How to start a fire in your business


“To understand who people really are, start a fire. When everything is going fine, you see only the safest parts of people’s character. It’s only when something is burning that you find out who people really are. Of course, it’s wrong to set a fire on purpose, but if you have a small fire already burning, let it burn and see who, if anyone, complains, runs away, or comes to help. Similar truths are discovered by breaking rules: you need to break some to learn which are just for show and which ones matter.”

Quote fromThe Year Without Pants: and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun

Photo: Tim Hamilton


Filed under: Business

Don’t follow your passion – let it follow you

“Don’t follow your passion, rather let it follow you in your quest to become ‘so good they can’t ignore you.’


Working right trumps finding the right work – it’s a simple idea, but its also incredibly subversive, as it overturns decades of folk career advice all focused on the mystical value of passion. It wrenches us away from our daydreams of an overnight transformation into instant job bliss and provides instead a more sober way toward fulfillment.”

– Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

Photo by Painted Works by KB

See also Mark Cuban’s blog post Don’t Follow Your Passion, Follow Your Effort

Filed under: Books

Breaking Bad in your marketing

I have yet to watch an episode of Breaking Bad, largely because I heard it was violent, so I was too squeamish about it.

I changed my tune after reading a profile of the actor Bryan Cranston in the New Yorker. For the first several years he didn’t have any significant roles. Then he started to shift his approach to auditions:

It incrementally came to me that when I audition I’m not trying to get a job, but to give them something, my acting. The victory is not ”Did I beat that other guy out?’ but ‘Did I present that character as believable as I could?’ That was the turning point.

This is applicable to marketing, of course. And I have an anecdote from my own experience to illustrate this.

A day or two after I read the Bryan Cranston profile a prospective client contacted me. He was referred to me by a client of mine. What helped convince him to hire me was a comment I left on John Carlton’s blog more than three years ago that he had recently stumbled across.

My comment is #73 out of more than 100. It’s a story about when I took three of my daughters in for a blood draw and, let’s face it, it’s out of place on a blog that is mostly testosterone-laden. I knew that but didn’t care and posted the story anyway, never once thinking it would promote my copywriting services or anything. Yet three plus years later a prospective client read it and said it was by far the most interesting story in the thread, and he hired me.

Go figure. But that’s what happens when you focus on giving instead of getting.

Filed under: Stories/Storytelling

Getting over certainty in your business

In my 5+years of working with entrepreneurs it has become increasingly clear that getting over certainty is central to running a business. Uncertainty is where the real action happens.

In the book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking author Oliver Burkeman cites a study of 45 entrepreneurs who had at least 15 years experience in starting businesses and had taken at least one company public.

The recommendations of these entrepreneurs  run counter to many business maxims out there:

Almost none of them suggested creating a detailed business plan or doing comprehensive market research to hone the details of the product they were aiming to release. (‘I don’t believe in market research,’ one anonymous participant told Sarasvanthy. ‘Somebody once told me the only thing you need is a customer. Instead of asking all the questions, I’d try to make some sales.’)

The entrepreneurs didn’t think like high-end chefs, concocting a vision of a dish and then hunting for the perfect ingredients. They behaved more like ordinary, time-pressed home cooks, checking what was in the fridge and the cupboards, then figuring out, n the fly, what they could make and how.

‘I always live by the motto of, “Ready, fire, aim” said one. ‘I think that if you spend too much time doing, “ready, aim, aim, aim,” you’re never going to see all the good things that would happen if you actually started doing it. I think business plans are interesting, but they have no real meaning, because you can’t put in all the positive things that will occur.’

The most valuable skill of a successful entrepreneur, Chris Kayes is convinced, isn’t ‘vision’ or ‘passion’ or a steadfast insistence on destroying every barrier between yourself and some prize you’re obsessed with. Rather, it’s the ability to adopt an unconventional objective, but also a willingness to change the destination itself. This is a flexibility that might be squelched by rigid focus on any one goal.

This anti-goal approach is also referred to as being “effectually” minded instead of “causally minded” (i.e. taking steps to achieve a goal). The two principles of effectuation are as follows:

1. Start with your means - Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity. Start taking action based on what you have readily available: what you are, what you know, and who you know.

2. Affordable loss – Don’t be guided by thoughts of how wonderful the rewards might be if you were spectacularly successful at any given next step. Instead ask how big the loss would be if you failed. So long as the loss would be tolerable, that’s all you need to know. Take that next step, and see what happens.

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Filed under: BooksProductivity

Talk less and sell more

Well, what do you know. There’s an excellent sales and marketing  lesson tucked inside Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Among many other interesting things, this book tells the story of Jon Berghoff.

When Jon was a socially awkward teenager who would hide in the library during lunch he was also a standout salesman of kitchen knives. He earned $135,000 in commissions during his senior year. Two years later he increased his sales territory by 500 percent and trained 90 other sales reps.

How did he do it even though he doesn’t have the stereotypical sales personality?

This is what he says:

I discovered early on that people don’t buy from me because they understand what I’m selling. They buy because they feel understood.

I got to the point where I could walk into someone’s house and instead of trying to sell them some knives, I’d ask a hundred questions in a row. I could manage the entire conversation just by asking the right questions.

A lot of people believe that selling requires being a fast talker, or knowing how to use charisma to persuade. Those things do require an extroverted way of communicating. But in sales there’s a truism that ‘we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionately.’ I believe that’s what makes someone really good at selling or consulting – the number one thing is they’ve got to really listen well. When I look at the top salespeople in my organization, none of those extroverted qualities are the key to their success.

It’s all about listening. A skill that makes you a better human being as well.

By the way, if you or someone you love is an introvert, I can’t recommend Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking enough. It examines introversion from a cultural and historical perspective, with plenty of stories as well. So it’s unlike any other book out there on this topic.

Filed under: Listening

The one thing you can control

“The one thing you can control in your life is your effort. Others may have more, but they don’t have more time than you. It’s always up to you whether or not you can outwork them.” – Mark Cuban

On Thanksgiving Day here in Wisconsin the temps were in the 60s and then plummeted to the 30s the next day. It was also terribly windy on Friday, adding to the cold.

Over the weekend I noticed a pair of squirrels busily stuffing leaves into their mouths and then making the long climb to the top of the tree to their nest and putting the leaves in their nest, no doubt because of the sudden cold weather, and perhaps because the wind had disrupted their nest.

Time and again, first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon, they carried leaves to their nest. They were all about effort.

Also, because of my lack of effort – we are “leave the leaves” kind of people and don’t rake and dispose of our leaves – there were leaves readily available to the squirrels at the base of the tree.

It was a reminder that not only is effort important, but your lack of effort can make your competitors’ efforts even easier.

Filed under: Productivity

Beware of the popularity trap

It turns out Martha Stewart is an inspiration for a lot of the tattooed 20-something hipster crowd who are entrepreneurs. Who knew?

Apparently she has street cred among them because of the time she served in prison. It adds some edge to the Suzy Homemaker image that would normally be a put off.

Traffic to her website among the 18-34 set has skyrocketed and this age group frequently hosts Meet Ups about crafting the Martha way and blog about her books and some even have tattoos of her. Everything an online marketer would want, right?

Yet even though she is popular, her company is in financial trouble.

As the analyst in the article puts it, “Who cares if she’s popular if you can’t monetize it?”

Somewhat ironically, Oprah’s popularity has dropped since she left her TV talk show and she’s trying to boost her popularity by seeking a younger audience for her magazine, which currently only attracts older readers.  But such a tactic hasn’t worked for Martha.

It’s easy for non-celebrity types to fall into the popularity trap too in this social media age, but beware and remember: who cares if you’re popular if you can’t monetize it?

Filed under: Email Marketing

Is there a quarterback controversy in your business?

I am NOT a San Francisco 49ers fan (I’m a Packers fan, even though they are losing big to the Giants as I type this) but I couldn’t help reading about this past week’s brouhaha over their back up quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Their starter, Alex Smith, has played almost perfectly this year yet Kaepernick started for the second week in a row and the 49ers won both games.

Since last Sunday he’s been given a nickname (“Kap”), generated a lot of chatter on sports talk radio and social media, and his jerseys are flying off shelves.

But why, considering Smith was having the best season of his career?

Apparently one big reason is because Kap played with swagger and excitement, which got the fans fired up in ways Smith’s workmanlike style fails to do.

I guess it’s not enough to play well and look almost perfect on paper. The intangibles are important as well.

Plus, Kap has an interesting story: he was 6’5″ and 170 pounds in high school and more suited for baseball. He was a star pitcher with a ton of offers to play professional baseball yet chose to pursue football even though he was only offered one football scholarship.

49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh caught a lot of heat for deciding to start Kap again this week, yet there are two lessons here:

Just because you’re doing well doesn’t mean your customers (i.e. fans) are going to stick with you no matter what.  Insecurity is your best security.

And as a business owner (i.e. coach), are you always going to stick with what’s working no matter what, because you put so much time in developing it and because most people think you should?  Or do you take the risk and try something new that could be even better?

P. S.  Because of Black Friday and Cyber Monday and whatnot, I’ll go ahead and add a deal of my own:

Order one series of 7 emails and I’ll include a second series at no charge.  I can only offer this to one client before the holidays – MAYBE two, if you’re flexible about the time frame.  Email me at The offer expires after Christmas. It’s good for both repeat and new clients.

Filed under: Email CopywritingEmail Marketing

Bring on the information overload

Do you ever hold back on sending out email for fear of information overload?

Then I recommend this article in The Atlantic, (which reminded me I need to reread the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen).

If you are feeling overwhelmed, or don’t want to give your customers information overload, then consider this:

Information overload is not the issue. If it were, you’d walk into the library and die. As soon as you connected to the Web, you’d just explode.

In fact, the most information-rich place in the world is the most relaxing: it’s called nature. It has more varied horizons, more detail, more input of all sorts. As a matter of fact, if you want to go crazy, get rid of all your information: it’s called sensory depravation.

The thing about nature is, it’s information rich, but the meaningful things in nature are relatively few—berries, bears and snakes, thunderstorms, maybe poison oak. There are only a few things in nature that force me to change behavior or make a decision. The problem with e-mail is that it’s not just information; it’s the need for potential action. It’s the berries and snakes and bears, but they’re embedded, and you don’t know what’s in each one.

Not only that, but e-mail has a trait that fits the core of addictive behavior, which is random positive reinforcement.

What’s that?

So you get an e-mail from your mom, or you get an e-mail from your boss—they contain snakes or berries or bears, but they’re not self-evident until you look. Now, some part of you, subliminally, is constantly going, That could be meaningful, that could be meaningful, that could change what I’m doing, that might be something I don’t want to decide about … You multiply that by the hundreds, if not thousands, of items sitting there.

All those things you’re not deciding about wear you down, and decision-making functions just like a muscle. If you’ve had half a day of a lot of decisions to make, you don’t have much willpower left the rest of the day. So then we walk around with what I call the GSA of life—the Gnawing Sense of Anxiety that something out there might be more important than what you’re currently doing.

They key with email marketing and copywriting is to make your berries, bears and snakes, thunderstorms, and poison oak self-evident and decisive so that your customers don’t have to wonder if your email is important or relevant.  Either they delete it or click on the link in it. That way you aren’t adding to their Gnawing Sense of Anxiety.

Filed under: Email CopywritingEmail MarketingProductivity

The E. F. Hutton approach to marketing

Remember the E.F. Hutton commercials in the 1970s and 80s?

If you’re a young whippersnapper and don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a video of one of the commercials.

The tagline of each commercial was, “When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

I thought of this when I read online somewhere a description of billionaire Mark Cuban as the E. F. Hutton of the business world.

I’ve subscribed to his blog for some time and he rarely posts.  But when he does I am sure to read it because he always has something interesting and substantive to say.

Sure, one could say he doesn’t have to post a lot because he’s successful. But a lot of entrepreneurs who have made it big often just end up using guest bloggers or let their blog die completely. They aren’t E. F. Huttons.

Anyway, a lot of people think it’s important to be active on social media and hammer their lists constantly and all that.  But how many people actually listen?

I’ve been a copywriter for five years now and more and more I’ve come to realize that the E. F. Hutton approach to marketing is the way to go.

Filed under: Email CopywritingEmail Marketing

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