you can’t change every five years because of whatever circumstances. I’ve interviewed once for a job, and that’s all I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve never had to go elsewhere to find a living. I certainly have, from a business standpoint, started other businesses and still have other things going on. It’s all being with people, working with people, helping and seeing people grow and seeing people develop. That’s got to be a huge motivator in somebody’s life and it’s been a big one in mine. I’m happy that I’ve had that opportunity. I expect to have many more years of having those opportunities.

It would benefit all of us if you did, Bill. Keep at it. I want to say one thing about your comment, if I may. Some people reading don’t have a job where they punch in and punch out, get a paycheck every two weeks but they have a responsibility, it could be caring for a sick relative or raising a family. Would you agree with me that having a job means having a responsibility?

Absolutely. One of the better jobs in the world is raising a family. I truly believe those that have devoted their lives to doing that are the most successful people in the world. I rank them higher than anybody in my mind. People that help other people no matter what they do is extremely important.

Bill, this has been great. Thank you for sharing with us about Express and what’s made it successful and also your personal thoughts and your tidbits of wisdom, which have been built up over decades of leadership and success. This has been interesting and fulfilling for me, and I’m sure for our readers as well. We, at Game Face, wish you and Express and your 860+plus stores or offices around the world, your associates, franchisees, and leadership team, we wish them all continued success.

Thank you very much.

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GFEP 13 | Sports Specific College Degrees

 

Sport executives often debate the value of sport-specific college degrees. Some argue the focus is too narrow. Others claim an emphasis on industry-related subjects produces better applicants. Dr. Jason Williams, assistant dean of the Simon School of Business at Maryville University, also directs the school’s Rawlings Sport Business Management program. In this wide-ranging interview with Rob Cornilles, Jason weighs in on this debate. He also speaks to the hot topics on college campuses today: academics vs. affecting social change; opportunities for minorities; and, if teaching sales is worth classroom time.

Watch the episode here:

Dr. Jason Williams | The Present-Minded Professor

Dr. Jason Williams, this episode’s Game Face Exec is more like a Game Face educator. A New Jersey native, Jason was a college athlete who first pursued a football and track and field coaching career. Fortunately for thousands of students at Maryville University in St. Louis, Missouri, over the last couple of years, Jason has had an even bigger impact as their academic coach and their business and life coach. Unusually vested in his students’ pursuit of knowledge and their success in achieving a career in the competitive business of sports, please meet one of America’s most present-minded professors.

I want to welcome Dr. Jason Williams from Maryville University with us. Jason is an old friend and someone I’ve been doing a lot of business worth over the last couple of years. We work together in the classroom. We’re teachers together and thanks to Jason’s invitation to me about a decade or so ago, we’ll talk a little bit about how that relationship started. Jason is coming to us from his home, as many people are in this new era of COVID. I can see already a lot of cool things that Jason’s picked up from his career working with sports organizations around the country. Jason is not only a friend, but he’s also someone that I turn to for insights into the best practices and what’s going on outside my world within Game Face. He has great foresight and purview of the sports business. Jason, thanks for joining us. Welcome to Game Face Execs.

Thank you, Rob. I appreciate you inviting me on and I look forward to our conversation.

Jason, you are an educator, and you’ve been an educator for many years. You’re one of the leading programs in the country to educate and prepare students for careers in sports. Before we get into the details of what you do, specifically at Maryville University, I want to talk a little bit about your past, your history, because you’ve had a long road. You’re not that old, but you’ve had a long road into where you are now. Can you take us back to the beginning where your career began and how you’ve been involved in academia all these years?

I’ve been fortunate, Robbie, to have an outstanding career and it’s been because of a lot of good people that have seen some things in me that have allowed me to continue to progress. I started out as a high school teacher. I went to Montclair State University, got my undergraduate degree, and also played football there, and track and field. I was fortunate enough to become a high school teacher after I graduated from Montclair State University. I was there for about three years and wanted to work on the college side of things in athletic administration and also coaching. I landed a position at Illinois Wesleyan University where I was an athletic administrator, assistant football coach, and also head men’s track coach.

As you know, at Division Three schools, you do a lot of different things and it was great for me to be able to do those things at such a young age because I got to learn from a lot of good people in a lot of different areas. During that time, I wound up taking advantage of some NCAA professional development opportunities and met some people who worked at Florida State. They had a position open, so I applied for it and wound up becoming an Assistant Director in the athletic department at FSU working on a variety of different things marketing, community service, and student-athlete development. I enjoyed my time there and learned a lot. I tell people all the time that it was a whole other education working in the athletic department of a BCS school, namely Florida State.

Shortly after that, I wound up taking a position at Endicott College where I worked a little bit more on the academic side, like developing some academic programs for them, as well as working on some things for the late president there, Richard Wylie. While I was in Boston, Boston College had a position open where they needed someone to work the ticketing and marketing for football, basketball, and also men’s and women’s hockey. I did that at night while working in college during the day, which was another great opportunity and I learned a lot from a different culture in BCS college athletics.

Later on, while I was doing that, a mentor, we all have those and are important for all of us to have, contacted me about a position at Maryville University had opened and his name was Dale Lick. He was a three-time university president. He had been the president of Florida State University, Georgia Southern University, and the University of Maine. He shared with me an opportunity that was at Maryville University. At first, I was a little bit reluctant. I didn’t know if I wanted to become a full-time faculty member at that time, but I knew Maryville University wanted to do things the right way. They want to grow. They had an earnest interest in educating young people so that’s what drew me to where I am now at Maryville University.

Before we go into your career at Maryville and what you’ve done there over what has been a couple of years now, what you described is not typical for those people who want to work in the sports business. In that, it sounds like you lived out of your car so to speak. You always had to keep a full tank of gas because you might be going to another job before you know it. You were probably opportunistic. Meaning when an opportunity presented itself, and you thought it would be a good fit for you, you did everything you could to grab that opportunity and run with it.

Gain as much knowledge and experience as you can in different places, doing different things so you can learn to work in different cultures. Click To Tweet

There are a lot of people though that would not make that sacrifice. They’re so married to a particular market, or they want to stay close to home. Some of this is necessary if you’ve got family obligations or those types of things. You have the freedom to come and go as you please. If you could talk a little bit more about that decision to be mobile and I’d be curious to know, I know you’re married, you’ve got a beautiful family, what role did your spouse play in these decisions?

I’ve had good mentors and one of the things that my mentor has always taught me about is at a young age, you have to look at opportunities wherever they are and look at it for the opportunity, not so much of what part of the country or the world that it’s in. You need to gain experience and gain as much knowledge as you can in different places, doing different things so you can learn to work in different cultures. Even though we’re the United States, we have different cultures in each part of our country. I listened to my mentors very well and that was one of the things that always kept in the back of my head. It was like, “What’s the opportunity? What part of the country is it in?”

My wife has been a trooper. When we got married and when we were both working at Illinois Wesleyan University, one of the things that I shared with her before we got married was, “I’m still young in my career and I may not always live in Bloomington, Illinois. I can’t tell you where we’re going to live moving forward but I can tell you this. Family is important to me and I will always keep that at the forefront even as we make these decisions.” She’s been awesome with that even to this day as I’m looking at opportunities as they come up, but it was a combination of my mentors and also then taking into consideration my spouse that made me make all those different moves.

Can I ask you a little bit about that relationship you and your wife have without getting too personal? Nobody can dictate to a spouse, “This is what we’re going to do,” and expect to have a happy and fruitful marriage. There has to be a mutual understanding and mutual respect for one another. I’ve spent time with your wife and kids and know that there is a deep and loving bond that brings you together. How does that materialize, that type of relationship with a spouse where, in your case, she would be willing to follow your career and in other cases that meant the roles might be reversed? What are some of the tips you can give people to enter into that relationship? Is it something you have to lay down your expectations from day one, that first date, or do you evolve into that understanding?

I definitely think it’s an evolution, but I do think it’s something that you do before if you decide to take the serious route and be married to someone. You’ve got to have that discussion beforehand. If you plan on having children, have that discussion beforehand. That way, it doesn’t become a surprise to anyone if those things start to materialize as relates to moving or whatever. I don’t think it’s something that I have to tell him on the first date but maybe a little bit as you get a little bit more serious but it’s a conversation that you have to have. If there’s mutual respect for each other and an understanding of why that person wants to do that and also understanding who that person is. Working in the sports business industry is not the same as working for any other industry in my opinion. Your spouse has to understand that and want to be involved in that because if that’s what makes you happy and that’s your career, it’s not going to go away.

You know at Game Face, and certainly on Game Face Execs, we talk a lot about sales, the power of influence, and the necessity for persuasion. It sounds like you had to exercise some of that in your marriage. Is that a fair statement?

No question. Moving from Florida to Boston took a lot of persuasion. As you can imagine, waking up Christmas morning and it’s 72 degrees versus waking up Christmas morning and it’s 10 degrees for my wife was not always something that she had envisioned but it did take some persuasion. There’s also give and take in that. There were times when I didn’t want to travel because I’ve been traveling so much for work, but she wanted to visit her family, so you make those sacrifices because marriage and any relationship is about give and take. It took some persuasion, but it also was a lot about, “Here’s what I’m doing. I’ve been doing this then I have to allow these things to happen too that I may not want to do but need to do,” because you have that respect and love for that other person.

I can attest to what you’re saying, Jason, that you live what you say because when I’ve been with you in the St. Louis area when we’ve been working on campus together, you’ve made it clear that it’s time for you to go home and for you to spend time with your kids. Also, when you and I talk on the phone halfway across the country, there are times when you’re not available because you’ve got that devotion to your family. I would let those who are reading know that Jason is not spouting off some platitudes. He lives what he’s saying, and that’s why you have such a successful marriage, and you’re always happy in your work.

You and I are both fortunate that way, we’ve been married for some time to our spouses. Despite the travel and the long hours, and in your case, hopping around the country to pursue your career, we have been blessed to have spouses that are supportive of that, believe in us, trust us and hopefully, that trust has been rewarded as well. You got to Maryville. You were essentially recruited to Maryville but when you got there, the Sports Business Management Program was nonexistent, wasn’t it? Can you tell us how you and Dr. Lombardi, the university president, grew it to become what it is now?

GFEP 13 | Sports Specific College Degrees

Sports Specific College Degrees: Working in the sports business is not the same as working for any other industry. Your spouse has to understand that because if that’s what makes you happy, it’s not going to go away.

 

When I got to Maryville University, they had already started a sports business management program but hadn’t hired anybody full-time to put their full efforts into it so the results weren’t there because this is when somebody that wasn’t taking care of it and growing it. When the University hired me, Dr. Pam Horwitz, who was the dean at the time, hired me along with Dr. Lombardi. There is nothing short of, “We want this program to grow. We feel it, it can grow,” and that’s what we’ve done. We’re fortunate that we’re in St. Louis, Missouri.

There are so many sport business organizations here. I know that the first thing everybody’s going to think of is the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Blues. At the time, we had the St. Louis Rams. We also have organizations like Momentum, Rawling Sporting Goods, and many other organizations, both minor leagues, and marketing agencies. We also have a Division One Athletic Conference here and the Missouri Valley Conference is downtown. From a practitioner’s perspective going into academia, I knew there would be a lot of opportunities for our students to gain experience because of the city that we were in.

As you and I know, and we’ve said before, there are hundreds of sports business or sports administration programs around the country. Certainly, there’s an exponential number beyond what existed when I first got into the sports business in the early 1990s. They’ve popped up all over the place. When they approached you and said they wanted you to assist them in building this program, one word that I like to use a lot is differentiate. What did they say to you or what did you bring to that interview table to be able to convey to one another that we’re going to make this program different from any other? What was the original inspiration or vision for the program?

The vision of Dr. Horwitz, the dean at the time, and Dr. Lombardi was we needed a differentiator and I had shared with them that it wasn’t going to be a cookie-cutter program. One, I knew that wouldn’t work and two, that’s not who I am. When we had this discussion during interview processes, I had said to them, and I used this quote, “We’re going to do it the right way.” The right way meant that our students were going to leave here with skills that the industry valued.

We were going to work with professionals like yourself and others, to help us build the program so that one, we knew what we were doing was valid, they would have a vested interest in seeing it succeed. Also three, we’re going to make sure our students had a lot of experience so when you look at their resume moving toward the end of their senior year, it may look like someone who already had 2 or 3 years of experience, because of all the things that they had done and the skills that they had developed so that’s how we had. That’s how we define the right way.

Cynics, maybe parents of young people who want to get a degree in sports, would say that you don’t need a Sports Management or Sports Business degree in sports administration. It’s not necessary. It’s too specific. It’s too focused. You need to get something, maybe a broader education and I’m not saying that they’re right or wrong. Frankly, from my perspective, Jason, it depends on which program they’re referring to. Some programs probably aren’t worth the amount of tuition you have to pay to acquire it. I would not say that about Maryville. That’s why you and I are talking and that’s why you and I have a partnership because I feel strongly in what you, the program, and Dr. Lombardi are trying to accomplish. What would you say to those parents, those funders, if you will, and even to the students who suspect that maybe a sports specific degree is unnecessary?

There’s no question that there are people out there who think that way. What I have shared with our prospective parents and current parents as well as one, at our university, our Sports Business Management Program, that’s why it’s called Sports Business Management is in the business school. They get a business core of accounting, finance, general marketing, as well as operations. Lay it on top of that, you will have our sports business management courses that are not built upon tests and writing papers. They’re built upon exponential learning that we do projects for organizations.

When you add those things together and put on top of that the amount of experience our students have with the internships that they acquire because of the skills that they have, the events that they have the opportunity to work, because of the relationships that we’ve built with the industry. Those things make our students what I call employable, which also make them successful out into the industry. They hit the ground running because they know what to expect on that first day of the job and they have the skills to do the job that they were hired for. Those organizations don’t have to retrain our students once they leave our program.

The Cardinals embody the culture and the values of the St. Louis community. That is why the people love them. Click To Tweet

You and I are both wearing shirts that have the Rawlings Sporting Goods logo. I’d like you to describe the relationship you have with that company. One thing I’m sure most people outside of St. Louis are not aware of is that not only is Rawlings based in St. Louis, but they are next door to your campus. In fact, you share parking lots practically. Your students can within moments go from the classroom and they could walk across the parking lot and be in the headquarters of Rawlings. How did that relationship develop?

Pam Horwitz, who I mentioned before when I first got the job when Rawlings moved to the Maryville Centre Drive where they are housed, where you said, their worldwide headquarters is right there, they talked and said, “How can we partner?” They didn’t know what to do at that time so when I got to Maryville, my dean introduced me to the Senior Vice President at the time, Art Chou now the President of Rapsodo. He and I started to talk about what our relationship might look like. Art’s been a great partner of our program since that time, but it didn’t start out as the Rawlings Sport Business Management Program when I got there a couple of years ago, it was like, “Let’s do some things together.” I’ve always been involved in partnerships as it relates to any professional career that I’ve been and so I always try to continuously create added value for Rawlings.

When we had an opportunity to be the official interim provider for Texas versus The Nation Bowl, which was a collegiate football of all-stars, I brought Rawlings to the table with us. I said, “They’re doing things in football helmets and football equipment. You guys should take a look at what we can do together.” That relationship fostered and we continuously did those things. It’s like, “Jason, we need a couple of students to do some grassroots marketing for us at this event. Can you give us some of your best and brightest?” That’s how it started but it got to the point where they had research needs and we could fulfill those needs as related to their products and consumer insights. We started to do research for them in a variety of different areas. Soon after that, I sat down with Art Chou one day at lunch and said, “What do you think about you guys naming our program?” He said, “Jason, that would be a great idea.”

We talked with the President at that time, Robert Parish. He thought it would be a good idea as well so soon after that, we were then the Rawlings Sport Business Management Program. That relationship has been intact for almost a few years now and we have built a relationship where our organizations are working side by side in a variety of different areas, specifically, our sports business management program, but they also provide uniforms for our softball and baseball team. Their logo is outside on our baseball field. We’ve continually done a lot of things together. It’s been an outstanding partnership that has continued to grow. Now we do a variety of research projects for them. We’re working on a new one with some of their corporate sponsorship partnerships evaluating that for them. That’s how it all got started and every year it’s gotten larger and larger.

As far as student placement within Rawlings upon graduation, you have some good success stories there too, don’t you?

We do. We have a few students there that are working at some of the higher levels because they’ve been at Rawlings for a number of years now. We also have a lot of our students who have been hired at entry-level positions in a variety of different areas, marketing, digital media, social media, or product development. It’s been fruitful for our students as well. Plus, our students have the opportunity every semester to intern with Rawlings. We have three internships with Rawlings, the fall and spring semester. For each semester, there are three. Plus, we help Rawlings with the grassroots marketing that goes on around the country in the summertime.

You’ve talked about not only this relationship with Rawlings, which is at the center of the program, but you also have reached out to other professionals. You don’t only rely on the academics to teach the business of sport, you go out and find practitioners. I happen to be one of those that you have reached out to over the years. I was a little skeptical at first because I had been contacted by many programs in the past, some of which turned out to be nice, maybe one-off experiences but you were talking about something much broader and deeper than that. It’s something much more long-lasting, which thankfully, has lasted a couple of years now where I get to come into the classroom every fall and assist you in teaching, the business of sports selling. You and I co-teach that class. I love teaching your students and the way you prepare them is tremendous.

Jason, while the Rawlings relationship is certainly the keystone of the program, it’s been evident that you’ve spent a lot of time and effort building relationships with practitioners throughout the industry. I must say it’s a little bit unlike many sports business programs that I’ve seen around the country. In that, though you are a practitioner in your roots, you are also an academic. You are Dr. Jason Williams, and for many people, for the world of academia, there’s a perception that they may not be as quick to reach out to those who are in the industry, but you’ve done it. You’ve done it freely and rapidly. To me, it suggests a level of confidence that you have. You’re not afraid to bring outside voices into your classrooms, and perhaps to give a new or different perspective. What is it about the way you’re wired that you want to build those kinds of partnerships that you’ve talked about and you don’t try to hoard all the information to yourself and create your own little fiefdom on campus?

Rob, it’s one of those things where when these young people graduate every May, I’m not the one who are hiring them. I’m not the one who hires them. The industry is the one who is hiring them. In my opinion, for me, not to include the industry wouldn’t make any sense for our students, it would make any sense for them at all because the industry is the one who is hiring our students. It also allows me to continually sharpen my skills on what is pertinent. Also, what is important to the industry so I can figure out a way to put that in the educational model for our students to have the skills that the industry values. It’s a variety of different reasons why we include the industry, but the most important reason is they are the ones that are hiring our students. I have to take my cues from them as relates to the skills that they see valuable so our students have those skills and they get hired into these positions.

GFEP 13 | Sports Specific College Degrees

Sports Specific College Degrees: The program’s objective is to get young people to the careers that they want to be in. That means the faculty has to make themselves humble as educators.

 

I want to say for those who may not be paying close attention to what you said, for you, it all comes down to what happens after campus life. They’ve got to get a job. That’s ostensibly why they get this degree. They can work in their chosen industry. I want to attest from observation and from our countless conversations over the years that is always your number one priority. What are we going to do to prepare our students more than others to land in the industry?

Your placement rate is fantastic. I want to applaud that students first attitude that you have. It’s not about building up your name or about becoming a prolific author. You’re on campus to try to help students get into the career choice that they’re looking for, get them meaningful work and employment, which is going to improve their lives. I want to thank you for that. I wanted to give you a shout-out for that because it’s never been lost on me and it’s always evident in all of our interactions.

Thank you, Rob. I appreciate that and that’s our goal. To me, it’s like nothing else that we do in any other organization. We have goals and objectives that need to be met. For our program and for Maryville University, those goals and objectives are getting young people into the careers that they want to be in. That means that we have to make ourselves humble as educators. We know some things, yes but we don’t know all things and no one does. The more we can include the industry and professionals, the better off our young people are going to be.

One of those relationships beyond Rawlings there in St. Louis is a brand you mentioned, the St. Louis Cardinals. I’ve got a jersey of theirs because they are a great and long-standing client of Game Face. They have been a great long-standing partner of the Rawlings Sports Business Management Program at Maryville University. What do you think about their brand, Jason? You’re in the community and I’m not but I’m pretty familiar with it. I’ve been working with the Cardinals for nearly twenty years. From an academic standpoint and from someone who does a lot of research who observes the industry, what is it about the Cardinals brand? Why are they so beloved in that community? It seems they can almost never do wrong. What’s your observation?

It’s one of those things where the St. Louis Cardinals in this community have continuously proven themselves to be community leaders. Yes, they are a business. You and I both know that and everybody probably reading knows that, but they see themselves as a community leader in leading in the community to do right for the community in which they live and work. That’s why the brand of the St. Louis Cardinals is so strong.

The other reason why that brand is so strong is that the culture of the St. Louis community is the culture of the St. Louis Cardinals and vice versa. Those who work for the organization embody the culture and the philosophy of the community, which is family, hard work, and putting others first even in tough times. That is the reason why the St. Louis Cardinals brand is so strong and people in this area love baseball but it’s not baseball. It’s the Cardinals. If the Cardinals were a badminton team, a badminton team that’s strong, the St. Louis area would love the Cardinals badminton team. It’s because they embody the culture and the values of the community as it relates to working in the community, being good to one another working hard and the community supports that type of culture. The Cardinals embody that.

I know it’s cliché and it may be so cliché that it’s totally lost its luster and its meaning but when I think of good Midwest values, I think of the St. Louis Cardinals. That’s why it’s such a pleasure for me to work with them and I know that you would say the same. More specifically, you and I, when we teach our class, we are engaged in helping those students learn the sales skills that are necessary for sports and we do it through a sales campaign that’s partnered with the St. Louis Cardinals. We have this triangular relationship. We have Maryville, the Cardinals, and Game Face. Those three parties are trying to assist those students to learn proper sales methodology that will be applied in the sports business when they go into that business, whether they’re in a dedicated sales job or not. Why do you include sales in your curriculum? Why is it so important that your graduates have an understanding of that skillset?

One, it goes back to a couple of things. When talking with the industry, as we continue to build our program and shape our curriculum, where are the jobs in the industry. Most entry-level positions are in some aspect of sales. That’s number one. That’s where the jobs are. Number two and when I say sales, there’s corporate sponsorship, promotions, marketing, event management, and ticket sales. The other aspect of that is business doesn’t work unless sales are made and we all are in the business of sales to a certain extent because there’s no need to account for any money if there are no sales made. There’s no need for an accountant. There’s no need for any operations if no sales are made.

Don't worry about what you aren't getting. Worry about what you are getting. Opportunities sometimes do not look like opportunities. Click To Tweet

That’s the general perspective of business because if there are no sales, there’s no business but there’s also an aspect for us of that’s where the jobs are. That’s what we need to be training our students in. Even if they don’t want to go into a direct line of sales, everything they do is going to revolve around sales. They’re going to have to sell their boss on an idea. At some point in time, they’re going to have to sell a product. They’re going to have to influence their co-workers to go in a certain direction to achieve a certain goal. To a certain extent, that’s sales as well. We feel that because of the training that we receive from you, with Game Face, our students also become better communicators and that’s always a skill that everyone needs to continue to work on.

I appreciate that. Beyond your curriculum and relationships that you’ve built with the professional ranks, the other thing that I admire about Maryville is your vision and aggressiveness when it comes to online learning. I want to ask you a little bit about that because the traditional degree is basically four and done. You’re in there for four years or whatever, you get your degree and you move on. The world is changing. Coming to campus, as we now know, is problematic. It’s challenging for many people, either for health or perhaps financial concerns. Along the way, Maryville University has become a real player in this idea of online education and that complements the on-campus education. Could you share with the readers how that has happened at Maryville and where you’re at this point in time?

Our president Mark Lombardi has been a visionary since probably the day he was born. He’s always looking forward. When I got here, he was already thinking about an extensive online program. His vision of educating young people or people in general, wherever they are and meeting them wherever they are, is something that has been in the fiber of Maryville University since day one. The other thing as it relates to specifically the online learning route is that online learning is the way we were going and the situation as related to COVID-19 has accelerated that for us as a country. As a university, we’ve been doing this for almost a few years now because of the vision of Dr. Lombardi in understanding that we had to continuously grow our market. We couldn’t rely on the St. Louis area to be the market for our university and that allowed us to grow it. As it relates to COVID-19, and also online learning, this was something that had to be done.

COVID-19 has accelerated that for us as a country but a university, operationally, we were already there from a standpoint of having the operations to support online learning, with all of our students having iPads, and also with all of our faculty and staff having iPads. We were already ready to teach online. We had been doing it for some time. Also having faculty who were trained to teach online, while still providing an excellent exponential or learning educational experience. That’s one of the reasons why Maryville University has been successful in that area. It’s part of the vision, it’s also part of having operations to support that vision, but also having a work staff of faculty and staff who were capable of delivering an online experience of learning education at a high-level quality.

Can you describe a little bit more about what that looks like on campus as far as that staff and those facilities that you referenced? When I first saw it, it blew my mind. I did not expect what I saw.

When you walk into our online educational development area on our campus, it looks almost like a television studio. You’ve been there. We’ve got blue rooms and technology that will allow for lots of graphics. It’s almost like if you were at CBS. We’ve got a great team of people who are educational designers that work with our faculty and say, “Yes, these are the goals, objectives, and the experiences you want your students to have. Let’s work with you to develop what that looks like from an online perspective.” It’s a combination of having the facility with outstanding and talented people, but also having faculty who are ready to teach and develop courses in that way. We were fortunate from that perspective. We’ve got all. We’ve got the perfect mix, so to speak.

I don’t know how many employees are housed in that facility that you described, but it’s close to 40 last time I was there all told, so it’s a remarkable operation. Because of the necessities of dealing with COVID-19, I’m sure those numbers are growing since I was there. It’s impressive. Within the Sports Business Management Program, how many online courses are you anticipating by the end of 2020?

We will have our full development of all those courses, hopefully done by the end of 2020, as far as the general sports business management classes. As you know Rob, there are two tracks. There’s the Game Face Sales Track, and there’s the Data Analytics Track so all those courses should be done by the spring of 2022. There will be a nine courses layout for each of those tracks within the Sports Business Management Program.

You saw through the fog before anyone ever knew there was a fog, you prepared for it, and you’re going to be rewarded for it. More importantly, your students are, not only students on campus. We’re talking about students all over the country and internationally who are going to fit in because of that vision. It’s quite commendable. Speaking of on-campus, there’s a lot of discussion in our society today about the role of campus life in effecting change being perhaps a place where students can feel and see that they are effecting positive change.

GFEP 13 | Sports Specific College Degrees

Sports Specific College Degrees: Continuously listen to your students and allow them to have the freedom to express themselves as young adults. Universities sometimes forget to do that.

 

I want to ask you, as a professor, as a leader of a department within a business school, how do you balance that need to remain true to your traditional institutional priorities of making sure people get an education that’s meaningful, practical, going to lead to good employment and they’re going to be contributors to society from a commercial standpoint? Also give the students what they’re apparently looking for, which is a platform to affect positive social change, how do you balance that?

You bring up a good point, Rob, because there is a balance. You’ve still got to stay true to the mission of the organization from an educational standpoint, but the key is, and this is something Maryville has done since I’ve been here, is you have to continuously listen to your students. Sometimes universities forget to listen to their students and allow them to have the freedom to express themselves while developing as young adults. We forget that sometimes. These are 18 to 22-year-olds. When you look at them from a traditional perspective, they’re continuously developing. Part of that development is allowing them to learn, make mistakes, and have them learn from their mistakes.

Sometimes institutions get away from that because they’re so worried about protecting something that they forget the reason why and partly why the educational institutions were developed in the first place. Also, they forget about why students decide to come to universities in the first place. It’s because they need to develop not only from a standpoint of being a practitioner in some industry, but they also need to develop into a bit more mature young men and women. As long as universities continue to listen to their students and allow them to make those mistakes and grow, they’ll have that platform. The challenge comes when we don’t listen to them anymore and don’t allow them to make mistakes that they can come back from.

Speaking of the word balance, do you think that there is a balance between listening and guiding, as a member of a faculty? For example, and I’m not saying that college kids are children, but if I allowed my children and your children, as you’re raising them now if you allow them to make mistakes that could be detrimental? As a parent, you feel a need and an obligation to step in and perhaps say, “That’s a choice I don’t think you should make. I don’t think you should run out in the street now. I know it looks enticing and maybe your friends want to do it but I don’t think it’s for your own good.” You do have to have a balance between giving them that freedom of expression and learning from their mistakes, but also protecting them. I don’t know what the answer is, but you’re in the epicenter of it now.

We are and from my perspective, we always have it because as you can imagine being a university of over 12,000 students, both online and on-ground, we have students coming from all over the world to study with us. That allows for an amount of growth and mistakes to be made by all these different cultures coming and learning together. You’re correct, Rob, where you don’t want them to use your term, running the street but you also need to be able to share with them and have them understand maybe why running in the street isn’t the best idea. If you do go down that road, there may be some consequences. Those are the things that we like to work with our students on and share with them while also truly allowing them to make some mistakes, but they’re calculated mistakes.

Jason, in our industry of sports, and not everyone will be reading this isn’t necessarily interested in a sports career or making that career change, but we are in an industry that’s always front and center. We always had that spotlight on us and it’s something that we asked for, that’s why we broadcast our games but in this industry of sport, people want to know about opportunities. Is there an opportunity for me to make a career? I decided a long time ago for me that I was never going to be 6’4” and 240.

I know that surprises you, but I did have that realization several years ago. I didn’t anticipate working in sports when I was in college, but eventually, I had that opportunity. To your comments, I decided to take advantage of it and do all I could to make something of it but you’re a minority. You’re a black man in America who has led a successful career. You’ve worked for it. You’ve had opportunities that have been presented to you, pounced on them, and made the most of them. What do you say to people who feel perhaps that they’re not going to be presented those opportunities or it’s not in the cards for them?

I’ve been fortunate to have some good mentors. I believe that I’ve been able to acquire those mentors because they saw hard work, dedication, a willingness to learn, listen, and to go above and beyond. My father and my mother taught me those things at a young age, whether it was working around the house, cleaning up, and taking pride in what you did, but then also having the opportunity to do those things and make some mistakes along the way. What sometimes happens with other young people is they don’t want to put their nose to the ground and work hard.

Don’t worry about what you aren’t getting and worry about what you are getting because they don’t think about the opportunity sometimes as an opportunity. They think of it as, “This is all I get to do?” Don’t think about it from that perspective. If you think about it as, “This is what I get to do,” and also think about it as if you do it well, you will get to do more things and take the more responsibility that you get as a badge of honor rather than a badge of burden. I’ve been fortunate to look at it from that perspective and that thought process has served me well and I try to instill those same things in the young people that I have the opportunity to affect some positive change on at Maryville University.

Find something that you truly enjoy, become good at it and that will be your career. Click To Tweet

At the risk of thinking or suggesting that I can add anything to what you’re saying, you do remind me of some advice I’ve tried to give young people over the years, especially when it comes to the sports business but in any industry. That is if you focus on what you were doing at the time, that you’d been asked to excel at, whether you are working in the mailroom, pulling the tarp, or you’re working in the promotions department, it doesn’t matter what. Whatever you’re being asked to do, if you will do your best at that and excel at that and exceed expectations, the world will find you.

You cannot hide. I always like to say that success cannot hide. People will tap you on the shoulder when you least expect it and say, “I’ve observed your productivity, value, the worth you bring, your dedication to your job, and I’ve got an opportunity for you.” Instead of always having what I call professional impatience, have the opposite. Be professionally patient, diligent, and do your best. It’s amazing how opportunities open up.

My father taught me something at a young age. Your parents always want to know what you want to do when you grow up or what you want to do. I told my dad that I wanted to be in the same business that he was in. He owned a couple of different businesses in the town we lived in and he said, “No, son. What you want to do is find something that you truly enjoy, become good at it and that will be your career.” That has stuck with me all this time. That and being coupled with putting in those values that I shared, I’ve been fortunate to have a good career.

You’re making great careers for other people too. Once again, I want to express my admiration for what you’ve done, Jason, and what you continue to do. I sure hope Maryville keeps you there for a long time because you’ve created a legacy there. I’m proud to be a part of it and I hope that I can continue to make a small contribution to the great things that you, Dr. Lombardi, and all of your colleagues are putting out at Maryville University.

I appreciate that, Rob. We’re fortunate to be able to work with you. We thank you for that. We are fortunate to have many others work with our program as well and that’s what has made the program be successful. Also, that coupled with the vision of Mark Lombardi, our President, it has been outstanding.

Thanks for spending some time with us and sharing some wisdom with us and also your own story. It’s inspiring. I’ll see you, Jason. Hold tight.

We’ll see you in the fall of 2020 as always. We look forward to that time and again. We appreciate the time and the opportunity to speak with you, Rob. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you, Jason.

Thank you, Rob.

Important Links:

About Dr. Jason Williams

GFEP 13 | Sports Specific College DegreesAs a practicing professional and industry educator, my work is heavily focused in building innovative partnerships and sport business sponsorship.

I am an experienced, collaborative, energetic leader who excels in data-driven decision making.

GFEP 12 | Instagram Influencer

 

The instantaneous nature of Instagram has helped make it one of the world’s biggest platforms. But this week’s guest has figured out that instant doesn’t mean random. Instagram influencer Zach Benson has devised an imaginative and impressive way to use Instagram to build a shared network of 220 million followers. Enter Assistagram, a marketing agency that leverages the power of that massive following to drive brand awareness, leads, and sales.  Far from flashy and certainly not privileged, this week’s Game Face Exec is humble, scrappy, and a respectful caretaker of his clients’ brands. From being a global breakdance instructor with students in 40 countries to becoming a worldwide marketing influencer, Zach Benson sure does know all the moves. Listen in as he spills it all on the show with Rob Cornilles.

Watch the episode here:

Zach Benson | The Incredible Instagram Influencer

Maybe you’re not on Instagram. Facebook, yes, LinkedIn, sure. Instagram is for a demographic that doesn’t fit your profile or you think it’s a time sink that you can’t afford to get caught up in. I get it, but that doesn’t negate the stunning rise of our Game Face Exec, Zach Benson. A small-town Iowa boy who was bullied in school, Zach took an unconventional route of becoming a professional dancer competing on national TV and then parlayed that to instructing breakdancing in 40 countries. Most impressively, he further went on to become a worldwide Instagram expert, who’s built a network of more than 220 million followers. You’ve got to read his story.

I am grateful that Zach Benson is with us. Zach, it’s been a long time that I’ve wanted to talk with you on this show. You and I have become friends and more aware of what each other does. My readers are going to be fascinated with your story and with your accomplishments, your achievements. Let’s start with that. I’d like you to help us understand what Assistagram is and then we’ll talk a little bit about the story behind it.

Think of Assistagram like your own personal virtual assistant that’s hyper-focused on your Instagram account, doing hundreds of thousands of manual actions every day. It’s a whole lot of human power. We don’t use any bots or any software to grow people’s accounts. It’s the real human being interacting and doing all the things that you need to grow your account, creating content for your account, optimized hashtags, engagement groups, posting for you seven days a week. It’s having someone handle it 24/7. That’s what Assistagram does. We specialize in Instagram campaigns reaching millions. We help people build a brand around Instagram and then monetize it.

It’s an amazing service. I don’t want to give it away. I want you to share the number. How many followers does Zach Benson have on Instagram?

If you look me up on Instagram, you’re going to find @ZachVacay and that has 70,000 followers. Collectively, I own over 40 accounts. I have a six million travel network. With Assistagram, all of our influencers and celebrities signed with us, we have a network of 220 million on Instagram. It’s big. I have accounts in the travel space, fitness, beauty, health, motivation, entrepreneurship. Pretty much, we’re doing it all.

All over the world.

The biggest risk of all is not taking one. Click To Tweet

Normally, I’m in another country, another culture every single week. I’m in good old Iowa where I was raised and grew up and went to high school and college here. It’s nice to be home. It’s good to spend time with family. I’m at my parents’ house on their sun deck.

Zach is taking his last rest before he hits the road again. I know you’re heading overseas. You’re heading back to the US. You’ve got a couple of events going on in the Midwest and on the West Coast. You’re heading to Asia, to Korea, and you’ll be there for some time. We’re fortunate that this is your last chance to interview with a podcast such as ours. We’re grateful that you took the time to do this, Zach. I want to go back and ask you a little bit about Assistagram. With all the social media platforms out there, why did you select Instagram as being the one that you were going to focus on and explode for your own business?

I got into this in 2014. The same guy who got me into dancing called me up, and he was like, “Zach, you’ve got to get in on this. There’s a massive opportunity here. Me and my brother are making a ton of money growing all these people’s Instagram accounts.” I bought into a 400,000-follower account. What we did with the account was we promoted and advertised on that account and promoted other people’s pages and rinse and repeated the process. Back at that time, we were growing thousands of followers per day, almost 8,000 followers per day. It was crazy.

The reason why I picked Instagram is because I saw it growing fast. It started in 2012 and I saw that every single year it was growing by 100 million users. Now it’s over two billion active users. With all the stuff that’s happening with TikTok and TikTok maybe getting banned and shut down, everyone is going back to Instagram. It’s where all is happening. I saw some different things that Facebook was doing. Of course, Facebook owns Instagram. I was like, “If I don’t get on it, then I’m going to be left behind.” I might as well take a first-mover advantage, take it seriously and go all in. It worked out pretty well.

I know you’ve invested a lot of time building your business. You’ve also invested a lot of money, which is an important point. For those who want to go big, you have to spend big. You have to spend money to make money. Was that ever difficult to put your trust into a social media platform, mentors, or consultants who were pushing you to make these huge investments and these huge commitments? I know you’re that guy who says, “I’m going to announce to the world what I’m going to do. I may not always win. I may not always succeed, but I’m going to tell everyone what I’m going to do and I go in all the way.” That’s Zach Benson as I know you. Talk a little bit about the mentality that’s required to be that person.

In 2008, I did an internship with my college president at the time, Dr. David Grow. This guy was amazing. He went to the National Academy. He was General in the Army, CFO of Texas Instruments, and a White House fellow too. He became my president and I was like, “I want to learn from you. I want to learn leadership and how to speak on stages and be a great speaker like you.” He took me under his wing. What I learned from him was the biggest risk of all is not taking one and that hit home with me. I’ve always been a go-getter. I see something I want to do, I take action, initiative, and I go for it.

GFEP 12 | Instagram Influencer

Instagram Influencer: Instead of thinking about what you can get and take, think about what you can give to those people that you’re interacting with.

 

I’m not one to think about things a lot. I take that leap of faith and see what happens and I try to make the most of it. That’s my mentality with everything in life. If I see a person I want to connect with, I do my homework, research them, buy their products, and then connect with them. Some people say no and sometimes it doesn’t work out, but I’m always thinking, “What if?” I always see everyone as a potential friend. I always am thinking about what I can do within my power and my network to help others and to give freely. That’s how I’ve been able to build my network fast.

To answer your question about investing in myself and investing in masterminds and training and mentors, it was scary. I remember paying my first $5,000 to attend events and then I figured out how to 5x it. Every time that I do it, it’s a little bit scary because I’m worried. I’m like, “What if I don’t meet anybody? What if I don’t get any business?” I realized that I was operating out of the wrong mindset. I was operating out of a transactional mindset like, “If I pay this, then I want to get this.” That’s what everybody expects and wants. Instead of thinking about what you can get and take, think about what you can give to those people that you’re interacting with. I switched that. I paid $100,000 for a mastermind and that was scary. That was 2019. I have 2x-ed it. We’ve only had one event because of COVID. It’s worth it because mentors shave time off your learning curve. Instead of doing that, you go faster.

I’ve always referred to that in that same way to mentors or trainers. They accelerate your learning. I’ve often said that you can go through the School of Hard Knocks and figure it out on your own or you can find the right mentor, the right trainer, the right coach. That person can accelerate your mistakes and accelerate that learning curve. Why go through the School of Hard Knocks when you don’t have to? There are many capable people out there, such as yourself, a common friend that we have. In fact, the person who introduced us, Trevor Crane, has been a terrific resource to me and to you as well. He’s the kind of guy that you’re describing as someone who gives. There’s a cost to it, but he always makes sure that we get our money’s worth.

I always operate from a beginner’s mindset. I’m always questioning to learn and to understand people and to understand things and life better. Also, I’m a firm believer that you can learn something from anybody. It doesn’t matter if somebody is a billionaire or multi-millionaire or they’re homeless on the street, even handicapped. You can always learn something from somebody. Everybody is important as a human being. You have to express a genuine interest in others, ask questions, listen, and learn.

I like that part about listening. Don’t ask to ask but listen. I was listening to something you were saying, Zach. You slipped in there that you were a dancer. That’s not what we would have expected to learn on a podcast about someone who’s got tens of millions of followers. Tell us the backstory on you being a professional dancer.

Before all this marketing stuff, Rob, I was a breakdancer. I danced and taught all over the world. To take it a step back even more, I was born in South Korea and adopted by my parents in the States, and then I grew up in Iowa. Growing up for me was hard because I had a speech impediment. I never talked. I never participated in class. I had a 1.6 GPA in school. Life was bad. I had no friends, no confidence until I found dance. Dance changed my life. It became something I was passionate about. It became my fire. That same dude who got me on Instagram got me into dancing and he gifted me this breakdance DVD, How to Break Dance by Mike Garcia. He was like, “You’re the Asian sensation. You need to live up to your Asian-ness. You’re the only Asian kid in our school who can’t dance.” I watched it, fell in love with it and I practiced.

You can learn something from anybody. You have to express a genuine interest in others, ask questions, listen, and learn. Click To Tweet

I kept practicing, working hard and started a crew, and eventually made it on TV. I was on this TV show called So You Think You Can Dance. You can barely see me because they only show the crazy drama and crazy people and the good ones. I never won the show, Rob, but I advanced to the fourth-round finalists in the LA audition and that was enough to help me teach dance in over 50 countries. Towards the end of my career, I was making towards $1,000 an hour teaching dance workshops around the world. A lot of people were like, “How did you do that?” I figured if I can choose three different age groups, three classes, two hours each, $50 per student, ten students minimum, give $5 per student to the studio owner, then I can do that. Normally there are 20, 30 kids per class and age group. I did that every single week. I started in Iowa, Midwest, and all around the world and I did that for several years. It was fun. Teaching is my passion.

Teach us a little bit about the following subject, Zach, and that subject is influencing. As you know, at Game Face Execs show, we like to focus on the power of persuasion and the role of influence and inspiration plays in our lives, both as recipients and as givers of persuasion and influence. We hear a lot and we’ve been hearing it for years about influencers. I was wondering if you could describe for us what an influencer is in your mind. How do we know if we are an influencer? How do we know if we’re interacting with one?

What is influence? People like John Maxwell says it’s like leadership. Each one of us has value and worth as a human being and value and worth to offer others. Each one of us has a little bit of influence over our peers, friends, and family. To me, influence is impacting people in a positive way so that they come to you and they ask you for advice. They ask you for help. They ask you for your take on life and take on a situation like, “What would you do, Zach, if you’re in my situation? If you were me, what should I do?” That’s influence. It starts out small like that. As you grow your audience and you start to dominate a platform, it grows a lot bigger. You’re sharing your message on Facebook, Instagram Lives, through Instagram Stories and you’re impacting thousands to millions of people.

With that, many people are learning how to monetize their influence. I would ask you, what is your purpose of having tens of millions of followers who are obviously influenced by your message, by your story, by that which you teach? What’s the ultimate end game for that? Is it to build up a bank account? I’d ask what you think it is for you and then what you’re also seeing out there, other examples of people who have used their influence for a particular purpose.

Why I do what I do is because it goes back to my dancing days when I was traveling the world. I met other dancers, other amazing artists all over the world like in Morocco, India, and all over Europe. These people were way better than me. Skill level and talent-wise, they’re a whole other dimension, whole other level. I was like, “What’s the difference?” I’m able to monetize because I know about branding, PR, scaling, building, and growing businesses. These people are better than me. Why can’t they monetize?

The reason why I wanted to get into Instagram and grow this 220 million-network is that I wanted to help others do more of what they love every single day. When they’re doing that, when they have that one hour a day or two hours a day, four hours a day for some, they’re doing that and it’s what makes them happy. We can make the world a happier place by helping those people. That’s what I do with my influence. I like to see others succeed and reach their goals and their dreams and help support them. When you do have more influence and power, you can use that for good to open up doors for people or to help them along their way towards their dreams.

GFEP 12 | Instagram Influencer

Instagram Influencer: Influence is impacting people in a positive way so that they come to you and ask you for advice.

 

I can get on LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook and I can see people who look like everyday folks. If you will, they look fairly young. When our parents and grandparents were in business, were going up the corporate ladder, you couldn’t have influence unless you had some gray hair or some wrinkles. It seems different today. Young people, if I can use that term, people in their 20s, 30s are grabbing influence and spreading it throughout the world as you have done. Should we feel that they have taken shortcuts that they haven’t deserved that moniker of influence? Have they simply learned how to use tools or resources that technology has provided? They’ve exposed good and value that they have that in previous times we never would have recognized.

When I think about that, a couple of things comes to mind. Everybody wants to go viral but going viral is hard. When some do, it can reach millions and millions of people and they might have that one moment and know how to leverage it to their advantage, open up more doors, get more publicity, PR, more buzz and more business. Some people don’t. Some people know how to crack the code and they’re growth hackers. They’ve done hard work to figure out what types of content has viral potential, what types of content they need to create to potentially go viral and reach millions of people and other growth hacks to crack the code and the systems to grow their audiences in the millions.

There are people who take the fast track. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a smart thing too. We live in a fast-paced, smart world and things happen instantly. Some have marketing minds and they know how to sell themselves. They know how to be on stage and close to people. Some people have it and some people don’t. That stuff can also be learned. You can also pay others to do it for you to take the fast track path. When I first started, people were like, “You’re everywhere. How did you get everywhere?” I don’t feel like I’m that high level. There are many other people bigger than me.

They see me on all the stages with Tony Robbins, Russell Brunson, Sylvester Stallone, all these people. They’re like, “How did you do it?” I hustled. I worked hard for years before I made $1,000 an hour. I was barely getting by. I was struggling. I was about to quit. I did quit several times. I even almost shut down Assistagram a couple of times. How I got all of my press and my PR and built my brand, I didn’t take a fast track. I hustled. I found other ways to get my foot in the door. I used one article and one news interview and got some more. That’s how I got my first Forbes article. It was all through connections and relationships and it wasn’t paid for.

It sounds like the old adage, “It takes ten years to become an overnight success.” You’re a living testament of that. It took a lot of work. Back in the day when I was young, Zach, it seems like a lot of people wanted to go to Hollywood and become movie stars or television stars. You’d look at some of the people who made it and you would think, “How did they make it? What was that little something that they had?” Sometimes it was luck. As a casting director or a director or a producer, they had that something that was hard to identify, hard to even explain. To me, in today’s world of social media, those who are going viral, sometimes it’s good luck. Right place, right time, right video, right message, perfect timing because the world needs to hear it or see it at that moment. Most of the time, it’s strategic. It’s well planned. It’s thoughtful. That’s what you’re describing for us.

Let me break it down, Rob, of how I did it. I was a breakdancer and I wanted to get on TV. I saw this weather lady do a weekly workout and she traveled to different gyms and yoga studios and tried all these different types of workouts. I saw on one of her episodes that she did a pole dance class, a pole studio. I knew the lady who owned that because I did workshops at her studio. I was like, “Can we do something special? I’m going to do a free class and give you all of the profit. I’ll give my time for free. I’ll make you money.” I want to do something fun for that weather lady. She was like, “Sure. Why not?” I made it happen and that’s how I got on WHO TV. I was a local Iowa celebrity. I used that same video link when I reached out to other studios and news stations.

When you have influence, you can use it for good to open up doors for others and help them along their way towards their dreams. Click To Tweet

When I went to Kansas City and taught a workshop there, I reached out to FOX 4 Studio. It was huge. I was like, “I did this with this weather lady. Why don’t I do the same thing with you? We can do a fun little thing and I’ll teach you how to breakdance on live TV.” She thought it was sweet. She was big into fitness. I kept on using it. For my Forbes article, I did a Facebook Live in 2016. There was one like on that video and there were 100 views, but then the replay happened. One person who was watching, she had a big PR agency and she was like, “Zach, I want to travel the world for free like you. I want to buy an Instagram account from you and teach me how to travel for free.” I gave her a fair deal. I was like, “Here you go.” She felt loved and respected from that.

I went and over-delivered and she’s like, “You’ve got to meet my friend, Jules Schroeder. She’s got this podcast called Unconventional Life. You would be a good fit.” At that time, every person that was on Unconventional Life Podcast got a free Forbes article because she was a Forbes contributor. She wrote Millennials, Here’s How To Use Your Instagram Account To Travel The World For Free. It was on Forbes and it went viral, and that’s when I got major clients. It was the right timing, outreaching to people and not being afraid of being rejected, relationships, charging fair prices for my services and not overcharging. Making people feel loved and respected with a fair price and luck.

People say that luck is more likely to come the harder you work. There’s so much I want to ask you about what you related to us. First of all, you keep referring to the fact that you have to have a regard and love for other people. Where does that come from in your life? You were born in South Korea. You were adopted by an American family. Where does that feeling of love come from? I don’t mean to get too personal with you or to presuppose anything with you. I would imagine that some adoptees feel the opposite of love when they learn about their past. Maybe they were abandoned or someone didn’t love them. I’m not saying that’s ever the case for any one particular person. It would be natural to feel that way. Where did you get this spirit of love and wanting to do good by other people?

I owe it all to my family and God. I was blessed. I’m grateful for my family here in Iowa. They supported me through it all, even my darkest and hardest times where I was pretty much failing out of school. I was always getting in trouble, getting bad grades, getting in fights. They thought I was going to be a juvenile delinquent, end up in jail my whole life. I struggled in school. They helped me with everything. My dad was spending every single night with me after school, helping me with my math homework because he’s in accounting and stuff and a math whiz. My mom was always helping with English and homework and stuff.

My grades started to get better when I started to take it more seriously. I started to realize how they went through life without complaining. They were caring to everybody, not only me but also people on the streets and random people and all their friends. I learned all of that from my parents. My faith as well, I did this program called Mission Year in 2009. I lived on $2 a day for food a year by choice because I wanted to learn how to live on less so others could have more. This guy named Shane Claiborne wrote this book called Irresistible Revolution. It was about how he and Mother Teresa worked together and helped people in Kolkata. They served the dying and the sick.

I got him to come and speak to my college and then I was like, “I want to live like you. I want to give back. I want to serve.” He’s like, “You can.” He touched me on the shoulder and he was like, “You’ve got to connect with my friend. He’s got this urban ministry program called Mission Year. I highly recommend that you do it.” Right after college, I graduated and then I told my parents this and they’re like, “We spent all this money and you’re going to go live on $2 a day for food? You’re not going to get paid. You have to raise $12,000 to do it. That’s crazy.” I was like, “Yep. That’s what I’m going to do.” It was life-changing. It taught me a lot about others. It taught me to see people as people and treat everyone as an important human being.

GFEP 12 | Instagram Influencer

Instagram Influencer: You should be on top of mind for everyone. You want everyone to endorse you and sing your praises.

 

I haven’t met your parents yet. Hopefully, someday I will. They sound like unbelievable people, sweet people who obviously had a great influence on you. As you describe yourself to us, Zach, your background, and some of the things you went through when you were younger that you had to overcome, a few years later, you created a personal brand that’s unmistakable. People who know you, people who follow you, they understand who Zach Benson is. How would you define personal branding? I know that’s a big part of what you teach. It’s a big part of the service that you provide your clients. What is personal branding and why is it important?

I had a chance to meet Gary Vee in 2016. He’s a big influencer in the marketing world. He got almost ten million followers. We spoke on this influencer marketing panel together in Hong Kong. He’s like, “If you want to have a successful business, you’ve got to be everywhere. You’ve got to work hard. You’ve got to grind. You’ve got to travel. You’ve got to speak. You should be top of mind for everyone.” When they think of Instagram marketing agencies, they should think of Zach Benson. When they think, “Who can help me create a big personal brand and help me monetize it?” they should think Zach Benson. You want everyone to endorse you and sing your praises. I worked hard on that and double down on that. I took his advice. That’s it.

Is there a difference between personal branding and corporate branding? When you work with your clients, are you working with individuals primarily? Do you also assist brands themselves?

Assistergram, that’s our new company. I think of it like this, your name is your most important asset. I read that in a book one day. I forgot who said that. You are the business. You are the commodity. You live and breathe it every single day. I think that they go hand in hand. If I had to choose one, I choose to focus on you. That’ll spread and the word will get out. I don’t know if I answered your question well.

You are answering it. Let me go a little bit further with it. Let’s say that I’m a corporate brand and we feel our brand needs some improvement or some polish. Are you suggesting that it starts with the individuals within that organization that they need to develop a positive image reputation or does it start from the top down? I can see the advantages of either. One of my concerns, starting with the bottom up, is that someone within my company may develop a great personal brand but then they leave and they take it with them. I’m left with my old, raggedy brand on the corporate side and I have to start all over. If you’re talking to a corporate entity, a decision-maker who wants to hire you and Assistagram for your services, what are some of the initial steps that you would encourage them to take?

It could go both ways. The founder and the CEO, we get them on more TV, podcasts, and WordPress and get more of their story, their vision and missions out there. Let’s say we work with Ritz-Carlton. They’re big, but they have many properties all over the world. We’ve worked with a lot of them. We’ve worked most of them in Asia, Hong Kong, and Thailand. What we’re helping them with is their content for that particular resort go viral to drive more tourist visits. Great content leads to more growth and exposure and potential customers. That’s what we’re focusing on. It’s the content, the storytelling, the messaging, the videography, all of that, and then using our influencer network to get in front of everybody that they’re targeting. That’s what we’re doing for Ritz-Carlton.

As an influencer, your name is your most important asset. You are the business. Click To Tweet

It’s about taking that brand and finding the sweet spot as to what their story is. What is their message? What’s their differentiator? Making sure that’s communicated through content that we might find on Instagram to make sure that cuts through the clutter of all that there is out there to look at. Am I interpreting it correctly?

Yeah. We want to get their message, values, principles, services, and experience out to the world. The best way to do it is through social media. What does everybody do as soon as we wake up every day? We no longer wake up to an alarm clock. We wake up to our phones and we begin scrolling and consuming content. If you don’t have any epic content that’s going viral and reaching millions and millions of people, then you’re going to go out of business. It’s how it works. Instead of being a consumer yourself, think about how you can be a creator. Pump out content and be everywhere. That’s the goal. That’s what you’ve got to do to stand out.

Does the content have to be perfect?

Not at all. That’s the thing I learned with breakdancing. I was never the best dancer. Some people are good freestylers. They listen to music and they react. Some people are good at following choreography. You know this. In sports, some people have amazing hand-eye coordination. They can follow patterns. Other people got to work a little bit harder and they’re more freestylers. This is like everything in life, freestyler or a combination of both or the other. When you’re freestyling, you’re listening to the music and simply reacting and moving. How I feel in my music is different than how you feel the music. Every person is different and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a good thing to simply feel it and groove and put it out there.

A lot of people get stuck because they’re afraid of what others will say. They’re afraid of looking bad, getting made fun of, and looking silly. You’ve got to get over that. That’s what I’ve learned through my dance career. I’m not the most eloquent speaker and best grammar and stuff. I have an expert writer that sometimes writes some of my stuff, but it’s my personal stories and experiences and some of my statuses. There are some statuses that I feel it, I post it, I write about it and that still goes pretty viral. It’s being vulnerable, authentic, genuine, showing people the times when you lost a big deal and the times when you screwed up and made a big mistake. Stuff that you look back on and you’re embarrassed, but you share that with people on social media and you tie it back into business, it’s something that people can take away. People will resonate with that.

I’m thinking about the type of client that Assistagram takes on. You answered the next question I was leaning towards and that is, what is a good client for you? Also, what’s a client that probably won’t work with you well, meaning it won’t work out? Let me see if I can answer it and then you correct me. A good client for Assistagram and Zach Benson is one that’s willing to take some chances, one that’s willing to be raw, authentic, spontaneous, and also vulnerable.

GFEP 12 | Instagram Influencer

Instagram Influencer: Influencer marketing is a $15 billion industry and is rapidly growing. If you’re not taking it seriously, you’re going to get left behind.

 

A bad client would be one who’s always preparing to get ready. They’re always waiting for that perfect moment, that perfect word choice, that perfect message and they’re not taking advantage of the opportunities that are there every single day. Every single moment of every single day, people are doing what you said, they’re scrolling. They were on Instagram ten minutes ago and they get back on it right now. They want to know what’s happened in the last ten minutes. Am I describing your ideal client and then the client maybe that you probably would pass on?

Yeah. The thing is that we also are perfectionists. We like making things look good and people look good. We prep you before you go on an interview or a TV show. Our design team is insane. We want to make sure that your content looks the best from a design perspective because that’s important to me as an artist. You’re right, Rob. We like to work with people who trust us and trust the process because we’re the experts and we know what we’re doing. At the same time, we’re open to advice and changes and willing to let the best idea win between us all. That’s how we work. People who like to move fast and puts stuff out there. You summed it up pretty nice.

Give us an idea. What is social media and Instagram, particularly what does it look like globally? For those of us who don’t have a lot of exposure to it, tell us how it is evolving. Frankly, tell us how it’s changing the world.

It’s 2020. This has been a crazy year. Social media-wise, the biggest thing was Instagram rolled out Instagram Stories. It pretty much shut down Snapchat. TikTok is about to get shut down by the president and it’s crazy. Everybody is shifting again to Instagram. Overall, influencer marketing is a $15 billion industry and is rapidly growing. More and more brands, companies, and people are getting onto social media, investing lots of money to get their products and services seen and known and heard all over social media. If you’re not taking it seriously and investing in growth and investing in content and trying to make that go viral, you’re going to get left behind. Social media is how we communicate. It’s how we do everything.

Before someone might hire Zach Benson and Assistagram, I know you’ve got a book coming out. It’s called Reach. I was wondering if you could share with our readers a little bit about what we will gain from obtaining the book Reach? How soon can we get our hands on it?

We’re taking our time with this. This is going to be out in 2021. Reach, it’s how to connect with anyone, how to build your influence and create a lifestyle business. The main takeaway is it’s about connection and how to find creative ways to stay in touch with people, how to get the top 1% in your industries singing your praises, endorsing you, and helping you create that lifestyle business. It’s teaching you how to work from anywhere and have fun while doing it. The biggest takeaway is that life is all about people. It’s teaching you ways to create deep relationships with others that can open up doors. It only takes one person and that one person could lead to multi-millions and millions of dollars.

Life is all about people. It’s all about connections. Click To Tweet

I was talking about this with David Woodward who’s the Chief Business Development Officer of ClickFunnels, Russell Brunson’s company. He interviewed me on his podcast. He was like, “All it takes is that one relationship, that one connection. That could be 5, 10, 15, 20, 100x your business right there.” What we’re talking about in the book, Reach, is how to reach up, reach out, serve, give back, and also reach within and learn how to make people and companies that you work with better.

It’s a great message, Zach. I’m an admirer of yours and also grateful for the work that we are doing together and we’ll do together in the future. I can’t wait to get a copy of Reach when it’s available. I appreciate the fact that you’re taking your time on it. Good things do take time. I appreciate also your time with us amidst your busy schedule. We’ll make sure that our readers know how to reach you. Are there any questions, Zach, that I didn’t ask you that I should have asked you in this time together before we say goodbye?

Honestly, Rob, this was one of the best interviews ever. I mean that because you did your research and homework on me. I was also surprised by some of the questions that you asked me, they’re good and thought out questions. I enjoyed this interview. Thank you for your time and for giving me this opportunity. I would love to connect with all of you. I’m happy to connect and I would love to hear your story. Feel free to reach out to me on Facebook and Instagram, @ZachVacay. Our website is Assistagram.com if you need help with any of this stuff. More than that, I love to connect. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Thanks again, Rob. This was awesome.

Thank you, Zach. Take care and safe travels.

Thanks, Rob.

Important Links :

About Zach Benson

GFEP 12 | Instagram InfluencerI’ve lived on $2/day for food, searched and reunited with my birth mother, volunteered for refugees, and traveled the whole world. My experiences have taught me to see equal value in all human beings, and to celebrate each moment as if it’s the last.

GFEP 11 | The Brand Man

 

Can a retail company in 40 states close more than 200 mega-stores during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, then watch their stock skyrocket to a record high that same quarter? Yes, the Brand Man can. Can a chairman/CEO of a sleepy firm seeking to go public successfully inspire an all-star cast of directors to join his board? Yes, the Brand Man can. Can a retail company in a competitive category sell value without going cheap? Yes, the Brand Man can. Lee Bird, Chairman and CEO of Dallas-based At Home, is this week’s game face exec.

Watch the episode here:

Lee Bird | The Brand Man

How loyal are your customers? What will they do? What obstacles will they get around to get to your product? Until you build a cult-like following, it’s not a following. It’s a fad. Lee Bird, Chairman and CEO of the home decor giant, At Home, is building a cult-like following among his loyal customers in ways that any brand, nonprofit or for-profit, could learn from. Let’s hear from the Brand Man himself, Lee Bird.

Lee Bird is the Chairman and CEO of At Home based in Plano, Texas. Let’s start out right away, Lee, with some phenomenal news about At Home. In the second quarter of 2020, which we all know, that was the height of the pandemic your company had an unbelievable performance, a 770% rise in your stock. It was a record-setting quarter for the company, which to me is the opposite of what anyone would expect when everyone is staying home and they’re not shopping. They’re not going out to retail stores. What happened?

We did two things. We played defense and offense at the same time. As Q1 settled in and COVID went across our country, we knew we were going to have to close our stores. We had to prepare ourselves for store closures, but also pivot and go on the offense and accelerate our plans on eCommerce so that people felt more comfortable shopping from home. Buying for curbside pickup and having product delivered, both of those services specifically weren’t available to our customers before this. We did both. When stores reopened, they opened with a flurry.

It was extraordinary and we had the best company performance ever for us financially. When you have 50% revenue growth, 42% same-store sales growth, and that’s in a quarter where some of the stores were still closed. On a store-by-store basis, that’s a 62% increase in same-store sales. Over $200 million improvements in liquidity during that time and reducing our leverage ratios down 4 turns over 5 times, 1.5 times debt to EBITDA that we got ourselves in a beautiful position thankfully. It’s because our customers wanted to come to our store and felt like we had great value.

As you’re describing that, I’m wondering how much of it is due to the strategic shifts and pivots that you made in real-time? How much of it is due to the pent-up appetite of the consumer to get out of their home to get into an At Home store?

Certainly, we’re blessed to be in a great category. People are all at home and we’re all working from home. We normally would be in our own offices at this point and we’re not. People are spending more time at home. The category is growing like we were growing. We have a nice tailwind for us. We did a lot of things and we had a tough year in 2019, honestly. It was a time where we had some step back and same short sales performance for the first time in six years. We took a hard look at ourselves.

“What do we need to do to fix our performance and what’s on us to go fix?” We did those things last fall and early this spring. When we reopened, we already had our pricing sharper than ever. We had a go-to-market approach called EDLP plus, which is campaign management to highlight our low prices. That was reinforced with people being at home and could see our campaigns in our emails. We enhanced our loyalty program, for example.

We improved our product assortment and did what we needed to do to make sure we had a great assortment. When people are ready to engage in the category, we were the person that they would engage with. We had a 100% increase in our online views on our website. We had a 50% increase in our email open rates. That allowed us to be more relevant than ever. We did our part to enable our customer who is now engaging in the category more than ever to consider our store than any other place.

One could say in the nick of time, you’ve made these fantastic improvements. You’ve been in your position as CEO of the company, chairman of the board. You mentioned the improvements that were made in the fall of 2019. What was happening up until that time when you took on a company that some would have said was a little sleepy at that time. Now, seeing these record sales, record revenues, you’re $1.5 billion in sales, what was happening in that ramp up? Can you share with us a little bit under the covers what we would have seen?

It was a private equity-backed company and just been acquired. It was a business that I was interested in acquiring myself with another private equity firm that we couldn’t get the deal done. I loved the business. It was called Garden Ridge based in Houston, Texas, at the time. It’s a little over $300 million in revenue. I was blessed with the opportunity to become the CEO. They invited me to come in to deliver a growth plan. Create the plan, deliver it, build an executive team, scale the company, take it nationally, and take it public as the liquidity event. Now, it’s the objective of the private equity firm and those are my objectives as well, so we did that.

The power of bricks and clicks is the way to go forward. Click To Tweet

I would say what we focused on is making sure you had the right product value assortment right from the beginning. We had to make some assortment corrections. We also had a brand that didn’t resonate well with customers. The company had a history where in fact, it had been bankrupt and had not been a great place to work. When I did the research, it was clear that while it was a great business, it wasn’t going to scale with that background and that history. We had to leave that history behind, at least the name. Go to a new name and get a fresh start within the world of eCommerce. You have all that history.

Yelp reviews for customer experiences that weren’t great. You have Glassdoor that tells you your employee experience wasn’t great. You have the internet that says the company has been bankrupt. You have to shed all that. We had the strategic requirement to change the name of the company. I also moved the headquarters to Dallas because that’s where our top retail talent lived. I didn’t live there either but I moved my family there so that we could scale the business. We needed a team of people. We needed 400 people at the headquarters building to scale this thing.

We did that. I put a great executive team together. First and foremost, it starts with a team and with the right people in place. They hired great people. We moved the headquarters and revised the business and the product assortment. What essentially it is democratized home decor. It’s low price home decor in all styles, so it’s a one-stop-shop. It’s a big box concept, the size of a Walmart or Target, those big 100,000-square-foot stores, but it’s only home decor. It’s only our product, private label, private brand, which allows us to sell it at prices below everybody else’s sales price.

That’s what we did. We made those adjustments. We’ve changed the name. We then went loud and proud of it from the marketing standpoint. Same-store sales started taking off. We had five straight years of same-store sales growth. We were growing units and opening up units. We had a 20% unit growth for five straight years as well. We took the company from $350 million to over $1.4 billion in 2019 in just 6.5 to 7 years. It’s highly profitable. It’s been a great opportunity to do something that I never thought was possible before to create a national brand.

We took it public in 2016 on the New York Stock Exchange, which was a unique opportunity for our team to experience that. What it allowed us to do most importantly was give everybody in the company an opportunity to be an owner in the company. I wanted everybody to have the same blessing of ownership that I enjoyed and our private equity owners enjoyed. Going public allows you to share the shares with everybody. We did that and that’s the situation we find ourselves in where we have essentially every store manager and owner in the company get shares of stock every year and our employees get shares as well. We all win together, which is the most important thing.

There are 219 or so stores around the country in 40 states. You went from primarily a local business to what you described. You’re doing it in a time when it seems like a lot of people are told or taught that retail is becoming passé. Retail is your grandfather’s or your grandmother’s model. That’s not true. You’re proving that it’s not true. If you’re standing in front of a college business class, what are you telling them? What do you teach them about the power of retail? How can one be successful? Especially in a pandemic, when many retail stores, smaller ones, mind you, but nevertheless, many of them seem to be going out of business. It seems like you’re doing the opposite. What are we missing?

A personal connection with the consumer is what you need. I would tell you a face-to-face in-person connection allows for that to be even more intimate and personal. Having a physical presence so that customers can see, touch, and feel. Certainly in our category where we’re talking about decor, items around primary furniture pieces, think about rugs, lamps, wall art, tabletop decor, and patio furniture, you want to see it. You want to make sure it matches the paint chip that you have or the throw pillow that you want everything to go after.

You have to realize also that everybody pre-shops on the internet, so they decide where they’re going to shop. Do they want to buy online? Yes, you could do that. What we’ve done is we’ve become a full omnichannel retailer in 2020. It allows people to pre-shop online. They could buy it, picked up in the store, delivered it to your home, or curbside pickup. Also, by having physical stores, when you don’t end up with what you wanted or you brought two because you wanted to see which color works best at home and you want to return it. Having a physical store is easier than packing it up, re-sending it back, and having all the returns. Having that relationship back with the store again and again.

What we did differently than most people do too, is all of our eCommerce and all of our business is centered after the store. We have one place of inventory. Every store is a warehouse. That’s where we fulfill all of our sales. That team owns that relationship in the community regardless of how it’s sold. If it’s bought online, picked up in the store, curbside pickup, delivered, returned, it’s back to that store in that store director who runs the business. We feel like the power of bricks and clicks is the way to go forward. What we also did is we related doctors to that, but we made sure we rolled out eCommerce profitably. Every single one of our eCommerce transactions makes money.

I know there are a lot of eCommerce businesses out there that are hot and cool but they don’t make money. I’ve learned over time in my 30-plus years in businesses, if you don’t make money and throw off free cashflow, you’re not sustainable over time. Consumers want sustainable companies, and sustainability is delivered by profitability. We do both, but at the same time, offering lower prices than even eCommerce guys do, enabled by a low-cost structure and some other things we’ve done. That’s how we’ve done it. We feel like physical stores enable that to have that intimate relationship. That’s why we’re continuing to open more stores in the future.

Do you see any vulnerabilities in retail in the future? Have you already identified those? Are you taking mitigating steps to counter those?

GFEP 11 | The Brand Man

The Brand Man: Consumers want sustainable companies and sustainability is delivered by profitability.

 

It’s interesting in retail, in the consumer business, those that are on the luxury side and those that are on the value side do well. If you’re stuck in the middle, your customer value proposition is not going to last and it’s going to be challenged by the people below who can take those styles, democratize it at lower prices, and make it easier for people to buy at lower prices. What you have to do is either define yourself above and have this great luxury brand with beautiful quality and beautiful stores. The prices are high, but it’s a smaller group of people that can access that, or you have to be able to have a broad reach with lower prices and great value on the other end.

What we’ve done is we’ve gone there. We’ve said, “We’re working to democratize home decor.” We have the largest assortment, the lowest prices, and we allow that to be seen by our customers and our competitors online. I would say that people that do that are going to win. The people that are stuck in the middle and don’t have a great customer value proposition, in the end, will struggle. I’ve been responsible for brands along the way.

I was chairman for the Coke company, which is based in New York and sold all across the world. We sold it to oligarchs and monarchs, who are our best customers, then you’ve got the value business like Old Navy where I was a chief financial officer and head of store operations as well and now, At Home. Those value players are the ones that are sustaining their business because, in the end, people are careful with their money. During economic cycles, you need to be able to be accessible in terms of price points.

You’ve talked a lot about value. That message is coming through clearly. Talk a little bit for us about the quality of the product because as you mentioned, you have 50,000 SKUs, 50,000 products. I’m sure you’re growing that. How do you identify those channels and manufacturers? You mentioned that they’re branded At Home. If you would describe that a little bit more for us and the decision-making that goes into what ends up in your stores.

I use the word value because that’s what customers are looking for, the best value. It may not be the lowest price because sometimes the lowest price has poor quality, and then that comes off cheap. You want to be a great value. That’s been our journey. I would tell you that is a journey as a value player, as a low price leader, so we are the lowest price. We’re going to be the lowest price you’ll find out there below other people’s sales price, but it can’t be cheap. We’ve spent our time focusing on making sure that we have the lowest price but continue to reinvest our profitability into better quality. We look for better factories and design partners that can help us design products affordably with great value.

Because we’re At Home brand, we don’t pay the brand premium of another person who designed it. We take the middleman out, which allows us to have that lower price. It’s a journey and a continuous effort on our part to improve the quality. Customers’ expectations for quality always go up. It doesn’t go down, and they expect prices to always go down. When you always have your price, compression is a challenge and expectation quality. That’s why I always say it’s a journey. You have to keep working on item-by-item and you continue to refresh your items to make sure that you can get to that right balance and still deliver what the customer is looking for.

Lee, if the pandemic had not occurred and people hadn’t moved to an at-home environment where we’re doing more work from our homes. We’re starting to get used to it and many people are now preferring it. Some companies are mandating it. In fact, some companies are even saying it’s permanent, that they’re not going to require their people to come into an office space. If that had not happened, would we have seen these types of improvements, this rapid growth at At Home? Probably not to the extent we saw it, but it sounds like you were prepared for this. It sounds like this shift that you had a lot of time, a lot of effort, years have gone into this. What does the rest of 2020 look like for your business? What are you anticipating for 2021?

We did prepare. 2019 was the first year we had negative same-store sales in six years. We had twenty straight quarters with the same-store sales growth plus a 20% increase in unit growth and strong profitability every year. 2019 was a step back year. It’s still profitable but sales from the same-store sales basis weren’t positive and slightly negative. We went back as an executive team and retooled our business. We had issues like weather, which affects your spring business like patio and garden. There were lots of wet weather last spring, which hurt our spring business. We had tariffs due to the trade war we’re having with China, the US trade war.

Our product costs were increasing by 25% to 30% in cost in certain categories like furniture, accent furniture, and wall art. We eventually had to raise prices, which meant that our customers weren’t getting what they expected from the price-value relationship, so then sales were challenged there. Even though our prices were lower than our competitors, they still were above artificial price barriers. We had to go back and look at that. Honestly, in our fourth quarter, our Christmas assortment was a shortened Christmas selling season. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was the shortest time in a number of years.

That squeezes our selling period for Christmas decor and Christmas trees, and we sell a large assortment of that. Our assortment was good, but then all of a sudden, we went on sale much earlier. We then had to go on sale earlier, so it was a tough quarter. All of those events turned into a not perfect year for us, so we retooled and we worked on things. We needed to get back on mojo and start winning again. We did that and we started seeing progress in February. We changed our go-to-market approach to an everyday low price, but we went to a campaign approach. We highlight a particular category for three weeks, show that category pricing, and have that as a campaign called EDLP plus.

Hire people smarter than you are and you'll get smarter. Click To Tweet

Those campaigns are starting to drive same-store sales growth for us again for the first time in five quarters, and then COVID hit. I would tell you, we started getting momentum before COVID. What you would have seen now if that had continued, you’d still see the same short sales growth in Q1. You would have seen it in Q2. Would it have been to these extremes? Stores were closed for a long time. There was pent-up demand. There was a stimulus check too that happened for our economy and for people that were struggling. That brought people back faster. What it has done is allowed people to spend more time at home and focus on this category.

We think it’s going to be a multi-year benefit to our category like when 9/11 happened. People didn’t travel as much. They stayed at home. It felt less comfortable traveling for obvious reasons, and that was a multi-year benefit for this category. We’ll see the same thing here. There’s no vaccine inside, unfortunately, so people are going to be careful for some time, which means there will be home for some time. I can’t say that I’m working any harder than any other people in retail because they’re all working super hard. It’s that some categories are more important to our consumers than others. Thankfully, we’re one of those categories.

Your executive team and you are doing a phenomenal job, but your hard work is paying off. That shows in the numbers. There’s another side of your business, so that’s interesting to me. Those who are reading will also find this to be a fascinating study. When you took over in late 2012, you were charged with moving the company to become public. That requires the formation of a board and all of the necessary hoops to jump through to become a public business. I also had the experience, not to the extent you’re going to explain to us I hope, of working with a company and going public.

It was about the same time that you were working through this at At Home. Eventually, despite our efforts, we decided against it in the end, so we pulled out. We couldn’t get the valuation that we were hoping for. You’ve been successful in getting the valuation but the board is what I find interesting. If anyone looks, they’ll see on the At Home board a diverse collection of professionals, people who have vast experience. People who’ve served as president, CEOs, chief revenue officers, and so forth for Norwegian Cruise Line, Caribou Coffee, Loews, PetSmart, the list goes on. How did you go about forming that board? If I understand correctly, you started from a blank piece of paper, which is a rare opportunity that a CEO has. Walk us through that experience.

When I joined, there were the private equity owners and they had appointed one person to the board. We had to fill the whole board. What I did is I sat down with our private equity owners and we mapped out a plan. There was a study that I had read, a book called Blueprint to a Billion by David Thomson, an ex-McKinsey partner who had studied all the companies that had gone public over the course of the past 35 years in the US or more. He only found less than 400 companies that had gone from going public and made it to $1 billion and they were all industries. He found seven common characteristics to those companies that had made it to $1 billion. This is essentially a blueprint to $1 billion. It was his premise.

One of them was a high-powered board. I knew that in the back of my mind and I knew we had to have that. When we looked at what our board needed to be, we knew we were a high growth retailer and we wanted to be a high growth retailer. The only way you achieve that is you have people around you who help you get there, who’s been there and done that. We wanted folks that had been at high performing retailers that it scaled it and that it scaled their business from smaller to larger. Take, for example, Larry Stone, who’s our lead director. He started at Lowe’s as a store employee. There were only maybe five stores there, and eventually became the president, chief merchandising officer, and chief operating officer for Lowe’s for a number of years. He sits on the Dick’s Sporting Goods board as well.

There is an example of some people who have scaled it. Phil Francis is another person who was Chairman and CEO of PetSmart. He started when they had less than 200 stores. When he retired as chairman and CEO, and he was the CEO the whole time during this time, it went from 200 to 1,200 stores. He knew what scale meant and what it took to build infrastructure to grow. We needed to go public, so we needed to have somebody who ran the audit committee. Wendy Beck is who we selected and she had taken Norwegian Cruise Line public as the CFO. She had been the CFO of Domino’s Pizza before that as a public company after their IPO. We needed somebody who had been through that IPO process.

I’ll give you an example. Those three were our first three board members that we hired and we look for people like that at that caliber. For example, John Butcher, one of the board members who came to us from Caribou Coffee where he’s the CEO, also runs the bagel businesses that that private equity company owns, which is known as Einstein Bros. Bagels. He has those businesses under his watch as well. Before that, he was a senior merchant at Target. He had been in big box retail, had been involved in our category, and had been a big leader at a great retailer like that. Now, he was the CEO of a great brand. He’s somebody who had a cult following.

We think about our brand, we want to be a cult-like brand. That’s an example of another skillset. We wanted a merchant but had been in a cult-like brand. We wanted somebody who’s been in marketing and had been in multiple brands. Elisabeth Charles had been the Chief Marketing Officer at Athleta, Petco, Victoria’s Secret, and brands like that. An example like that is Paula Bennett, who’s also on our board, has been the CEO of J. Jill for over a decade. She took it from a small brand to a great brand that we all know. I give you those examples. Joanne, who’s also on our board, is the acting CEO of Tapestry, who’s the Owner of Coach and Kate Spade. She was the CFO there.

We have skillsets like that, a high power group of people, and a diverse board. We have four women on our board. Our customers are women, so we should have our board reflect the face of our customers. We need them to be high performing because we want high performing. They’re my boss, and I need a boss who’s going to push me to push our business to reach its full potential. Thankfully, folks like that were interested and willing to be a part of the At Home family.

You said fortunately, they were willing, but at Game Face Execs, we’d like to talk about how the power of persuasion and influence plays a part in everything we do in business and in our personal lives. Lee, don’t undersell yourself here. You had to be a persuasive individual.

GFEP 11 | The Brand Man

The Brand Man: Customers’ expectations for quality always go up and they expect prices to always go down.

 

I corded each of them individually. Joanne, who was at the time the Chief Operating Officer of Abercrombie & Fitch, was a busy person and had a busy job. I said, “I’ll fly to Columbus. I’ll go to your office. I’ll meet with you. Please give me the opportunity to talk about At Home and the At Home board.” She did that. Paula Bennett was at an investor conference two years before she joined our board. I said, “Can you meet with me?” She gave me fifteen minutes in the hallway.

I’m courting them because we’re a small-time and they were big time, but I wanted them to know what’s possible and the fun part about building a great company. Also, if they had that entrepreneurial spirit at all, which they all do, to help build something great. I said, “Why don’t you build the next great American retail company with me?” I was grateful they said yes and I’m grateful that they’re my boss and my partner and we’re better for it.

I won’t ask you who but I’m sure others said no to you. Not everyone’s going to say yes. That would give a phenomenal close rate, as we say. You were successful in getting the attention of some high power individuals with terrific experience, who already had done what you wanted to do for the most part at At Home. At the same time, you also seem to have the confidence to be able to hire people who might know a little bit more than you in some areas.

That’s how it should be. Hire people smarter than you and you’ll get smarter.

It’s worked out for you and you’ve been successful. Let’s talk about young entrepreneurs and startups who are looking to take this great idea that they hatched in the basement of their garage. They think, “No, I don’t want to involve other people who might take advantage of me, who are smarter than me, and might snooker me out of too much share of my business.” You don’t have that attitude. You’ve been in private equity and you know how it works. What are some lessons these young entrepreneurs and startups ought to be learning from your example?

You want to have the best team out there. I grew up in New England and they always had this philosophy to draft the best available athlete. You want the best one. Even if that position is already filled, you deal with that problem. You want the best available athlete. Get the best people you can around you and it will make you better. You’ll learn a lot from those folks and they’ll push you to be better. I’m not uncomfortable with that. I’m comfortable enough in myself to say I’m not going to be smart in certain areas and in other areas, I may be stronger, but either way, shore up the whole team.

There’s a book out there called the Team of Rivals, which is about Abraham Lincoln when he became president. He picked for his cabinet three of the people that ran against him as president and some of them were in different parties. He formed this cabinet of people that had more success winning elections, more success in politics, and more international experience than he did. Now he’s considered one of the greatest presidents we’ve ever had. He’s certainly one of the most courageous people we have in our history in this country.

Courage is required to have a willingness to hire people smarter than yourself. I would tell you, you’re better for it. It makes you a little uncomfortable sometimes because they are smarter than you. Aren’t you supposed to be their boss? If the whole enterprise wins, you win because you learn and when you stop learning, life is over. I love being around people that I can learn from. I would tell you, I’m impressed with my team, individually, to a person. I would take our team against any other retail company in the world regardless of the size and say, “I’ve got the best in those slots and I learn from them every day.”

I would like to echo what you’re saying to something I haven’t shared with my own clients at Game Face, but that is a fact and reality. Back in the early 2000s, I was starting to see some growth that was getting away from me. As you’ve seen before in other businesses, you can grow too fast and you can scale too quickly. Everyone wants to scale, but then sometimes, it gets away from you. That was happening to me in the early 2000s. I met two people who were smarter than me, who showed an interest in my business.

The day you stop learning is the day you stop living. Click To Tweet

At first, I was not only intimidated by them, but I didn’t trust them because I thought, “They have some underhanded motive, and eventually, they’re going to fool me into taking my business.” You talked about courage. The other word that I would throw out there, and this is something that one of our previous guests, Steven MR Covey, is an expert in talking about, and that’s trust. I had to develop a sense of trust in those people, not dumb trust. You’ve got to be wise, do your due diligence, and do your research on people.

When I finally began to trust those two individuals, they did fantastic things for my business and helped me see my blind spots. You’ve learned that lesson previously in your career. If I may also, let’s go to the other side of your business. We’ve talked about the senior leadership and the board. You also mentioned the managers of your 200-plus stores and the people that work with them. What do you learn from them, Lee? How are they different from other retail workers that I might encounter when I walk into some of your competitor’s places?

I always say the most important job in our company is the store director position. Each and every one of them run a big enterprise. Each business does about $7 million in sales, which they only do with 30 people. The store is the size of a Costco or Walmart of 100,000 square feet. On average, they may walk 7 or 8 miles a day in their shift because the store is so big to get across it and so on. Teams are moving freight from the backroom to the front of the store. It’s a self-help model. They run a playbook from us. It says, “Here’s how we want the store to be merchandised. Here’s the product we want to have highlighted in these certain parts of the store. Here are the policies and procedures that we have for you to run effectively.”

Knowing that we’re trying to help them run it the most efficient way possible. What we found is our team members are incredibly devoted and hardworking. It is a physical job because you’re moving a lot of product, and you’re an owner-operator. We give them shares of stocks that they do in part of the company, but they’re operating it every day and they’re the ones seeing our customers every day. I don’t see a customer. I don’t serve a customer. I’m overhead. I’m store support. They’re the ones who see the customer every day. They’re the ones who hear every day what the customer was looking for and what they’re expecting from the store. They’re the ones who have to deliver that customer experience.

Is the store neat, clean, and organized? Always. Are they getting the support that they need from our employees? Can you fill out the roster every day if they have enough people to show up? This is an hourly workforce. Most of them have just a high school degree. I say just, meaning they don’t have as many opportunities so they’re going to go to where maybe they can get $1 an hour or more. How do you convince people to stay with you when they could get paid more somewhere else and they could do an easier job? I’m grateful for our store directors. They are wonderful people that are loyal. Their commitment level to our company is extraordinary that they exhibit every day. My job is to serve them. How can I help them and make it easier for them?

Your store directors have to be persuasive as well in order to get those associates to agree to that job at whatever wage you may be offering. Can you share with us a little bit more about the characteristics of an effective store director when it comes to the skill of persuasion and the skill of selling? Is that something that you require when you hire them that they have to have a sales background or at least a proclivity to it?

Our stores are self-help, so it’s a self-help labor model. Think about Costco. It’s a store that people are most familiar with. We’re like that. We’re a warehouse store. We put it on the shelf. There’s no commission salesforce. It’s self-help shopping enabled. The customer goes around without getting a lot of help. If they need something off the shelf and brought up to the register or taken out for the car, we’ll help them there. What we do is we make sure the store is neat, clean, and organized, and then we run the register. I say that’s it, but there’s a lot to that.

You still have trailer loads worth of product coming in 3 to 4 times a week, and then you still have all these what I call pesky customers sometimes that isn’t always happy. You have to put a great face on every day and support them. We have two teams in our store, a customer service team and an ops team. We hire people for those teams. It’s around personality types. If you’re a type of personality who gets a lot of energy by hanging out with people and helping people, then you’re going to be on the customer service team. You’ll be in charge of servicing and conditioning an area and you’ll be in charge of running the register and engaging with customers.

If you like getting stuff done and making stuff move, you’re going to be on the ops team. You’ll be unloading the truck, getting the product to the floor, unloading and packing, and getting it all set. Two separate teams, two separate managers underneath the store director that run those teams. The store director looks for what do you like out of life? What type of work do you like to do? We put people on teams that way. They’re the ones that help pick people that are go-getters and have that entrepreneurial spirit. What we do is we make sure that people are rewarded. Everybody in our company is eligible for a bonus based on their store team performance or our company performance, and those metrics are known.

At the store director level, for example, that bonus is uncapped if we want them to feel like an owner-operator. If you have a 5% increase in your sales plan, you have a $20,000 bonus. If you did a 10% increase, then that’s double, so your bonus is doubled. If you did a 15% increase, you get a triple, and that bonus is uncapped. We’ve had people who’ve made over $100,000 in their bonus and they make $75,000 to $80,000 for a store director. Their bonus is much larger because they had an amazing year and our company had an amazing year because of them. They own stock. We give them stock every year and they earn stock every year, but then they get this bonus.

We show every store employee in the back of the store. There’s a chart that Larry Stone, our lead director, instituted at Lowe’s. It says, “Here’s how much a store associate makes part-time per hour and for the year, and here’s your bonus.” Let’s say you make $10 an hour, 2,000 hours a year. It’s $20,000 a year, you get a $1,000 bonus. That’s what our team members are eligible for, but your assistant manager makes $40,000 and she gets a $10,000 bonus. Your store director makes $70,000 and gets a $20,000 bonus. Your district manager, the person that shows up once a week or so, makes $110,000 and their bonus is $30,000 or something.

GFEP 11 | The Brand Man

The Brand Man: The most important job in the company is the store director position. Each and every one of them runs a big enterprise.

 

We have that chart in the back of the store that says, “You as an hourly person could someday make $100,000 a year if you want to with our company.” Almost all of our store director, district manager, and regional manager positions have been filled internally because we can show people who maybe only have a high school degree. I say only because they weren’t given those opportunities or those weren’t accessible to them. They can provide beautifully for their family. As you can tell, I have a lot of passion for our team. They do amazing work and I want them to win. I want them to take care of their families and realize all the dreams they ever had because of what they do for our company.

You’re sharing a culmination of a rich career that you’ve had, Lee. All of that experience that you’ve had over the years at different brands and different roles is culminating what you’re describing. It’s a wonderful story. I want to go back though, in time a little bit about your career. I appreciate everything you shared with us about At Home. For example, you’ve had three prominent roles in the retail business. You were the President of Nike Affiliates, Chief Operating Officer of Gap, and Chief Financial Officer of Old Navy.

Any one of those positions is nirvana for a lot of people. They’re going to retire with that position. Why would they want to do anything else? Such great brands with such customer affinity. As you have looked back through the years at those types of opportunities, did you move on because of fit? Did you move on because you had achieved the goals that you had set for yourself? Did you move on because it was a better opportunity for you? Was it all of that? Was it none of that? Help us understand the career path that has taken you to all these different and diverse experiences.

I’ve been blessed. It’s been a great career. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great brands and amazing people. A lot of the time in those places, I was able to know the founder of that great brand. That was neat to be able to see what they had envisioned to be a part of helping that to be realized. Each career decision has its own set of decision-making criteria. First and foremost, it still comes down to what’s best for my family? I’ve been married to my wife, Linda, for more than 34 years. She’s been the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my life. She’s a wonderful partner. She’s the greatest business consultant in my life and advisor in every decision like you, Rob, in what’s right for our family and our children.

Sometimes, we stay where we are because 1 or 2 of my kids wanted to finish high school in that town. We made a decision to do that. This is a good time for them to move because it’s a good chapter in their life. Each career decision still involved the family decision that came down to a family council where they would vote and everybody got the same boat. Hopefully, my persuasion would help them want to go where I thought the career was going to be benefiting. I also had to provide for a large family. I have eight children. They get expensive, especially when they’re in college. An upwardly mobile career allows us to be able to provide better for our families.

I like learning. Part of my moves is because I had learned while I could. I couldn’t learn anymore where I was, so I wanted to learn more, so then I needed to go somewhere else to learn more. Maybe learn a different industry. When I went from Gap and Old Navy, which was apparel, which was new to me before then, that was an amazing experience. I worked with great people and great brands, to then go to Nike. I got to be the President of the Nike Affiliates, so all of those groups and businesses. I was in charge of Cole Haan, Converse, Hurley, Bauer Hockey, and Starter. It was a fantastic opportunity, and then to be on the Nike executive team to learn what the Nike brand did to be what they are now.

It was such an opportunity to learn and soak it in like a sponge as they say. Part of it is learning because I can’t stand still and stop learning. Part of it is to not stop in my own development. Some places said, “We can ever see you as a president. We can see you as the chief operating officer but you’re not a merchant, so you can’t be a president with us.” I thought I could be. If that company didn’t see that because they decided to put some artificial barriers on my potential and I thought I had more potential.

I didn’t listen to the voices, what people said, “You’re only a finance guy. You can never be those things.” I thought, “No, I can be those things. I’m going to go after that.” I had to move on to go after what I thought was my full potential. We’re supposed to realize our full potential in this life. My career has been blessed and I’ve learned so much. I’ve worked with great people and I’ve been taught by great mentors who have helped me have those experiences. People took a bet on me and I appreciate that too.

I have to tell you a story that you reminded me of. It’s not about you, but it is about one of the brands that you’ve worked for. It’s not a secret story, but it’s one that I haven’t thought of for a long time. When Game Face was based in the Portland area, I would pay a lot of visits to Nike if you were there at the time, leaving those various brands you shared with us. You were in the inner circle. You were one of the top eight executives at Nike, meeting with Phil Knight, Charlie Denson, and other people that were running the company at the time. I had a chance to get to know Phil Knight in a different way.

One time, Phil and I with one other individual were chatting at Nike near Phil’s office. The other individual threw out some crazy notion that maybe there was a position for me at Nike. At the time, I’m running my own business, Game Face. This guy was conjecturing, “Maybe Rob could serve in this way or in this way.” Phil looked at me and pulled the sunglasses down, as only you know. He looks at me and says, “You’re not the Nike type.” The conversation stopped there. It’s interesting we were friends. I certainly respect Phil Knight for everything he’s done for Nike, for the sports industry, and commerce. I hope there’s a little bit of mutual respect for me.

We are supposed to realize our full potential in this life. Click To Tweet

Even though you’re friends, that doesn’t necessarily make you the right fit for a company or for a brand. I’m sure you’ve had a lot of people who’ve come to you because you’ve been in private equity as well where you get to identify people that should serve within a particular enterprise or company that would be a good fit for management. I’m sure people have come to you and they said, “Lee, how about me? Can’t I be a candidate?” You probably have had to say, “It’s not a right fit.” What does that mean in your mind? Is it okay to say to someone, “It’s not a good fit?” Is that a DISC? Is that perhaps a message that there’s something better for them?

It’s not a DISC. It’s a reality and in both parts. You could decide this company isn’t a good fit for me for the culture. When I interviewed people for a role, I’ve always said, “We’re both figuring this out.” In my first interview with a candidate whether it’s for the board or my member, the executive team, I spend two hours with them. We get to know each other first and foremost because I want to see, do I like this person? Do I want to spend all this time with them? I have this policy at our company. We have a no jerk ratio policy, so we don’t hire jerks. A jerk doesn’t mean somebody I can’t work with. It means I have a certain style.

I would tell you, I’m not a screamer or swearer, so I’m not going to want that around our business. It doesn’t help bring the best out of people but either way, some people do that. That’s up to them but that may not work for us. I would tell you, you’ve got to figure out the culture of the place. Whether you’re looking for the role or you’re creating that culture, you want to make sure you sustain that from the culture standpoint in your own company, or that you fit that as a candidate. It’s not a ding. It’s a reality. Culture is as much a part of the business as the performances, and the culture delivers the performance.

At Nike, for example, that culture is strong. It’s about winning. It’s about being on the offense always. One of their maxims says, “If you’re not competitive and you’re not willing to go at it and try to help the brand and the business be successful, you’re going to be left behind.” That’s who they are. That’s not bad and that’s not good. It just is. They’re extraordinary and they had a strong culture. Gap had a strong culture. When I started at Gap, I remember walking into a room and people would look me down and up. Was I fashionable enough to be there? I come from technology and I’m wearing not-so-cool clothes.

I want everyone to know you are fashionable.

I’m better than I was back when they started at Old Navy. I would tell you, I learned. I had to make sure I had fashion denim on and embedded in a great jacket or blazer. My belt had to match my shoes and my watch band and all these things. That’s part of the culture because they’re a fashion business. You have to get a culture. It has to be right for you and you have to make sure they’re right for your company. It’s not bad, it just is. Don’t ever give up on that and don’t settle for that either because it will come back to burn you later anyway.

You are a great advisor. You’ve given us great advice in this episode. I also know that you’re an advisor for organizations outside of At Home as you’ve gathered a board of directors. You served on the board of directors. I’d like to focus a little bit on the industry of sport because you served on the board of Larry H. Miller Group, which is the owner of the Utah Jazz. You served on Tom’s Ownership Advisory Group, the owner of the club.

You also have an ownership interest in a double-A franchise in town where you spent some of your formative years. I’d like you to share with our audience a little bit about those collective experiences serving as an advisor in the sports industry. What you do with the Dallas Stars, which is where you live and work in that community, that’s particularly of interest to me and it would be to our audience as well.

I’m grateful to be a part of that team. I would tell you what Tom and Jim Lites set up. Tom, the owner, and Jim, the CEO at the time, and now Brad is the CEO. They envisioned early on when Tom bought the team that since Tom lived out of town, the idea was they wanted to see one of the enterprises to be commercially successful. Not just have a great team and win a lot of big games and hopefully, win a Stanley Cup, but also make it commercially successful because Tom’s a successful business person. Since he wasn’t in town, he wasn’t going to be there to help nurture those business relationships that are necessary for the team to be commercially successful.

You need sponsorship and you need people who are going to be supporting the arena and filling the seats. You need to have community involvement to have the entire community want to be a part of the Stars movement as well. They formed this Ownership Advisory Group that I joined right after I moved to Dallas and I was grateful for it. Our job at the Ownership Advisory Group is to help the Dallas Stars on the business side be commercially successful, help them make money, and help them think through how do you get more sponsors involved in the Dallas Stars? How do you get more people to come to games? What does that take? What network do we have that can help them and introduce them to those people, to then have those people be a part of the Dallas Stars family in the business?

That’s what I do. I help them, serve them, and I get all the benefits of being an owner. They’re kind enough to let us be a part of the ownership group in the sense that we get the owner’s box and we can travel with the team, tickets to games, access to all sorts of team experiences and so on. That’s great for my family who is new to Dallas. That allows me to connect more with the team. I can then help the team be commercially successful, which then allows the team to stay in town because it’s important for a town to have a team.

GFEP 11 | The Brand Man

The Brand Man: Culture is as much a part of the business as performance. In fact, it is the culture that delivers the performance.

 

That’s why I’m a part of the Montgomery Biscuits ownership group too because I grew up in Montgomery 1st through 8th grade. I want that town to have a sense of community. We have a team downtown at the Riverfront at this beautiful stadium that the city built. It brings the community together and it brings families together and creates memories for families. Sports create those family memories that nothing else does. If you can make it commercially successful, then those teams stay in town and create more memories for the family.

You’ve been able to open up the At Home stores. I’m sure you’re using great mitigation efforts to be cautious and abide by certain guidelines as to how we should respond to the pandemic. We haven’t been able to do that in the sports industry yet. For those who are reading who come from that industry, you would agree with me when I say that our communities need that. They need to have that release to get back into a sporting environment because of all the reasons you said. It’s not just for entertainment and relaxation, but it’s also because it’s a great way and place to do business. I’m sure at Dallas Stars games, you’ve done business. Hopefully, from your lips, we’ll be able to get back to sports soon. To set the record straight here, Lee, are you any relation to Larry Bird?

No, I’m not. After eighth grade, I went back to Boston. I’m a Boston Celtics fan. I’m a fan of him, but no relation or whatsoever. If you saw me play basketball, that wouldn’t have been in question.

The jersey doesn’t say, “My little bro, Larry.”

No, I had to buy it on my own.

Lee, this has been an enlightening conversation. Thanks for letting us come into your store and giving us a tour of what is making At Home successful. We wish you, your company, and your associates continued success. I would encourage all of our readers to get into your store, get online, and see the quality products that you have and the value that you provide. For those who are interested, where would we find you? What’s your ticker on the Stock Exchange?

HOME.

How appropriate. Thanks for letting us join you in your home, Lee, in At Home. Have a great rest of 2020 and a terrific 2021.

Thanks, Rob. Thanks for this opportunity. Take care.

Thanks for being a part of this episode of Game Face Execs. If you found any of it useful or helpful, please rate or like and subscribe to our YouTube channel. I always appreciate you referring this to others as well. I’ll see you next episode. Until then, persuade, influence, inspire.

Important Links:

Game Face Execs podcast episode 10

 

With all the talk lately about tearing down and rebuilding institutions, government, policing, education, and media, what about capitalism? Cotopaxi Founder and CEO Davis Smith has become a successful and influential entrepreneur because he built what he calls a “benefit corporation” his way. With a unique upbringing, Davis is now training others around the globe to take the best form of wealth-building ever known and implement it even better. This week’s game face exec wants us to think differently about capitalism. Davis Smith has inspired many. Does he persuade you?

Watch the episode here:

Davis Smith | Capitalism, Cotopaxi-Style

If you happen to pass Davis Smith, the Founder and CEO of Cotopaxi from the streets of Ecuador, the Philippines or more likely outside his headquarters in Salt Lake City, you’ll probably find him wearing a t-shirt with two words on the front, “Do good.” It happens to be his company slogan. What does it mean? How does his rapidly growing company from with a major global impact turn two words from a slogan into a mission to the way of doing business? Here is this episode’s Game Face exec Davis Smith, the man on a mission to turn Cotopaxi’s culture into the new capitalism.

I want to welcome Davis Smith to the show. It’s great to see you and thanks for joining us on this show. I can’t wait to talk about Cotopaxi, your career and your rise in the industry but first of all, I appreciate you being with us.

Thanks, Rob. I’m looking forward to this.

For our readers, Davis and I met not too long ago and it was thanks to his brother. Trenton and I were sitting on an airplane together. This is when most people were taking airplane rides and we were heading to Detroit and we were a bit delayed getting into Detroit. We missed our connecting flight and were both going to the same place as it turns out. Trenton and I shared a rental car and for two hours, we were driving what seemed like the middle of the night in a rainstorm and had a great conversation.

He said, “Have you met my brother Davis?” I said, “No, I haven’t. I know of your brother Davis.” He said, “I’ve got to introduce you.” He did. When I got back to Salt Lake City where Davis and his business are located, we got together. I had a great visit and ever since then, we’ve stayed in touch. Davis, your name and what you and your company are doing is becoming recognized not only throughout this country but throughout the world for the good that you do. You went to school without the intent of becoming an entrepreneur. You quickly discovered that entrepreneurship maybe was the ticket to get you where you wanted to go. Why do you love entrepreneurship, one who never thought he’d get into it?

I know a lot of entrepreneurs that they grew up selling cookies for the time they were four years old on the streets. They were entrepreneurial from day one. When I look back on my own childhood, there are elements that I see. It’s like, “That thing that I did, that was entrepreneurial,” but I never thought about entrepreneurship. When I was in college even, it wasn’t something that I talked about. I never remember telling someone I’m going to start my own business. It wasn’t until the end of my time at school that a mentor pushed me in this direction. I found that it satisfied all these passions that I had inside of me.

One of my favorite quotes is by a man Dieter Uchtdorf where he says, “The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul.” I’ve found that to be true. Every person has this desire to create. For some, it might be music, art or cooking. For me, it’s creating business. It’s having this idea and a big vision for what you want to accomplish and how you can impact the world through that idea and then going and executing on it. It’s been a fun discovery. I feel lucky that I discovered it as early in my career as I did.

You mentioned that mentor that pushed you into entrepreneurship. You’ve told me that you wanted to work for him and he stiff-armed you and said, “No Davis, you don’t want to work for me. You want to work for yourself.” A lot of readers are people who are working for someone else. For some, that’s what they are inclined and built to do, to support and help someone else achieve their vision. Give us some advice if you’re working for an entrepreneur. Those of us in sales, what can we learn from our entrepreneur boss that might make us better?

“The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul.” - Dieter Uchtdorf Click To Tweet

There’s a great TED Talk that I watched a number of years ago that talked about leadership. The guy that gave the talk showed a little video clip of a guy on the steep hill at a concert or something. Everyone’s sitting on the blankets, watching and listening. This one guy gets up and he’s dancing crazy, flailing his arms around and doing these weird moves. Soon, a second person goes up and stands next to him and starts doing the same thing. Before you know it, the entire side of this hill is covered with people dancing like this guy, crazy and forgetting what anyone might think of them and what they might look like.

What this guy talks about is that the real leader here was the second person. It wasn’t the first person. The first person had the vision and was not afraid to start doing it but there was no movement. The movement began when the second person joined. If you’re a salesperson and you can find that guy or that girl that’s dancing on the hill that you’re like, “I believe in that.” You can be the one that starts the movement and an entrepreneur is worthless by themselves. They need a team around them and that’s your job as a salesperson. Every company needs great salespeople and every CEO and entrepreneur. One of the skills that they need more than anything is to sell, to be able to persuade people, to influence people in the things that they’re passionate about, and to sell that vision for something bigger that people can join and be a part of.

Your philosophies, as people get to know you better, they discover that they were embedded in you as a young child. As an adult, you’ve been able to tap and discover those tendencies, the way you look at the world, and then you’ve been able to essentially blossom and ensure that those philosophies and ideas turn into good. I want to go back to your childhood though if I could. We’re not going to Oprah Winfrey here and make a cry or anything. A lot of people don’t know that you were raised abroad. You were raised in South America. You have a large family. You’re one of eight children and then you lived abroad as well, even as an adult. You’ve had unique experiences that most of the readers haven’t had. We may have lived abroad or traveled to some extent. If there’s one thing that living and traveling abroad has taught you one experience, you’ve had one observation that you’ve made that you wish others could acquire, what would that be?

It’s something that I’ve thought a lot about during my life. When I moved to Latin America, I was four years old. My earliest memories are living in the developing world. The first place that my family lived was in the Dominican Republic, which was a poor country and continues to be, especially in the early ‘80s. I remember seeing children that were my age 3, 4 years old standing on the sides of the street completely naked. Even at that age, I started to understand that my life was different and I didn’t understand why, but quickly I started to learn that I was privileged. I was lucky in where I’d been born. I had done nothing to deserve this life that I had.

My family was not wealthy by any means. A large family making ends meet every month and being frugal. I never had the cool brands and stuff as a kid, but I had that I knew other kids where I lived would never have and simply because of where I was born. They were as smart as me. They were hardworking. They had dreams and ambitions too. Growing up in Latin America is the greatest gift that I received from my parents, was developing a deep sense of empathy for other people and understanding that I had a responsibility and duty to use my life to be of use to others. That was a passion that I’ve had from the time I can remember. It is what has driven me to use my life to build what I’m doing now with Cotopaxi.

Some people know that I’ve spent some time in Japan. I have lived in Japan a couple of times in my life. I love that country. I’ve said to Allison, my wife, a couple of times, it would be cool to retire in Japan. There’s a romance about that country that I’ve always been attracted to. When you retire, if you could pick one spot in the world, what would that be? Where would it be?

This a tricky one because I spent a lot of my adult life living abroad as well. It’s something that’s part of me. I’d say increasingly I’m looking at Salt Lake. I moved here from Brazil a few years ago to start Cotopaxi. I’ve got some family here in the area and I have loved it. There’s something special about being close to family. There’s a part of me that says I’d be in Salt Lake City where I have friends and family because that’s fun to have that close, but then there’s another part of me, the spirit of adventure. It’s like, “I want to spend some time in it in a new culture.” That would be tough for me. There are a few places in Europe, like Italy that I’d love. I don’t know Italian, but I speak Spanish and Portuguese, which are similar enough when I go to Italy. I may understand 10% or 20% of what’s being said, but without a whole lot of effort, I could probably learn the language. That’s probably a place that I’d be interested at least for the short-term.

Let’s go back to Cotopaxi because it’s your brainchild and you’re the founder of this well-established company. The first thing that someone will notice about Cotopaxi when they look into it and certainly on your website and in other forums is that you have this slogan, it’s simple, called Do Good. Can you describe what that means and how you came up with that particular slogan? What’s behind it?

GFEP 10 | New Capitalism

New Capitalism: No matter what language you speak and what part of the world you come from, helping someone else always feels good and touches us.

 

When I was in Brazil, I was building my last business and that was my second venture. I had been put on this path of entrepreneurship by this mentor. He had been a successful entrepreneur, had become a philanthropist and was making such a big difference in the world. I was inspired by him. He was encouraging me to find my own path and to learn the lessons that I learned as an entrepreneur. That if I had some successes in entrepreneur, I’d have the resources and influence to be able to make a difference. When I was in Brazil, I was thinking a lot about that. I was back in the developing world. Every single day as I drove to work or drove home, I’d be reminded of my childhood and what it was like to live in these places and see many people with so little.

I decided that it was time for me to do something more meaningful. I wanted to do something that could make a difference in the world. There were a number of factors in my life that pushed me in that direction and where the timing aligned, but I knew I wanted to do something that could make an influence. I thought about maybe I should start a nonprofit. I wasn’t sure what I should do but then this idea came to me, “What if I built a business, a brand that its purpose would inspire and move people to do good with us, where I could have a much bigger impact than just me and myself doing something?”

It would be a movement of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or maybe even millions of people around this idea of doing good and the business itself could sustainably do good. When you have a nonprofit, you’re begging people for money all the time and support to help you have the impact you want to have. With a business, I had to create a great product and a great brand, and those products and brand would then sustainably fund global poverty alleviation. This thing that I wanted to tackle and I wanted to be a part of solving. I knew when I started this business, I needed to do it a little different. I identified the outdoor industry as a space that I thought would work.

There is a large total addressable market. It was a space that I was passionate about. I felt like people that had experienced the outdoors or adventure and travel had connected with something bigger than themselves and that they would identify with this mission that we had. I wanted to embed this mission into everything that we did. I knew that another backpack company, the world didn’t need another backpack or jacket company. There are many of them. We needed to represent something different. I started looking at ways to embed that social mission into every aspect of the business, the brand, and the culture. One of our slogans is Do Good. I have a shirt that says, “Do Good.” It’s one of our better-selling products. When you wear that shirt, people stop you in the street and say, “I like that shirt.” It’s something that resonates with people. It’s a simple message.

Why do you think it resonates with people? What is it about the simplicity of that message that seems to be universal?

What makes us unique as humans and different from every other animal on this planet, is the empathy that we feel for others, the desire that we have to help others, and to do good. I remember as a kid, I was a Cub Scout and I got this magazine called Boy’s Life. My favorite part of this magazine was every month, there would be a little story about a scout that would be the hero. They would save a sibling that was in an accident or that would find a stranger and was able to help them. As a scout, that was always my secret dream of like, “I want to be there to help somebody when they’re in need.”

It’s something that resonates with all of us. We all want to be the person that can help that old lady across the street or that can pay it forward in the grocery store line when someone like that single mom that can’t pay for the groceries. We all aspire for that. We share those stories and they touch us and move us. That’s what’s common. No matter what language you speak and what part of the world you come from, helping someone else always feels good and touches us.

In your life, have you ever been a victim of the old adage, “No good deed goes unpunished,” where you try to do good but you got burned or it was misinterpreted or misunderstood? We’ve all experienced that if we’ve tried to do good at one time or another in our lives, this has happened to us. Maybe there’s an incident you can share with us or maybe there isn’t, but what causes you to keep doing good anyway?

“Do good.” #Cotopaxi Click To Tweet

When I had the idea, I wanted to name the business. I wanted the name to mean something. I didn’t want to just create a word or made-up word and I chose the name Cotopaxi. It’s the name of a volcano in Ecuador, where I lived as a kid and as a teenager. The school I went to was called Academia Cotopaxi named after this volcano. I used to go backpack in there with my dad. It was the first place I saw llamas in the wild. It was a magical place for me. This beautiful snowcap volcano, right on the equator, but permanently snow-capped. The elevation is high and a beautiful place. For me, it symbolized a lot of the things in my childhood, these experiences that I had, my love for the outdoors, and living in Ecuador. There’s this connection that my parents were good at helping us go out and serve.

I had some experiences that moved me and that had stuck with me throughout my life and so I chose this name. It didn’t happen in the first couple of years of the business but it’s happened a few times since where I’ve had someone reach out that was Ecuadorian. For the most part, predominantly anyone from Ecuador sees the name, immediately was like, “I love it.” Especially when I learned about the mission and everything. Every once in a while, I’ve had this three times so far and I’m sure there will be more where an Ecuadorian, maybe an Ecuadorian American that’s grown up here will say, “I was excited about this and I was expecting to see the founder was Ecuadorian.” I saw it was a white guy.

It feels like you stole part of our country. You stole this name. At first, it felt hurtful because it felt like that’s part of who I am. I know I look this way, but I grew up there like that’s who I am. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life there. That’s home to me. Ecuador is a part of me and the whole reason I’m doing this is to give back and we have all this impact that we’re doing in Ecuador but there were critical and a couple of them vocal online about it. At first, it was hurtful but I tried to do a better job of listening and trying to understand their perspective and where they’re coming from.

I’ve learned some things not processed. There are some things that we’ve done better. We started investing more in that part of the world where we were originally doing some more of our social impact work in Africa and India. We’ve shifted our focus towards this region of the world which is great by me. It’s where I grew up. It’s a place I’m passionate about. In listening to them, it felt like that would be a better way to do this, where it’s like, “If I’m using this new team, I should be supporting the people in this country and that region more.” There were some painful moments in listening and learning.

You have established a baseline of corporate social responsibility. In Salt Lake City and the Utah community, you are well-known for the work that you do. If anyone follows you on social media, you’re not talking about the company’s successes, you’re talking about the company’s impact that you’re having in various parts of the world and on people. You’re a student in corporate social responsibility and social impact. You studied it at university. Can you tell me where did this all begin? I mean the movement to CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility because I don’t think it was around much or it wasn’t talked about much when I started Game Face in 1995, but it’s everywhere now. If a company is not involved in it, you’re at a competitive disadvantage. Where do you think it originated? Why did it bubble up and prominent now?

CSR is interesting. It’s relatively new. It first started being talked about in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the ‘80s and ‘90s where it started to get a little bit more traction and then in the last few years, it’s become something that everyone is thinking about. The interesting thing is that in 1820, 94% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty. That’s under $1.90 a day in nowadays terms. The whole of human history was like this. Most of humanity has lived in extreme poverty dealing with hunger and not having shelter or other challenges for thousands of years. It wasn’t until where that all started changing. When I was born in 1978, that number had dropped from 94%. In 1820 to 40%. When I graduated from high school, it was 20%.

In 2019, it was 8.5% or 9% of the world lived in extreme poverty. We are eradicating extreme poverty and we can do this in our lifetimes. It’s remarkable but what we’re learning is that cannot happen through government and nonprofits alone. We need businesses to think differently about the way they operate. In the time of my grandparents, there were children working in factories seven days a week. That no longer happens. At the same time, our businesses now in an effort to maximize shareholder value and profit have destroyed our planet. If you travel much, you’ll see rivers and especially in Southeast Asia, Latin America, or wherever you go in the world that they’re filled with garbage that we pollute on horrible plastics all over the ocean.

We see that people are exploited in different parts of the world in order to maximize profits. We’re all starting to realize we each have a responsibility and a role to play in making this world better. Originally, corporate social responsibility was more geared around, “We have all these profits and maybe we should try to get back a little bit.” Maybe some of it was around risk management. It was like, “We need to protect your brand.” Maybe we’re doing some things that people might criticize us for. If we do some good, it might offset some of that. There are some risk management decisions there. Some of it is around philanthropy. Increasingly, businesses are starting to see this as a strategic advantage.

GFEP 10 | New Capitalism

New Capitalism: Eradicating poverty cannot happen through government and nonprofits alone. We need businesses to think differently about the way they operate.

 

This is where the shift is happening. What Cotopaxi is doing, I wouldn’t even categorize it as corporate social responsibility. We’re a benefit corporation which is a new type of entity. It’s a for-profit business, but where you make legal commitments to use your business to do good in the world. For us, what I’m most proud of is not how big we are, how many employees we have or how much money we’ve raised. It’s all about the impact that we’re having. That’s this movement that we’re starting to see. What we know is that especially with these younger generations, when they see a brand that shares their values, they want to support them.

If you build a brand that has these aligned values with the community then it’s amazing the impact it can have on the business. You’re not making a decision between, “Do I have to trade off doing good?” versus, “Making money or being profitable.” I don’t know should we use our profits in this way. For us, it’s a no-brainer. That’s why we exist. That’s why everyone wants to support our brand. This is our passion. We’re going to continue to do good and in return, our community is going to come to support us.

Without disparaging past generations, it sounds like if you want to be a part of Cotopaxi as a board member or as a shareholder, you can’t just look at ROI. To be a benefit organization, it flips everything as far as how you look at the bottom line. How are you balancing the two and still running an effective, productive and profitable business?

First of all, when we started the business, I had to find the right investors. If I found the wrong investor, that was focused on profit that they weren’t willing to make some longer-term investments in a brand that was built around this mission, it wouldn’t have gone so well. When I went and pitched this idea in Silicon Valley to investors, the first thing I led with was the story was the impact, the mission. Some people was clear from the beginning, they didn’t care about that. I knew that those were not the right investors for me. That was a big part of it like rallying the right financial backers. It was also getting the right team. People joined our team because of the purpose. I know a lot of them left big companies Nike, New Balance, Patagonia, and other great brands. They made more money. Some living in a big city and moved to Salt Lake but they came because they believed in the purpose.

When we all were aligned around why we needed to do this, it made the decisions a lot easier around, “Where do we invest our money?” We hired a chief impact officer in the business before we hired a chief marketing officer. We didn’t even have a marketing team but we invested in an impact officer that would help set our impact strategy, that could help us figure out how to talk about our mission, and how to have the most impact with every dollar that we were giving. Those were tough decisions. The board even question like, “Are you sure you want to hire this person before a marketer?” It was core to who we were. It made sense and ended up being a good decision.

If I looked at your business from a historical lens, just traditional business, I might say, “Wait a minute.” It seems to me, perhaps you were devoting too much employee resources and employee time into social causes and not enough into growing the business. It’s like your Do Good is turning into being a Do Gooder. If I came to you with that type of statement or argument, I think you’d shoot it down quickly, wouldn’t you?

I would. One of the greatest benefits that I’ve seen from having this mission and from being a benefit corporation, which I never expected was the fact that we’ve been able to attract and retain talent in a way that we never would have otherwise. We’ll oftentimes have 500 or 600 applicants for a job opening. These are not Millennials. A lot of them are young Gen Z and Millennials that are saying, “I will come to sweep the floor. I want to be part of what you’re doing.” We have people that are at the tail end of their career saying, “I’ve made enough in my life. I want to finish my career doing something I’m proud of. I want to do something that matters to me where I can make a difference.”

This spans across every generation, this desire to be part of something bigger. The same with our customers, they gravitate and evangelize our brand because of what we stand for and the good that we do. They support us. They buy our products because of that. When they wear Cotopaxi backpack, fanny pack or one of our jackets, it symbolizes what they stand for. They can express that outwardly. We’ve never had a problem where we’ve had our employees doing out volunteering too much time in the community. We have something we call 10% in the wild time where you can spend 10% of your workweek in the wild, and it might be on a powder day going skiing or on a hike with your kids on a Friday afternoon.

We can still believe in the principles of capitalism, but we need to think a little bit differently around our purpose. Click To Tweet

We also allow people to use that time to volunteer in the community. I spent a lot of time working with the International Rescue Committee, the IRC that works with refugees. We allocate some time that a lot of people do that during the workweek, but we’ve never not once had an issue where we’ve had to come to an employee and say, “You’re spending too much time doing good and not enough time doing your job.” People want to do a good job but we give a space to do both. They tend to find ways to balance it well.

We, as a human race, have a tendency to want to do good and to help other people. There are always exceptions and you’ve seen them in your business and I have seen them in mine where people might take advantage of your overly generous policies as a company. For the most part, people are conscientious. They recognize that the business has to continue to be successful, otherwise they don’t have a job where they can perform good and do good in the community and around the globe. If I can go back to something you said about the world and the environment, you gave a TED Talk one time where you said, “Nothing has damaged the planet more than capitalism.” You’re a capitalist if I understand the term. What did you mean by that?

I love doing survival trips. A couple of times a year, I’ll go to some remote island or jungle and I’ll bring no food and I’ll survive for a week. I’ll eat spearfish and coconuts. A few years ago, I did one of these and I was on this remote beach in the middle of nowhere, I didn’t see a soul, I saw no boats and no airplanes. This part of the world was like, “I was alone.”

Did you see Tom Hanks by chance?

I saw Wilson floating around the oceans. One thing that shocked me was this beach was covered in plastics. For 100 miles, there were flip-flops, toothbrushes, dog toys, bottle caps, and plastic containers everywhere. Not a few, but thousands of them over a few hundred feet. If you stood in one place, you could reach down and pick up pieces of plastic everywhere. It’s devastating. This has all happened during my lifetime in many years. A hundred years ago, we weren’t manufacturing plastics like this. When I lived in Brazil before moving here, this river that I had crossed every single day to go to work, it’s a slow-moving black sludge. I saw some pictures of it in the late 1800s or early 1900s. It was a beautiful tropical-looking river.

It is sad to see what we have done to our planet. Capitalism has lifted billions of people out of poverty. It’s amazing what it has done to help people while also leaving our planet in a place that’s almost unrecoverable. We need to think differently about what capitalism means and we can still believe in the principles of capitalism. We can look at some supply and demand, making profits, opening up markets, specializing the things that each country can specialize and things that they’re good at and have global trade. I believe in all these principles and these concepts, but we have to think a little bit differently around our purpose.

Do we need to maximize every single dollar to try to make ourselves as rich as possible? Can we use our businesses to enrich the lives of people that work for us, our communities and to help lift people that are left behind? Capitalism is going to change in major ways over the rest of our lifetimes. I know it because I see these young people and they are driven by this. They care about it deeply and I hope that they can look at us and say, “This is a great example of someone that’s doing something different,” and they’re going to see some mistakes that we make. My hope is that they can look at us and they can do something even better and more impactful. That’s my hope is that we can build something that can inspire this next generation to look at capitalism a little bit differently.

It’s interesting to me that you have a mission to assist communities and nations especially those that have historically lived in poverty, but we’re down to under 10% worldwide now. You are a Salt Lake City, Utah-based company based in the US. We are a predominantly capitalistic country. We could put aside politics and ideology, but anyone would admit that capitalism has driven this country to the success that we enjoy now, and we’ve enjoyed for centuries. You mentioned that capitalism has lifted people out of poverty. How do I balance that capitalism has done all of these bad things to the planet and yet we reside in the most capitalistic country on earth in order to produce the good that we can export to poverty-stricken countries?

GFEP 10 | New Capitalism

New Capitalism: One of the greatest benefits of being a benefit corporation is the ability to attract and retain talent in an unprecedented way.

 

We can look at a different situation but similar question. Some of the deep questions we’re asking ourselves as a country is around race. We can look at our past and say, “This is broken.” Something is wrong with what we’ve done. We can take the whole thing and to say, “This whole thing is not worth keeping. Let’s burn it all down. Nothing is worth salvaging,” or we can look back and say, “This country was founded on a perfect idea. It was implemented imperfectly by imperfect people.” The reality is that is going to happen.

We can instead look and say, “This is a perfect idea. We have made progress, but we have a long way to go. How can we make this more perfect? What can I do in my life and in my community to help make this perfect idea more perfect?” I’d say the same with capitalism. We can either burn it all down and say, “It hasn’t been perfect.” We can look at it and say, “There have been some great things that have come from this, there’s also been some real damage, and there are some things that we did wrong that have been hurtful to our planet that have left people behind. What can we do differently moving forward?” That’s the approach I always take.

In the countries where you’re doing work, where you’re making contributions, you have an opportunity to teach them from the ground level what capitalism should mean. You can train them up in better practices of capitalism, learning from the mistakes that we have made perhaps in our country. How does that look when you go and work in these other countries and you’re helping entrepreneurs? How do you begin to teach them the better way of utilizing capitalism to get what they want without destroying something in their wake?

A couple of examples. One would be through our supply chain, we manufacture all of our backpacks in the Philippines. This is an amazing factory. If anyone’s ever been to the Philippines, you’ll love it. It’s where the kindest people in the world. My wife is half Filipina, she was born and raised in Seattle, but I’ve got a special connection to the Filipino people. I love going to this factory. It’s a place where the average sowers have been there for 11.5 years. They get paid well. They listen to ‘80s music all day long, which is my favorite. They have a volleyball and basketball club. They’re an active community or team. One of the problems that we saw there was a massive amount of waste.

All the other brands that use this factory, the brands that we all know of in the outdoor industry, that if you think of any outdoor brands, they are using this factory as well. There are tons of waste, the cutting and sewing of fabrics. We went to the sewers and we said, “We want to do something different. We want to try something and experiment, which is we want to use all these remnant materials or excess material, but we also see a problem that you guys are the talent, artisans, and craftsmen behind this product, but you never get to choose what you sew. You never get to be creative in what you’re building and creating. We gave them the power to use the remnant material and to design the bags themselves. We have certain profiles that they follow, but they could choose any color and material they want with only one rule, to make every bag one of a kind or unique, no bag can be alike.

It’s been a fun project. These teams are seeing, “There’s a company that cares about all this waste, instead of it going to a landfill or being burned, we can find ways to use this.” Showing throughout your entire supply chain that you can do things differently and better. That can inspire thousands of people throughout your supply chains and the way that they think. A lot of these people might spend their whole life in the factory, but a lot of factory owners or leaders in factories spent time on the ground floor. They might think differently about this moving forward.

I’ve shared this story hundreds of times and I’m not going to go into the whole story, but there’s an example that I’ve learned that can answer your question. When I was in my early twenties, I was in college and I did an internship in Peru. I met a shoe shiny boy named Edgar. I find him every single day. It was the highlight of my day every day finding this little kid and I’d bring him food. On my last night in Cusco, in the city of Peru, I found him sleeping on the street, close to midnight. Someone had stolen his shoe shining kit. He was too afraid to go home. He helped support his family and he wasn’t in school.

This boy has been in my mind every single day since 2001 when I met him. He was an inspiration to me. When I left Cusco, I made a commitment that I was going to use my life to help kids like Edgar. A few years ago after starting Cotopaxi, I went back to Peru and I’d never been back, but I wanted to go back and try to find this boy who would now be a man. I didn’t know his last name. I only had one picture of him and one little short video clip of him running next to the bus waving goodbye to me as I left Cusco. Through a series of small miracles, I found him and it was unbelievable. It was one of those beautiful moments of my life.

The day that we can say we've eradicated extreme poverty will be a special day. Click To Tweet

We spent an entire day together. He wanted to show me his home that he built himself. As we went up the hills of Cusco to go to this little house, we took a little bus and then walked up the side of this mountain to get to his home. He told me his life story that he’d been orphaned when he was thirteen. His mom died when he was eleven giving birth to his younger brother, his dad died of alcohol abuse a couple of years later. He raised his younger siblings. We got to this house and it was a house made of mud. It had a hole in the ground for the toilet. There was a part of me that was discouraged to see how he was living, but there’s another part of me that was proud to see what he built himself.

He was proud of it. We talked about what his dreams were and he didn’t have a chance to start school until he was a teenager. He didn’t have a deep education, but he’d always dreamed of being a tour guide. We found a three-year program where he graduates in 2020 but it’s been put on hold because of COVID, where he’s going to be an official tour guide. He reached out to me on Facebook, we’re in touch frequently, and he said, “Davis, I am in trouble. I am in a desperate situation. I don’t know what to do. My school has been shut down. I can’t become an official tour guide.” He sells paintings in the street to make money and there were no tourists.

There’s no one to buy anything. Peru is in lockdown. He has no safety net. He has no bank account with a bunch of money in it that will hold them over for a few months. He has no way to feed his family, his younger siblings that he’s still raising, and his own child that he has. That night I was conflicted about what to do. I didn’t want to be in a situation where I was sending him money anytime he needed it, but I needed to find a way that he could lift himself, but I wasn’t sure how to even do that. That night I went to bed, I was worried about it, and I could hardly sleep. At 5:00 in the morning, I had this idea, which was I woke up and it was clear as day and I knew what he needed to do. Through my social network, I started selling an Edgar walking tour of Cusco, a 30-minute virtual walking tour for $10. We ended up selling $10,000 worth of walking tours for Edgar.

When I was talking to him, I’ve been helping coach him around on how to create a business, how to use this money wisely, and some of these other things. He was telling me that his hope is to build a business where he can help other people in his community. He was talking about how he wanted to do his business. I hadn’t even talked to him about Cotopaxi. He’s following me on social media. I have never sat and said, “Let me tell you about Cotopaxi.” I was shocked he even knew about it, and he said, “I want to build a business like Cotopaxi that’s helping other people.” I’ve never heard that in Latin America. That’s a new concept. All my years living in Latin America, I never saw a business that had a deep social impact or that had a social mission, but this young man, as he’s thinking about building a business, he’s thinking about how he can build a business in a better way through responsible capitalism.

That’s a marvelous story. I appreciate you sharing that. One of the things that I’ve learned, it reinforces what you taught us about Edgar is that when we have this notion to do good in a foreign country, we take our goods there and we ship clothing or other commodities, it feels good to do that. We’re fulfilling an immediate need within the population. The thing that I’ve learned is that at the same time, we could be undermining local entrepreneurs and businesses that are trying to survive because we’re infiltrating their market.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing for members of a wealthy population or country such as the United States, Canada, etc., to ship commodities elsewhere. We have to have a more 360 view of what impact that is having. I’m sure you’ve run up against that, but you told and shared with us an example of how you didn’t go say to Edgar, “Get out of the way. I know exactly what you need,” instead you taught him to fish and he’s learned from your example. Am I crazy about what I’ve suggested?

You’re right. There are many unintended consequences of the decisions that we make. A lot of times with good intentions, one great example is Toms Shoes. Blake, the Founder of Toms and an investor of ours. He’s a friend and he’s someone I admire a lot. He’d be the first to tell you that when he first started, he didn’t realize that they were creating a problem. They were donating a shoe for every shoe they sold. They were going to these markets and they were disrupting local shoe markets. The local salesmen or shoe repair people lost work because they were getting everyone in the market, getting free shoes. They had to adapt to change their giving strategy. With Cotopaxi, we learned from that example.

We don’t have a buy one, give one model. We don’t give a backpack away for every backpack we sell. We instead focus on three core pillars that we believe are inextricably linked to poverty alleviation, which is education, healthcare, and livelihood training. With a focus on those three things, we allow people to lift themselves out of poverty where they have the tools and resources to be able to do that. There are lots of lessons and learning. I’m sure we’re probably making some mistakes. We hope to learn from those quickly and allow others to learn from us so they can do it even better than us in the future.

GFEP 10 | New Capitalism

New Capitalism: It’s amazing what capitalism has done to help people while also leaving our planet in a place that’s almost unrecoverable. We need to think differently about what capitalism means.

 

As we wrap up this interview, let’s do a little rapid-fire as some people call it. We’ll do some word association. I’m going to say a word and I’d like you to tell us a company or an organization that you think embodies this word. You can’t use Cotopaxi. The first word is innovation, which company comes to mind?

Apple. What I love about Apple is that they realize what consumers wanted when consumers didn’t even realize they want it like digital music. They weren’t the first ones to invent digital music that existed, but they created this iPod, iPhone and the touchscreen. It’s like, “I had a Blackberry. I didn’t feel like I even needed the touchscreen. I bought this keyboard that works great and now I can’t imagine going back to my old Blackberry.” I love the way that they had foresight encouraged to develop a product that they believed solved the problem that most of us didn’t even realize we had.

Next word, image.

Patagonia. Yvon Chouinard, the Founder, knew what that business was going to stand for from the beginning. No one was thinking about protecting the environment back when he was thinking about this and they stayed true to that. The image when you see the Patagonia logo, you know exactly what they stand for, their values. They’ve done an amazing job of protecting this imaging and creating a vision for what they stand for over decades. They’ve never deviated from that.

Let’s do one more, employee engagement.

Warby Parker, an eyewear company. I’m wearing Warby Parker. They were started by some classmates of mine in business school. I love the way that David and Neil, the co-CEOs lead that business and the way that they listened to their team. They have north of 100 retail stores around the country. I love the way they engage with their team. I’ve seen it internally and externally, even on their social media, you’ll see that they’re taking feedback from a lot of people are coming and saying, “I work in one of your retail stores. This is what I’m seeing.” They’re engaging on a public forum with their team around ways that they can improve. It’s clear that these teams feel safe. They feel safe communicating the good, bad, and ugly of things that can be done and improved. If you visit a store it’s unlike any experience I’ve had in a retail environment, their team is passionate about what they do, the service levels are next level. That only happens when you have a team that feels engaged and connected to.

I know that it’s clear and evident both through this conversation and everything that you’re involved in that Cotopaxi is like a child of yours, you’re wedded to it. It is you and you are it. The last question for you, is there anything that you would have accomplished or achieved in Cotopaxi that would finally convince you like, “It’s time to move on. It’s time to do something else?” What’s the ultimate goal that you would like to see achieved where you can say, “My work is done here?”

I don’t know that will ever happen. The day that we can say we’ve eradicated extreme poverty which I believe will happen in my lifetime, will be a special day. If there was ever a time where it’s like, “My job is done, that maybe it,” but even then there were still be enormous amounts of suffering. Even when you eradicate extreme poverty, there’s still poverty. There are still people living on less than $3 or $4 a day that is going to need help. This is a work that will never end. It’s hard for me to imagine anything that I’d be more passionate about than this. In my first few businesses, I was always anxious for the next project, thing, learning and big idea. I don’t feel that. Those feelings have gone away from me. This is my life’s passion. I hope I can dedicate my whole life to it.

Thank you, Davis. I think your coworkers are lucky to have you, and I know, you’d say you’re lucky to have them. The people who benefit from your product and your large S are lucky to have you. Since you moved to Salt Lake City from Brazil, they’re certainly lucky to have you and the world of entrepreneurship and philanthropy. I want to thank you for everything you’re doing and everything you will do, for leading out and for being a real game-changer in your space. Your space is growing rapidly. I appreciate you joining us on the show.

Thank you for having me.

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About David Smith

GFEP 10 | New CapitalismHumanitarian. Adventurer. Entrepreneur. Husband. Father. Believer.

Angel investor: Warby Parker, Allbirds, SpaceX, Breeze Airways, Divvy, Oscar Insurance, Bombas, Route, Rumble Boxing, Dagne Dover, Buffy, Rhone Apparel, Lovevery, Central Logic (acquired), Printi.com.br (acquired), Juxta Labs (acquired), First Opinion, BrainStorm, Felix Grey, Abundant Robotics, Sunski, Floyd Design, Misen, Recyclops, Aloha, Backbone PLM, Taft, Rags, Walrus Health, Anson Calder, The Sill, and Fourpost. Limited Partner in Campfire Capital and Forerunner Ventures.