Why it is so important to just keep swimming.

I recently had the chance to work with Olympic Gold medalist Blake Pieroni.  Blake won a gold medal at the Rio Olympics as part of the 4×100 freestyle relay. He is such a strong swimmer that he recently became a Mizuno sponsored athlete. Which is saying something, since Mizuno makes the best racing suit in the pool.

While filming with Blake I asked the Indiana native, and Indiana University student athlete about the major breakthroughs in his career. I was surprised to hear this world-class athlete say he really hasn’t had any.

Slowly Getting Faster

Blake said his progress has been steady and incremental. Day after day he continues to invest time in his training and preparation. As a result, he has slowly gotten faster. Which is a ridiculous thing to write. Yet it’s a proven, oxymoronic formula for success.

Blake’s career is a testimony to the power of slow and steady progress. It is not showy. Or gimmicky. It’s not based on shortcuts, or nepotism, or your mama paying to get you into USC. This is a get rich slow scheme. And if you are willing to put in the work it takes, it is the most certain way to continuously reach beyond your previous best.

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Blake and photographer Lucian McAfee. See if you can figure out which one is the 23-year old Olympian.

My Business

I launched my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, in 2016. I bootstrapped the business, which is an Arkansas-sounding way of saying the business was self-funded. We have not grown by adding one giant account. Our growth has come by steadily accumulating great clients, and steadily growing our businesses together.

I was looking at numbers related to The Weaponry’s revenue yesterday when I noticed something interesting. At just 2.5 months into 2019 we have already generated more revenue this year than we did in our entire first year. Yet we haven’t acquired an Amazonian client. We didn’t go Uber-style and quadruple our pricing due to heavy rain and an umbrella plague. We have simply accumulated 17 active clients. And they all matter to our success.

The Blog

I also started writing The Perfect Agency Project blog when I launched The Weaponry. My goal was to tell the story of my entrepreneurial journey. I wanted to share my experiences and challenges, so that others could benefit from my learnings.

Coincidentally, I noticed an interesting statistic about this blog yesterday too.  As of March 20th, in 2019 I have already surpassed the total number of visitors and viewers I had in all of 2016.

Perhaps the blog is getting better too. Because my posts have already generated 14 times (14X) more likes than the entire first year. (And by likes I mean signs of social appreciation from readers. Not likes written into the body of my posts, because I write like a 16-year-old, like, kid from Likesylvania.)

The Reward

The business and blog growth are both very rewarding. Especially because they are growing too slowly to notice on a daily basis. But when I look at the year-over-year data, the results are clear.

Key Takeaway

Just keep swimming. Keep doing what you know you need to do to get better. Whether it is swimming, writing, growing a business, studying or any other pursuit worth pursuing. The progress might never be obvious, or dramatic. But keep at it anyway. Because if you do, eventually you will turn around and notice just how far you have come. It is the cumulative progress that matters. Not the speed. Not the attention. Just the results.

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Discover the tremendous value of your $100 Ideas.

I have a friend in New York City who works for one of the biggest companies in the world. Everyone knows this e-monster. It’s a technical marvel. And it seems to be taking over the world. Which means it’s a great place to work right now. But my friend, who I will call Flora, also has a strong entrepreneurial drive. She has several great startup ideas and is trying to determine the best one to pursue, and the best time to pursue it.

The Throw Away Ideas

Flora thinks big, and wants to create a really big business of her own. Which is to be expected when you work for a global giant. But she also has several interesting ‘small’ ideas that she quickly dismisses. Flora calls these $100 ideas, and tosses them aside the way you might throw fish back in the water because they are too small to keep.

Caution Young Grasshopper

I warn Flora against disregarding the $100 ideas. There is great power in them. In fact, more people have turned $100 ideas into $1 million ideas than have made a cent off of a billion dollar idea. This is because it is much easier to get moving on a $100 idea. As I wrote about in a prior post, the key ingredient to entrepreneurial success is action.

Take The Money Making Idea And Run

If you have entrepreneurial ambitions, or want to develop a side hustle, don’t dismiss your ideas because they are not likely to get covered by Tech Crunch. See the $100 idea as a great way to start and gain experience.

Your $100 ideas teach you how to create a machine to deliver products or services. They are they intro courses to business building. Once you get started you can always expand and scale them up. You may be surprised how much your $100 idea will ultimately be worth. But only if you get started.

Adam & Sleeve

My first real business was a $100 idea. I designed and sold T-Shirts under the brand name Adam & Sleeve. I learned all kinds of valuable lessons about operating a business from Adam & Sleeve that I put to good use when I started my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry. The Weaponry’s revenues are in the millions. But it sprung from knowledge gained running a business based on a $100 idea.

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One of my Adam & Sleeve t-shirts. I took down my website when I created The Weaponry in order to focus all my energies on my new business. But I still sell shirts to people who ask about them.
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The Adam & Sleeve shirt I will be wearing today.

Other $100 Ideas

  • Mowing your neighbor’s lawn
  • Selling those baked goods you are so good at making
  • Handmade Jewelry
  • Consulting
  • Painting
  • Raking leaves
  • Anything on Sally Struthers’ list
  • Delivering anything
  • Healthcare Patient Advocate
  • Animal Sitting
  • Reselling wholesale candy at school
  • Braiding hair
  • Cleaning homes or offices
  • Taking engagement photos
  • Critter removal
  • Posing naked for college art classes

These ideas can get you started. They can make you extra money. And you can scale them up and make even more money by growing volume. You can combine multiple $100 ideas, like mowing, snow blowing and raking leaves, then scale up to create a full-fledged yard care business. Or you could create handmade jewelry while posing naked for college drawing classes, and then sell the jewelry to the art students who drew you naked. #doubledip

Key Takeaway

Don’t underestimate the power of $100 ideas. Acting on them gets you off the sidelines and into the game. They help build entrepreneurial muscles, skills and flexibility. They build confidence and experience in sales, operations, quality control and customer service. But most importantly, they start the flow of self-generated income.

$100 ideas usually have low start-up costs. Which means they are low risk ventures that you can grow your own way (…grow your own way-ay-ay! #FleetwoodMac). You can decide how much you want to scale. You can also decide when you have learned enough to take on an even more lucrative challenge. Because an entrepreneur in motion, tends to stay in motion. Which means it is better to start with a $100 idea today than to spend a lifetime on the verge of putting a billion dollar idea into motion.

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 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.

It’s time for a new office in a new city!

When I first decided to launch my own advertising agency, I had a clear vision of what the fully formed business would look like. It was spectacular, as visions should be. Because it costs just as much to envision a multi-billion dollar empire as it does to envision a lemonade stand. So you might as well envision big.

In 2015, even though my startup was still in the embryonic-stage, I was confident that great things lie ahead. I just never knew the pace at which success would unfold. But I knew, like a 2-year old in a laundry room, the unfolding was just a matter of time.

Things Started Happening

In the fall of 2015 I ran an alpha test of our minimum viable product (MVP) with our first client. The test run went as well as advertised. (#punsalwaysintended) Then, in the spring of 2016, my home office in Atlanta, where I planned every detail of the business, became The Weaponry’s first headquarters. Suddenly I was in business. And I had the best commute in Atlanta.

By the end of 2016, as part of my life design, I moved to Milwaukee. The Weaponry’s new headquarters was my new  home office. In 2017 the business was humming, we saw plenty of runway ahead, and we signed a lease on 1000 square feet of office space downtown, on the Milwaukee River (actually it was on the side of the river).

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Our Milwaukee office. As they say, home is where custom designed surfboard coffee table is.

But Wait. There’s More!

I never wanted to settle for just one office. That’s why I developed my Home Office Strategy. Which means I plan to establish an office every place I’ve owned a home. This includes Milwaukee, Atlanta and Columbus. I also want an office in New England, where I grew up. So Burlington, Vermont and Boston are possibilities too.

By 2018 we had full-time employees in Milwaukee, Columbus and Atlanta. 6 months ago we started thinking about the next office. And, (drumroll app please…) we’ve decided that Columbus, Ohio will be the home of the next office of The Weaponry.

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Columbus, Ohio just keeps getting better.

Discovering Columbus.

Columbus, Ohio is a hidden gem. It is well stocked with a highly educated workforce. It offers an amazing quality of life. And thriving industries. We have had full-time Weapons in Columbus for well over a year. And we are eager to add more.

Back Story

I spent 7 great years in Columbus with the ad agency Engauge, before it was acquired by Publicis, and I was asked to move to the new headquarters in Atlanta. Columbus has a 3-ship flotilla of talented advertising and design professionals. And there are more great brands and smart marketers there than even John Lennon could imagine.

Getting Down To Business

Columbus is the home to well-known brands like Nationwide Insurance and Safelite Auto Glass. There are great restaurants headquartered in C-Bus, including Wendy’s, Bob Evans, White Castle, Charley’s Philly Steaks, Sbarro, Donatos and Steak Escape. There are great retail brands, including Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Express. Scott’s Miracle Grow is also growing plants miraculously in Columbus. Cardinal Health, which is the 14th largest company in America is headquartered there too.

The Weaponry C-Bus

We have collected a great nucleus of talent in Columbus, including both full-time and freelance Weapons. The relatively low-cost of living and high quality of life make the city a great draw. What’s even better is that Columbus is within a 3-hour drive of Detroit, Windsor, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville and Indianapolis. Not to mention Youngstown, Akron, Canton, Dayton and Toledo (wait, I DID just mention them!) The close proximity enables us to service clients in all of those cities from our Columbus hub.

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What is round on both ends, hi in the middle, and loaded with Weapons?

Key Takeaway

There is a lot to love about Columbus. Which is why we are excited to be opening our next office in this great city. I look forward to sharing how we’ve gone about the process of finding our new space, and why we landed where we did. If you are in Columbus and want to be part of a great team, we should talk. Because things are about to get really interesting.