Howard Mann is a founder of Sideshow Digital, an award-winning strategic design agency. Sideshow helps businesses grow by delivering a combination of pragmatic business strategy and engaging online experiences. Mann also works with a select group of entrepreneurs, business owners, and executive teams in highly focused workshops dubbed "a day in the brickyard." The workshops help executive teams take the first step in unlocking the true potential of their organizations. Howard speaks and writes frequently about the importance of the basics and reconnecting to the passion that too often gets lost as businesses mature. Erik talks with him about his recent book, Your Business Brickyard: Getting back to the basics to make your business more fun to run.
[Bio adapted from his book site, BusinessBrickyard.com.]
tompeters.com asks …
Howard, Tom Peters was drawn to your book. It’s an attractive book. How did the design come about?
HM: The idea was to make a short, keepsake-feeling book, so that the lessons would be remembered by the time you got to the back of the book. I read so many business books where the concept is in the first twenty pages, and by the time I get to the end of the 300 other pages that are trying to prove the concept, I often don’t remember all the little nuggets that would help me put them into use in my business.
So you think all business books ought to be under 100 pages? This is about 64 pages, 7 1/2 inches tall by 5 inches wide. It’s nicely done. Not an inexpensive book to put together, I’m guessing.
HM: No. The idea was to make it something that was a short and valuable read, and something that you’d want to hold onto. I don’t know that every business book should be this way, but I think many could be this short. I understand the economics of people not wanting them to be short, and there certainly was a worry of, “Well, it’s not going to feel substantial enough in the hand, and therefore the value of it isn’t great.” But I think there was, at least for me, something useful about refining the words down to just the concepts that I wanted to get across, without a lot of editorial comments.
Your subtitle is to make your business more fun to run. I think the word fun appears in your book more than any other word. Why is fun so important?
HM: We sold our business in 2000 and when I looked back on that time, I realized that I didn’t have a lot of fun when I was running the business. By fun I don’t mean playing foosball or kicking a ball around all the time. I mean that I didn’t enjoy getting up and getting in to the office every day. I didn’t love running the business.
I later found out, as we started working with many more businesses, that despite answering the “How’s business?” question with the usual “Great” or “Fine,” too many business owners aren’t having fun, either. Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that running a business isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s work, it’s what you have to do to make money, and someday there’ll be a big payout or something else will happen. The main idea of the book is to point out that it actually is supposed to be fun, more often than not. Trying to match your competitors, or trying to stretch yourself to the limit will not make it fun. Getting all the basics right, that you focused on when you started your business, will actually make it more fun.
Did you ever consider reaching out to someone? Was there anybody you could have gone to and said, “Hey, I’m not having fun, can you help me?”
HM: I actually did that! And it allowed me to turn the business into something that I could enjoy. I reached out to Charlie Bahr, who became a mentor and has remained a very close friend. Rather than coming in and trying to tell me what my business should be, he helped me unlock what was already great about the business. Then we went about the hard work of making the business match that, worrying less about the competitors, getting people to pay us more quickly, and we were able to morph the business into something that was interesting and, dare I say it, fun.
Here at tompeters.com, we’re huge fans of fun. I think a lot of the business world sees fun as a dirty word. We hope everyone takes your message to heart.
HM: You’re going to have days when you’re running your business that are anything but fun. You have to admit that you spend most of your time at work, and if you own a business, there’s very little differentiation between it and your personal life. They blend together. People want to separate them, but they’re always intertwined.
If you’re going to spend all that time thinking, worrying, and working on your business, then you might as well figure out a way to have fun doing it. Fun creates passion and energy that’s infectious to the staff. As a result, it becomes infectious to clients and to vendors; it shows up in everything you do.
It’s really finding a purpose and executing on that purpose with passion. If you realize that business is supposed to be fun, then when you realize you’re not having fun, you can take actions to turn it around.
When I think of fun and work, it’s when you’re doing something challenging that you succeed at doing. The fun comes from seeing something through and doing a good job.
HM: It definitely involves hard work, but when you’re doing something that you believe in, it’s worthwhile work, and therefore is an enjoyable challenge to undertake.
You detail in the book why you used the title Your Business Brickyard, but upon first encounter, it seems like a pretty hard-nosed, rough-edged kind of title. What kind of response do you get?
HM: I get a mixed response. I can tell the story behind it briefly, if that helps. The football team for my college, when I was a freshman, was closing in on the national record for the most consecutive losses. They brought in a new, hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach who got them back to the basics.
After winning the first three games, they lost a game. They didn’t lose because the opposing team was better, but because they forgot the simple basics, such as, catch the ball first. So he sent them to do a practice drill called the Brickyard. They tossed a brick back and forth to each other. If you didn’t focus on just the basics of catching that brick, it would hurt.
To me, that became an analogy for when you’re stuck and not having fun running your business. When business is not everything that you hoped it could be, I find that people start stretching themselves further and further away from the basics. They think that innovation will be the answer, that some magic secret sauce—as many clients have asked me to find—is the answer.
How do you stop feeling stuck? Or as a client once said to me, “I always feel like I’m playing catch-up.” I found that the answer is to get back to the basics, and the analogy that always stuck in my mind was catching those bricks. The story resonates, and people retain that visual idea of catching the brick. It became the central idea behind these different concepts that are outlined in the book.
It’s memorable. I’m guessing they weren’t allowed to wear gloves when they were doing this?
HM: This is all about teaching a hard lesson. Later on, I found that a lot of college football teams do things in different ways. There was a write-up recently about having the receivers stand in front of a tennis ball serving machine, catching the tennis balls. Where it connects to business is somewhat obvious.
If you read blogs, magazines, or newspapers, you can see people’s frustrations over how few of the basics are actually getting done right. It’s things like paying bills, collecting bills, the simple act of answering a phone, or getting a customer service person who’s great. I find that people fall in love with businesses that just get the basics right. The secret sauce is that there is no secret sauce. It’s doing a series of things that are caring, thoughtful, and centered around a real purpose. Make people’s lives easier, answer the phone, call people back, do what you say you will when you say you will.
You mentioned purpose. There are twelve main ideas in here, that being one. So this is sort of a twelve-step program for recovering workaholics?
HM: Or at least for people who feel that their business could and should be doing more. There could be many more bricks, but I wanted to get to the twelve that would resonate the most. The hope is that a business owner will be sitting in a meeting, talking about competitors, and will stop and say, “Why are we spending all this time talking about our competitors? They don’t pay our bills.”
To go back to your comment about purpose, it all really does start there. There has to be a place to go back to, a square one. And square one is typically, “Why does your business exist? Why are you doing what you’re doing, and where does that intersect with why people should care?” It’s not a tagline, it’s not a marketing message; it’s a layer or two below that. It expresses, in very plain English, why your business should exist, and why it matters.
Companies should spend more time finding and communicating that purpose. I think that’s often overlooked. It’s hard work, but you probably cannot emphasize that idea enough.
HM: No. And it’s hard to articulate. When working with clients, typically we find it buried within the company already. When we go about interviewing lots of members of the company, things start to pop out.
When you ask people, “Why do you think people work with you, what do you think is great about the business?” they will tell you things that are truly great, but often not considered great in terms of marketing materials or as people are matching themselves up with competitors. They are things that are connected to the personality of the business, what the business is really about. More often than not, when we then compare that, after interviewing clients and oftentimes clients that are no longer using the company, there’s an intersection that’s meaningful. It is something that the business is already doing, and does all the time, but probably doesn’t acknowledge it, because it might not be as sexy as the latest marketing message or tagline or Web 2.0 strategy.
Of the twelve ideas, do you have a favorite?
HM: “Focus” is a big one. I’ve been doing a number of speaking engagements, and I’ve been intrigued by how popular “Pay Fast, Get Paid Faster” has been. It seems like an easy basic, but I’m amazed by the amount of stress caused by how slowly businesses get paid, and the difficulties that come from then having to have conversations with clients about getting paid, and then the trickle-down effect of how slowly they, then, can pay other people.
My father used to joke that there’s actually just one dollar that businesses are passing around, from one to the other, and we have to wait until another one gets paid, so that we can. And sometimes I think that feels very true. It takes a big mind shift to change it, but it changes the cash flow so dramatically. Many large corporations use credit terms as part of the deal, and that puts tremendous stress on businesses that have to wait 60 to 90 days to get paid. It seems to be reverberating around to many of the business owners that I’ve talked with.
We’re all trained to hang on to our money as long as possible. There was a point in my life when you had a full 30 days to pay bills. That’s now crept down to two weeks or even ten days.
Another story pops into my mind when I hear that. I once spoke with the person who handles administrative details for the well-known artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The method they used to pay the bills was paying a bill as soon as it showed up in the mail. That surprised me. Yet, in light of your “Pay Fast, Get Paid Faster,” maybe they saw a result that was good for business.
HM: You feel better about clients that pay you quickly. It just takes an uncomfortable side of the transaction away. The flip side is that if you pay people faster, you become more valuable to them. People who don’t focus enough on getting paid quickly or follow up on old invoices aggressively, set that expectation. They, then, turn around and become less valuable to the people that are their vendors, because they have to play that shell game.
Pay people a little bit slower than you’re getting paid. The idea is to track both numbers, and to keep doing things that help you get paid a little bit faster and a little bit faster, and then turn it around and pay a little bit faster, and a little bit faster.
This is the literal “Pay It Forward” notion.
HM: It is, but you do have to make sure that you’re getting paid faster than you’re paying. That cash flow increase allows you to be a lot more flexible. If you take away the stress that comes from having a massive accounts receivable, having to collect money, and having a lot of money owed to you while you still have bills that have to be paid, like payroll and rent, that immediately allows you to enjoy your business more.
We’re not going to address all twelve things in the course of this conversation, but people can go to your site, BusinessBrickyard.com, and download the whole book as a PDF. What made you decide to do that, and what kind of result have you seen from doing that?
HM: I have to give credit to Seth Godin, whose books have always inspired me, and his concepts around giving ideas away for free, so that they can spread. The idea of the book was always to spread this idea and reach business owners who aren’t enjoying themselves. I found myself spending way too many years not enjoying running the business, and I thought that if I could find a way to help other business owners not go through what I went through, that would be a good purpose.
I put the entire book up as an experiment. I had a free chapter at first, and that didn’t generate much response. It just doesn’t give much of anything, so it becomes a sales mechanism. I wanted to practice a bit of what I preach; I put the whole book up as a free PDF. Surprisingly, but maybe not surprisingly, a lot of people have been downloading the book. And a fair number of people—more than before—have been purchasing the book. They find they like to have it for reference, to carry it around and make notes, or perhaps pay it forward and gift it to another business owner.
It’s perfect for that. It is the kind of book you can keep on your desktop and refer to, maybe in those grim times. I also noticed the Little eBook of Business Jokes at your site. I’m guessing that yours might be the only business consultant’s website in the universe that offers a joke book. What prompted that?
HM: We all have our useless talents. Mine seems to be an encyclopedic ability to remember every joke—clean, dirty, or otherwise—that I’ve ever heard.
HM: I wondered how I could put that to some use in what I do and also connect it to taking a little bit of stress out of somebody’s day. So, I quickly pieced together some jokes that relate to business in some way, whether marketing or doing a corporate turnaround. The result is a short PDF of nine jokes that I’m hopeful will make somebody laugh, and that they’ll share it.
I looked at the first one, and it was very funny.
HM: Then it did its job!
Have a lot of people downloaded that?
HM: A fair amount. It didn’t go up with a lot of fanfare; it’s an experiment. Part of figuring out your purpose is to figure out what the personality of your business is. Let people engage with your personality, since that’s what people often are attracted to. If telling jokes and making people laugh is part of the personality of my business, then I wanted a way to express that. There’s something great about telling a joke to people and getting them to laugh. I wanted to make that part of the fabric of my business.
There was a Danish comedian who said, “The shortest distance between two people is laughter.”
HM: When somebody tells a joke at a party, it jogs everyone else to remember their favorites. Part of the fun is telling a joke in a colorful way. There was a great movie called The Aristocrats that involves the many ways of telling a single joke that dates back to vaudeville days. We won’t tell the joke, but the interesting part is how each person incorporates their own ideas in telling it.
I’m hoping that people will share the jokes. I think that email caught on in popularity because early on, back in the late 1990s, people would constantly send jokes around. The origins of viral marketing were probably sending dirty jokes around to everybody on Wall Street, and then they would ripple around to all of their friends.
Speaking of personality, I saw a post on your blog titled, “What is the personality of your business?” Are you enjoying blogging?
HM: I have. I started it a couple of years ago, under the name the DIG Tank, when the business had a different name. There were a lot less bloggers back then, and it actually did quite well.
Part of our business involves building websites and a variety of Internet tools. Most businesspeople think a blog is about saying what I had for breakfast this morning, or how my weekend was. It can be, but more than that, it is a way to let the personality of your business come out. People have called me to become a client, and they’ve already read through the blog, and feel like they know me. They know that we think alike, know how our company thinks, and are attracted to that before they ever pick up the phone. That’s something that a typical marketing website simply cannot do. From that standpoint, blogging has been great. It’s also been a great way for me to focus my ideas into short subjects, and to get the ideas that bounce around in one’s head into a format. Getting people to comment on them helps further that.
What fun things are you working on now?
HM: The joke book is fairly new; that’s only been posted for about a week or so.
We’re actually close to releasing an online tool that will help people put the “Relationships not sales” concept in the book into their daily routine. The premise is that sales should not be about “What can you do for me?” but instead “What can I do for you?” We want people to spend more time consistently giving value to the key relationships in their life/career without asking for anything in return. The problem is that customer relationship management (CRM) tools help you track every single person you ever met and that causes us to connect less to the people who are the most important. We built something that uses the power of the Web to help you stay connected to the 20 percent of people you know who are responsible for 80 percent of your success. The old 80/20 rule striking again. Using these principles has made a profound impact on the growth of our business, so we built a tool for ourselves to make sure we all could keep doing it and now we are going to share it over the Web. We think it will help people frustrated with the traditional sales process of cold calls and asking for business. All of that “Always be closing” stuff. I am convinced that many are hoping for a different way to build a business and that was the lesson from the book and that is who this online tool is for. Your readers can sign up at www.pingthing.com as we will be sending out a bunch of free invitations soon.
Keep us posted on your progress with that.
Thank you, Howard, for your time. This has been great fun, and I think the book is great. It’s smart, succinct, and powerful.
HM: I appreciate that. It’s been very rewarding.
Email: h.mann (at) – sideshow.com
Book website: businessbrickyard.com
Company website: Sideshow Digital