It’s time to tell the full truth about the business I made up.

Three years ago I started writing the story of a fictional advertising and idea agency. I dreamed up the details of the business and then wrote them down in a notebook. I would fire up my laptop, open a google doc, and fill it with vivid descriptions of this company that only I could see. In the same way that children have imaginary friends, I had an imaginary ad agency. I thought about that agency all the time. I was obsessed.

The more I thought about it, the more I wrote about it. And the more I wrote about it the more vivid this fictional business became to me. So I did something crazy. I started talking to other people about my imaginary agency. I described it as if were absolutely real. I told people what kind of services it offered, what kind of people worked there. I talked about its culture and why it was the perfect agency. I even gave it a name.

Then a funny thing happened. Other people began talking about this completely fictional agency like it was a real business. They started asking questions about it. Smart, talented,  sane people wanted to know if they could work there.

So I began talking to marketing professionals and business owners about my imaginary agency. Then something unbelievable happened. Someone asked if they could hire this imaginary agency to create some real advertising.

Suddenly, this agency that was completely made up had a real client, a real project to work on, and a real deadline. I quickly filled the imaginary roles within the agency with real people, who did the real work and delivered real ads to a real business for real money.

From that moment on, this fictional story of mine became non-fiction. People started referring to my imaginary agency by name. They called it The Weaponry. The United States Government started sending it mail. Businesses started sending it money. People started listing it as their employer, and banks started calling it to make sure it was ok to offer applicants mortgages. How crazy is that?

Key Takeaway 

If you want to create a real business you start by creating a fictional business. Imagine every detail. Write it all down. Paint a picture so vivid it feels absolutely real. Talk about it in such detail that others start to see it too. Give it a name. Others will start calling it by that name too. Talk about your fake business to real customers and clients. It will be weird and surreal. It will warp and bend your sense of reality for a while. But if you believe in it enough, others will too. Then suddenly, and undeniably it will all become completely real. I know it sounds crazy. But it’s true.  

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Great advice I didn’t take, but maybe you should.

In the first half of 2013 I was in New York City every week. I was the Chief Creative Officer of a 275 person ad agency called Engauge. And we were in the process of selling the agency. A four person leadership team from Engauge shared our story, our work and our finances with 15 potential suitors, ranging from Conde Nast to the Paris-based advertising agency holding company, Publicis, who eventually purchased the agency. However, Conde Nast provided the greatest challenge in the process, because the room that we presented in was plastered with oversized prints of topless women. Which lead to my short-term bout with Attention Deficit Disorder.

LGA

One evening after one of our many meetings with potential investors on Wall Street, Engauge President Jeff Hilimire and I headed to the Laguardia airport for our flight home. But first we stopped and grabbed burgers at a barely-open Five Guys at the airport. It was in that small, yet-highly caloric moment, that we proceeded to have one of the most important conversations of my entrepreneurial journey.

Going through an exit (sale) process like we were going through, you are forced to think about the next chapter of your career. Because depending on who purchases your business, some unknown combination of the leadership team will no longer be needed in the new organization. Some of us were on the business equivalent of a Kamikaze mission. Or maybe it was the business equivalent to Russian Roulette. Or maybe I am just being dramatic with an international flair. Either way, Jeff and I each discussed our future in a very open Komono way (I can’t stop).

The Only Job For Jeff.

Jeff told me, ‘There is only one title I ever want again.’

I was curious what that was, so of course I asked, ‘What’s that?’

He said, ‘Founder.’

As a successful entrepreneur, his only interest was in starting businesses and in being an entrepreneur. He found no appeal in helping the company who bought the company that bought the company that he started.

But what about me?

I also had a great desire to start my own business. But unlike Jeff, I didn’t have experience starting my own agency from dust and growing it into a thriving success. So in between bites of my oversized Adam Albrecht Burger from Five Guys, I asked Jeff for advice on how I should get started on my entrepreneurial journey.

Jeff said, ‘The first thing you need to decide is where you want to start your business. Find a job in that market, move there, and spend two years developing your network there, while working for someone else.’ He said that after two years of serious networking, you should have the base you need to go out on your own, and start your own agency.

What I Did

This was really good advice. But I didn’t take it. Instead, I launched my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, in 2016 in Atlanta. But then, for family reasons, decided to relocate my family to Milwaukee. And of course, the business had to move too. Which means that I did the opposite of what Jeff suggested. I started a business, and then moved it to a new city, where I hadn’t warmed up my network at all.

From the beginning, my strategy was different. My network is very broad, with strong and valued friends and connections across North America. So I was determined to develop The Weaponry to be geographically agnostic. Technology has enabled us to live into my vision, and serve clients across the United States and Canada.

2 Years Later

This week marks the 2-year anniversary of our move to Milwaukee. So I couldn’t help but reflect on Jeff’s advice. The Weaponry is thriving, with great clients from coast to coast. But there is something special happening now. There is an interesting momentum building. We are being talked about when we aren’t around. We are contacted more than ever. People are stopping by, and inquiring about us, and wanting to talk to us, and get to know us at a distinctly different pace today.

I believe this is 2-year momentum. We are building on the 2-year base that Jeff originally recommended. It is an incredibly exciting time for us. And we no longer feel like a start-up. We feel like a confident collection of Weapons that know exactly how to handle whatever our clients need. Kind of like the A-Team, without Mr. T (aka B.A. Baracus, aka Mr. I Pity The Fool).

Key Takeaway

There is no one right way to go about launching a business. The key is to get moving. If you have been considering starting your own business, or making another significant change in your life, I encourage you to set your 2-year timer now, and start the process today.  Two years will give you plenty of time to go from that first step, to a confident swagger. Be persistent, be patient, and let’s talk about this again in two years.

Why it is so positive to focus on the negative.

I am a naturally positive person. I like to start with the positive. I like to end on the positive. And I like to fill the middle with as much positive as I can. Yet, I don’t claim any responsiblity for my positivity. As Lady Gaga once said, Baby, I was born this way.

Team Meetings

On Tuesday mornings I meet with my entire team at The Weaponry, the advertising and idea agency I launched in 2016. I share updates on our clients, people, and growth opportunities. We discuss our long-term vision for the organization and our progress towards that goal. And yes, it is a positive experience.

The Good

This Tuesday I gave an update on our latest developments. The headline was:

In the past 3 months we have added 8 new clients in 5 different states.

I walked through the new additions, gave an overview on what we are doing for each of them, and mentioned the people who had either helped us secure the business, or who were already working on the accounts.

The Bad

After sharing the good news of the week I asked the team to keep looking for the peas under the mattress. I want to make this agency the perfect place to work, and the perfect partner for our clients. The only way you get to that point is by removing the elements that cause discomfort. I want to find the pain points and confusion. I want to know what is causing slowdowns and bottlenecks and head scratching.

Why So Negative?

It is easy to ignore your problems, especially when things are going well. But if we do, we won’t improve our machine. And if we don’t improve our processes, procedures, structure and people, we will never achieve the elusive goal of creating the perfect agency.

The Paradox. (Or is it a Pair of Docks?)

Admittedly, it is a little odd, especially for an optimistic, can-do, positive organization like The Weaponry to focus on the blemishes, weaknesses and flaws. But, Mama, that’s where the fun is.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of growth is eliminating weakness. By shoring up our weakest points the machine gets stronger and stronger. The entire team can feel it when a reoccurring problem goes a way. And when it does, we can then focus on the next issue up. There will always be a next issue up. But just as with technological advances and innovation, as challenges are solved, the new challenges that take their place are smaller and smaller issues.

Key Takeaway

If you really want to be great, don’t just acknowledge or admit your flaws. Seek them out. Root them out. Mark them in highlighter. Then develop a plan to eliminate them.  We use the EOS Rocks system, as outlined in the book Traction by Gino Wickman to take on our issues, gain traction as an organization, and continue on our path of organizational improvement. We are not perfect. But we want to be. And we are committed to getting as close to the dream as we can.

*I’d love to know your thoughts on either of the following questions:

  1. Do you feel that your organization makes a priority of discovering and eliminating your organizational and operational flaws?
  2. Do you try to proactively identify flaws in yourself, your outlook, your processes, your knowledge or your procedures in a quest for self-improvement? Or, do you beat yourself up over your shortcomings?

5 ways for startups to win the cash flow game.

When you set out to start a new business people give you lots of encouragement, advice, warnings and worried looks. Even so, you don’t really know what lies ahead. You wonder what will be worse than expected, what will be easier than expected and what to expect when you are expecting (unless you already have that baby book).

Cash Money

A topic that everyone warned me about when I started my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, was cash flow. The basic issue is that you get paid for your work, and you have to pay bills, like salaries, rent and insurance. The problem is that you don’t always have an equal amount of money coming in as you have going out. Which means that you must have enough cash on hand to cover slow payments, slow months of work, or larger-than-usual expenses.

What I’ve learned

Cash flow challenges aren’t necessarily a result of a customer being delinquent in paying invoices. The challenges can simply be a matter of timing. Your projects, or deals, may take longer to complete, so it takes longer to bill, and thus longer to get paid. If you are delayed in sending out your invoices, that can funk up your cash flow too.

Avoid At All Costs

But regardless of the reason, running out of cash on hand is a common cause of death for businesses of all sizes. It is a lot like humans running out of oxygen, or blood. Which I’ve never done. But I know some people who have, and they wanted me to tell you to avoid it at all costs.

If you are thinking about starting a business, or already have a business and could use some advice, here are a few tips to keep the cash flowing and your business going.

5 Cash Flow Tips

Don’t quit your job until you absolutely have to.  A salaried job helps the cash flow in your startup in two ways. 1. It ensures that cash keeps coming into your world. 2. It decreases or eliminates the need to draw a salary from the business in order to pay yourself. This enables cash to build in your business. Like water behind a dam baby!

Start with more cash on hand than you think you need. Don’t start a business without a reserve. Inevitably you will need it. And if you can’t float an expense because you don’t have the cash around, you clients, suppliers, partners or employees will question your business-hood. And you don’t want your business-hood questioned.

Send your invoices as soon as the work is complete. Entrepreneurs have a lot of demand on their time. So it can be easy to let your invoicing slide while putting out fires and keeping plates spinning. But you have to keep your invoices flowing if you want cash to flow into your business. A good bookkeeper, aka God’s Gift To Entrepreneurs, and a repeatable invoicing process can help ensure that you don’t fall behind on this process.

Delay adding salaried employees until you have a 3-month runway.  We began The Weaponry with a freelance workforce. I wanted to be able to see 3 months of sustainable work ahead in each discipline before I committed to hiring a full-time, salaried employees for that role. The 3-month rule has been a very good guide for us. For other businesses the timing may vary.  Regardless, develop your own rule of thumb, and enforce it.

Keep 3 months worth of salary in reserve at all times. You never know when the demand for your product or service will go dormant. It doesn’t mean it won’t come back. But you have to be able to weather the winter in order to be around when the demand springs up again. Having the cash reserve on hand is like a squirrel storing nuts. A three-month reserve is good. A six-month reserve is better. A billion-month reserve is best.

Key Takeaway

Starting your own business is extremely rewarding. But to keep the rewards coming, you have to keep the cash flowing. It is important to understand that cash flow isn’t just a part of the entrepreneurial game. It is the game itself.

*To learn more of what I have learned through my entrepreneurial journey, please consider subscribing to this blog.

Today is the best day to declare your independence.

The 4th of July is one of my favorite holidays. Even when it falls awkwardly on a Wednesday. Today I will hit two parades, watch fireworks, have a cookout, and tune in to watch a professional scarf down enough hot dogs to feed all the Pilgrims on the Mayflower for a week. #Murica

 

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Me and my family getting our 4th of July parade on. Notice the sign my daughter chalked in front of us.

The thing I love most.

As much as I love celebrating the 4th of July, I love what it symbolizes even more. Independence. It’s the not-so-secret ingredient that makes our country a powerful global magnet. Independence is what attracts those looking for a better life of their own making. I love that our country is powered by a population that left their native lands with the courage to say, ‘We think we can do this better on our own.’ That is so badass! Of course, Australia is built on a population of criminals. That’s pretty badass too, mate.

Career Independence

As we celebrate America’s independence I am also celebrating all the Founders who have declared their independence by taking charge of their careers. I admire the entrepreneurs who have the courage and confidence to do what our nation’s founding mothers and fathers did in establishing this country.

I am thankful for the inspirational stories and examples I’ve heard and read from Founders across the country. I love the consultants, freelancers and solopreneurs who have decided to bet on their own skills and abilities. It is the safest bet there is.

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Is it time for you to fly your own flag?

My Independence.

I declared my independence when I started by own advertising and ideas agency, The Weaponry, two years ago. I always felt I had the ability to attract great clients and extremely talented creative thinkers and doers. I was willing to bet my financial wellbeing on that belief. Today, The Weaponry is thriving. Which makes every day feel like Independence Day (no, not the creepy alien movie).

Embrace your independence.

But you don’t have to start your own company to declare your independence. Because independence is a mindset. You must believe that you are a rock star at what you do, and that you could do it wherever you want. Just as Lebron James decided to take his talent to South Beach, then back to North Beach, and now to West Beach, you need to know that whether you are a business executive, a salesperson, teacher, professional creative, or burger flipper, you have the freedom to take your set of skillz anywhere that makes you happy. Even Cleveland.

Key Takeaway

Our foremothers and forefathers founded this country with the belief that they could design a better life for themselves and for all of their cute little red, white and blue-wearing offspring to come. By doing so, they have empowered you to design your own life in a way that makes you happiest. Never forget that. Recognize and take advantage of the great opportunities that come your way. Or create your own opportunities. You always have the freedom to choose what is best for you. Nothing is more American than that.

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Happy Independence Day!

Why you should give it away, give it away now.

A year and a half ago I was in a fender bender. I was hit by a woman who was hit by a distracted driver, who didn’t realize that everyone else on the road stopped at a railroad crossing. I wrote about the experience in the post, Could You Pass The Fender Bender Test. While waiting for the authorities to show up, Laura ‘The Bumper Thumper’ and I began talking. We quickly struck up a friendship. It turns out that Laura has her own marketing business too.

Chapter Two

A couple of months after the incident I got a call from a potential client about a new marketing challenge they were facing. We agreed to meet face to face, and I invited Laura to bring her face to the meeting too.

The client was dealing with a new law that was dramatically changing the way they could market their service. More bluntly, their primary way of finding customers was now illegal. (So tawdry, I know!) The change posed a monumental threat to their very existence. They needed to quickly replace their old marketing approach with a new one, or there would be no business. (dun, dun, dun)

Laura and I met with two of the partners for two hours. We discussed numerous potential solutions to the problem. As I had imagined, Laura was a valuable asset. She asked a lot of smart questions. She had a very good understanding of the industry, and the major players in the market. Best of all, she didn’t hit anyone with a car.

When we left the potential client’s office, Laura said,

‘You really give a way a lot of ideas for free.’

She’s right. I do.

Here’s why I give ideas away for free.

I love free samples at the grocery store. Nothing sells me on your southern ham, spicy cheese, mango salsa or Fruity Barky Bites like tasting it myself. That tiny plastic cup worth of your product gives me everything I need to know to purchase more.

My business does not make Fruity Barky Bites. At least not yet. We produce ideas. So when I meet with people about their marketing challenges, I dig in. I start thinking through solutions with them. I offer up initial ideas worth considering. I get excited about solving the problem. They get excited about having the problem solved.

People don’t like to be sold to. They want to be in a position to buy. So rather than sell a client on why they should work with The Weaponry,  I like to offer people a sample of what they would get if they work with us. If they like it, they will want to buy. If they don’t like what they hear, they will pass. And both sides win.

Key Takeaway

I believe you should always add value before you try to extract value. Prove your worth. Make new clients and customers feel as if they have received more value than they have paid for. Give them a test drive so they can imagine the future. Once they decide to buy, don’t slow down. Keep over delivering. Always make them feel like they are getting more than they are paying for. Even when they are paying a lot.

*If you found value in this post, and would like more free samples, consider subscribing to this blog.

This is where I encourage you to pitch your elevator pitch.

In 2015 I decided to launch a new advertising agency. I already had a vivid image of the agency in my head. So I began mapping, sketching and listing every detail of the company. I considered the business from every angle. I even created a Life Stage chart of the yet unborn business. It was like What to Expect When You Are Expecting. Except I was expecting a bouncing baby business.

The Elevator Pitch 

However, there was one detail that start-ups typically obsess over that I skipped entirely: the Elevator Pitch. It is supposed to be the centerpiece of a startup’s marketing efforts. If you’ve never heard of an elevator pitch, the idea is that you have to summarize the essence of who you are, and what you do, in a short statement that you could deliver to a captive hostage on a brief elevator ride. Apparently, lots of entrepreneurs stalk high-powered executives on elevators, thinking it would be a great strategy for winning their affection.

I’m not buying it.

I hate the whole concept of the elevator pitch. I think it is the most overrated, over-discussed element of salesmanship. And entrepreneurship. And elevatorship.

Sure, it is important to be able to succinctly talk about your business. Your Great Aunt Petunia doesn’t have enough time left on Earth to waste it on your full story. But I have never bought anything or hired anyone because of a brief discussion I had on an elevator, escalator or Wonk-avator.

In fact, I have been in business for two years. And not once have I found myself in an elevator with someone who told me I had 10 floors of verticality to perform the sales pitch of a lifetime.

My Approach

Instead of scripting and performing an elevator monologue to an audience that never shows up, which feels a little like writing an acceptance speech for an award you didn’t win, I take the opposite approach.

The Quiet Game

I play the quiet game. You know, it’s that game where you see how long you can go without talking. I was terrible at the Quiet Game as a child. Scratch that. I was the Cleveland Browns of The Quiet Game. But today, as an entrepreneur, I am quite good at it. When I meet a marketer, I don’t whip out a polished sales pitch and throw it at her. Instead, I listen.

I want to hear what potential clients talk about. I want to hear what challenges they are facing. I want to know where their pain points are. I want to identify their greatest unmet needs. I continue to grow and transform The Weaponry in response to the unmet needs of our clients. Because we are focused on solving client problems, we grow in the direction that our clients’ needs dictate.

Key Takeaway

If you want to collect more great clients and grow your business, don’t practice your elevator pitch. Practice listening. Play detective. Or doctor. Listen for the discomfort, the bottlenecks, and the solution-less problems your clients and potential clients are facing.  Discover their unmet needs. And you’ll have found your next opportunity.

*If you found anything of value in this post, please consider subscribing to this blog. You’ll receive two fresh-baked posts via email each week. Oh, and you may also dig this post I wrote about My Vanilla Ice Philosophy. Vanilla Ice himself liked it. And Tweeted it. And hung it above his bed (ok, that very last part might not be true).