Do you create the best kind of heat?

We’ve reached the end of February, and across much of the country it is still wintry cold. But the low temperatures don’t bother me. That’s what happens when you grow up in Vermont, where cold air flows thick like maple syrup. Of the four seasons we experienced in Vermont (Summer, Leaf Peeping, Skiing and Mud Season) two of them are predominantly cold. And one is wicked cold.

To warm the chilly air, most homes in Vermont have either a fireplace or a wood burning stove. The two look, work and produce heat differently. Just like people.

The Fireplace

The fireplace is by far the more popular of the two. It is written about, sung about, and helps add value to your home. Fireplaces are highly coveted because they look beautiful in action. They are romantic. They create ambiance. And they are the perfect backdrop for showing off both bear skins and bare skins.

brown beside fireplace near brown wicker basket

Wood Burning Stove

The wood burning stove is far less popular. They are not sexy or romantic. In fact, they are often located in the sensible center of the home, rather than in a cozy family room, living room of master suite. The visible opening to the burning action is relatively small.  Which means there is a lot less to look at, and not much to sing about.

Hot or Not?

But the wood burning stove has one major advantage over the fireplace: Heat. You see fireplaces are more show and glow than go. They are highly inefficient at heating  anything but the toes next to them and the chimneys above them. In fact, most of the fireplace’s heat escapes up through the chimney, like Andy Dufresne.

On the other hand, the wood burning stove quietly cranks out enough heat to warm your whole house. You can load the stove at night, ignite a hell-strength fire inside, drop the damper like it’s hot, and heat your home all night long. Like Lionel Richie.

ash blaze bonfire burn

 

The 2 types of employees.

Employees are either fireplaces or wood burning stoves. When you are recruiting staff for your team, don’t get fooled by the bright lights and dancing flames of fireplace people. They talk a good game. They give the illusion of action. They show up and show off in meetings. But they generate very little action on their own. And little to no useable heat.

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Burn Baby Burn!

To create a great team you want to collect as many wood burning stoves as you can get you hands on. (Actually you should keep your hands off of them, and read this post I wrote on Matt Lauer.) You want those people who can create the most heat with the least amount of fuel. People who are more go than show.

Fill your team with people who use their time and energy efficiently. People who don’t need to poked and rolled to come to life. These are the team members who get their work done when no one is watching. They produce surprising amounts of heat. And you don’t need to sit right next to them to benefit from having them on your team.

At my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, we are full of wood burning stoves. We have recruited a team of smart, self-starters who put a premium on results. No one needs to be poked, prodded or doused with lighter fluid to get going. A fireplace employee simply wouldn’t survive in our environment.

Key Takeaway

There are two types of people. Those who put on a good show, and those who generate heat. If you want to assemble or be part of a red-hot team, focus on the quantity of heat produced. Not the dancing flames.

Why it is so valuable to be shallow.

The single greatest challenge of entrepreneurship is finding a way to get clients to buy what you are selling. It is the pass-fail measure of business success. You either sell things or you don’t. Not even Kellogg’s can sugar-coat this. Close simply doesn’t count.

When I first launched my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, I wanted to make it easy for potential clients to engage in a small project with no long-term commitment. Because I knew that if clients tried a small project with us they would like the results and come back for more. It’s the same technique used by razor blade companies, crack dealers and Pringles.

Under No Pressure. (Ding Ding Ding Digga Ding Ding)

In my business development discussions I started talking about our engagements like swimming pools. I told prospects, ‘If you know you want to commit to a serious engagement with us, you can cannonball into the deep end of the pool right away. But if that is not how you want to start, and I don’t blame you if you don’t, we have another, more customer-friendly approach.’

Testing the Waters

I then invited all prospective clients to think about working with The Weaponry like walking into a zero-entry pool. Which means that if all you want to do is get your toes wet with a tiny project, we’re up for that. And if you like the way that feels you can go a little deeper, say, to your ankles. If that goes well you can proceed deeper and deeper, until you’re in up to your knees, your nethers, or your eyeballs.

Along the way we found that clients loved this no-pressure, earn-your-depth approach. It has been instrumental to our growth and business development efforts ever since.

A Business Is Born

I was reminded of our zero-entry pool approach a couple of months ago when my wife and I went to see the movie A Star Is Born, a movie that also started slowly, and took 10 years to make. The signature song of the movie is Shallow, by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. On Sunday night Shallow won the OSCAR for best song.

When I first heard the song it reminded me how The Weaponry came to life in the shallow waters of low commitments and small projects. But one line in particular stands out to me every time I hear the song. It’s at the end of the chorus when Lady Gaga finishes with the line ‘We’re far from the shallow now.’

Getting Deep

This entrepreneurial journey I am on with The Weaponry is far from the shallow now. Today the business has major commitments from major brands. We have deep-end-of-the-pool retainers. And while we are still happy to have clients engage with us for projects that are measured in the hundreds, most of our client engagements now are measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. And our total revenue projections are measured in millions.

By March 1st we should take possession of our second office in a second city (not the improv theater troupe). We have 18 active clients that span from Florida to San Francisco. And I attribute much of the depth of our current success to starting in the shallows. The shal-lal-lal-lal-lal-lal-lows.

Key Takeaway

Great big things start as great small things. The key is to get going. If you are thinking about creating a business, a habit or a movement, start by asking for a small, easy-to- make commitment. If the first small step is a success, take another step forward, into deeper water, with even greater results. Small step by small step you will make steady progress. Before you know it you’ll find yourself far from the shallow. And thankful you took that first small step that started it all.

How to deal with harmful energy suckers.

I’ve been having a problem with my battery lately. Not my internal human battery. The battery that powers my car. Several times over the past couple of months my car wouldn’t start and I had to jump it to get it going again (with jumper cables, not the Fosbury Flop.)

The Replacement

I decided to measure my car battery with a voltage meter. Sure enough, the voltage was way low, like Consuelo. So I replaced the battery. But two weeks later, with a brand new battery, I found the car dead again. Watt The Volt?

Spotting a Pattern

I began noticing a pattern. When the car wasn’t driven for a couple of days it would wind up dead. It was dead when we returned from a family weekend in Chicago. It was dead-dead when I got back from a 4-day business trip to Atlanta and Orlando. So it was time to take my car to the dealership to get to the bottom of the issue.

Diagnosing The Problem

When I made the phone call to set up an appointment, the service representative seemed to understand my problem better than he should have with the limited amount of information I gave him. When I brought the car in, the representative shared his diagnosis without ever looking at the car. He said:

‘I am 99.9% sure that you have a parasitic draw on your battery, caused by the Bluetooth control module. When that malfunctions it draws down the battery at an abnormally high rate while the car is off. The demand eventually drains the battery until you don’t even have enough power to unlock the doors.’ -Acura Dealership Dave

The test the technicians performed confirmed that we was right. Se we replaced the Bluetooth control module. And the problem disappeared.

Beware The Parasitic Draw!

Parasitic draws are not limited to car batteries. They can happen anywhere. In businesses, on teams, and in social groups. Malfunctioning human parasites draw down the energy of the group, depleting them of power, until they limp along severely compromised, or ruined.

Key Takeaway

Great organizations, teams and groups require energy to function properly. If anyone in the system is taking away energy, rather than contributing it, you have to remove them from the system. Do it as quickly as you diagnose it. There is no cure, other than a parasitectomy. Don’t waste your time trying to fix it. Removing the offender is the only way to return to full power and achieve your full potential. And you should never settle for anything less.

How to overcome obstacles by not thinking about them.

If you want to accomplish great feats it helps to be delusional. Because doing the really hard things in life takes so much work, luck and timing that it is nearly impossible, if not impossible to do. Which means that having a warped sense of reality may be your greatest asset.

Ignoring Stop Signs

When I set out to launch my own advertising agency, there was no reason to believe it would succeed. There was so much I didn’t know. But I just kept ignoring the many signs that told me I should quit. In the process I blew through so many stop signs that I should have had my business driver’s license revoked.

The Little Writer Who Could

I started my career as a copywriter, and suddenly I was taking on all aspects of a business. I was the head of accounting, human resources, operations (though thankfully not the kind with scalpels), account service, and project management. I was also in charge of buying everything from paper clips to health insurance plans.

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I was like Bert, steppin-in-time, sort of.

I was like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, playing every instrument in a one man band. Beyond tooting my own horn, and marching to the beat of my own drum, while trying to carry a tune, I also had to recruit other good, talented, musicians to join my micro-band. At the same time I had to book paying gigs for us to play. Writing about this now is starting to make me sweat.

Ignorance is key

Only by ignoring how crazy your undertaking really is, and how slim your ultimate chances of long-term success actually are, can you succeed.

Inspirational Movie Quote

One of my favorite movies is the hilarious Aardman claymation film, The Pirates! Band of Misfits. The lovable but bumbling lead character is The Pirate Captain, voiced by Hugh Grant. The movie is so dense with wit that I discover something new every time I watch it.

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The Pirate Captain and his luxuriant beard.

Recently a line I hadn’t taken any notice of before jumped off the screen at me. The Pirate Captain was discussing a far-fetched plan with Charles Darwin. Darwin, being no dodo, informed the Pirate Captain that his plan was obviously impossible. Not to be deterred,  The Pirate Captain had a wonderfully short, sweet and appropriate response to the doubting Darwin.

‘It’s only impossible if you stop to think about it.’ -The Pirate Captain

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The Pirate Captain doesn’t think about the impossible. He just does the impossible.

Of course The Pirate Captain is right. We should not think too much about the difficulties we take on. Your thinking will naturally focus on the reasons to believe you will fail. Stopping to think about your challenges often stops people in their tracks. Too much thinking will cause you to stumble into hoops, instead of jumping through them.

Key Takeaway

It is easy to be intimidated by the process and the obstacles you face when trying to do something difficult. So don’t think about them. When the mission is important but the obstacles are many, just start moving, doing and making. There are solutions to nearly every problem. And there are immovable objects that move once you do.

How to use a simple creative brief to build a business.

People in the advertising industry are very familiar with the creative brief. It is the input document that provides the instructions we need to create the advertising we have been hired to develop. It provides background and target audience information. It identifies what we are attempting to make, both generally and specifically. It provides a key idea to communicate, and support points to back that idea up (#BackThatThangUp.)

Let’s get cooking

The creative brief is quite literally the recipe for creating any piece of creative advertising or design. And you must refer back to it during concepting in order to re-ground yourself. Because during the creative process you often go off on tangents upon tangents upon tangents. Which makes it important to regularly revisit the original direction.

I have seen the light

Through the experience of launching my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, I have found the creative brief and the process it guides you along don’t just work when you are trying to develop advertising and design elements. The creative brief also works when you are trying to build a creative business. Or any other business for that matter.

You need an input document, like a creative brief to identify what you are trying to make. But once you begin the process of building and growing a business you will often go off on tangents and wild goose chases. You will have new, random and crazy ideas you will want to pursue. Just ask Chris Gaines. In other words, it is common to get distracted from the original vision and mission.

Back to the brief

To overcome the distractions you encounter during the process of building a business, it is important to regularly revisit the original brief. Remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Remember what are you trying to accomplish. Revisit what the org chart is supposed to look like. Then ask yourself if you are anywhere close to that today. If not, course correct. Refocus. Get back to the plan. And start building momentum towards your original vision.

Key Takeaway

Every great accomplishment starts with a great plan. But the real value of a great plan, written down, isn’t just at the launch of an adventure. The great, ongoing value is in how that original plan can serve as a north star when we get lost, turned around, or distracted along the way. It is like the Ritalin for Business ADHD.

But you don’t have to be building a business to use the power of a creative brief. This simple document can help you chart a more satisfying life. Because it helps you identify the problem to be solved and create a vision for the future state. If you work in advertising, design or marketing and already use a creative brief regularly, consider using this Who-Where-When-What-Why-How formula to focus your ambitions outside of work. Including your side hustle. You’ll be amazed at all that little brief can do. And all that you can do with its help.

How our agency overcame a Biggie Smalls experience.

It was the rapper Notorious B.I.G. who once penned that famous American quote: ‘Mo Money. Mo Problems.’ In 2018 I learned Biggie was right. Because as my young advertising and idea agency was growing at an exciting pace, we also faced mo money problems. Or was it less money problems? Maybe it depends on whether you’re more East Coast or more West Coast.

Go With The Cashflow

In 2018 The Weaponry, faced a cash flow problem. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been warned. My posse of entrepreneurial homies, including Dan Richards of Global Rescue and Jeff Hilimire of Dragon Army, warned me that as you work with larger and larger clients they will use their financial muscle to get longer and longer payment terms. So instead of our standard 30-day terms, new clients began requesting, pushing for or demanding 45, 60 and even 90-day terms. #WhatWouldSugeKnightDo?

The 60 and 90-day terms put growing businesses like mine in a conundrum. Obviously we want to work with the biggest and best companies in the world. The problem is that while we wait to get paid for the work we have completed, we still have to pay the Weapons, vendors and freelancers who work for us. Which means that like a leaky bucket, more money is leaving the system than coming in. #DearLizaDearLiza

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Big Poppa

By June of 2018 we had been in business for 2 years. We could clearly feel the momentum build. There was sharp rise in the demand for our work. But with all the new work, longer payment terms, and invoices that seemed to have taken the slow boat to PayMe Town, we started carrying between $500,000 and $700,000 in our monthly accounts receivable stack.

For a business that bootstrapped its way into being just 24 months earlier this was an interesting turn of events. It is nice to be owed that kind of money. But cash is the life blood of a business. And there were serious demands on our blood supply.

We were always able to pay our salaries and all of our bills. But the depleted cash on hand meant that we weren’t able to invest in our own growth. We had started looking at space for our Columbus office in June, then hit pause on our plans to sign a lease in order give ourselves some breathing room. We waited on transitioning some of our freelance help to full-fledged Weapons. And we postponed the company offsite meeting in Monaco.

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It Was All A Dream.

When I shared our mounting money challenge with our team, they once again stepped up to solve the problem. Simon Harper, one of our outstanding account directors, shared how we could adjust our invoice timing to make sure we were paid by our clients sooner. Other account leads also contacted their client contacts about the outstanding bills. Which helped get the money ball rolling.

Our accountant, slash bookkeeper, slash egg dealer, Sally Bretsch, recommended another adjustment to our billing process that would ensure that our invoices got into our clients’ accounts payable systems faster, with greater accountability. Which is either totally meta or just a nice word play (Did I mention I used to read Word UP! magazine?)

From Negative To Positive (And it’s all good.)

With these team-driven enhancements in place, suddenly we dramatically decreased the turnaround time between work performed and payments received. We had our own Black Friday moment, when suddenly, following months of increased billing, but decreased cashflow, we started seeing the fruits of our labor manifest in our bank account.

Key Takeaway

Business is a team sport. As an entrepreneur, leader or department head, it’s important to understand that your team will find ways to solve problems and improve performance faster, and in better ways than you would be able to unearth on your own. Share information with your team. Make them part of the solution. If you’re thinking about starting a business, surround yourself with a strong crew who knows more about their specialties than you do. Then give them a mic and let them flow. That’s how small teams make big things happen.

What do you do when you see a road closed ahead sign?

Yesterday morning my family and I piled into our car to make a 2-hour drive to a basketball tournament in the small town of Freedom, Wisconsin. Freedom is just north of Appleton. If Appleton means nothing to you, Freedom is 20 minutes south of Green Bay. If you are from New York City, or a non-American, Freedom is 4 hours north of Chicago.

The Sign

Fifteen minutes into the drive, as we made our way down a country road, we approached a large sign that said: Road Closed 1 Mile Ahead. Local traffic only. As we approached the sign there was one car ahead of us. Upon seeing the sign the driver pulled to the side of the road, then quickly turned around and headed back the way we came, presumably to find a different route.

I ignored the sign and continued down the road anyway. One mile later, I approached a small fleet of construction vehicles parked neatly on the side of the road. They had clearly been put away for the weekend. Despite the warning from the sign, the road was indeed open and passable, even for non-locals like me. I drove through the hibernating construction site, and within a mile I reached the interstate on-ramp, exactly as I had planned.

Don’t Turn Around, Bright Eyes.

As I pulled onto the freeway, and reached my cruising speed, I reflected on this seemingly small incident. Because it was symbolic of how we go through life. We all see signs that tell us we can’t go this way or that. We are told of rules and limitations and regulations that cause so many among us to stop and turn around. Because most good, rule following  people stop when they are told the road ahead is closed.

But if you want to do great things, hard things or never-done-before things, you can’t follow all the road signs. You can’t pull a u-turn every time you are told no.  You have to question, challenge and push ahead. And when you do, you will be surprised how often the closed path advertised ahead is wide open and waiting for you to take it.

Key Takeaway

If you want to start a business, create an innovative new product or service, or forge a new route, you can’t turn around every time you are told you should. The same holds true in our personal lives. You have to find your way forward. Challenge the rules and laws. Question the assumptions. Don’t just take no for an answer. Find out for yourself what is really possible. Because beyond the no, the stop sign and the dead-end are where all the really great things are found.